The Metaphysics of 'Input'

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Moving teachers and parents beyond the zones of their own experience.

Twenty-five years ago, I observed a heated debate between parents and a superintendent over the introduction of an interdisciplinary program for 7th and 8th graders. As a new teacher in the district, I was impressed with the superintendent's presentation. His grasp of the theory and practice related to interdisciplinary programs was impressive. After every reason for developing the program, he quoted liberally from John Dewey and Jerome Bruner and talked a lot about the results of the Eight-Year Study. Although I had not been in the profession long, I felt a certain pride in being associated with a leader that spoke with such knowledge and passion about how children learn; how we should teach; how subject matter should be organized; how students should be assessed; and what knowledge is of most worth. It was truly a tour de force.

Then, in the words of that same superintendent, "all ____ broke loose." Groups of parents began attacking the program. Some thought it was a program for students with behavior problems. Others wanted their sons or daughters in a "regular" program that would prepare them for high school and the real world. One parent said that what the schools needed was less theory and more attention to phonics. The parent-input segment of the meeting lasted for another 20 minutes. At the end it, the board president indicated that the superintendent would be directed to study the program further. Then the board quickly moved to the next order of business: the purchase of a tractor.

After the meeting, I congratulated the superintendent on his presentation. He was surrounded by reporters but managed to make the following comment to me: "Son, the problem with schools is that everyone's been to 3rd grade."

Stated in a different way, schools are one of the few major concepts of contemporary life whose meaning is shared by virtually everyone. The meaning shared by most parents is what theorists have dubbed the "recitation script-dominated classroom." Parents expect that their children will be educated just like they were. Any deviation is viewed with suspicion. Over the past decade, the countryside has been littered with discarded programs and the ruined careers of educators who have attempted to change this "assign/assess, assign/assess" model of instruction.

To be sure, parents are not entirely to blame for their opposition to reforms that would change the model. Well-meaning educators have inadvertently aided and abetted parents' suspicions by vastly underestimating what Michael Fullan calls the "dynamic complexity" of how systems operate. The inability of educators to select curricula and pedagogical practices that will impact the structure of schooling (do the right things) and, more important, to decide what methods should be used to assist teachers in making sense of these practices (do things right) has, unfortunately, resulted in a profound distrust of the programs recommended by professional educators. It is not surprising, then, when all the smoke clears from the latest reform idea, to hear parents demand that the school replicate their own experiences in school. Parents feel more secure with teachers mouthing phonetic sounds with their children than with a teacher who innocently tells them that this year spelling will not matter quite so much in their child's written assignments.

Fundamental changes in the way schools teach young people can occur only in schools where superintendents and principals have answered fundamental questions about the community they are serving, the skills and knowledge base of their faculty, and the curriculum and instruction their schools offer.

And these questions must be answered by school leaders. We are in an era that has transformed "input" and "empowerment" into a metaphysical belief. Failure to talk to the community or convene a council of some sort is considered a heretical act by government agencies and boards of education. It doesn't matter whether an administrator has expertise in the area under study or what the research says ... it's all about whether everyone has input.

Some of the worst pedagogical practices fostered on children-weighted grades, tracking, retention-are the result of strong parent input and weak administrative responses.

Yet I contend that some of the worst pedagogical practices fostered on children--weighted grades, tracking, retention--are the result of strong parent input and weak administrative responses. That does not mean that parent input should be discarded or excluded from the conversation about reform. Rather, it means that parent input should be used to describe the experiences their children are having in school. That's it. The responsibility then rests with professional educators to evaluate how these experiences relate to school practices. If the experiences describe obstacles to learning, then the educator should engage in a purposeful process to address the problem. Administrators should never implement the recommendations of groups of parents who appear at board meetings with an "idea" or a "solution" to a problem. Having said this, real reform in schools cannot proceed until principals and superintendents consider at length and in depth the following questions:

  • How do parents think about schooling? Through the years, parents have used different code words to signify their displeasure with schools that attempt to depart from the recitation, script-dominated classroom. Today principals, superintendents, and boards are expected to hold students and teachers accountable for maintaining rigorous standards in schools that have clear expectations for conduct. When questioned further on what a good school looks like, parents will describe an instructional program that requires students to know a lot of information. The information students should know comes from a knowledgeable teacher who stands in front of the room. After the information is presented, parents believe, students should take difficult exams that rank their sons or daughters against other students in the class. Any instructional program that deviates from this model would not measure up to world-class standards.

There are communities that would not support this model of schooling. The parents in these communities desire a "kinder and gentler" approach. They would be disturbed by classrooms where students are required to recall lots of information to achieve higher scores than their classmates'.

No community contains parents whose beliefs all fall into one of these two categories. Instead, communities fall on a continuum of beliefs about what schools should look like. The job of the principal and the superintendent is to develop reforms that fall within the beliefs of their communities and then, ever so slowly, to move them to the edges of their "zone" of development. A curricular or instructional reform is bound to fail if the school and district leadership implement a technique, a schedule, a program that is not in the zone of parent beliefs about schooling, or if the reform proposal moves parents too quickly to the edges or, even worse, beyond the edge of the zone.

  • How do teachers think about schooling? Teachers, like the parents they serve, have developed beliefs and theories about schooling that reflect their experiences with teachers, schools, and administrators. Most have succeeded in traditional school systems that reward students for being compliant. Schools and universities have established systems that reward young people for playing by the rules and working their way up the ladder.

There have been exceptions to this rule. The student movement of the 1960s represents a moment in history when the bureaucratic approach came under attack. But despite the efforts and writings of talented students and teachers, the hope of developing a cadre of teachers who would question the fundamental assumptions of schooling quickly disappeared. Research presents us with a picture of a teacher workforce that sees little wrong with the present approaches to curriculum and instruction. That does not mean that teachers are pleased with what is going on in their classrooms or with the skills and knowledge students acquire in school. But they tend to blame the victims--students, parents, administrators, and other forces--for the demise of what they believe to be the model of schooling that served them well. Teachers, for the most part, do not believe that the wheel is broken, just that the wagon and the driver are.

Ultimately, superintendents and principals must stand in hallways and ask themselves the question: "Is anyone having fun around here?"

Superintendents and principals must find out what "zone" their teachers live in. Are they a staff that is very comfortable with lecturing to students for 55 minutes, or one that would rather have students demonstrate their knowledge of the political process by participating in a mock legislative assembly? Again, faculties fall on a continuum of beliefs about instructional and curricular practices. It is the task of the school leadership to develop reforms that are within the "zone" of their faculties and then, ever so slowly, to move them to the edges of their comfort zone.

The ability to work with teachers in their zone and to move them to the edges requires a lot of discussion and a lot of time. Both discussion and time are not looked on favorably by public bodies or private business. They would much rather announce a bold policy initiative, which, of course, would result in immediate and dramatic results.

  • How do students think about schooling? We know how most students think about schooling--they hate it. There are those few in the upper tracks who have the cognitive gifts to make sense out of the maze of subjects, courses, and content that fly at them on a daily basis. And, of course, there are those who do find their niche in school (sports, drama, art, music, a favorite club, a teacher, and so on). Both groups, however, are not interested in school as we know it. Rather, they are interested in the school's ability to certify them for a higher level of schooling or give them the chance of finding someone or something that permits them to follow their bliss. For the remaining population, school is something you have to go through; it's like a fraternity initiation--my parents did it, I guess I have to.

One would think that students might welcome any reform that would change the traditional recitation, script-dominated classroom. Wrong. Students, especially adolescents, hate being different more than they hate being bored. It's a tough choice, but, in the words of my son, "It's easier to go with the flow." Aside from doing school differently, change could result in "more work" instead of the incessant game-playing (give me a C and I won't bother you) that permeates most schools today.

But all students--and I mean all students, no matter what school they are in--are nearer the boundaries of the "zone" than their adult counterparts. It is at these boundaries that conversations should begin about the fundamental questions of schooling: How do children learn? How should we organize subject matter? How should we teach? What knowledge is of most worth? How should we measure what students know?

Based on my 30 years of conversations with students, I suspect that they would support--and even become enthusiastic in--schools where pedagogical and curricular practices resembled the "flow" experiences described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, rather than the standardized practices advanced so widely today.

Ultimately, superintendents and principals must stand in hallways and ask themselves the question: "Is anyone having fun around here?" Having stood in many hallways for many years, the honest answer is no. My job, then, is to work every day to transform the no to a yes. This transformation must begin by attending to the experiences that are meaningful for students and then to the difficult task of moving parents and teachers beyond the zones of their own experiences.

Alan C. Jones is the principal of Community High School District 94 in West Chicago, Ill.

Vol. 18, Issue 9, Pages 41, 44

Published in Print: October 28, 1998, as The Metaphysics of 'Input'
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