Friday, November 11, 2011

Life in 21st-Century Classrooms: the Agenda

I recently read a remarkable book entitled Life in Classrooms, first published in 1968, and reissued by Teachers College Press in 1990. Its author, Philip Jackson, was one of the first educational researchers to apply an ethnographic approach—borrowed from anthropology and popularized through prominent studies of primates—to the phenomena of schools and classrooms. The book is a methodological mishmash, but at its core are Jackson's reports on "field visits" he conducted over a period of two years to several elementary school classrooms in the University of Chicago Laboratory School.The book is full of astute observations about classroom life, most of which still apply today. I was struck, for instance, by an analogy that Jackson draws in the first chapter:

There is an important fact about a student's life that teachers and parents often prefer not to talk about . . . . This is the fact that young people have to be in school, whether they want to be or not. In this regard students have something in common with the members of two other of our social institutions that have involuntary attendance: prisons and mental hospitals. 

Elaborating, Jackson writes:

[T]he school child, like the incarcerated adult, is, in a sense a prisoner. He too must come to grips with the inevitability of his experience. He too must develop strategies for dealing with the conflict that frequently arises between his natural desires and interests on the one hand and institutional expectations on the other.
Jackson proceeds to discuss in some detail both the institutional exigencies of school, and the strategies that children come up with to cope with them. In his observations and interpretations of what he sees—especially his reflections on classroom management, children's and teachers' attitudes towards school, and the power relations operating at the micro level in schools—he anticipates Foucauldian studies of institutional life that began to emerge in humanities disciplines in the late seventies and early eighties.

For this reason—or simply for the rich, troubling portrait of classroom life that Jackson offers—I believe the book should be required reading for teachers' college students. But for the present purpose, what interests me is an image Jackson introduces in the first chapter and which he discusses in the introduction to the 1990 reissue of the book:

I noted . . .how students propped their arms in the air by placing their left hands just above their right elbows when signaling the teacher's attention and I realized that that familiar posture was caused by the fact that the arm usually had to be held high for several seconds before the teacher noticed it . . . . Being heavy, the raised arm required support. The propped arm . . . was a reasonable response to the crowded conditions of classroom life. To my newly awakened interest in such matters, it stood as a symbol of those conditions.
 What's interesting about this passage, and the symbol of the propped arm, is how relevant it still is. In 1968, funding levels for education in both the US and Canada were much higher than they are today, yet large class sizes were the norm. Despite attempts by some provincial governments (Ontario, for example) to set caps on class size in primary grades, "crowded conditions" still obtain in most schools. My daughters' grade 7 class has 32 kids: arms are still being propped.

I would argue, however, that overcrowding is not the most significant issue facing our schools today. It is now known, for instance, that small class size does not guarantee better outcomes for individual students. But the image of the propped arm got me thinking: what is its modern-day equivalent? What action or object epitomizes "life in classrooms" in the 21st century? When I thought about this question, one object immediately sprung to mind: the school agenda.

My daughters were issued their first agendas in Grade 2. The primary grade agendas, which cost five dollars a piece, were colourful weekly school calendars in ringed notebook format, containing all manner of information and trivia, as well as space for jotting down daily homework, an area for "parent-teacher" communication, and the all-important parent initial box. At first glance they looked fairly innocuous, and the girls were happy to have them. But my husband and I were surprised that our local school board, which issued the agendas, felt that seven-year-olds would need them. How much homework, how many deadlines or appointments, we wondered, would seven-year-olds have to keep track of? What issues would arise in Grade 2 that would require daily monitoring by parents (and thus daily initialing) or regular parent-teacher communication?

The reality, of course, is that second-graders do not need agendas. Neither do seventh-graders or even twelfth-graders. After all, most people over the age of 30 managed to get through their school years without them. Looked at another way, however, one could say that if today's school children require agendas, it is because the need for them has been created by the conditions of modern schooling and by the assumptions that underlie and give rise to these conditions. What are some of these assumptions? One is that children require and benefit from homework from early grades through high school, and that when it comes to schoolwork, quantity is more important than quality. (The abundance of evidence to the contrary has done little to shake this particular assumption.) Another is that children must be taught "time management" skills, the deeper assumption here being a blurring of the once distinct concepts of "education" and "training," and the consequent belief that education should concern itself with preparing children to function in the corporate world from which such phrases such as "time management" hail. A third preconception driving the "need" for agendas is that constant monitoring and surveillance of the school-aged child's performance, by both parent and teacher, is necessary and desirable.

Taken together, these assumptions give rise to the conditions that are symbolized by the agenda: not overcrowded classrooms, but overcrowded, over-scheduled, over-burdened young lives. The kids leading these lives are viewed  less as children than as pre-adults who must be moulded into full-fledged adults capable of functioning in the "real" (read corporate) world.

It may seem as if I am (once again!) engaging in theoretical overreaching, but incidents that have occurred during the current school year—my daughters' first in middle school—lead me to think otherwise. For instance: the girls' math teacher told the kids on the first day of class that forgetting to bring their agendas to class was a detentionable offense, as significant as not completing homework. The message this warning was intended to send is that the para-curriculum or what Jackson calls the "hidden curriculum" (though these days it is not particularly well hidden)—in other words behavioural or character lessons regarding organization, time-management, etc.—are as important as the actual lessons being taught, in this case lessons about math.

Another incident involved an "agenda check" by the girls' homeroom teacher. Since parents are no longer required to initial agendas daily, this teacher decided that she would take a look at the kids' agendas to see if they were copying down homework reliably and legibly, as well as noting future assignments, important dates, etc. While flipping through J's agenda, the teacher noticed many doodles. She chided J for doodling in her agenda and told her to stop. J was mildly upset by this, as she is unused to being reprimanded by a teacher. (A year ago she would have been very upset, but middle school is teaching her to grow a thicker skin.) But more than anything, she was puzzled. "Why can't I doodle in my agenda?" she asked. "Who owns my agenda?"

The question of who owns the school-aged child's "agenda" is, I believe, worthy of further reflection by parents and educators alike.


  1. Brilliant.
    Who does own the agenda?
    My son is right now studying for his first exam at university. What his prof told him yesterday, at his last lecture prior to the mid-term, was a revelation. The guy was talking about the essay question, which would be worth 60 percent of the mark. He said, "Don't worry about the structure. Don't worry about the form. I care about the content."
    My kid, now 19, said it's the first time he has ever heard that at school. His whole education has been about form and not content.
    About the rules. About the agenda.
    But who's agenda is it, really?


  2. I'll have to read that book...though I shouldn't be surprised at how little our education system has changed in the last 43 years. I wanted to share with you that it is also my daughter's first year in middle school. Here, the grade 7 & 8's are in the high schools. It's been a challenging couple of months, lots of change, lots of "new" and much transition...

    What struck me most about your post above is the continued “accepted practice” of a para-curriculum or hidden curriculum. It’s an archaic practice, it’s outdated and begs to question, what exactly is being taught? Behaviour? Homework compliance? If there is as much emphasis and PUNISHMENT being placed on behaviour (maintaining an agenda to an arbitrary standard) as there is on the completion of homework, where is the focus on learning? What are the students being taught in such an environment? Sadly, we know what they’re not being taught…a love of learning.

  3. My oldest got his first agenda in grade one. I thought it was ridiculous.

    He's in grade 5 now. Every year we've dutifully paid the $5 (or whatever) and it's gone in the recycling at the end of the year barely used.

    I've always hated those stupid agendas. The idea the the kids (like, grade one and twos!) should be responsible for their "schedule" is so outrageous to me.

    "It's great writing practice." I've been told. Well, I can think of a million different ways to practice writing.

    I also think it's completely impractical. I plan my life through my computer, my smartphone, my husbands smartphone, and the magic way they all sync with one another. Why, in this day and age, are we teaching kids that writing things down in an agenda is the way for them to manage their time. How many adults manage their time that way?

    I struggle with this a bit though. I do hate that agenda but do I have my kids boycott the agenda and have them stand out as the kid without it? Or do I try to go along with it?

    I usually try to go along with it but I have a really hard time trying to enforce the "agenda rule" when I have absolutely no faith in it.

    I am also philosophically opposed to homework, which is what the agenda is mainly used for (so it gets under my skin in more ways than one).

    Funny enough, my grade 5 son's agenda is currently MIA.

    Now, if they could somehow make the agendas available on line, I might be more inclined to use it. And if it could magically sync to my smartphone, even better! Otherwise we're happier with out it.

  4. I think the point about the paracurriculum is a valuable one, but something worries me. As a university professor, I see many first-year students who seem to lack the skills that they need to learn effectively. Put whatever adjectives you care to in front of "skills" – work, study, time-management – but they do too little too late, or not at all. They cannot seem to handle the demands of five courses with rigourous deadlines. Now, perhaps we are asking too much of them, but it doesn't feel like it. (Perhaps some of them shouldn't be there, but even sharp students have these issues, maybe more so, as they have ways of compensating that the others don't have.)

    I understand that any attempt to teach these skills (which I broadly categorize as "how to learn within our current systems") is likely to be subverted by the institution into conforming to rules for the sake of streamlining and efficiency, and also sometimes by the student who will happily collude in mistaking the form for the substance (as they do with marks, for example). I also understand that Grade One is far too early for many of these lessons, and maybe Grade Seven is as well.

    But maybe there are ways in which these skills can be imparted. I don't think they are learned just by osmosis, at least not as effectively as if we pay some attention of the right kind to them. So what would that right kind of attention consist of?

  5. @writewrds -- Thanks for your comment. I can't believe that your son had to wait until university to hear such a commonsense piece of advice. When I was in school there seemed to be less and less emphasis on superfluous things like neatness, specific rules of presentation, etc. as we progressed through the grades. But it seems as if these days, emphasis on para-curricular stuff never lets up. It's a shame, I think, because I remember having a sense that more learning was taking place in (for instance) high school, precisely because we were being judged on our actual work and ideas.

    backwords -- You hit the nail on the head: compliance is indeed a large part of what is being taught via the para-curriculum. And I believe it is at odds with the ostensible curriculum, which emphasizes critical thinking skills, etc. I think it's important for parents and concerned teachers to make an effort to hold schools to account for this glaring contradiction.

    familynature -- Thanks for commenting. I'd never even thought about the fact that most adults don't even use paper agendas anymore. So even by the school's own standards--of trying to prepare kids for the "real" world--they are failing. A great point!

  6. Kerry Daly, a Canadian sociologist, has written extensively about time use in contemporary families. Here's a great quick read:

    Time use has become a class distinction in North American families. In middle-class families, values such as "efficiency" and "performance" (= agendas) are cultivated so that children can grow up as successful in a very particular world of work.

    Here's another read from Daly on time in families:

    in which the author writes about the politics of time and the gendering of time.

    (I don't know whether this comment will make these pieces sound interesting but they are some of the most fascinating things I have read as a parent!)

  7. Prabhakar -- Your point about the value of students learning efficient study skills is well taken. I don't have a problem with such skills being taught in a purely pragmatic manner, either in a separate course, or integrated into other subjects, starting in, say, high school. My concern is that in contemporary schools the distinction between the teaching of study and organization skills on the one hand, and character/behavioural education on the other, has been elided. So a ban on doodling or an overemphasis on neatness is defended as promoting good study habits, when in fact it is about curbing normal, innocuous (and some claim, beneficial) behaviour. Kids aren't stupid: they can tell the difference between unnecessary, arbitrary injunctions, and those that are aimed at helping them with their learning.

    Another point worth making is that the question of how to teach study skills or time management cannot be entirely divorced from the issue of motivation. In my case, I taught myself how to organize my time and meet deadlines when I became invested in the work I was doing. In high school, it happened in certain courses and not in others. In university, I was more motivated to find a way to be organized because I had chosen my course of study and I wanted to succeed, though I would argue that the load for many first-year students is too heavy--the ability to work fast should not be the most important determinant of success. So, I guess my question would be, can study skills actually be taught, or must students learn them, each in his/her own way and time?

  8. Alexandra -- Thanks for the links. They are indeed fascinating, especially the long research paper. I particularly like Daly's phrase the "politics of time" because it encourages us to view issues like "time management" not just as personal problems, but as socio-political ones as well.

    Here is a clickable link to the paper.

  9. northTOmom, thanks for another brilliant post. Who owns the agenda, indeed? And what a pointless violation of privacy to scold a kid for doodling. I doodle constantly, as do many adults I know.

    I'm off to look at the paper you just linked to --

  10. The following comment is from Sheila Stewart who blogs about educational issues at SheilaSpeaking.

    Really enjoyed your post, and now also the comments!

    My girls have a few years of these agendas coming home. We tried to support what was expected, but never really saw much solid value in their use. We often found that the use waned by both students and teachers as the school year proceeded. I think it is often an administration decision to have them used school-wide. I have seen it left up to each individual teacher as to what was established in this regard. I often observed that the kids who were strong in organization skills used them the best, but not sure if that made any difference for learning. I felt it was somewhat assuming that such agenda books would work for all kids. I also felt that a teacher’s time was taken up in the morning unnecessarily if they had to check every agenda just to check every agenda. I was not always clear on the objective or intent of it.

    When my girls moved to a school that didn’t use them, we felt relieved as a family! My youngest is certainly not the most organized, but she found a way that worked for her to remember things and keep track of things she felt she needed to…usually :). I felt she gained independence in that instead of relying on me or on what was expected with the agendas. I think there are other ways to support growth in independence, responsibility and time management – it could look different in each grade as well.

  11. Thanks FedUpMom! For many people, doodling actually aids concentration. I told J not to stop doodling in her agenda.

  12. My seven-year-old was issued an agenda (a "planner") this year, too. I think even the first-graders got them -- maybe even the kindergartners? It's hard not to see it as a sign that the younger grades will be getting more homework.

    Clearly the second-graders need planners so they'll be ready when they get to third grade, where they use planners so they'll be prepared for what they do in fourth grade, where they all use planners -- and so on.

    I agree with your comment on motivation, and with Sheila's about the importance of giving kids some independence and not micromanaging exactly how they have to do everything. All this stuff seems so penny-wise pound-foolish. You don't teach kids responsibility by spoon-feeding them time-management techniques and then policing whether they use them as instructed. You do it by giving them some autonomy and allowing them to screw up sometimes.

    When they turn eighteen, they'll be legal adults, free to manage their own lives. When do they get to practice that?

  13. Chris -- I posted a response to your comment, but it seems to have disappeared! The gist of it was that you pretty much sum up the whole problem with agendas, and the "agenda" behind them, when you say:

    "When they turn eighteen, they'll be legal adults, free to manage their own lives. When do they get to practice that?"

    I so liked that comment that I quoted it in a tweet!