An Exercise in Challenging Teachers’ Assumptions

I’ve taught preservice and practicing teachers for nearly thirty years on ­topics ranging from multicultural education, curriculum development, bilingual education, and the education of Puerto Rican students, among others. One of the primary goals of my courses was to ask students to examine the reality of public schools, as opposed to the common myths many of us carry around: schools as the “great equalizer,” schools as serving an unquestioned meritocracy, schools as a level playing field. These are all good and noble myths, but myths nevertheless, and any serious look into how schools work, who benefits, who gets ahead and why, will disabuse people of the veracity of these myths (Spring 2012). They are, however, noble ideals and aspirations toward which we, as educators and as a society, should strive.

To help students — both undergraduate and graduate — become aware of the grim realities of inequality, while at the same time maintaining their hope that the situation might be otherwise, is a tremendous challenge, one that I accepted from the time I became a teacher educator. It was not an easy task. To do so, I had to come up with creative ways to help students develop what Paulo Freire (1970) called conscientização — a critical consciousness about education in particular, and society in general.

In the courses I taught, my students (most of whom were preservice and practicing teachers) not only read books and articles, but also kept journals, watched videos, participated in simulations, engaged in group work, prepared debates, listened to speakers, did presentations on sundry contentious issues in education, and took part in other activities that I hoped would challenge their taken-for-granted assumptions about public education. One activity in particular — to design the “ideal” school — seemed especially appropriate for this book on imagining schools as they should be.

Designing an Ideal School

For this activity, I was especially interested in the goals my students thought schools should attempt to accomplish, that is, I wanted them to grapple with the age-old question, What is the purpose of education? This activity took place near the end of the semester, after they had already delved into a number of consequential topics including the nature of pluralism and intergroup relations in US schools and society; the causes and consequences of the complex dynamics of racism, sexism, and other forms of individual and institutional discrimination; and the historical and contemporary experiences of various cultural groups in US society, particularly in education. The focus of the unit on which this activity was based was to analyze the influence of learning on such sociocultural and sociopolitical variables as race, ethnicity, gender, and social class background, among others; and to gain an understanding of how the institutional structures, policies, and practices of schools tend to perpetuate discriminatory inequities by their effects on students and educators. It was during this unit, specifically the second part of the objective, that this activity took place.

To ascertain whether the students had understood, in a concrete way, how particular school-based policies and practices affect the schooling of students of different social, cultural, racial, linguistic, ability, and socioeconomic background, I asked them to get into one of four groups. Each group received a card that had a stated purpose of education. These were:

  1. To create many low-skilled workers and a few highly skilled managers
  2. To replicate society
  3. To prepare students for lives as productive citizens of a democratic society
  4. To prepare students to live peacefully and equitably in a multicultural society.

My students’ job was to design “ideal” schools, each of which would embody one of these goals. Specifically, I asked them to keep in mind the school’s policies and practices including curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, tracking, family outreach, hiring, professional development, and so on. How would these policies and practices define the goal of this school? How would the goal be evident as soon as one stepped into the school?

This was a “fun” activity that students typically enjoyed. They came up with all manner of creative and unique schools, although I noticed that it was often not until we had discussed their “ideal” school in more depth that they made the connection between how schools are organized and what they are meant to accomplish.

For the first “ideal” school (to create many low-skilled workers and a few highly skilled managers), there was no shortage of rigid and punitive practices and policies in place. For example, my students envisioned schools where young people were tracked from kindergarten through high school based on an initial assessment that followed them throughout their schooling. As a result, only a few privileged students were permitted to take advanced courses by the time they reached high school. The curriculum differed dramatically, with most students taking classes that would, for the most part, teach them practical skills, and a few taking classes that would help them develop leadership abilities. The privileged were treated to an arts-rich curriculum, while all others were given only a rudimentary and utilitarian curriculum that focused on basic skills: no art, no music, no physical education. Families of privileged students would be welcomed into the school with open arms, and they would have free rein over decision making concerning the curriculum and instruction, while less privileged parents, as well as teachers, would have very little say in selecting or creating curriculum or in using innovative pedagogical strategies.

The goal of the second “ideal” school (to replicate society) resulted in even more dehumanizing policies and practices. This kind of school was organized according to the “haves” and the “have-nots,” in terms of social class, race, native language, and so on. As a result, students were grouped according to their race, ethnicity, social class, and level of proficiency in English. In addition, students with disabilities were completely segregated from their peers in basement classrooms and, as a result, they were never able to interact with other students. New, inexperienced teachers were assigned to work with the “have-nots,” while better, more experienced teachers taught the privileged students. The curriculum reflected these prejudices: privileged students were exposed to interesting, mind-expanding curricula and exciting pedagogy, while the unprivileged learned a rudimentary worksheet-based curriculum through rote memorization. Sometimes, the students imagining this “ideal” school would even have two separate but connected schools, one with many resources and the other resource-poor.

The third and fourth “ideal” schools, not surprisingly, turned out to be much more humanistic, inclusive, and equitable. Students in the third “ideal” school (to prepare students for lives as productive citizens of a democratic society), for instance, had access to a curriculum that included lessons involving a critical analysis of history, along with the practical skills needed for productive participation in a democratic society. There were elections and student councils that met regularly with teachers and administrators to make school-policy decisions. Parents were also encouraged to participate in these decisions. In the fourth “ideal” school (to prepare students to live peacefully and equitably in a multicultural society), the curriculum and pedagogy were multicultural and culturally responsive to the student body. Students were encouraged to speak their native language and, where the numbers allowed, bilingual or even trilingual classes were provided. Teachers were also given the opportunity to study other languages as part of their professional development. In both the third and fourth “ideal” schools, teachers were given time, attention, and resources to develop their craft. In both kinds of schools, community engagement projects were not only encouraged, they were required as a significant component of the curriculum. In addition, the arts and physical education were incorporated into every school day.


As is apparent from the brief description I’ve given, the first two types of schools were uncannily similar to our current public schools, while the third and fourth schools were utopian and visionary places. I think that, without always fully realizing it, with the first two imagined schools my students had recreated the schools with which they were familiar. These also turned out to be places in which they would not want to work. Why this happened time and again can be explained by the fact that we don’t always question that which is familiar to us, even when it’s negative or detrimental. This is the case of the two schools that represented the status quo.

When given alternative models, however, we come to realize what is wrong with what we know. The last two schools, on the other hand, represented the best of my students’ imagination, creativity, and vision for what schools should be. In our discussions after the activity, we often marveled at the tremendous chasm between our society’s stated ideals of “equal and equitable education” and the reality of our actual schools, particularly for our most vulnerable students. How is it that we proclaim one thing and yet end up with another? How is it possible that we have so many schools that are segregated, unequal, unimaginative, rigid, and unhealthy — emotionally and in other ways — for children? I remember one of my students saying, “Maybe we have the schools we deserve,” because, as she said, “we know what schools should be and yet a majority of schools are so different from what we profess.” It gave us food for thought. It also made us think about Lisa Delpit’s (1988) reflections on how what we want for our own children sometimes differs markedly from what we think “other people’s children” deserve.

It took an exercise like this for preservice and practicing teachers to reflect critically on how power is implicated in all decisions concerning education, whether curriculum, testing, tracking, retention, pedagogy, or other factors. These decisions do not fall out of the sky, nor are they based on any particular logic or order. Rather, they are generally based on who has power and how it is used. The result is that some students experience safe, engaging, and fulfilling schools, while other children — sometimes in the same town or city but in decidedly different neighborhoods — experience schools that are lifeless, boring, and disrespectful; schools that are harmful to both students and teachers. Mary Poplin and Joseph Weeres (1992), in extensive research with students, teachers, and others inside schools, captured this sentiment in the words of a student who described his school by saying, “This school hurts my spirit” (11). We need to ask: How many students’ (and teachers’) spirits are hurt by the kinds of schools they attend?

This exercise also spurred teachers to question their taken-for-granted assumptions about schools and, more importantly, got them to think about what they could do — as classroom teachers, as members of school communities and professional organizations, and as citizens of their town or city — to initiate change and help schools become more in line with the kind of education we say we stand for. Each time I did the activity, I was also reminded that no lofty ideal is worth its salt if it rarely gets realized. This is particularly true of public education, which is, after all, our best hope for creating a society that is truly democratic, equitable, and free.


Delpit, Lisa. 1988. “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children.” Harvard Educational Review 58 (3): 280–298.

Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.

Poplin, Mary, and Joseph Weeres. 1992. “Voices From the Inside: A Report on Schooling from Inside the Classroom.” Claremont, CA: The Institute for Education in Transformation, Claremont Graduate School.

Spring, Joel. 2012. Deculturalization and the Struggle for Equality: A Brief History of the Education of Dominated Cultures in the United States, Seventh edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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Educator, researcher, writer, and teacher, Sonia Nieto is Professor Emerita of Language, Literacy, and Culture, School of Education, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. In her career, she has taught students from elementary school through doctoral studies and her research has focused on multicultural education, teacher education, and the education of Latinos, immigrants, and other students of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. With many journal articles, book chapters, and several books to her credit, she has received numerous awards for her scholarship, teaching, and advocacy, including four honorary doctorates. She was selected as a Fellow of the American Educational Research Association and as a Laureate for Kappa Delta Pi in 2011, and in 2012 she served as the Wits-Claude Distinguished Scholar at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.