Friday, August 11, 2006

Robert Fried on Seymour Sarason

  Seymour Sarason: Sculptor of IdeasPosted by Picasa Seymour Sarason is a name I often see quoted and so it was great to be sent a copy of an introduction to one of his books by my friend Robert Fried ( see picture) himself a writer of such wonderful books as the ‘Passionate Teacher’ and the ‘Game of School’.

One of Sarason’s forty odd books has a name that reflects his lifetime theme ‘The Predictable Failure of School Reform’. He retired in 1989 as professor of clinical psychology at Yale University.

Fried calls Sarason as a ‘cautious radical’ and a pragmatic idealist who staunchly defends classroom teachers in one breathe and scolds them ( and policy makers) in another for their failure to make schools interesting places for teachers and children.

Fried believes we should take him seriously. For sixty years Sarasan has agonized about why our institutions and social systems so rarely succeeded in achieving the visions of those who created them despite the hard work and sincere efforts of all involved. Sarason has relentlessly challenged conventional thinking about why schools seem so resistant to change.

Fried introduces Sarason as a ‘sculptor of ideas’ who has shaped the ideas of many scholars and educators over the years.

Some of the ideas he has shared are:

1. Every school has a culture that defines how people within it operate. Culture affects people in ways they acknowledge as well as in ways that are hidden from their consciousness. Taken for granted culture is rarely questioned by teachers, students, or the wider community. Until the assumptions behind the culture are questioned as to how well it is performing things carry on as they are.

2. The ‘regularities’ of that culture – the rules and procedures that are mostly assumed tend to undermine the basic purposes of educating our youth. ‘But we have always done it that way’ ensures culture remains unexamined and unchallenged.

3. The overriding purpose of the school ought to be that children should want to keep learning more about themselves, other, and the world, yet that purpose is mostly ignored. Why should kids go to school? To learn basics or to gain cultural heritage, or do we want them to become better learners, more confident, more capable, and more curious? Is there any goal, Sarason believes, that even comes close in importance to having students increase their desire to learn more about themselves, others, and the world. If not why this goal is so rarely articulated?

4. The educational ‘system’ has an oppressive impact stifling progress. The search for culprits – teachers, students, bad parents and schools is a popular activity. But the real culprit is the system itself, a system nobody designed, nobody champions, and almost nobody challenges. The system seems pervasive and everybody at every level seems to distrust and resent those who wield power over them and disrespect those who have less power e.g. students.

5. The system, as it currently functions, is intractable, not easily reformed, and reform efforts that ignore systemic obstacles will predictably fail. The most significant feature of the system is to perpetrate itself, to roll along in the face of research illuminating its inefficiencies and failures. Reform efforts that do not address undesirable features of the system itself are doomed to failure as change gets stymied by the very dysfunctional aspects one is attempting to alter. For example it is common to changes to be handed down from on high yet this way of initiating change almost always leads to resentment, subversion, and failure.

6. More specifically, reforms that do not change the power relationships between and among people in schools are fated to suffer paralyzing inertia. Power is unjustly and inequitably distributed in schools and school systems. We have to ask ourselves why we behave as we do towards those above and below us in the hierarchy of power and how we can change those relationships so that they reflect our democratic values and promote shared decision making.

7. Sustained and productive contexts of learning can exist for students if they do not simultaneously exist for teachers. Everyone in a school needs to work together to create an environment in which learners feel motivated and supported as they build on what they know and seek to learn more. Unless teachers feel that they are part of a high quality respectful learning environment we cannot expect more than a few such teachers to create that environment for their students.

8. Applying labels to people, especially a student is futile and unjust. Too many children have had their careers misshapen by being tested and put into categories that often have little to do with their real potential as learners.

9. The democratic principle, while often celebrated, is undermined or ignored in our schools and school systems. Those who will be affected by decisions have a right to be included in helping shape that decision.

10. Parents are vital partners, and teachers qualified leaders, and both are potential governors of schools. It is easy to proclaim the values of parent participation, or involvement, but such advocacy is meaningless when parents are sidelined or their roles trivialized. Parents, along with teachers, deserve a much greater role to run their schools.

11. Politicians need to understand the systemic features ( failures) of the education system and not just to foist new pressures, programmes, goals haphazardly on schools.

One place to begin, Fried believes, is with Sarason’s notion of the culture of the school. The school culture is so evident, so persuasive, yet so invisible. If we fail to see the school as more than a collection of classrooms we will be continually disappointed by the inability of people in schools to make those changes that are called up by research, intellectual honesty and democratic principles. We need, Sarason believes, to identify, examine and challenge aspects of school culture that stifle progress. If not we will fail to see the forest for the trees.

Until systemic problems are faced up to changes designed to improve will be sidelined, 'sweet talked' to death, ignored, or sabotaged. It is this stagnation that has inspired Sarason to challenge the ‘status quo’ as much as had John Dewey a good half century earlier.

Sarason is now in his mid eighties. He paradoxically remains idealistic while often taking a dim view of the possibilities of significant improvement in the schools he has devoted more than half a century to. He continues to write about the nature of the obstacles and dilemmas that confront real school reform and continues to challenge himself and other with the questions he poses. He has, as Fried writes, refused to soft pedal the truth about systems and their cultures.

All countries need their Seymour Sarasons to ‘sculpt ideas’ to keep 'us' focused on the real issues that confront those who believe passionately in developing the talents and dreams of all students in a democratic environment.

Thank you Robert for sharing this will us.


Anonymous said...

We need philosophers and thinkers like Sarason, Fried and yourself Bruce - we have had enough of technocrats who change their 'minds' depending on the current climate!

Bruce said...

Thanks for incuding me. Jack Shallcrass was one such person in NZ as was Elwyn Richardson. In recent times Kelvin Smythe added his critical voice along with people like Lester Flockton and Ivan Snook.

Unfortunately far too many people just went along and did what they were asked to.

We have lived in a low trust compliance culture for too long and justlook at the fine mess the so called curriculum 'experts' have got us into!

Anonymous said...

Those who insist on changing schools never see themselves as part of the problem nor do they ever understand the effect of all the unrelated demands being placed on schools.

Anonymous said...

You are NZ'S Seymour Sarason! Thank you for your continuing effort.