Finding Balance in an Unbalanced Age: Engaged Learning vs. Doing School


I finally read Denise Clark Pope’s “Doing School.”   I read it in one sitting, riveted by the stories of five high school students she followed during one semester.   I knew about Pope’s work at Stanford University, where her research focuses on academic stress and its consequences for students’ mental, physical, and spiritual well-being.  And although I’ve read numerous books about education prior to and during our Applewood School adventure, I hadn’t read her book.  I’m so glad I finally did.  By the time I was reading the last few pages, tears were streaming down my face.  You know why?  She’s telling the truth, and the truth is both moving and upsetting.

The subtitle for “Doing School” is:  “How we are creating a generation of stressed out, materialistic, and miseducated students.”  In fact, the five students she profiles seem like sacrificial lambs in a system that seems bent on draining discovery, engagement and joy from learning.  In the process, the passion for knowledge flies out the window.

In each of students’ stories, I caught glimpses of children I know.  In fact, I caught glimpses of myself, Bill and Natalie at different times in our lives.  It’s easy to see how the smiling monster we call “high-achievement” or “award-winning” can seduce people (students, parents, teachers, administrators and politicians).  That can be the only explanation for why ten years have gone by since the publication of Pope’s book and we still find ourselves in a society with too many school systems that perpetuate ineffective and unhealthy teaching methods.

Reading a 2005 Amazon review by an 8th grader who had read Doing School made me want to find her and ask how things turned out for her.  She would be in her second year of college by now.  She found the book browsing through her library’s high school/college section.   At the time, she imagined becoming one of the stressed out subjects in the book and asked, “What are people going to do about it?  NOTHING.  It would take forever to reform all of our high schools and middle schools and odds are it wouldn’t succeed.  So are we pretty much just stuck where we are?”

As Pope so aptly points out about the “best and brightest”:  they “learn to acquire skills they will use in the future, which may indeed lead them to the lucrative careers they desire” but the path to the goal is strewn with high levels of intense competition, cheating, and destructive health habits, along with high levels of stress and hopelessness.   Pope wonders what the costs are to our children and our communities.   She asks an important question: “What does it take to produce a thoughtful citizenry or skilled workforce?”  Her question is not:  What does it take to get test scores higher?  Or, what does it take to get straight A’s?  Or, what does it take to get in the “best” college?  The five students she profiles answer those questions.



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