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Understanding Life in School: From Academic Classroom to Outdoor Education


reviewed by Susan Engel - November 17, 2016

coverTitle: Understanding Life in School: From Academic Classroom to Outdoor Education
Author(s): John Quay
Publisher: Palgrave MacMillan, New York
ISBN: 1137391227, Pages: 173, Year: 2015
Search for book at Amazon.com


I am often struck by the difference between the ways children carry themselves inside of school buildings compared to outside. When they are outdoors, children typically bubble over with whatever they are feeling, whether they are 5- or 15-years-old. Their moments of joy, fury, shame, mockery, solemnity, and silliness may be brief, but they are intense. There is often a vibrancy to children’s daily experiences that adults only vaguely recall from their own childhoods. But if you follow these same children into the classroom, then it is as if their emotional lives were on a dimmer. Their vitality gradually fades as they make their way into the classroom, take a seat, and begin their formal education. As John Quay points out in his book Understanding Life In School: From Academic Classroom to Outdoor Education, the difference between children’s lived experience when they are in school versus when they are not is no small matter. It reflects a serious problem with the way schools are set up and also offers an important clue about how we might improve education.


Quay draws on both John Dewey and Martin Heidegger to argue that children’s paler, more diluted, school experience comes largely from the fact that the conventional educational model is almost exclusively concerned with their future potential as adults rather than with who they are or are becoming. The author argues that the progressive school model does a better job of focusing on students’ current lives and identities. This is an important and timely idea. By sacrificing children's daily satisfaction and fulfillment for some imagined future success, we bypass their strengths and rob them of the opportunity to fully develop. Needless to say, this is cruel and also pointless since an unhappy and constrained childhood is no way to prepare for a fulfilling adult life. To take an obvious example, we often insist that children spend more time in their seats working on skills that will improve their test scores. By doing this, we not only make their days dreary and unnecessarily difficult, we also rob them of experiences that are more important to healthy development than higher test scores, which may or may not actually represent significant intellectual growth.


Quay frames his argument in terms of Dewey’s notion of occupations: roles that usually require specific skills and dispositions. They also reflect activities that are culturally defined and valued. When children are in class, they fulfill the occupation of student. Quay contrasts this with the occupation of child they fulfill when they are outdoors together.


To show us the differences between these two settings (classroom and outdoors) and occupations (student and child), Quay takes us outdoors with a group of nine 16-year-old students who are on a yearly camping trip that lasts for eight days and compares this to their daily school experiences over the same amount of time. The book describes what these teens do during their week of camping, but more importantly what they see and say while they are there. The author is both an observer and a participant, camping alongside the students and interacting with them. Quay braids together the roles of researcher and subject even further by inviting the students to help him collect data and giving them cameras to record aspects of their time outdoors. He even goes further by allowing them to use the cameras (and their verbal reports) to reflect on differences between what they think and feel when they are in school versus in the natural outdoors. The author wants us to see their rich observations of their daily experiences, how they can reflect on the differences among their various occupations (student-in-school, camper-outside, etc.), and the dramatic differences between camping and classroom life. This aspect of Quay’s project is the most interesting thing about the book, yet also one of its weaknesses.


Many researchers and teachers are often not used to taking students’ experiences seriously. We also certainly have not treated students as if they are capable of thinking critically about what it means to be young or a student. We rarely invite them to analyze their educational experiences or determine what and how they learn. By giving them cameras, Quay offers his young subjects a simple and engaging way to document their days and provide valuable data about what they experienced and their thoughts about these experiences. Readers are led to see what the author firmly believes: teenagers’ outside existence is much richer than what they think and feel in classrooms. In other words, the occupation of child has much more educational potential than the occupation of student. For instance, Quay notes that students felt freer during their outdoor adventure than they were allowed to be while in class. A student named Amanda says:


I think teachers think when we’re in a class and we’re all being noisy and whatever, there would be no chance that we’d ever be responsible. But if the teacher did leave I think we’d get more mature all of a sudden; click your fingers and we’re more mature! . . . The same thing happened in the kayaking . . . When there were teachers on the kayaks we just spread out and didn’t really care about what they said. As soon as they left we were looking out for each other. (p. 63)


Quay attempts to use the philosophical arguments of Dewey and Heidegger and the experiences of this group of teenagers to illuminate one another. Although his goal is admirable, it does not quite work. Both the philosophy and the students’ material come across in a slightly fuzzy and meandering way. Instead of seeing a clear and forceful argument, one ends up feeling slightly lost when reading. Even the photographs, which are such an interesting part of his project, are blurry. Due to the fact that the faces of the teenagers are obscured, we miss a lot of what these images might have told us.


Quay has assembled a set of topics and approaches that are unlikely: a discussion of Dewey and Heidegger embodied by a camping trip, a focus on 16-year-olds (though Dewey showed almost no interest in students of that age), and the decision to make a bold statement about education based on one week in the lives of nine 16-year-olds who have the unusual opportunity of camping together. I craved a more forceful explanation of why these strands were braided together, why this one group of teens could carry such a major argument, and why Heidegger can help us see that students are mere shadows of themselves when they are in conventional schools.


That having been said, Understanding Life In School offers a wealth of interesting narrative information about how these particular teens view their experiences in and out of school. It also makes a valiant effort at convincing us that we should educate children, not future adults.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 17, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21744, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 3:18:43 AM

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About the Author
  • Susan Engel
    Williams College
    E-mail Author
    SUSAN ENGEL is Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Founding Director of the Program in Teaching at Williams College. Her research interests include the development of curiosity, children’s narratives, play, and more generally, teaching and learning. She is currently pursuing two lines of research: whether students learn to think well in college, and the development of children’s ideas. Her scholarly work has appeared in journals such as Cognitive Development, Harvard Educational Review, and the American Education Research Journal. She is the author of seven books: The Stories Children Tell: Making Sense of the Narratives of Childhood, Context is Everything: The Nature of Memory, Real Kids: Making Sense in Everyday Life, Red Flags or Red Herrings: Predicting Who Your Child Will Become, The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood, The End of the Rainbow: How Educating for Happiness (Not Money) Would Transform Our Schools , and A School of Our Own: The Story of the First Student-Run High School and a New Vision for American Education (co-authored with her son Samuel Levin).
 
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