Power Schooling Students Teaching

Philip Jackson — The Daily Grind

This post is a classic essay by Philip Jackson from his 1974 book, Life in Classrooms.  Here’s a link to the original.

To me, it’s the best piece that has ever been written about “the daily grind” that students experience in elementary classrooms, which I often used in my classes.  It’s all about the hidden curriculum.  On the surface, schooling is an institution for teaching the formal curriculum — language, math, science, and social studies.  The process of schooling is supposed to be designed to facilitate effective learning of these subjects.  But for students, process and content blur together into a single learning experience they know as schooling.  Along the way, they may well be learning a lot more from classroom routines than from textbooks.  In this essay, Jackson explores the lessons students learn from doing school 180 days year.  That’s a lot of learning time.

Another reason I frequently assigned this essay is that it is beautifully written.  Just read the first few paragraphs to see how a skilled writer can draw the reader effectively into an unfolding story.  He tells about how parents, teachers, and students are all so conditioned by the normal practice of schooling that it becomes invisible.  Ask a student what happened in school today and the most common answer is “Nothing”  — that is, nothing out of the ordinary.  Of course his point is that in fact a whole lot of consequential is actually happening in school all the time.

His writing evokes the daily experience of schooling in vivid and even visceral terms, such as  the sounds (“clangs and hums”) and smells (“the familiar odor of orange peels and peanut butter sandwiches, a blend that mingles in the late afternoon (following recess) with the delicate pungency of children’s perspiration”).  I’d love to be able to write this evocatively, bringing the familiar back to life.

Here’s an overview of his analysis:

Students in elementary classrooms are continually subjected to:

    • Crowding
    • Evaluation
    • Power

His focus is on classroom processes, which are so commonplace that disappear from view — an effort to make the familiar strange again

He explores what students learn from the classroom experience, whether we intend it or not

    1. Adapting to group life (crowding)

Turn taking, suppressing egoistic impulses, patience, waiting, lines, deferred gratification, conformity.

2. Individual achievement within a group (evaluation)

Privacy in a crowd

Value of individual work

Knowledge as personal property; sharing is cheating

3. Submitting to authority 

Compliance, obedience to orders, respect for hierarchy,

Toadyism:  how to please authority; servility

4. Limits of authority 

Formal compliance to authority is enough – you can fake it

Give teachers what they want when it counts

In line with the last point, consider the implications of this admonition I remember hearing teachers say all the time:  “Don’t let me see you do that again.”  On the surface it just means “Cut it out.”  But at a deeper level it carries the literal meaning of the words.  “If you do that while I’m looking, I’m going to have to do something about it because you’re directly challenging my authority.  But if you do it behind my back that’s ok, because by being sneaky you are acknowledging my authority.”  Powerful and complex messages about how power works are embedded in classroom routines.


Life in Classrooms

The Daily Grind

Philip Jackson

On a typical weekday morning between September and June some 35 million Americans kiss their loved ones goodbye, pick up their lunch pails and books, and leave to spend their day in that collection of enclosures (totaling about one million) known as elementary school class­ rooms. This massive exodus from home to school is accomplished with a minimum of fuss and bother. Few tears are shed (except perhaps by the very youngest) and few cheers are raised. The school attendance of children is such a common experience in our society that those of us who watch them go hardly pause to consider what happens to them when they get there. Of course our indifference disappears occasionally. When something goes wrong or when we have been notified of his remarkable achievement, we might ponder, for a moment at least, the meaning of the experience for the child in question, but most of the time we simply note that our Johnny is on his way to school, and now, it is time for our second cup of coffee.

Parents are interested, to be sure, in how well Johnny does while there, and when he comes trudging home they may ask him questions about what happened today or, more generally, how things went. But both their questions and his answers typically focus on the highlights of the school experience–its unusual aspects–rather than on the mundane and seemingly trivial events that filled the bulk of his school days. Parents are interested, in other words, in the spice of school life rather than its substance.

Teachers, too, are chiefly concerned with only a very narrow aspect of a youngster’s school experience. They, too, are likely to focus on specific acts of misbehavior or accomplishment as representing what a particular student did in school today, even though the acts in question occupied but a small fraction of the student’s time. Teachers, like parents, seldom ponder the significance of the thousands of fleeting events that combine to form the routine of the classroom.

And the student himself is no less selective. Even if someone bothered to question him about the minutiae of his school day, he would probably be unable to give a complete account of what he had done. For him, too, the day has been reduced in memory into a small number of signal events-“I got 100 on my spelling test,” “A new boy came and he sat next to me,” — or recurring activities — “We went to gym,” “We had music.” His spontaneous recall of detail is not much greater than that required to answer our conventional questions.

This concentration on the highlights of school life is understandable from the standpoint of human interest A similar selection process operates when we inquire into or recount other types of daily activity. When we are asked about our trip downtown or our day at the office we rarely bother describing the ride on the bus or the time spent in front of the watercooler. In­ deed, we are more likely to report that nothing happened than to catalogue the pedestrian actions that took place between home and return. Unless something interesting occurred there is little purpose in talking about our experience.

Yet from the standpoint of giving shape and meaning to our lives these events about which we rarely speak may be as important as those that hold our listener’s attention. Certainly they represent a much larger portion of our experience than do those about which we talk. The daily routine, the “rat race,” and the infamous “old grind” may be brightened from time to time by happenings that add color to an otherwise drab existence, but the grayness of our daily lives has an abrasive potency of its own. Anthropologists understand this fact better than do most other social scientists, and their field studies have taught us to appreciate the cultural significance of the humdrum elements of human existence. This is the lesson we must heed as we seek to understand life in elementary classrooms.


School is a place where tests are failed and passed, where amusing things happen, where new insights are stumbled upon, and skills acquired. But it is also a place in which people sit, and listen, and wait, and raise their hands, and pass out paper, and stand in line, and sharpen pencils. School is where we encounter both friends and foes, where imagination is unleashed and misunderstanding brought to ground. But it is also a place in which yawns are stifled and initials scratched on desktops, where milk money is collected and recess lines are formed. Both aspects of school life, the celebrated and the unnoticed, are familiar to all of us, but the latter, if only because of its characteri5ic neglect, seems to deserve more attention that it has received to date from those who are interested in education.

In order to appreciate the significance of trivial classroom events it is necessary to consider the frequency of their occurrence, the standardization of the school environment, and the compulsory quality of daily attendance. We must recognize, in other words, that children are in school for a long time, that the settings in which they perform are highly uniform, and that they are there whether they want to be or not. Each of these three facts, although seemingly obvious, deserves some elaboration, for each contributes to our understanding of how students feel about and cope with their school experience.

The amount of time children spend in school can be described with a fair amount of quantitative precision, although the psychological significance of the numbers involved is another matter entirely. In most states the school year legally comprises 180days. A full session on each of those days usually lasts about six hours (with a break for lunch), beginning somewhere around nine o’ dock in the morning and ending about three o’ dock in the afternoon. Thus, if a student never misses a day during the year, he spends a little more than one thousand hours under the care and tutelage of teachers. If he has attended kindergarten and was reasonably regular in his attendance during the grades, he will have logged a little more than seven thou­ sand classroom hours by the time he is ready for junior high school.

The magnitude of 7(X)Q hours spread over six or seven years of a child’s life is difficult to comprehend. On the one hand, when placed beside the total number of hours the child has lived during those years it is not very great-slightly more than one-tenth of his life during the time in question, about one-third of his hours of sleep during that period. On the other hand, aside from sleeping and perhaps playing, there is no other activity that occupies as much of the child’s time as that involved in attending school. Apart from the bedroom (where he has his eyes dosed most of the time}there is no single enclosure in which he spends a longer time than he does in the classroom. From the age of six onward, he is a more familiar sight to his teacher than to his father, and possibly even his mother.

Another way of estimating what are those hours in the classroom mean is to ask how long it would take to accumulate them while engaged in some other familiar and recurring activity. Church attendance provides an interesting comparison. In order to have had as much time in church as a sixth grader has had in classrooms we would have to spend all day at a religious gathering every Sunday for more than 24 years. Or, if we prefer our devotion in smaller doses, we would have to attend a one-hour service every Sunday for 150 years before the inside of a church became as familiar to us as the inside of a school to a twelve-year-old.

The comparison with church attendance is dramatic, and perhaps overly so. But it does make us stop and think about the possible significance of an otherwise meaningless number. Also, aside from the home and the school there is no physical setting in which people of all ages congregate with as great a regularity as they do in church.

The translation of the child’s tenure in class into terms of weekly church attendance serves a further purpose. It sets the stage for considering an important similarity between the two institutions: school and church. The inhabitants of both are surrounded by a stable and highly stylized environment. 1hefact of prolonged exposure in either setting increases in its meaning as we begin to consider the elements of repetition, redundancy, and ritualistic action that are experienced there.

A classroom, like a church auditorium, is rarely seen as being anything other than that which it is. No one entering either place is likely to think that he is in a living room, or a grocery store, or a train station. Even if he entered at midnight or at some other time when the activities of the people would not give the function away, he would have no difficulty  understanding what was supposed to go on there. Even devoid of people, a church is a church and a classroom, a classroom.

This is not to say, of course, that all classrooms are identical, anymore than all churches are. Clearly there are differences, and sometimes very extreme ones, between any two settings. One has only to think of the wooden benches and planked floor of the early American classroom as compared with the plastic chairs and tile flooring in today’s suburban schools. But the resemblance is still there despite the differences, and, more important, during any particular historical period the differences are not that great. Also, whether the student moves from first to sixth grade on floors of vinyl tile or oiled wood, whether he spends his days in front of a black blackboard or a green one, is not as important as the fact that the environment in which he spends these six or seven years is highly stable. In their efforts to make their classrooms more homelike, elementary school teachers often spend considerable time fussing with the room’s decorations. Bulletin boards are changed, new pictures are hung, and the seating arrangement is altered from circles to rows and back again. But these are surface adjustments at best resembling the work of the inspired housewife who rearranges the living room furniture and changes the color of the drapes in order to make the room more “interesting.” School bulletin boards may be changed but they are never discarded, the seats may be rearranged but thirty of them are there to stay, the teacher’s desk may have a new plant on it but there it sits, as ubiquitous as the roll-down maps, the olive drab wastebasket, and the pencil sharpener on the window ledge.

Even the odors of the classroom are fairly standardized. Schools may use different brands of wax and cleaning fluid, but they all seem to contain similar ingredients, a sort of universal smell which creates an aromatic background that permeates the entire building. Added to this, in each classroom, is the slightly acrid scent of chalk dust and the faint hint of fresh wood from the pencil shavings. In some rooms, especially at lunch time, there is the familiar odor of orange peels and peanut butter sandwiches, a blend that mingles in the late afternoon (following recess) with the delicate pungency of children’s perspiration. If a person stumbled into a classroom blindfolded, his nose alone, if he used it carefully, would tell him where he was.

All of these sights and smells become so familiar to students and teachers alike that they exist dimly, on the periphery of awareness. Only when the classroom is encountered under somewhat unusual circumstances, does it appear, for a moment, a strange place filled with objects that command our attention. On. these rare occasions when, for example, students re­ turn to school in the evening, or in the summer when the halls ring with the hammers of work­ men, many features of the school environment that have merged into an undifferentiated back­ ground for its daily inhabitants suddenly stand out in sharp relief. This experience, which obviously occurs in contexts other than the classroom, can only happen in settings to which the viewer has become uncommonly habituated.

Not only is the classroom a relatively stable physical environment, it also provides a fairly constant social context. Behind the same old desks sit the same old students, in front of the familiar blackboard stands the familiar teacher. There are changes, to be sure–some students come and go during the year and on a few mornings the children are greeted at the door by a strange adult. But in most cases these events are sufficiently uncommon to create a flurry of excitement in the room. Moreover, in most elementary classrooms the social composition is not only stable, it is also physically arranged with considerable regularity. Each student has an assigned seat and, under normal circumstances, that is where he is to be found. The practice of assigning seats makes it possible for the teacher or a student to take attendance at a glance. A quick visual sweep is usually sufficient to determine who is there and who is not. The ease with which this procedure is accomplished reveals more eloquently than do words how accustomed each member of the class is to the presence of every other member.

An additional feature of the social atmosphere of elementary classrooms deserves at least passing comment. There is a social intimacy in schools that is unmatched elsewhere in our society. Buses and movie theaters may be more crowded than classrooms but people rarely stay in such densely populated settings for extended periods of time and while there, they usually are not expected to concentrate on work or to interact with each other. Even factory workers are not clustered as close together as students in a standard classroom. Indeed, imagine what would happen if a factory the size of a typical elementary school contained three or four hundred adult workers. In all likelihood the unions would not allow it. Only in schools do thirty or more people spend several hours each day literally side by side. Once we leave the classroom we seldom again are required to have contact with so many people for so long a time. This fact will become particularly relevant in a later chapter in which we treat the social demands of life in school.

A final aspect of the constancy experienced by young students involves the ritualistic and cyclic quality of the activities carried on in the classroom. The daily schedule, as an instance, is commonly divided into definite periods during which specific subjects are to be studied or specific activities engaged in. The content of the work surely changes from day to day and from week to week, and in this sense there is considerable variety amid the constancy. But spelling still comes after arithmetic on Tuesday morning, and when the teacher says, “All right class, now take out your spellers,” his announcement comes as no surprise to the students. Further, as they search in their desks for their spelling textbooks, the children may not know what new words will be included in the day’s assignment, but they have a fairly clear idea of what the next twenty minutes of class time will entail.

Despite the diversity of subject matter content, the identifiable forms of classroom activity are not great in number. The labels: “seatwork,” “group discussion,” “teacher demonstration,” and “question-and-answer period” (which would include work “at the board”), are sufficient to categorize most of the things that happen when class is in session. “Audio-visual display,” “testing session,” and “games” might be added to the list, but in most elementary classrooms they occur rarely.

Each of these major activities are performed according to rather well-defined rules which the students are expected to understand and obey-for example, no loud talking during seatwork, do not interrupt someone else during discussion, keep your eyes on your own paper during tests, raise your hand if you have a question. Even in the early grades these rules are so well understood by the students (if not completely internalized) that the teacher has only to give very abbreviated signals (“Voices, class,” “Hands, please,”) when violations are perceived. In many classrooms a weekly time schedule is permanently posted so that everyone can tell at a glance what will happen next.

Thus, when our young student enters school in the morning he is entering an environment with which he has become exceptionally familiar through prolonged exposure. Moreover, it is a fairly stable environment — one in which the physical objects, social relations, and major activities remain much the same from day to day, week to week, and even, in certain respects, from year to year. Life there resembles life in other contexts in some ways, but not all. There is, in other words, a uniqueness to the student’s world. School like church and home, is some­ place special. Look where you may, you will not find another place quite like it.

There is an important fact about a student’s life that teachers and parents often prefer not to talk about, at least not in front of students. This is the fact that young people have to be in school, whether they want to be or not. In this regard students have something in common with the members of two other of our social institutions that have involuntary attendance: prisons and mental hospitals. The analogy, though dramatic, is not intended to be shocking, and certainly there is no comparison between the unpleasantness of life for inmates of our prisons and mental institutions, on the one hand, and the daily travails of a first or second grader, on the other. Yet the school child, like the incarcerated adult, is in a sense, a prisoner. He too must come to grips with the inevitability of his experience. He too must develop strategies for dealing with the conflict that frequently arises between his natural desires and interests on the one hand and institutional expectations on the other. Several of these strategies will be discussed in the chapters that follow. Here it is sufficient to note that the thousands of hours spent in the highly stylized environment of the elementary classroom are not, in an ultimate sense, a matter of choice, even though some children might prefer school to play. Many seven-year-olds skip happily to school, and as parents and teachers we are glad they do, but we stand ready to enforce the attendance of those who are more reluctant. And our vigilance does not go unnoticed by children.

In sum. classrooms are special places. The things that happen there and the ways in which they happen combine to make these settings different from all others. This is not to say, of course, that there is no similarity between what goes on in school and the students’ experiences elsewhere. Classrooms are indeed like homes and churches and hospital wards in many important respects. But not in all.

The things that make schools different from other places are not only the paraphernalia of learning and teaching and the educational content of the dialogues that take place there, although these are the features that are usually singled out when we try to portray what life in school is really like. It is true that nowhere else do we find blackboards and teachers and textbooks in such abundance and nowhere else is so much time spent on reading, writing and arithmetic. But these obvious characteristics do not constitute all that is unique about this environment. There are other features, much less obvious though equally omnipresent, that help to make up “the facts of life”, as it were, to which students must adapt. From the standpoint of understanding the impact of school life on the student some features of the classroom that are not immediately visible are fully as important as those that are.

The characteristics of school life to which we now turn our attention are not commonly mentioned by students, at least not directly, nor are they apparent to the casual observer. Yet they are as real, in a sense, as the unfinished portrait of Washington that hangs above the cloakroom door. They comprise three facts of life with which even the youngest student must learn to deal and may be introduced by the key words: crowds, praise, and pawer.

Learning to live in a classroom involves, among other things, learning to live in a crowd. This simple truth has already been mentioned, but it requires greater elaboration. Most of the things that are done in school are done \\’ithothers, or at least in the presence of others, and this fact has profound implications for determining the quality of a student’s life.

Of equal importance is the fact that schools are basically evaluative settings. The very young student maybe temporarily fooled by tests that are presented as games, but it doesn’t take long before he begins to see through the subterfuge and comes to realize that school, after all, is a serious business. It is not only what you do there but what others think of what you do that is important. Adaptation to school life requires the student to become used to living under the constant condition of having his words and deeds evaluated by others.

School is also a place in which the division been between the weak and the powerful is clearly drawn. This may sound like a harsh way to describe the separation between teachers and students, but it serves to emphasize a fact that is often overlooked, or touched upon gingerly at best. Teachers are indeed more powerful than students, in the sense of having greater responsibility for giving shape to classroom events, and this sharp difference in authority is another feature of school life with which students must learn how to deal.

In three major ways then–as members of crowds, as potential recipients of praise or re­ proof, and as pawns of institutional authorities students are confronted with aspects of reality that at least during their childhood years are relatively confined to the hours spent in class­ rooms. Admittedly, similar conditions are encountered in other environments. Students, when they are not performing as such, must often find themselves lodged within larger groups, sensing as targets of praise or reproof, and being bossed around or guided by persons in positions of higher authority. But these kinds of experiences are particularly frequent while school is in session and it is likely during this time that adaptive strategies having relevance for other contexts and other time periods are developed.

In the sections of this chapter to follow, each of the three classroom qualities that have been briefly mentioned will be described in greater detail. Particular emphasis will be given to the manner in which students cope with these aspects of their daily lives. The goal of this discussion, as in the preceding chapters, is to deepen our understanding of the peculiar mark that school makes on us all.


Anyone who has ever taught knows that the classroom is a busy place, even though it may not always appear so to the casual visitor. Indeed, recent data have proved surprising even to experienced teachers. For example, we have found in one study of elementary classrooms that the teacher engages in as many as 1000 interpersonal interchanges each day.1 An attempt to catalogue the interchanges among students or the physical movement of class members would doubtlessly add to the general impression that most classrooms, though seemingly placid when glimpsed through the window in the hall door, are more like the proverbial beehive of activity. One way of understanding the meaning of this activity for those who experience it is by focusing on the teacher as he goes about channeling the social traffic of the classroom.

First, consider the rapidity of the teacher’s actions. What keeps him hopping from Jane to Bill to Sam, and back again, in the space of a few seconds? Clearly much of this activity is done in the   interest of  instruction.  Teaching commonly  involves  talking and  the teacher acts as a gate-keeper who   manages the flow of  the  classroom dialogue. When a student wishes to say something during a discussion it is usually the teacher’s job to recognize his wish and to invite h:s comment. When more than one person wishes to enter the discussion or answer a question at the same time (a most common event) it is the teacher who decides who will speak and in that order. Or we might tum the observation around and say that the teacher determines who will not speak, for when a group of students have signalled the desire to enter the dialogue, several of them may be planning to say the same thing. Therefore, if Johnny is called on first, Billy, who also had his hand raised, may now find himself without anything to say. This fact partially explains the urgency with which the desire to speak is signalled to the teacher.

Another time-consuming task for the teacher, at least in the elementary school, is that of serving as supply sergeant. Classroom space and material resources are limited and the teacher must allocate these resources judiciously. Only one student at a time can borrow the big scissors, or look through the microscope, or drink from the drinking fountain, or use the pencil sharpener. And broken pencil points and parched throats obviously do not develop one at a time or in an orderly fashion. Therefore, the number of students desiring to use various class­ room resources at any given moment is often greater than the number that can use them. This explains the lines of students that form in front of the pencil sharpener, the drinking fountain, the microscope, and the washroom door.

Closely related to the job of doling out material resources is that of granting special privileges to deserving students. In elementary classrooms it is usually the teacher who assigns coveted duties, such as serving on the safety patrol, or running the movie projector, or clapping the erasers, or handing out supplies. In most classrooms volunteers are plentiful, thus the jobs are often rotated among the students. (A list of current job-holders is a familiar item on elementary school bulletin boards.) Although the delegation of these duties may not take up much of the teacher’s time it does help to give structure to the activities of the room and to fashion the quality of the total experience for many of the participants.

A fourth responsibility of the teacher and one that calls our attention to another important aspect of classroom life, is that of serving as an official timekeeper. It is he who sees to it that things begin and end on time, more or less. He determines the proper moment for switching from discussion to workbooks, or from spelling to arithmetic. He decides whether a student has spent too long in the washroom, or whether those who take the bus may be dismissed. In many schools he is assisted in the job by elaborate systems of bells and buzzers. But even when the school day is mechanically punctuated by clangs and hums, the teacher is not entirely relieved of his responsibility of watching the clock. The implications of the teacher clock-watching behavior for determining what life in school is like are indeed profound. This behavior reminds us, above all, that school is a place where things often happen not because students want them to, but because it is time for them to occur.

All of the teacher’s actions described so far are bound together by a common theme. They are all responsive, in one way or another, to the crowded condition of the classroom. If the teacher dealt with one student at a time (as does happen in tutorial settings) most of the tasks that have been mentioned would be unnecessary. It is, in part, the press of numbers and of time that keeps the teacher so busy, but our ultimate concern, it must be remembered, is with the student and the quality of his life in the classroom. Therefore, the frenetic activity of the teacher as he goes about calling on students, handing out supplies, granting privileges, and turning activities on and off, is of interest, within the present context, only insofar as that behavior tells us something about what school is like for those who are at the receiving end of the teacher’s action.

The things the teacher does as he works within the physical, temporal, and social limits of the classroom have a constraining effect upon the events that might occur there if individual impulse were allowed free reign. If everyone who so desired hied to speak at once, or struggled for possession of the big scissors, or offered a helping hand in threading the movie projector, classroom life would be much more hectic than it commonly is. If students were allowed to stick with a subject until they grew tired of it on their own, our present curriculum would have to be modified drastically. Obviously, some kinds of controls are necessary if the school’s goals are to be reached and social chaos averted. The question of whether the teacher should or should not serve as a combination traffic cop, judge, supply sergeant, and time-keeper is some­ what irrelevant to the present discussion, but the fact that such functions must be performed, even if the responsibility for performing them falls upon individual students, is far from irrelevant. For a world in which traffic signs, whistles, and other regulatory devices abound is quite different from one in which these features are absent.

One of the inevitable outcomes of traffic management is the experiencing of delay. In crowded situations where people are forced to take turns in using limited resources, some must stand by until others have finished. When people are required to move as a group toward a goal, the speed of the group is, necessarily, the speed of its slowest member. Almost inevitably, therefore, in such situations some group members are waiting for the others to catch up. Moreover, whenever the future is thought to be more attractive than the present a common perception among school children — slow movement can sometimes seem like no  movement at all.

All of these different kinds of delay are commonplace in the classrooms. Indeed, when we begin to examine the details of classroom life carefully, it is surprising to see how much of the students’ time is spent in waiting. The most obvious examples are to be found in the practice of lining up that has already been mentioned. In most elementary schools students stand in line several times a day.1he entire class typically lines up during recess, lunch, and dismissal, and then there are the smaller lines that form sporadically in front of the drinking fountains, pencil sharpeners, and the like. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for teachers to hold these lines motionless until talking has ceased and some semblance of uniformity and order has been achieved.

Nor does the waiting end when the line has disappeared. Even when students are sitting in their seats they are often in the same position, psychologically, as if they were members of a line. It is not uncommon, for example, for teachers to move down rows asking questions or calling for recitations or examining seatwork. Under these conditions students interact with the teacher in a fixed order, with the consequence of each student waiting until his tum arrives, speaking his piece, and then waiting for the teacher to get to him again in the next round. Even in rooms where teachers do not operate “by the numbers,” as it were, the idea of taking turns during discussion and recitation periods is still present. After a student has made a contribution in a more informally run class the teacher is less likely to call on him again, at least for a brief period of time. Conversely, a student who has said nothing all period is more likely to have his raised hand recognized than is a student who has participated several times in the lesson. Unusual variations from this procedure would be considered unfair by students and teachers alike. Thus, even during so-called free discussion invisible lines are formed.

In rooms where students have considerable freedom to move about on their own during seatwork and study periods, the teacher himself often becomes the center of little groups of waiting students. One of the most typical social arrangements in such settings is that in which the teacher is chatting with one student or examining his work while two or three others stand by, books and papers in hand, waiting to have the teacher evaluate their work, give them further direction, answer their questions, or in some other fashion enable them to move along. At such moments it is not unusual for one or two of the seated students also to have their hands raised, propped at the elbow, waiting patiently for the teacher to get around to them.

A familiar arrangement in the lower grades is for the teacher to work with a part of the class, usually a reading group, while the remainder engage in seatwork. Not uncommonly the students working by themselves finish their assignments before the teacher is finished with the group with which he is working. Under such circumstances it is not uncommon  for the teacher to admonish the students to “find something to do” until it is time for a new activity to begin. The students may obey the teacher and thus appear to be busy, but their busyness is analogous to that of patients who read the old magazines in the doctor’s waiting room.

A final example of the kinds of delay to be observed in the classroom involves the situation in which the group is given a problem to solve or an exercise to complete and some students complete the work long before others. At such times the teacher may be heard to ask, “How many need more time?” or to command, “Raise your hand when you have finished.” This type of delay may only last a few seconds, but it occurs very frequently in some classrooms. Further, it is a kind of delay that is not experienced equally by all students, as are some of the others that ha\’e been mentioned, but tends, instead, to be encountered most frequently by students who are brighter, or faster, or more involved in their work.

Thus, in several different ways students in elementary classrooms are required to wait their tum and to delay their actions. No one knows for certain how much of the average student’s time is spent in neutral, as it were, but for many students in many classrooms it must be a memorable portion. Furthermore, delay is only one of the consequences of living in a crowd and perhaps not even the most important one from the standpoint of constraining the individual. Waiting is not so bad, and may even be beneficial, when the things we are waiting for come to pass. But waiting, as we all know, can sometimes be in vain.

The denial of desire is the ultimate outcome of many of the delays occurring in the class­ room. The raised hand is sometimes ignored, the question to the teacher is sometimes brushed aside, the permission that is sought is sometimes refused. No doubt things often have to be this way. Not everyone who wants to speak can be heard, not all of the student’s queries can be answered to his satisfaction, not all of their requests can be granted. Also, it is probably true that most of these denials are psychologically trivial when considered individually. But when considered cumulatively their significance increases. And regardless of whether or not they are justified, they make it dear that part of learning how to live in school involves learning how to give up desire as well as how to wait for its fulfillment.

Interruptions of many sorts create a third feature of classroom life that results, at least in part, from the crowded social conditions. During group sessions irrelevant comments, misbehavior, and outside visitors bearing messages often disrupt the continuity of the lesson. When the teacher is working individually with a student-a common arrangement in elementary classrooms-petty interruptions, usually in the form of other students coming to the teacher for advice, are the rule rather than the exception. Thus, the bubble of reality created during the teaching session is punctured by countless trivial incidents and the teacher must spend time patching up the holes. Students are expected to ignore these distractions or at ]east to tum quickly back to their studies after their attention has been momentarily drawn elsewhere.

Typically, things happen on time in school and this fact creates interruptions of another sort. Adherence to a time schedule requires that activities often begin before interest is aroused and terminate before interest disappears. Thus students are required to put away their arithmetic book and take out their spellers even though they want to continue with arithmetic and ignore spelling. In the classroom, work is often stopped before it is finished. Questions are often left dangling when the bell rings. Quite possibly, of course, there is no alternative to this unnatural state of affairs. If teachers were always to wait until students were finished with one activity before they began another, the school day would become interminable. There seems to be no other way, therefore, but to stop and start things by the clock, even though this means constantly interrupting the natural flow of interest and desire for at least some students.

Another aspect of school life, related to the general phenomena of distractions and interruptions, is the recurring demand that the student ignore those who are around him. In elementary classrooms students are frequently assigned seatwork on which they are expected to focus their individual energies. During these seatwork periods talking and other forms of communication between students are discouraged, if not openly forbidden. The general admonition in such situations is to do your own work and leave others alone.

In a sense, then, students must try to behave as if they were in solitude, when in point of fact they are not. They must keep their eyes on their paper when human faces beckon. Indeed, in the early grades it is not uncommon to find students facing each other around a table while at the same time being required not to communicate with each other. These young people, if they are to become successful students, must learn how to be alone in a crowd.

Adults encounter conditions of social solitude so often that they are likely to overlook its special significance in the elementary classroom. We have learned to mind our own business in factories and offices, to remain silent in libraries, and to keep our thoughts to ourselves while riding public conveyances. But there are two major differences between classrooms and most of these other settings. First, except for the first few days of school, a classroom is not an ad hoc gathering of strangers. It is a group whose members have come to know each other quite well, to the point of friendship in many cases. Second, attendance in the room is not voluntary, as it is in many other social situations. Students are there whether they want to be or not and the work on which they are expected to concentrate also is often not of their own choosing. Thus, the pull to communicate with others is likely somewhat stronger in the classroom than in other crowded situations.

Here then are four unpublicized features of school life: delay, denial, interruption, and social distraction. Each is produced, in part, by the crowded conditions of the classroom. When twenty or thirty people must live and work together within a limited space for five or six hours a day most of the things that have been discussed are inevitable. Therefore, to decry the existence of these conditions is probably futile, yet their pervasiveness and frequency make them too important to be ignored. One alternative is to study the ways in which teachers and students cope with these facts of life and to seek to discover how that coping might leave its mark on their reactions to the world in general.

First, we must recognize that the severity of the conditions being described is to some extent a function of social tradition, institutional policy, and situational wealth and poverty. In some schools daily schedules are treated casually and in others they are rigidly adhered to. In some classrooms a rule of no talking is in force almost all of the time, while a steady murmur is tolerated in others. In some classrooms there are forty or more students, in others, at the same grade level, there are twenty or less. Some teachers are slow to recognize an upraised hand, others respond almost immediately. Some rooms are equipped. with several pairs of big scissors, others have only one.

Despite these differences, however, it is doubtful that there is any classroom in which the phenomena we have been discussing are uncommon. Space, abundant resources, and a liberal attitude toward rules and regulations may reduce the pressure of the crowd somewhat but it certainly does not eliminate it entirely. Indeed, most of the observations on which the present analysis is based were made in so-called advantaged schools whose teachers were proud of their “progressive” educational views.

Second, as we begin to focus on the ways of coping with these institutional demands, it shl1u\d be recognized at once that adaptive strategies are idiosyncratic to individual students. We cannot predict, in other words, how any particular student will react to the constraints imposed on him in the classroom. We can only identify major adaptive styles that might be used to characterize large numbers of students.

The quintessence of virtue in most institutions is contained in the single word: patience. Lacking that quality, life could be miserable for those who must spend their time in our prisons, our factories, our corporation offices, and our schools, In all of these settings the participants must “learn to labour and to wait.” They must also, to some extent, learn to suffer in silence. They are expected to bear with equanimity, in other words, the continued delay, denial, and interruption of their personal wishes and desires.

But patience is more of a moral attribute than an adaptive strategy. It is what a person is asked to “be” rather than what he is asked to “do.” Moreover, when we consider how a person becomes patient-that is, the behaviors he must engage in in order to earn the title-­ it becomes apparent that patience is more clearly determined by what a person does not do than by what he does. A patient man is one who does not act in a particular way, even through he desires to. He is a man who can endure the temptation to cry out or to complain even though the temptation is strong. Thus patience has to do principally with the control of impulse or its abandonment.

Returning to the situation in our schools, we can see that if students are to face the de­ mands of classroom life with equanimity they must learn to be patient. This means that they must be able to disengage, at least temporarily, their feelings from their actions. It also means, of course, that they must be able to re-engage feelings and actions when conditions are appropriate. In other words, students must wait patiently for their tum to come, but when it does they must still be capable of zestful participation. They must accept the fact of not being called on during a group discussion, but they must continue to volunteer.

Thus, the personal quality commonly described as patience-an essential quality when responding to the demands of the classroom-represents a balance, and sometimes a precarious one, between two opposed tendencies. On the one hand is the impulse to act on desire, to blurt out the answer, to push to the front of the line, or to express anger when interrupted. On the other hand is the impulse to give up the desire itself, to stop participating in the discussion, to go without a drink when the line is long, or to abandon an interrupted activity.

Whether or not a particular student acquires the desirable balance between impulsive action and apathetic withdrawal depends in part, as has been suggested, on personality qualities that lie outside the scope of the present discussion. In most classrooms powerful social sanctions are in operation to force the student to maintain an attitude of patience. If he impulsively steps out of line his classmates are likely to complain about his being selfish or “pushy.” If he shifts over into a state of overt withdrawal, his teacher is apt to call him back to active participation.

But the fact that teachers and peers help to keep a student’s behavior in line does not mean that the demands themselves can be ignored. Regardless of his relative success in coping with it, or the forces, personal or otherwise, that might aid in that coping, the elementary school student is situated in a densely populated social world. As curriculum experts and educational technologists try to experiment with new course content and new instructional devices, the crowds in the classroom may be troublesome. But there they are. Part of becoming a student involves learning how to live with that fact.


Every child experiences the pain of failure and the joy of success long before he reaches school age, but his achievements, or lack of them, do not really become official until he enters the classroom. From then on, however, a semi-public record of his progress gradually accumulates, and as a student he must learn to adapt to the continued and pervasive spirit of evolution that will dominate his school years. Evaluation, then, is another important fact of life in the elementary classroom.

As we all know, school is not the only place where a student is made aware of his strengths and weaknesses. His parents make evaluations of him in the home and his friends do likewise in the playground. But the evaluation process that goes on in the classroom is quite different from that which operates in other settings. Accordingly, it presents the student with a set of unique demands to which he must adapt.

The most obvious difference between the way evaluation occurs in school and the way it occurs in other situations is that tests are given in school more frequently than elsewhere. In­ deed, with the exception of examinations related to military service or certain kinds of occupations most people seldom encounter tests outside of their school experience.” Tests are as indigenous to the school environment as arc textbooks or pieces of chalk.

But tests, though they are the classic form of educational evaluation, are not all there is to the process. In fact, in the lower grades formal tests are almost nonexistent, although evaluation clearly occurs. Thus the presence of these formal procedures is insufficient to explain the distinctively evaluative atmosphere that pervades the classroom from the earliest grades on­ ward. There is more to it than that.

The dynamics of classroom evaluation are difficult  to describe, principally  because they are so complex. Evaluations derive from more than one source, the conditions of their communication may vary in several different ways, they may have one or more of several referents, and they may range in quality from intensely positive to intensely negative. Moreover, these variations refer only to objective, or impersonal features of evaluation. When the subjective or personal meanings of these events are considered, the picture becomes even more complex. Fortunately, for purposes of the present discussion, we need only to focus on the more objective aspects of the student’s evaluative experiences.

The chief source of evaluation in the classroom is obviously the teacher. He is called upon continuously to make judgements of students’ work and behavior and to communicate that judgement to the students in question and to others. No one who has observed an elementary classroom for any length of time can have failed to be impressed by the vast number of times the teacher performs this function. Typically, in most classrooms students come to know when things arc right or wrong, good or bad, pretty or ugly, largely as a result of what the teacher tells them.

But the teacher is not the only one who passes judgement. Classmates frequently join in the act. Sometimes the class as a whole is invited to participate in the evaluation of a student’s work, as when the teacher asks, “Who can correct Billy?” or “How many believe that Shirley read that poem with a lot of expression?” At other times the evaluation occurs without any urging from the teacher, as when an egregious error elicits laughter or an outstanding performance wins spontaneous applause.

There is a third source of evaluation in the classroom that is more difficult to describe than are the positive or negative comments coming from teachers and peers. This type of evaluation, which entails self-judgement, occurs without the intervention of an outside judge. When a student is unable to spell any of the words on a spelling test he has been apprised of his failure even if the teacher never sees his paper. When a student works on an arithmetic example at the blackboard he may know that his answer is correct even if the teacher does not bother to tell him so. Thus, as students respond to test questions or complete exercises in their workbooks, or solve problems at the blackboard, they inevitably obtain some information about the quality of their performance. The information is not always correct and may have to be revised by later judgements (Not everyone who thinks he has the right answer really has it!), but, even when wrong, evaluation can leave its mark.

The conditions under which evaluations are communicated add to the complexity of the demands confronting the student. He soon comes to realize, for example, that some of the most important judgments of him and his work are not made known to him at all. Some of these “secret” judgments are communicated to parents; others, such as IQ scores and results of personality tests, are reserved for the scrutiny of school official,; only. Judgments made by peers often circulate in the form of gossip or are reported to persons of authority by “tattle-tales.” Before he has gone very far in school the student must come to terms with the fact that many things are said about him behind his back.

Those judgments of which the student is aware are communicated with varying degrees of privacy. At one extreme is the public comment made in the presence of other students. In the elementary classroom in particular, students are often praised or admonished in front of their classmates. Perfect papers or “good” drawings are sometimes displayed for all to see. Misbehavior evokes negative sanctions–such as scolding, isolation, removal from the room-that are frequently visible. Before much of the school year has gone by the identity of the “good” students and the “poor” students has become public knowledge in most classrooms.

A less public form of evaluation occurs when the teacher meets privately with the student to discuss his work. Sometimes the student is called to the teacher’s desk and sometimes the teacher walks around the room and chats with individuals while the classis engaged in seatwork. Often, however, these seemingly private conferences are secretly attended by eavesdroppers. Thus, it is quite probable, although it might be difficult to prove, that a student’s nearest class­ mates are more intimately aware of the teacher’s evaluation of him than are students sitting at a greater distance.

Writing is an even more private means of communicating evaluations than is the spoken word. The terse comment on the margin of a student’s paper is the classic form of written evaluation. A variant of this situation occurs when the student answers a self-quiz in his workbook or textbook but does not report his score to anyone. On occasions such as these the student confronts the evaluation of his work in solitude.

Logically, evaluation in the classroom might be expected to be limited chiefly to the student’s attainment of educational objectives. And, dearly these limits seem to hold insofar as most of the official evaluations go–the ones that are communicated to parents and entered on school records. But there are at least two other referents of evaluation quite common in elementary classrooms. One has to do with the student’s adjustment to institutional expectations; the other with his possession of specific character traits. Indeed, the smiles and frowns of teachers and classmates often provide more information about these seemingly peripheral aspects of the student’s behavior than they do about his academic progress. Moreover, even when the student’s mastery of certain knowledge or skills is allegedly the object of evaluation, other aspects of his behavior commonly are being judged at the same time.

As every school child knows, teachers can become quite angry on occasion.  Moreover, every school child quickly learns what makes  teachers  angry.  He learns that in most  classrooms the behavior that triggers the teacher’s ire has little to do with wrong answers or other indicators of scholastic failure.  Rather,  it  is  violations  of  institutional  expectations that really get under the teacher’s skin. Typically, when a student is scolded by  the  teacher  it  is  not  because he has failed to spell a word correctly or to grasp the intricacies of long division. He is scolded, more than likely, for coming into the room late, or for making too much noise, or for not listening to directions, or for pushing while in line. Occasionally, teachers do become publicly vexed by their student’s academic shortcomings, but to really send them off on a tirade of invective, the young student soon discovers, nothing works better than a partially suppressed giggle during arithmetic period.

The teacher, of course, is not the only source of nonacademic judgments. Evaluation that focuses on a student’s personal qualities is as likely to come from his classmates as from anyone else. The student’s classroom behavior contributes in large measure to the reputation he develops among his peers for being smart or dumb, a sissy or a bully, teachers pet or a regular guy, a cheater or a good sport. Most students are fully aware that their behavior is being evaluated in these terms because they judge others in the same way. Classroom friendships and general popularity or unpopularity are based largely on such assessments. Although some of these judgments are instantly communicated to the person being evaluated, others are related through intermediaries or friends. Some are so secret that even best friends won’t tell.

The teacher’s evaluation of the personal qualities of his students typically deals with such matters as general intellectual ability, motivational level, and helpfulness in maintaining a well run classroom. Such qualities are commonly mentioned on cumulative record folders in terse but telling descriptions. “Johnny has some difficulty with third grade material, but he tries hard,” or “Sarah is a neat and pleasant girl. She is a good helper,” or simply, ‘William is a good worker,” are typical of the thumbnail sketches to be found in abundance in school records. Some teachers, particularly those who pride themselves on being “psychologically sophisticated,” also evaluate their students in terms that relate more closely than do the ones already mentioned to the general concept of psychopathology. Aggressiveness and withdrawal are among the traits most frequently mentioned in this connection. Teachers also use the general labels of “problem child” or “disturbed child” for this purpose.

Quite naturally most of the evaluations that have to do with the student’s psychological health are not communicated to the student and often not even to the child’s parents. Less severe judgments, however, are often made publicly. In the lower grades it is not at all uncommon to hear the teacher, as she gazes over her class, say things like, “I see that John is a good worker,” or “Some people (their identities obvious) don’t seem to know how to follow directions,” or “Liza has a listening face.”

The separation of classroom evaluations into those referring to academic attainment, those referring to institutional adjustment, and those  referring  to  possession  of  personal  qualities should not obscure the fact that  in  many situations all  three kinds of assessment  are  going on at one time. For example, when a student is praised  for  correctly  responding  to  a  teacher’s  question it may look as though he is simply being .rewarded for having the right  answer.  But obviously there is more to it than that. If the teacher discovered that  the student  had  obtained  the answer a few seconds before by reading  from  a  neighbor’s  paper  he would  have been  punished rather than praised. Similarly, if he had blurted the answer  out  rather  than waiting  to be called on he might have  received  a very different  response from  the  teacher. Thus, it is not  just the possession of the right answer but also the way in which it was  obtained  that  is  being rewarded. In other words, the student is being praised for having achieved and demonstrated intellectual mastery in a prescribed legitimate way. He is being  praised, albeit directly, for  knowing something, for having done what the teacher told him to do, for being a good listener, a cooperative group member, and so on. The  teacher’s  compliment  is  intended  to entice the student (and those  who  are  listening)  to  engage  in  certain  behaviors  in  the  future, but  not simply in the repeated exposure of  the  knowledge  he has  just  displayed.  It  is  intended  to  encourage him to do again what the teacher tells him to do, to work hard, to master the material. And so it is with many of the evaluations that appear to relate exclusively to academic matters. Implicitly, they involve the evaluation of many “nonacademic” aspects of the student’s behavior.

Evaluations, by definition, connote value. Accordingly, each can be described at least ide­ally, according to the kind and degree of value it connotes. Some are positive, others are negative. Some are very positive or negative, others are less so. In the classroom, as everyone knows, both positive and negative assessments are made and are communicated to students. Teachers scold as well as praise, classmates compliment as well as criticize.

The question of whether smiles are more frequent  than frowns, and  compliments more abundant than criticisms, depends in part of course, on the particular classroom under discussion. Some teachers are just not the smiling type, others find it difficult to suppress their grins. The answer also varies dramatically from one student to the next. Some youngsters receive many more negative sanctions than do others, and the same is true with respect to rewards. Conditions also vary for the sexes. From the early grades onward boys are more likely than are girls to violate institutional regulations and, thus, to receive an unequal share of control messages from the teacher. All of these inequalities make it difficult to describe with great accuracy the evaluative setting as it is experienced by any particular child. All that can be said ·with assurance is that the classroom environment of most students contains some mixture of praise and reproof.

Because both the teacher and his fellow classmates may evaluate a student’s behavior, contradictory judgments are possible. A given act may be praised by the teacher and criticized by peers, or vice versa. This may not be the normal state of affairs, to be sure, but it does happen frequently enough to bear comment. A classic example of this kind of a contradiction was observed in one second grade classroom in which a boy was complimented by his teacher  for his gracefulness, during a period of “creative” dancing while, at the same time, his male classmates teased him for acting like a sissy. This example calls attention to the fact that students are often concerned with the approval of two audiences whose taste may differ. It also hints at the possibility that the conflict between teacher and peer approval might  be greater for boys than for girls. Many of the behaviors that the teacher smiles upon, especially those that have to do with compliance to institutional expectations (e.g., neatness, passivity, cleanliness), are more closely linked in our society with feminine than with masculine ideals.

From all that has been said it is e\.ident that learning how to live in a classroom involves not only learning how to handle situations in which one’s own work or behavior are evaluated, but also learning how to witness, and occasionally participate in, the evaluation of others. In addition to getting used to a life in which their strengths and weaknesses are often exposed to public scrutiny, students also have to accustom themselves to viewing the strengths and weak­ nesses of their fellow students. This shared exposure makes comparisons between students inevitable and adds another degree of complexity to the evaluation picture.

The job of coping with evaluation is not left solely to the student. Typically, the teacher and other school authorities try to reduce the discomfort that might be associated with some of the harsher aspects of meting out praise and punishment. The dominant “viewpoint” in education today stresses the pedagogical advantages of success and the disadvantages of failure. In short, our schools are forward-oriented. Thus, teachers are instructed to focus on the good aspects of a student’s behavior and to overlook the poor. Indeed, even when a student gives a wrong answer, today’s teacher is likely to compliment him for trying. This bias toward the positive does not mean, of course, that negative remarks have disappeared from our schools. But there are certainly fewer of them than there might be if teachers operated under a different set of educational beliefs.

When harsh judgments have to be made, as they often must, teachers often try to conceal them from the class as a whole. Students are called up to the teachers desk, private conferences are arranged before or after school, test papers are handed back with the grades covered, and so on. Sometimes, when the judgments are very harsh, they are not reported to the student at all. Students are rarely told, for example, that they have been classified as “slow learners” or that the teacher suspects them of having serious emotional problems. Such evaluations, as has been pointed out, are usually the carefully guarded secrets of the school authorities.

School practices covering the communication of positive evaluations are probably less consistent than are covering negative judgments. Although there is a common tendency to praise students whenever possible, this tendency is usually tempered by the teacher’s desire to be fair and “democratic.” Thus, the correct answers and perfect papers of students who almost always do good work may be overlooked at times in the interest of giving less able students a chance to bask in the warmth of the teacher’s admiration. Most teachers are also sensitive to the fact that lavish praise heaped upon a student may arouse negative evaluations (“teacher’s pet,” “eager beaver”) from his classmates.

Although the student’s task in adjusting to evaluation is made easier by common teaching practices, he still has a job to do. In fact, he has three jobs. The first, and most obvious, is to behave in such a way as to enhance the likelihood of praise and reduce the likelihood of punishment. In other words, he must learn how the reward system of the classroom operates and then use that knowledge to increase the flow of rewards to himself. A second job, although one in which students engage with differing degrees of enthusiasm, consists of trying to publicize positive evaluations and conceal negative ones. The pursuit of this goal leads to the practice of carrying good report cards home with pride, and losing poor ones along the way. A third job, and again one that may be of greater concern to some students than to others, consists of trying to win the approval of two audiences at the same time. The problem, for some, is how to become a good student while remaining a good guy, how to be at the head of the class while still being in the center of the group.

Most students soon learn that rewards are granted to those who lead a good life. And in school the good life consists, principally, of doing what the teacher says. Of course the teacher says many things, and some of his directions are easier to follow than others, but for the most part his expectations are not seen as unreasonable and the majority of students comply  with them sufficiently well to ensure that their hours in the classroom are colored more by praise than by punishment.

But only in very rare instances is compliance the only strategy a student uses to make his way in the evaluative environment of the classroom. Another course of action engaged by most students at least some of the time is to behave in ways that disguise the failure to comply: in short, to cheat. It may seem unduly severe to label as “cheating” all the little maneuvers that students engage in to cloak aspects of their behavior that might be displeasing to the teacher or their fellow students. Perhaps the term should be reserved to describe the seemingly more serious behavior of trying to falsify performance on a test. But this restriction bestows greater significance than is warranted to test situations and implies that similar behavior in other set­ tings is harmless or hardly worthy of notice.

Yet why should a student who copies an answer from his neighbor’s test paper be considered guilty of more serious misbehavior than the student who attempts to misinform by raising his hand when the teacher asks how many have completed their homework assignment? Why is cheating on a test considered the greater breach of educational etiquette than is faking interest during a social studies discussion or sneaking a peak at a comic book during arithmetic class? The answer, presumably, is that performance on tests counts for more, in that it is preserved as a lasting mark on the student’s record. And that answer might justify the difference in  our   attitudes toward  these various practices. But it should not permit us to overlook the fact that copying an answer on a test, feigning interest during a discussion, giving a false answer to  a  teacher’s query, and  disguising forbidden activities are all of  a piece. Each represent an effort to avoid censure or to win unwarranted praise. Such efforts are far more common in the classroom than our focus on cheating in test situations would have us believe. Learning how to make it in school involves, in part, learning how to falsify our behavior.

There is another way of coping with evaluations that warrants mention even though it is not deserving of the term “strategy.” This method entails devaluing the evaluations to a point where they no longer matter very much.  The  student who  has  adopted  this  alternative  over that of complying or cheating has learned how to “play it cool” in the classroom. He is neither elated by success nor deflated by failure. He may indeed try to “stay out of trouble”  in  the classroom and thus comply with the teacher’s minimal expectations, but this is principally because getting into trouble entails  further  entanglements and  involvement  with  school  officials and other adults, a situation that he would prefer to avoid.

This brief description of emotional detachment from school affairs has two  shortcomings. It makes the process sound more rational than it probably is and it focuses on a rather extreme form of the condition. Students do not likely decide to become uninvolved with school in the same way that they decide to collect baseball cards or to visit a sick friend. Rather, their lack of involvement likely has a casual history of which they are only dimly aware at best. The way in which such an attitude might slowly develop without the student being acutely conscious of it is one of the major topics to be discussed in the next chapter. Also, detachment is surely not an either/or  state of  affairs.  Students  cannot  be sharply  divided  into  the  involved  and the uninvolved. Rather, all students probably learn to employ psychological  buffers that protect them from some of the wear and tear of classroom life. To anyone who has been in a classroom it is also evident that some students end up being more insulated than others.

Before leaving the topic of evaluation in the classroom, attention must be given to a distinction that has enjoyed wide currency in educational discussions. This is the distinction between “extrinsic” motivation (doing school work for the rewards it will bring in the form of good grades and teacher approval) on the one hand, and “intrinsic” motivation  (doing school  work for the pleasure that comes from the task itself) on the other. If we want children to continue to learn after they leave the classroom, so the argument goes, it would be wise gradually to de­ emphasize the importance of grades and other “extrinsic’ rewards and concentrate instead on having the student derive his major satisfactions from the learning activities themselves. An illustration often used in making this point involves the child’s progress in learning  how  to play the piano. When piano lessons are first begun the student may have to be forced to practice through the use of external rewards and punishments. But after a time, hopefully, the student will derive such pleasure from the skill itself that rewards and punishments will  no longer be very important.

The trouble with the piano-playing illustration and with the whole concept of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation as it relates to classroom activity is that it does not take into account the complexity of the evaluations that occur there. If classroom rewards and punishments only had to do with whether the students practiced their spelling or their arithmetic, life for both the teacher and his students would be much simpler, but, clearly, reality is more complicated than that.

The notion of intrinsic motivation begins to lose some of its power when applied to behaviors other than those that involve academic knowledge or skills. What about behaviors that deal with conformity to institutional expectations. What kind of intrinsic motivation can the teacher appeal to when he wants students to be silent even though they want to talk? It is true that he might make up a logical appeal to them rather than merely telling them to shut up, but it is hard to imagine that the students will ever find anything intrinsically satisfying about being silent when they wish to talk. And the same thing is true for many aspects of classroom behavior that arouse evaluative comments from teachers and students. Thus, the goal of making classroom activities intrinsically satisfying to students turns out to be unattainable except with respect to a narrowly circumscribed set of behavior.

1 comment

  1. Thanx for this.

    Jackson’s piece also demonstrates how in-person education is so extensively and intensively enculturated and institutionalised from pupils’ earliest years. Only recently have schools sought to develop pupils’ skills in online education, and mostly less rigorously than their deep immersion in face to face education. This may be why online and other forms of mediated education are less successful and less preferred by most students.


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