Teaching by numbers: a review of W. James Popham’s ‘Instruction that measures up: successful teaching in the age of accountability’

Popham opens this beautifully produced book by acknowledging that the biggest change he has witnessed since becoming a teacher is that there is emphasis on evidence that “teachers are doing what they are supposed to do” (Popham, 2009: 1). Popham then imparts the only bit of philosophy this book offers which is that “teaching is actually a fairly straightforward undertaking” (Popham, 2009: 2). For Popham, the profession many people study for years to qualify and develop their practice in, boils down to deciding on what you want to teach, how to teach it, implementing it and assessing if it worked. The crux of what is often considered the noble art of teaching, is reduced to simply making decisions about instructional time.

To Popham, new and trainee teachers spend too much time concerned with philosophy and sociology which, he argues, are no use in the answering the key question most people apparently ask: “What would I actually do when confronted by a classroom of students?” (emphasis in original) (Popham, 2009: 5). Throughout the book, Popham says the answer to this apparently universal question is deciding curriculum, delivery methods, monitoring and evaluation. “When you strip away the frills, this four-step process is what teaching is all about” (Popham, 2009: 53).

Popham is rooted firmly in the objectives model of curriculum, popularised by thinkers such as Bobbitt and Tyler in the first half of the twentieth century (Bobbitt, 2013; Tyler 2013). This approach treats teaching as a science, in a classical Newtonian conception of the universe, where everything can be reduced down to predictable patterns of behaviour and laws, everything is knowable and fixed (Slattery, 2006). Inputs equal outputs. In this model, you need to know what you want to students to be able to do at the end of the session or course. One of the biggest problems with this approach, is that it sets an “arbitrary horizon’s to one’s efforts” (Stenhouse, 1975: 83).

These objectives should be decided on the basis of teachability, testability and transferability. So only objectives that can be taught easily, tested rigorously and transferred economically should form curriculum according to Popham (Popham, 2009). In this model, education is reduced to quick wins that help workers assimilate into an economy that doesn’t work for them. As Stenhouse argues, the most basic elements of education are the easiest to express as objectives and the easiest to test. This leads to objectives that are essentially behavioural in nature: actions that can be observed by the teacher or assessor (Stenhouse, 1975). I have no issue with objectives being used, yet when the whole curriculum is subsumed by them, there can be no scope of adaptability or flexibility, no chance to take opportunities that may present themselves (Stenhouse, 1975).

Testing looms large over the book, unsurprisingly given that Popham is writing from the viewpoint of the US schooling system. Though one gets the sense he may be aware of the shortcomings of this type of accountability, Popham is quite happy to go along with this, describing teaching as a “test-governed game” (Popham, 2009: 2). He is quite definite that assessments should not be based on what has been taught, but what is taught should be based on what will be assessed (Popham, 2009). Popham does argue that teachers should not engage in “curricular reductionism” or teaching purely to the test as this will “shortchange students” (Popham, 2009: 68). I completely agree but this is where what Popham is suggesting leads. If nothing has value other than meeting the objectives, and teaching is only about allocating teaching time, then only the objectives will be met. Ideas like Popham’s are part of the problem.

To Popham, teachers only fail because they haven’t got a clear enough objectives. If they only knew what they wanted to achieve with more specifity, they could implement methods of teaching and assessment that would achieve those goals. Simple huh? All of that complexity and hope for changing lives and communities can be left behind in an instant: all you really need to do is set some task based outcomes which you know you can definitely meet. Interestingly Popham never talks about how; he never discusses group work or classroom management or strategies for differentiation. At no point does he acknowledge teaching as complex.

Indeed, he uses the word “craft” and says that students should “master” certain objectives (Popham, 2009: 61), using the words most associated with the technical interest Shirley Grundy identifies: the urge to control and dominate (Grundy, 1987). This casts teacher as a technician following a manual, like a mechanic fixes a car. And in many ways, this is what this book is supposed to be, a teaching manual. It is a beautifully produced book with charming graphics of hand sketched apples for each chapter heading. It has an attractive colourful front cover. Reading it is very straightforward and the text does not making my head spin. As I am reading, I am not having to clarify any terms or deal with philosophy or jargon. I’m not having to connect the knowledge or create meanings. Popham’s giving them to me pre-packaged. He depicts himself as friend who can help you using friendly colloquial language like “I’m willing to bet” (Popham, 2009: 6). The book is somewhat conversational in tone: “we” is used a lot, plus the active voice and the second person perspective of “you” (Popham, 2009: 2). You could forgive many new or trainee teachers being seduced by this.

Popham seems to be trying to reclaim objectives/product approach for the benefit of teachers but students are virtually absent. The social and political world is absent. There is a great deal of use of term “instruction” rather than teaching, making me think of Paulo Freire and his criticism of the banking model of education where educators try to get information into their students in a one way conversation (Freire, 2000). Teachers and students are not trying to work together in Popham’s vision of education; they seem to be in opposition. He starts one chapter with a slightly odd reference to the D-Day landings and proceeds as if telling us how to design a military campaign, saying teachers should be “armed” with strategies (Popham, 2009: 76).

Towards the end of the book, Popham concedes that no single strategy can guarantee results every time for every student, stating “there is no instructional strategy or tactic so potent it can win out against the day-to-day diversity present in each classroom” (Popham, 2009: 76). My question would be, how about working with diversity and not against it?

What is remarkable about this book, is that at no point does Popham acknowledge his view of things is problematic or controversial or at all questionable or that people do indeed question it. Since the 1970s, curriculum studies has diversified and radically changed in the USA. Influenced by poststructuralism, postmodernism and American pragmatism, curriculum studies has undergone the Reconceptualisation, a movement seeking to critique and overcome the Tylerian Rationale of objectives based education (Slattery, 2006; Pinar, 2004). Yet at no point does Popham mention resistance or divergent views.

So after reducing teaching to “an ends-means undertaking” Popham takes a moment to acknowledge that teaching is a “complicated endeavour” and argues that the “best way to navigate that complexity is to reduce instruction to its essentials” (Popham, 2009: 162). These last two points seem to flatly contradict each other to me. Perhaps that is the enduring appeal of the objectives movement? They offer the false promise of simplicity, certainty and success, in an unstable, shifting and unpredictable endeavour.

References:

Bobbitt, (2012). Scientific Method in Curriculum-Making. In Flinders, D. (Ed), The Curriculum Studies Reader (4th edition) (pp. 11-18). Abingdon: Routledge.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Grundy, S. (1987). Curriculum: Product or Praxis? Lewes: Falmer Press.

Pinar, (2004). What is Curriculum Theory? New Jersey: L. Erlbaum Associates.

Popham, W. (2009). Instruction that measures up: successful teaching in the age of accountability. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Slattery, P. (2006). Curriculum development in the postmodern era (2nd edition). London: Routledge.

Stenhouse, L. (1975). An introduction to curriculum research and development. London: Heinemann Educational.

Tyler, R. (2012). Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction. In Flinders, D. (Ed), The Curriculum Studies Reader (4th edition) (pp. 59-68). Abingdon: Routledge.

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