Horace Is Back..To Build A Better School

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The committee had had a grueling session with the faculty the evening before. There had been small group discussions, this time without parents, students, or other community members. The resentment and suspicion among the faculty had been evident.

"Some of them just don't want to listen,'' Green complained.

"They put us off. They don't want to hear anything we say because they think it's criticism.''

"The ones who annoyed me the most were the ones who said nothing. They just sat there.''

Patches suggested: "They're waiting us out. They think that all this is one more little fad and that nothing will happen.'' Horace was quietly delighted that his old friend referred to the committee as we. If this old historian can come aboard, others will, too. They'll follow him. They'll fear his acid response if they demur.

Margaret added: "The burden will be on us. Everyone else can criticize and complain.''

"Or just sit on their hands, denying what we're saying.'' Patches wore a smile, not conspiratorial, just smug, ornery.

The first student said: "We've got to get them to react. They can't just ignore us!'' Her anger had been growing since she learned how the faculty reacted: the back stabbing, the maneuvering, the refusal to doing anything, as a form of sabotage. Even after Margaret patiently explained to her that this kind of behavior could be found in any workplace, not just in schools, her anger did not subside. Actually, Margaret had confessed to Horace, her sustained fury was an asset: The teachers would feel the heat of the disappointment of a respected and influential student.

''How do we get them to join us?'' The griping turned constructive. "Throw them questions, not just a report; it's nothing more than our answers to our own questions. How boring.'' The young English teacher mocked the earlier discussions.

"Take them on trips. Have different groups go with you to other schools. Get everyone talking someplace away from school and its familiarity,'' suggested the visitor.

This was an option, Horace knew, because money had been made available. Local businesses had pledged for what they called the "R and D cost'' of the committee's work if the school board would match it, which it did. This funding covered travel expenses and the associated needs for substitute teachers. Most important, it gave some relief from the classroom: The workload of every teacher on the committee was reduced by one course for the spring semester, and substitutes hired.

Horace and some of the others were sorry about this. He liked teaching, and he knew that there were some students who had "saved up'' for his course and were now under the tutelage of a stranger. Yet he knew that this adjustment was necessary. The work of the committee was demanding and could not be piled on top of everything else.

The only people on the committee who did not get any relief were the students. It amused Horace that it seemed easy for them to take on this big extra load without any apparent cost to their studies. The kids, Horace knew, spent over 10 hours a week on it, given all their chatting around school about the committee's ideas, the small meetings they called, the polling they did. Maybe "good'' kids like these were in fact underworked. Or understimulated. The committee's deliberations were a new venture for the two juniors. But there was more: The committee members took them seriously. They were treated like everyone else. No hall passes were required. Horace knew what this meant and hoped that others had figured it out, too.

Horace was not surprised when the school board member buttonholed him at a coffee break. "The kids aren't working hard enough,'' she said, and it was clear that she meant all the youngsters at Franklin High School, not just the two 11th graders.

She realized that such accusations publicly aired would damage the group. Its collective skin was thin at this point, she believed. She went on: "We aren't tough enough on them. We know what it takes to learn, and it's more than we insist on now.''

Horace thought that she should add (but wouldn't): Look at me! I learned. More kids should get what I got, and do what I did to learn. The schools are flabby places and the kids run wild. Let's bring the kids and the teachers back to the standards and practices that I experienced. That's implicit in her charge, Horace guessed. He knew that her view was widely held in some politically influential quarters. Indeed, he largely agreed with it.

"My students get into good colleges,'' Horace replied. He wanted to add that several just this year were Phi Beta Kappa. They appreciated what I did for them. They come back and tell me about it. I'd like to do more of what I do for even more students. I know that I'm a good teacher. I know what works.

The terse conversation broke off.

Most American students do not work very hard and in a sustained way in school. Most are as academically docile as they are genial. Some kids get into demanding colleges and some do very well there, using the skills they learned in school. A prized handful remember to thank their teachers.

But the school board member and Horace missed the mark. Apart from the reality that there were not any Good Old Days in American secondary education (rosy eyeglasses notwithstanding), the school board member should not have been saying how effective her education was; she should have asked why it had not been much better. After more than 15,000 hours in school classrooms, why didn't she know more? Why couldn't she do more? And Horace should have asked in the public sessions of the committee why there were so few "good students.'' Why do so many adolescents not really care about much of importance? Sure, they're kids, but why are they seemingly so careless about their futures?

One of several likely answers is that we persist in viewing school learning in simplistic ways, with unhappy consequences for students. We accept the conventional modes of teaching and learning with more generosity than they deserve. We too rarely recognize that today we know far more about the stunningly complex processes of learning and teaching than we did 90 years ago, but that the template of American secondary education that was struck then is very much in place. Indeed, we seem almost afraid to ask fresh questions about learning and teaching, perhaps because of what we might find.

Even a little shift in the way we characterize "school'' can be upsetting. Take, for example, a variation of a school's stated purpose from readying the students to display knowledge to expecting them to use knowledge. The difference here is more than semantic. Using knowledge assumes a student to be markedly active, inventive. Displaying knowledge can be done with relative ease by a passive student. Use requires the student to be a fundamental part of the process. Further, if to that purpose we add the objective of expecting the student to want to use knowledge--to be in the habit of acting in a knowledgeable way--the distance beyond display is substantial.

It is a truism that we learn well only when we are engaged. That is, if we do not pay attention, we will not "get it.'' Our attention is caught by things that interest us, that so intrigue us that we are compelled to find out more about them, that we believe we had better attend to or we might miss something.

It is a further truism that sermons do not work well in engaging us (we are expected to listen passively) or in taking into account the particular spark that each of us might strike (there is one message, one text, responsive only to the minority of listeners who are ready for that particular message). Learning by listening is inefficient for much of serious education. The fact is, however, that the most used pedagogy in high schools is "telling,'' either by us teachers or by our equivalent in the form of films, videos, and textbooks. While it has its uses some of the time--narrative when employed well is a powerful tool--as a central pedagogy it is demonstrably inefficient (though it may be practically necessary to control students whom we do not know well and who come at us for brief periods in large numbers). We bore young people. And they do not learn well.

All this is common sense and is widely accepted by thoughtful teachers. But remedying the faults implies once again ambitious change on a scale that many find threatening. So the teachers usually say: Let us not raise such issues about our work, least of all in a committee meeting. Let's just try to do more of what we now do. That doesn't threaten us as much.

However, we know that serious school reform absolutely requires that we raise such issues, formulate good responses to them, and carefully think again of the purpose and functioning of schools. Fussing with what we have is not working.

A good--a necessary--place to start is with how to attract and hold the students' attention, how to instill in them a commitment to think hard. Without this, there is nothing, just the shell of a school. Two steps are minimally necessary. Teachers must know each student well to capture that young person's mind and heart. And the "destination,'' the place we wish the student to reach, must be clear and compelling. The young person must know when she gets there that she has achieved something that her teachers and her community all value.

The school should so deploy its resources that each student can be known well by his teachers. Habits are unlikely to be mass-produced, and the kind of Exhibition that demands and fosters the student's habits of thoughtfulness requires a mentor who knows that child deeply. Just as no teacher should be responsible for more than 80 students, all teachers should be able regularly to consult with the adults who have taught each child. That is, every student would be the collective concern of the faculty who at that moment are working with her; and there would be both the expectation of, and time allotted for, discussions by those teachers and that student about how she is doing.

The "knowing well'' is only the beginning. Teachers should have substantial control over class time, materials to be used, and the ways of teaching in order to shape these factors in the interests of each student. The school would be personalized, each child addressed in a respectful way and treated as an individual even within the class programming. The governing metaphor for the school would be student as worker. To learn means to work, sometimes drudgingly, sometimes joyfully.

Being busy is not the same as being involved, a point some teachers miss. They assign piles of work sheets, which the kids listlessly fill out. Or they plan colorful but directionless games that the students may join with the gusto appropriate to an elementary school recess period but that do little to stretch their minds.

No one learns well solely from exposure. To sell effectively a new insurance product, for example, we are briefed and then hold practice sessions where each of us makes a mock pitch to a colleague and is criticized on it. These sessions are most useful if they bring up new situations, unexpected but legitimate twists. We thereby get the hang of using resourcefully what we were briefed on. Later, we do best when our first calls on real clients are in the company of a colleague who knows the product well because it allows for further debriefing-- and a usable understanding of the product. Such a sequence makes as much sense for adolescents as it does for adults in the world of business. Put differently, apprenticeship-- working alongside someone better qualified-- is a productive learning mechanism. Students who are apprentices to respected teachers or even to older and more experienced students learn thoroughly and well.

"Working'' means working the mind. No one works his mind unless he wants to. Faking is easy. Intellectual work is often fatiguing as well as exhilarating. One condition for getting a student to be a worker is catching her attention, enticing her to concentrate, to focus, to puzzle, to persist.

Although no two people are similarly disposed, there are useful patterns to follow. Students respond when a matter at hand connects or seems likely to connect with something important, even if the importance is at the moment recognized only by a teacher whose word is valued. Students go along with adults they respect. But they especially go along when they can see that such a journey will affect their own lives in some purposeful or intriguing way.

The inherent interest of the matter is also influential. Is the puzzle it presents challenging? Is it interesting? Questions are usually more interesting than assertions or answers, and the most appealing questions are those which are genuine--dealing with matters of manifest importance in the world--and have no easy or total resolution. Is a progressive tax fair? What are, in fact, the fittest in a biological realm, and what may this mean? Why does pi work?

Further, the connection between what a student knows and what the new issue portends must be clear. He needs to know that he has the tools to start comprehending this new domain. While the totally new has its allure, its effect is blunted if it only confounds and confuses. For a student to work resourcefully, she has to have confidence in herself. For adolescents, this confidence is often gossamer, changeable, troublesome for teachers to plumb. Without it, students find it difficult to learn, because learning involves contemplating the new and unfamiliar and, what is even more challenging, being open to change in the face of new evidence.

Students at work create various kinds of noise. They talk and measure and puzzle out and make the audible messes that an assistant principal is supposed to abhor. Their activity also exposes the inconvenient truth that some kids do the work faster than others. The neat march over the material that is possible when only the teacher sets the pace of the journey cannot be maintained. Some kids sprint; some kids crawl. Each has his own pace. The variation wreaks havoc with orderly syllabi and precise 52-minute periods.

But students must do the work themselves if they are to learn. We can so arrange things that they will be disposed to do that work; we cannot force them to do it. They can be enticed, persuaded, provoked. Ironically, what we have long called homework--the assignments done alone by each student in study hall or out of school--becomes the heart of the matter rather than something that is added on and all too often ignored. Inhabitants of the real world are doing homework, not listening to someone else tell them what they should know. Provoke a student into the habit of doing important homework, and his task of becoming a self-propelled learner will be easy.

Good schools are suffused with talk, with all sorts of constructive conversation. Most of high school should be about productive and resourceful thinking, what the research community has come to call "higher order thinking skills.'' To oversimplify somewhat, basic schoolwork involves the systematic learning of skills-- writing, drawing, reading--and of simple, easily believable content: If you have three apples and I have five apples, together we have eight apples; George Washington was the first president of the United States of America. Higher order thinking skills demand of the student's own analytic and imaginative powers; they involve understanding judgment, abstraction, temporary suspension of belief, sophisticated concepts of causality.

The experience of veteran teachers and the evidence from recent research both argue that these intellectual activities are most effectively developed by a dialectical process, by testing and reacting, by conversation. What counts is the quality of that conversation, the standard set by the adults as well as by the students. The questions the teachers ask by themselves set a standard; the willingness of all in the conversation respectfully to challenge incomplete or shoddy thinking creates a culture that endorses constructive reflection.

The real world demands collaboration, the collective solving of problems. The cliches are familiar: Two minds are better than one. Many hands make light work. Learning to get along, to function effectively in a group, is essential. Evidence and experience also strongly suggest that an individual's personal learning is enhanced by collaborative effort. The act of sharing ideas, of having to put forward one's own views clearly to others, of finding defensible compromises and conclusions, is in itself educative.

Collaborative learning serves other, humbler functions. It is difficult to hide one's slothfulness if one is part of a group that is expected to produce collective work. The congeniality of a group sparks one's energy (and also can, of course, be a distraction).

One learns how other people, peers as well as teachers, see matters, a kind of perspective not easily achieved when the only authority is the teacher's voice and the textbook. And conversation requires sustained, challenging communication, possible only when there is the expectation of collective inquiry at a high standard.

Such a conversation requires a subject: There has to be something to talk about, a situation that gives meaning to the particular focus of study. It is not enough to ponder the intentions of Falstaff; the student should see the character in the context of the entire play and in light of her own sense of the human condition. If matters are placed in context, she will gain a quicker and richer grasp of their meaning than if they are presented as independent blocks in the construction of a building. Better to see the possibility of the whole, even darkly, before starting with the specifics. If a kid sees how the German language flows in an overall sense, he can understand better the placement of verbs in a sentence and readily appreciate their effect.

These threads of understanding about learning intertwine. Effective conversation demands rich situations and contexts. Conversation requires collaboration, and vice versa. Being known well and having respect paid to her particular interests and concerns is a considerable incentive to a student to make an effort. Having a clear academic destination--what she has to Exhibit in order to demonstrate success--also provides an incentive: She has an idea where she is going that makes the effort of getting there more comprehensible; and if reaching that destination requires the employment of useful habits, she will have the incentive to develop them.

These practices square with common sense. They are followed in other sorts of effective educational efforts, in business, the professions, the military. They arise from a fair body of research. The rub comes with their implications. For the student to have a destination and the means of knowing when he has reached it, the teacher must create a clear view of the nature of that destination and a system to judge whether the student has arrived. These are remarkably unfamiliar tasks. If "using history,'' for example, is a desired destination, what practically does this mean? What sort of exercise would serve to display a student's ability to make sense of the present and future through a knowledge of the past? How can the teacher ascertain that the student is in the habit of using the past? What sort of work is necessary to ready him for the Exhibitions? Few educational administrators or teachers are used to addressing their work this way--planning backward, as it were.

More problems: As the youngsters become better known in those wise schools where teachers have no more than 80 students, their particularities become sharply evident. They do not learn at the same rates at the same time in the same ways. Further, they keep changing: Securely packaging them as this or that sort does not work. Their chronological ages do not help administrators much. The tangle of kids makes an awful bureaucratic mess. What to do? Simplify and loosen up the program; adapt to the students rather than making them adapt to the routines. Give substantial authority to the adults who know the particular students--that is, their teachers. Inevitably this will mean once again setting priorities, because most American high schools are a riot of programs that make schedules and routines so rigid as to preclude sensitive adaptation for particular students. Further, such adaptation takes the time of teachers, even in its planning. The time must be built into teachers' days, a further cost.

Collaboration, conversation: These activities are unsettling, noisy; they are invitations for kids to screw around. Girls, boys, the social game, hormones, the endless distractions of adolescence. Organizing activity for them that is rigorous and at the same time sufficiently engaging to draw them into significant work is difficult, certainly more so than merely positing that "today we'll cover the future tense of the verb tree.'' Further, the 52-minute periods that circumscribe life at Franklin High do not often work for this kind of schooling. Making the kids' wandering talk and their start-andstop collective efforts intellectually coherent is an endless, tortuous process, impossible completely to plan for. How is one to prepare next week's lesson plans? How could a substitute teacher take over on a moment's notice?

It all seems daunting to Horace's committee: So much would have to change.

If the habits of learning to use ideas are the end of schooling, then schools must give students practice in the craft. Serious use of the mind is difficult work, learned by doing, by sustained apprenticeship in the processes of the intellect. It is strange and demanding work for most adolescents. It does not come easily. It is not "given'' to them. At best, it is provoked. The practice of schools is the practice of sensible provocation. To do it well requires many different routines, and different assumptions behind those routines, from what obtain in most high schools at present.

Paralyzed though he often feels, Horace understands that. Getting it right will erase the school board member's complaint of "softness.'' Horace chuckled to himself: The day should come when they chide us for being too hard! <

This sort of teaching is difficult.'' That Margaret admitted this meant much: She seemed such a natural when she ran her classrooms. "We have to ask more questions and give fewer answers. We must coach, must question all the time. We must keep the students at it.''

"As Mortimer Adler has preached.''

"Yes,'' said Margaret, "Adler's Paideia Proposal ideas are sensible, but they push us to new kinds of teaching. Lots of us try to teach that way now, and we often do, but it's difficult to arrange and to sustain. The kids fight us sometimes. They'd prefer not to work.'' The student members of the committee smiled at her.

"Teaching this way will mean we can't cover as much.'' The principal shifted the topic. "All that time on a few academic questions. How will the kids do on the tests?''

"We keep coming back to that. It's simple. Get better tests,'' said Patches, predictably.

"While it appears paradoxical,'' the visitor reported, "many students taught this way--provoked to engage, given time to get on with their own learning, with high expectations for using what they've learned--do better on traditional tests of presumed coverage. They seem to be in the habit of figuring things out.''

"And most of the tests can be conned, drilled for, in effect subverted,'' interrupted the young English teacher. His colleagues knew that he moonlighted on the staff of the Princeton Review, a company that helped high school students prepare for the Scholastic Aptitude Tests and other offerings of the College Board.

"That doesn't address my objection,'' persisted the principal. "Do we cover less?''

Margaret answers: "You will and you won't. If you start early enough getting the students actually to learn on their own and this means the slow work of getting them to apply knowledge and lots of practice you can expect more of them later. You won't have to cover everything from the front of the classroom. They'll get it on their own--if you demand it.''

No one rebutted this argument. Coach added: "Get 'em out as Pop Warner players; that'll give them a big head start when they're older.'' He was referring to the football programs in many communities for middle school boys.

"We need the academic equivalent of Pop Warner.''

"Without it, we won't be able to pull this off. Unless the kids are used to being expected to do the work, we'll spend all their high school years hassling them into new habits.''

"We can't blame everything on what goes before!''

"It's all the parents' fault!'' Laughter, particularly because the remark had been made by one of the parents.

Horace pressed: "So we're agreed, are we? We involve the middle school in this plan?'' The committee seemed stunned. This hadn't been a new idea, but, put so directly, it was startling. Someone finally replied, "We have to.'' There was no dissent.

Vol. 03, Issue 05, Page 1-24

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