If I Ruled the School

The musical “Pippin” contains a song called, “If I Ruled the World.” I’m not crazy about the song, but I like the concept.  Thinking about utopian ideals is fun and valuable even if you don’t have the wherewithal to rule anything.

I think about the perfect school. A small part of my musing comes from chafing against institutions whose aims I can’t entirely support, but a much larger part is thinking that, after more than 25 years teaching, I know something about what education is and how it should work.

In The End of Education, Neil Postman wrote that most schools get caught up in physical and practical questions about how to run things—how to integrate technology in the classroom, how to create a schedule that rotates classes or allows for a longer lunch, how to improve faculty to student ratios (usually without hiring teachers).  They never get around to the metaphysical question of what students and teachers are doing there.

My perfect school starts with a metaphysical premise: education is impractical.  Anyone expecting to be specifically prepared for work life or hoping to gather some particular body of knowledge had better go elsewhere.  Schooling wastes all sorts of resources and can’t turn a profit (or even break even) because education is a fundamentally unreliable transaction.  Seek effective economies of scale and control everything a school offers and still so much rests on the students and whether they understand and absorb what you are serving.  Inputs and outcomes rarely match—sometimes the most inefficient and expensive way is nonetheless the best way.  Sometimes tremendous expense yields a result that might occur much more simply and cheaply.

And there’s no universal answer, no single magic that works on every student.  You have to keep the wand waving broadly and hope that somewhere someone feels charmed.

Which suggests to me that school should focus on training, mental exercise to develop, discipline, and generally groom brains.  While addressing future jobs seems impossible, we can predict students will need to use their minds resourcefully.

I know people hate warm and fuzzy pronouncements like these because they don’t translate into bricks, dollars, or payrolls.  They don’t answer how many desks are needed or how the school day times out.  They don’t assure every student a reliable product.

Yet my thinking does lead to some practical possibilities for my perfect high school:

  1. Scrap the subjects system: Right now nearly every high school has classes in English, Languages, Math, Science, Arts, and History, but some of the most dramatic and valuable learning occurs between the classes when students learn to apply the thinking skills they use in one subject to another.  We could offer classes with two concentrations—math and science, for instance, or art and writing.
  2. Cover less and uncover more: Why not have four required classes in high school instead of five or six?  As each could be a combination of two traditional subjects, we could still expect students to cover all the traditional subjects while minimizing the plate-spinning most high school students engage in now
  3. Teach students to speak and think in languages earlier: Youthful brains soak up syntax and vocabulary unconsciously, and if students learn language earlier, they might take a literature class in their second language instead of English.  If you wait until high school, they will have to muscle through, requiring grammar and drills to take in what they might have done more enjoyably and gently earlier.
  4. No grades: Grades encourage extrinsic motivation and academic bulimia inconsistent with learning. While grades allow schools to assess students in a nearly industrial way, marks often discourage enthusiasm.  The end and not the means can come to matter most.  As impractical and unwieldy as it may be, students deserve qualitative assessment. A student who is trying hard benefits much more from a conversation than an “C.”
  5. Look for teachers who are good at teaching: Combining subjects would require more flexible teachers, people more notable for their instruction than their knowledge.  Obviously, instructors must know their area well to answer the questions students ask, but they should also model learning by grappling with the same “in-betweenness” students will face.
  6. Add choices: Students might perform better if they could navigate by their talents and interests instead of by a chart of requirements.  We should reward students for pursuing their passions, not for their capacity to excel at tasks that mean little or nothing to them. The exposure we wish for students should be a wide range of mental activity: expressing, experimenting, decoding, figuring, explaining, solving, and other broadly applicable abilities. If every class addressed vital mental competencies, the subject would matter less.
  7. Make every class a laboratory: We often give students a thousand little pieces to assemble on their own time.  Instead, we might greet them with a task that requires them to identify, develop, and apply knowledge necessary to achieve that task.  Have a class stage a scene from Shakespeare or write an analysis of a recent event without any parameters at all.
  8. Less homework: Students don’t need more to do.  Brain research indicates that a good night’s sleep does more for education than an additional hour of drudgery.  While some homework may be a necessary evil, learning occurs in quiet moments of reflection too.  Students need time to mull over what they’ve encountered.  Drilling may be necessary and can’t always happen during class, but any homework should focus on relevance and, whenever possible, thinking comprehensively.
  9. Attend to surroundings: Learning can occur anywhere, but a warm and comfortable setting assures students that the school cares.  The corporate school communicates something else—that what’s needed is simply a place to hold classes rather than a place to enjoy community and the common purpose of learning.
  10. Explain everything: Many students feel acted upon, and resentment arises from any obligation, but some student diffidence comes from poorly communicated objectives and rules that, without justification, seem arbitrary.  Whenever and however possible and within limits, students ought to participate meaningfully in running the school.  Schools exist for them after all, and not the other way around.

If this blog had more readers, I might worry about attacks on my plans as unrealistic, vague, or just plain loony.  In case my proposal upsets anyone, however, I’ll put up one preliminary defense.  When school starts tomorrow, I will reenter my classroom enthusiastically and do my best to take advantage of all that’s good in our current system.

I’m just dreaming, and you can’t fault a person for that.



Filed under Education, Essays, Experiments, High School Teaching, Hope, Jeremiads, life, Teaching, Thoughts

4 responses to “If I Ruled the School

  1. Brendan

    Bravo. I think many of your assertions would become reality if we could break free of the idea that preparation for employment need start at such an early age. Given the incredible efficiencies brought about by the industrial and information revolutions, we should all be working far, far less than we do, and playing far, far more. Elementary and secondary education should be primarily preparation for that play-time, and only coincidentally preparation for “work”. The system we have worked well when the high-school diploma was the terminal degree for the majority of citizens, but we have failed to adapt to the plain fact that all of our kids are going to be in formal school for at least 4 years more after we graduate them from 12th grade, and many years beyond that in on-the-job training for their “career”.

    I love the idea that we ought to be preparing for play. Mental play is exactly the sort of training in flexibility students need to prepare for solving problems we can’t even conceive yet.

    High school has a very strange place in our education right now–no longer a terminal degree, I wonder if it has become a sort of middle school to college. I’ve got nothing against middle schools, but every step of education ought to have it own identity and purpose, appropriate to that stage of development. I’m not sure I’d say that’s the case with high school right now.

    Thanks for visiting and commenting!

  2. David – where do I sign on? I fully concur with most of your ideas. The industrial model of education ensures that unless students are numbed into complying outcomes are not measurable. From my years as a teacher I realized, with great frustration that the ideal model which would permit me to teach most effectively is the interdisciplinary approach, which unfortunately was thwarted at every essay. I remember doing readings of Poe short stories with grade 10 art classes; also meanwhile looking at exemplars of symbolist painters who used literature as a departure point – gallen/kallela the Kalevala, Aubrey Beardsley – baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil, etc. We looked at comic books, movies at how they influenced visual artists, and what strategies they took from such sources. Small examples, I know, but they stretched allowable boundaries, without which action I would have found it difficult to function as a teacher. Students need to see interconnectedness in the disciplines, rather than rigid separations. The whole of learning comes alive with such realizations, as does the pleasure of exploration and what is learned does stick better than in the learn-the-stuff-to-regurgitate-for-the-exam-and-forget model which most of us experienced as students.
    If only this might change during our lifetimes. G

    I’d have loved to have been in your classes!

    Interdisciplinary teaching is more challenging and impractical. It requires teachers who are collaborative and resourceful and flexible. It can be tough to find teachers like that because the model is often the opposite–an expert who enjoys presiding over his or her own domain and who doesn’t need to ask for help. We teachers sometimes aren’t the sort of sharers we hope our students will be.

    But I don’t think it has to be that way, as your example demonstrates. Thanks for visiting and commenting. —D

  3. These are very exciting ideas and seem revolutionary although it is precisely the way people learned before the formalization of education! Separating Learning from Life makes both less interesting.

    #1 and #2 could enhance the entire experience, and offer opportunities for questions and searching for answers that lead to even more interest. Take advantage of that right brain/left brain deal!

    #3 is so obvious that it’s unfathomable that it hasn’t become the rule. Those young synapses are so sponge-like that it could be easily incorporated into elementary education. There would, of course, be a little resistance from the xenophobic constituency.

    I’m not sure about #4 since the evaluator’s own personality would inevitably intrude on the evaluation, but on the plus side, the emotional connection can increase a student’s interest in doing well. The grading certainly could be secondary, and would be, with more of #1 and #2.

    #5 is calling for the best of all possible worlds, and greatly to be desired. My own experience of teacher types is that they are very much think-within-the-box types. That fits well with the structure imposed from the administrators. I have had the great good fortune to have known two teachers who were themselves excited enough about their fields to entertain dialogue and to take the students’ interest into other areas to help elucidate the lesson.
    Example: 6th grade, Mr. Freeman, teaching us about world religions (imagine that today!) and incorporating in that the architecture of the different areas where those religions began, and moving on to medieval history. Our class worked together, shouting rhyming words and couplets, for a week or two on a long, long poem that made the vocabulary and the medieval life real to us. I can still, after nearly fifty years, remember my contribution (“There was a vassal, come to the castle…”). What fun we all had, not least, I suspect, Mr. Freeman himself.
    I guess I’ve addressed #7 as well.

    Oh . . .#6 strikes close to my heart. Would that Little June, who composed stories and poems for her own entertainment had had the option of increased exposure and guidance in literature! I would have had a different, perhaps (and perhaps not, of course) far more fulfilling life.

    Less homework (#8) as homework is defined now, is vastly to be desired. A student excited about learning is likely to continue learning away from the classroom; the whole world becomes a classroom (#9). And isn’t continuing interest in the world, in Life, what we want for human beings of any age?

    #10 could get a little iffy, particularly during, say, middle school. Perhaps not, if #1-#9 were in place.

    So, David, go start your school!

    Someone asked me if I would ever think of starting a school, and I felt a “no” rising up. It’s easier to think of what I’d like to do than to think of all the possible troubles as you have. Not to mention the setting, the hiring, the money, the first students, and the inevitable growing pains that are difficult for new schools to survive.

    Thanks for your detailed comments–as always, you’ve given me much more to think about. —D

  4. Of course you feel a “‘no’ rising up.” That is because you have the right to call yourself Teacher instead of Administrator.

    I imagine you outdoors, mentoring groups of free students, a la Socrates.

    That’d be nice… but not in Chicago in February.

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