I got a puppy recently. Like any nervous new mother, I’ve been reading up—how to housebreak the dog, how to keep the dog from barking at the neighbors, how to get the dog to fetch a bone. Quite by accident, I found Dick Maller’s 21 Days to a Trained Dog and began using it as my guidebook. Published in 1977, Maller’s text oozes with a familiar Deweyan progressivism, popularized by many alternative educational theorists of that era. To make the dog sit, do not use force. Instead, follow the dog through his natural activities and praise him profusely every time his rump touches the floor. Do not coerce the dog by pressing down on his behind with your hand. The dog wants to please you out of instinct, not coercion. Coercion produces a hostile, resentful, hand-shy dog, a belligerent and ill-tempered creature. Let the dog learn for himself. It may take longer, but the learning will be deeper, and the dog, more pleasant.
My selection of this text was fortuitous; I am struck by Maller’s pedagogy, mildly amused and amazed that progressivism has percolated into, of all places, a dog-training manual. Yet, it makes sense. And in practice, it’s working. My dog is quite happy to sit now that he knows he can do it on his own and receive my loving praise. Before, my attempts to guide his rear-end to the floor were met with nips and snarls.
But he wasn’t a mean dog before; he was defending his autonomy. He spends so much of his day doing what he’s told—pee outside, go to sleep, chew your bone—at least I can let him do a simple thing like “sit” on his own.
Smart dog. Life imitates life. The dog’s nips and snarls are not unlike the aggressive recalcitrance typical of young humans thrust into a coercive educational environment. Belligerent and ill-tempered creatures fill our schools. In many institutions, teachers spend much of their time engaged in acts of discipline instead of teaching. They reprimand students who do not wish to be coerced and whose well-being is threatened by coercion. Thankfully, contemporary educators are rediscovering the transformative power of student-directed learning. Psychologist William Glasser (1990) had tremendous success with the ‘nippers’ and ’snarlers’ of Johnson City Schools. If students weren’t motivated, he waited patiently for them to become motivated. If students asked about their grades, Glasser bounced the question back, “What grade would you give your work?” The results were astonishing. Students finally began to care, but only, Glasser argues, once they were given the room to care, for themselves. Deborah Meier’s (1995) approach at Central Park East Secondary School was similarly metamorphic. Students from this high-risk school take responsibility for themselves simply because they are allowed to do so. And A.S. Neill (1995) certainly had the value of self-direction in mind when, in 1921, he founded the famous Summerhill ‘free’ school.
As revolutionary as the tether-loosening approach has seemed in recent decades, cropping up in Montessori and Outward Bound expedition-style programs in even some public schools, the strategy is hardly new-wave. Before Dewey, Emerson, in his seminal essay, “The American Scholar,” envisioned a utopian United States whose success depended on the self-motivated scholarship of its citizens. The life of the medieval monk thoroughly engaged in self-study and the life of the mind became the basis for Oxford University’s tutoring system. Socrates led students through the intricacies of their own minds through rational discussion. Clearly the theory returns because, in practice, the theory works.
In keeping with a student-centered pedagogy, I test the theory against my personal experience every day. Like many people, I don’t remember a thing my teachers told me. Yet, I consider myself the beneficiary of an extraordinary education. My peak experiences as a student happened entirely within my own mind. The materials I was coerced to absorb (the names of explorers, the moons of Uranus, the formula for the area of a hexagon) dissipated quickly. I do remember, however, my fifth grade report on an obscure little rodent called the Pica chiefly because I picked it; no one else had ever heard of it. I was to become the expert and I did. I remember the “aha” moments—generated by that ‘light within’ as the Quakers would say—and brought to fruition only because I was a child of the seventies and was encouraged to have these moments. I’ve erased teachers entirely from my consciousness. My mentors and advisors I cherish, but my teachers? At the risk of sounding self-disparaging, I swatted them like flies.
Today, I fully expect my own students to loathe me. When they do, I consider it a signal, a ‘nip’ or a ’snarl’ that masks a loss of student autonomy. A cry of “let me have my self” churns beneath their complaints and whining. Indeed, maintaining a progressive pedagogy as an individual teacher is a challenge when so many of our institutions condition students to respond only to external reinforcement. My methodology strains and quivers when students veer off the approved or familiar path. I break out in a sweat when fourteen-year-olds, unaccustomed to large chunks of loosely directed time, flounder their way through a free period because no teacher has told them to “get to work.”
Some so-called progressive educators and institutions alleviate this anxiety by offering good grades to students who use their ’self-directed’ learning time well. Peter Elbow (1986) calls this practice “the pedagogy of the bamboozled.” Students, like dogs who are given inconsistent feedback, become confused and resentful. Students are told to take responsibility for their learning. They are promised the opportunity. But they never really get it. They are bamboozled by an inchoate promise of freedom and self-direction in a system of arbitrary, external feedback that robs them of that promise.
Maller’s manual offers suggestions for how to avoid bamboozling your dog. When your dog barks excessively, toss a segment of link chain behind him. The ruckus from the falling chain will startle the dog and discourage future barking. To achieve the best effect, don’t let the dog see you or else he will associate you with the disturbing clamor. When the dog accepts responsibility for his own barking, he shuts up. Best of all, he’s figured it out by himself and doesn’t blame Master for the ruckus. The dog perceives the chain as a natural consequence of his barking and relents.
The simplicity and apparent crudity of this method—operant conditioning, really—should not be laughably dismissed. In a way, this is progressivism in action. Dewey (1997) recommends that students experience as many natural consequences as possible. By ‘natural’ Dewey means that the consequences must be logical; they must make sense in the larger order of the world. Arbitrarily constructed frameworks for student feedback do nothing to teach students how their lives interact with the life of the planet. Grades and ranking supplant the natural consequences of their efforts. Be they positive or negative, external evaluations have the power to strip learning from its larger context. The experiences can be especially bamboozling for students who’ve been promised the opportunity for authentic learning, but are later swindled by a system that insists on semester finals and cumulative averages, as if the learning ceases when the last blue exam book is submitted.
Outdoor education, a field through which I first made my entry into teaching, has had an easier time evading the bamboozlement of students. Students’ actions have direct and natural consequences. Students who don’t pack a raincoat get wet. Slow hikers who don’t make it to the lunch spot on time get hungry. The “teacher” in this type “classroom” functions primarily as a highlighter pen, emphasizing cause-and-effect relationships between students and the environment. At most, an outdoor educator will read between the lines, so to speak, and insert marginalia for student reflection. The instructor never grades students; students grade themselves based on their experiences of hunger or thirst or blisters or a great mountaintop view.
For academic educators, the struggle to maintain authenticity and avoid bamboozlement inside traditional classrooms is profound. Unfortunately, many of today’s mainstream schools are so far removed from reality that hermetic systems of incentives and punishments are absolutely necessary to provide students with any kind of feedback. For obvious reasons, natural consequences are more difficult to fabricate for people than for dogs. Tossing a link chain behind my ninth graders’ heads is an amusing mental image, but hardly substitutes for meaningful, authentic feedback from the world at large.
Some contemporary educators are increasing the authenticity of the traditional classroom through greater implementation of group projects that replicate “real-life” work. My middle school English students used to construct mock National Geographic magazines on Africa for which they compiled research from the Internet, scanned photos into the computer for their covers, and worked in editorial groups to make layout decisions. Students thrived in the autonomous environment the project offered, but I am still saddened that their magazines will only ever be “mockeries” of the real thing. Their publications only reach one audience—our school—and the students don’t benefit from the feedback a widely distributed, professional periodical would receive from the world. Their publications don’t have to answer to distribution fluctuations, budgetary considerations, or shifting consumer demands. As an individual, I can push my students’ work towards greater and greater authenticity, but I am still limited by the larger educational system that constrains me.
Authenticity is provided by the planet, not by classrooms. The world’s organic circumstances—the biological, environmental, and sociological—involved complex relationships between people and matter, animals, vapors, gardens, money, faith. Immersion in the plain and immediate truth of these relationships is the best teacher.
So where do all these musings lead me? I’ve constructed a vision of education that calls for my own erasure and dismantles the system that currently employs me. Through a convoluted, postmodern sleight-of-hand, I’ve thought myself out of existence. What now? To abdicate the traditional, authoritative role of “teacher” is to risk unemployment. Yet I cannot, in good conscience, continue to bamboozle my students with embryonic pedagogy, a pedagogy that’s only half-formed and limited by its umbilical relationship to a larger being. A methodology that values authenticity only thrives with the sustenance of the entire system; the whole organism must contribute in order for the embryo to survive. I cannot offer students empowerment and then snatch it away. I cannot profess a doctrine of authentic, student-directed learning while I hide behind my grade book and arbitrary evaluation rubrics. I’ll do everything in my power to never do that again. I have to promise to make the promise a reality. The choices are to either leave education entirely or continue to help the larger system evolve through the persistent implementation of small changes. I want to choose the latter.
Dewey, J. (1997). Experience and Education (Touchstone Education ed.). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Elbow, P. (1986). Embracing Contraries: Explorations in Learning and Teaching. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Maller, D. (1977). 21 Days to a Trained Dog. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Meier, D. (1995). The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Neill, A.S. (1995). Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing (Revised ed.). New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin.
Glasser, W. (1990). The Quality School: Managing Students Without Coercion. New York, NY: HarperCollins.