Nikhil Goyal is a writer of prodigious talents, all of which are on display in his book, Schools On Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice (Doubleday, 2016).
His thesis is clear: take students and allow them to study what they want to study at their own pace. No tests, assignments, homework, or grades. All work is project-based. If this is done correctly, students become life-long learners and will naturally gravitate to a program of study that is both self-directed and incredibly rich, mainly because they decide for themselves what avenues to pursue. In Goyal’s view, one recently formed by his time in compulsory education, a traditional classroom with desks in a row, regular structured assignments and grades, lectures and discussions, and programmed courses of study all meld together to stultify students and actually turn them away from learning.
What he advocates has been done before, and he makes this clear in his recounting of the open school movement of the 1960s and 70s. He also admits that students coming from a traditional classroom may take months, even a year to acclimate to this new, open, self-directed program of study.
Still, at times he can come off as a bit shrill and idealistic, but he is on to something and his book deserves to be read and discussed. President Obama’s Race to the Top program was a colossal failure as was George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind. The Common Core Standards are being dropped across the nation, and parents, students and teachers continue to rail against the endless standardized testing that now takes the place of classroom instruction and curriculum. It is a telling detail that the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan left the cabinet as President Obama called for limits on standardized testing in schools. Standardized testing was supposed to be the best measure of teacher effectiveness and student learning in the wake of Common Core adoption. Duncan, a staunch advocate of such testing, would seem to have run out of road as the president approaches the end of his term.
In the early 1990s, I wrote a grant to start a more democratic education program at the private Catholic school where I was teaching. The grant was funded, and this allowed us to bring in experts in the field to teach us how to do inter-disciplinary team teaching with a strong, student-centered approach that left space for the kids to design at least some of the school day and be able to pursue areas of their own interests. Teachers were reluctant to let go of control. They felt that a rigorous curriculum directed by an experienced teacher would prepare our middle school students for the challenges of higher education. They were concerned that students would spend all day in art, say, instead of moving through a balanced diet of all the disciplines. They also believed that the integrity of their individual courses would be undermined by having to work as a team with all the other subject teachers. I remember clearly the math teacher venting his frustrations because he did not see how pre-algebra could be plugged into the theme of injustice and genocide in World War II. I realized the validity of his complaint, but I told him there would be other themes where he would be driving the lessons. For that particular theme, the history teacher was the lead. Maybe this was his chance to integrate statistics and other forms of scientific, math-based analysis into that theme. He left the meeting discouraged and I felt bad about that. Among all of the teachers in our group, many felt valuable lessons were being given short shrift to allow for an interdisciplinary and student-directed approach.
Another major concern was that students would waste the time devoted to their own directed study each week. In practice, many of the students did use their time wisely and produced some interesting projects. However, when we polled students about how this new structure was working, they actually asked for more structure. This was something we didn’t expect. Many times, students enter a classroom with the whining request of: “Can’t we do something fun today?” This is another way of saying “can’t you entertain us for an hour so we don’t have to think?” So we thought devoting some time each week to self-directed study would allow students to pursue their interests, but many wanted the familiar approach of teacher-directed study. Overall, the teachers came to the conclusion that team teaching and a more democratic classroom were valuable and since that time so many years ago, I have seen other schools adopt these structures with good outcomes.
Ultimately, when I left that school a few years later, though, the teachers reverted back to a more standard schedule and curriculum where teachers planned lessons in the vacuum of their own subjects without interaction with other disciplines. They did keep the block scheduling which allowed for longer periods of time to work on multiple activities and lessons. In this area, it must be noted that even when I was there, many of the teachers lectured middle school students for the full 90 minute block. I discovered this when I would meet one particular class and they could not focus and were often disruptive. We had a talk one day where they could share freely, and they told me they could not take one more minute of talking because they had been talked at for the last 90 minutes. I totally understood their predicament.
Goyal does his best to portray today’s schools as prisons, using the terminology of incarceration to hammer his point home. In the first paragraph of his introduction alone he uses terms like “claustrophobic,” “warehoused,” “metal detectors,” “police officers,” “security cameras,” “orders and rules,” and “drugged into passivity.” Prison metaphors become a recurring theme throughout the book. I agree that American schools do look a lot like prisons, although here in Los Angeles, the LAUSD has gone out of their way in recent years to adopt more modern architecture and to develop features that make schools more user-friendly.
He takes us through some model schools and interesting, student-centered schedules. His research is wide and all-inclusive, and his style is more like that of Jonathan Kozol, an education and child advocate for whom he expresses much admiration.
We do have to be careful, though, about how far we swing the pendulum. It is a no-brainer that school reform is necessary and critical to our future. We should not, however, dismiss all previous educational methodologies as ineffective. I often neglected my coursework when I was a student to read fourteen or fifteen books per week, and consistently throughout my education, I viewed assignments with a sense of drudgery; I wanted to go my own way and would have thrived in a classroom as envisioned by Goyal. But every student responds differently to the learning process, so to advocate one method over another will always leave someone out. What I have seen in the last few years are teachers who fail to teach, either out of laziness or ineptitude; administrators who are more interested in public relations and the factory mentality than on educating human beings for life; and parents who fail to support the teachers and often act as legal advocates for their children’s misbehavior and classroom disruption. In short, we all bear some fault for the schools we have and the students we graduate.
In all of this there are also teachers who do excellent work with extremely limited resources, most of which they purchase and supply themselves. Parents work all day and come home to help their children with homework and who wish they had more time to spend with them. This is the bright spot in the wealth of failure and missed opportunities. We have all had teachers who inspired us to be greater than we could ever be on our own. Nikhil Goyal is the insightful writer he is because of teaching and a burgeoning intellect that remained unfettered by the misadventures he suffered through in the classroom during his formative education.
What I take from his writing is that we should continue the discussion, continue to try new avenues to awaken young minds, and hold our students, teachers and administrators to the highest standards. We must recognize that some people are born to teach, and that everyone of us is born to learn. If we continue to try new ways, to appreciate what has worked in the past, and remain open to a dialog about teaching and learning, we will find our way.