Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Hopelessly Broken?

Recently finished The Way It Spozed To Be, by James Herndon, a memoir of his year teaching at a ninety-eight percent African-American junior high in an unnamed city in California (published in 1965). The title is altogether ironic, since Herndon sets out merely to describe the way things are, and offers no suggestions as to how they really ought to be.

So, here's the basic story:

Everyone else at the school shares a common philosophy of education: teachers must maintain as much order in the classroom as possible, because otherwise the children won't learn anything. Herndon observes that this strategy does not work, because the children are evidently learning nothing, in spite of the semblance of order the other teachers establish.

So he decides not to impose order on his classrooms. He allows the kids to do whatever they want, as long as they're not physically harming each other. He spends a lot of time thinking about what he can do to help the children learn. But he doesn't come up with any ideas. None. So he just sits back and waits to see if anything will happen by itself.

His classrooms are so chaotic, the principal talks to him about it, and so do two other teachers, and a woman from the district sent in to help him. He rejects all of their advice, since they are just trying to get him to conform to a method he knows is bankrupt.

At the end of the year, the principal lets Herndon know he won't be asked to teach there again. Herndon protests that his method has acheived a small degree of success: the kids in the social studies class spontaneously started watching some old science videos for fun (also bringing in lots of snacks, which was against school policy). And in his English class, some of the kids had gotten into reading some fairytales adapted for theatre. They were actually learning a little bit, on their own initiative.

The principal was not impressed. Herndon was fired.

In the final chapter of the book, Herndon reflects that even students in nice suburban, white, middle- to upper-class schools aren't really learning anything. They just do what they're "spozed" to, because grown-ups force them into it, and they protest less against it, but they have no real interest in what they're doing, so it doesn't stick. He suggests that there is simply no hope for change or transformation of the system, because that would require giving the children some freedom, which is the last thing the teachers and administrators (on the whole) are willing to try.

I found this book interesting. Any description of what actually goes on in a school classroom is fascinating to me, because I never experienced it myself. I feel more grateful than ever for having been homeschooled. But I also find it hard to believe that things are as hopeless as Herndon implies. Surely people have come up with ways of teaching that can better engage students and make them feel they have a vested personal interest in what they're doing.

But I really don't know hardly anything about the situation. I hope my brother, who is a teacher, will read this and have some comments.


BenjyWay said...

The system Mr. Herndon has called bankrupt is obviously not a good system. However, the reason it is so staunchly defended is that it does occasionally produce a well-educated individual. Perhaps 1% of students who pass through the system do learn quite a bit, and that 1% would not have learned in school if nobody maintained any order. (of course, if this is the justification, then we should stop mandatory public education and only take students who are motivated, but that obviously leads to social stratification, instead of subtly leading to it like we do now.)

The movement to increase the amount of individual liberty in classrooms has been gaining ground for several decades now. Indeed, credentialing programs are all about how schools, particularly middle and high schools, need to change the way they do things to put more responsibility in the hands of the students.

In the world of Education, any idea takes at least 40 years to make it from acceptance in the ivory tower application in the surrounding villages. I am not trying to be funny with hyperbole; I really mean at least 40 years. Now is looking to be a moment when there is real possibility for systemic change, and most of the new teachers entering the profession have their minds set on much less draconian classrooms than have existed since education became mandatory.

There are currently many charter schools attempting a variety of new ideas to try to improve student engagement by empowering the students. Many of them have had tremendous success. I do not know their methods well enough to comment on them, except to say that it takes a coordinated effort by at least one school to make it work.

Ultimately, I believe that education will not achieve true success until we give students the freedom not to go to school at all, but also make it much easier for them to get back into it if they do choose to drop out.

There are about 10 million reasons why this would improve educational outcomes for everyone, including drop-outs. It will never happen until the Unions and the corporations who sell materials to schools have their monopoly on educational politics demolished.

Virgie P. said...

Wow! Thank you for writing such a thoughtful, informative response! It really helped to fill things out for me. And it's great to know that Herndon's idea of giving the students more liberty is finally starting to be seriously experimented with, 46 years after the publication of his book.

You should write a book about why students should be given the choice of whether or not to attend school at all, and perhaps 40 to 50 years from now, the idea will begin to catch on. (-: