Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Extracurriculars: School’s Many Hidden Lessons

I’ve recently started substitute teaching, which is a fascinating vantage point from which to conduct all manner of ethnography. Having previously tutored at an assortment of after-school programs targeted specifically towards assisting students who struggle in school, I have long been aware of how much academic success is connected to the mastery of specific behavioral patterns. For instance, the abilities to sit still and quietly for long periods of time, to process information delivered orally and received aurally, and to adhere strictly to deadlines and time schedules, are, I would propose, more closely correlated to success in school than is intelligence.

I was recently linked to an article entitled The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher, which pretty clearly delineates a number of the implicit cultural lessons which the structure of the American public school system tends to promote. It’s not too long, so I highly recommend you pop over and give it a read, but to summarize, the six lessons he highlights are (1) stay wherever you are told you belong, (2) learn to awaken and dismiss interest in a topic on command, (3) surrender your will to arbitrary authority, (4) ignore your own interests and focus on what you are told to engage with, (5) depend on the assessments of others for your own sense of self-worth, and (6) expect constant surveillance, giving up all claims to privacy.

I have certainly seen each of these lessons in action in schools scattered across the country (and, during the past several days of substituting, have been expected to advance them myself), and would guess they are pretty universal, at least among American public schools. And yet I don’t think most teachers sit down and consciously decide that these lessons are particularly valuable, and then contemplate how best to reinforce them in the classroom. Rather, I suspect that they organize their classrooms in the ways that they do because (1) that is how their classrooms were organized when they were students, (2) their teaching instructors have taught them specific mechanisms of classroom management, and (3) they have found that the type of teaching they are expected to do tends to be easier under the conditions these organizational structures and classroom management mechanisms foster. They most likely don’t stop to wonder what more global behavioral lessons are being taught, and how these might affect the expectations, inclinations, and abilities of their students in other circumstances.

I’m not arguing that these lessons are inherently evil or terrible (as with regard to fashion, that might be an argument I would make if asked, but it isn’t the one I’m making here). I’m merely noting that these are lessons that are being taught, even though the people who are teaching them did not intentionally set out to do so, and might or might not agree that they should be taught if they were asked overtly.

I suspect that the extent to which schools teach all manner of cultural lessons beyond those explicitly listed in the curriculum is markedly underestimated, by teachers and students alike. I will present one example of this. Today, I administered a writing prompt which asked students to take a position on the question of whether or not schools should stop selling soda pop and other unhealthy snacks in vending machines and cafeterias in response to rising obesity levels and other health problems among adolescents. Afterwards, I snuck a peek at the responses. I was impressed by the variety of points which the students (most of whom argued against the change) raised to support their position—it might decrease school concession revenues, students could procure unhealthy foods elsewhere, health-conscious students who wanted an occasional snack should not be penalized for the lack of self-control of unhealthy students, and even (my personal favorite for cultural insight) that it might lead to targeting and bullying of overweight students perceived to be the cause of the change.

Students arguing in favor of the change had little to support their argument beyond repeating the claims made in the prompt about rising levels of adolescent obesity. They pointed out that limiting the availability of snack foods would force students to eat more healthily while in school, though many lamented that this would probably not do much good overall, since unhealthy foods would still be available elsewhere. Interestingly, nobody mentioned the observation I personally considered most compelling—that the structural set-up of schools teaches all manner of implicit lessons, and that the presence or absence of junk food amongst school fare offerings is likely to shape students’ perceptions of typical, appropriate, or desirable meals and snacks.

If students walk into the school cafeteria every day to a salad bar, whole-grain-bread sandwiches, and fruit, as opposed to a smorgasbord of greasy pizza, french fries, and donuts, this will contribute to their image of what a good meal should look like, whether or not there is somebody standing there lecturing about proper dietary habits. (Indeed, as I have mentioned several times already, I personally believe that such implicit messages can be even more influential than ones overt enough to alert us to the fact that somebody is trying to persuade us of something.)

This is especially true at school, since it provides a pervasive (students are there five days a week, nine months a year, for 12+ years of their life) model which on many other levels is presented as a place of preparation for appropriate behavior “out in the real world.” So I propose that even though unhealthy foods would still be available in other places, such as at home or at stores and fast food restaurants, students would be less likely to think of purchasing these things when they were in these places if such foods fell outside of those students’ mental image of a typical thing to consume.

(If you don’t believe this, think about your own shopping habits. Daily, weekly, or monthly, you walk into a grocery store that I am guessing is filled with hundreds if not thousands of products that you have never purchased and would never think of purchasing. The things you do purchase probably fall within a specific and fairly consistent subset shaped by the sorts of things your parents would buy, as well as by various other regular food-providing places in your past.)

I found it interesting that not a single student mentioned the particularly formative role that schools play in providing a model of desirable behavior—even though they are currently personally immersed in precisely that process. I take it as an indication of precisely how unconscious we all may be of the strongest sources of cultural influence in our day-to-day lives.


  1. Your obserbation that "not a single student mentioned the particularly formative role that schools play in providing a model of desirable behavior" is very interesting. Your explanation for this phenomenon, that the children are unconscious of the school's role in shaping their behavior, is quite plausible; however, I have an alternative theory which assumes that the children are conscious of the school's role in shaping their behavior.

    As an economist, I like to think in terms of costs and benefits of a choice - in this case, whether or not to invoke in an essay the argument that schools play a role in shaping behavior of students in their daily lives.

    (1) As you mention, the school's role in shaping behavior is likely one of the most compelling reasons for instituting a ban on unhealthy foods at a school, and so mentioning this point would make a student's essay supperior to one that does not (all else equal).

    (1) Students might be worse off by acknowledging that their behavior is shaped by the school. For whatever reason, individuals of all ages like to believe that their decisions are made on their volition and are mostly unaffected by things like habit and culture. And so even though they know that the school affects their behavior, they are able to pretend that it doesn't as long as they can largely suppress this knowledge. By articulating knowledge of the school's role in shaping their habits and preferences in an essay, they may to some extent lose a sense of empowerment and control over their lives.
    (2) There is a time cost of invoking this argument, which could be used in some non-writing activity or in making some other argument in the essay. However, given that students you observed made at least one argument and that this is the superior argument, this cost alone is not large enough to outweight the benefit of making it.

    Thus, assuming that these are the only costs and benefits of making the argument (and assuming that making the argument is a choice), the reason you observed no student argue that schools should not ban unhealthy food because of their role in shaping behavior is that they wanted to suppress knowledge that the school does in reality shape their behavior. An interesting way to test my theory against your's would be to increase the benefit of writing a superior essay - for instance, students could be graded more heavily on their essay or paid some amount depending on the quality of their essay. We would expect under my theory that more students would mention the school's role in shaping behavior, while we would not expect a change under your theory since you believe students are unaware of this argument.

  2. I'm glad you finally got a job!
    And I believe that your observation that school is a "model which on many other levels is presented as a place of preparation for appropriate behavior" to be very true. I'm currently in college, and lately I've been forced to realize that I won't always be in school. This was both a shocking and frightening idea; no matter how much I gripe and complain about school, it's where 75% of my life takes place. All of my friends are people in my classes, with a few exceptions, and I know how school works. I don't know how the "real world" works at all in comparison.
    It's like I've been kept in a cave for the last thirteen years and now I'm being evicted into a land I have no real experience with. At first I thought I was the only one feeling this, that maybe I was just overly sheltered, but I've talked to my schoolmates about it and they all seem to concur.
    What are your thoughts on this? If you don't mind me asking.
    Excellent article and very good observations, as always!

  3. I had grand aspirations of commenting on your last post (it was lovely), but I couldn't think of anything intelligent to say, so I decided it was better not to say anything at all.
    But this one came along, and as an Elem Ed major, I couldn't resist saying something. I have been struggling through a lot of the issues you just mentioned. I actually added a Teaching ESL (TESL) minor recently to attempt to combat the weird cultural biases I had been slowly noticing. I love the TESL classes, and for one of them, I have been assigned a paper intended (partly) to make us think about the white, middle class bias of the current school system. The conundrum is giving me too many problems to work through as I consider my lengthy indoctrination by the public school system. [sigh]
    The above comment says, much more eloquently, most of what I wanted to say. So, I will just add that it is a joy reading this blog--thanks for sharing your thoughts! [hannah]


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