Life in Classrooms Paperback – 31 May 1991
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About the Author
Philip W. Jackson(1929 2015)was the David Lee Shillinglaw Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Departments of Education and Psychology and in the College at the University of Chicago. He is the author of several books, includingLife in Classrooms, The Practice of Teaching, andJohn Dewey and the Philosopher s Task.
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Chapter one is a fascinating description of what Jackson encounters when he becomes imbedded in schools to really understand one of the major forces that shapes a culture's habitus (its beliefs, attitudes and dispositions). Jackson doesn't explicitly state this but he strongly suggests it. Essentially, what he finds is what he calls the "Daily Grind" or a tedious system of rules and regulations that are designed to promote passive consumption, obedience and acquiescence to" delayed gratification", or simply no gratification at all. Jackson compares schools to prisons, mental institutions and factories. I take his analysis a little further and find his very close to Foucault's interpretation of Bentham's Panopticon. The Panopticon for Bentham was a prison building where all behaviors could be observed. Foucault argued that once a system of rules and laws became part of people's habitus, the system would become its own Panopticon where self monitoring would occur to preserve the system's equilibrium. Of course my interpretation is tainted both by my own dislike for schools and by my personal ideology.
Jackson argues that the daily grind is essentially the hidden curriculum of schools that could be preparing students for the tedious life in industrialized society. A disconcerting statement by Jackson is that adults would not tolerate what children are made to tolerate in schools. I found this strange since he argues that the school is preparation for adults to tolerate just this, and in fact, millions of children and adults all over the world tolerate these circumstances in factories and industrialized agricultural settings.
I found chapters 2 and 3 of this book to be informative but the least interesting. These chapters offer a summary of results from previous research regarding how children felt about schools, how attitudes related to school performance, how the teachers perceived their attitudes, how attentive/inattentive students behaved and how their teachers felt about attention/inattention. Findings showed that the majority of children fell into two categories of children who either liked or disliked school, but neither group had overwhelming emotions. Rather, they seemed to find schools either acceptable or rather tedious. Surprisingly, the vast majority were content with schools despite of what Jackson describes in chapter one. Yet, half of students found several things that bothered them. However, very few students really loved school or could not stand it. The conclusion drawn by Jackson is that attitudes towards school cannot be dichotomized between like vs. dislike or happy vs. unhappy. Rather, a whole range of emotions are elicited by school life. The other interesting finding was that there was no obvious relationship between attitude towards school and performance. The obvious assumption that high performing students would like schools and low performing ones would not did not match assessment results. Finally, teachers were not necessary able to sense students' attitudes about school even though their predictions were better than chance. They, in fact were better at sensing low performing boys who really disliked school, but were not able to discern high performing girls who disliked school. I should note that the research predates 1968, so these chapters only offer a historical window.
Chapter four offers a glimpse at how teachers felt about their practice. Teachers considered to be the best performing by their administrators were selected for extensive interviewing and what they revealed was very interesting, and the exact opposite to present expectations. They all felt passion for what they did. They all liked to be in control of their classrooms and of what they taught and they hated to be given specific tasks, textbooks or plans that they had to follow. They wanted to have the freedom to choose what, when and how to teach. They hated to be monitored or observed and considered this a violation of their profession. They were not concerned about standardized tests since they felt that those assessments did not treat students as individuals with differences. For the teachers, appreciating differences and tailoring their approaches to the various children was important. Their satisfaction came from the feeling that they were helping or making a difference in, at least a few children. The teachers could not explain what, exactly it was that they did that made them so successful, and Jackson alludes to the intangible art of teaching. Of course this chapter is totally dated since all the things that teachers claimed to value have been slowly eroded since the 80s and eventually eliminated with NCLB.
Chapter five is dated since it contrasts teachers' attitudes towards educational theory and the behavioral management models emerging then, which would eventually take over the schools. What is interesting is what Jackson describes as a very anti-intellectual attitude from teachers towards their practice which happens to continue today. I believe that this anti-intellectual attitude have left teachers out of the discussions about schools reform.
Overall, this is a great book and very easy to read, but with profound content. This is a must read for educators and education students at all levels.
Chapter 1 an excellent introduction for students (graduate or undergraduate) learning to view schooling as a set of cultural processes. Jackson does a great job of "making the familiar strange" and revealing the underlying, taken-for-granted conditions that shape so much of school life. Although schools have undergone a lot of changes since 1968 when this groundbreaking work was first published, these fundamental processes have not changed much, and in some ways have become even more rigid. Jackson's work brings to light how the basic structural conditions of schooling continue to shape the environment in which children spend half their waking hours, despite numerous "reforms."
After having taught the whole book, I now assign only the Intro & Ch. 1. The other chapters (as other reviewers have noted) are rather tedious analyses of data that support the points made in the first 50 pages. But those first 50 pages are gold.
In his initial chapter as an outsider looking in, Jackson's semi-scientific observations of teachers, students, and schools were defined via comparisons with societal or indirect, non-academic institutions. Such comparisons portray a gloomy, philosophical parallelism of schooling where individual desires are restrained and teachers play prison guards in jail-like buildings. Yet, whereas the initial chapter stimulates heartfelt recognitions of public schooling, the following two chapters were fairly repetitive or scaffolding-ly "common" to maintain the same interest. Here, Jackson presents the numerical results of student surveys showing how they felt about school and their teachers. Regardless, initial descriptions and results of children's interest in schools did garner my curiosity where despite the text's context of the late 1960's, I found some similarities in modern schooling.
Also, the next chapter portrays a specified glimpse into the minds of recognized teachers and their perspectives about teaching. Without disclosing any previews about the text, I will simply acknowledge how observing other teachers views of curriculum and instruction is encouragingly motivating. Through their interviews, readers, particularly educators, may identify and make connections amidst similar philosophies, including the school culture, environment, testing, and assessment.
Of course, the book is a classic, and perhaps specific sections seem outdated, as noted in the last chapter. This section delineates the connection between learning theory and educational practice as well as areas that position teachers as being possibly ignorant and detached from scholarly educational theory. Consequently, many of the perspectives in this chapter have at present been considered, researched and presented. Regardless, like previous chapter, it helps keep the mind fresh as to the theories and considerations that help drive pedagogical practice.
Whereas the book observes "Life in the Classrooms" from an ethnographic point of view, Jackson's studies imply essences of action and reform that would engage the scholarly researcher, teachers, students and anyone interested in the vigors of the classroom.
Nevertheless, strengths of the reading include Jackson's ideas and manifestations of the hidden curriculum present in the classroom in the 1950s and 60s which are still present today. I did enjoy Jackson's vivid descriptions of the classrooms and its students during the first chapter, but after that he lost me (boring!) One instance that caught my attention was his description of the emergence of Freudian psychology where the interest of investigations were more in depth as student's motives were given more attention than student's manners. Of special interest to me was the section on a series of studies by Benjamin Bloom (yes that guy). It was interesting because most of us are taught the importance of Bloom's Taxonomy as teacher education students. Bloom compared the thought processes of undergraduates during lectures where he found at least 1/3 were deemed "psychologically absent".
The book's weaknesses really begin after the first chapter with long, drawn out explanations of case and research studies with their conclusions not really definitive of anything significant other than girls pay more attention in class than boys, not surprising for the 1950s and 60s when it was not socially acceptable for females to speak out or state their opinion. In the fourth chapter, I did note that most of the teachers who were considered ineffective were women and the more effective teachers were men, attitudes which were also definitely indicative of the time period and also certainly continue today.
In short, one could conclude that the message of the book relates to research indicating that a positive attitude results in success in school. The numerous messages of hidden curriculum delivered somewhat indirectly usually deal with attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors which ultimately can cause a student to psychologically withdraw from the classroom. As an educator, the most significant importance of the hidden curriculum is that it directs attention to certain aspects of schools that have never really been acknowledged. For the most part, these aspects continue to be in dire need of further investigation. The hidden curriculum ideas indirectly articulated by the school community can encourage or discourage students to be successful learners. This book is a boring, but necessary read.
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