In the 1980s, Madeline Hunter was extremely popular for her speeches and writing focused on making basic principles of educational psychology practical for teachers. I saw her speak once in a huge auditorium packed to the rafters with enthusiastic teachers. At the end, the teachers were streaming out excitedly discussing the speech. On every side, the comment I heard was, “This confirms everything I’ve always believed!”
Everyone likes to have their beliefs confirmed by articulate speakers, but I wondered at the time whether the teachers had wasted their time. How could confirmation of what they’ve always believed change their teaching methods and improve children’s learning?
The reason I’m bringing up Madeline Hunter now is that I increasingly hear this refrain from educators at all levels: “We don’t do programs.” Many educators oppose the entire idea of adopting programs, particularly in professional development, preferring to learn about principles of good practice that they can then weave into daily teaching.
In principle, there’s nothing wrong with principles, and educators do need to know about all the variables and teaching that contribute to good outcomes for children. However, learning about basic principles is not the same as school reform. In the case of Madeline Hunter’s very sensible, well-founded principles, several studies that applied her principles found no effect on student learning (in comparison to control groups). Why? Because observations and interviews revealed that the control groups, teachers who did not receive Madeline Hunter training, were also using almost all of the principles on the Hunter list.
A great deal of research in all subjects and grade levels tells us that when success is achieved in providing professional development to teachers, the content of the PD is almost always structured, well-defined, and replicable programs, rather than sets of principles or smaller practices from which teachers pick and choose what they want to use. One reason for this is that effective teaching is a complex orchestration of many elements, and a well-designed program can deal with many of these elements and the interplay among them. Also, when teachers pick and choose they often pick the elements most like what they already do.
This is not to say that all programs are effective or that there is never a case when PD on a few powerful principles can produce better learning. Teachers and administrators should have a wide array of proven programs to choose from, and a belief in programs should not require a belief in prescription. The bottom line should always be “use what works,” not “use programs.” We need to be open to all sorts of solutions known to improve children’s learning. But, it is important to note that in the history of educational research, it’s most often well-designed, well-evaluated programs that end up making a difference.