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Learning by Heart

reviewed by Ellen Foley - 2002

coverTitle: Learning by Heart
Author(s): Roland S. Barth
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0787955434, Pages: 224, Year: 2001
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In many parts of his book, Learning by Heart, Roland S. Barth, the founder of the Principals’ Center at Harvard University and a former teacher and principal, writes eloquently about the way schools are and what they might become. He is at his best when describing the complex culture and relationships that exist in schools. He critiques the traditional "knowledge transmission" model of teaching, decries the passivity and compliance it breeds, and speaks candidly about cultures that can be "barren, suspicious and characterized by isolation" (p. 204). He acknowledges the racial and gender issues that plague some faculties, and admits that in some schools change is taboo, excitement about learning is derided, and risk-taking is discouraged. His perceptive description of teacher-principal relationships is informed by his own experience working in schools, including frank and humorous passages revealing his own failings as a "benevolent dictator" administrator.

The central premise of the book is that to address these issues school-based educators need to be learners themselves, actively engaged in their own work and in the subject of reform. There is nothing to argue about on this point. The problem is that Barth seems to ignore his own perceptive assessment of the troubled state of some schools, clinging instead to an idealistic belief that a few motivated and dedicated principals and teachers can gradually turn around whole schools through the power of their example. Several chapters devoted to descriptions of promising teacher and principal development programs fail to address a key challenge: how to engage educators in the risky and difficult task of school reform. With the exception of a few unelaborated comments from principals, Barth offers no examples of how transforming individual adult learning experiences can lead to change in whole schools.

Chapters 8, 9 and 10 exemplify this contradiction. The chapters focus on teacher leadership, with Barth describing skillfully the impediments to successful teacher leadership, including the stalwart resistance to change of many school personnel and the barriers to it built even by well-meaning principals. Using quotes from a meeting of 100 teacher leaders, Barth vividly portrays the difficulties of operating against the norms of professional privacy and traditional practice that exist in many schools. Yet, at the end of the chapter, Barth tells other teachers attempting to lead change in their schools in essence, to keep plugging. Rather than address the barriers to teacher leadership that he identified so powerfully, his advice consists of the anemic counsel to "have a goal"; "persist" and "define success as incremental." (p. 102-103). Quotes from teacher leaders intended to support these factors have the opposite effect. Teacher leadership seems an impossible feat when the best example of goal attainment Barth can offer is a teacher convincing her principal to purchase a scanner for the school (p. 102).

This mismatch between his broad insight into the problems of schools and the limitations of his solutions is also apparent in the other examples Barth gives of "transforming" adult learning experiences. Chapters 11 and 12 include testimony from principals involved in the Aspiring Principals Program and a Fellowship program of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. The quotes are all positive and undoubtedly some educators had a profound and possibly transformative learning experience. But while they cite their individual learning, few talk about how their learning had the "ripple effect" that Barth assumes "even though neither the Dodge Foundation nor the participating principals formally undertook to show that good things were happening to others in the school as a result of principals’ learning." (p. 163) It is not that modeling learning is a bad strategy: It’s not. It’s simply only a partial strategy for improving schools and schooling.

In places, Barth’s writing is undisciplined and inconsistent. He criticizes top-down reforms, but twice praises Community School District 2 in New York City, a school district that has been very successful, but also very prescriptive. He describes the first seven chapters of the book as reflecting "a vision for a good school" which is characterized by "experiential learning, abundant sharing of craft knowledge, reflection, observation, writing, conversation and embracing differences." (p. 75). Then in Chapter 11, he describes his vision for "schools of the future" (p.123) which had only two characteristics: they would rely on experiential learning but would also be small. Then in the final chapters he emphasizes risk-taking and developing a vision. Again, it is not that any of these strategies is wrong. It is just difficult to get a sense of Barth’s vision and priorities.

Barth rightly emphasizes the need for experiential learning for both students and adults, but at least in this volume, he doesn’t help us understand how it can be developed in the average educator. The teachers and principals he quotes are all part of elite groups: trainers of their colleagues, winners of grants or admired by their superiors. At times, it seems this volume is meant simply to be inspirational, encouraging school personnel who are already dedicated to education reform to continue to put their hearts into their work.

Barth’s empathy unfortunately is reserved only for teachers and principals. While he is justifiably skeptical of "reforms" that amount to commandments from above, it’s far too easy to indict all those outside schools for the problems in schools. Throughout the book, Barth dismisses the work of state and district officials. Didn’t they, like teachers, principals and other school people also "sign up for this profession because [they] have a heart—and [they] want to put it to use in promoting young people’s learning"? (p. xxv) If Barth would only heed his own lessons about schools—that they can "range from supportive to indifferent to inhospitable to toxic" (p. 94)—he would see the need for supportive policies and productive collaborations between school personnel and other educators. Barth is astute about the realities of policy: as usually crafted and implemented, policies only invite compliance. But does that mean there is no place for policy?

The question of whether education reform should be school-based (reformed from within) or system wide (reformed from without) is a needless dichotomy. The obvious answer is that both types of efforts are necessary. Because the task is so complex and so crucial it will require thoughtful, creative, and highly motivated people working within schools as well as personnel with the same qualities staffing central offices, state departments and other reform support organizations. Leaving it to motivated school personnel to model for their colleagues puts an impossible burden on teachers and principals already engaged in reform. Learning by Heart unfortunately ignores the author’s own insights into schools. Ironically, despite his insight, Barth fails to see that more comprehensive and collaborative efforts are needed to improve schooling.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 104 Number 5, 2002, p. 1022-1024
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10821, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 11:26:45 PM

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About the Author
  • Ellen Foley
    Annenberg Institute for School Reform
    E-mail Author
    Dr. Foley is the Senior Associate in District Redesign at the Annenberg Institute and serves as Research Director for School Communities that Work: A National Task Force on the Future of Urban Districts. Prior to joining the Institute, she earned her M.S.Ed. and doctoral degrees in Education Policy from the University of Pennsylvania, where she was also a Research Specialist at the Consortium for Policy Research in Education. Foley's primary research interest is urban education reform, and her focus has been the role of the school district central office in initiating and supporting reform efforts. A recent paper on this topic is available at: http://www.gse.upenn.edu/cpre/Publications/Publications_Research.htm
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