The dignity of the learner comes in second to his or her compliance

Carol Burris says:

[W]atch the Relay Graduate School of Education video entitled ‘[A Culture of Support]’ . . . . Go to the link and look for the title. In the video, the teacher barks commands and questions, often with the affect and speed of a drill sergeant. The questions concern the concept of a ‘character trait’ but are low-level, often in a ‘fill in the blank’ format. The teacher cuts the student off as he attempts to answer the question. Students engage in the bizarre behavior of wiggling their fingers to send ‘energy’ to a young man, Omari, put on the spot by the teacher. Students’ fingers point to their temple and they wiggle hands in the air to send signals. Hands shoot up before the question is asked, and think time is never given to formulate thoughtful answers. When Omari confuses the word ‘ambition’ with ‘anxious’ (an error that is repeated by a classmate), you know that is how he is feeling at the moment. As the video closes with the command, “hands down, star position, [you are back reading right now]” there is not the warmth of a teacher smile, nor the utterance of ‘please’. The original question is forgotten and you are left to wonder if anyone understands what a character trait is. The pail was filled with ‘something’ and the teacher moves on. . . .

[The teacher] is performing as taught by a system that … better prepares students for the dutiful obedience of the military than for the intellectual challenges they will encounter in college. In schools taught by RGSE teachers, the Common Core State Standards will be, I fear, merely heavier rocks in the pail.

As I watched the video, I thought about the rich discussions, open-ended speculative questions, ample think time, and supportive feeling tone that I find in the classrooms of the teachers at my school. I remember the same culture in the middle school where I taught. Both are diverse schools that serve students with little as well as students with much. Suburban parents would be horrified by the magic finger wiggling and drill techniques used in the video clip. How sad that charter school students are treated as if, were they were given one second to think, the teacher would lose control. How horrifying that [in this school] student grades and punishments are put on public display. The dignity of the learner comes in second to his or her compliance.


Is this imposing upon ‘other people’s children’ the kind of education that White, middle class parents would never accept? Or is it merely giving traditionally-underserved students access to the tools required for accessing the codes and cultures of power?

4 Responses to “The dignity of the learner comes in second to his or her compliance”

  1. It is interesting and timely that I read this article shortly after reading Rury’s Chapter on the 19th Century and Common School Reform in his book “Education and Social Change” (2013).

    According to Rury, the 19th century schools had different purposes and pedagogies depending on the students/families they served. In schools that served the white middle class, educators understood that these children were already part of the dominant culture. Therefore the curriculum focused on preparing for a life of work (and maybe high school for the ambitious). The school also taught for citizenship, which meant that educators were to guide children to learn the values of self-control and hard work without imposing too much adult control over their personal freedom. They were being schooled for democracy after all! These educators knew that the school was primarily an extension of the home (and church) as far as character education went, and so I imagine this understanding also tempered their methods of teaching.

    During the same time, urban areas where “charity schools” served free blacks, Catholics, immigrants and children of poverty, the purpose of school was to impose Protestant/capitalist values that were assumed to be missing in the home lives of these children. The main purpose of these schools was to exert social control over the young. School leaders were not as concerned about preparing children for the “good life” or active citizenship. These schools were the societies response to hiding from view the visibility of poverty, crime, and social conflict. They were religiously severe holding cells for undesirable children who were not already working in the factories. If meaningful learning went on, I am sure that was well and good enough. But really it was about keeping these kids off the streets and out of jail.

    Even Horace Mann sold the idea of the common school, in part, on the idea that such schools would effectively put a stop to the dangerous spread of diverse ideologies that were counter to the dominate nationalist ideology of the time.

    I guess my point in this (too) long history lesson is this: The charter school you highlighted in your post seems to me to be a lot like the urban schools serving minorities in the 19th century. And like the 19th century, the parents of these children, no-doubt, still lack the social capital to successfully challenge this system or the cultural capital to even know or want too.

    The purpose of this charter school is not to educate for active citizenship, nor for freedom of expression, nor for sparking innovation or imagination that will allow theses students to dream of living the “good life”, whatever they choose that to be. The school is forcing these children to behave in ways that today’s dominant culture approves of, behaviors and ideas that no doubt will conflict with family and community beliefs. And when these learners leave school, chances are they will still lack the social and human capital to leverage any advantage provided them by behaving as quietly reserved and well trained young people who would not dare challenge the cultural majority.

  2. Upon watching the video, I was a little taken aback by how the teacher communicated with the students. I thought it was strange tat she was yelling questions to the students, but saw the questions as being useful. The repetition of the question or changing the wording around was allowing the students to problem solve on their own. One could tell that the teacher really wanted the student to get the question right on their own. Though I thought the teacher could have used a softer tone, her students were able to figure out what the word ambitious actually meant by listening to the questions being asked and problem solving. By working through the answer on their own, students are building skills that they will use in future classes. In upper level classes teachers are not going to give the students all the information that they need, some things they will have to figure out on their own. I believe suburban parents might be upset with the tone the teacher uses in the video, but would like the encouragement that the finger waving represents. The finger waving and pointing to the head were signs of encouragement and agreement among the students. To me knowing that your peers support you and your teacher is wanting you to get the answer right is empowering. It takes away from the feeling of failure or being embarrassed by a wrong answer. Even though it took Omari three times to get the answer right, he had student/teacher support to help him get the answer correct. When he got the right answer the teacher asked for signs of congratulations by finger waving and then got back on topic with reading the story. To me this is what you would want in a classroom, student/teacher encouragement, creative thinking, problem solving, and keeping students on task. (Minus the teacher tone.)Twitter:Meagan McRae@MeaganMcRae1

  3. Scott,
    This was almost as scary a watch as some of the Direct Explicit Instruction PD videos floating around. How we expect these kids to think for themselves – to BE themselves, when they’re shoehorned into approved communications is beyond me.

    We seem incapable, as a profession, of distinguishing between engagement and compliance. I blogged about this a while back:

    Thanks for alerting us to it

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