It Was A Wonderful Life


John Goodlad passed away last New Year’s Eve.  Who is John Goodlad, you might ask, and why would he be the subject of a Savage Chronicle?  Good questions, both, and questions that deserve answers.

Goodlad-Profile-200x275Mr. Goodlad was a career educator, as well as an education scholar and reformer.  He was born in British Columbia, and spent his early years as a teacher in a rural one-room schoolhouse serving those children of all ages within driving or riding range.  The space was close and confusing, but it was ultimately his, and over his years there he came to some conclusions about what true education really looks like.  When he moved on to the more urban and modern world, he also came to the conclusion that our public schools today had wandered very far from that ideal.  He spent his final four decades in Seattle researching and writing about ways that our schools might rediscover some of the best things about the little red school-house.

Okay, you say, that answers the first question.  Why the second?  For that, I want you to get in your mind’s eye the final scene from the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life, where George Bailey discovers just what a difference he has made to his hometown of Bedford Falls simply by being there.  In ways he has never considered, George discovers how much the lives of his friends and neighbors were improved or even saved by something he did.  At risk of torturing the analogy, if Norfolk Academy is Bedford Falls, then John Goodlad is our George Bailey.  I can think of no other person not directly associated with the school who had such a large role in making this school a better place to teach and learn.

You see, Goodlad published his masterpiece, A Place Called School, late in 1984.   Armed with both massive empirical research and his formative experiences as a teacher, Goodlad was able to show how so much of the structure of our school systems and the schools within them was actively impeding the crucial act of learning.  large-538e19780b45eA Place Called SchoolBit by bit he took apart the old certainties about age grouping and curriculum and the layout of our classrooms in favor of maximizing those magic moments of learning between student and teacher, student and text, and student and experience.  When I read the book the first time I found myself thinking, “You know, that’s right!!” every couple of pages.

The reason I read it was that John Tucker made me. In fact, every faculty member and much of the non-teaching staff at Norfolk Academy read it.  And while much of the book focused on the downward spiral of public education, there was plenty of “red meat” for us to digest.  Goodlad had coined a very ordinary phrase for what he was suggesting needed to happen – “school improvement.” He urged every teacher to reexamine his pedagogy and to look for areas in which he could, simply enough, get better.

Many of us concluded that to do that we had to break the cycle of lecture, note-taking, and assessment, a rhythm we were falling into more and more.  And so we took the official “Great Books” curriculum, the brain child of Mortimer Adler.  This led to the creation of seminar days, which in the first years were very rigorous examinations of difficult texts by Upper School faculty and students.  We began at the beginning by exploring the Book of Genesis.  Soon we were tackling behavioral science through “Imitation of Film-Mediated Aggression,” by Bandura and Ross, one of the first comprehensive looks at whether violence on screen stimulates violent behavior in reality.  We went after political theory by working our way through J. S. Mill’s “On Liberty,” perhaps the most challenging text we ever confronted.   We even tried to get at the heart of the protest movements of the 1960’s by reading song lyrics from the likes of Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, and Pete Seeger.  But always it was never about a topic – it was always about a text.  And the techniques learned in seminar days became integral parts of daily instruction.

Not everyone on both sides of the teacher’s desk came willingly.  Many students saw three rigorous seminar days per year as an unjustifiable add-on to an already hectic academic routine, particularly the required writing of critical essays at the end of the day.  Many teachers worried about the loss of class time and the additional preparation required for each seminar day.  But John Tucker and his chief executive officer, Tunstall Director Will Stacey, would not be deterred.  John understood Goodlad’s primary message—that the old comfortable forms, curricula, and teaching methods were beginning to get between teacher and student and actually inhibit learning. After A Place Called School, teachers here learned the habit of constantly and consistently exploring ways to better reach our students, a habit which continues to this day.

17.Tucker_cropped Put it this way.  The two giants of our 20th century school, J. B. Massey and John Tucker, have their official portraits facing each other in the lobby of our reception area.  Each gentleman is holding a book near and dear to his heart.  Mr. Massey has the Bible in his hands; Mr. Tucker is holding A Place Called School, which had been published 16 years before the portrait was painted.


They both picked the right book.

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