Q&A: Educator Reflects on Romance With Schooling

May 12, 2004 16 min read
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John I. Goodlad.

John I. Goodlad, the president of the Institute for Educational Inquiry at the University of Washington in Seattle, is the author of several groundbreaking studies on American education, including A Place Called School. The book’s 20th-anniversary edition was published by the McGraw-Hill Co. this spring. Senior Editor Lynn Olson recently interviewed the 83-year-old educator about his new intellectual autobiography, Romances With Schools: A Life of Education, also published by McGraw-Hill.

Q: As a child growing up in North Vancouver, British Columbia, your first encounter with formal education was hardly romantic. If your parents hadn’t intervened, you would have been forced to repeat the 1st grade because you hadn’t learned to read. What happened?

A: I had a real interest in reading. You know, reading the stuff off the breakfast-cereal package. In those days, there were electric streetcars that had all around them signs for baking soda, or whatever. You’d sit in the streetcar, and you’d look up, … and you’d learn to read that stuff.

Everything was going OK; there was really no pressure to read for the first several months [of school]. But then, as I say in the book, the teacher had this wonderful opportunity to go off to learn this special approach to reading. She comes back, and all of a sudden everything changes, and I’m up there at the chalkboard breaking these words down into syllables. And it was just like going from something modern to hieroglyphics. She hadn’t picked up on the fact that I was turning the pages [in the book] at the wrong places; I’d memorized the thing.

Q: What did you learn from that experience?

A: What it really indicated, and I guess it’s strengthened by the accountability movement today, is how the experiences one has in the school setting might be over a very brief period of time, and yet have an extraordinary impact on your life. As I think about flunking that grade, it might have turned my whole career around if it had gone the other way [and I had been held back]. And if you follow along in the book, you’ll see that I did a doctoral dissertation on the subject [of grade retention], so you see how much it affected me.

Q: In 5th grade, your family moved across town, and you entered Ridgeway Elementary School, which you describe as “at least 10 classes spread over eight grades. No auditorium, no gymnasium, no science laboratory, no lunchrooms; these were nowhere in our lexicon of schooling.” Yet, if you got past these niceties, did things look much different then from now?

A: The deep structure gets hidden behind all of these things that get visibility, especially in the high school: the football team, the gymnasium, the cafeteria, and all that. All of that life wasn’t there at all. The deep structure of schooling was much more evident way back then. Now, it gets obscured, but it hasn’t changed.

I know people beat up on me on this. People say, “John, the schools are so different today.” And I say, “Yes. They’re very different in their cosmetics. But like houses, you still have a bedroom and a bathroom and a toilet and a sink.”

Q: During your years in the North Vancouver public schools, you also describe the changing demographics of the student population caused by the Great Depression, particularly in terms of the high schools. What effect did those changes have on the high school structure and curriculum at the time?

A: Not a bit. There were not any changes at all. You just had a larger turned-off group of kids. That was not at all unique. Studying the history of it, you find out that was true all over. This influx came in, and the changes were not made. And, in fact, it created a great deal of discomfort for the teachers because now they had a much larger population of kids who were diffident to learning—not really drawn in—and a much greater challenge. They were just there because there wasn’t anyplace else for them to be. And that’s led today to what has become an enormous challenge.

Q: Even before high school graduation, you’d decided to become a teacher. That meant an elementary teacher because your family couldn’t afford the college degree required for secondary teaching. In the end, you began your teacher preparation at a local high school before going on for a year of education at Vancouver Normal School. Could you explain what “senior matriculation” was?

A: That fifth year in high school—senior matriculation, as it was called—emerged because people in government realized that they were really shutting off the supply of teachers by requiring one year of university work, … and they were really going to have a serious teacher shortage. It was the first year of university content, but it was in no way preparation for teaching. We didn’t even talk about teaching during the year. … I very much doubt that it influenced me in any way as to how I performed as a teacher, or in regard to general education.

Q: How much of your time then and in the year of normal school that followed was focused on pedagogy?

A: The people who were in charge of things in the [normal school], as I write, were either ex-school inspectors or they still did a little school inspection because their teaching loads were not heavy. So, for example, in the arts, we had a wonderful artist, but we didn’t get one little glimmer of how you brought art into the classroom, not at all.

The practical thing I remember wasn’t pedagogy. The chance was that we would all be in small schools way out in the country somewhere, and we’d either have a one-room school or a two-room school. The result was that we had to know how to plan a schedule for more than one grade. I started off teaching 56 periods a day because I had eight grades and seven subjects [in one schoolroom], and it took a little bit of learning to get around that one.

Interestingly enough, we didn’t get to read Dewey. … In fact, we didn’t hear about any of the leading scholars with ideas in education. We didn’t encounter anything to do with how schools might be changed, or anything to do with how do you go about reaching into the learning processes of a child. None of that.

Q: Your first experience as a student-teacher was back at one of the same elementary schools you’d attended as a child. You write, “I learned a lot, mostly about what I hoped never to let happen.” Tell me about the “opportunity class.”

A: The school had grown quite a bit. It was no longer quite the school that I had attended, although the structure was essentially the same. And the school had taken all the kids who were doing badly in school, the flunking kids—I might have been in that group—and said, OK, lets put all these slow learners together in one group. So you deprived these kids of the more academically gifted kids, and they didn’t get any indication of what a higher level of performance might mean. … What resulted wasn’t surprising, which was that the room was almost utter chaos. … I think even in the month I was there, I was able to bring a little more order to the class because it was driving me nuts each day.

Q: Next you went to Lynn Valley Elementary School, where you write, you learned “how profoundly different the cultures of schools can be.” What did you learn from that student-teaching experience that has shaped your work since?

A: It’s not just the relationship between teacher and pupil. It’s principal-to-teacher, teacher-to-teacher. And they built that in that school. … They had built this team kind of thing, and they had also built this relationship with the larger community, which involved the parents. In rereading A Place Called School, I dealt with data in Chapter 8 of that book, ... showing the high correlation of parent, student, and teacher satisfaction [within a school]. And that correlation had entirely to do with the human factor. It did not have to do with curriculum and pedagogy, which were no different at Lynn Valley than in any other school. Now, we see in the Gallup polls, which appear in the [Phi Delta] Kappan each fall, that parents are far more satisfied with their local school than they are with the enterprise of schooling. The enterprise of schooling only talks about academics, only talks about test scores, says nothing about human relationships, caring, and so on. And I think that’s the difference.

Q: Your first job was as a teacher-principal in a one-room country school. You write that nothing in your entire career contributed more to your views on the conduct of schooling. Why?

A: Here I had this group of 34 kids. Can you imagine a teacher today being willing to tackle 34 kids all in one room in eight grades? … Here I was teaching 56 blackboard assignments a day. And after six weeks, I was just about worn out. My nerves began to show it. I kicked the kitchen door when I was home for the weekend. And I decided I had to do something about this. … I realized there had to be some kind of experience that connected them with the world in which they lived. I had to get a hands-on thing … and I was anxious to create a community of learners. So over the weekend, I came up with the idea of the sand table, because we were just entering into the study of British Columbia. So I needed the space to be able to make a miniature map of the province—with the mountains and the Fraser River and all of that flowing down to the ocean. All of that came together. … You’ll notice I didn’t give up the spelling period, and I didn’t give up the math period. I just shortened stuff and cut out stuff and then provided these blocks of time for the sand table. Kids didn’t work in that sand table all day, although it was hard to keep them away from it.

Q: You had a much more sobering experience teaching at the British Columbia Industrial School for [delinquent] Boys. You title that chapter “Loss of Innocence.” Why?

A: I simply was unaware that there were kids in this kind of trouble, where parents actually tried to get their youngsters into the British Columbia Industrial School for Boys—really often brought the charges—because they couldn’t manage them and didn’t know what to do with them. And here I saw these kids, with very little in the school to rehabilitate them and get them straightened out. Hugh Christie [the deputy head of the school] emerged here as a hero, fighting back for the idea these kids could be turned around under the right set of circumstances, against others who had given up.

So these youngsters were lost; they really didn’t have a place in society when they went back home. They were shunned because the parents of other kids didn’t want them mixing with their kids. And you can see the way in which the culture, once these kids had made a mistake, the culture was such that it was very difficult to overcome it. These kids weren’t stupid, and in some areas they were incredibly bright.

In looking back, I was really profoundly lucky to have these experiences because nearly all of them were out of the ordinary in relation to today’s schools.

Q: In the late 1940s, you began your career in higher education at Emory University in Atlanta. In the book, you note that one of your most satisfying experiences during that time was working with the Englewood School in Sarasota County, Fla. What about that experience led you to write: “Changing schools is a little like reducing weight. Weight taken off slowly by changes in diet and regular exercise tends to stay off. Weight taken off quickly by short-term, quick-reduction fads tends to come back”?

A: A great deal. It is necessarily a slow process. That is, you have to change minds. (It’s interesting that Howard Gardner’s new book is called Changing Minds. I can’t wait to read it.)

In Englewood, you had to have teachers who believed you could change something. And that didn’t mean just hiring new teachers, although that did happen. … So it takes time. It means that you have to look seriously and introspectively at what’s getting in the way. It’s a process of getting a vision of something that could be different and that would make everybody happier: the parents, the teachers, the kids, and so on. Getting that vision is a big thing. You don’t get that by authoritarian methods. It means a lot of talk. And the schools are not set up for that talk.

We didn’t have a lot of extra money, but we had money enough to make a difference. If you took the federal budget for schooling and simply provided every school with that little bit of money, that may be the only way we’re ever going to get the schools we talk about. In A Place Called School, I say right off that schools have got to be changed one by one.

Q: You talk a lot in the book about children’s profound differences in learning. At one point, you write, “What schools might be like if designed for children boggles the mind.” What would look so different?

A: First of all, the pedagogical approach of the teachers. There has to be an assumption that the children, even in kindergarten, already know a lot. They’ve been around for 5 years. … So we’ve got to assume that if a youngster has been around for a while and then encounters science in the 2nd grade, what are they going to teach: air and water and earth. Well, kids have been around that stuff for a while. So ask, “What have you observed about things? Do any of you have gardens at home? Are you in the garden? Have any of you been close to ponds?” And lo and behold, all kinds of stuff starts pouring out. Then you’ve got them interested and then you can start feeding them information.

So long as the teacher looks at herself as a member of the group, she can start teasing out what youngsters would like to learn. And then say, “OK, can I teach my spelling and my writing and my reading around things they are really interested in?” We’ve created a whole set of methodologies in the classroom that don’t connect with real life. So we shouldn’t be at all surprised that test scores aren’t related with anything to do with real life.

Q: You spent more than 20 years, from 1960 to 1985, at the University of California, Los Angeles, where you directed the university lab school and eventually became dean of the graduate school of education. How did your work there lead to your first efforts at “scaling up” reform through the League of Cooperating Schools [a coalition of 18 California elementary schools and their districts committed to school renewal]?

A: I was so fortunate that it was the laboratory school that attracted me to UCLA. I wouldn’t have gone to be a professor. … What really showed up for me the need [to create the League of Cooperating Schools], which, I suspected, was my deliberately meeting with groups of visitors [to the lab school] at the end of their day and saying, “What do you think?” And they’d uniformly say, “But, of course, we couldn’t do it back home.” Back home there was no infrastructure for doing it.

So the idea of the League of Cooperating Schools was to be able to get schools to create an infrastructure where they could bring about any kind of change they wanted to. The infrastructure of the school is such it’s almost impossible, without changing that infrastructure, to make any changes at all. It’s interesting that the League of Cooperating Schools was not interested in having our lab school [as] a member of the group. I don’t write this in the book, but it was a member only for a short period of time. What these people did not see was we were not trying to impose what the lab school was doing on them. We were trying to get them to understand why the lab school was a changing place. They didn’t get it.

There is not—below the level of intense criticism and endless recommendations for improvement—any effective structure by means of which countervailing ideas and models may be pumped in [to education] and developed to the point of becoming real alternatives. Stated conversely, the system is geared to self-preservation.

Q: A Place Called School is one of the landmark studies of public education in the United States. Yet you write that policymakers largely ignored the study’s recommendations. Why?

A: It’s simply because there are so many different cultures of schooling. There is the culture of what I call the local school. That culture is very personal, very varied. What works here doesn’t work there. Then you have the culture of schooling. And the culture of schooling has very little to do with those local schools. It has to do with the enterprise of schooling, which is run according to business principles: What’s the bottom line? And then you’ve got a third culture, very closely allied with that second one, which is the culture of school reform: You’re going to impose some kind of change on everyone, which you see in spades right now. No reform era has ever imposed and intruded on the local school to this degree. The fourth culture is the culture of the people who study schooling and education, and most of those people don’t want to become entangled with this complex thing called the local school. So they study and they write, and then that’s it. And they don’t get hands-on because the university doesn’t reward that.

Q: Your next big endeavor was to investigate teacher education. What did you learn from that study?

A: It’s the same thing about reforming schools—creating an infrastructure for change. But it’s much more complicated because there are so many cultures of schooling involved in the process. Sixty to 80 percent of a future teacher’s education at the undergraduate level is in the arts and sciences. Schools of education have never ventured forth to raise the question with arts and sciences, “What should you people be doing in the arts and sciences to make sure teachers are getting a good general education?’' Teachers can take the same general-elective courses that other students take. … So there’s that big culture.

Then you’ve got the schools of education, at least in a flagship university, low on the totem pole. We do not have teaching hospitals. We’re trying to create them in our work. Getting them funded is almost impossible. So we’ve got these cultures that have to be brought together in an infrastructure that makes change possible. And we found the same thing at both levels: no culture of change.

Q: Your most recent work at the University of Washington has focused on recapturing the democratic and moral purposes of schooling. Yet your forecast sounds grim. Toward the end of the book, you write: “The way the schooling context is changing currently, the chances of having romances with schools during childhood and looking back on them nostalgically in adulthood appear to me to be declining.” Why?

A: I’m hoping it’s only temporary. Debbie Meier [co-principal of the Mission Hill School in Boston] beat me up on this. She was out here, and I made some remarks, and she said, “John, that’s so depressing.” I think to be a pessimist and an educator is the ultimate oxymoron. I’m a little bit depressed, but I’m not pessimistic. I’m trying to be a realist. I’ve just about finished Jim Collins’ book Good to Great, and what he talks about in there is that if you’re going to have a great company, you’ve got to be realistic about your problems and address them. That’s what I’m trying to be, realistic about what we have to address. The only way we’re going to do that is to recognize that the only culture that has any real importance in education is that local school culture. The only thing you can do in effecting change out of the federal office is to help those schools do their job, and not what the feds think that job is. Because the feds are too influenced by the business community, and the business metaphor does not work. So we’ve got to restore the local school, school by school. And that is the work I want to do. I think I’ve got one more hurrah before I go, but I can’t get anyone interested in funding it.

Q: Did you enjoy writing such a personal book about education?

A: Writing Romances was one of the greatest learning experiences I’ve ever had, just the writing of it.

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2004 edition of Education Week as Q&A: Educator Reflects on Romance With Schooling


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