Friday, May 20, 2011

The special momentum of the status quo

cc licensed flickr photo shared by Michael
Have you ever noticed how little schooling has changed since your parents or even grandparents' classroom days?

I've often wondered how a classroom in 1985 Communist Russia would differ from one in 2011 Canada or America. Oh sure, there would be nuances with what kids were learning, but I fear how they were expected to do so would look freakishly similar. Regardless of time, place and political affiliation, behavioral conformity, worksheet completion and pre-test memorization would be the name of both games.

So why is school such a timeless institution where the more things change, the more things stay the same? Why does so much of school reform feel like the equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?

Why is this?

Joel Westheimer writes in his review of Ted Sizer's book Horace's Compromise:

One of the most stable structures in card house building, my nine year old cousin informs me, is the triangle. Three cards placed just so, leaning against each other in a three-way system of support, can be used as an "awesome foundation. On one architectural design occasion, as she happily laid cards for level four, I couldn't resist asking if her house could survive a slight change - adjusting one of the base triangles, for example. She tried, rotating one card gently counterclockwise. The house giggled for a moment and collapsed. It was a messy sight, a young architect's nightmare. "The foundation," she reported, "can't change without a whole lot of trouble!" 
"The status quo," writes Sizer in Horace's Compromise, "... has special momentum."
It's been said before that Old School is not a place - rather it is a state of mind that thinks very little of the mind - which is built on the premise that the teacher 'teaches' and the student 'learns' and never shall the two roles be confused. Paulo Freire aptly outlines this pseudo-learning environment well in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed while Robert Fried properly indicts the Game of School in his book:

I see no despicable plot, no conspiracy by educators to deny children their right to learn. The problem is not that those who work within schools and colleges regularly force us to abandon our own learning goals and submit to their indoctrination. It's just that too many of us - students and teachers alike - agree to substitute lesser, symbolic goals for greater and truer ones. When we allow ourselves (or get convinced) to gear ourselves up so as to complete school tasks that have little meaning for us aside from the value of getting them done and over with, we lose touch with our own learning spirit. We become alienated from the natural learning desires and inquisitiveness within us. We tend to become compliant rather than creative, docile instead of courageous, inwardly passive instead of assertively engaged, cynical at a time in life when we should be idealistic. We become game players by reflex, and learners only one occasion... 
My argument with the Game of School is not an argument against school, much less against the teaching profession. Teachers, schools, and school systems are themsleves often the victims of this self-same game, played out according to the rules set down by those who have power over us. My hope is to bring this phenomenon to the attention of educators and learners at all levels; it is most destructive where least acknowledged. Those caught in the Game soon lose awareness of it; it begins to seem like the only way of doing business.
Like Robert Fried, Ted Sizer and Paulo Friere critique Old School not as an argument against school (or teachers) anymore than Joel Westheimer's nine year old cousin would argue against triangles. Rather, the point to be taken from all of this is one of awareness.

Because one of the largest obstacles to improving school is our own memories, we need to be aware that until school ceases to be merely something done to kids, rather than by kids, reform will only ever improve school while changing nothing.

Until we stop selling 'more of the same' as a daring departure from what we've always done, the status quo will continue to gain more and more momentum. Real change will require school to look a lot less like school - and to do that would require a whole lot of trouble.


  1. Joe,
    Your post reminds me of what Ray McNulty always talks about at conferences. What schools are used to doing is taking innovation and making it fit into the model of our schools - a way outdated model I might add.

    What must happen is that schools must change to fit the current innovation. It will blow apart what we now call "school" but it is the only real chance for change.

    Your post states it eloquently - we have such an elaborate, established system of schooling, that major disruption and change will shake it to the core. Major change IS going to happen - the question is, will we be prepared?

    Great post!

  2. Very good post Joe, I especially love the point that schools are a state of mind that thinks little of the mind. The influence of externally assessed exams here in Ireland has had a negative effect on what is taught, how it is taught and even where it is taught. Teachers, parents, students and influential others co-construct an education experience that values rote learning and memorisation over experiential learning.


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