The Problem Isn’t the Students. It’s the Classroom.

School itself is an unnatural environment, so why treat kids who struggle there as if they are broken?

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Illustration: Jutta Kuss/Getty Images

My fellow teachers and I were “professionally developed” again the other day.

Professional development (“PD” for short) is the continuing education that all teachers must undergo to stay certified (i.e., to keep our jobs). This particular PD session concerned “special needs” kids (the exceptional learners), “intervention,” and “accommodation.”

If you’re already bored, you understand how teachers can feel. There are a lot of fancy words to describe what we do every day.

In this case, we discussed how much we should change the classroom, the material, or the assigned work for kids who are struggling. Do we jump in and help them directly? Do we change the assignments a bit or a lot? Do we stop the whole class to help a struggling student or do we set aside time later? Do we allow extra time on the test or retakes? What do we do with the kid who can’t sit still, can’t seem to listen, can’t seem to shut up? How do we deal, in other words, with the outlier kids, those who don’t fit the mold for one reason or another? The square pegs in the round holes.

The classroom is a place with a lot of round holes and not many square ones. Most kids are round pegs. It’s designed that way.

The result is that school becomes an environment adapted and flattened to the majority.

Kids in a classroom clump to the middle in terms of ability and behavior. They form a solid mass of semi-predictable habits and attributes that more or less define what goes on — not only how teachers manage the group, but how they teach, assess, and plan.

Good teachers want the best for each individual student, but they are tasked with helping all of them using tools specifically maximized for the group: the classroom, shared texts, age-based groupings, content specific subjects, rubrics, and universal assessments. The similar behavior of those in the majority can define the structures and practices of a classroom—all the ways a classroom breaks social connections, directs attention, organizes information, encourages activity, frames conversations, streamlines and clarifies assessment. These are the kids you can mostly get to focus on the work by seating them at desks in various configurations. They are the ones who can absorb information from a person at the front of the room, who can take notes and sit still and resist the urge to throw things and internalize their boredom.

The result is that school becomes an environment adapted and flattened to the majority of the population’s age, content needs, abilities, and behaviors.

The majority.

Some kids struggle. Not at all once, and not entirely, but always in ways that can be disruptive to the classroom environment and their own ability to learn.

Through intervention and accommodation, an exceptional student is allowed — granted, given, or forced into — a unique experience different from the rest of the class, though the content of what they learn remains the same. The teacher intervenes through direct individualized instruction or extra time, or accommodates by removing barriers or changing the assignment (but not the content) from that of the rest of the class.

A third option, “modification,” allows a student to learn different content entirely. Usually, this means the content is “modified down”—so, for example, a ninth grader reading on a third-grade level is actually taught and tested on third-grade content. For many reasons, modification is not a favored approach among educators.

Here’s the thing, though: School itself is an intervention.

Little is normal or natural about the classroom experience: the sitting, the listening, the testing, the vague activity, the writing, even the reading. A classroom does not mirror the kind of learning that takes place everywhere else. Learning outside the classroom involves deeply embedded context and direct experience bred first of need and then, when needs are satisfied, individualized curiosity and play and wants. People don’t learn to drive in a classroom; they learn by driving. On roads. And, as they achieve mastery, that learning gradually becomes a more complex and nuanced activity. Sometimes it’s even fun.

A classroom rarely works this way. School itself isn’t even entirely dedicated to learning. School is an intervention for society, for families and parents, for the economy and the management of unattended youth, and a whole textbook of other reasons (including the textbook industry).

Though the outliers—the kids so affected by the classroom environment that they cannot function within it—appear to suffer some kind of defect, their only real “defect” is that they cannot function in a traditional classroom setting, learn classroom content, and prove they know it in a classroom manner.

They don’t have a learning defect. They have a classroom defect.

Maybe the lesson in this is that the initial, traditional structure and system isn’t as functional as people think.

Enough studies have shown that a “push in” (inclusive) approach rather than “pull out” (exclusive) approach is more effective for overall learning. It’s better for a classroom when the special needs kids are thrown into the general population rather than taken out and taught separately. When this happens not only do those kids do better, but everyone else does better, too. It’s not easy, though (as with so much of education, if the methods were simple the job would be, too). While overall classroom performance improves when exceptional students are added, this includes a really broad range of kids: kids with autism, ADD, ADHD; kids with physical disabilities; gifted kids and second language learners, etc. Most teachers can tell a horror story or two about “push in” kids, but I’d wager that for the most part, the classroom does benefit. Research certainly seems to support the idea.

But if the application of “push in” is complicated, why it works is pretty simple. Being forced to accommodate nontraditional students forces teachers to change the structure of the classroom. In order to accommodate a kid who can’t sit still, you have to design activities that allow for movement. In order to teach a kid who is ahead of the group, you have to broaden the scope of your content. In order to teach a dyslexic kid, you have to allow for multiple ways to read a text. The changes bleed out across the whole classroom, giving all the other kids alternate ways of learning too. Maybe the lesson in this is that the initial, traditional structure and system isn’t as functional as we think.

Teachers are breaking the classroom mold in other ways as well. PD sessions focus on differentiated learning, learning styles, Myers-Briggs learning personalities, and a host of other trainings about individualized student learning. Common to all of these is the one thing nobody’s discussing outright: the actual classroom in constant need of change.

All teachers are interventionists. Humans learn by living; our ability to learn defines us and gives us power. We learn whether in a classroom or not. Intervention assumes that certain kids are outside the natural norm — but if learning is a natural process of moving through the world, school interrupts that movement with its artificial, prescribed environment. There is little that’s natural, much less entirely conducive to learning, about a traditionally constructed classroom of 30 or more kids in one room, sitting still, working toward mastery of decontextualized content.

Much has been said and written about education’s industrial roots and structure. Much of it is unnecessarily conspiratorial—there was no grand planned attempt to create a nation of obedient factory workers. Mass production is simply more effective, less expensive, and broader in reach, even in education. IKEA makes good solid furniture and sells it in well-designed, efficient stores, but it’s stripped of individuality and homogenized for reasons of cost and reach.

Everything that can be mechanized, standardized, or mass produced along a consistent, uniform, universal pattern of action or thought can be done more efficiently by machines than humans. We have applied that efficiency principle to the classroom and then denied any of the fundamental issues that arose as a result. The fundamental issue is that every student is different, and many resist mechanization.

Individualization is necessary, but it’s also expensive—not just in money, but in time, space, attention, and resources. Fundamentally, this is why wealthier school districts outperform poorer ones. You can’t assess education in the U.S. without also acknowledging the effect of race and money on schools, especially the way schools in poor and minority-heavy districts enforce far more discipline and homogenized behavior on students than others.

We should at least recognize that the students who struggle in the classroom are not the problem.

The classroom is fundamentally and profoundly a homogenizing environment. Paradoxically, the classroom is also homogenized in an effort to provide what is ultimately, profoundly, and expensively an individualized need.

Of course, some kids have other issues that cannot be blamed on the conditions of the classroom. Socialization cues that appear everywhere are missed. Letters scramble somewhere along the brain’s journey from visual reception to translation into meaning. There are concentration problems, auditory processing issues, anger and fear, impulse control. One might also reasonably argue that all human environments are artificial.

While all of these issues have powerful and negative impacts on the classroom, the world outside school manages to accommodate them — and in many cases, these “issues” can be a source of strength. There’s room for ADD in the world—in fact, many people with ADD find astonishing success as adults. Many of the cognitive and behavioral “disabilities” of a classroom are not disabilities elsewhere. Many successful businesspeople were not academic superstars. The same can be said of automobile mechanics, musicians, athletes, chefs, tradespeople, and soldiers.

Kids aren’t the only ones who struggle with classroom environments. In PD, we teachers sit together at desks or tables—all of us, no matter what we teach or who we are, whether that’s English or math or physical education, sixth grade or 12th grade, a first-year teacher or a 30-year veteran. An expert stands before us, sometimes with a PowerPoint presentation, sometimes a board or white sheet. They hand out paper. They outline the subject, review the research, talk about practices. We are learning, through a very specific and particular experience, how to manage or understand or practice a fairly different experience—one that is far more varied and complex, and with an almost infinite range of purposes.

It works to a degree, but I’ve always been struck by how poorly behaved teachers are in these meetings. We talk to each other over the expert, pass notes, check our phones, stare at the clock. There’s always a person (or 10) doing the equivalent of another class’s work, grading tests or papers from earlier. We jostle and joke and get up to go to the bathroom. We eat. There’s always a few who follow the instructor with eager enthusiasm, and often the lesson will retreat into a kind of private project between those few.

If our actions mimic those of our students, if we engage in the very behavior we struggle to contain, then perhaps the issue isn’t with the students at all. Perhaps the issue is with the environment.

That’s the paradox, and it may be unsolvable, but we should at least recognize that the students who struggle in the classroom are not the problem. We shouldn’t change the classroom to accommodate the student who is struggling. We should change the classroom because the classroom is the problem.

If we admit that all students need intervention and accommodation, perhaps we can then get around to the monumental task of actually changing the structure of school altogether.

just another frustrated teacher

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