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David Labaree on Schooling, History, and Writing: Insights From James Scott About the Conflicting Worldviews of Reformers and Teachers

This post is a reflection on the conflicting worldviews that reformers and teachers use in trying to understand teaching and learning in classrooms.  It draws on the insights from one of my favorite books, James Scott’s Seeing Like a State.  The text itself comes from chapter 5 of my book, Someone Has to Fail. 

The problem is that reformers come at schools from a position of hierarchical power and from the perspective of universalistic epistemic knowledge, whereas teachers occupy a position at the bottom of the power structure and work within the highly localized ecology of the classroom carrying out the craft of practical knowledge.  When reformers impose their vision on the classroom, they trample on the delicate ecology of classroom practice and disrupt the process of teaching and learning.

The Conflicting Worldviews of Reformers and Teachers

At heart the teacher’s understanding of education is strikingly different from the reformer’s understanding of education, and this difference poses a critical limitation on the ability of reformers to have a constructive impact on the way teachers teach.[1]  As we have seen in this chapter, effective teachers develop a practical knowledge about how to foster learning that is heavily grounded in a particular context.  For them, teaching is not an abstract system that can be applied anywhere; it’s a set of specialized professional practices that they adapt to the needs of the situation at hand.  To become good at the job, teachers need to develop a rich understanding of the students in their class. This means learning about their culture, social situation, past educational experiences, academic skill, subject matter knowledge, and motivation.  For teachers there is no standard technology to employ in their instructional practice, not if they want to succeed.  Efforts to spell out general pedagogical principles of “what works” produce either useless truisms (more study leads to more learning) or abstractions that only become workable when translated into the needs of a particular context (promote critical understanding).  Instead, teachers need to build up a store of practical professional knowledge out of their own clinical experience in the classroom.  And doing this requires an approach that is not only highly particular but also highly personal, since the web of effective teaching is woven from the strands of personal relationships between teacher and students. 

In this sense, then, we can think of the classroom as a local ecology, like a forest, a coral reef, or a village.  As with any such ecology, the individual organisms within it have a lot in common with organisms in other settings.  But what makes the ecology distinctive is the evolving pattern of interaction between the organisms and their environment.  An effective teacher is the expert ecologist of her classroom.  This ecology is too complex and her goals for it are too broad to allow her to carry out her instructional role simply following the rules from the handbook of teaching.  As astute students of the classroom have noted, teaching is not a matter of doing the right thing but of adeptly managing chronic educational dilemmas.[2]  Do I respond to that question, even though it takes us off topic?  Do I correct the student’s error or give him time to work through the logic on his own?  Do I laugh at the student’s joke or use my teacher face to restore order in the room?  It’s a matter of balancing a wide array of equally important goals for my teaching – take advantage of a teachable moment or keep intellectual focus; promote accurate understandings or promote student inquiry; maintain a congenial learning environment or maintain an orderly learning environment – where the aim is to figure out what is my top educational priority at this point.  So as a teacher I’m not applying laws, I’m choosing from an array of overlapping rules of thumb; and my primary skill as a teacher is my judgment, which shows me how to use my knowledge of the classroom ecology to decide which rule best fits the present case. 

Like other social reformers, school reformers have difficulty working with local ecologies.  They are located at the upper levels of the school system, far from the classroom:  the education department in Washington, DC, or Sacramento; the office of the superintendent of schools or the education professor; a national task force or a professional association.  Reformers see themselves operating at the hub of the school policy world while three million classrooms are arrayed around the periphery.  From this great distance, reformers are unable to see classrooms the way teachers do, taking into account the distinctive character of each of these educational ecologies. 

If teachers see education through a microscope, reformers see it through a telescope.  In his book about the problem of government-initiated social reform, James Scott calls this kind of reformist vision Seeing Like a State.[3]  In order to make education visible for their purposes, school reformers at the district, state, or national level need to construct a map; and like any map, it necessarily represents its subject in a radically simplified form.  It draws on data that are easily gathered, suitable for the task at hand, and amenable to a statistical summary.  This means data like student social characteristics and test scores, teacher experience and qualifications, and state and local funding.  Only one thing is certain about the map that reformers create in their effort to see schooling: it leaves out almost everything.  The complex ecology of the classroom disappears into the simplified columns of summary statistics. 

So teachers and reformers view schooling in starkly different ways.  Teachers focus on what’s particular within their own classrooms; reformers focus on what’s universal across many classrooms.  Teachers operate in a setting dominated by personal relations; reformers operate in a setting dominated by abstract political and social aims.  Teachers draw on clinical experience; reformers draw on social scientific theory.  Teachers embrace the ambiguity of classroom process and practice; reformers pursue the clarity of tables and graphs.  Teachers put a premium on professional adaptability; reformers put a premium on uniformity of practices and outcomes. 

These differences in perception lead to a head-on conflict over what a successful school reform looks like.  For teachers, a school reform works if it can be adapted to their own practice in a way that enhances the teaching and learning process in their classroom; for reformers, a reform works if it can be implemented uniformly across a large number of classrooms in a way that brings about convergent educational and social outcomes.  When teachers adapt pieces of a reform effort to their own needs, reformers consider this a failure of implementation and accuse teachers of defending traditional practice and blocking educational progress.  The result is a standoff of perspectives, between reformers, who are seen as pursuing abstract theories that ignore classroom realities, and teachers, who are seen as protecting dysfunctional educational practices from constructive change. 

In Seeing Like a State, James Scott provides a series of cautionary tales about state initiated social reforms that went awry when reformers tried to impose a national theoretical vision on complex local settings.  There’s the story of European governments in the 18th and 19th centuries trying to mass produce lumber by planting a single variety of fast growing tree in neat rows, only to find that the trees gradually became stunted because of the absence of the complex ecology that had nurtured them in the wild.  There’s the story of the Soviet effort to accomplish a grand socialist vision by collectivizing agriculture, which destroyed village farming practices and thus led to widespread famine.  And there’s the story of Brasilia, the government effort to realize an urban designer’s dream by the construction of a new capital city from a single comprehensive plan, which failed to leave space for the web of informal economic processes and social relationships that actually make an urban community work. 

Scott Cover

Each of these reforms was an effort to take a theoretical grid constructed at the center of power and impose it on a far away local ecology.  Grids are attractive to reformers of all stripes.  They carry a seductive esthetic, since the reform setting looks neater and cleaner than the messy tableau of nature.  They represent rationality, a vision of how reality could be if it followed from an orderly mind.  They bring utility, by making it easy to measure, locate, and subdivide the world, as in the case of a grid structure for city streets or rural land development.  And they express power.  Since grids don’t arise in the natural world, their presence demonstrates that someone deliberately put them in place.  The problem with imposing a grid on nature or on society, however, is that the process may destroy the messy informal practices that make the ecology function. 

Consider what happened when the U.S. used a grid to manage the surveying and development of public lands in the 19th century.  Land was divided into sections of one square mile that were oriented along the points of the compass.  A group of 36 sections (six miles square) made up a township and 16 townships made a county.  Roads were built along section lines, which provide a familiar pattern for travelers in rural America, driving through a grid of roads with intersections at one mile intervals.  But drivers are also familiar with a phenomenon that occurs every few miles while driving on a north-south road – when the road comes to a T intersection with another, jogs left or right for a 100 feet or so, and then continues in the original direction.  Scott puts an aerial photograph of such a zigzag pattern on the cover of his book, because it serves as an apt metaphor for the dilemma of reform.  This recurring pattern is a fix for a geographic problem: that lines of longitude converge as you move north from the equator.  A grid therefore doesn’t fit the natural terrain, since roads that are heading true north cannot be parallel, and north-south section roads laid out by the compass cannot produce sections that are square.  So every few miles you need to introduce a correction to keep the roads a mile apart.  In spite of all the attractions of the grid for esthetics, rationality, utility, and power, therefore, it’s not a model that can be implemented in the natural world with major adjustments. 

Mercator Map

Imposing a Rectangular Grid on a Spherical World

This geographical metaphor also applies to the world of schools.  Reformers run into serious problems when they try to impose the rectangular grid of school reform on the spherical world of classrooms.  One side or the other has to give way.  One option is that reformers allow teachers to adapt the reform plan to fit the local classroom setting, even though this hybrid mode of education is not what the reformers intended.  This is the preferred choice put forward by David Tyack and Larry Cuban, who argue that a hybridized reform outcome is the best one can expect in school reform.  But for most reformers and policymakers, this kind of outcome looks like a failure for school reform and a triumph for the status quo.  The other option is that reformers push to implement the reform according to plan, which forces changes in the classroom that may undercut the delicate ecology of learning there.  This is the preferred choice of the American standards movement in the late 20th and early 21st century, which has used high stakes testing and state curriculum mandates to bring teaching and learning in line with the grid of reform.  But for most teachers, their defenders in schools of education, and supporters of child-centered progressivism, this approach disrupts the balance of the classroom and destroys student engagement in learning. 

As I noted at the end of the last chapter, school reformers are by nature optimists.  They don’t doubt the virtue of their model of reform, so they have little tolerance for teacher resistance, even if it comes in the name of protecting the ecology of learning.  The reform grid seems to carry the best ideas and highest values of our time, so practitioners of the old ways of doing things just need to get out of the way of progress.  Social problems are too compelling; the school system doesn’t work; we need to change the system to solve the problems; and concerns about a delicate learning community seem minor in the face of the need for action. 

But for reform skeptics like me, teachers’ hesitation to abandon the hard won social order they have created in the classroom seems not only justified by their problems of practice but also potentially beneficial for school and society.  Like the loose coupling of the system’s organizational structure, the resistance of teachers to intrusions on the learning process may provide a useful buffer for the system.  It deflects beneficial reforms but it also heads off harmful changes to the classroom.  And the system’s reluctance to embrace dramatic change at its educational core seems particularly beneficial if, like me, you are skeptical about the ability of the school system to resolve the social problems that reform forces on it.  That is the topic of the next chapter.

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David Labaree

David F. Labaree is Lee L. Jacks Professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and a professor (by courtesy) in history. His research focuses ...