Chapter Seven: Teachers, Students, and Teaching

7.2 Consequences of a Standardized Model of Schooling

As schooling became universal for children, mass forms of education were devised. Again, this was a deliberate choice rather than an inevitable outcome. Even the mass schooling of young people could be conducted in quite different ways from our current practices. For example, it could be non-compulsory; it could be spread over more hours of the day, with people attending at different times or even throughout the year; it could involve more independent study, flipped classrooms, or virtual study at home; or it could be spread over more years, allowing for periods of work or other activities in-between. Many schools and many teachers are involved in changes in organizational arrangements that they believe will result in better education.

Once the decision was made to organize schools using a factory model as the main analogue, important consequences for teaching and learning came into play. The central organizational problem for any school is what to do with a large number of children and young people who are required to be in attendance for five or six hours each school day. A typical elementary school, for example, might have 300 to 400 children arriving each day around 9:00 a.m. and staying until 3:30 p.m. (preschool students, who are there only half the day, cause further complications). The school must provide activities for those children during that time, and it must aim to make those activities educational. Schools must organize the students, the teachers, the knowledge that will be regarded as legitimate, and the time around all these people and activities. These requirements may seem self-evident, but, as the next few pages will show, they have important implications for school organization, teaching, and learning.

A first effect of school organization has to do with physical facilities. Schooling takes place in buildings that are built for that purpose. The buildings are usually separated from other activities in the community, and from places where adults (other than teachers) are found. Schools tend not to have congregating places for adults other than teachers and staff, though more schools are incorporating spaces where parents, knowledge keepers, and community agency staff are welcome. Students go to school in large rooms full of desks, tables, chairs, and school equipment. In many schools, windows have been blocked up to save energy or for safety reasons, which considerably alters the feel of a room. Few schools provide places where students can be alone or work in small groups of their own choosing. Many schools in urban environments do not have any green space for students to enjoy. Yet learners of all ages often prefer these modes of learning when given a choice. What happens in schools, therefore, is immediately constrained by the physical setting.

Because students are legally obliged to attend school, supervision and control are also important issues. The school literally has custody of the children and must therefore ensure their presence and safety. Some of the legal ramifications of this requirement were explored in Chapter 4. The implications of the need to supervise children go far beyond legal issues, however. Organizationally, schools must ensure that students are directly supervised by an adult member of the staff. Typically, the means used to meet this requirement is to divide students into groups, with each group having an adult, usually a teacher, in charge. Thus, two other central characteristics of the school are created: students work in groups, and teachers work individually with groups of students.

Institutionalized schooling also creates the requirement for a timetable, which means that the movements of teachers and students are regulated by the schedule and the clock. Teachers must organize instruction to fit the timetable, regardless of their own style or their students’ needs. Classes must begin and end at a particular time which may or may not fit the educational requirements of the material or meet the needs and preferences of students and teachers. Most teachers and students experience the day as chopped into small pieces, requiring them to change their mindsets every 40 or 80 minutes, or whatever the schedule dictates. High school teachers may see only limited aspects of students because their contact with them is limited to particular subjects or times. Moreover, all subjects may get roughly equal time allocations, even though it seems evident that each might benefit from different scheduling arrangements.

Further important consequences arise from trying to undertake the educational mission of the school in a mass-organization setting. Schools are supposed to teach things to students, and to make efforts to have the students learn those things. The content to be taught and learned is already dictated through provincial curricula, about which more will be said shortly. The school then faces the question of how to organize in a way that ensures that the required content is in fact learned.