1969 Postman Proposal

A PROPOSAL FOR AN EXPERIMENTAL PROGRAM IN SECONDARY EDUCATION


BACKGROUND

Jim Gaddy, Alan Shapiro and I have begun to design a program for learning that would function alongside of our regular curriculum (that is, as an alternative to it). The extent of the program would depend on the number of teachers and students (with the permission of their parents) who volunteer to be part of it. No one who disagrees with the assumptions, philosophy, or practice of the new program need be involved in it, although suggestions from any source on how to make it better will be valued. The program is an experiment. It would be conducted for a period of one year, at which time it would be reviewed and a decision made on whether or not it should be continued.

TWO SETS OF ASSUMPTIONS

Most school curricula are based on a set of assumptions which the experimental program rejects. For example, most school programs assume (1) that knowledge is best presented and comprehended when organized into "subjects," (2) that there are "major" subjects and "minor" ones, (3) that subjects are things you "take," and that once you have "had" them, you need not take them again, (4) that most subjects have a specific "content," (5) that the content of these subjects is more or less stable, (6) that a major function of the teacher is to "transmit" this content (7), that the practical place to do this is in a room within a centrally located building, (8) that students learn best in 45-minute periods which are held five times a week, (9) that students are functioning well (i.e., learning) when they are listening to their teacher, reading their texts, doing their assignments, and otherwise "paying attention" to the content being transmitted, and (10) that all of this must go on as a preparation for life.

This memorandum is not the forum for a serious and thorough critique of these assumptions. Hopefully, it is sufficient to say that contemporary educational philosophy disputes most of them, in part or whole, and that few teachers would deny the merit of experimenting with programs based on an entirely different set of beliefs.

The following quotation from Walden expresses compactly the major beliefs which generate the form of the new program:

Students should not play life, or study it merely while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living?
In other words, we are assuming (1) that learning takes places best not when conceived as a preparation for life but when it occurs in the context of actually living, (2) that each learner ultimately must organize his own learning in his own way, (3) that "problems" and personal interests rather than "subjects" are a more realistic structure by which to organize learning experiences, (4) that students are capable of directly and authentically participating in the intellectual and social life of their community, (5) that they should do so, and (6) that the community badly needs them.

This set of beliefs is sometimes referred to as the "judo" principle of education. Instead of trying to forestall, resist, or neutralize the natural curiosity, intelligence, energy, and idealism of youth, one uses it in a context which permits both them and their community to change. Thus, the experimental program reduces the reliance on classrooms and school buildings; it transforms the relevant problems of the community and the special interests of individual students into the students' "curriculum"; it looks toward the creation of a sense of community in both The Program students and adults.

Below are some of the activities that might constitute the learning experiences of the students. These are offered only as illustrations of how the process would work:

Let us assume that the City of New Rochelle, like many other cities, has serious problems with traffic control, crime and law enforcement, strikes, race relations, urban blight, drug addiction, garbage disposal, air pollution, and medical care. Students would be formed into teams, each team consisting of a teacher, a high school senior, perhaps a lay member of the community, and ten or a dozen students. Their task would be to select one of these problems for study, with a view toward designing authentic, practical solutions to it. They would do whatever they needed to do in order to learn about the problem (including previous attempts to solve it) and to communicate to others their own solutions. For example, imagine one team has selected the "crime" problem for study. Some students could spend two or three weeks at the police station, serving in some capacity that would allow them to observe the problem from the perspective of the police. (Some might even go out on calls with police officers.) Others might report regularly to the criminal court, observing the problem from that vantage point. Students could spend many days on interviewing assignments: insurance men, police officers from other towns, ex-convicts, prison wardens, merchants, town officials, et al. Students could review the available literature (both non-fiction and fiction), correspond with prisoners, write to law enforcement officers in other countries. The classroom would be used as a place of assembly when students needed to assess their findings, and to plan and organize additional inquiries. It is important to stress here that the activities described above do not constitute "field trips." Most of the students' "school life" would be spent outside the school where the realities of the problems being studied are to be found. However, included in the process must be a serious attempt to offer solutions and to communicate these to the appropriate people. This might require meeting in school for the purpose of writing resolutions, letters, pamphlets, handbills, etc. Or the students might wish to publish a newsletter about the problem, or produce an audio-tape for broadcasting on the local radio station (in which case some students might spend a week or two at the radio station), or produce a film for presentation to the town council. The possibilities are almost inexhaustible.

Much of the teacher's work would involve making arrangements for the students' daily and weekly activities, e.g. arranging with the police, the court, the radio station, the newspaper, etc. for the most beneficial "internship" experience. The nature and locale of the students' activities would depend on the problem they are studying. A study of medical care problems would lead students to hospitals, doctors' offices, homes for the aged, welfare agencies, etc. A study of race relations might lead them to the Chamber of Commerce, the courts, the newspaper office, churches, etc. Each team would have to spend some time planning its activities., and might even wish to reserve one or two mornings a week for planning sessions.

In addition, students might meet on a regular basis in seminars with adults to consider community problems. These seminars could offer opportunities for exchanges of views on matters of common interest., the undertaking of joint projects, the building of enduring relationships between youth and adults.

Another aspect of the new "curriculum" would offer students the opportunity to pursue special interests independently or with the guidance of adults (not necessarily teachers). Students might paint in an artist's studio, write poems and stories, build a TV set, tutor younger students, do scientific research in a laboratory, act in a play, be an apprentice to the manager of a local bank.

All of these activities would bring students into regular contact with adults and, hopefully, generate among both groups respect for differences of opinion, shared commitment to common purposes, a fuller sense of community.

In brief, the major idea is that the community itself will become a laboratory for the inquiries and interests of students. The classroom would be only one of many resources that the students might choose to use.

For certain purposes it might be used in more or less conventional ways (e.g., for the study of a foreign language or for instruction in typing). For other purposes it might be used for small-group workshops in which the progress and problems of student inquiries could be analyzed.

This proposal, then, views the experimental educational program as having three major contexts:

  1. A community context (inquiring into community problems, the pursuit of special interests in studios, laboratories, factories, etc.)

  2. A Seminar context (in homes, churches, public buildings, etc.)

  3. A School context (workshops, foreign language study, typing instruction, etc.)
It would be patronizing to detail here the characteristics of the teacher's role and general behavior in the first two learning situations. This much can be said: the teacher will not know in advance what will be studied, will be spending as little time in school as the students, and will serve more as an adviser than a "teacher." For the proposal to move forward two immediate steps seem essential:
  1. the holding of a meeting with all secondary teachers to acquaint them with the proposal
  2. the selection of a teacher-administrator team and the provision of time for the further development and planning of the experimental program.

NEIL POSTMAN

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