The School House Rock

Some of you may have the wrong impression. First you’ll notice there are no bold primary colors or catchy tunes in this article. Second, while I may sound like an old puppet in the balcony, this is not about conjunctions’ functions at any junction, nor is this article sponsored by a consonant. However, I do hope this collection of familiar nouns and verbs has some kind of moral. So I ask for your patience as I attempt to unpack an old-fashioned idea that’s making more sense the older I get.

The emphasis here is not on the fourth word in the title, but rather on the nostalgic, hokey notions caught up in the third. The metaphor of school as house contains what I believe to be significant implications, and embracing that metaphor is the bedrock of effective schools. In these “houses” real, live, messy human beings teach and learn how to be better moms and dads, citizens and neighbors. As one old book suggested, houses built on the solid rock of a clear understanding are more likely to stand when the wind kicks up.

There have been plenty of high winds and a lot to fight over in the last 150 years of this grand North American experiment to educate all of our citizens. We have probably fought more over the form and function of the school “house” that almost any other issue. But that’s hardly news. Over twenty-four centuries ago, Aristotle complained that “men do not agree on what they would have a child learn” or even the form of the building where the child learns. If the American architect Louis Sullivan is right, “the form follows the function.” Consequently, if we can figure out what the function (or purpose) of education ought to be, then the form or shape of the school “house” where it happens should follow. But it’s just not that easy.

We’re having a hard time agreeing on the function (and the subsequent form) of the school, but we’re not much further down the “how-to” road either. We’ve gone through several “brand-new” or “repackaged” versions of direct instruction, discovery learning, and reciprocal teaching, and we’ve ridden the pendulum back and forth between phonics and whole language. Each successive innovation has enjoyed its fifteen minutes of fame, but none has significantly moved the needle for every kid in every community. We have even tried out several different names for our learning houses—from Latin grammar school to charter school. What seems clear in hindsight is that the name on the front of the building is not as important as what happens inside. The constant in all of this is that school is a place … a house, where ragged, incomplete human beings gather to do the really hard work of learning fractions, collective problem-solving, and ultimately becoming better men and women more in tune with what Abraham Lincoln called “the angels of our better nature.” This sounds suspiciously like what families do, so calling this place a school “house” may be quaint, but reasonable. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a notion familiar to most of us.

The courts have ruled that teachers are (like it or not), in loco parentis, the old legal term obligating educators to assume at least some of the responsibilities and functions of a parent. Maybe good parents have a thing or two to teach aspiring teachers or perhaps the reverse. Moms, dads, and good teachers know that the learning house is a dangerous laboratory where we continually fiddle around with just the right amount of the two lethal ingredients—comfort and challenge—in creating more responsible citizens and sons and daughters. In the extremes, too much or too little comfort is as deadly as too much or too little challenge. Noted psychologist Diana Baumrind devoted her career to studying parents, and concluded that good ones strike a delicate balance between responsiveness and demandingness, or as she would later call it, “responsible relatedness.” To me, that seems to be the gold standard for good teaching.

If we are serious about the school as a house, then the implications of that concept spill over into how we treat and measure the human beings in it. Our opinions shape our responses and assign value to the things we make. It may be that we have been simply using the wrong model for conceptualizing school and calibrating our assessment tools. Too often we have conceived and subsequently managed schools as if they were “factories” where widgets are mass-produced. If school is a factory, the goal is to evaluate workers and the things they produce. If school is a house, maybe the goal is measuring parental impact on their children. Of the two models, the factory is easier to manage, and the assessment instruments infinitely easier to calibrate. Good schools, like good families, don’t stamp out cookie-cutter versions of human beings.

I have learned over the last few decades that not every child or teacher fits the factory’s theoretical Procrustean bed. While Procrustes found it easier to chop off weary traveler’s legs than to adjust the bed frame, that practice is not an attractive one whether we’re talking about travelers, students, teachers, or families. In such a Draconian measurement model, what our sons and daughters learn, as B. F. Skinner pointed out, are escape and avoidance behaviors. In a world where lifelong learning is essential, it makes little sense to drive students away from the learning house. Good teachers know adjusting the frame to fit irregular human beings is a process that’s slow, laborious, and a bit messy. They also know, like parents do, that the human experience is personal, that children in the same family have wonderfully different life arcs and individual contributions to make. In a good school with good teachers, “responsible relatedness” nurtures a wide diversity of gifts that promote unique expressions of the boundless human spirit on both sides of the teacher’s desk. The tolerances in a widget factory are too precise to allow such individualism. On the factory floor, precision matters more than people, and rightly so. All of the widgets have to be exactly alike.

The ability of the American schools to cultivate individual creativity in such schools has paid off handsomely in a variety of patents, innovations, and creative expressions that have enriched our lives. By at least one yardstick used to measure this pragmatic end of a good education, we have succeeded. Fully three of every four Nobel Laureates have been trained in American schools. However, to compete in what Thomas Friedman called “a flat, hot, and crowded world,” we will have to be even better. As we rethink the future for real, live, messy people, I suggest we begin with what we know works. I know of no better place to build a future than on the solid rock of the understanding of the school as “house,” the right function for this junction.