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.