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 The management versus performance perspective of teaching


     Several times when taking undergraduate education courses a number of years ago I was required to prepare and deliver to the rest of the class a presentation of some limited topic in my major field, which at that time was math. In other words I had to prepare a short lecture. I managed to get through these assignments, though a few times I wondered if I were cut out to be a teacher. A few years later, as a teacher, my job involved doing a lot of talking. But was this talking the same as giving a short lecture in an education course? It didn't seem to be. It seemed to be different in some important ways. Perhaps most importantly the preparation time was dramatically different in the two situations. For a ten to twenty minute lecture in an education course I would spend as much as ten hours, or even more, in preparation. Yet as a teacher I would walk into the classroom and start talking. I don't mean to say that I came to my class unprepared. On the contrary I spent considerable time in preparation. But with five or six classes each day the average preparation time, not counting time spent grading papers, for an hour of teaching could not exceed ten or fifteen minutes. Often my preparation would be the simple decision to cover the next page or next section in the text. To "prepare a lecture" as I had done for the education courses, seemed neither appropriate nor possible under the constraints of time.

     Is teaching the same as telling? Or is teaching more than telling? When it is put this way the answer seems very simple. Of course teaching is more than telling? But what is this something more?

     If I am going to teach you something I can start with a simple direct approach. I can simply tell you what I want you to know. But if I really want you to know the information then I'll not leave it at that. I'll ask you to repeat it back to me, or I'll ask you questions about it, or I'll ask you to relate it to other information or facts that you know, or I'll ask you to apply the knowledge in some way. Then if I find that I have not really conveyed the message that I intended I'll try to find out what went wrong in my attempted communication. Did you get the wrong meaning of a key word? Did I say "left" when I meant "right"? Did you daydream while I was talking? Did you confuse an example with a principle. Did I neglect to tell you that I was talking about a week from tomorrow instead of tomorrow? Finally, when I think I've figured out the problem, I'll start over and again attempt to get the message across.

    Teaching is more than telling. Telling is a one-way street. Teaching, if it is to be effective, must be a two-way street. Teaching consists of many things. A simple model of teaching might include presenting information, and then checking to see if the information was accurately received, and then repeating the whole process as many times as might be needed. In other words teaching involves feedback. Of course this simple model might be expanded considerably, but it is a model I will use in discussing the performance versus management perspective of teaching.

    The short lectures I gave in my education courses did not include feedback, at least not to any substantial extent. The emphasis was on my performance as an actor or a speaker. But as a practicing teacher my emphasis was on feedback. I did a lot of talking, but most of this talking was in response to the words and actions of my students. Only a little of my talking was the kind that could be written down and rehearsed ahead of time.

    These two contrasting situations - delivering a prepared lecture versus responding to feedback in an actual teaching situation - represent what I believe are two very basic and important perspectives on teaching. Delivering a lecture represents the performance perspective of teaching. Responding to the words and actions of the learners represents the management perspective of teaching.

    When I use the word "performance" in this article I am using its theatrical or dramatic meaning. "Performance" can also be used in the sense of producing results. Thus we can say that a teacher performs well because his students learn. However that is not the type of performance I am speaking of here. In this article I am referring to performance as an act presented to an audience. The performance perspective of teaching emphasizes one-way communication. It asserts that a teacher's attention and efforts should be directed toward putting on a good show, that a good show will result in accurate and efficient conveyance of information. The rationale for this is the idea that a good performance will arouse and sustain interest, and that if information is put into a coherent, carefully structured form it can be accepted and assimilated by the learner. The performance perspective further implies that the quality of one's performance (in a theatrical sense) is a measure of, or even identical with, the quality of one's teaching.

    The management perspective, in contrast, asserts that teaching consists of managing the students' time and efforts, of telling them what to do, of checking their progress as they do it, and of planning the activities, exercises, and drills that they will be assigned in the future. The management perspective implies that the quality of one's teaching depends on one's ability to respond to the learner, one's skill as a diagnostician, one's ability to plan for effective use of the learners' time, and one's ability to be flexible and opportunistic. According to the management perspective of teaching even the best performance will not guarantee accurate, efficient, and complete transmission of the information that is to be conveyed. Of course, nothing will absolutely guarantee that students will learn what we want them to, but the management perspective holds that feedback is essential if we are to approach the ideal as closely as possible.

    My thesis is not that one of these two perspectives, performance or management, is better or more valid than the other. Both perspectives have their value, and both perspectives have a place in education. Most teaching situations require a combination of these two perspectives for best results. However it is my thesis that the management perspective has been sorely neglected in educational literature and theory (though not in practice), and it is further my thesis that different levels of education require different perspectives. More specifically, the management perspective is, and should be, dominant in all teaching below the college level.

    Teaching styles or methods can be placed on a scale ranging from pure performance to pure management. Television teaching is probably the best example of the pure performance perspective of teaching. Television teaching has to be pure performance because immediate feedback is not possible. The teacher must present the material as clearly and as interestingly as possible and then simply hope that the message is conveyed. Feedback, if it comes at all, is delayed, diluted, and filtered.

    The basic rationale for television teaching is that it allows a superior teacher to reach a large number of students. This leads to what I like to call the "superlecture." Usually when one prepares a lecture the goal is simply a direct coherent presentation of information. But when the potential audience is enormous then the amount of time and effort that can be justified in preparing for a lecture also increases enormously. When one prepares a "superlecture" one becomes an orator, an actor, even an entertainer. The entire script can be written in advance. Each inflection of speech or nuance of gesture can be practiced to perfection. Elaborate visual aids, dramatizations, and demonstrations can be staged. The whole performance, and any part of it, can be rehearsed repeatedly. The result of all this, if it is done well, may be a performance that will indeed catch the attention and interest of the audience - a superlecture, in other words. "Sesame Street" may be the most extreme example of this.

    Teaching by television is not limited to formal education by any means. Every television commercial is an attempt to convey a message through the medium of a polished theatrical performance. The message may not always be to our liking - it may be blatant propaganda or mindless drivel - but that does not mean that the medium is not worthy of our notice. Apparently commercials are effective as a means of communication, considering the huge sums of money that are spent on them.

    Television commercials are also used to promote ideas other than selling a product. There are numerous television spots urging us to wear our seat belts, not to drink and drive, to stay off drugs, and so on. Then there are political commercials, a whole world unto themselves that we are subjected to around election times. All of these can be considered television teaching, and judging by the money paid to sponsor them, and the importance politicians attach to them, one must conclude that they are effective.

    Television teaching very definitely has a place in education. I had a number of college courses given at least partially by television. One course I took consisted simply of two televised lectures a week, a final exam, and nothing more. That doesn't mean it was a bad course by any means. In fact I took it because I knew it was a good course. It was a poetry course given by the author and was well worthwhile. Feedback would have been beneficial in this course, but not essential.

    I also had several college courses which consisted of either televised lectures or live lectures to a class of hundreds of students, and an additional small "laboratory" period with a graduate assistant to whom we could address our questions. The purpose of the "lab" was to provide feedback, to find out - as much as possible in one hour a week - what the students had gleaned from the lectures and what they needed help on, and to provide that help. With a class of twenty or thirty students meeting only once a week there is actually very little feedback possible. Most instructors of these lab courses did not really have any idea of how to dig in and find out what was going on in the minds of the students. That may be just as well in one sense, for they might have been appalled and depressed to find out just how ignorant we were of the material we were supposed to be learning. This approach, for all its limitations in practice, represents a move away from the pure performance perspective of teaching.

    Even when a college course provides the opportunity for feedback - when there are only twenty or thirty students in the class - there is still the problem of making use of this opportunity. Most college teachers simply don't know how to elicit feedback. I remember one pleasant old lady who was eager to welcome us into the wonderful world of higher mathematics. Her enthusiasm got a little heavy now and then, but I think most of us appreciated her interest in us. She would often sense that she had lost at least part of the class, but she would not quite know how to get us back with her.


"Are there any questions?" she would ask.

. . . . . silence . . . . .

"Well, if there are no questions then I guess that means you must know it all."

. . . . . more silence . . . . .

"Then I guess it's time to move on to the next topic."


    This woman was more perceptive than most college teachers. She at least had some idea that silence does not always mean assent. Her teaching was about halfway between the extremes of performance and management perspectives. She could sense when the class was having trouble following her lecture. She just didn't know quite what to do about it.

    An experienced teacher at the elementary or high school level would know what to do about it. "Go to work on exercise 12," he would say, "and in fifteen minutes we'll go over it." By this simple procedure he would soon find out who was with him and who was not. This is not to say that college teachers could, or should, do the same. There are differences in the two situations that prevent a direct transfer of techniques from one situation to the other. College students get by on a minimum of feedback. They have the ability to figure things out for themselves or they wouldn't be in college in the first place. Furthermore they don't want the degree of personalization and informality that is found in the lower levels of education. Therefore it is quite appropriate that lecture, which implies the performance perspective of teaching, is the dominant form of instruction at the college level. But, as I will try to show in the remainder of this article, quite another type of instruction is appropriate at lower levels.

    In a good elementary school the management perspective of teaching predominates. A teacher in a self-contained classroom has the opportunity to know her students well, and, if not completely swamped by too many students, the opportunity to give individual help. She can respond to the students on a day-to-day basis, planning each day's activities on the basis of the previous day's progress. She can take time to assign homework and grade it, to quiz the class on the material they are studying, to give tests, and to apply a little negative reinforcement to the seat of the problem when needed. She not only has the opportunity to do these things, she has the obligation to do these things. Her job is to manage the time and efforts of her students, not just to put on a good show and then leave the responsibility of learning to the students.

    In junior and senior high school the self-contained classroom is no longer the rule, but much remains the same as in elementary school. The teacher is still expected to stay in close touch with his students. The management perspective is still predominant. Only in college preparatory classes in the upper grades does lecture, and therefore the performance perspective, become dominant.

I will briefly describe what I consider a typical classroom situation, with a hypothetical Ms. Jones as the teacher, and apply these two perspectives. I will describe a seventh grade math class but the pattern would be similar in many other subjects and grade levels.

Ms. Jones begins the class by handing out the homework that she collected the previous day. Then she gets the class's attention (not always an easy task) and begins. First she mentions the homework, which was twenty-five simple fractions to reduce. She calls the class's attention to number 19, which was missed by over half the students. The problem is to reduce 9/12. Most students missed it because they took three into the numerator but took two into the denominator, producing an incorrect answer of 3/6. Then she explains similar mistakes in reducing 9/15 and 8/12, answering questions as they arise and calling on students to respond to her questions. All this takes about five or ten minutes.

    Another five or ten minutes are spent answering questions on the homework the students did for today. When there seem to be no more problems she collects the papers.

    Next she introduces the next page in the book, which is very similar but improper fractions are included as well as proper fractions. She reminds the class that every improper fraction can be changed to a mixed number, and that any number over itself is one. Both of these ideas are not new. She then explains that the very same procedure is used to reduce improper fractions as proper fractions. She explains that the same answer is found whether the improper fraction is first reduced and then changed to a mixed number, or changed to a mixed number and then reduced. During this time, which takes another eight or ten minutes, she is interrupted once or twice with a question from a student, but for the most part the class sits impassively and listens.

    Next Ms. Jones puts a problem on the board and has the students work it on paper at their desks. She repeats this with more problems, each time allowing a few minutes for individual effort, then calling on a student for the answer, and then explaining or correcting as needed. This takes another fifteen minutes. A visitor to the class at this point would notice more evidence of involvement on the part of the students than previously in the hour.

    Finally Ms. Jones tells the class that the assignment for the next day is the exercise on the next page, consisting of twenty proper and improper fractions to reduce and/or simplify. The students then begin work on the assignment, bringing questions up to Ms. Jones at her desk when they have difficulty. This completes the class period.

    The teacher's preparation for a class is of utmost importance. It is the essence of the management perspective of teaching. Ms. Jones' preparation for tomorrow's class consists mostly of grading the papers collected today and analyzing the results. While grading the papers she assesses the student's apparent understanding of the material. This is done in an informal way, but that is not to say a superficial way. While grading Willy's paper she observes that he got eleven out of twenty problems correct. That's 55%, not a good score by any means. But considering that Willy seldom gets above 60% on anything, it is not a reason to hold up the class. She very quickly grades the papers of Anne, Joe, and Margaret whose scores are 100%, 100%, and 95%. These papers don't tell her much either. Those students always do well. She then grades the papers of Henry, Lola, and Carl, whose scores are 80%, 75%, and 65%. She slows down on these papers. These students sometimes do well. But they also sometimes do poorly.

    There is a rule of thumb in education that goes like this. The quality of teaching doesn't matter very much to the top third of the class. They'll learn no matter what. The quality of teaching doesn't matter very much to the lower third of the class. They won't learn no matter what. The quality of teaching does matter to the middle third. They will learn with good teaching but will fail to learn with bad teaching. This rule of thumb is a crude one of course, and not to be taken too seriously, but I think it has some truth in it. Anne, Joe, and Margaret, the high achieving students, may have gotten their high scores because the teacher knows what she is doing. Or they might have gotten their good scores in spite of the teacher's bumbling. Willy, at the other extreme, would be hard pressed to get a good score even with the best teacher in the world. The middle range of students, Henry, Lola, and Carl in this example, constitute a more sensitive barometer of the class's response to a given bit of teaching.

    To continue the example, Ms. Jones carefully looks for a pattern in the mistakes of Henry, Lola, and Carl, and others whose abilities are also in the middle of the range. If she finds a clear cut pattern, which occasionally happens, she will discuss the problem in class the next day. If she finds no clear pattern, which is usually the case, she assumes that the mistakes simply reflect less then perfect fluency in the material. If the number of random mistakes seems excessive she may consider spending the next class period reviewing the previous day's homework, and then assign more homework of the same type.

    Working up a "lesson plan" in a college education course may take hours and hours. These hours are not available to Ms. Jones. The twenty minutes she spends grading the papers are about all the time available for planning the next class. Her "plan", at the end of this twenty minutes, is simple. She will spend a few minutes talking about the homework she hands back. She will answer any questions about today's homework. She will spend about twenty minutes explaining the next page in the text. This will include having the students come to the board and doing a few problems. Then she will assign homework and let the class have the last twenty minutes to get started on it. In other words tomorrow's class will run much like today's.

    It should be apparent that the management perspective is dominant in Ms. Jones teaching and preparation. She does not prepare a theatrical performance as a television teacher might do. To be sure, the performance perspective might enter into Ms. Jones' teaching to some degree. When explaining a mistake in the homework to the class she may feign mock shock and dismay when a student gives an expected but incorrect response. Or she may feign credulity as she leads the class down a fallacious path of reasoning. These little theatrical touches may be planned ahead of time, or they may be simply drawn from a repertoire of theatrical touches that she has often used in the past. But with or without theatrical touches the important thing remains the ability to manage the time and efforts of the students. In the above scenario this management boils down to a choice of what to do the next class period. Should the class go ahead with the next page or topic with no reference to the homework? Or are there problems to be discussed on the homework before proceeding with the next page or topic? Or should the next page or topic be postponed in order to spend another day on the current topic? The answers to these questions, and similar ones, constitute the "lesson plan" for a vast amount of everyday teaching. This is a plan than need not be written down. Indeed it hardly needs to be verbalized. But that is not to say that it is a faulty or superficial plan in any way.

    This example illustrates only short range planning - what to do the next class period. It does not say anything about longer range planning, which is also a very important part of teaching. That will be discussed later.

    Very little educational literature or theory seems to give a simple accurate description of normal everyday teaching. I believe one reason for this is the absence of the management perspective of teaching in educational theory. We do not even have words to describe what we do. The pattern I described - of explaining problems on previous homework, explaining new topic, doing examples as a group, and then assigning the next homework - is very common in education, with many variations of course. This pattern needs a name, a label, a term by which it can be easily referenced. I prefer the term "recitation" for what I have described. Unfortunately "recitation" has some connotations that are not applicable here. It may sound like each student in turn recites a memorized catechism, which is definitely not the meaning we want. However other terms seem no more appropriate. The word "discussion" could be used, but that has connotations of a free ranging exchange of lofty ideas, rather than a focused effort to impart a definite bit of knowledge or skill. The term "drill" goes too far in the opposite direction. Drill is what we do when we respond to flash cards. Drill can be very important, but only as a part of the whole picture. "Going over the lesson" is the phrase that is probably most often used to refer to the situation I have described. It is certainly a useful phrase. It has the connotations we want. Unfortunately it is clumsy. Therefore I return to "recitation" as the most useful term.

    Recitation has at least two purposes. First, it provides the repetition that is needed to help students understand and remember the information that is to be learned. Secondly, it allows the teacher to discover what is going on in the minds of the students. Both of these purposes are very important, but it is the second, the provision for feedback, that is most relevant to the management perspective of teaching. It allows the teacher to manage the time and efforts of his students effectively. It allows him to know whether the class needs something explained again, or needs to do more problems, or more reading, or more writing, or to completely skip a topic that is too difficult, and so on.

    In the pattern of teaching that I have described above there is one part that does apply the performance perspective of teaching. That is the introduction or initial presentation of new material. If this presentation is done verbally it can be called a lecture, but since it is short and since the teacher watches the students carefully as he talks it is not quite a traditional lecture. However it does represent the performance perspective of teaching in that the teacher will try to have a coherent explanation, and perhaps an eye-catching demonstration or an interesting illustration. It is a performance in that the teacher may refuse to answer questions for a few minutes until he finishes his explanation. In this part of teaching it is indeed beneficial to be a good actor.

    However this part of teaching is usually only a small part of a typical class period, and few teachers have time to prepare a "super-lecture" anyway. Further more, in many situations the initial presentation of new material is not done verbally. In many subjects the presentation of new material is best done by assigning so many pages of reading in the text book. As I remember, this was the case in all the social studies I was exposed to as a student in elementary and high school. In math courses, in my experience, a verbal presentation usually paralleled the textbook explanation. In science courses we relied heavily on the text, though perhaps not so much as in social studies. In situations when new material is presented in print the performance perspective may almost disappear altogether. It may be argued that the "performance" is done by the author of the text. He must write a coherent and interesting textbook. This is true, and there can be a world of difference between a good and a poor text. But it is the teacher's job to choose a good text and make effective use of it. Even with the best text in the world the teacher cannot just pass out the books and go home. The teacher is still a manager, more than a performer.

    Having explained and illustrated the performance and management perspectives of teaching I will now mention a least briefly two of the implications that arise. The first implication is that education courses need to shift their emphasis a bit. I would not advocate abandonment of the performance perspective entirely, of course, but I think it is of minor importance compared to the management perspective. The management perspective depends on an understanding of the teaching-learning process. I believe this understanding is very primitive in the educational establishment today.

    A second implication concerns the evaluation of teachers. When only theatrical performance is to be considered, evaluation can be done very quickly. A business executive can watch a thirty second television commercial and decide just about that quickly whether to accept the ad or to send his ad writers back for more work. But when management skills are to be evaluated it is not that simple. A principal or superintendent cannot watch a teacher for thirty seconds, or even thirty minutes, and get a comprehensive or accurate picture of that teacher's ability to plan a lesson or a course, or to respond to the changing needs of his students. I am not prepared to say, at this point, just how teachers ought to be evaluated. Schools will probably always want some type of official or semi-official evaluation procedure that will include an administrator visiting the classroom for a half hour or so and taking notes. Such a procedure has its place, perhaps, but I don't think it should be considered the most important method of evaluation.

    Just as administrators try to judge teaching on the basis of a short visit to the classroom, so do journalists. Whenever the public gets interested in the "crisis" in education, broadcasters send their journalists and cameramen to the classroom. I think the results, while usually interesting, have little substance. What we see when we watch the results is a superficial survey of whatever is photogenic. Ms. Jones grading papers and deciding what to do in class tomorrow is not photogenic. It will never make the six-o-clock news. But it is the essence of teaching.