What Is a School’s “Structure”?

A few years ago at an independent school admission event, a parent asked, “How would you describe the structure at your school?” It was a question that often came up, which was probably inevitable in a school that Mark Edwards, a marketing visionary, once described as “progressive with a capital P.”

While the parent who asked seemed quite sincere, other parents sometimes asked about “structure” — or they sometimes left the school and whispered (or even shouted) to others, “That school isn’t structured.” Or, “Our daughter's educational consultant said she’d be better off in a place that's more structured.”

The implications behind the questions about “structure” often bugged me. But why? Doesn't everybody need structure, especially kids? What was behind the question that made me uncomfortable? Some ideas:

The questions sometimes seem to imply that “highly structured” is somehow more educationally sound — or even more more developmentally appropriate — than “unstructured,” which I don't believe, and which research doesn’t support. Good education is messy, nonlinear, and often unpredictable or even disappointing — and that can make grownups anxious.

The questions sometimes seem to imply that the school where I worked is “unstructured,” as if there is no thought behind, and no foundation underneath what we do and why we do it. In truth, while we were far from perfect, I'd never seen — or even heard of — a school where teachers thought more or worked harder to design curriculum to take advantage of the ways children learn.

The questions sometimes seem to imply that letting students make some decisions is threatening — as if adults’ decisions are always safer. If English students have a choice about which book to read about Westward migration, or which 1960s event to study, or where to eat their lunch, they won’t be capable of learning what we want them to learn from those activities. The questions seem to suggest that students themselves are unstructured — if not in a Lord of the Flies way, at least in a way that emphasizes their immaturity. Children are not capable of structure. However, we can make them structured, because grownups are structured.

At that admission event, as I was answering the question, I was suddenly able to articulate why I thought the question was the wrong one. I replied: “I think when people ask about structure, they’re usually asking about order — those parts of the school's culture that reflect grownup ways of moving through the world.” That was the distinction I was looking for.

In the school where I worked, the third graders often did not march in straight lines from reading to art, the sixth graders often did not sit up straight in their seats, and the kindergartners never ever failed to laugh when somebody raised the issue of poop.

It is easy to see the order in a school. Desks may be in straight rows, students raise their hands routinely, boys may be in ties and girls in skirts. And while none of these totems is by itself a concern, educational research suggests pretty consistently that this kind of order has little if anything to do with actual learning.

The conversation about “structure” usually reflects veneers adults like to see in schools — the way schools are ordered. But “structure” is a deeper concept, not explained as succinctly as “order” (which can almost always be seen, after all), and not necessarily even related to order. “Structure”  reflects a program designed to take advantage of the ways kids learn most effectively, and to recognize the ways kids just are when they happen to be in school.

Peter BravermanComment