About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Reform: To What End?, Part II

This is a continuation of the post from June 28.

Learning-Friendly Environments

For me, the bottom-line question is whether a particular reform will enable or restrict the kind of thing we see happening in Stephanie Terry's classroom. The hermit crab episode is, of course, drawn from a few days spent in just one classroom, but it represents some qualities I've seen again and again in good schools—K–12, urban or rural, affluent or poor. Let me delineate these qualities, and as you read them, ask yourself to what degree the reforms currently being proposed—from national standards to increased data collection to plans to turn around failing schools—would advance or impede their realization. Just as the representation of teaching is diminished in current education policy, so is the representation of learning. I have yet to see in policy initiatives a depiction of classroom life anywhere close to the one I just shared.

  • Safety. The classrooms I visited created a sense of safety. There was physical safety, which for children in some locations is a serious consideration. But there was also safety from insult and diminishment. And there was safety to take risks, to push beyond what you can comfortably do at present—"coaxing our thinking along," as one student put it.
  • Respect. Intimately related to safety is respect, a word I heard frequently during my travels. It means many things and operates on many levels: fair treatment, decency, an absence of intimidation, and beyond the realm of individual civility, a respect for the history, language, and culture of the people represented in the classroom. Respect also has an intellectual dimension. As one principal put it, "It's not just about being polite—even the curriculum has to convey respect. [It] has to be challenging enough that it's respectful."
  • Student responsibility for learning. Even in classrooms that were run in a relatively traditional manner, students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, and became authorities on their own experience and on the work they were doing. Think of Stephanie's students observing closely, recording what they saw, forming hypotheses, and reporting publically on their thinking. These classrooms were places of expectation and responsibility.
  • Intellectual rigor. Teachers took students seriously as intellectual and social beings. Young people had to work hard, think things through, come to terms with one another—and there were times when such effort took students to their limits. "They looked at us in disbelief," said one New York principal, "when we told them they were intellectuals."
  • Ongoing support. It is important to note that teachers realized such assumptions through a range of supports, guides, and structures: from the way they organized curriculum and invited and answered questions, to the means of assistance they and their aides provided (tutoring, conferences, written and oral feedback), to the various ways they encouraged peer support and assistance, to the atmosphere they created in the classroom—which takes us back to considerations of safety and respect.
  • Concern for students' welfare. The students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that these classrooms were salutary places—places that felt good to be in and that honored their best interests. They experienced this concern in various ways—as nurturance, social cohesion, the fostering of competence, recognition of growth, and a feeling of opportunity.

The foregoing characteristics made the rooms I visited feel alive. People were learning things, both cognitive and social; they were doing things, individually and collectively—making contributions, connecting ideas, and generating knowledge. To be sure, not everyone was engaged. And everyone, students and teachers, had bad days. But overall, these classrooms were exciting places to be—places of reflection and challenge, of deliberation and expression, of quiet work and public presentation. People were encouraged to be smart.

How directly do current reforms contribute to promoting such qualities?

The Most Important Question

In an important 18th-century essay on education, journalist Samuel Harrison Smith wrote that the free play of intelligence was central to a democracy and that individual intellectual growth was intimately connected to broad-scale intellectual development, to the "general diffusion of knowledge" across the republic.

As we consider what an altered school structure, increased technology, national standards, or other new reform initiatives might achieve, we should also ask the old, defining question, What is the purpose of education in a democracy? The formation of intellectually safe and respectful spaces, the distribution of authority and responsibility, the maintenance of high expectations and the means to attain them—all this is fundamentally democratic and prepares one for civic life. Teachers should regard students as capable and participatory beings, rich in both individual and social potential. The realization of that vision of the student is what finally should drive school reform in the United States.


  1. I went into teaching 30 years ago because I felt their was a need for an environment in which kids felt valued and loved. Reform efforts, then and now, seem entirely oriented toward creating optimally functioning economic units. I'm afraid that thirty years ago my perception was ahead of the curve. My students and their parents typically suffer from a lack of any kind of social support. A long time teacher in my currents school told me that she recalls a day when mothers used to bring gifts of warm bread fresh from the oven. Today we have hungry kids who have been bused over from day care lining up for an institutional breakfast That we have so many people struggling to survive in a very isolating circumstances seems lost on policy makers.

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