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Book Review: The Students Are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract

Wednesday, January 14, 2015  
Posted by: Sarah Stewart
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By: Theodore R. Sizer and Nancy Faust Sizer

Reviewed by: Adam Bernick, Director of Arts at Randolph School

While attending a recent conference, I noted a number of books that presenters referenced in their sessions. One book that piqued my interest was The Students Are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract by Theodore R. Sizer and Nancy Faust Sizer. Though it's not a recent book, its tenets are timeless and relevant, as the authors explore important questions about the function of school (the why), and what makes a school a great place for learning (the how). 

While the authors of The Students Are Watching focus largely on the arena of public education, their research and insights can benefit all teachers, parents, and school communities. The Sizers were lifelong educators. Ted was a leader in education reform, a former dean and professor of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a former head of Phillips Academy, and the founder of the Essential Schools Movement. He authored ten books, including three with his wife Nancy. 

The Sizers explore why schools struggle to connect with students - what schools are failing to do and what they need to do differently. While the aim of an independent school education is to purposefully connect learning and students in the most direct way, it is only natural for any organization to focus on systems of efficiency and ways to make learning easier - after all, we crave success for our students and our school. Learning in schools is much more than managing content and schedules. Schools are a place where relationships are paramount.

In their opening chapter on "Modeling," the Sizers discuss the importance of teachers’ authentic passion for their subject matter. They highlight the hypocrisy of "The English teacher who insists that her students read fiction, but who never reads any herself...the social studies teacher who neither knows who the candidates are in a local election nor bothers to vote...the physical education teacher who is, whatever his or her age, grossly out of shape."   

My favorite chapter, "Grappling," deals with the messy struggle of learning. "Most teachers," the authors note, "are fond of the word 'engagement,' because it means that the students are really taking an interest in the work that the teacher has designed for them. Grappling, however, goes one step further. It presumes that the student has something to add to the story. Either hypothetically or literally, the student is asked to join the struggle, to add his or her input."

The book continues with focused chapters titled "Bluffing," "Sorting," "Shoving," and "Fearing" - all actions that schools struggle with in understanding the adolescent. The Sizers assert that if we cannot understand the child, we cannot effectively educate him or her. It is not enough to focus on content alone. Students require strong moral examples in their lives — trusting relationships with adults — before they can ready themselves to approach content worthy of their time. Without seeing adults living moral lives, students cannot understand how content will be relevant outside of school.

The Sizers write, "Schools exist to change young people. The young people should be different, better, for their experience there... they should be thoughtful, respectful of thought and of ideas that are the furniture of thought...the heart of it all, in school and beyond school, is thinking about the practical meaning of absolutes. Such thinking does not necessarily weaken those absolutes. Rather, it deepens them... all this takes time, a willingness to struggle, and a commitment to involve students in that endeavor."

The Students Are Watching is a quick read well worth the time of anyone who works with children or cares about the future of education in our country. Our future is being shaped by the work taking place in our schools. We have a responsibility to ensure that this work is being done effectively. Education and schools will always face challenges, but they have an incredible opportunity that cannot be disregarded or underestimated. 

  Adam Bernick is the Director of Fine Arts at Randolph School in Huntsville, AL. He can be reached at or on Twitter @Adam_Bernick


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