Breaking My Classroom Habit

The classroom habit is a set of assumptions about what is most elemental, thus also most elementary, to education.

The following are excerpts from my book Attitude First: A Leadership Strategy For Educational Success (Trafford, 2004) talking about three of the breakthroughs that have shaped my thinking about education.

I have shifted the focus of my work towards unpacking the concept of the hidden curriculum with reference to primary human needs.

The insights I describe below are still valid but my more recent ways of describing them are more grounded in the findings of the cognitive sciences.

Part 1 of 2

I grew up in the public school system, so did most Americans.

Then, when I discovered I had a talent for working with children and a passion for working with elementary-age kids, I rejected the classroom approach to education that I grew up with.

Most Americans, when they become parents or teachers, don’t.

Despite this rejection, I eventually realized that since classroom-based schooling continues to serve the majority of the American people, I could not in good conscience simply reject it entirely.

Thus, I found myself on the horns of a dilemma; if I don’t believe that approach is correct, how do I honor the teachers who remain committed to it?

I have wrestled with this dilemma for years, and I believe I finally have a reasonable answer.

Honoring the Participants in the Classroom Drama

My part in the drama of this wrestling match has been defined by a series of three crucial breakthroughs that have changed my understanding of the problem.

My first major breakthrough came when I realized that the people in schools are not the problem.

Therefore, I could honor the participants in the classroom drama, because I know that whatever tragedies occur are generally a result of the set and/or script, not the students, teachers, administrators, or any other actors in the play.

Whatever may be wrong with schools, it doesn’t help to put down the students, teachers, administrators, or anyone else, for being personally involved in the system.

This first breakthrough meant that I was immediately challenged to clearly articulate exactly what does not work.

I have read a lot of criticism of schools and classrooms, and found that I generally agree with all of them to some extent, but I was aiming for a particular mark that they all missed.

I eventually re-discovered John Dewey’s books from 1916 and 1938.

Democracy and Education, from 1916, was an amazingly thorough critique of the industrial concept of the classroom.

This seminal work kicked off the progressive school movement, a nationwide effort to create models of non-industrial schools.

Dewey inspired legions of parents and teachers to throw out conventional wisdom and try teaching in the classroom in totally different ways.

Then, in 1938, Dewey threw in the towel in a series of lectures that became the book Experience and Education.

After more than 20 years of well-organized effort, Dewey realized that he had failed to communicate what it was that did work, even though he was extremely clear about what did not work.

He attributed his failure to the lack of a theory of experience.

A theory of experience would enable him to distinguish why the same experience can be educational for one person but not another, or why one person can be receptive to instruction at one time and not another.

I realized that what Dewey overlooked is that the classroom is inherently designed as a place for instructing, not learning.

The classroom as we know it today was designed by and/or for instructors.

The script of this play is written to portray the heroic struggles of instructors overcoming the challenges of recalcitrant or otherwise educationally impoverished students.

The reason Dewey failed is because he was still pursuing the same agenda that created the classroom in the first place.

He assumed that what was industrial was the management and methods used there rather than the idea of the classroom itself.

As Einstein is reputed to have said, “You cannot solve a problem with the same consciousness that created it in the first place.”

Teacher-centric Classrooms

The six key assumptions of teacher-centric classroom consciousness are:

  1. Don’t give students any meaningful control over their own activities.
  2. Ensure that the teacher is made to feel totally responsible for the behavior of the students.
  3. Segregate the students into developmentally homogenous groups (e.g., Kindergarten, 1st grade, 2nd grade, etc.).
  4. Segregate the students from the community.
  5. Subject students to formalized, instructional environments as young as possible (starting in infancy, if you can get them into child-care).
  6. Set the student-to-teacher ratio by non-educational standards (private schools mostly use market acceptance, while public schools mostly use economies of scale; both maximize student density but neither make meaningful reference to the actual needs of students nor the talents of teachers).

Upon acceptance of any school-related job or enrollment in a school the above factors are assumed, even if you personally don’t agree with them.

Even Dewey assumed the classroom itself was necessary.

So now my dilemma was even more acute.

These are not things that can be altered without major revolutionary changes, so how can I possibly help those who are fully vested in this system without alienating them?

First of all, the classroom is not bad in and of itself.

The challenge is to use the classroom in developmentally appropriate ways.

If we understand the developmental challenge of the elementary years (ages 6-12) as one of constructing a social world, then what kind of social world do we expect children to construct within this kind of environment?

How often do we as adults gather in socially isolated, developmentally homogenous groups, give one person (by virtue of their advanced maturity) autocratic authority over our every behavior, and ensure that we don’t have much control over our own activities?

That doesn’t sound like an environment that has much to offer, unless you are being groomed for a monastic or highly institutionalized lifestyle.

It doesn’t sound like a recipe for the kind of healthy social development necessary to handle the freedom and responsibility of living in today’s complex world.

The very core of Dewey’s analysis was his concept of the continuity of experience.

His primary criticism of the industrial classroom was that it broke that continuity by introducing experiences that were inconsistent with how human beings actually experience the world.

As children human beings are not designed to handle large, age-segregated, autocratically managed, academically oriented, physically immobile, and socially isolated groups.

Therefore, because of their developmental immaturity, children aren’t capable of taking advantage of the opportunities available in that kind of environment.

In my estimation, the classroom would be O.K. for children, in small voluntary doses, since most of the qualities of the classroom, individually (not all at once), are in some contexts basically normal in adult society today.

But it is not a desirable place for children to be forced to spend the vast majority of their waking hours, during the critical developmental phase of their life, when they are constructing the foundations of their concepts of social reality.

It is the script that is the problem with this play, not the set and not the players.

We are designed to build concepts of social reality within a relatively simple network of relationships (i.e., a family or tribe) in which each player in the social network has real influence and regular meaningful contact with every other member of the network.

This is how families and tribes are organized.

A democratic society is, essentially, meant to be a scaled up version of that same dynamic.

The classroom is probably an appropriate setting for teaching many teenagers and adults because they are presumably refining their constructions of social reality, not laying the foundations.

Healthy teenagers and adults are capable of understanding, and effectively putting up with, the social limitations of classroom consciousness because healthy teens and adults, unlike children, are capable, to a greater degree, of managing their own attention.

We have inherited a cast of millions of caring and committed teachers and a set with an incredible elementary school infrastructure.

The challenge is to write a new script that portrays the heroism of learning (like the movie October Skies, based on the real-life story of how the son of a coal miner took responsibility for his education and became a rocket scientist.)

2nd Breakthrough

My second major breakthrough came when I realized that identifying classroom consciousness does not meet the standard for saying what does work, it only identifies a matrix of assumptions that do not work when simultaneously applied to children.

In fact, I fully realize that this matrix of assumptions can’t all be rejected at the same time, because then we would probably cease to have a coherent system.

As I contemplated schools, I noticed how much the non-industrial alternative education movement had generally alienated the mainstream school system and also remained a thoroughly marginal segment within the education industry.

Home schooling is clearly the most widespread alternative and it only accounts for, at most, 4 or 5% of the K-12 students in the U.S.

All other alternatives account for maybe 2%, to be generous, and, in my opinion, 7% of the market is not a substantial subversion of the dominant paradigm when that 7% represents a fractious and largely disparate set of groups.

Whatever the alternative and home school groups are doing to increase their market impact isn’t working, or if it is working, it is moving glacially slow.

Most alternative schools that have survived more than five years appear to be doing good things educationally with their students, but they simply aren’t reaching enough of them to be significant in the industry.

So, I’m not going to open yet another alternative school anytime soon, but I hope I can help good alternative schools make a bigger impact.

The second part talks about the third breakthrough and begins to put together the foundations of an alternative way of thinking about education.

Part 2 of 2

A few years ago I was about to make a big transition in my life and called together a group of people for a potluck, where I was going to make a big presentation about my ideas for education.

At that time, I had not yet figured out all the concrete details, therefore my presentation was heavily abstract and too heady for most people.

After the first section of my presentation, detecting that my audience’s interest might be waning, I asked whether they wanted me to launch into the second half, as planned, or eat first.

They jumped at the option to eat.

So, realizing that my presentation was effectively over, I opened the floor to questions before adjourning to the feeding frenzy.

After some clarifying questions about what I presented, one good friend and former boss of mine said, “I can’t say that I understand what you were talking about, but I get that you are enthusiastic and therefore I want to know what it is you really want?

What do you really want to do with all these supposedly great ideas of yours?”

I had to stop and think about this for a bit because it was a fair and direct question for which I did not have a pat answer.

After a little consideration, it came to me like a lightning bolt, I replied, “I want to teach the teachers!”

Now, this woman is not one to mince words, which I greatly appreciate, so she shot back, “But you don’t have any qualifications.”

Of course, she had me dead to rights.

I don’t have any qualifications to teach teachers, if we are talking about the normal classroom.

Therein lies the rub, and the third breakthrough.

It was months or maybe years after she nailed me with the truth before I realized that she was wrong, not because of my qualifications (I still don’t have any of the traditional badges of accomplishment), but because of what she assumed were the parameters of being a teacher.

She was naturally assuming I meant to teach classroom teachers, but I don’t.

I intend to teach true teachers, and a true teacher is any catalyst for the learning process.

I want to empower teaching starting at the level of the learner who needs or wants help to achieve their personal goals, not just at the level of a government-certified manager of imprisoned academic herds.

While there are no badges for being a true teacher, I have over 15 years of experience in educational leadership with both children and adults and have made extraordinary investments of my attention in understanding education.

What we have available now to evolve the system, that Dewey did not, is more than 50 years of psychological research and the development of the cognitive sciences.

Based on synthesizing concepts from research into optimal experience, intrinsic motivation, and happiness (see Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [pronounced Me-high Chick-sent-me-high] and Intrinsic Motivation At Work by Kenneth W. Thomas, for instance), I propose that what works in learning and teaching, and also re-defines education itself, is the development of these six qualities of mind:

  1. Cognitive Order
  2. Cognitive Complexity
  3. Purpose
  4. Optimism
  5. Agency
  6. Cooperation

Improvement at the three key levels of schooling, from this new understanding of education, means learners must be supported to pursue full engagement.

Teachers can use the New 3R’s to support learners, and principals should consider convening Thrival Councils to facilitate a community-wide dialogue for aligning the diverse stakeholders within their schools.

Full Engagement means having a strategy for investing attention, a balanced approach to long-term spending, and recovery of physical energy, emotional connection, mental focus, and spiritual alignment.

(I recommend Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz’s book, The Power of Full Engagement, as an introduction to managing your attention.)

The New 3R’s—respect, responsibility, and resourcefulness—are each composed of a pair of the qualities of mind that define education; therefore, appropriate practice of these three virtues inherently leads to an educational outcome.

Respect is complex cooperation, responsibility is purposeful optimism, and resourcefulness is ordered agency.

Thrival Councils are a method of convening community conversations to explore the issues of achieving holographic thrival.

One of the remarkable properties of a hologram is that even when it is broken into pieces, each piece still contains the whole picture.

Holographic thrival can be defined as the process of supporting agents to become fully engaged, supporting catalysts in practicing the New 3R’s and integrating the whole, such that the organization effectively facilitates all its stakeholders to thrive.

A principal is responsible for ensuring that the school community is supported in order to create the kind of relationships in which both the student’s and teacher’s goals are honored in ways that take into account the long-term viability of the whole community.

There are three crucial components to any system of social consciousness, including an educational system: the agents, the catalysts, and the catalyst supports, a.k.a. the learners/students, the teachers, and the schools.

The proper relationships between these components will result in a healthy and vital education system, whereas improper relationships between these components will result in an unhealthy and stagnant educational system.

Conventional wisdom has it that our system is unhealthy and has stagnated, but it also says that the problems are with the components of the system, not the relationships between those components.

That’s like saying that either the car or the gas must be flawed if my car fails to go.

And that would normally be true, except if the car has just been built and the gas is still in the gas can and not in my car’s gas tank.

Even if every one of the components is perfect, the car will not work in the context of this set of relationships.

Once I realized what the components of the system were, and the particular relationships between those components, then it became clear what was needed to improve the health of the system.

It’s not that better teachers, better schools, or even better students are needed, but appropriate relationships between all three.

The components of our educational system are not in functional relationships with each other.

It is time we worked on the relationships between the parts of the system.

In a play, it is neither the set nor the cast that creates the relationships, it is the script.

The cast is responsible for making those relationships believable, but they don’t create them.

The set is probably the least important part of the play, since the best plays can be performed effectively without sets, but a poor set can distract and detract from otherwise good performances.

Currently, we have a good cast and the potential for a great set, but the script is outdated and inadequate.

It’s time to write a new script for our school play.

The classroom habit is one that needs to be reined in, rather than broken completely.

Classrooms are valueable ways of organizing learning when the classroom students have made an active choice to utilize the classroom as the best tool for the job.

The key to classroom success is the student's decision that the classroom is the best way to accomplish their goals.

The student's decision provides the foundation for having the right motivation to constructively forgo some of their autonomy to the authority of the teacher.

Over the years since I wrote the book, Attitude First, my fundamental insights have not changed, though I have developed different ways of expressing them.