Denise Clark Pope explores some interesting ideas in Doing School. Pope shadowed five different students who were chosen by school officials. All were considered high achievers, but the group was diverse. Pope’s goal was to determine how students viewed school. It turns out most of them saw school as a means to an end — work the system (notice I didn’t say work hard) in order to get grades, which will lead to acceptance at a good college and a lucrative career. The aim of school, in the minds of these students, was definitely not to engage in the material or to learn. Their passions, for the most part, lay outside of the standard curriculum. One student was most proud of the community service organization he started. Another was an accomplished actress and scheduled the rest of her classes around drama. A third student was happiest when he could help others.
Because the book only follows five students, it cannot necessarily be considered a scientific study; however, I recognized the students and teachers described in the book. Some of them resorted to cheating. Others made “treaties” with teachers — agreements that allowed the students to do work for other classes in a certain teacher’s class. One girl relied heavily on caffeine — coffee and No Doze comprised much of her diet. The fact that these students look familiar should be alarming because the students are collapsing under the stress of making good grades and violating their own principles in order to make grades they feel are necessary to accomplish their goals. I actually wish, like Pope, that we could figure out a way to eliminate grades, but the fault lies deeper than America’s schools. When the students graduate from high school, they will most likely engage in the same tactics in college and even into their careers. Ultimately, educators have been discussing this problem since Dewey, and not much has changed. I think, in our heart of hearts, that’s because we don’t want it to change. We are just not sure how else to do school, and we’re afraid to try.
I would definitely recommend that teachers read this book. Those teachers in schools where students are struggling to pass classes might read this book wishing their students had these problems; however, struggling students have their own stresses. I think teachers in “high-performing” schools — schools where the majority of students plan to go to college — will find these five students familiar. School isn’t an engaging place, at least not much of the time, for either group of students. If you can’t get away from grades — and I recognize that grades aren’t going anywhere — you can at least do your own part to recognize school from the students’ point of view and try to make your own classroom engaging so that students will view their learning as meaningful and important. And not just because of the grade.