Classrooms Have Changed Along With Our Society

Originally posted on Open Salon on January 30, 2011:

                The initial post on this blog raised some questions to be taken up at a later date.  Now might be a good time to explore some realities that have emerged in the modern public school classroom—realities that may not be entirely clear to people who have not set foot inside a school since they graduated years ago.

                For one thing, schools do not look, sound, or feel the way they did 50 years ago.  Activities have changed.   Teaching methods have changed.   Behavior standards have changed.  All of this stems largely from the fact that society has changed—and schools along with it. This has had profound implications on interactions between adults and children. The old authoritarian mindset of do-it-because-I-say-so has given way in some cases to a more enlightened authoritative approach in which adults impart rationales and even permit debate or negotiation. Many would note that this sometimes devolves to caving in to children’s demands or protests. After all, the days are long gone when most households had at least one stay-at-home adult. This impacts everything from how a child spends his or her free time to how well the student does his or her homework—if at all. Furthermore, after working hard all day to provide for their families, parents today may be more likely to choose their battles when it comes to their children’s onslaughts or resistance. As a result, few would dispute the fact that more parents take guff from kids today than they would have tolerated two generations ago.  This treatment then finds its way to other adults.  That has undoubtedly influenced the dynamic in classrooms.  The best teachers have adapted to the changes—and sometimes even transcended them—but many younger teachers today have no concept of the days when more orderly standards for decorum prevailed.  Certain advantages can come with a freer and looser classroom environment, under the right conditions, of course.  More often, however, greater entropy in the classroom fosters more misbehavior, less attention, lower achievement, and declining standards all around as time goes on.

                Also, our culture, historically speaking, is so materially wealthy and so frenetically paced that quaint values such as hard work and fulfillment often give way to gratification and convenience. Even if most parents and teachers are not affected by this and work assiduously to instill the proper work ethic in our young people, then at least some adults are affected.  Again, if we consider a parent who comes home after a hard day at work to see a disappointing report card and a teary-eyed child, we understand that this presents challenges that may outstrip reserves of patience and energy.  We all hate to see our children upset; none of us like bad news. We can all imagine then how trends come about that ensure short-term ease and convenience for various stakeholders in the process.

                  Teachers are not immune to this.  When Johnny’s mother sends an angry email about a low grade to Mr. Smith the social studies teacher, he may actually have time to respond, explaining every grade that went into the marking period average.  A lengthy discussion may even reveal that Johnny’s homework is often incomplete, and that a progress report sent home a few weeks ago indicated this along with a concern about low quiz scores.  If Mr. Smith has to do this with a dozen parents every marking period—in addition to all of his other duties—we might understand the temptation to make little compromises: to bend so as not to be broken.  Less experienced teachers than Mr. Smith might feel overwhelmed or intimidated in similar circumstances.  Teachers in other schools may have principals who are also overworked, and who do not devote time to supporting teachers as they struggle to hold their ground with parents.  All of this affects the process of teaching and learning.

                Additionally, it is painful to withhold privileges and gifts from children who do not rise to expectations, so fewer adults do so. Once again, this applies to both school and home environments. Far more convenient to scold the child who scribbled on the bathroom wall and let her attend the winter holiday party anyway than to call her parents and impose a consequence. And when Junior comes home with D’s on his report card again, making him stay with grandma and grandpa while the rest of the family goes on vacation is out of the question.

                Along with all of this, the entire notion of what adults are and what we do has changed along with our culture.  Compare what the typical adult listened to on the radio on the way to work 40 years ago with what he or she listens to today.   Make similar comparisons regarding dress, mannerisms, interests, and use of free time.  We needn’t make any harsh judgments about people to see at least that the culture is producing adults who are different from adults the same age years ago.  These adults become teachers, parents, coaches, business leaders, and politicians; and they exert their influence—for better and for worse—on society as a whole.

                It bears mentioning that the changing social environment of our culture also gives rise to more cases of learning disabilities such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Neurologically speaking, children today in general probably have the same wiring and predispositions as children a century ago.  ADHD becomes a “disorder;” however, when circumstances elicit disruptive or inconvenient responses from students.  Considering all of the things mentioned above—less-rigidly enforced school and classroom expectations, inconsistent discipline at home, and a culture at large that accepts a wide range of behaviors—our environment is more likely to bring out the impulsivity and lack of focus associated with ADHD.  When a clinician becomes involved, an ADHD diagnosis sometimes becomes a rationale for decreased expectations of students—whether that is the intention or not.  It is interesting to note that some ADHD kids go into the classroom of a stern disciplinarian and have few if any problems–at least for 40 minutes or so.  In other classrooms or at home, however, the same child’s behavior can be disruptive and disturbing.

              All of this begins to explain what makes our modern classroom different from what many of us experienced decades ago. It also shows us what we are all up against as parents, teachers, and people who care about our young people.

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