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A Good Word or Two About Schools


Dear Deborah,

I acknowledge that I have been influenced in my thinking by my frequent exchanges with you. A friend warned me the other day that I have been giving aid and comfort to the anti-testing crowd, which he said was a terrible thing. I think he got it wrong. I am not (nor have I ever been) “anti-testing,” but I am surely more alert to the misuses and abuses of testing. To the extent that I have been sensitized to these things by you, then I thank you.

However, I am not prepared to follow you to the next step, which is to question why we “incarcerate” kids in schools at all. In my research, I have occasionally come across progressivist thinkers who asked the questions you now raise, who dream of a day when work, play, and learning all wondrously merge, and “education” takes place in the fields and the activities of daily life. I have never succumbed to the lure of abolishing institutions, especially the institutions of schooling that we have. I continue to hope that we can make them better places for learning—and you have done a good bit in your lifetime to advance that aspiration.

The “down with schools” and “liberate the child” from the classroom types have never persuaded me that children will in any way be better off if they grow up in fields and factories, if they are left to find their way without adult supervision, if they are left to the tender mercies of employers, the media, and even (in some cases) their families.

And still I fear the mantle of conformity that seems to have descended on American childhood. Last week, I wrote about the eccentric and highly accomplished Claiborne Pell, and one of our most brilliant readers, Diana Senechal, wrote to ask what happens to eccentric children today. I responded that they are probably put on Ritalin or assigned to special education. How sad! I think of my own grandchildren, whose lives are closely monitored, and compare them with my childhood, when I was free to roam far and wide on my bicycle after school, so long as I was home in time for dinner.

Is it that we live in a more dangerous time? I don’t know. But I don’t think that the obvious answer is to “de-school” children. I don’t think you will pull me along with you on that journey.

As you well know, I have done my share of complaining about the business types—and the phonies who think they are thinking like business types (when in fact they are clueless about teaching and learning and therefore lean on incentives, data, and an attitude of toughness to mask their ignorance of curriculum and instruction). Nonetheless, I share their expressed concern about improving the achievement and knowledge of our nation’s children. As a nation, I do believe we will be helped or harmed in the future by the way we educate our children today.

Where I part company with today’s so-called reformers is that they think that test scores alone are adequate measures of “achievement.” I, however, do not. I hope for the day when schools are expected to teach not only reading and math but history, geography, science, the arts, literature, civics, and a foreign language, and to attend to students’ health and personal development. To me, such a rounded approach to education seems self-evident. It is what the “best and wisest” among us want for our own children. I wonder why our society is so willing to listen to the small-minded “reformers” who are willing to inflict on other people’s children what they would never tolerate for their own?



Diane, Deborah, and all,

In this post, we are seeing a fair take on things.
I wonder if we cannot work to better extend the thinking and to envision what the best future is?

How can we:
- Assure that the kids are coming before the wants and sloth of some of our worst hidebound organizations?
- While not putting undo restraints on those (majority) organizations who are at least trying their best?
- Check that all 4th graders can read Green Eggs and Ham?
- While making sure that 4th graders who can read much, much more are not held back, or waste time on 3rd grade drills?
- Release good teachers from some of the worst rules?
- While making sure someone is watching over the teachers of lesser standards?
- Free parents to seek specialized types of education for their children?
- While assuring again that the students can read well and are exposed to some of the common cultural items that make us Americans, that remind us of how we got this far?
- Free educators to experiment extensively?
- While making sure that no child is lost to 12 years of unproductive experimentation?
- And that not too many children lose some basic skills while trying out some specific curriculum?


Your post is right on.

Teaching is part art and part science...very messy. Some aspects are universal, some are not. What works in a school in Brooklyn may not work at a school in Idaho.

It is akin to the "people skills" in the business world. It is difficult to create a metric to measure, but it is necessary. It does not translate well to a spreadsheet. In fact, it takes walking around and interacting on a regular basis.


Just some points of contention.

1) You do not want to abolish institutions but then conclude: “I wonder why our society is so willing to listen to the small-minded “reformers” who are willing to inflict on other people’s children what they would never tolerate for their own?” I assume that means you want to put in their place reformers that fit your designs, but what is the chance of that happening? and if it does, that it lasts more than a political cycle? or that it does not get hijacked mid-implementation? Why not just get rid of the system that requires public policy all together? These small minded reforming control freaks are attracted to power like mosquitoes to a bug light. Deny them state power and you create more opportunity for justice.

2) It is true that compulsory schooling is akin to incarcerating children. But remember that it is abrogating parental rights too. The understandable irony is that many parents and children desire this incarceration (Diana associated this desire with hope). That is the essence of social-democracy: giving people the chance to loot others for selfish gains.

3) It is a false dichotomy between public schools and the factory/fields for children. Given that the schooling protection racket costs too much, provides lower quality service than otherwise would be, promotes the power structure’s ideology, and causes lower economic growth, the immense savings liberated upon this leviathan’s dissolution could cover innovative ways of educating children. Parents will overwhelmingly demand it.

4) You wrongly call them ‘our nation’s children’. There is a difference between state and nation. Examples of this confusion can be seen the world over; just look at the difference between any political vs. ethnic map. One example of this disconnect is how the state of Israel cuts off Palestinians in Gaza from the rest of the world like the Nazi’s did the Warsaw Ghetto in WWII Poland. Membership in a nation should be voluntary- not imposed. To avoid any confusion it should be made clear that children are their parent’s children- not the state’s, not the nation’s, not the schools’.

The Sizers wrote something very much like "Education is the worthy residue that remains after the lessons have been forgotten."

And yet, we continue to teach lessons that we know will be forgotten -- in days or week, certainly in a year -- without thinking about that worthy residue.

We test the lessons, without regard to the residue or to degree to which the lessons will forgotten.

I think that it is right to question why we keep kids in school. Not because we shouldn't keep them in school, but because we need to make sure that it is worth their time. It is fine and dandy to say that we want to teach "reading and math [and] history, geography, science, the arts, literature, civics, and a foreign language, and to attend to students’ health and personal development," but we've long done that in a way that didn't usually leave a residue worth the students' thousands of hours spend in school.


Thank you for bringing up the question of "incarceration," individuality, and conformity in schools. Like you, I refuse to believe that school is incarceration, yet I am concerned about the push toward certain kinds of conformity.

William Torrey Harris points to the paradox of individuality in education: by giving children similar knowledge and skills, we enable them to think on their own and to develop as individuals. In his 1902 essay "How the School Strengthens the Individuality of the Pupils," he writes, "The good school will make its pupils alike in obedience to discipline and as to the possession of a knowledge of mathematics, geography, history, language, literature, etc., but this means that it will make its children alike in possessing the power of developing and expressing their individuality."

He illustrates this idea through the examples of quiet study and recitation. In the latter, "All of the pupils concentrate their attention on the statements of the pupil who is reciting and on the cross-questioning of the teacher. It is a dialectic which calls for alertness and versatility of mind in the pupils who take part in it."

Many students today would be too restless to concentrate and learn from such dialogue; if they themselves are not involved, they quickly tune out or start playing around. Our schools accommodate this through groupwork and carefully organized activities. It is common wisdom that a child must never be left without something to do.

But what does it mean to have something to do? Aren't you doing something when you listen to a dialogue? What is the cost of not teaching students to listen and to tackle problems mentally?

The cost, I believe, is an increased level of monitoring. Because the students are so restless, each activity is timed, limited, and supervised. Yet the students do not achieve true quiet through this. The teachers with the best "classroom management" keep their own class under control, but the children do not learn self-containment. Put them with an unfamiliar teacher, or in the cafeteria, and many of them break into shouting and fighting. We then respond by structuring even more of their activity.

Structure in itself is essential to education; students do need to know what they will be doing on a given day. But with all these structures, objectives, expectations, consequences, and activities, we have neglected to teach children to hold themselves still, to take time to think and wrestle with a problem.

That sort of thinking--with a strong foundation in subject matter--fosters individuality. The lack of such thinking results in conformity: superficial discussions, rushed conclusions, an appearance of good behavior (which breaks down in other contexts), and a continual emphasis on "checklist" activities.

I don't blame children for their restlessness. They have very little opportunity to run around, and their life after school is likewise monitored or restricted, as you pointed out. We have set up a vicious cycle: the more we monitor them, the more they depend on such monitoring while remaining restless. Not all are so restless, of course, but the general restlessness often dominates the schools.

How can we teach children to quiet themselves and to think carefully and deeply about the problem at hand?

Diana Senechal


Taking Diana S's line of thinking in a related direction, what happens to eccentric teachers today, those that think outside the box but essentially get the job done and are good with kids?

Paul Hoss

Diane S. writes,

"How can we teach children to quiet themselves and to think carefully and deeply about the problem at hand?"

Going back to "giving aid and comfort to the opponents of testing", its good to remember that many schools still have not mastered the very basics of Community where learning of any kind takes precedent over the whims of bad manners, and of much worse.

Last night John Merrow continued his look at DC and NOLA Recovery districts. The topic was keeping some sort of control over the students of a middle school. Finding Good Principals Proves Critical to D.C. Schools Reform. (At this writing, the audio and transcript are up, but not yet the video).

This is what the testing is about: giving educational leaders the leverage to counter such situations.

And in more developed schools,...
Personally, having children "think quietly and deeply" is not a big concern of mine. What I would like to see them do is master as many tools and concepts as possible during the short, short time they are under the tutelage of a trained instructor.

"Thinking quietly and deeply" is something of use in later grades as we begin to practice choosing which tools and content to apply. And there, even, but in small doses.

If you want to be able to think upon the wide world, you must really be able to have some idea how it works. I don't know how to think about the current financial crisis without bringing in my experience with mathematicians voicing six-significant figure confidence measures, and then immediately indicating that their starting data was incomplete in the area of the 3rd significant figure.

And to have that experience, one must have been through a good bit of statistics, which requires mastery of algebra.

Similarly, to think upon what to do about mortgages and banks, one needs to have reviewed the basics of capital asset pricing, and how banks set interest rates and assess risk. You don't have to know all the details, but if one hasn't a clue how its done, one bit of black magic will seem better than the last bit of black magic, without true thought on the topic.

Squeezing in all those tools and facts (China has 3x as many people; India left a socialist, nationalized economy in 1991; We've been through plenty of panics, bubbles, and recessions; Volker's heavy handed interest rate hikes cured stagflation; FDR tried public works projects which did little to fix unemployment) takes much time.

True, each individual may remember only a fraction of what is learned. Yet some may remember that they learned something, and remember where to find the details. Together, a group or community may remember more than as individuals we give ourselves credit.

The alternative--spending school time thinking as yet un-deep thoughts - misses golden opportunities.

We then, when confronted with large, shared problems such as a mortgage-backed securities collapse, are reduced to following those who talk in out ear loudest and last.


"Thinking quietly and deeply" is relative. It helps, for instance, with mental arithmetic, recognition of dangling modifiers, or comprehension of a story that the teacher reads aloud.

I am referring to the ability to listen and take in information, texts, and ideas for a stretch of time--a shorter stretch for younger children, and a longer stretch for older.

I remember finding patterns in the multiplication table as a young child. I found them because I spent time with the table on my own. Similarly, in whole-class discussions, where I was not required to participate out loud, I could ponder a problem for as long as I liked. This is not possible when everyone is "accountable" for group participation.

We have lost contemplation to such a degree that even college students have little tolerance for lectures. They are demanding something of a "workshop model," which limits the depth or complexity of the instruction. See Monday's NYT article about the changes in the format of physics classes at M.I.T. and around the country.

The article presents these changes in a positive light, and they likely have a positive side. I don't say lectures are always great or workshops shallow. But if students lose the ability and desire to take in lectures, we have lost much. If they must have "hands-on," "active," and "collaborative" instruction, then perhaps they don't learn to think about the material on their own. How this affects eccentricity, I can only imagine.

Diana Senechal

I have written before about the problems I perceive with what I call the "teacher as entertainment committee" mentality. In my opinion, a piece of this may be the all-things-to-all-people expectation some of us (the majority?) have placed on a predominately female occupation (note I did not say profession, because professionals are hopefully respected in their particular areas of expertise).

Learning is many things, not exclusively exhilaratingly engaging. If it were, perhaps many more would attain excellence. My boundaries are too good to buy the argument that teachers must engage students 100% of the time or we have failed. If I bought this, I would have burned out long ago. Sadly, many do, contributing to high rates of teacher attrition.

Research on burn out across professions has revealed that those who are conscientious and dedicated are often the very ones who become depleted. In contemplating how "highly qualified" is defined, we need to clearly define the teaching role and behavioral expectations. Perhaps monitoring lunches and buses and buildings is not the highest and best use of teacher time. Perhaps students would be more engaged if teachers were not so accessible...


While not wanting to challenge your more general point on attention span and simple willingness on the part of students to work hard, I think that your poke at what MIT is doing in physics teaching is misplaced.

The remarkable changes in physics teaching and learning trace their origins back to a "Force Concept Inventory" (FCI) that was used about 20 years ago to assess how much physics undergrads were learning. This assessment stunned physics professors nationwide. They had taught these concepts, why hadn't the students learned them?

Basically, intro physics courses are designed to take students with a "pre-Newtonian" view of the world and teach them that the world works (at least in an everyday sense) in Newtonian ways. For example, common intuition suggests that a ball that is ten-times heavier will fall much faster than the lighter ball. Newton's equations teach us why this is false.

This is why the professors were so perplexed. The students "knew" all the equations--they had passed the tests. Why were they giving incorrect answers on the FCI? Turns out that while the students did know the correct equations to use, they had not connected them to their underlying conceptual understanding of the world they way their professors had. This insight, along with ongoing research into the differences in how experts and novices approach and solve problems in a specific domain, led to a push for physics education research to see if there was a better way to teach these concepts. Was there a way to short circuit the arduous process of turning a physics novice (student) into one with more expert problem solving ability (the professor)?

Turns out that there are better ways to teach! (Surprised?) I dare say that there is a stronger research base for what is happening in undergraduate physics teaching today than for any other domain of undergraduate (or graduate) teaching.

I have met a number of physicists who tell me, with pride, that they have become physics education researchers. The radical nature of this transformation is illustrated by a joke that Carl Weiman (mentioned in the NYT article) sometimes tells-- that while it was possible for him to do his Nobel-prize winning physics research in the USA, when he wanted to devote most of his efforts to physics education research he was forced to move to Canada!

There are some other disciplines that are slowing beginning to adopt this research-based approach. Medicine might be the next to do so in a big way. But do not fear! There will be plenty of lectures left for students to struggle to remain awake through!


I've been thinking for quite a while about your comments. I remember when I first started teaching in the Bronx being shocked that middle school students stayed together all day and had to walk through the hallways in boy girl lines. In middle school, I had four minutes between each class to go to my locker and navigate a sprawled out building with various wings. Students who arrived late received consequences. Each student was responsible for their own punctuality and supplies. In urban education, so much is about control. Students are not taught to be independent and manage their own time. At my last school most teachers kept the students writing and reading notebooks in the classroom (in bins) so the students wouldn't lose or forget them. Today, students are given so little control over their own schooling. It is a sad reality that so much is timed and controlled for urban students. Everything is neatly monitored.

I hadn't really considered before the reasons these students feel so restless. I am sure I would feel the same way in their position.

Govt. Bureaucrat,

Can you point me to any research (regarding the workshop model of physics instruction) that has been peer-reviewed? I found some "Findings of the Modeling Workshop Project" (http://modeling.asu.edu/R&E/Research.html) written by professors directly involved in the project. They were clearly biased in favor of a workshop model in physics instruction; they did not even pose, let alone answer, the questions that a third party might ask.

The program may well have benefits. That doesn't exempt it from questioning! Here's a troubling passage from the NYT article:

One of the newer professors, Gabriella Sciolla, who arrived in 2003, was teaching a TEAL class on circuits recently. She gauged the level of understanding in the room by throwing out a series of multiple-choice questions. The students "voted" with their wireless "personal response clickers" — the clickers are essential to TEAL — which transmitted the answers to a computer monitored by the professor and her assistants.

What about those concepts that take a while to absorb--and should? How many clicks will they get in real-time? Or are the new questions geared toward instant response?


Thank you for your interesting observations. When teaching middle school, I was told that I couldn't give my students a reading assignment alone. They had to do reading and writing in every subject every night. Yet I couldn't assign much, because they had homework in all the other subjects. The recommended amount of homework per subject was 10-15 minutes' worth. Just how much reading and writing can be done in that amount of time?

I broke the rules, of course—and assigned reading one day, writing another, so that I could make the assignments more substantial. Yet invariably students—with a few exceptions—did not regard a reading assignment as a “real” assignment.

Why do we not expect students to read and think about a poem, chapter, essay, or story for homework? Why is that too much to ask?

Diana Senechal

As usual, I agree with everything you say. The testing craze is nuts! Teachers here start in September teaching to the test and don't stop. I always say, "When we were in College, we didn't study for 5 months for a test, we study one or two weeks!" Seriously, I think if we used great programs like I do, (Sing, Spell, Read & Write), to teach our kids to read, they could score well on ANY test! Let's teach our kids to read and then teach them EVERYTHING else under the sun! It just seems that most administrators become SO focused on one thing that they lose sight of everything else.
You're the best Diane and I thank God for your voice of reason especially here in New York City!

Diana S., thanks so much for the M.I.T. reference. See my comments on Deb's next post.

As said there, I personally traded the CMU Physics 102 lecture for a self-paced version. The M.I.T. model is a happy middle ground, augmented by modern computer graphics technology. So cool!

Gov't's stories reinforce my personal experiences. You would not believe how many people with Masters in Electrical Engineering can't relate that to things like the voltage of two batteries end to end, or the workings of a home breaker panel.

Skipping the theory, as my fellow ee friend begs, is hardly the answer either. What we need is much more efficient teaching!

Some M.I.T. students, among others, commented on the article (http://community.nytimes.com/article/comments/2009/01/13/us/13physics.html). These thougtful voices should not be ignored. Here is a quote from comment #33 by Y.M., worth reading in full:

"The clickers, which have receivers positioned around the room on the ceiling, distract students from the physics concepts themselves. Many students often randomly click in an answer, soon turning the class into some kind of warped game show where you just have to get an answer, any answer, put into a little box on the ceiling and see your results appear on a screen like magic. More often than not, the students are not even prepared to answer the posed question. Some students give up trying to answer the question using their incomplete knowledge, and instead "race" with their classmates to see who can click first."

The NYT article mentions that M.I.T. students initially petitioned against the program. It does not explain why, nor does it quote any of the petitioners. Also, the article states: "Younger professors tend to be more enthusiastic about TEAL than veterans who have been perfecting their lectures for decades." We must not assume, as the article implies, that these veteran professors are simply attached to their lectures. They may well have other objections and concerns.

Diana Senechal

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