Category Archives: Stanford

Courses and readings at Stanford


While I’m at Stanford I’ve decided to audit a bunch of courses, some related to education and some not at all. There are two main reasons for doing so: (1) I’ve always been fascinated in the topics that they cover (propaganda, school reform, history, experimental evaluation), and (2) I’m interested to see how Stanford professors ‘run’ their courses (What level do they teach at? What methods do they use? How involved are students? What are the expectations of students and faculty?).

When I get a gap and feel inspired to do so I want to blog about some of these experiences. So far my initial impressions are that they prescribe and expect a lot more readings per week than a typical South African course (typically 4-6 readings per course per week). The fact that they have four quarters (instead of two semesters) means that students generally do more courses per year and that they try and cover quite a lot of content in a short space of time.

One of the courses I’m taking is the “History of School Reform in the United States” by Prof David Labaree. So far this has been a fascinating course and I would encourage anyone interested in education to read through the outline here. I want to briefly discuss three of the readings from this course that I’ve read so far.

(1) Elmore, Richard F., & McLaughlin, Milbrey W. (1988).  Steady work.  Santa Monica, CA: Rand.

This is a long but interesting article on school reform in the US. They make the useful distinction between Policy, Administration and Practice and talk about the interplay between these different players. They argue that there are only three ways you can reform education: (1) change professionals’ views of effective practice; (2) change administrators’ perceptions of how to manage competing demands; (3) change elected officials’ views of what citizens demand (p10). They also have a fascinating insight that trying to change the social practice of teaching is like trying to change language use:

“In reality, reform is more like the process of introducing changes into a language. Language is independent of our attempts to change it. Some attempts to change usage ‘take’, others don’t. Official language (read policy) is often quite different from actual usage (read administration and practice). Actual usage varies considerably from one area to another, often to the point where people from different regions have difficulties in understanding one another. Over time, though, languages change dramatically, as we see, for example, when we contrast Elizabethan English with modern American English. These changes result not just from explicit reforms (the King James Bible, the Oxford English Dictionary, Fowler’s Modern English Usage), but also from individual, local, regional, and national changes in patterns of speech. We don’t simply wake up one morning and begin speaking a different version of the language because the government of New York Times says we should. We change the way we speak by adapting everyday usage to signals from various sources about what good language is. Similarly, education practice goes on daily in thousands of classrooms and schools without the guidance of policymakers or reformers. Patterns of practice vary among individuals, localities, regions, and whole nations. Occasionally we try to introduce changes in this practice by changing policy and administration. Often, we cause dramatic changes to take place over long periods of time. But at any given time, the effects of specific changes are much like the effects of specific attempts to reform language – diffuse, uncertain, and variable” (p13).

And in a similar vein, quoting March:

“Diffuse systems change generally as a consequence of the spread or contagion of knowledge and beliefs, or of broad systems of incentives, much the way fashions in clothing spread through a population of loosely connected customers” (March) (p7).

(2) Cohen, David K. (1988). Teaching practice: Plus que ça change.  In Phillip W. Jackson (ed.), Contributing to Educational change (pp. 27-84).  Berkeley: McCutchan

I found this paper absolutely enthralling and felt like a totally new approach to doing educational research. Cohen bridges psychology, sociology and education to try and explain teaching practice in America. He provides the psycho-analytic micro-foundations for what we see in American teaching. He makes the argument that how teachers define knowledge (narrowly) and how they choose to teach (conservatively) are rational risk-reduction strategies in the face of uncertainty and dependence. Cohen further argues that these behaviours are compounded by the fact that the ‘usual’ protections found in similar professions are absent in teaching.

Like every other practice of human improvement, school teaching is an impossible profession. But unlike all the others, the social circumstances of school teaching tend to strip practitioners of the protections that help make practice manageable for most therapists, university professors, organizational consultants, and others” (p72).

David Cohen is currently at the University of Michigan, which looks like it has a great school of education. Here is a course that he co-taught with Deborah-ball (of maths research fame): “Social Foundations of Education

(3) Metz, Mary H. (1990). Real school: A universal drama amid disparate experience. In Douglas E. Mitchell & Margaret E. Goertz (Eds.), Education Politics for the New Century (pp. 75-91). New York: Falmer.

This is an insightful, if tragic, article about how many schools perform ritualistic functions to ensure that they (and others) see their school as a ‘Real School,’ even if this means that actions, programmes, structures etc. are totally inappropriate. I have often wondered how it is that school kids in South Africa can go to school for 5 years and learn next to nothing in mathematics or language (as measured by tests). But if you think of the other functions that schools serve – as socially-mandated places where children go during the day, as socialisation structures, as ‘normal’, etc. it becomes more understandable why there is no mass revolt. Read the paragraph below, and ideally the whole article – it is especially relevant to South Africa!

“As we watched the schools in daily action, and talked with the actors who gave them life, it seemed that the schools were following a common script. The stages were roughly similar, though the scenery varied significantly. The roles were similarly defined and the outline of the plot was supposed to be the same. But the actors took great liberties with the play. They interpreted the motivations and purposes of the characters whose roles they took with striking variation. They changed the entrances and exits. Sometimes, they left before the last act. The outlines of the plot took on changing significance with the actors’ varied interpretation of their roles. Directors had limited control over their actors; only a few were able to get the actors to perform as an ensemble that would enact the director’s conception of the play. Directors often had to make the best of the qualities the actors brought to their roles and to interpret the play consistently with the players’ abilities and intentions.

“Just the same the script was there, and the play was in some sense recognisable as the same play in all the schools. More important, the script was extremely important to some of the actors and some of the audiences. In fact, it was where the production was hardest to coordinate and perhaps least easily recognizable as the same play that was being produced at schools where action meshed more smoothly, that the school’s staffs were the most insistent and that their production followed the script for “The American High School”, varying from others only in details” (p76).