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Changing the System Means Changing Ourselves

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We are, perhaps, at another crest of one of the continuing waves of education reform that wash over the country. The number of reports, conferences, articles, and proposals is overwhelming. Educators are addressing important issues. Many are advocating fundamental, even radical, changes. The issues, however, that get the most attention--new methods of assessment, curricular or achievement standards, for example--although consequential, are somewhat technical in nature. Focusing on them avoids the "messiness'' of dealing with the more complex psychological and political reality of schools and classrooms. This reality is determined as much by teachers', administrators', and governing-board members' attitudes, beliefs, and feelings as it is by standards or policy statements. The student body's cultural diversity makes this reality even more complex.

Policymakers tend to avoid addressing beliefs and feelings. By doing so, they send a message, even if they do not mean to, that change can be accomplished by policy dictates alone, rather than by helping people construct new meanings about teaching and learning. This message promotes a view of schools as factories, with the students as products and teachers as production-line workers. It suggests that current management practices (which include competition, elitism, favoritism, and political infighting) are acceptable. It misleads us into thinking that institutional and individual practices that stem from race, class, or gender bias can be changed without people talking about their feelings.

It is useful to adopt an anthropological perspective and employ the term "the culture of schooling''--by which I mean the attitudes, beliefs, values, and practices which educators often do not question, are often unstated, which they may not be consciously aware of, and which they may not see the need to change. The definition is meant to convey to educators and policymakers that school practices are deeply embedded and that school change requires achieving personal transformation.

An analogy may be helpful. Just as many Americans 20 years ago saw no need to change their dietary habits, many educators see no need to change the regularities of classroom or district practice. Even if the rhetoric is present (and it is), the will to change may not be. It is as if we wanted reduced cholesterol without changing what we eat. Although people are aware of the need to change their diets, new practice is by no means universal and is still a struggle for many. Changing educational practice may be even more difficult than changing eating habits. Resistance is so pervasive that processes that would accelerate it are rejected or neglected--even by some of the strongest advocates of change. They continue to hope that policy statements, reports, legislation, standards, and new assessment methods will do the job, even though these methods, while necessary to achieve reform, have not been sufficient in the past.

Identifying some of these deeply embedded school practices and the beliefs and attitudes that underlie them will provide a glimpse of the magnitude of the problem. Since the models we have as children result in practices that are most resistant to change, I will describe classroom practices from my own days as a student that went unquestioned at the time. I probably would not have been able to identify them (especially the last five) if anyone had asked me to reflect on school then, but no one ever did.

  • The teacher was in front of the classroom most of the time. The students sat at desks in rows.
  • Almost all talking was done by the teacher. Students were not allowed to talk to each other.
  • Most of the time there was one adult and 25 to 35 young people in one classroom.
  • Teachers yelled at individual children and at the whole class, but not the reverse.
  • At certain periods students were anxious and worked feverishly. Often this was accompanied by filling in bubbles on a sheet of paper.
  • Considerable time was spent memorizing or doing computations.
  • Schools in wealthy neighborhoods received more resources than schools in poor neighborhoods.
  • The school activities of students were very different from the activities of adults--even professional researchers. (For example, the activities of students of mathematics, science, or history did not at all resemble the activities of mathematicians, scientists, or historians.)
  • The percentages of female, black, and Latino students in mathematics and science classes decreased with age.
  • Teachers rarely talked to other adults about their teaching or their assumptions and beliefs about learning.
  • Teachers' feelings about their work were rarely listened to by others.

Although many teachers have changed their practices from the time I was in school (1946 to 1958), these regularities are still widespread. You very likely could add others to the list.

What reformers must recognize is that such practices are based on beliefs and values. These beliefs and values may or may not be articulated or even held by a majority of teachers in a school. Once practices become institutionalized or enculturated, they (and their underlying beliefs and values) are rarely examined or discussed. Change in "the culture of schooling'' will occur, if it occurs at all, in the context of identifying and discussing values and beliefs about all school practices, listening to and grappling with views that are different from our own, and working through feelings and attitudes that inhibit change.

It is important for educators to have many opportunities to discuss and identify the beliefs and values underlying practice. I have gone through this process with educators, and some of the beliefs and values that we thought underlay the above practices are listed below. A caution: It is more important for educators to discuss the beliefs themselves than it is to read this list. I only include some (about half) of the items from our list to give you an idea of the nature of the discussion.

  • You must master facts before you can use your brain to engage in the processes of thinking.
  • Students are incapable of deciding what to learn. Such decisions are made by teacher, district, or state.
  • Competition is necessary to motivate learning.
  • The teacher is an authority who should not be questioned.
  • Practice makes perfect.
  • Noise is distracting.
  • Telling is teaching.
  • It is O.K. not to be good at math and science. (Some people have it and some do not, and where were you when the brains were passed out.)
  • Paper-and-pencil assessment is adequate.
  • Being passive is good.
  • It is cheating to get help from another person.
  • It is rude to challenge adults.
  • To succeed in life you have to succeed in school.
  • Young people cannot reflect (so give them something else to do).
  • We have the ability to accurately measure what students understand.
  • Feelings are not part of the academic environment.
  • The system is O.K. (after all, I succeeded).

This list indicates the degree to which schools have imposed adult values and need for convenience on young people. It is also clear that practices based on attitudes such as these will be resistant to change, even after the attitude is identified and disavowed. There is a big difference between understanding (and even agreeing with) a new idea and putting it into practice. It is an emotional struggle to change one's practices, and this struggle is intensified when new practices go against "the culture of schooling.'' Changing a culture requires personal transformation on the part of the members of that culture. Although there is no recipe to follow, this personal transformation can be facilitated by meeting the human need for new information, reflection, planning, and emotional support.

Educators need to participate in learning experiences that contradict existing cultural practices so that they come to see learning as an active, joyful process of constructing and refining understanding rather than of receiving and memorizing information. Reflection can be facilitated by providing opportunities to (1) compare and contrast these new learning experiences with their past school experiences, or their current practices, and (2) discuss values and attitudes that influence current practice. Since change is an emotional struggle, it is helpful if members of the school community can talk about what is going on in their classrooms to an attentive and noncritical listener (or listeners) and express their feelings about these existing practices and the desire to change or not to change them. Everyone needs to able to say "It is all nonsense!'' or "I am overwhelmed'' or "If it was good enough for me, it is good enough for them'' without being criticized. It is only after expressing their objections and frustrations (and perhaps grief or anger about their own defeats at learning or teaching) that they will be able to consider new options. In areas where there has been misunderstandings and hurt (for example, race relations), there will need to be considerable emotional healing for progress to be made.

Change will also be aided if there is an opportunity to listen (attentively) to and interact with people who have had different experiences (for example, those who rejected school or did not succeed in school). Throughout the process of learning, listening, reflecting, and expressing feelings, there should be the opportunity to set goals, plan, and make deliberate decisions to change practices. If community members share their goals, struggles, and triumphs with each other, the esprit de corps makes it easier to continue the effort to change.

It will not be easy to institute these processes. Leadership will be necessary to provide new experiences and to challenge assumptions and values. But this challenge must be made in a manner that promotes reflection and unity, not defensiveness and alienation. Policymakers (being part of the culture and therefore part of the problem) will also need to participate in such processes. States and districts must institute policies and structures that enable teachers to take leadership at their school. Competition and political infighting must be eliminated. Educators will need to better understand and more constructively attend to each other's emotions while participating in the processes of change. Processes that enable teachers to talk about and listen to each other's feelings will be especially challenging to introduce. A teacher-leader in one of my projects told me, "What you are asking us to do goes against 'the rules.'''

A program for reform based on recognizing the influence of attitudes, feelings, and beliefs would first and foremost strive to develop among educators the trust necessary to reveal our deep feelings about the work we do and the young people we nurture. It would present the challenge of fostering the innate love of learning in every child. It would raise people's awareness of how schools' rigidities have in some ways hurt all (even successful) children, while at the same time encouraging educators to take pride in how they have helped children. It would refocus the discussion of school reform away from test scores and toward people's visions for better schools and hopes for our young people. It would deal profoundly with how people's feelings about race, class, and gender affect education. It would acknowledge the wisdom of the Chinese proverb that says, "The trees may prefer calm, but the wind will not subside'' and challenge all citizens to work together to make schools a more nurturing and stimulating presence in young people's lives.

Julian Weissglass is senior project officer at the Mathematical Sciences Education Board of the National Research Council in Washington.

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