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2015 ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show

70th ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show

March 21–23, 2015, Houston, Tex.

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Books in Translation

March 1995 | Volume 52 | Number 6
Aiming for Higher Standards Pages 82-85

A Portrait of John Goodlad

Mark F. Goldberg

From his early days as a teacher in rural Canada to his eminent status today, John Goodlad has been crafting an agenda for constructive school renewal.

The acknowledged leader of educational renewal, John Goodlad has been at the vortex of every wind that has blown across education since World War II—holding firm to the basic ideas of humanism and progressivism. From the 1970s, when he took a stand against the behavioral objectives movement, to the early 1990s, when he opposed America 2000, Goodlad has steadfastly adhered to the wisdom of Alfred North Whitehead and John Dewey.

From Whitehead, he took the notions of “romance, rigor, application,” that is, embrace a compelling idea, examine and refine it with great rigor, and apply it to your work. From Dewey, he learned the concepts of progressive education, what might now be called constructivism, and the practice of applying theory with seriousness of purpose and intellectual power.

At 74, the slim, energetic Goodlad is professor of education at the University of Washington, Director of the Center for Educational Renewal, President of the Institute for Educational Inquiry, and former long-time dean of the Graduate School of Education at UCLA. The Nongraded Elementary School (1959) and A Place Called School (1984) are his most well-known books. As celebrated as he is today, however, Goodlad mused that to understand him, you must return to an era that is very different from today, to the Great Depression.

Growing Up in Rural Canada

Goodlad grew up during hard economic times in a rural Canadian town 2,500 feet up the side of a mountain overlooking Vancouver. His memories of childhood, nevertheless, are happy ones—of hiking in the mountains, fishing in the streams, picking fresh huckleberries, sleigh-riding in the snow, and, in his words, watching “the marvelous northwest summer come on so quickly and vigorously.”

As a boy, Goodlad did not spend much time thinking about higher education, for very few people went to the university in his day. “The university was something remote, and those who went weren't fully trusted by the common man,” he said. His parents had only an elementary school education, but were certainly literate. His mother played the organ in church, and he remembers her walking to school to get his books when he was ill. Goodlad's father wrote poetry and had a literary bent. Sadly, he contracted influenza during the great epidemic of 1918–1920 and died when young John was just 16.

Goodlad's teenage years were a time when things flattened out economically. The vast majority of people had very little; in high school, he knew only one boy who owned a car. A good student, Goodlad had always envisioned teaching as “something I wouldn't mind doing. It would be nice to say I was driven powerfully to education, but the truth of the matter was you didn't have any choices.” Neither of his two older brothers went to college, and there was no way Goodlad could get to the university either.

At that time, however, Canada allowed students to matriculate for a fifth year of high school (senior matriculation) plus one year of normal school to qualify for a provisional teaching certificate in an elementary school. Goodlad completed these studies and attained a position in a one-room schoolhouse in a farming community not far from Vancouver. At that time, Goodlad told me, you were hired as a teacher if you were male and athletic, on the grounds that you could keep order in the classroom and live independently. It was a sexist world, he reflected.

Exploring the Boundaries of Teaching

Goodlad taught in a small room with 34 children scattered across eight grades, planning and teaching an average of 56 lessons every day. With very few books or instructional supplies, he felt fortunate to have three walls of chalkboard space. “At the end of each day,” he said, “I filled these spaces with instructions to pupils in eight grades and seven subjects.” The nongraded school concept had its genesis at this one-room school, where Goodlad also experienced the regulations of schooling that so often get in the way of teaching and learning.

Fate next took Goodlad to a graded elementary school where the routines of schooling continued to dominate daily practice. When crowded conditions forced him to relocate his classroom to a church, Goodlad was free to experiment with dismantling some of the encumbrances of traditional schooling. Unable to maintain the pace of managing 56 periods a day, Goodlad stumbled upon a way to integrate grades and subject matter when he had the custodian build a sand table for his class. “I created a very progressive environment,” he explained. “With a great big sand table.... I integrated history, geography, art, reading, and other subjects as well as broke down all of the grade lines.” Often in his career, Goodlad drew on this experience when he examined the nongraded elementary school and techniques for crossing subject lines.

Gathering Ideas, Shaping a Vision

Gradually, Goodlad began to further his education. During the summer he attained permanent certification at Vancouver's Victoria College. He liked many of the classes he took, particularly radio script writing and others that had no direct connection to pedagogy. “I don't think I was aware of the relationship between degree-getting and position-getting,” Goodlad told me, “but I became aware at some point that a degree was in the works.”

From 1943 to 1947, several important events occurred in Goodlad's life. First, he became the director of education at the Provincial Industrial School for Boys, a place where youngsters, Goodlad recalled, “were incarcerated for everything from incorrigibility to murder.” Here, he learned the power of the environment to shape young people, a notion of culture that went against the conventional wisdom of the time and is still not fully accepted today.

Goodlad completed both his bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of British Columbia. Now married to Evalene Pearson, he began applying to graduate schools in the United States and Canada. Up until then, Goodlad had not spent a continuous period of residence in a university. Leaving behind everything he and Evalene had grown up with took a lot of courage, much of which Goodlad attributes to his wife. With her help and encouragement and with eight years of hard teaching experience behind him, Goodlad raced through the University of Chicago to a Ph.D. in three years.

Chicago operated not by course credits but, rather, by the examination process, so Goodlad—who was well versed in how to work by day and write and study late at night and on weekends— quickly passed his exams and wrote a dissertation on nonpromotion. His investigation found that the practice frequently had no helpful consequences for the student.

During this time, Goodlad also began a long relationship with Ralph Tyler—first a mentor and later a close friend. He learned to appreciate what he called Tyler's “incredible ability not to tell you a darn thing, but to ask you a few questions and to help you reach a completely clear conclusion.” From Tyler, he also learned to respect extremely careful preparation and to expect high standards of intellectual competence from himself and valued colleagues in their work in education.

Viewing the School as a “Cultural Entity”

Up to this time, all of Goodlad's teaching had been in Canadian schools. Deciding that he needed to know something about U.S. schools, he accepted a job with the Atlanta Area Teacher Education Service, an innovative attempt to work with hundreds of teachers who, like Goodlad, had gone to normal school, were teaching, but didn't have degrees. A collaborative effort between the University of Georgia and Emory University, this service helped many teachers earn full degrees. Goodlad spent two years assisting teachers with college courses and, at age 29, was named the head of Emory University's Division of Teacher Education.

During the mid- and late-50s, Goodlad continued his teaching and administration at Emory and then at the University of Chicago, finding time to start a family and to publish several books and articles. The Elementary School (1956) and The Nongraded Elementary School (1959)—two books that Goodlad co-authored—were among the most influential education books of this period.

In 1960, Goodlad began his quarter-century association with UCLA, where he served first as a professor and director of the lab school and, later, for 16 years as dean of the Graduate School of Education. Goodlad was seeking to have more association with schools, and the lab school was particularly appealing. It was a fairly representative school, not an elite school for the faculty and a few other families, as were many lab schools around the country. “The combination to head the lab school at UCLA and the professorship was very compelling,” Goodlad told me, for many reasons, not the least of which was the need to move to a better climate for the health of one of his children.

More and more, Goodlad began to focus his work and the work of the university on the school as a “cultural entity.” In the 1960s and '70s, most of the work on schools was focused on the individual student or the individual teacher. It is a mistake, Goodlad fervently believes, to look at “the individual mosquito instead of looking at the mosquito pond.” The school is a serious and complex ecosystem, and, to bring about change, teachers need to understand how that entire system works, the complex weave of the entire fabric. As Goodlad expressed it:

We address teacher education reform, we address curricular reform, we address teaching reform, we address restructuring—but we rarely address the school as a total entity. We don't prepare teachers for school, but for classrooms.

In the 1970s, Goodlad's was often a lonely voice, crying out to see each school as a unit of change. Visitors, as many as 5,000 in a single year, came to the UCLA lab school, said that it was wonderful, and then lamented, “We have no way of doing that back home. There's no climate for change there.” Goodlad's habitual response was to advise them to involve their principal, superintendent, and community; to look carefully at their own culture; and then to build an agenda for change.

Goodlad consistently opposed what he calls “the behaviorist excesses” of the time, especially those that narrowed the teaching role into a stimulus-response model. Even the late Madeline Hunter, whom Goodlad had brought in to be principal of the lab school in 1962, joined the behaviorist camp, said Goodlad. Hunter did much to correct some of the misapplied progressive methods in the lab school, and late in her career went to great lengths to distance herself from strict behaviorism, as did other talented educators whom Goodlad had debated for more than a decade.

Inventing a Program for Change

I pressed John Goodlad to summarize what he has stood for over the years, to envision what he would do if he were given a school to renew. His first response was indirect: a rousing cheer for Ted Sizer's commitment to the autonomy of the single school:

Sizer has been remarkably successful at managing to convince people that there is no one model. Every one of the schools in the Coalition is different but all share some fundamental principles.

After some prodding and my promise not to identify this as a definitive list, Goodlad agreed to talk about some important things he would do. “First, you have to train people in how to carry on a serious educational conversation.” For example, on a topic like grade retention, you gather all the relevant data on the issue and ask, “What's a better way?” At the University of Washington, Goodlad and his colleagues work with associates to learn how to ground their conversation in defensible arguments, how to make decisions and formulate actions, and, finally, how to appraise the consequences of their actions.

A second feature of an effective change program, said Goodlad, is an agenda. Without one, reform breaks down. It's fine to study the situation, to ask questions, to do a simple inventory of what is worthwhile and what is problematic about a school. But, warned Goodlad, “It is a terrible mistake to go to your community blank.” The agenda can include a list of principles about which you feel strongly, or it can be a simple inventory of the local situation, but reform will descend into rancorous fighting, he cautioned, if it is based on a group of people expressing their pet peeves.

All successful reform is based on a compelling agenda. The Coalition of Essential Schools, Howard Gardner's work, and the Center for Education Renewal, for example, are testimony to this fact. People need to buy into the agenda, Goodlad advised. They can then elaborate the agenda and even make interesting and serious changes, but there must be some template at the outset of sufficient complexity and promise to engage people.

Finally, Goodlad talked about the necessity of long-term and abiding commitment on the part of the staff. Too many change programs last only as long as one or two key people are interested. Goodlad cited instances where superintendents told him of their commitment and soon after applied for other jobs. The superintendent, the principal, and teachers are the initial key players in this effort. Almost no school can or should get a new staff. “The idea is not to restructure schools but to renew them,” Goodlad urged, a process that takes many hours of serious conversation.

After engaging in a dialogue, the staff can sit down and examine the work of Madeline Hunter, Ted Sizer, James Comer, and others and then decide what each can contribute to the agenda. The university can provide assistance if requested, but the emphasis is always on renewal and not on what Goodlad called “parachuting stuff in” that the school doesn't need.

Charting a Personal Agenda

At this stage of his life, John Goodlad has no intention of slowing down. “We are entering the 10th year of a 15-year agenda at the Center for Educational Renewal,” he explained. “We have developed a strategy for change that's based on more than a quarter of a century of research and other experiences, and we have managed to get people to buy into that voluntarily: the National Network for Educational Renewal.” With 16 settings in 14 states, the network is committed to the intense training of educators in the techniques of renewal, respect for the uniqueness of each school, and the simultaneous renewal of schools and teacher education. The network is now undergoing dramatic growth involving 25 colleges and universities, nearly 100 school districts, and more than 250 partner schools.

Goodlad continues to emphasize the importance, in a democratic society, of making it comfortable for schools to go beyond the custodial functions, the regulations, and other barriers that so bedeviled him in his first year of teaching. In fact, his eight years in Canadian public schools led to his belief that college educators who have a practical background can be the link between research and practice that is essential to overcoming these classroom obstacles to innovation. Goodlad has developed these and other concepts in his most recent book, Educational Renewal: Better Teachers, Better Schools (1994).

While planning an agenda for himself well into the next century, Goodlad does understand the stage of life that he has reached. Now is the time to write even more, to make the agenda for renewal ever clearer and more accessible, he told me. Paraphrasing Dewey's words of 70 years ago, Goodlad reflected, “What the researcher in education must do is to get immersed in the complex phenomena, then withdraw and think about the issues.” Goodlad is thinking about them and for the rest of his career will continue his life's work in school renewal.

Mark F. Goldberg recently retired as an administrator from the Shoreham-Wading Central School District in New York and is now an educational consultant. He can be reached at 1 Hansom Ln., East Setauket, NY 11733.