I suspect most of us have heard of the Perry Preschool Project, a study of the short- and long-term effectiveness of a high-quality educational program for preschool children in poverty in Ypsilanti, Mich., between 1962 and 1967. Forty years later, you’ll recall, the children included in that program had significantly outperformed a control group in educational attainment, earnings, rates of employment, health and long list of other variables.
That’s not the preschool program that I will write about here. Instead, I will look at a Jewish nursery school from the same era and see what lessons it might hold for us today.
I’d like to thank Glen McGhee, director of the Florida Higher Education Accountability Project, for introducing me to a working paper that I wish I had read years ago and sharing his own astute insights on that document.
“The Organization Child,” produced for the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Social Organization, was published in 1966 by 23-year-old Rosabeth Moss Kanter, now the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of Business at Harvard Business School.
This study shows how that nursery school communicated certain norms and expectations through a series of adult-structured educational activities and how these practices attuned the children to thrive in bureaucratically structured institutions.
The title of Kanter’s working paper may sound familiar. Perhaps you remember New York Times columnist David Brooks’s 2001 Atlantic essay on Princeton undergraduates, entitled “The Organization Kid.” I can’t say what, if anything, Brooks’s article owes to Kanter’s research. But the portrait he depicts—of helicopter parents who engineered their children’s lives in the interest of future success at the expense of fun and relationships and of elite college students who (as Michael Sandel put it) suffer from an “obsessive focus on achievement” and “anxiety, a debilitating perfection, and meritocratic hubris”—seems like a predictable outgrowth of the practices that Kanter describes.
Kanter’s study uses the awkward term “psychiation” to describe a process of experience management that the nursery school deployed to minimize peer conflict, encourage conformity, exercise control and orient the children toward certain goals, ways of thinking and emotional responses. The keys to that approach to experience management were:
- Cheerleading. Telling a child that “his artistic output is wonderful” ensures that the child “will find it pleasurable and be motivated to continue … Only pleasant beliefs about himself and the world [are] encouraged; the child is *never* required to face unpleasant facts.”
- Creating the appearance of choice. Giving the children options about which activities to participate in helps prevent them from acting out against the teacher’s authority.
- Disguising the exercise of power. Kanter provides a striking example: having the children play “tip-toe/airplane” as they move between rooms reduces opportunities for conflict.
- Making every activity seem like fun. Strategies included making activities gamelike, social, interactive or kinesthetic.
In certain respects, the portrait that Kanter paints differs radically from preschool today. There was no overt instruction or explicit learning outcomes. After all, those nursery school teachers, unlike those involved in the Perry Preschool Project, felt no need to compensate for any suspected deficits in preschoolers’ exposure to letters, numbers or books.
Rather, the major goals were to help the children cope with separation from their mothers, acquaint them with a school-like experience and nurture happy, psychologically well-adjusted youngsters who could interact cheerfully with peers. Other important objectives were to cultivate a certain kind of psychological conformity—a desire to fit in with the group—and a willingness to respond readily to signals from authority figures.
Kanter’s study can be interpreted in contrasting ways:
- As a critique of today’s overemphasis on skills building in preschool and kindergarten children.
- As a study of experience management and the ways that interactions within an organization can be tracked and interpreted and redesigned for improvement.
- As a Foucault-esque analysis of power dynamics, and the ways that conformity is enforced, authority rendered invisible and emotional responses shaped and internalized.
So what does any of this have to do with higher education?
To me, there are three broad takeaways:
1. A course’s architecture inevitably reflects and reinforces certain values and behaviors.
A standard lecture class, by its very structure, sends powerful messages:
- That the instructor is the authority figure and the students are passive recipients of knowledge.
- That daring to speak up in class or to ask questions is to run the risk of ridicule and embarrassment.
- That the instructor’s evaluation of student knowledge and skills hinges on their performance on high-stakes tests and exams, which typically favor skilled test takers who are able to perform under pressure at a fast pace. The tests themselves typically do not assess conceptual understanding or take account of the impact of anxiety or stereotype threat, resulting in inaccurate inferences about student learning.
- That cramming before an examination makes sense, even though it generally fails to result in deep, durable understanding of the course material.
A standard seminar, in turn, tends to privilege those students who are the most extroverted, assertive, verbal and quick-witted, while leaving those who are shyer or more diffident, reserved or thoughtful on the sidelines.
2. A course’s design has psychological and emotional implications.
A poorly designed class can leave many students feeling bored, frustrated, confused or disaffected. This is particularly likely if the class strikes many students as disorganized, chaotic, irrelevant or overly competitive.
A class’s assessment strategy can also profoundly affect students’ self-image. A standard course tends to emphasize performance on a limited number of assessments. It does not assess motivation, degree of interest in the subject, improvement or deep conceptual learning. The effect is to leave many capable students feeling anxious and inadequate. Too many internalize a sense of shame and come to believe that they don’t measure up to their peers in terms of their intellectual abilities. Our euphemism for this sense of inadequacy: imposture syndrome.
Is that the message you want to transmit to your students? Wouldn’t it be better to take steps to help many more of your students achieve and demonstrate mastery of the course material?
You might, for example, integrate supplemental instruction into your course, allow for flexibility in pace, tailor the material to specific student interests or convey essential material in multiple ways, through spoken words and slides, but also through active learning strategies.
3. A class’s dynamics can alienate some students or integrate virtually all of them into a true community of learning.
Teaching styles vary widely. Some instructors take pride in assuming the mantle of authority or expert, while some resemble a highly skilled TED talk presenter. Then there are those who bring to mind an entertainer, an emcee or a host, integrating audio and video into their snazzy presentations. Still others act like a coach, a facilitator or a guide on the side who delegates much of a class’s responsibilities to the students.
Each of these approaches can work in the right hands with the right students. But it’s generally the case that some approaches are more likely to alienate significant numbers of students, who will respond by disengaging or withdrawing, or, even worse, acting out, being disruptive or disrespectful, or even rebelling.
An instructor who comes across as vain, narcissistic, contemptuous, condescending, sarcastic, detached or aloof is especially likely to push students away. Of course, nothing tends to alienate students more quickly than a failure to grade in a timely manner or grading in ways that students find inconsistent or out of line with their expectations.
There are, however, ways to transform the classroom into a true community of inquiry, a community of learners and a community of care.
- Focus on inquiry. Follow the advice of the philosophical pragmatists Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey and consider organizing your class around a problem or series of problems. Then, in Dewey’s words, engage in “questioning, reasoning, connecting, deliberating, challenging, and developing problem-solving techniques.”
- Create community. Make “inclusion” your watchword. Encourage students to communicate with one another. Promote collaboration over competition. Incorporate team-based activities into your class, to give groups of students the opportunity to explore concepts, ideas or events from multiple perspectives. Initiate discussions that involve brainstorming, respectful dialogue and building upon their classmates’ ideas. Consider asking students to join forces to create a grading rubric.
- Encourage classmates to care about and support one another. Instead of pitting students against one another in a zero-sum game, take steps to create a truly caring, mutually supportive classroom. Have your students help each other process the course material. Create opportunities for classmates to define a knotty concept, explain a problematic theory, explicate a difficult textual passage or elucidate a tricky proof. Urge students to participate in study groups. Design your class in ways that encourage students to act like a team.
When I say that an early-1960s nursery school carries important implications for pedagogy and instructional design, I don’t mean the simplistic lessons conveyed by a book like All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten: share. Play fair. Be kind to one another. Clean up your messes.
Instead, I’m referring to the importance of experience management: the process of creating learning experiences that enable your students to achieve your desired learning outcomes.
If there was one lesson that I’d take away from Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s working paper, it is this: engineer your classes intentionally, purposefully and self-consciously. Think of yourself as a learning architect whose job it is to create experiences and activities that are designed to help students achieve your learning objectives.
Those learning objectives need to go beyond content and skills mastery. They should, in my view, include three elements that we too often ignore and that are much in evidence at the nursery school Kanter studied:
- Inclusion—ensure that every student is heard and is included in the class’s activities.
- Belonging—build camaraderie and sociability and mutual respect into your classroom.
- Caring—not only should you be responsive to your students’ confusions, concerns and needs, but do everything you can to create a classroom environment in which your students are mutually supportive.
I wholeheartedly agree with a sentence that Glen McGhee wrote to me: “Schooling has become a parody—or even a betrayal—of a *caring* transition of youth to adulthood.”
We can do better. We must do better.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.