Standards, Political Rhetoric, and Underestimating Children

Embedded in the discourse of the Common Core and pretty much all of the political and corporate discussion of education is a negative view of children (teachers, too, but that’s a separate discussion). In fact, our entire institution of schooling is based on the deficits of being a child. Such a view is fundamentally poisonous. We don’t trust children. We underestimate their abilities and capabilities. We set up schools as prison factories to control every part of a child’s life. We have “manage” children as if they are a herd of cattle. We talk about building responsibility in children, as if such an idea is completely foreign to a child.

We have a tendency propagated by the politicians, corporations, media, and the institution of schooling to grossly under-estimate students in all respects. Such views are a carry-over from behaviorism and related early theories (although certainly not from John Dewey or George Herbert Mead), where children were viewed as “primitive” and as “empty vessels.” Children are very capable… way more than we think. Here’s an excerpt of observations from a teacher’s classroom in an east coast metropolitan public school. It takes place in March, in a grade 4 classroom. Although this is a specific day in one classroom, the teacher did the same thing in grades 1 through 3. This was her first year at grade 4.


The following observations took place during a one-day visit to a public school classroom in a major urban area. The classroom (depicted in Example 9.4) consisted of 25 grade 4 students of mixed ethnic backgrounds, including a range of abilities in speaking English. This visit took place in mid-April, well into the school year, and after six or seven months of work on establishing the classroom community.

The day started with children wandering into the classroom during the 15 to 20 minutes before school started. As the children settled into the room, they talked with each other, examined some of their ongoing experiments with plant growth, played with blocks, or played with one of the two birds in a cage near the teacher’s desk in the corner. Some students engaged in short conversations with the teacher, whom they addressed her by her first name (we will call her Jane). (The teacher said that in her first teaching position, the principal told her that the children would not respect her if they called her by her first name. She replied, “I’ll keep that in mind. And if that happens, I’ll change.” She never has.) Everyone was very relaxed as the beginning of the school day approached.

With only a quiet indication by the teacher (I was not aware of any overt signal), the students gathered in the small carpeted area set aside for group gatherings. The teacher had been absent the day before. She had arranged for a substitute so that she could make her appointment with a doctor; however, the substitute was canceled due to an administrative mistake.
Jane started, “I hear you didn’t have a substitute yesterday?”
The children in near unison asked, “Yeah, where were you?”
After explaining, Jane asked, “So, what did you do?”
One girl said, “I took the attendance, then took it to the office. When I got back, we all decided that we’d continue reading [a book they were reading]. So, we all took turns reading and then we discussed it.”
Jane, half laughing, said, “Well, what do you need me for? The office was impressed that you really didn’t need a teacher.”

Following this interaction, another girl took the attendance with their bird mascot sitting on her shoulder. When she was ready to take the attendance to the office, she started to return the bird to the cage, but Jane said, “Why don’t you take him with you. Everyone likes to see him.”

Then, almost seamlessly, the first instructional activity of the day began. Jane briefly explained that she was going to pass around a sealed plastic sandwich bag with very moldy bread inside. As the bag was passed around, each child made one observation. Throughout the entire activity, the only sound besides the one child talking was the screeching of a bird from across the room. All of the children were listening intently to what each child had to say:

“It’s green.”

“It feels like clay.”

“Looks like moss.”

“Some of it feels hard.”

“Some of it looks like fried pistachio nuts.”

After this session, the children went off to work in groups on several of their plant study activities and experiments. They started examining a number of plastic baggies of different kinds of mold, which they had grown by placing fruit, bread, sandwiches, and so forth, in different locations around the room. As they finished this activity, they took measurements of their plant growth experiments and sketched and made observations of various kinds of stems.

Throughout this time, I wandered around the room talking to and observing the children. I noticed after one circuit of the room that a group I had spoken with was no longer the same. The group members had changed. Then I began to notice that all of the groups changed from time to time, as children got up and joined different groups. I also noticed that all of the talk taking place among the students was about the work in which they were engaged. They shared observations, argued about results, and negotiated explanations. As some children finished with all of their plant activities, they began other activities. A group of boys started playing on the computer. A group of girls took out a box of geo-blocks and began making different kinds of patterns. Another group of boys constructed buildings out of blocks. When all of the students were finished with the plant activities, they gathered on the carpet and shared the results from their plant experiments and activities.

The schedule for the day was written on the chalkboard:

8:20 Plants
9:20 Social Studies
9:45 Gym
10:30 Science Talk
11:00 Quiet Time
11:30–12:15 Lunch
12:30 Math
1:15 Cleanup
1:30 Meeting

However, social studies never happened. I overheard one child say to others at the table as 9:30 approached, “Aren’t we supposed to be doing social studies?” Another boy said very quietly, “It doesn’t matter. We’ll do it another time.”
After gym, the students and Jane gathered together on the carpet. Everyone sat on the floor in a big circle with a small tape recorder in the center of the circle. Jane began by saying, “Well, we haven’t done this for a while, so we’ll see how it goes (referring to doing science talks). We’ve been studying plants for a while and I thought it might be a good time to try to answer this question: How did plants begin?” Almost all of the children started talking at the same time. But as soon as one child established that he or she had the “floor”, everyone else immediately stopped and listened intently. Only occasionally did Jane speak, and usually to ask a clarifying question. Throughout the science talk session, she took notes and listened carefully to every point made by the students. The content of the science talk turned very quickly to the issue of how plants moved onto the land. One boy brought up the notion of increasing complexity (“algae doesn’t have that many parts”). Before long, a disagreement emerged about the dispersion and origin of plants on different continents. As different students stated their point and supporting rationale, everyone else listened very carefully. Finally, one girl reminded the others that all of the continents were “smushed together” a long time ago. From start to finish, all of the children were very supportive and encouraging of one another. Those who did not talk as much were supported with cheers and comments by the others, showing their interest in what the quieter individuals had to say. At one point, Jane added that one quiet girl’s comments were “very important and could have fit in after earlier comments.” She continued by explaining this girl’s comments could have led to a new theme to be followed.

Two of the ESL (English as a second language) students were almost always sitting together. One could speak and understand virtually no English, while the other was capable of functioning in English. Apparently, from the beginning of the year, these two boys paired up on their own, one acting as the translator for the other. Through the entire science talk, the two boys sat next to each other, whispering translations and comments.

At the end of the day, the children conducted a classroom meeting. One child acted as the moderator, while others brought up points or added to others’ comments. One child brought up a concern that after quiet time “it gets too noisy. And, some of us still want to read.” Other children suggested ways of accommodating the needs of those who wanted to play and those who wanted to read. Another child brought up an issue: “[A girl in another class] is always picked last when we play kick ball at recess. And now she’s crying a lot. And I don’t think it’s fair.” Both boys and girls added comments about how it feels to be picked last and generated some options for picking teams so that the same person would not always be picked last.

This day in the classroom was characterized by the teacher’s and students’ genuineness. Although energetic, the environment had a quality of being very laid back. Smiles and laughs were frequent on the faces of the teacher and children. Jane cared deeply about her students. She treated them each as respected citizens of the community — each with something important to offer. Her dealings with the children were marked by gentleness, as she prodded, guided, and supported the children. At one point, a group of children was making fun of someone, and with an almost lighthearted but obviously serious approach, Jane said very gently, “Thank you, I don’t need imitators over here.”

Her gentleness and caring seemed to be adopted by the children. The children treated everyone with respect. They cared how others felt and celebrated in each other’s successes. Jane admits that the year did not start off this way. It was only in the last month or so that the children had settled into a stable and functional community.

From: Bloom, J. W. (2008). Creating a classroom community of young scientists (Chapter 6). New York: Routledge. Purchase from: Publisher or Amazon.

Such an example from a classroom is not all that unusual. Yes, “Jane” was an exceptional teacher, but there are many exceptional teachers. But, she worked hard at creating such communities that valued children’s inherent abilities and humanity. I’ve seen many classrooms where the same sort of atmosphere and community had been established.

About Jeff Bloom

I'm a Researcher with and am on the Advisory Board of the International Bateson Institute and am a professor emeritus with the Department of Teaching & Learning, College of Education, Northern Arizona University.
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