Progressive Education I: Why Come to School?

Why should students go to school?  At the most basic level, the traditional answer is that students go to school to learn. That learning—in the traditional understanding—consists of the transmission of information from adults (teachers) into children (students).  The more intelligent and hard-working a
student is, the more he or she will retain of that transmitted information.  To complete the process, the adult will measure how much the student has learned by asking him or her to repeat back certain parts.

This testing, in the traditional way of thinking abouteducation and schooling, is like the old game of telephone, except not fun.  There is an assumed degradation of the information transmitted.  The student
is more or less successful—achieves a higher or lower grade—based on how much he or she can repeat back accurately.  On how well she can battle that inevitable degradation.

It may sound a little silly when it’s spelled out like that, but that understanding of the basic principle of schooling still has overwhelming cultural support.  It is one of the most basic foundations of our institutional education system.  For instance, when I pick up my fourth-grade daughter from school, I still ask the same dumb questions:

–“How was school today?”

–“Good.”  Or –“Okay.”

A pause.  Then,
–“What’d you learn about?”

–Shrug and non-committal noise.

It’s not just me.  I overhear every other parent and child having similar conversations at the end of the school day.  Maybe it is just a way for us to look like caring parents in front of the other parents.  Or to look like we are invested in our kids’ education.  Or to demonstrate to the teachers who are also standing around that we support their attempts to transmit information into our kids.  But at the back of that question are some big assumptions about what is supposed to go on in schools: “What did you learn about today?”  Assuming that each school day should include some measure of information transmitted from adult—or video, or book made and selected by adults—to kid.  And that the school should be prompting each student to build up a storehouse of information on a variety of subjects.

It is not only awkward after-school conversations that show this.  As we have all seen for the last ten years, the political power of the cultural idea of testing is hard to match.  The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 did not create the idea of testing.  It introduced a regime of high-stakes tests that would evaluate all
students’ abilities to read and perform mathematical processes.  Those tests were not just of interest to the individual students and their families.  They did not merely collate into a report card of progress for each
student.  In the new universe of NCLB, the test scores of individual students had practical implications for the funding of entire school districts.  If enough students failed to improve their test scores for three years in a row, school districts risked being forced to close schools and fire staff unless they came up with big ways to improve student scores fast.

The hinge of this regime remained the notion of testing as a way to evaluate the success of education.  The makers of NCLB did not invent this.  They merely tapped into dominant notions about the nature of
education.  Proponents of the NCLB regime did not need to explain that these tests would give good information about the process of learning at each school.  Everyone already agreed that testing could do that.  All NCLB did was build on this notion of testing to enforce a new scheme of funding and bureaucracy.

Americans already agreed that testing is the primary measure of school performance.  And behind the
notion of testing is the assumption that students go to school to receive transmitted information.  A formal testis a way to test how successful that transmission was.  This would only seem so important if that
transmission were assumed to be the main reason for going to school.  Not that NCLB or the regime of high-stakes testing hasn’t been controversial.  It has.  But the controversies have largely focused on the nature of the testing regime, or on the consequences of poor performance on tests.  The notion that students go to school primarily to receive transmitted information is not generally questioned.  That is the general understanding of what a student should be doing within those walls.

It does not take a very sophisticated understanding of sociological theory to see some holes in those assumptions.  Every teacher, every parent, every adult who works in a school sees it right away.  It is inescapable: This shared consensus about the reasons for going to school is only shared among adults.

For their part, students come to school for all sorts of reasons.  Some of them may come to school primarily to receive transmitted information.  But the leading reason why students come to school—from the  students’ perspective—is because they have to.  In different schools, that requirement is more or less coerced.  Many students don’t mind the coercion.  Yes, they have to go.  But the school also represents to them their entire social universe.  And many of them even share the general adult expectations about the reasons for school.  They agree without thinking about it too much that school is the proper place for them.

Perhaps a comparison to other kinds of learning institutions might help.  Think about piano lessons
from when you were ten.  At that age, at that stage, parents make their children go to lessons.  And children go because they have to.  Some of them might enjoy it.  Some of them might complain about it.  But very few kids at that age go to piano lessons because they are seeking to receive transmitted information and skills about music and piano-playing.  Plus, the upcoming “test” is generally not of very much interest to piano students.  In these kinds of private lessons, the “test” will traditionally be a painful recital, in which parents and siblings and grandparents gather to hear the terrible piano playing that their ten-year-olds
can produce.

These assumptions are similar to those of most school experiences.  Students go because they are told to.  They are judged on the level at which they are able to reproduce the musical lessons their teacher has
transmitted to them.  For our purposes,the important point is that the student did not go to the lesson to learn piano.  He went because his mom dropped him off there at four.

Compare that learning experience to a different kind.  Consider a sixteen-year-old kid who is taking guitar lessons.  In my town growing up, there was a guy who taught guitar in a little basement down under where the supermarket used to be, just next to the railroad tracks.  Students went to him because they wanted to
learn to play awesome guitar.  His selling point was that he was awesome.  He played guitar really well, hung out with his friends in the smelly basement “studio,” and smoked a lot of pot.

If a sixteen-year-old boy—and it was almost always boys that seemed drawn to this guy—went to take guitar lessons, it was because the student really wanted to learn what the teacher could teach.  The student saved some money or asked his parents for money to pay this teacher to share his accumulated knowledge of how to play that guitar.  In this case, the student went to school to learn.  The student hoped that the teacher would successfully transmit a certain type of information to the student.

Just having a desire to receive transmitted skills or information is not a magic bullet.  Not every teenage guitar student ends up learning guitar.  But I think this example illuminates what is NOT the norm in regular schools.  Students went to take those guitar lessons because they wanted to learn guitar.  They wanted the teacher to transmit information to them.  That is a different attitude than most students take to their regular school.   In contrast to the most basic assumption of traditional schooling, most students do not go to school to learn.  They go because they have to.    These conditions have been in place for at least the last fifty years.  Sociologist James Coleman noted in 1961 that students do not go to high schools in order to learn.  In fact, he found that the most intelligent students were not the ones that received the best grades.  Rather, Coleman found in 1961 that the best students, gradewise, were those who accepted the game of transmission-and-testing the most unquestioningly, the ones who were “willing to work hard at a relatively unrewarded activity.”  The most intelligent young people, in contrast, took the transmission of information as something to be tolerated.  They went to school for social reasons.  They hoped school would provide them with an exciting and stimulating social environment.  But they did not go to school in order to receive information.  They put up with that as the cost of admission.



James Coleman with John WC Johnstone and Kurt Jonassohn, The Adolescent Society: The Social Life of the Teenager and Its Impact on Education (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1961).

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  1. And as a nation, we continue to embrace this banking view of education, despite the fact that writers like Freire told it like it was way back in 1970!

  2. Donald Byrne

     /  October 25, 2011

    Adam, here’s a question I bet you know the answer to. Was America’s rise to superpower prominence during the “American Century” a direct result of its advanced system of education? Or would a country blessed with resources that had a backwards system of education still rise nonetheless to superpower status?

    I’m curious because this is a main bullet in the bill of sale we offer students these days. Or at least the politicians and bureaucrats do. We need strong democratic education for all, the line goes, so that we can maintain/regain our prominence amongst powerful nations.

    • Donaldo,
      I think one of the historical episodes that’s most interesting in this regard was the American response to Sputnik in 1957. Prominent voices argued for less democratic education in order to save democracy. In order to compete, the argument went, with a totalitarian system, the US must track students more thoroughly and aggressively. The US needed, in this view, to identify talented students and groom them into scientists, engineers and mathemeticians.
      These days, I see more students being told that education will give them material payoffs. I don’t hear a lot of students being told that they need to stay in school to help the US compete with China, do you? What I hear more of is the refrain that students will need to stay in school in order to stay out of the McJobs that proliferate.

      • Donald Byrne

         /  October 25, 2011

        Yes, why come to school indeed.

        I actually feel like I am hearing the “compete with China” rhetoric a lot. At our school it’s come out during our faculty wranglings about “rigor” and “college readiness”. We must teach high-order thinking skills and analysis, team-based learning (i.e. collaborative work teams) and advanced writing skills 1) BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT THE BUSINESS WORLD WANTS and 2) BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT COLLEGE PROFESSORS EXPECT, thanks to number 1).

        To me, the economic, business-model reason is not the strongest argument for “college-ready, rigorous education for all.” The strongest reason is the argument from democracy. To have a strong democracy, which seems worth fighting for as a good in itself, we need to have a well-educated, un-demagogue-able populace. People who can not only read but also analyze the news. Though I must say that I doubt that during America’s rise to prominence there was any higher percentage of folks who’d had a rigorous education and could analyze the news

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