Tuesday, April 9, 2013

What is a “Good Student”?


In Horace’s Compromise, Ted Sizer problematizes* our understanding of what constitutes a good high school. He questions how much learning is really going on in our good schools (i.e. our suburban schools that send kids to fancy colleges). The compromise the title refers to is the deal between students and teachers, in which the students agree not to give the teachers any real trouble, so long as the teachers don’t give them any real trouble – or maybe it is the other way around. Schools don’t really challenge students with truly difficult lessons, and students agree to jump through the hoops that have replaced real and deep learning. In Doing School, Denise Pope makes clear what this looks like from students’ perspectives. She shows different strategies that teenagers might take to be a good student.

* Sorry. I really like that word.

But what really makes for a good student? Sizer and Pope make clear what our current system has worked so hard to teach kids about what it means to be a good student. But what if we could start from scratch? What if we considered the kinds of goals we really want our schools to aim for? Principally, what if we made learning – rather than achievement or attainment – the center of schooling?


I had a “cardiac event” this week. Chest pains, shortness of breath, numb left arm. A few other symptoms, too. The hospital did a lot to work me up to see what had happened and what might be done: blood work, EKGs, echocardiogram, MRI, cardiac angiogram, cardiac cathaterization. It was a lot of stuff, or at least it felt like a lot of stuff to me.

This was a very frustrating experience for me. The doctors – and physician assistants, nurses and technicians – clearly became very frustrated with me. They obviously felt like I was not being a very cooperative patient.

When you get a medical test or procedure, there are these forms to sign. By signing, you attest that you’ve been informed about the test or procedure, its purpose, the potential side effects, possible alternative treatments, and that you have had your questions answered. The doctors (or other medical personnel) come in to answer your questions – or so they say.

But it turns out that they do not really want to answer questions. Sure, they will answer a couple of questions. But they do not want to be pressed with lots of questions. Prior to one procedure – the one where they stuck a tube into my heart (via my groin!!) – I had forty-five minutes of questions, when they only expected a few minutes.

Later, with another procedure, I was actually told “It will go better if you don’t ask any questions.” Of course, that came after they told me that I should ask them any questions I had about the procedure, even during the procedure.

It will go better if you don’t ask any questions.


Have you ever seen a teacher get frustrated with a student’s questions? Ever seen a teacher at a loss for how to answer a question? Ever felt like your students’ questions were detracting you from the important lesson you were trying to teach?

Have you ever heard teachers complain about pushy parents? Ever wondered how much of that is being forced to explain or defend their actions? I mean, just a product of seemingly endless questioning – perhaps pointed – by non-educators.


Have you ever seen an administrator who claims to have an open door policy react poorly when teachers ask him/her about why s/he took a particular action?

A common thread that comes up in the comments here on Gotham School is the issue of the relationship between school administrators and teachers. How collaborative should leadership be? How much power and authority and decision-making should rest in the hands of principals – especially new principals?


It is not just doctors and teachers. It is lawyers and other professionals, too. Perhaps it is most obvious with the legendarily poor help desk personnel. When we are there to support others, to help them, to work for them, to best enable them to do whatever it is they do, when they are the final decision-maker or do the core work of the organization, do we really tolerate a relationship that best supports them?

What is a good patient, from a doctor’s point of view? One who follows (doctors’) instructions and doesn’t ask too many questions?

What is a good client? One who follows (lawyers’) instructions and doesn’t ask too many questions?

What is a good parent? One who follows (schools’) instructions and doesn’t ask too many questions?

What is a good student? One who follows (teachers’) instructions and doesn’t ask too many questions?

What is a good teacher? One who follows (administrators’) instructions and doesn’t ask too many questions?

What do you think?

No comments:

Post a Comment