Why Schools Need to Change
Why Schools Need to Change

Today’s learners face an uncertain present and a rapidly changing future that will demand far different skills and knowledge than were needed in the 20th century. We also know far more today about enabling deep, powerful learning than we did when public schools were designed in the early 20th century. Our collective future depends on how well young people prepare for the challenges and opportunities of 21st-century life.

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Teaching students to say “no” creates emboldened, not disrespectful, critical thinkers who can explore and navigate a flourishing democratic society.

Accounted by Jonathan Kozol in On Being a Teacher, disobedience instruction is teaching students how to say “no” toward teacher authoritarianism or counter a teacher’s sweeping political statements. Although this runs counter to the traditional teaching narrative (why would I want a student to disobey me?), it is imperative that our children grow up to live in a flourishing democratic society. Our goal is not to create malignant people, but emboldened learners. As Kozol writes,

It takes a bit of work to make it clear that I do not intend to urge them [students] to go home and be malicious to their folks, nor do I hope that they will feel the urge to be malicious here in school. I draw a line, as well as I can, between two very different states of mind: the sheer vindictive malice of defiance and aggression on the one hand, and a vigorous note of ethical irreverence on the other. The first attacks the person, while the second concentrates on that person’s viewpoints and beliefs.

The hidden curriculum in school reinforces the cultural norm not to question the authority of a teacher or an assignment’s explicit narrative or bias. In a world where large corporate interests dominate civil life and infrastructure, our students must be equipped to take charge and organize. Some of the next generation have begun (Greta Thunberg, for example), yet many are jaded, apathetic, and submissive to the life they’re set up for. As Ira Shor and Paulo Freire wrote in A Pedagogy for Liberation,

What we do in the classroom is not an isolated moment separate from the “real world.” It is entirely connected to the real world and it is the real world, which places both powers and limits on any critical course. Because the world is in the classroom, whatever transformation we provoke has a conditioning effect outside our small space. But the outside has a conditioning effect on the space also, interfering with our ability to build a critical culture separate from the dominant mass culture.

The question is how do we build a school system that cares about the autonomy of its students while promoting a challenging environment? Will students take on difficult tasks if not forced into traditional curricula and behaviorism? And how can teachers band together to create caring classroom communities that ensure every student is treated fairly and with dignity? Teaching this way requires teachers to understand implicit bias, use a decolonized curricula, and incorporate restorative justice. Understanding the pedagogy is half the battle. Every teacher must be equipped with the proper mindset. As E.W. Eisner states,

Teachers still close the classroom door and do what they know how to do and believe is best for the students they teach. In this sense, changes in the teachers’ ideology may be among the important changes can be made in the field of education.

However, this pedagogy without systemic change does little to counter authoritarianism in the classroom. And at least some systemic change is possible at the classroom level.

A classroom that introduces students to progressive pedagogy, dissects the school system and its curricula, allows for choice, promotes social-emotional well-being, and builds a true classroom community is one that builds flourishing humans.

Allowing for Choice

The first obvious systemic change in empowering learners to say “no” is providing fewer opportunities that something could be said “no” to. As in, allowing students more freedom to make choices. This is not a choice between a set number of assignments—rather, a literal infinite choice on what to learn and how it is done. As educational critic Alfie Kohn has documented, when students decide their own outcomes individually or collectively, they’re not only happier and less stressed, but they learn more content.

In a traditional structure, it isn’t possible for a teacher to completely avoid standards. Yet, it is incredibly empowering for learners to understand the underlying system and find ways to manipulate, work around, and achieve — while simultaneously pursuing their own interests. A teacher can negotiate with their class and collectively, students and teachers can build a curriculum together that addresses what the learning community is interested in.

But what of students who don’t want to participate at all in the learning process? There is a misunderstanding among many adults that some children just “don’t want to learn”—that they have no intrinsic motivation. Of course, these students are interested in learning—these same adults will identify video games, social media, or relationships as “what these students want to do”—but these topics aren’t deemed as valued as traditional school subjects.

It’s difficult to motivate learners who are apathetic, disengaged, or disinterested in the traditional learning standards. There’s no simple answer for everyone. However, the act of building relationships, being transparent about the situation (e.g., graduation requirements, standardized testing), and forming that collective learning community can at least show a student that you’re on their side. Allowing students to meet the minimum requirements provided by the state is okay. Letting students pursue their passions within school is fantastic. By not shutting down student interests and marginalizing their behavior, teachers are forming a lasting bond that can lead to student success. (Importantly, this success isn’t necessarily academic. The success is recognizing a student’s passions and pursuits as valuable and can serve a societal good. Relationships are the cornerstone to learning—and this form of success doesn’t box learning into the small box of “core” subject areas.)

Instilling a moral sense of dignity which is extended to all learners allows us to connect and negotiate the learning process. As John Dale and Emery J. Hyslop-Margison write in Paulo Freire: Teaching for Freedom and Transformation,

Liberatory choice and action is ‘good’ because rather than oppressing, manipulating, or coercing other people, it provides them with space for authenticity, choice, and actualization, or in Freire’s terminology, conscientização. Dignity exists for no one until all people within all situations are afforded dignity as well. One cannot rationally expect to be treated fairly unless such treatment is extended to the entire community of humankind…Our ‘good’ choices, then, must not interfere or impede the actions, dignity, and authenticity of others.

Choice is not limited to the day’s activities or how to display learning, but the assessment process as well. A liberating grading system—a gradeless system—is a requirement in truly humanizing a classroom. As sj Miller writes,

…when we embrace a liberatory pedagogy, if we do not align our assessment practices with such practices, then we perpetuate the mind/body split and ill-prepare students with an understanding of their imminent power to transform the worlds in which they engage. A student who embodies the benefits of liberatory pedagogy has great potential to act on and transform dynamics of power that sustain dominant culture. For an educator to be half of a liberatory pedagogist is to further feed the system of education that survives on mechanizing and dehumanizing its recipients. Learning how to blend assessment to pedagogy is to provide an authentic educational experience. [emphasis mine]

Maintaining “Discipline”

If a student can say “no” to a teacher, how can order be kept? Much of the education system is built out of convenience. It’s hard to manage a group of students in school—they’re loud, have trouble sitting still, and can’t concentrate on one thing for long periods of time. This is what children do when subjected to the structure they’re placed in—it’s not a bad thing. Therefore, to imply a teacher keep 25–35 students completely silent, rarely socialize, and care about content that may or may not be important to them for hours during the day is unrealistic. To maintain an outdated classroom structure is dehumanizing. Because—in order to do this properly—a teacher must become an authoritarian.

It’s up to a progressive educator to realign what an “orderly classroom” looks like. Educators must reassess their biases toward classroom management that were likely taught in their teacher training program. As bell hooks states,

Although no one ever directly stated the rules that would govern our conduct, it was taught by example and reinforced by a system of rewards. As silence and obedience to authority were most rewarded, students learned that this was the appropriate demeanor in the classroom. Loudness, anger, emotional outbursts, and even something as seemingly innocent as unrestrained laughter were deemed unacceptable, vulgar disruptions of classroom social order. These traits were also associated with being a member of the lower classes. If one was not from a privileged class group, adopting a demeanor similar to that of the group could help one to advance. It is still necessary for students to assimilate bourgeois values in order to be deemed acceptable.

Does this mean that students will be running around the room, fighting each other, yelling constantly, and in general—causing chaos? No, of course not. This is not natural human behavior. Sudbury Schools have had students choose their own actions and curriculum for decades—and when visiting these schools, you’ll rarely find students acting this way. In fact, they’re usually much more calm and “orderly” than traditional schools. People crave structure—not necessarily the structure of a teacher’s regime handed down to them, but communally decided upon rules and behavioral expectations.

Again, the collective community deciding what rules and regulations matter to them is a central tenet to building a classroom where one can say “no.” Establishing prosocial behavior lends itself to prosocial behavior occurring. As William M. Bryant and Cayce McCamish write in Breaking All the Rules,

As it exists currently in schools, compassion is typically aligned with regret rather than care for self and others. Let us consider the following example. A student runs down the hall, turns a corner, and knocks violently into a younger, smaller student. Let us assume that the runner feels sorry for knocking down the other student. His/Her regret may develop into further regret when considering that he/she will likely be punished for violating a rule (do not run in the halls). On the other hand, given the same scenario, if a student based his/her future actions on a framework of compassion, the student would determine, even before beginning, that running in the hall is neither wise nor useful behavior—not because a rule dictates it—but because of the potential hazard his/her action would create for all the parties involved.

Additionally, a student who embodies compassion turns to foresight to ground his/her reason. In turn, compassion also rouses empathy for others (“I don’t want to hurt anyone”) and empathy for oneself (“I’d feel terrible if I was responsible for hurting someone”). When reason and compassion are coupled, a space to create a compassionate discipline is formed, and it is when such a space is created that respect for self and others can flourish.

This isn’t a replacement for all traditional discipline. For example, if a student is violent—removal from the classroom is warranted. Safety is still paramount. But the vast majority of school disciplinary action is taken on issues stemming from noncompliance.

Strengthening Humankind

So much emphasis is placed on learning material in school for the sole reason of “career and college readiness”—with “soft skills” set aside as a nice-to-have notion. (After all, it’s not measured or tied to funding.) Yet, a pedagogy that focuses on love, respect, tolerance, and choice fundamentally instills values in a learner that will radically transform our society. Teaching students to say “no” doesn’t raise a generation of disrespectful youth. Rather, it raises critical thinkers who are able to explore, navigate, and pursue paths that respect the learners around them.

A classroom that introduces students to progressive pedagogy, dissects the school system and its curricula, allows for choice, promotes social-emotional well-being, and builds a true classroom community is one that builds flourishing humans.

As bell hooks writes in Toward a Worldwide Culture of Love,

Because of the awareness that love and domination cannot coexist, there is a collective call for everyone to place learning how to love on their emotional and/or spiritual agenda. We have witnessed the way in which movements for justice that denounce dominator culture, yet have an underlying commitment to corrupt uses of power, do not really create fundamental changes in our societal structure. When radical activists have not made a core break with dominator thinking (imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy), there is no union of theory and practice, and real change is not sustained. That’s why cultivating the mind of love is so crucial. When love is the ground of our being, a love ethic shapes our participation in politics.

Therefore, pursuing a classroom that builds upon collective learning, trust, and group purpose is transformational to solving the issues of today and tomorrow. Despite that being the mission statement of every single school, there is little structural change happening to meet these needs. Instead, we double down on standardized testing to “beat” other districts, states, and nations in solving these problems. Only by restructuring the learning process, and remeasuring our accountability, will we build a society that solves these problems.


Photo at top from PeakPX

Chris McNutt headshot

Chris McNutt

Founder, Human Restoration Project

Chris McNutt is obsessed with the benefits of progressive education and wants a practical place to find everything, for free, under one roof. This prompted him to open the Human Restoration Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping educators spread human-centric practices. He holds a Masters Degree in Education from The Ohio State University and is a public high school digital media & design educator.