New Book Offers Tried-and-True Advice on Classroom Practice

American education has a thing for shiny “innovations.” Whether it’s overhyped ed-tech, some new reform, or a faddish pedagogy, a constant flood of this stuff rains down on students and schools.

Even when we’re on the lookout for B.S., we tend to have blind spots for the stuff close to our heart. So, you’ll encounter plenty of professors of education who ask hard questions about traditional math or stiff discipline but turn into enthusiastic cheerleaders for constructivism or restorative justice. And plenty of policy mavens cynical about new pedagogies but all-in on the marvels of ed-tech and new funding strategies.

This backdrop is what makes a pithy new book by Daniel Coupland so welcome. Coupland is the chair of the education department at Hillsdale College, a former high school teacher, and the co-creator of an online course on classic children’s literature.

In Tried & True: A Primer on Sound Pedagogy, drawing on his experience as a teacher and veteran teacher educator, Coupland shares a wealth of advice pitched to “those who are new to teaching.” The resulting volume is brief, pointed, and practical. (I’m not kidding around when I say brief: It’s 90 smallish pages and can be read in 45 minutes.)

The chapters cover topics that too easily get slighted in teacher preparation, especially when instructors get caught up in convoluted theorizing or ideological enthusiasms. That makes this a terrific resource for teachers hungry for practical advice.

Coupland focuses on the sort of things that tripped him up as a first-year Spanish teacher. The book is organized into 14 chapters, and their titles provide a good sense of the book’s message: “Follow the school’s mission,” “Establish useful routines,” “Define expected behavior,” “Enforce rules fairly,” “Begin and end lesson well,” “Include parents regularly,” “Use small groups wisely.”

Each chapter contains a series of sensible tips. When it comes to defining expected behavior, Coupland urges teachers to devise a list of no more than a half-dozen rules; to keep each rule clear, concise, and positive; and to post the list in their classrooms. Coupland argues, “Students’ willingness to follow the rules depends in no small measure” on how thoughtfully rules are designed, how committed the teacher is when explaining the rules, and how “consistent and impartial” teachers are in enforcing the rules.

The book excels at providing guidance in areas where many novice teachers get more encouragement than explicit instruction. For instance, teachers are often encouraged to make copious use of small groups but aren’t always given much guidance on how to make them fruitful. Coupland offers advice on how to make these groups effective: Ensure students are prepared, keep groups small, keep the activity brief, clearly articulate the goal(s), hold students accountable, and circulate around the classroom.

Coupland also has pleasantly contrarian impulses. He’s skeptical of “learning styles” but sees the value in communicating clearly in a variety of ways. He notes the popularity of small-group activities but warns that these can be a waste of valuable time if “less motivated students rely on their more motivated group members to do most of the work.”

Now, while I think much of what Coupland has to say is sensible, it will undoubtedly be regarded as transgressive by more than a few new teachers and teacher educators. Unfortunately, Coupland never even tries to persuade such readers that they might want to reconsider their views. He’s really only writing for those ready to concede to his expertise.

That keeps the book brief and handy but also means it never engages those who’d take issue with Coupland’s dictums. While I like much of what Coupland has to say, there are plenty of places where thoughtful educators may take issue with his perspective or advice. The book doesn’t engage such readers. In a field that can use more robust discussion about pedagogy, that’s a missed opportunity.

In the meantime, novice teachers seeking out a candid and concrete resource this fall may find this to be just the ticket. And, I suspect that even those who reject some of Coupland’s suggestions will appreciate a break from carefully hedged pieties.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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Frederick M. Hess

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.