7 Questions for a Man With His Finger on the Pulse of Teaching

Marzano interview

Robert Marzano discusses why he’s optimistic about education’s future, how teachers continue to overuse direct instruction, and what he expects from Betsy DeVos.

By Wayne D’Orio, School Leaders Now senior editor

The new edition of Robert Marzano’s book, The New Art and Science of Teaching, includes a major shift in focus.

Marzano, the education expert whose analysis of pedagogy and education policy has influenced nearly every school in the country, makes sure to focus his new book not just on teacher practices, but ultimately on student outcomes. “I think that’s a pretty significant shift,” he says.

Marzano considers data and turns that information into theories and bite-size practices teachers and principals can follow. He asserts the data produced in the 10 years since the first edition of this book support his earlier conclusions. “The good news is we have data indicating that every one of the 43 elements in the book will produce positive effects.”

School Leaders Now reached out to Marzano with some questions:


Robert MarzanoQ. Is the art of teaching getting overlooked?

Yes, I think that’s been a general trend. The whole teacher evaluation movement, of which I’ve been a part, has kind of given the false impression … that if we just get teachers to do certain things that everything’s going to be fine. We do know a lot about strategies that work, but how a person puts those together [and delivers content] really makes better teachers. I think Race to the Top really pushed it the other way. [As if we were saying] “Let’s look for these things and assign a score to it and we can rank the teachers.” It didn’t work.

Q. You mention that overstuffed standards force teachers to sort out what they should teach. How can we fix this problem?

Identify just a handful of sequential things and create a sequence. That’s starting to happen across the country. When that happens, it takes a huge burden off teachers. It’s concrete. That [work] should be on the district level.

Q.  How long does it take to tell if various initiatives are working in education?

Longer than five years. Give them time. I think the pendulum arc gets a little smaller each time. We’ve learned a lot in teacher evaluation, for instance. Teachers are better trained, have more support, even though the challenges are bigger.

Q. Direct instruction seems to be going out of fashion, but you argue for its place in the classroom.

I think there’s a misunderstanding of direct instruction that it’s didactic and it’s lecture. Direct instruction is just really focused in terms of the goals of getting students to understand certain content.

Research always bears out that direct instruction is necessary. About every decade, somebody always comes along with a big analysis on direct instruction versus inquiry-based instruction. Turns out direct instruction in general has a higher effect size. When you really look into it, here’s what you find: inquiry-based instruction that has direct instruction as a foundation does best.

Q. So what’s the proper balance between inquiry and instruction?

We still do too much direct instruction. In the work on teacher evaluations, I’ve got three types of lessons: direct instruction, practicing and deepening, and knowledge application. With well over 100,000 data points, when you look at classrooms randomly, those proportions are 60-35-5. Direct instruction is important, but it shouldn’t be 60 percent of what we’re doing.

Q. What do you think of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos?

I don’t know, I think we have to wait and see. I don’t know Secretary DeVos, but I do know her background. I guess I can’t see her saying this administration is going to be about more charters and less about district. I’d be shocked if that were the case. I hope it’s a push toward the middle ground, like the Innovative charters. But that’s absolute speculation.

 Q. Are you optimistic about the future of education?

I’m prone to look for bad things to happen, but relative to education, I am an optimist. But that’s based on my experience. I do believe it’s getting better. I’d love to hang around another 20 years because I think we’ll see some really big changes. There will be turmoil. I see good things in the competancy-based schooling movement. A teacher evaluation [system] that works better and isn’t punishment is about three years away. I think we’re getting our hands on content. I think there’s a lot of exciting stuff happening.