School is the setting for a major portion of children’s lives. For well over a thousand hours a year, children are influenced by what happens there. It is important, therefore, to examine what the school environment is generally like for them and what aspects of it require change.
The most pervasive but often overlooked aspect of social life is its institutional quality. While it is commonly believed that the main concern of schools is instruction, schooling is a much broader experience than being taught what is contained in textbooks. Students learn not only facts, skills, and concepts but also rules of membership in a social institution. Often this learning experience may have greater impact on students ultimate well-being than do those experiences we commonly identify with the academic curriculum. The school’s rule routine, and procedures form what has been called a “hidden curriculum” (Jackson 1968) designed to mold individual behavior to the requirements of institutional living.
This curriculum is necessary by the fact that personal interests can rarely be accommodated in schools. Students must often yield when their own wishes and plans inconvenience other people or interfere in other ways with the efficient operation of the school.
Spontaneous desires must often be held in abeyance until the proper time and place. Mastering the hidden curriculum is also made difficult by confusion as to what is expected when institutional requirements conflict with educational demands. It is common for students to be expected to be passive and conforming in school and yet at the same time intellectually curious and aggressive.
Membership in school requires a set of psychological adjustments. One of these adaptations is learning to live in school without the assurance of the adult acceptance that children take for granted at home. Teachers after all, cannot be as intimate and patient with their students as parents can be with their children.
When students are viewed in terms of their I.Q. achievement test scores,social class background, and conformity to classroom rules and procedures, the possibility that they will be stereotyped rather than seen as individuals is decreased. All too frequently these categories are merely used by teachers to make quick predictions about a child. If the predictions are negative, the temptation to ignore or reject him is great. What we need are conceptions of the teaching-learning process in which teachers would not have to depend so greatly on tight categories of perceiving children. Without this dependence, teachers might be less threatened by these traditional indices of what to expect from students and thus more open to who they really are.
A second demand made in schools is that students manage their lives in highly congested social environments. We confine students to quarters in which their ability to stretch their feet, walk around, and spread out their possessions is limited.
Because classrooms are crowded places, students are usually required to do things together most of the time. Individually, they have little opportunity for private action. Personal pursuits sooner or later conflict with the teachers rules or the wishes of classmates. As a result of crowded conditions, a sense of privacy and individuality is difficult to achieve. In an environment which is essentially unresponsive to individual differences, according to Adams and Riddle (1970), one student is practically indistinguishable from another.
Schooling is, thirdly, and experience in withstanding continual evaluation of one’s words and actions. Probably in no other setting is one so often judged as a person. To make matters worse, these judgements are typically voiced before an audience of peers. As
Dreeben (1968) suggests, classroom praise and criticism, although intended to help the learner, may threaten him instead.
To cope with this threat to their self respect, many students find it necessary to devote their mental energies to strategize how to avoid failure and shame. The strategies they use depend on the intensity of that threat. Those whose position in the class pecking order is secure maintain the teacher’s favor by zealously complying with the academic and social expectations of the school.
When we witness students in school laughing, daydreaming, or complaining, it is hard to believe that many of them are apprehensive. The problem of observing the apprehension created by classroom evaluation is that children respond to it in ways which disguise their real fears. However, it is visible if one looks closely enough. It is reflected best in the choices apprehensive students make in the classroom. If the teacher’s judgement did not threaten them, they would choose to use their mental energies to tackle new ideas rather than scheme how to hide their shortcomings.
School is a place where children are not accepted at their present stage of development. Growth is expected. But children grow only after they feel safe that is, they seek out new knowledge most fully when they are convinced that penalties will not be invoked if they fail. Failure itself is not anxiety producing. The persistence which infants show in their attempts to master the environment suggests that human beings are not naturally afraid of failure. It becomes a problem when a person believes he will lose something of value to him if he does not succeed. The problem is how students can be evaluated so that their successes and failures are viewed as helpful information rather than as indications of reward and punishment.
A fourth condition to which students must adjust in school is the pervasive authority of school personnel. Even in schools where students have voice, the privilege to do so can be withdrawn at any time. If students are dissatisfied with school’s decisions, they have no official power to press their grievances. In short, the school authorities are very much in control.
When we think of a man with character and personal strength, we think, in part, of a person who recognizes desirable qualities in others who is loyal to those he befriends, and is able to give help as well receive it. We frown on a man who exploits the weaknesses of others, who submits too readily to those more powerful than he, or who envies his peers. The social attributes which students are encouraged, intentionally or not, to adopt in schools are more likely to create the latter man. If we want schools to help children learn how to build human relationships as well as develop academic skills, we must be careful not to put students in a position which makes it difficult for them to respect and cooperate with each other.
Our concern might depend on the extent to which we tolerate conditions in our adult lives, in our responsibilities at work and in our relations with the major institutions of society. It might be helpful, to assess the psychological quality of schooling by asking what kind of images of themselves children develop as a result of going to school. Does their schooling help them to believe in themselves, that is to see themselves as competent, resourceful, capable of altering some parts of their environment? If children do not form positive views of themselves as a result of their schooling, we are obligated to rethink how schools can be organized so that children will view them as a valuable resource in their lives.