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01: Reasons for dissatisfaction

Group 01 Readings

Build-up of dissatisfaction and some frank thoughts on conventional classrooms


Herbert Kohl, a teacher and educator is one of the advocates of progressive alternative education. Insights into his vast experience and careful study of both children and teaching can be found in the thirty books he has authoured. Children who feel schools to be irrelevant and teachers who feel that some children are ‘unteachable’, both obscure the real problem – the curriculum and the school structure. This extract describes the school situation, similar to what we are familiar with in our own conventional schools, in which Herbert Kohl found himself. The year was 1961.

Extract 01
From The Open Classroom - A Practical Guide to a New Way of Teaching by Herbert R. Kohl

The authoritarian environment of the school I taught at encouraged a collusive atmosphere in which everyone except the students pretended that the school was functioning smoothly and effectively and that the teachers were “doing a good job.” It was not proper to talk about troubles or admit failures.

There was no one for me to talk with, to share my despair and confusion. I was having troubles with the curriculum, with my students, with bureaucratic details, with other teachers, and, most of all, with myself. I was bewildered and angered by what was expected of me, and overwhelmed by my contact with students. I was supposed to teach the fifth-grade curriculum, no matter who my students were or what they cared about. I was also supposed to take attendance; sign circulars; contribute to a fund for purchasing birthday presents for colleagues who refused to acknowledge my existence; take my turn at yard duty, hall duty, and lunchroom duty. The demands were as frequent as they were senseless. Yet they were insignificant when compared with the pressure to fulfill the function considered most essential to a teacher’s success—controlling the children.
The entire staff of the school was obsessed by “control,” and beneath the rhetoric of faculty meetings was the clear implication that students were a reckless, unpredictable, immoral, and dangerous enemy.

I found myself following the usual methods. The textbooks bored me, yet I went along and tried to impose them upon my students. The clerical work seemed to me absurd, yet with my students I tried to make it seem important. They weren’t impressed, and because I didn’t have the heart to harass them, they mocked and harassed me. My students hated school and let me know it by running about the room, screaming, falling out of their seats. There were a few times when something developed in the classroom that led the students to become absorbed in learning. Yet for the most part I was having trouble, and I wanted to talk to someone about it. In the authoritarian atmosphere of the school no one wanted to hear about my troubles—if the system didn’t work in my case, I probably wasn’t suited to the job.

After a few months of teaching, however, I met another teacher in my school who spoke honestly about teaching. His class was a wonder to me—the atmosphere was open, there was a casual and friendly exchange between him and his pupils. This absence of hostility was accompanied by the intense involvement of the students in things they seemed to care about. What he had achieved seemed unattainable for me, given the state of my class. I couldn’t believe that he had ever confronted problems with students or had ever been uncertain about his role in the classroom. But we talked about my problems and he told me of his own difficulties during his early years as a teacher. Knowing that he had similar problems, made me somewhat more hopeful. He helped me to locate the source of my difficulties in myself and in the pathology of the classroom instead of in the students. He also showed me the need to find alternatives to textbooks and to the domination of the teacher.

That first six months I just managed to survive. The next year was much better and I learned how to make the classroom more interesting for my pupils. I also learned how to give up my power as a teacher, (not delegate it but abrogate it) and how to help my pupils as well as become someone they could talk with. I learned to listen to them, to be led by their interests and needs. In turn I became involved in creating teachings in the classroom—in doing research on myths and numbers, in learning from the experience of the students. My students and I resembled a community much more than a class, and I enjoyed being with them. We worked together in an open environment which often spilled out of the school building into the streets, the neighborhood, and the city itself.

Yet these things didn’t happen magically or quickly. I needed a great deal of help, and very little was available. I did learn to function in a non-authoritarian way within an authoritarian institution, though I had little impact on the school, and ultimately quit. Still I gradually found ways of teaching that were not based on compulsion but on participation; not on grades or tests or curriculum, but on pursuing what interested the children.

It is almost certain that open classrooms will not develop within our school systems without the teachers and pupils experiencing fear, depression, and panic. There will always be the fear that one is wrong in letting people choose their own lives instead of legislating their roles in society. There will be depression, for one can never know in the short range if one is succeeding in opening possibilities to people or merely deceiving and seducing them. And there will be panic because we all fear chaos—fear that things have gotten so far out of hand in our lives that if we face the truth we will no longer be able to tolerate life.

Our schools are crazy. They do not serve the interests of adults, and they do not serve the interests of young people. They teach “objective” knowledge and its corollary, obedience to authority. They teach avoidance of conflict and obeisance to tradition in the guise of history. They teach equality and democracy while castrating students and controlling teachers. Most of all they teach people to be silent about what they think and feel, and worst of all, they teach people to pretend that they are saying what they think and feel. To try to break away from stupid schooling is no easy matter for teacher or student. It is a lonely and long fight to escape from believing that one needs to do what people say one should do and that one ought to be the person one is expected to be. Yet to make such an escape is a step toward beginning again and becoming the teachers we never knew we could be.


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