Practicing What We Preach

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One of colonial America's most interesting but seldom read classics is The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, the often self-promoting story of the young boy who gets off the ship in Philadelphia with "a Dutch dollar and about a shilling" in his pocket and goes on to become a great and wealthy man. The secret to his success, Franklin tells us, is the list of 13 virtues that he composed for himself early on and around which he tried ever after to shape his life. These 13 are short and, I might add, entertaining enough to bear quoting here: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. Not a bad list for this brazenly gifted young man on his own in raw, 18th-century America.

For better or worse, Franklin's life was apparently such that his list of 13 virtues has attracted more than one charge of hypocrisy. And it is precisely that issue--hypocrisy--that speaks to our efforts to reform schools in America over 200 years later. For like Franklin, almost every major reform program has its list of a dozen or so "virtues," principles which are profoundly comprehensive and, also like Franklin's, devilishly hard to live up to in the real world of public schooling. Almost every major school-reform movement in America, for example, holds that successful public schooling should be democratic in at least two senses of the word: one, that it prepare all children equitably for adulthood; and two, that it prepare them to participate as citizens in a democratic republic. Yet, if we visited most of the schools that are engaged in reform under one of the current banners (including my own banner, Paideia), we would have a hard time finding hallways and classrooms where all children are being equitably educated or are practicing thoughtful, responsible citizenship.

The problem that lurks at the heart of American public schooling is systemic hypocrisy, the habit of saying one thing ("All children can learn") and doing another (creating academic and vocational tracks). Because this habit is so deeply ingrained, it tends to infect almost any systemic effort to reform schools. Reform efforts are inherently vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy because reformers often trumpet their values while highlighting the weaknesses in the existing system. When we at the Paideia Center, for example, sing the virtues of the Socratic seminar as a teaching device and it is not well implemented in a local school, opponents waste no time in challenging the technique itself as well as the principles it's based on. The lesson that school reformers across the country are universally learning is that of all educators, we must practice what we preach.

The ideals that the accelerated-schools approach of Henry Levin, James Comer's program, the Coalition of Essential Schools, Foxfire Network schools, and Paideia schools are all based on are not only similar in many ways, but they also have profound implications for every aspect of school life. The original 12 Paideia principles (written by Mortimer Adler and the original Paideia Group in the early 1980's) suggest systemic changes in pedagogy, curriculum, scheduling, assessment, discipline, governance, human relations, and school culture that are far more comprehensive than most educators realize. In fact, they are so comprehensive that true Paideia reform takes several years of conscious effort on the part of a school community and deeply alters the roles of every adult and child involved. In order for this kind of growth to occur, however, those involved must address every aspect of school life critically and consistently over time.

Taking only one of the original Paideia principles as an example, it is easy to see why systemic school-reform efforts are so difficult and so easily fall prey to charges of hypocrisy. The fourth of Mr. Adler's 12 principles argues that "schooling at its best is preparation for becoming generally educated in the course of a whole lifetime, and that schools should be judged on how well they provide such preparation." This focus on the value of lifelong learning has expanded since 1982 into a number of other educational forums and is shared by most school-reform programs. It is an area, however, that has been largely ignored by most practicing teachers and administrators, even those involved in reform efforts.

I believe one of the reasons why we tend to ignore the compelling arguments for preparing children as lifelong learners is that in order to do so we must change so many of our attitudes and practices. Pedagogically, we must focus on teaching techniques that force students to wean themselves of their dependence on the teacher, working alone and in groups to gather information, order it, manipulate it, and apply it. And we must do so in every room of the school building, not just in the classrooms of those innovative few. We must also concentrate our efforts in curriculum reform as much on skills as on content. Our students have a lifetime to master several foreign languages, to write poems as well as essays, to read the great books ... in other words, to learn all they need to know. However, lifelong learning is all but impossible without vastly improved learning skills for all our graduates, skills that make them independent learners.

If we believe in lifelong learning, then we have to arrange our school calendars and schedules accordingly. Does learning stop with the onset of hot weather in the spring or at 3 o'clock this ok.gc on a wintry afternoon? Obviously not, and yet we have taught generations of children on the assumption that it does. Does learning happen in 55-minute increments? Is it always compartmentalized into science, math, languages, and social studies? Does it only happen when the world gets quiet and we're finally able to sit down at our desks? No! And yet we have taught generations of children these habits of mind. If we truly believe that we must nurture lifelong learning in our students, then we must tailor our school schedules and calendars accordingly, not cut off our students' learning lives to fit the procrustean bed of traditional schedules.

Proponents of authentic assessment as an integral part of authentic school reform have already begun to respond to the notion of lifelong learning. Their emphasis on students' exhibiting their learning by applying it in a public forum suggests a skills-based curriculum and interdisciplinary study. The next, badly needed step is a longitudinal study that follows similar cohorts of students from traditional schools and reformed schools through significant periods of their adult lives to see how well certain types of schools do prepare children for adulthood. In this way, we might finally be able to tell what kinds of school experience prepare a child for life and judge our reforms by their own, not someone else's, standards.

In school governance, a focus on lifelong learning suggests that both parents and children should be involved with the teachers and administrators in running a school. And as active participants in school governance, both parents and children should be involved in exploring and helping to make informed decisions about key issues like curriculum, scheduling, and assessment. This is applied learning with a vengeance because it's applied to the school itself, children and adults working in concert, with the adults serving as learning models for the children.

The almost startling picture of adults and children together governing a school brings us to the last on my list of elements affected by real school reform--human relations and school climate. First, we must all realize that the core of a school's climate is its human relations, not its furniture, paint, or layout. If we believe in the primacy of lifelong learning, then we should measure all the relationships within our schools by how well they foster learning for everyone involved: adults as well as children, children as well as adults. When a specific relationship stifles rather than fosters learning, then it needs attention and it needs attention now, not after we see about getting the gym floor refinished.

In each of these areas, I have only briefly explored this question--what happens if we use lifelong learning as our primary goal--and listed just a few of the implications. The results represent a radical revision of how we define schooling. I think it's obvious that in an existing, traditional school community, applying this single principle is a long, slow, often painful process. What we too often do, however, is settle for a much simpler, cosmetic change rather than tackling the much more difficult, often ambiguous task of true reform. We agree, for example, to add a great-books discussion period to our calendar once a month rather than address the effectiveness of all our instruction in all our classrooms.

My final point is that when we settle for the cosmetic rather than the systemic, we are probably doing ourselves--and our children--more harm than good for two reasons. First, we are quieting our collective conscience with a half-effort. Second, like Ben Franklin, we are leaving ourselves as educators open to the charge of blatant hypocrisy. In proclaiming our ideals, we too often pay lip service to our faith in democracy and in children without acting consistently on those beliefs, day in and day out, over the years it takes to create better conditions for both.

Vol. 14, Issue 19, Pages 37, 48

Published in Print: February 1, 1995, as Practicing What We Preach
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