a thought experiment in education

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Imagine two students, in two classrooms, in two very similar schools. Imagine that the two students are alike in many ways. They both come from similar family backgrounds and live in similar communities. They are both well-meaning and earnest children. They both have loving parents, with the average ups and downs of the average family. While they have much in common, chance has separated Jane and Sally. 

Jane's Classroom

Jane spends her days in a traditional classroom. It is quiet and orderly. The teacher maintains excellent control over her pupils. The desks are arranged into neat rows, and anyone walking in would be struck by the diligence and obedience of the students. At any given moment, an observer would hear just one of two sounds, the teacher's well-practiced lecture, or the quiet hum of students working at their desks.  

Jane and her classmates spend their days listening to their teacher, who lectures expertly from the front of the room. Sometimes they read from their textbooks, or do exercises in their workbooks. When they are uncertain about something, they try their best to work it out, but they often end up struggling along without gaining a clear understanding. While their teacher is cordial with them, and they respect her a great deal, they are very hesitant to ask questions because they are afraid of gaining her disapproval, or of appearing ignorant in front of their peers. 

The teacher has strict control in the classroom, and the students wouldn't dare to cross her. Although the lectures are often long and boring, and the students struggle to pay attention, they know the rules well, and more importantly, they know the consequences for not following them. It is a struggle for their young minds and bodies to stay seated and silent throughout the day, but they do their best to behave well. The consequences are harsh, and occasionally it is necessary for the teacher to make an example of a student who gets carried away and misbehaves. The teacher is both judge and jury, the ultimate authority in the classroom. 

And the teacher's authority extends to the subject matter the students are studying. She is the holder of truth in the classroom, and her job is understood by all to be to impart her considerable knowledge to the students. The monopoly of teacher's expertise is challenged only by the textbook, from which most of her lectures originate. The students learn by listening to the teacher, by reading from their textbooks, and by practicing independently at their desks.

Because the content the students learn comes from their textbooks, or in the form of dry lectures, the students in the class don’t feel much personal connection with the topics of study. While they are eager enough to learn, they see little relationship between the knowledge they are acquiring, and their lives outside of the classroom. It is abstract and theoretical, with little practical relevance. They seldom debate or discuss it, and whatever opinions they might form are those that are embedded in the textbook and the lectures. 

Although there are many students in the class, their daily experience is ultimately quite lonely. The classroom arrangements do not permit much interaction, and their evenings are spent alone as well, studying from their texts. What’s more, there are competitive undertones in the class as the children vie for recognition, and approval from the teacher. While the successes of the top students may be celebrated, the predominant feeling amongst the students is one of fear and insecurity. 

Scores on tests are a big part of this. In fact, assessment, and in particular the end of year exams, are a major focus, and provide the definition of success and failure in Jane's class. The students study hard, and they feel the pressure mounting throughout each year as the examinations approach. In the weeks leading up to the exams, the students feel increasingly anxious, and many suffer physical effects of stress and sleeplessness. The students cram for the exams as well as they can, until their heads are almost swimming, until finally the exams are done, and they are safe to begin forgetting until next year. 

Sally's Classroom

Sally, on the other hand, spends her days in a different kind of classroom. The differences are obvious the moment one steps in—the room is vibrant and alive. Most striking is the level of activity in the classroom. Everyone is engaged in activity, and many are in dialogue. Sally's teacher is prominent in the classroom, and is circulating around the room, sometimes speaking with groups, sometimes with individuals, providing guidance, or posing questions. Also notable is the physical arrangement of the classroom. Rather than tight rows, the desks in Sally's classroom are arranged into clusters, which seems to promote all sorts of interaction during class. 

Sally and her classmates spend their days like this, engaged in discussion and projects, and a wide range of activities that have them interacting with one another; sometimes working individually, sometimes collaboratively. The students are full of questions, which they pose liberally to each other and to their teacher, and their teacher, too, poses questions to them—challenging their understandings, but also with genuine curiosity to hear the students' perspectives. 

In Sally class, the teacher does not worry about controlling students' behavior. They are interested and engaged in learning activities, and have no inclination to misbehave. While there is a lot of activity in the classroom, the teacher and students have established routines and procedures for working together. They have a series of cues that they use when the teacher needs to speak to the whole class, or when students need something themselves. Occasionally a student may get overly excited, or students may be engaged in a debate that becomes heated. In such cases, their teacher intervenes to help the student(s) work out the underlying issues, often providing coaching on how to better manage their behavior or emotions. 

Through her actions, Sally's teacher has earned the respect and admiration of the students. She is a role model, and her authority in the classroom has been gained through leadership and trust, not fear. The students know she is a reliable source of guidance and support. Her lessons often begin with interesting questions, which the class will inquire into together. She makes a point of minimizing the time she spends lecturing, and encourages discussion amongst students in their clusters. She also encourages the class to raise questions about what is being taught. She has found that this helps to engage students and spark their curiosity. 

The children have textbooks, of course, but they seem to have a different position in Sally's class. They are only drawn on as a resource, and not the only one. Sally's teacher has made an effort, over the years, to bring in other resource materials that are related to the topics of study. When information is needed on a given topic, the students are encouraged to seek out that information in the resources available. Through this, Sally's teacher has helped them to understand about biases, and how information can be used in different ways to support different perspectives. Encountering different perspectives, the students often end up debating amongst themselves, sharpening their minds and their mouths in the process. The classroom is characterized by high energy, engagement, and dialogue. 

Like all public schools, Sally's school participates in annual state examinations. While the students in Sally's class know these are important, they don't fear them. Through their activities throughout the year they have developed confidence, and they know that their teacher's classes always do well. For her part, Sally's teacher sees the exams as an opportunity for her students to demonstrate how well they have mastered the topics of study, and she knows she has prepared them well. She assesses them on an ongoing basis, using shorter versions of tests, and other assignments, on a formative basis, to identify their strengths and weaknesses, and to provide feedback on what she needs to reinforce in class. 

Analyzing the Impacts

Jane and Sally both attend schools with similar characteristics. Both have experienced, capable, and well-meaning teachers. Both classes follow the same curriculum and have the same basic resources. Yet, their day-to-day experiences are vastly different. Through these different experiences, the students learn things other than knowledge and skills. These aren’t things which are written into their textbooks or the curriculum. They are not tested in the annual exams. This learning relates to the deeper formation of their character. It is, in part, the result of what Jane and Sally, respectively, are “practicing” each day. Their daily practice soon becomes habit, and, over time, becomes internalized. 

Day after day, month after month, Jane spends the majority of her time sitting, listening, and following instructions. Over time, the vibrant curiosity of her childhood dissipates. She becomes docile, disengaged, and obedient. She has little interaction with others, or with the content of study. She does not develop opinions of her own, or even the foundations on which opinions are based, and as such, becomes highly susceptible to the influence of propaganda. 

For her part, Sally spends most of her time actively engaged in discussion or inquiry, or developing projects of her own. Her own curiosity changes over time, becoming more mature and focused as she becomes wiser and less naive. Over the course of the year she develops rhetorical skills and critical thinking, as well as a confidence in her own ability to question others, and respond to questions herself. 

While Jane and Sally have both studied from the same curriculum, Jane has learned is complacence, while Sally has learned empowerment. The differences in their learning take time to develop, through sustained experiences in two very different kinds of classrooms. Most of us are not used to thinking about learning in this way. What they have learned is not knowledge, and it’s not skills. It is deeper even than attitudes. It is the formation of their character and the development of their dispositions. It seems more similar to “socialization” than the way we usually think about “education”. And yet, it happened in school. 

This type of learning is not the result of conventional teaching. We usually think of teaching as an explicit act—often some kind of lecture or instruction. But much of what Sally gained was not the result of any explicit instruction. Quite the contrary, it came from rich experiences in adapting to a different kind of classroom culture than the one Jane spent her days in. That culture may be difficult to describe. It may seem somewhat ethereal. But in fact, there is nothing mysterious about it. It is the result of many tangible differences—some seemingly minor. We could begin listing these out from the two examples: the arrangement of desks, they teaching strategies, the way textbooks are used, they degree of interaction, and so on. Other posts on this website around democratizing education outline these differences and more, systematically, along with suggestions for how to start building a more democratic and student-centered classroom.  

Education has a critical role to play in the development of citizens that are well informed on important issues, and equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to exercise their political rights and responsibilities. However, knowledge and skills are not enough, since democracy requires, more fundamentally, citizens to be engaged, and disposed to think and act in accordance with democratic principles such as justice and equality. It requires citizens who are prepared to engage in meaningful dialogue with one another, to work through differences, and to work together in spite of differences. 

Matthew Hiebert 2013-09-17