Other People's Theories

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I was a college sophomore when a senior said to me one night, "I have a theory about why people behave the way they do." There is nothing terribly striking about that statement, were I to hear it spoken now. Today, nearly everyone has theories about human behavior, about education. In 1970 it clearly struck me because, I suspect, I did not have my own theory of why people behave as they do, of how they learn, or a theory about anything else for that matter.

It's funny how a piece of conversation can stay with you for 20 years. Most people's memories about college concern other activities, things less scholarly perhaps. While I do carry some of those images with me into middle age, the conversation with that senior is a major part of who I am today. It was a night that changed my education.

Until then, I studied only other people's theories. A product of an Ozzie and Harriet family and a Norman Rockwell childhood, I attended a highly regarded suburban high school and a selective liberal-arts college. Human behavior was the area of study that interested me most. I thought I knew a lot. After all, I had just, the week of my encounter with the senior, declared myself a sociology major. Yet, throughout high school and during the first year of college, no one ever asked me what I thought.

I was bothered that night. Maybe angry, certainly envious. It was the first time that I realized that being educated--learning--meant thinking for myself. My education had been only superficially good. It was measured on the degree to which I could understand and describe the thoughts of another. That is what I was taught in history, philosophy, and psychology, three areas that captured my interest at age 19. I was angry that I let it happen to me. When I started thinking for myself, my education changed forever.

Today, people everywhere attack education. They are angry. They demand results. But what results do they really want? Is there consensus? When you sort through the rhetoric, what people are mostly complaining about is how poorly students know other people's thoughts, not how poorly they can think for themselves. As Phillip Schlechty, president of the Kentucky-based Center for Leadership in School Reform, often observes, schools are now places where young people come to watch older people work. Only a few enlightened critics center on the need to encourage the development of independent thinkers, people who challenge the thoughts of others. Phil Schlechty calls them "knowledge workers."

What will come of the national clamor for restructuring? Probably, not much. Those of us who attempt to keep up with professional reading are overwhelmed with articles portending to be related to restructuring, but which turn out to be misdirected. A colleague and friend observes that "when you restructure an outhouse, you don't necessarily end up with indoor plumbing."

I recently read a monograph jointly produced by the groups representing Connecticut's superintendents and boards of education to describe the status of education for the 1990's. It, like many other defenses written by educators, relies more on declining social and economic factors that affect education than it does on the need to change teaching and learning. Good demographic students of Harold Hodgkinson, the authors present a compelling list of factors which make the job of teaching more difficult today. The changed nature of the family and the deplorable conditions of children in today's America do indeed shatter the Norman Rockwell-family myth.

But the writers of that monograph miss the point. No longer can we recite data like these to our public, standing before them with palms facing upward and eyebrows raised, exclaiming, "It's not our fault."

A growing number of schools in the country now understand what changes are necessary to restructure. These changes have little or nothing to do with the nature of student, family, or personal problems. Unless we are truly willing to change, when we say all children will learn, we probably should put a footnote with the explanation unless you happen to come from a broken home. As educators, we have to see these social conditions as context, not product. We need to recognize the changed nature of the student and then forcefully change the way we teach.

There is some reason to be encouraged. Schools which look to understand the work of the management gurus Edwards Deming and William Glasser understand that a focus on quality brings improvement. The futurist Joel Barker calls quality a "worldwide epidemic, a disease. If you don't get it you may not survive."

On the surface there are legitimate reasons why, initially, educators will be skeptical about applying so-called "quality sciences" to schools. The quality perspective comes from a corporate model and many of us do not look at corporate life in America as a success example, either in terms of results or of ethics. However, on closer examination, it is that failing corporate culture which Mr. Deming's theories, based on teamwork and continuous improvement, crush.

The psychiatrist William Glasser, emerging as the ideological leader of the quality-schools movement, takes the bulky work of Edwards Deming and reworks it for schools. For 30 years, Dr. Glasser has focused us on the importance of self-motivation, of the learner's responsibility to know his or her wants and needs and to develop a plan to meet them. What has been missing all this time has been a commitment from educators to work together to make better decisions about what we want students to learn.

Teachers can no longer consider themselves to be self-employed entrepreneurs, hanging their shingle on the hallway door and teaching in isolation from others. In how many schools do we openly debate a collective belief system? In how many schools do we publicly commit to the achievement of high-risk, high-stakes standards for all students? In how many schools do we acknowledge that all people, teachers, students, and parents, choose behaviors to meet the basic needs of love and belonging, power, freedom, and fun?

We are the victims of our own scattered, disjointed attempts to change. We read an article, attend a workshop, or hire a consultant and get excited because we mistakenly think we have found the answer. In reality, all we have found is the familiar old feeling from years ago, another person's theories. Until schools shatter the norms that work against quality, we will continue to use other people's theories to make quick-fix decisions on impulse, in reaction to something or someone's concerns.

We have to think of the school institution as though it were a person. As a person, I approach success, I achieve and I contribute to society when I take charge of my own actions. Institutions can do the same. William Glasser focuses on four questions. Don't be deceived by their simplicity: What do you want? What are you doing? Is it working? What's your plan?

Only when we acknowledge our need for continuous improvement, take actions based on how well that proposed action matches our core beliefs and our profound knowledge, will we begin to move toward quality schools. In Johnson City, N.Y., and Sitka, Alaska, teachers and students are defining what is meant by a quality school because they are doing just that.

Schools across the country have to ask the same four questions as though the institution were one person. Our poor student results can no longer be blamed on societal factors. Until we articulate very clearly what we want as educators, examine what we are currently doing, and acknowledge that it's not working, we cannot even begin to approach an effective plan.

Vol. 11, Issue 18, Page 22

Published in Print: January 22, 1992, as Other People's Theories
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