you were to create your own school, what would it look like? What kinds of courses would get taught? What type of work would get assigned, and how would it be evaluated? What sorts of activities and routines would organize daily classroom life? What roles would you script for teachers and students? As you consider all this, think too about what such a school would not look like: what sorts of lessons would never get taught, what rules would never get written, what kinds of teachers and students you would never see. Now ask yourself one final question: How much of your own experience at school has ever measured up to this ideal?
It is difficult to think of an environment in contemporary life more rule bound than school. From firsthand experience, we know that once we walk into the classroom, there are very few decisions we get to make entirely on our own. We face rules dictating the kinds of homework we have to complete and the kinds of tests we have to take; rules that decree which courses are mandatory and which ones are optional; rules that mandate the number of hours per week and the number of weeks per semester we need to spend at school; there are even, in some cases, rules that set standards for what we can wear or how we can talk. And as with every set of cultural rules, these classroom requirements are underwritten and justified by an equally clear set of norms: that the rigid organization of school life is indispensable and nonnegotiable; that it is an essential component of a quality education; that without things like homework and pop quizzes, standardized testing and attendance policies, graduation requirements and semester schedules, P.E. and recess, “real” learning simply wouldn’t happen.
What is normal?