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September 1, 1999
Vol. 57
No. 1

Perspectives / The Students Are Watching

      In their new book The Students Are Watching, Ted and Nancy Sizer describe a student plotting how to fake her way through tomorrow's class discussion on The Old Man and the Sea. Tired after a busy day and muddled about her assignment, she doesn't find time to read the text, much less reflect on it. Meanwhile, her English teacher, caught up in her own emergencies, isn't able to prepare either. She hasn't the time to pose the questions or design the work that might help her class grapple with the meaning of the book. Instead, the unintended lesson on the next day will be about the art of bluffing.
      The Sizers organize their book—the subtitle is Schools and the Moral Contract—around several key experiences of school. Bluffing (and its opposite, authentic learning) is one. The other practices are watching and modeling (and absorbing unintended lessons); grappling(learning to do hard intellectual work and becoming responsible); sorting (making choices and having them made for you); shoving(assertiveness to aggression); and fearing (how it can both encourage and inhibit learning).
      The authors start each chapter with a story about a student or teacher who will remind you of someone you've met in a classroom. They follow through with a discussion of the causes and effects of the ways we act at school. All suggestions for restructuring from these master educators have at their heart the belief that both student achievement and school reform start with "knowing our students well."
      This issue on Personalized Learning is based on the same premise. Ted Sizer (p. 6) begins with the overarching questions: How can we make learning meaningful when our lives are so busy, our students are anonymous, and our curriculums cover all topics? How do we structure our schools so that serious work—not bluffing, not memorizing for the test—happens most of the time? And, How do we seal a contract with our kids so that lessons from the curriculum and from habitual practice encourage moral (if never perfect) behavior?
      Although some critics of student-centered learning find the philosophy too soft in these days of increasing pressures to raise standards, authors in this issue show that personalized learning and challenging learning are often one and the same. Carol Ann Tomlinson, author of a new ASCD book, spells out a strategy that has been widely praised but practiced less well: differentiated instruction (p. 12). Her classroom scenarios show what it takes to individualize instruction without fuzzing the curriculum.
      Several articles in this issue are devoted to the subject of smaller schools and class size, a reform increasingly valued by parents. A Public Agenda poll shows that 80 percent of respondents favor providing funds to reduce class size in the primary grades (1998). Teaching to smaller classes is more difficult than legislators who mandate the numbers might think, however; it requires more than warm bodies in those classrooms. Reporting about the five-year SAGE research in 80 Wisconsin schools, John Zahorik (p. 50) notes that primary students in classes of 15 are outperforming students in comparison classes. The most important reason seems to be that in smaller classes, good teachers identify the learning problems of individual students and offer them the explanations and devise the tasks that they need.
      We end our issue on Personalized Learning with a Contemporary Issue section on the prevention of violence in schools (p. 65). In our divided and complex society where proposals—from gun control to media regulation to safety precautions—are rejected before we try most of them, educators, like everyone else, wonder what they can do.
      Creating schools and classrooms where adults know students well seems essential. If no one knows the students in high school, it is easy for them to drift through. They may even believe that they prefer anonymity. At least in the short run, it certainly makes it easier to fool folks. And it yields the time to deal with other parts of their lives: the social, the emotional, the financial, all of which seem very important, none of which has much to do with lessons to be taught by an old fisherman. (Sizer & Sizer, p. 51)
      Those lessons—about reflectiveness and action, high standards and kindness, bluffing and courage—have never been more needed.

      Public Agenda Online. [On-line]. Available: http://www.publicagenda.org/issues

      Sizer, T. R., & Sizer, N. F. (1999). The students are watching: Schools and the moral contract. Boston: Beacon Press.

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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