Saturday, April 23, 2011

How do the Paradigms of "Control" and "Respect" Differ?

19th century factory in Toronto
In my previous post I said, "if you are seeking to design a system that promotes creative curiosity, critical thinking skills, and a lifelong passion for learning, you can find vastly superior models to build upon than those of a 19th century factory or a prison."  I went on from there to assert that respect is the key ingredient missing in today's schools.

But what do I mean by that?  Respect . . . for whom?  And how do the Paradigms of "Control" and "Respect" differ?

First of all, I mean mutual respect--that is, everyone in the system respects and genuinely honors the contributions that all parties bring to the table.  But I also, specifically, mean much greater respect for students and their families, and also for teachers.

There are many contrasts we can draw between the two paradigms.  None of the thoughts I list below is complete: I intend to expand upon each in future posts.  But here are a few "snapshots" of some of the differences, as I see them.

Traditional school bureaucracies are by their nature "top-down" affairs.
Traditional school bureaucracy would have to stand on its head.  Years ago, my father told me that in his long education career he had observed an immutable order of things: that administrators set rules to suit their needs, teachers add rules to make their lives easier, and students are at the bottom of the heap.  In the graphic you'll note I've added a few layers to that hierarchy, based on recent trends, but the principle remains sound.

This system by its nature cannot prioritize the students' or their families' needs first.  No matter how fervently or genuinely the adults in the system may protest that they're "doing it for the kids' benefit," the actual truth is that the system serves its own needs first, and acts upon students--who have no input in the decision-making.

A master teacher and a student
from Tufts University work
together on a challenging problem.
The answer to "what is a class?" would change.  Public education systems in the U.S. have a long tradition of treating students kind of like standardized production runs, considering each class sort of like a "lot" produced during a specific time frame.

We all know that people learn at different rates and with different levels of capability, but in traditional classes all students are somehow (magically?) supposed to finish the same material at the same time.  In practice, this means some students "get" it right away, and then have to wait for all the others to come straggling in . . . while some never quite figure it out, but hope they can "fake it" well enough to get by.  This process doesn't respect the students at all, in my opinion.

A better approach--one that respects the student's time and needs--would take these natural variations into account.  The best motivation for learning is a moderate challenge that can be met with some effort.  Students don't succeed too easily (and therefore get bored), but they also are not completely baffled and defeated by demands too far beyond their skill.  They work at what they're learning until they master it, then move on to the next challenge.

Anyone who has played a well-crafted video game will recognize this approach.

It also is similar to the guiding principles of what educators call "standards-based" education.  Some schools have begun to try this idea.  Our own Kansas City (Mo) School District began phasing this approach in during the 2010-11 school year, on a trial basis in a few schools.  I believe this is an approach that should be explored more widely.

Parents in Tampa FL pick up their kids after
Schools' daily schedules would become more flexible. You may be surprised to learn that school bus schedules normally dictate when schooldays start and end.  This is an outstanding example of the bureaucracy meeting its own needs first, with little regard to student needs.

Because of this priority alignment, most school schedules are radically out of sync with many students' natural circadian rhythms, and often create a "latch key" situation for young children whose parents' work schedules are different from the school schedule.

Under a Paradigm of "Respect," much greater effort would be focused toward scheduling school days and events at times when students are alert, and on schedules that are in harmony with working parents' job demands.

Passing period can be hectic for older students, and it is a
poor substitute for a break, in most cases.
The lengths of activities during school, and the number of distractions and time-wasting interruptions, would change.   Large portions of each school day are wasted on things that have little to do with education and a great deal to do with administrative needs.  Bell schedules enforce an unnatural sequence of work interruptions for students, with no regard for their individual learning processes.  They exist almost entirely for administrative convenience.

For example, being required to think about algebra for an arbitrary period of time, then abruptly being interrupted, forced to move, and next being required to think about something completely unrelated, such as history or language arts, is an unnatural and impersonal means of ordering students' time that completely disregards their achievement of understanding, need for practice, or experience of "flow" in their work.  No system based on respect would do this to someone.

Young footballers in Northbook, IL
get some healthy exercise in a physical
education class.  Unfortunately, recent
budget cuts threaten art, music, and P.E.
most of all, despite their benefits.
Students' needs would be respected, and recognized as important.  In many schools, preparation for standardized testing eats more and more of the school day, while recess, even for the youngest students, is being systematically cut shorter and shorter.

For older students there are very few breaks at all, other than passing periods, when they are expected to secure any books they need, get from one classroom to another (even if it's several floors away), take care of restroom needs, and also do a little socializing if there's time--all in 3-5 minutes.  This is scarcely on a par with the mandated break times at many workplaces.

Budget cutbacks and increased emphasis on subject areas targeted by mandated tests also have contributed to nationwide cutbacks in art, music, and physical education classes--thereby cutting back opportunities for students to switch up their routine, express themselves, and get some exercise.  A system that respected students' needs would never make this tradeoff.

Students take a math exam at an
unidentified school.
Testing would be done for legitimate, learning-related purposes.  Testing doesn't really need to be a high-stress, high-stakes affair that requires massive amounts of money, effort, and time, although a good deal of today's "testing experience" is precisely that.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has mandated sweeping standardized testing programs that (1) are not pedagogically helpful in any way, and that (2) in practice have functioned to penalize ever more schools throughout the US.

A classic "bell curve" shows a
normal distribution of results.
Logic alone should tell us that the NCLB Act's requirement for all children to reach "proficiency" in reading and math by an arbitrary date (the 2013-14 school year) is an impossible goal, a fool's errand.  Unless we can somehow find a way to turn the bell curve into an L shape on the "high" end, or unless we move to Lake Wobegon, where "all the children are above average," no school with actual children in it can achieve 100% "proficiency" (whatever that is: definitions vary).

Real testing--respectful testing--focuses on the goal of discovering what the student has already learned, and what s/he still needs to know.  This keeps the teacher from wasting the student's time with things s/he already knows, and helps focus lessons on things the student still needs to know.

Pedagogically valid tests help teachers evaluate what should be incorporated in the lessons to come, so the student can achieve mastery of the topic under study.  Ideally, the teacher should write his or her "final" first, based on the learning objectives for the class.  All the lessons should be structured to help answer the question, "how can I help the student learn what s/he must know to meet these learning objectives (and, incidentally, ace this test)?" The best test is all about the student, and helping the student learn.

It's radical, I know.  And the practicality of some of the things I am proposing raises serious questions.  I hope you will continue to read along with me, as I attempt to outline ways that we might just be able to pull this off.

PHOTO CREDITS: The image of the 19th century Abell Street factory in Toronto, ON is from the Heritage Canada Foundation. The "Top-Down Hierarchy" chart is copyright 2011 by Jan Sherrell Gephardt, created for this post.  The photo of the Tufts University student and her mentor in the STOMP program is from Teachers EFGI.  The photo of the hectic passing period is from the +Plus Magazine . . . Living Mathematics website.  The photo of soccer-playing kids in Northbrook, IL is from the Northbrook School District.  The photo of the math exam is from The Situationist blog.  The graph showing a classic bell curve is from the University of Kansas Medical Center website.  


  1. The last section might be a little counter to what I started out with, but it does fall under respecting the student enough to teach them what they need to know before testing them over it. (What I really fear is that the example teacher is on the college curriculum development board while she is looking for another teaching job elsewhere.)

    The example for the first section came from high school where those poor people had no control over what they taught to the students, just how it was taught.

    Just thought I might clarify how things shifted from beginning to end.

  2. Tygepc, I have to say your clarifications would be clearer if your earlier post were still there.

  3. Man, this Blogger interface must just be a horrible ordeal. I am sorry you've had so much trouble commenting.