Re: the right to pursue excellence

Cathy Pauline Lachapelle (aelin@leland.Stanford.EDU)
Mon, 5 May 1997 11:18:47 -0700 (PDT)

On Sat, 3 May 1997 wrote:

> Cathy, I think maybe you should rethink the idea of military schools being
> the "worst end". At military schools things are very clear: you do what you
> are told. No one expects you to like it, any more than they expect you to
> question it. That allows your mind, heart and soul freedom; you don't have
> to waste time wondering why you don't love the nice school you go to if it is
> military school; just do it! To me the worst end is the middle -- schools
> that control in a manner that tries to make students feel that there is
> something wrong with them if they are not interested in, and enjoying, what
> the school gives them "for their own good".
> Mimsy

Hmmm. This is an interesting point, and I've been trying to figure out
why it doesn't "ring true" for me. I guess the reasons are (1) I've never
known kids from military schools who felt in any sense "free" (I have a
sample of 2, plus Dale's testimony, so don't take this as a general
account). In these cases, the kids have felt trapped, more than anything
else. And that's a scary feeling. Of course, these are kids who were
sent to such schools against their wishes. Maybe it's analogous to some
fundamentalist Christian schools: those in the "in" groups (kids who feel
that a military education is what they want, kids who *are*
fundamentalist) feel comfortable with the system. Their behaviors are
controlled in a fashion that they feel is appropriate. (That's a big
"maybe" -- I'm speculating here on the basis of what I know about kids in
fundamentalist schools, based on a couple of anthropological studies.)
Those kids who are not "in" the system (those forced to go against their
wishes) feel their selves being "squashed" into philosophical conformity,
as the chain of command/divine authority are invoked to justify
controlling aspects of the kids' behavior in ways that the kids feel is
against their own selfhood.

My second reason that I'm not agreeing with you has to do with public
schools. You see, I can't remember any case of any classroom (in my own
childhood, or in my field observations now) where kids have felt obligated
to be enjoying themselves. My parents encouraged me to do well in school,
to make them proud, and to secure my future with good grades. I was told
it was my duty to go to school. It was very clear to everyone (myself,
my peers, my parents, my teachers) that I did not enjoy school! Nor did
my peers like school, or pretend to. It was our duty to respect the
teacher and do as she told us, and the teacher expected such respect and
obedience, much as my parents did. I did respect almost all of
my teachers, because I felt they had my best interest in mind, just as my
parents did. Note that this system leads to kids thinking that this *is*
in their best interest, that this is the best system -- though of course
some teachers will be more talented/skilled than others. Kids and
teachers define their own and each others' capabilities in terms of the
system, in the absence of any exposure to a contrary model (which is why
it's important that schools like Sudbury Valley exist as contrary models
-- though alternative models will never overthrow the system on their
own, since people in it will tend to make the assumption that such schools
are better for "those" kinds of kids).

The 3 teachers I had that I did not respect (I could feel, even
as a young child, that they were very controlling and not caring very
much about my interest) I had a damned hard time doing what they said I
should do (I tried, because I wanted to please my parents, who I did
respect and love). This attitude actually fit in with my upbringing, and
all aspects of my life until high school (when I met more different kinds
of people, and my worldview changed). I was raised Catholic, by a middle
class family. My parents were not strict, nor did they ever use violence
-- but they had (and still have) views about how the world works, where
parents and teachers and priests are to do the best they can for their
charges, in return for respect and obedience.

I still see this attitude about the proper places of adults and children
almost everywhere that I look. Watch children talking to each other, and
they complain: "This is boring". They talk about other things than
school. During lessons their faces are bland, and they put their heads on
their desks. Some go to the teachers (especially favorite teachers) to
complain "I know this stuff already". And the teachers listen, and make
suggestions as to what such kids can do that will be new and different for
them. And the kids do as their teachers suggest, almost all the time.

Listen to teachers: they care about the children in their charge. They
appreciate their childrens' good points: "He's such a leader! She's so
self-confident! He's so funny! She makes such beautiful drawings!" They
worry about their failings (in their eyes): "His work is always late and
messy, I know he can do better... What can I do to help him?" Teachers
don't ENJOY classroom management and discipline -- it's the worst
facet of the job. But they see it as a necessary evil, in order that they
are able to do their job well -- TEACH children what they need to know.
They know that children find it boring and frustrating and would rather
be outside playing, and they do their best to teach well, and to find
approaches to the necessary (as they see them) topics, that are new and
interesting to kids, out of respect for the children's needs (as they see

Now, I don't see that this adult-child relationship is necessarily
problematic. It's an inherent aspect of the culture of a huge segment of
the American population, and involves a reciprocity of care (when both
parties are living up to their sides of the cultural "bargain"). On
the contrary, I see parents' and teachers' concern to do the best for
their children as being an excellent tool to move all parties involved to
a position of more trust and freedom. Kids are not trapped by that
aspect of the cultural system -- they are trapped by the way in which the
system is playing out right now, in terms of a transmission model of
learning. And they are trapped by the traditional control/obedience
relationship between teachers and children. But in breaking teachers out
of the transmission model of learning (thinking that you have to "tell"
kids what they need to know) all teachers redefine the second
relationship (to varying degrees, but all to some extent).

When teachers re-envision how kids learn best to experiencing and
exploring, instead of by listening and paying attention, then they
redefine their own and their kids' roles. Kids must be given room and
freedom to explore: an active rather than passive role. Teachers must have
the freedom to watch and react to kids' initiatives: a much more passive
role than they're accustomed to.

So far the steps in this direction have been small. Unfortunately, most
teachers feel so constrained by district curriculums, standardized texts,
and almost always by their principals and superintendents and school
boards, that the feeling that they need to "cover the material" competes
with the feeling that children need to figure things out themselves. They
have varying solutions: almost all of them define the projects and areas
that kids will explore within for kids. Some alternate project time and
lecturing time. Others carefully watch kids to make sure that they are
"discovering" on schedule (I find this particular solution to be
particularly bad for everyone involved: luckily it doesn't seem to last
long in any one classroom).

The thing is, particularly when the areas defined are broad enough
("ecology" or "math") the kids do prefer the increase in freedom. When
teachers let kids explore, they have to let them talk, they have to get
used to the noise and inevitable conflicts, and let them
happen. They have to give a lot of control of the situation to the kids.
The result: classrooms that are noisy and busy, kids that are happily
chatting away (sometimes about the "topic", sometimes not -- it takes a
confident teacher to stop caring about that particular change and let it
go), and kids that are more interested, and learn better (by all
conceived measures, including the kids' self-reports). In all my time
watching and reading about such changes, almost always, over the course of
several years (when supported by other teachers, the principal, parents,
or the research team), teachers give more and more control to the kids.
One teacher said she learned to prepare for the next day of school,
instead of planning it. Instead of working out what she would talk about,
she found herself gathering materials her students might ask for or find
useful. Teachers report being amazed by how much their students are
capable of (despite all the "off-task" talking, they say! And then
wonder whether social talk is something kids need to do for their social
development... :-).).

Public schools are still largely constrained by contracts, curriculum
guidelines, textbook adoptions, standardized testing, and so on. But
teachers and parents do care about their kids, and that's what gives me
hope that schools will change, and are changing.

I've gone on way too long about this, but I'm going to add quotes from a
book about one particular such project that's had some success in
run-of-the-mill traditional public schools. They gave volunteer
teachers computers for every kid in their classroom, and then supported
the teachers to use them in meaningful ways (don't worry, not every
project involves expensive equipment). (Sandholtz, Ringstaff, and Dwyer:
"Teaching with Technology: Creating Student-Centered Classrooms". 1997,
Teachers College Press.)

A teacher wrote in her journal:
"...It is so exciting to see that these kids can learn from each other,
that they don't have to have a teacher standing over them at all times.
I'm overwhelmed, but on the other hand, they're learning without my help,
and it's a little bit of a shock to get over."

And again later:
"I lectured and summarized and felt like I was talking to a wall. It's
interesting how I go back to a straight lecture situation, after the kids
have been involved in so many group activities and getting their brain
cells to work during class, and all of a sudden they just sit there like
vegetables. It's yucky to see them sitting there looking at me."

A primary-grade student:
"I don't know if we'll have computers [next year]. If we don't it will be
weird. 'Cause the teacher talks pretty long and you have to listen."

Another teacher:
"I guess I have to realize that what I am doing is learning how to undo my