And they aren’t the only ones.
This is not the picture that is normally conjured by the notion of classroom orderliness, especially when mentioned in the context of reform. The corporate model, the criticism goes, turns children into widgets, and the strict classroom environment that this dehumanizing, mass-production mentality naturally produces in response to the demands of standardized testing would lay waste not only to joy in the classroom, but also to student creativity and learning. But the argument is conventionally made in the abstract; whatever evidence proffered is anecdotal, and you are meant more to imagine the harm being done than actually see it.
As Doug Lemov puts it, “So many people will try to convince you that establishing an orderly environment is done ‘to’ kids. That it’s a fight against them.” But, as he argues, order is what makes room for both learning and joy. In an environment that is predictable and free of disruption, kids can feel themselves master new skills, which turns out to be pretty fun.
It’s worth thinking about why our instincts are so easily led astray on this question. Our understanding of creativity and hard work are often our most fraught with assumptions about human behavior. Conventional wisdom tells us that creativity requires complete freedom to express our ideas without restraint. And, we are meant to believe, stress and labor are enemies of the sort of free-flowing thought on which such creativity precariously rests. But a little serious reflection on what it takes to be great at any creative pursuit shows us just how much of a paper tiger this threat really is.
In his Talks to Teachers on Psychology, William James addresses this idea and how the conventional wisdom gets it wrong:
We speak, it is true, of good habits and of bad habits; but, when people use the word 'habit,' in the majority of instances it is a bad habit which they have in mind. They talk of the smoking-habit and the swearing-habit and the drinking-habit, but not of the abstention-habit or the moderation-habit or the courage-habit. But the fact is that our virtues are habits as much as our vices.
Critics of reform too often seek to rally around a caricature of a classroom, rigid and pressure-filled. But when you look at what good instruction looks like -- a structured environment that ensures learning happens and assesses students to see the path they’re headed down before it’s too late -- neither seems quite as scary as some would have you believe.
CJ Libassi, a former teacher, is a public policy graduate student at the University of Michigan. Reach him via email or Twitter.