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Struggling to Get the Balance Right


Dear Diane,

I think we took the same message from the NYC pizza event. If I called it an example of out of control bureaucracy it’s because Klein and company seem to acknowledge no limits! Which leads nicely into our discussion of limits!

Yes, I think you are partly right about behavior and authority—and partly wrong. Where you and I so often end up!

Reread those classics by Laura Ingalls Wilder, as well as her autobiographical account of teaching school in the late 1800s. Many of the older kids were completely "out of control," angrily waiting until the planting season began again so they could go back to being grown-ups, not under the thumb of mostly female teachers. While in many parts of the world being able to go to school is a longed-for privilege, it’s hard to convince kids when we require it. Like the starving children of Armenia that my mother used to tell me about, the suffering of others didn’t make me a more avid eater. Especially of overcooked vegetables and icky stuff. (Which I was required to finish to the last morsel.)

I remember a mother coming in to complain to me (when I was a principal) about something bad she thought I had allowed to happen. She noted angrily that when she was a girl in her Catholic school it wouldn't have been tolerated. I reminded her that if her mother had talked to the principal in the manner in which she was talking to me, she would not long have remained in that Catholic school. We allowed for a few minutes of silence, and then continued.

Entitlements, civil rights, labor unions—all have their flip side. Resistance to authority has a long and mostly noble history—and future (I hope). It isn't easy to separate the noble vs. the ignoble.

So, much as I would like to elevate the larger culture, we meanwhile struggle in school to get the balance just right or “righter.” There is nothing in the end that works better than one's own drive to be learned. But I believe it's possible. I believe it because most of the time we did so in many schools I know well. Still it never comes easy, especially when it's built on compulsion. That’s the conundrum.

In some ways the "watered-down" schooling that you decry (and view as a result of progressive education) was a practical answer to the boredom, restlessness, and misbehavior of working- and lower-class kids who became our responsibility once we required them to attend or else. It was “progressive” in that more limited, nonideological sense. Done well, I do think vocational ed is better than trying to cram "the academics" down their throats. Why? Because what’s absorbed is not in any honest sense of the word fair to call “academic” and leads, in fact, to a lot of well-deserved anti-academic contempt.

Can we reexamine the power and nature of "the academics" so that they connect with the curiosity and interest of the young, thus mitigating the need for all this focus on “control”? I think we can, but it will not look like what you call “academic” a lot of the time, Diane.

Many of the commentators on our blog think I’m being romantic on this point, too. John fears trying to mix the culture of the “street” with “the academy”—whereas I’m prepared to start wherever the learner is. He has, however, a point. I agree with him that the kids must see us as unequivocally “on their side”—prepared to protect as well as be tough on them. Dickey thinks we need programs that “shape” student behavior, the kind we use, he says, with dogs and cats to reward them for proper behavior. It’s even possible that in settings in which both parties to the behavior-shaping trust each other’s intentions such techniques pay off. I’m dubious. But that’s not our schools. It might also "pay off" if such means weren't too often incompatible with our ends—like developing life-long learners, adults resistant to nonsense, people with a sense of good craftsmanship and irrisistably drawn to seeing the other side of things. And above all stuck with such habits even when we're not watching.

Don Berg thinks that if schools were free, but not compulsory we’d need to focus less on managing. Maybe, or maybe we’d just have more cheap labor. Erin suggests that if exams were external, it would be easier for the teacher to be seen as an ally, not a judge and enemy. She has a very good point, which probably you would concur with, Diane. I think the Central Park East Secondary School alternative—which involves both in and out-of-school judges—is best of all. It allowed me to remind my advisees that pleasing me was not the goal. Their work had to meet agreed-upon standards as interpreted by a wider range of judges. It gave me a foot in both camps—advocate and judge. (Go directly to the Comments for a fairer and fuller view of our readers.)

I urge you, Diane, to sometime take a look at Fred Wiseman’s film, "High School II." Not for particular answers, but for the sense of what a school that is “on their side” feels like. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s why faculty longevity is critical to good schooling. Yes, powerless automated teachers, and ABA behavior systems, make a kind of sense if genuine relationships of authority are not possible. But under such circumstances the “thee, thou and ‘it’” triangle that David Hawkins described isn’t possible either. I’m not ready to lower my expectations for the kids who need it most, while the ones that need it least benefit from schools that offer the real thing.

The students we taught at CPESS and Mission Hill, the ones society claims to be so worried about, need more of what the rich and powerful offer their children, not one whit less.



Debbie - your last statement reminds me of what Jim Cummins said in a talk at a California Teachers of Other Languages (CATESOL) conference , "poor kids get behaviorism and rich kids get social construction-ism."

Even when they all have many computers, the low SES students are told by the computer what to do and the "rich and powerful" learn to tell the computer what to do. Until the mindset of belief in a reductionist standards based curriculum change,
"those students" will always be sent back to learn how to read rather than how to understand what they read. NCLB leads to this two tier system and I fear it is wasting several generations of students!

John, we keep getting deeper into "poor kids get behaviorism and rich kids get social construction-ism." Part of the problem is that this site is one of the few places where we can honestly discuss how to create the safety required for a respectful learning culture.

Deb, I largely agree except I would hardly call my high school "the academy." I am jealous, however, of the buffer that higher education enjoys. Real learning does not flourish in a state of fear. I agree that we should meet kids where they are. But teens like adults are different in different environments. The most challenging of the students also demostrate some of the most decent and caring qualities. But when adults don't take control, teens can produce a Lord of the Flies environment.

And the same applies to adults. If you agree that urban schools suffer because too many kids are being raised by too few adults, we need to recruit more adults of all types into our schools. I advise my students who go to community college to take night courses where they will have classmates from all occupations from all over. If every high school class had a balance of teens and adult learners, how would that change the school culture?

But the hard truth remains a hard truth. Safe and orderly schools are a nonnegotiable prerequisite of improving schools. I don't know the answer, but I don't think anyone does. We need an open discussion like this. And again, Obama may lead the way. We were on spring break so almost none of my students heard about the Jeremia Wright incident or Obama's speech. But now they are having great discussions on it. Perhaps that leads to another balance. From the mouths of teens could come the wisdom that we adults need to talk about the issues that we're mostly afraid to touch.

I do not believe that a rigorous liberal arts curriculum has to equal "cramming" the academics down anyone's throat. Nor does vocational training have to exclude a liberal arts education.

Every day I see how discipline, combined with challenging curriculum, can awaken a student's interest in subject matter by directing his or her mental energies. As soon as the students focus, they get interested--in the legislative process, philosophical ideas on time, Hamlet, or whatever the topic might be. As long as they're allowed to distract and be distracted, they're bored, aggressively bored, and determined to bring the others on board with them.

This leads me to think that many kids would love a classical curriculum if they settled down enough for it. There wouldn't be any forcing. They would have room in their minds for the information and ideas, and there would be far more genuine collaboration than we see in the "workshop model." This isn't flimsy dreaming--this is based on daily experience.

How to teach focus and prevent distraction? Some degree of distraction is not bad--it may in fact be focus, but on something other than what's demanded at the moment (I am both intensely focused and an inveterate daydreamer, so I see both sides). The willingness to focus on something, not because you feel the immediate urge, but because you trust that it will be good for you--that's almost a religious practice. The big boys in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boys had none of that trust, and why not? Perhaps the curriculum was to blame, but it's equally possible that they were used to having their way.

So a teacher's task is twofold: to provide excellent lessons and to demand that the kids pay attention during them. The school should support both endeavors full force. Perhaps a school needs a spiritual (not specifically religious) element in order to do this: a sense that we benefit when we lay aside our immediate desires now and then. That's not to say we ignore the kids' backgrounds and needs--but rather that we give them reprieve from the "me, me, me."


Maybe you could comment on how this entry relates to Colbert I. King's piece in Saturday's Washington Post entitled "The Battlefield Called Wilson High," or today's Washington Post editorial, "Drop Out or Drop Off."

It is difficult for a student to unlearn something that they've learnt. So we must always teach them right from the start.

EPN: Of course they starting learning at birth, so keep in mind they develop "wrong" theories about almost everything, in the most powerful ways! Fortunately a lot of what we teach deliberately doesn't stick. Or maybe unfortunately too. Learning and unlearning, I suspect, are done the same way.

Re "discipline" issues. Kim--earlier comment-- we couldn't disagree more, but that's what fascinates me. And every student we teach is as full of set ideas as you and I are. And most of the time we can listen, even respectfully, and be largely unaffected. This form of human resistance to being "taught" is one of the important and valuable human traits, but it is certainly frustrating to the teacherly side of us.

At it's best that's what "constructivism" means to me, and readers who note its particular bsence from schools for the poor are accurate. That's a fact based on the assumption--as best as I can understand it-- that nothing they learned out of school has value and thus we need to teach them "as if" they were a blank slate. But since they aren't, it's a counter-productive disrespect of what they are actually "constructing". It leaves them no opportunity to get our help in the reconstruction process that goes on all the time.

Best, Deb

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