The key to understanding what makes school tick?
Seymour Sarasan is Professor of Psychology, Emeritus at Yale University and author of over forty books.
He is considered to be one of the most significant researchers in education and educational psychology in the United States. The primary focus of his work has been on education reform in the United States but he has identified issues that have a universal resonance. Whether as education psychologist, educator, academic or practitioner he has had a significant impact on those seeking the key to understanding how schools work and how to effect school improvement . Perhaps his best known book is The Culture of the School and the problem of Change(1971) seen as a cogent attack on the status quo in education and deep-seated institutional complacency and inertia. Sarasan believed that each and every school has its own culture that manifestly defines the way people operate within it. That culture can have a conscious and sub conscious effect on teachers and learners. The regularities of that culture-call it the way of doing business – can be strange even incomprehensible to outsiders and may even be , in an objective sense, counter-productive . However the way of doing things is often unquestioned and deeply ingrained, never tested or challenged on the grounds of its efficacy. As such they can be a barrier to progress. For instance, a school may not encourage parents to participate in their child’s learning yet parents are seen by Sarasan (backed by evidence) as vital partners in learning and deserve a significant role. Sarasan thought that the overarching purpose of a school should be to encourage pupils to want to keep learning more about themselves, and to increase their desire to learn yet this is rarely an explicit or implicit mission in schools. The education system he thinks has an oppressive impact in the sense that we look for culprits for failure ie teachers , parents etc but it is really the system that is failing and is the brake on progress .This system, moreover, is intractable and not easily reformed and has an extraordinary capacity to perpetuate itself, despite evidence as to its inefficiency and ineffectiveness . Perhaps his most important observation is that reforms that do not alter the power relationships between and among people in a school are fated to suffer paralysing inertia if not absolute opposition. Power is unjustly distributed within a school and these inequities lead to resentment and imbalances that can actively hinder reforms. These need to be addressed so that there is a perception in the school of shared decision-making and mutual interest. If you are reforming a school everyone has to be on board and engaged wholeheartedly in the joint enterprise. Everyone in the school needs to work together to create an environment in which learners feel motivated and supported as they build on what they know and seek to learn more. It is crucial that teachers feel that they are being supported too , as if they don’t believe this, how will their students feel supported?
Sarasan argued, compellingly, that while we live in a democracy, there is little or no democracy in schools. Those affected by a decision have a right to be included in shaping that decision. Too often they are not. You cannot afford to alienate the people who will be responsible for delivering change. Sarasan is a prolific writer but some of his books have been hugely influential and his wisdom, informed by empirical evidence, has done much to create a better understanding of how to approach schools reform.