Changing Education from the Inside Out

May 1993

Changing Education from the Inside Out

Four Books from the 1990s Illuminate Progressive Schooling

By Alfie Kohn

[NOTE:  This review-essay was never published. You may judge for yourself whether it – and the books under review – are still relevant several decades later.]


EDUCATION AS ADVENTURE: Lessons from the Second Grade. By John G. Nicholls and Susan P. Hazzard. Teachers College Press. 221 pp.

EXPANDING COOPERATIVE LEARNING THROUGH GROUP INVESTIGATION. By Yael Sharan and Shlomo Sharan. Teachers College Press. 195 pp.

THE HUNDRED LANGUAGES OF CHILDREN: The Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Childhood Education. Edited by Carolyn Edwards, Lella Gandini, and George Forman. Ablex. 324 pp.

THE CHALLENGE TO CARE IN SCHOOLS: An Alternative Approach to Education. By Nel Noddings. Teachers College Press. 191 pp.


“A high-school teacher displays the following sales pitch on his bulletin board: ‘FREE. Every Monday through Friday. Knowledge. Bring your own containers.'”

— Item in the Reader’s Digest


Opponents of school desegregation dare us to deny that integrated schools are not only scarred by racial violence but also spontaneously resegregated every day in the cafeteria. Indeed, for half a century, social scientists have been telling us what any casual observer of human behavior should be able to figure out: Mere proximity does not cause liking. Dumping children from different backgrounds into the same building is not sufficient to produce harmony or even tolerance.

Rather than abandoning the project, though, we need to recognize that legislators and judges can only bring students as far as the schoolhouse door. Even with a perfectly multiethnic student population, animosity and resentment are likely to persist if, once inside the building, students face the same two failed models of instruction to which their parents were subjected: learning against each other or apart from each other. In the first, students must compete for grades, awards, and attention, with the result that everyone else comes to be seen as an obstacle to one’s own success. In the second, students are stranded at separate desks and taught that helping is cheating. If, however, classrooms are structured so that students of different colors and cultures regularly work together in small groups, research and experience show that they are likely to come to accept, care about, and socialize with those who are different from themselves.

The moral here is that educational policies enacted by public officials cannot be effective unless attention is paid to the decisions made by teachers and administrators. Unfortunately, most discussions about education — desegregation being only one example — are still conducted by people who ignore what goes on inside classrooms. We earnestly debate the racial composition of schools, the adequacy and equity of funding for education, the free marketeers’ plans for vouchers and school choice. But very few of us apart from professional educators ever examine the theory and practice of learning itself.

The result is that liberal pundits and policymakers are today proposing educational reforms that are, from a pedagogical point of view, essentially interchangeable with those coming from conservatives: more standardized testing, continued reliance on carrots and sticks to manipulate students or teachers, tougher standards based on distorted notions of how children learn, and a greater emphasis on “accountability” (a code word for tighter control, which has approximately the same effect on motivation that a noose has on breathing). Legislators all along the political spectrum assume the relevant question is how to get students to work harder rather than whether the work being assigned is worth doing.

Clearly, then, it isn’t enough for progressives to demand more money for education or even a fairer distribution of resources. We also have to concern ourselves with such matters as the model of learning that informs that appalling Reader’s Digest excerpt at the top of this page: students as passive receptacles of someone else’s knowledge.

Education at its best, as John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and their followers have shown, is active and interactive. This means that students must be given the opportunity to do at least as much talking as listening, with plenty of time to question, speculate, and argue. They need activities that are engaging and relevant to the life they have outside of school. Learning thrives in environments where students participate in deciding what they will do rather than having to spend their days following directions. Finally, the process of making meaning requires a caring community in which all participants feel safe in taking risks and making mistakes.

Glimpses of education informed by these precepts have been available for decades, but a handful of books published in the last few years elucidate the idea of progressive education with such clarity and rigor that even readers with no formal connection to the field should take note.

John Nicholls was, until his death at the age of 54, an expert on how children come to understand the concepts of ability and achievement. An educational researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago, he spent a year sitting in a second-grade classroom. The account that results, Education as Adventure (1993) — Nicholls graciously lists the teacher as co-author — is not only wonderfully readable but, more important, knowledgeable: events are filtered through the sensibility of someone who has devoted his career to thinking about what education ought to be.

In this respect, Nicholls’s book offers a sharp contrast to recent best-selling descriptions of school life. The latter are typically written by journalists who can bang out a nifty narrative but seem not to understand the implications of what they have seen. Uninformed observers take too much for granted and fail to ask deep questions: Who came up with those rules posted on the wall — the teacher acting alone or everyone struggling together to decide what kind of classroom they want to have? Might a child’s failure to stay “on task” say less about his or her attention span than about the task itself? Is a good classroom one characterized by compliance — showing up on time, reciting facts on command, completing all the assignments — or by the messiness of, in Nicholls’s phrases, “vigorous and exciting negotiation” about “controversial knowledge” and a “collaborative quest for excitement and meaning”?

Because he is using what he observes to illuminate ideas about education rather than compiling a chronicle of his year in the classroom for its own sake, Nicholls organizes his book logically — that is, by theme — rather than chronologically. Despite the absence of a linear narrative, the text actually becomes more absorbing as it goes along rather than petering out in the final chapters.

Descriptions frequently give way to the author’s opinions on what is wrong with worksheets and textbooks (they require “answer-finding rather than riddle-solving” and mostly “serve to maintain order”), behavioristic classroom management systems such as Assertive Discipline (they set up a false dichotomy between “putting up with behavior problems and being the big boss and stamping them out”), and Benjamin Bloom’s mastery learning approach (it’s a “justification for teaching discrete bits of information”).

Likewise, Nicholls explains, borrowing from Dewey, that education at its best gives students a voice not only about the means of learning but also the ends, the why as well as the what. Even very young children are “curriculum theorists” who should be engaged in the “formation of the purposes that govern their activities.” There is no better use of classroom time, Nicholls declares, than a sustained conversation following someone’s challenge: “Why do we gotta do this stuff?”

But if it is his vision and knowledge that distinguish Nicholls’s book from its journalistic counterparts, it is the fact that he shows rather than just tells us about classroom practice that distinguishes it from other educational essays. We can see for ourselves how Hazzard’s occasional reliance on worksheets and Assertive Discipline defeat her own best instincts as a teacher. We understand the essence of good teaching when we hear her giving reasons to students for what she is asking them to do, or freely conceding that everyone (including her) makes mistakes, or taking children’s opinions seriously (which is quite different from knee-jerk positive reinforcement). We get a peek at how students analyze literature together and talk about their own behavior. In short, we watch real learning, as distinct from assignments being completed and questions answered on cue.

After these second graders create their own stories about a spaceship, they form groups to discuss what they’ve written. It is here that Nicholls helps us to understand the hallmark of successful schooling. Never mind grades and scores, which lead children to become so preoccupied with how well they’re doing that they lose interest in what they’re doing — and, paradoxically, according to considerable research, are less likely to do it well. The measure that matters is excitement. When Hazzard announces it’s time for recess, “she fields a chorus of groans” and promises that they can return to their stories just as soon as recess is over. Here is a portrait of an educator doing something right, and it should be read by every teacher or parent who assumes that boredom with school is either inevitable or a function of some flaw in the child.

For students to be engaged in learning itself — which is altogether different from grasping for A’s or praise — it helps if they work together. Enter cooperative learning, a movement that has made a substantial impact in certain pockets of the country over the last decade or so. When groupwork is structured carefully, it has been shown in scores of studies to help students learn more effectively as well as to feel more positively about themselves, each other, and what they’re working on.

But despite its potential to transform education, some popular variants of cooperative learning are disappointing and diluted. Children may be bribed with grades or stickers to work together; groups may be set against each other in tournaments, a practice which teaches that the only reason for people to work together is to defeat another group of people working together; students may be deprived of choice about what they are doing; or they may continue to be presented with a drill-and-skill, fact-based curriculum. In short, many versions of cooperative learning amount to the status quo except in groups.

One refreshing exception, a cooperative approach in which students are given challenging, conceptual work and considerable discretion as to how they do it, is known as Group Investigation. Since the 1970s, the Israeli educators Shlomo Sharan, Yael Sharan, and Rachel Hertz-Lazarowitz have been refining their explicit attempt to marry Dewey to group work in the classroom. In Expanding Cooperative Leaning Through Group Investigation (1992), the Sharans offer a comprehensive description of the technique and a persuasive justification for its use.

Basically, students (with some degree of teacher guidance) take a broad topic, break it into specific questions, and sort themselves into groups to explore these questions. Each group plans and conducts an investigation and then figures out a way to share what they have learned with the rest of the class. Finally, students play an active role in evaluating their own work rather than simply submitting it for a grade. Throughout, the emphasis is on “shared responsibility and interaction” — on the importance of giving students “the opportunity to cooperate in interpreting the meaning of the information they gathered.”

The examples of Group Investigation projects involve students from third grade through tenth. But in the northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia, some of the same pedagogical principles are being introduced with children who are barely steady on their feet. While The Hundred Languages of Children (1993) is the first book about this program to be published in the U.S., the work being done there has already attracted international attention. A pilgrimage to Reggio Emilia has lately become de rigueur for progressive educators, particularly those with a special interest in art or early childhood education.

As two of the book’s contributors summarize the Reggio approach, “Projects for children involve spiraling experiences of exploration and group discussion, then representation and expression, through the use of many symbolic media….Children’s work is not casually created, but rather is the result of a guided exploration of themes and events that are relevant to the life of the children and the larger community.” The concrete activities described in Hundred Languages flesh out these themes, leaving the reader with a vivid sense of what the Reggio schools offer — and what most other preschools lack.

Consider a class of dinosaur lovers. The children draw pictures of the animals and these images become the basis for an extended conversation that includes open-ended questions about how the animals lived. The teacher listens for potentially rich themes in their talk, playing off a child’s comment and tossing the issue back to the group. The discussion is tape recorded and transcribed so the teacher can consult with her colleagues about the unit, converse with parents about what the class is doing, and read back some of the comments to the children themselves so they can follow up on their own ideas and questions. Over the next few days, the children contact knowledgeable people in the community, inviting them to come talk about dinosaurs. They track down books and compare the published images to their own drawings. And they decide to build an enormous dinosaur out of plastic. Throughout the process, the teacher is busy “guiding and shaping, but not controlling, the discussion.”

What emerges from this and other examples in Hundred Languages, as well as from straightforward essays about the principles of Reggio Emilia, is an approach to learning that involves extensive collaboration among children and among teachers. Basic skills are nested in the context of projects that emerge from children’s interests. Those who cannot yet write express themselves by talking, drawing, building, playing — or, presumably, in one of the other 95 languages of children — and their products are recorded, posted, displayed, and analyzed. The pace is unhurried, with children “encouraged to repeat key experiences, observe and reobserve, consider and reconsider.” The goal, as Carolyn Edwards, one of the editors, puts it, is “not so much to ‘facilitate’ learning in the sense of ‘making smooth or easy,’ but rather to ‘stimulate’ it by making problems more complex, involving, and arousing.”

The 18 chapters and two Forewords that comprise the book are oddly organized and often poorly written, and none contains any serious challenges to, or criticisms of, the Reggio Emilia method. Still, the decision to include many voices, each sounding a different theme about the project, was wise. And the project itself is so important, even inspirational, that educators in this country will be grateful for any chance to hear from those who have seen it and those who have helped to create it.

The fact that skills other than the three R’s play a dominant role at Reggio Emilia may not in itself seem remarkable. These are, after all, children from two to six years old. But what should be the focus of their education once they reach the elementary and secondary levels? Or, as Nicholls asks more pointedly in a footnote, “Of what value is intelligence that does not enhance life?”

For Nel Noddings, a feminist educator at Stanford University best known for challenging the basis of Western morality in her 1983 book Caring, that question must be at the center of any inquiry into education. In her most recent essay, The Challenge to Care in Schools (1992), she again demonstrates a radicalism and gumption that commend her work even to readers unwilling to accept all her conclusions. Her thesis is that progressive practices shouldn’t just be placed in the service of the traditional goal of academic excellence. Rather, “the main aim of education should be to produce competent, caring, loving, and lovable people.”

In fact, even the first of these adjectives does not necessarily suggest expertise in the usual disciplines. It might refer, for example, to basket weaving, an activity often used as a colloquial code for a ridiculously unchallenging activity. In a lovely aside, Noddings remarks that weaving baskets is neither pointless nor particularly easy. More generally, she insists that we will need to “set aside the deadly notion that the school’s first priority should be intellectual development.”

The bulk of The Challenge to Care in Schools amounts to an annotated list of Noddings’s favorite values, such as moderation and the importance of connection to the natural world, rather than a sustained argument for a new educational mission. Some of us are not quite ready to abandon or even reduce our schools’ emphasis on critical thinking, exposure to good literature, and other aspects of the “liberal education” that Noddings derides. But besides opening up a fruitful dialogue on that question, she makes it clear that, regardless of the subject matter, schooling must be learner-centered, which is to say, responsive to what children need. Any number of practices and objectives can interfere with this vision, including, on the one hand, the education-as-investment model (in which students are crammed with the skills necessary to provide a competitive advantage to the corporations in which they will someday work), and, on the other hand, a determination to prove that “all children can learn” a given subject, which “can lead to highly manipulative and dictatorial methods that disregard the interests and purposes of students.”

Even if we continue to think it valuable for children to learn how to think like mathematicians, there is an enormous difference between converting a row of decontextualized decimals into fractions because the teacher or textbook decrees it, on the one hand, and picking up the skill in order to draw a dinosaur to scale, on the other. Likewise, a huge gulf separates a classroom where children are required to keep their eyes on their own papers from one in which each feels part of a community of learners.

Nearly a century ago, Dewey described how he went shopping for desks for his laboratory school and found most of the available models unsatisfactory. One salesman finally put his finger on what was wrong: “You want something at which the children may work; these are all for listening.” The design of most schools, right down to the furniture, emphasizes passivity, efficiency, and “dealing with children en masse,” Dewey realized. Thus, even the most progressive politicians (or citizens) will not substantially improve our educational system unless they begin to think about the nature of learning itself and the things that happen inside the classroom.

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