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Social Order in an Alternative School

by David Thornton Moore - 1978

Social order patterns in alternative schools are examined. By focusing on systems of interaction and on social contexts as collaborative accomplishments, the author examines these schools as experiments in social order, as well as in curriculum and pedagogy. (Source: ERIC)

Six years ago, the alternative-school movement in the United States seemed to be poised at the brink of a boom period. In the wake of the widely publicized upheavals of the late sixties, people dissatisfied with traditional forms of schooling broke away to create several hundred "free schools" varying enormously in program, but commonly dedicated to some vision of humane education.1 Their goals were lofty and unimpeachable: to humanize education; to restore joy to the process of learning; to shape new kinds of relationships for children and adults; to create liberating environments where people might become free, caring, happy human beings. Their critique of traditional schools was thorough and vigorous: They opposed regimentation, standardization, dehumanization. They proclaimed their faith in the innate goodness and curiosity of children, and meant only to let those qualities flourish.

As the movement grew outside of the public schools, people inside those systems began to press for new qualitatively different kinds of programs. From Philadelphia's Parkway Program to John Adams High School in Portland, Oregon, reformers experimented with innovations in style, substance, and structure. Running the gamut from open classrooms in elementary schools to autonomous alternatives at the secondary level, these new programs promised a revolution in American schooling. Or so their supporters claimed.

But the boom never materialized. Whether because of frequent criticisms or because of the drying up of funds, the movement ebbed after the early seventies. More than a few schools died altogether. Many more suffered drops in enrollment, in support, in morale. Many of them altered their programs to cope with new demands from administrators, parents, and teachers. "Back to basics" became a common theme. In the school where I taught in Philadelphia, students echoed a complaint heard in many others: "This place is getting to be just like a regular school!"

For a time, alternative schools received plentiful attention from a variety of educational and social observers, ranging from popular journalists to academics. Books and articles appeared in great numbers. The quality and nature of the treatment the schools received fluctuated wildly, from polemical attacks to careful analyses. Writers considered the free schools' philosophies, the characteristics of their students, the problem of funding, and such outcome measures as reading scores. With a few notable exceptions, however, little work was done on what has to be acknowledged as a crucial question: How can we best understand the nature of everyday life in alternative schools?

Whether or not one supports the philosophy and practice of free schools, one must concede that this question is central to their proper assessment. Knowing what kinds of students or teachers are attracted to such schools helps; judging the measurable learning outcomes cannot be lightly dismissed; and determining the range of curricular offerings certainly clarifies the picture. But unless and until we know something about how people actually manage to produce a series of social encounters that they can call "going to an alternative school," until we comprehend the social order of the school as its members construe and experience it, then surely we cannot claim to be able to judge the programs fairly and wisely. Only such careful examination of alternative schools in action can combat the simplistic assertions that have emerged from both sides in the controversy.

My own interest in this issue grew out of the experience of teaching in the Alternative Schools Project in Philadelphia. Day after day, we struggled with issues that seemed always to fall into nagging dualisms: freedom and structure, spontaneity and planning, process and product, creative thought and basic skills, participation and efficiency. We seemed perpetually caught on the horns of a dilemma, stuck with either-or choices that guaranteed only that we could not win. At the bottom, the question alternative-school people face can be reduced to a fairly brief form: How flexible, unstructured, humane, open, democratic, and adaptable can an experimental school be and still provide the kinds of learning, both cognitive and affective, that students and teachers want? Obviously, that query swarms with ambiguous and loaded terms. Beginning to define them more clearly was in fact a central motive of this study.

Only one side of the problem will be addressed in this paper, however: the question of the nature of social order in an alternative school. One criticism of experimental education charges that when the rules for schooling are changed—that is, when not just the curriculum but the very social texture of the enterprise is transformed—people don't know what they are doing, and learning slows down or stops altogether. Students don't know what teachers expect of them; teachers don't understand what students want from them. As a result, say the critics, the social order is too nebulous, even too chaotic to assure that children will learn.2 That charge focuses the dilemma described above. Putting aside for the moment the issue of the quality of academic learning, the question reduces to this form: In a school where traditional norms for behavior are to some extent suspended or altered, where rules and roles take new shapes, how do people organize their interaction? Before we can profitably undertake a study of the innovative types of learning that do or do not happen in experimental schools, I submit that we must understand the social order within which that learning supposedly takes place.3

The questions can be further refined. They speak to the nature of the process by which a diverse group of people manages to collaborate in their day-to-day interaction to produce an institution that is more or less stable and that, to them, makes sense.

What is the nature of the process by which people in the school generate and maintain rules and roles in the course of interaction?

How do members define and manage various situations and relationships?

How is the allocation of power and status enacted through social interaction, as well as through normative definitions of social structure?

How is the day segmented in the minds and behavior of members? What different behaviors are appropriate, for example, to preschool coffee and early meetings?

How are the beginnings and endings of segments marked, and how are transitions between them accomplished?

What happens when communication seems to break down momentarily? How do people manage (or fail) to restore order?


A quick review of the previous literature on alternative schools reveals that very little of it touches on these questions. One system for categorizing the literature concentrates on the stance the researcher takes toward the phenomena of everyday life in the study of social interaction. Douglas, in Understanding Everyday Life, distinguishes three such stances: the absolutist, the naturalist, and the theoretic.4 Underlying those studies I would call absolutist stands Durkheim's famous maxim, "The first and most fundamental rule is: Consider social facts as things."5 In the tradition of the French sociologist's classic work on suicide, scholars in this camp take as the object of their study not the messy behavior of everyday life, but rather social facts they regard as independent of the will and caprice of the individual. The orientation lends itself to statistical analysis. Typical modes of data collection include questionnaires and counts of attributes and events. One common variant is the year-end evaluation report issued by many public alternative schools. At the Philadelphia school where I taught, evaluators from the University of Pennsylvania administered the Stanford Achievement Tests at the beginning and end of the school year, and reported relative scores. They also solicited responses to a series of questionnaires from students, teachers, and parents. The aim was to evaluate progress in relation to certain objectives that had been defined at the beginning of the year. Some objectives were on the vague side—that a majority of the students should "feel good" about their experiences in the school, for instance; others were clear but unpopular—particularly the achievement test score gains.6

Researchers not directly affiliated with alternative schools have also carried out studies falling into the absolutist camp. Some address narrow questions of student achievement. Gaite and Rankin, for example, compared a group of alternative-school students with a control group from a traditional high school in order to determine what kinds of students are attracted to such programs. Their comparative measures included intelligence test scores, tests of mental maturity, achievement scores, and grades; they also used a questionnaire to measure study attitudes and habits.7 Other studies examine process issues such as goal setting. Willard and Click applied the Delphi Technique to a school in New York City to determine the congruence and clarity of goals held by different members. Their method involved sending questionnaires to students, teachers, parents, and others asking them to rank certain propositions. Despite a poor return rate, the authors made claims about the lack of congruence in goals.8 Other questionnaire-based studies abound.9

When they concentrate on achievement statistics, the absolutist researchers can indeed say something important about how alternative-school students perform. Certain other events in a school may also be amenable to statistical treatment, since they can be counted with a relatively high degree of reliability; figures on dropouts and attendance come to mind. (Ethnomethodologists protest even this seemingly reasonable tactic, arguing that what constitutes such supposedly quantifiable events as dropping out is a matter of interpretation rather than simple fact.)10 But if our intention is to understand what actually happens in face-to-face interaction in an alternative school, these measures fail. They require inferential leaps from outcomes to processes, leaps that cannot be made with assurance. The relationship between attitudinal outcomes measured by questionnaires and the interactional processes they purport to reflect must be discovered empirically, not simply asserted.

The second school of studies on alternative programs may be called naturalist. This is the stance, according to Douglas, "in which the everyday world is taken for granted as it is experienced in everyday life." Instead of raising serious and persistent questions about the nature of the everyday world, this orientation takes that world as a fact.11 Several variants of the naturalist type emerge from different quarters, often for different reasons. Most common are the brochures, pamphlets, reports, and broadsides published by the schools themselves. As might be expected in such self-conscious and self-reflective communities, especially those under constant pressure to justify and defend themselves, people in alternative schools spend a great deal of time talking and writing about their philosophy and practice. Often their reports serve the double function of evaluation and description; sometimes recruitment is mixed in as well. While the tone is often more self-critical than most institutions allow, the overall character is generally informed by a basic optimism and a need for survival. Among the many examples of this kind of study is my own "Through Their Own Eyes: A Portrait of the Alternative Schools Project," a comprehensive description of the Philadelphia alternative school using as its basic data interviews with selected students.12 The study raised questions about the school, but took as fact the students' reports of their experiences.

The most systematic of the naturalist studies was performed by Graubard under contract with the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. The initial report poses issues of motivation, organization, and evaluation, basing its reponses on information submitted by schools themselves. While Graubard makes inferences from the material and expands greatly on it in his later Free the Children, a wise and comprehensive analysis of the movement, he almost always takes people's self-reports at face value.13 The same can be said of George Dennison and Jonathan Kozol, whose descriptions of free schools are powerful and insightful, but highly personal.14 There is nothing inherently wrong with personal, impressionistic accounts of alternative schools; in fact, these books are tremendously revealing and helpful, particularly to practitioners. From the point of view of the present study, however, the naturalist fails to make the everyday life in schools problematic, to ask hard questions about its underlying nature.

That questioning stance is at the heart of Douglas's third orientation, the theoretic.

To take the theoretic stance toward the everyday world is to stand back from, to reflect upon, to re-view the experience taken for granted in the natural stance. To take the theoretic stance is to treat the everyday world as a phenomenon.15

The student working from the theoretic stance tries to make explicit the thesis that unconsciously underlies every individual judgment and behavior performed in ordinary life. The objective is to begin to understand the meanings that hold the everyday world together.

Of all the researchers in alternative schools, the Center for New Schools (CNS) comes closest to taking a theoretic stance. In a series of ethnographies in Chicago and elsewhere, members of CNS have progressed from descriptive evaluations to case studies of fifteen Illinois-area schools to systematic research using both traditional measures of achievement and participant-observation techniques. From the very beginning, the center worked to develop a research methodology that would do more than measure inputs and outcomes in alternative schools. One of their first proposals suggested an investigation of the social dynamics of the Metro School in Chicago, looking at the nature of various subgroups' behavior and the range of effects on participants of involvement in the program. They wanted to document behavior as well as attitudes, beliefs, and skills of teachers, students, parents, and community people. Their methods included questionnaires, in-depth and short structured interviews, and extensive observations of all major program components. Other studies focused on such issues as decision making.16 While their analysis probably surprised few people with firsthand experience in such schools, they succeeded in formulating the problem in clear and helpful terms, making rational action possible, and, perhaps best of all, reducing the sense of isolation and singularity for people going through similar struggles in other schools.

Using the ethnographic approach, CNS has collected what I consider to be the richest body of information we have on alternative schools. From extensive in-depth interviews to long-term observations, their material provides a broad picture of free-school people, their behavior, and their explanations of their experiences. Still, I suggest that the theory underlying their work has not been sufficiently explicated, and that, as a result, many questions remain unanswered. The ethnographies describe in rich detail the surface forms of people's actions and beliefs, but they fail to make members' experience problematic, and thus to penetrate the surface to a deeper understanding of the nature of everyday life in alternative schools.


A growing body of literature is emerging that considers the general problem of the organization of social interaction in classrooms. Studies by Erickson and his students at Harvard, McDermott at Rockefeller, and Mehan at San Diego demonstrate ways of analyzing the process by which children and adults manage to produce educational encounters that are to them sensible and orderly. In a similar vein, Florio explains how kindergartners learn the social order of their classrooms, and how they develop the communicative competence necessary to function as full members of their social groups.17

A basic premise of this work is that there is an order or logic in the way people relate to each other in face-to-face interaction, and that people use this order to organize their behavior. People in interaction work to maintain the order of their relations over time. Ethnography, under this scheme, attempts to account for people's behavior by describing what enables them to behave sensibly with others.18 Much of the interactional work people do in relating to each other lies beneath awareness; we say that it is "second nature." If we subject that work to careful examination, however, we quickly realize that it is in fact enormously complex—but nonetheless orderly. In all but the most extreme cases, people do make sense, both to themselves and to others. They collaborate in producing social occasions that are rational and sensible. From the theoretical perspective of these studies, those sense-making procedures become the focus of the analysis.

Bremme and Erickson suggest that for a group of people to bring off any social encounter, each participant must be able—

1. to determine what social situation, or context, is happening now, from moment to moment within the occasion;

2. to interpret the social meaning of others' behaviors in the light of the social situation happening now; and

3. to identify and produce, from among one's "repertoire" of behaviors, those forms considered appropriate alternatives now, in "this" social situation.19

If the encounter is to "succeed," they continue, participants must do this interactional work in relatively congruent ways; that is, they must share some rules for doing it. If they follow different rules, or if they misidentify the context or each other's behaviors, or if they behave inappropriately themselves, then the encounter is "in trouble."20 Ethnomethodologists have shown that people manage to carry off social interaction even though they can never know precisely what is going on at each instant. As McDermott notes, people in interaction reflexively generate answers to their own queries about what is going on in a specific social environment.21

What all this means for the study of alternative schools is that we must look carefully at the procedures members use to produce encounters that make sense to them. The place to begin that study is not with the achievement scores of students, nor their study habits; it is not in demographic characteristics of the student body or the faculty, nor in the published policies of the organization; it is not even in members' attitudes about themselves and their experiences. Rather, the place to begin is in a detailed investigation of the social contexts that, strung together across days, weeks, and years, constitute what participants gloss as "going to the alternative school." Baldly put, the unit of analysis is the context.

Social contexts, as Erickson and Shultz point out, are not simply given by the physical setting, but are "constituted by what people are doing and where and when they are doing it."22 Contexts consist in the ways participants manage to answer their own question about what is going on. That process of creating a social world by enacting it is what ethnomethodologists call reflexivity: Members use their social knowledge and their interpretive procedures to produce social contexts in which their own behavior can make sense. These contexts are never given once and for all, but emerge as people interact. That means that participants must continually read the situation, interpret what is going on, and perform appropriate behavior. At crucial junctures in their interaction, people collaborate to change the situation by reorienting themselves proxemically, posturally, and verbally. They signal each other about how messages are to be interpreted from moment to moment by performing what Gumperz calls contextualization cues. These cues exist in a number of channels, verbal and nonverbal, proxemic and kinesic, linguistic and paralinguistic.23

This theoretical orientation provides guidelines for research. Erickson and Shultz propose a method for revealing the organization of interaction by focusing first on the junctures between behavioral slots, since that is where people have to do the most overt work to reorient themselves into the new context. By identifying the sequence of principal parts of an occasion—what Scheflen calls the program—one can discover the range of behavioral choices (the paradigmatic set) open to actors at junctures and within segments.24 Understanding the organization of these choices and the behavior participants perform on the basis of their reading of the situation is essential to explaining how they manage to answer their own question about what is going on. That is to say, such a method reveals the social order or a series of encounters. Rather than describing the methodological implications of this assertion in the abstract, I will illustrate them with reference to a second alternative school, which I will call the Community School, which is located in another large eastern city.


Sandwiched in between two brick apartment buildings on a narrow street in a large city, the antiquated elementary school housing the Community School barely suggests to the passerby that something experimental is going on inside. But the program, organized by a consortium of urban and suburban school districts and funded by the state, is supposed to be radically different in form and content from traditional high schools. During the full semester I spent as a participant-observer in the school, there were thirty students from fourteen different high schools; eighteen were from the city, twelve from the suburbs; fifteen were white, thirteen black, and two labeled (officially but incorrectly) "other." Students were divided into two classes, called majors, where they spent the bulk of their time engaged in studying some aspect of city life. Though there were a few electives offered in the later afternoon, the majors occupied most of the students' time. Part of the philosophy of the program was to encourage people to use the city as a learning resource. As a result, students and teachers took frequent trips to visit neighborhoods, agencies, parks, and universities. Although the majors each had a theme—Environmental Studies and Life Cycles—activities within them varied widely, from in-class writing and discussion to independent research to group projects. English lessons, required by law, were designed to complement the substance of the major classes.

General demographic and programmatic descriptions cannot, however, capture the essence of the social order of the school. In trying to achieve that goal, I used a range of methods from anthropology, including participant observation, formal and informal interviewing, and microanalysis of videotape recordings of class sessions. I tried to identify the major parts of the day and segments within those parts. Then I tried to describe how participants managed to organize their behavior within and between the slots. Some segments, marked by such obvious behavioral shifts as moving from one room to another, leapt into focus; others, no less significant in understanding the social order of the school, had to be teased out of the data through careful, fine-grained examination. To give the reader a sense of the structure of the school day and of members' methods of producing that structure, I will describe the salient features of the succession of situations people enacted in doing what they called "going to school."


Before the "official" beginning of the school day, certain students and staff gathered in various parts of the building for casual socializing and a bit of preparation. A small, self-selected group arrived nearly an hour before the first meeting and engaged in what they privately called "work time." Many people who showed up later were not conscious of the others' work; but if something was left out—if, for instance, the coffee was not set up—they would note the omission.

Work time melted gradually into what I labeled "preschool coffee" as more people came into the school office. (That the time slot had no common name is itself a revealing feature of members' definition of it.) The basic dimensions of the situation emerged early in the semester, though they were not always enacted identically from day to day. From the very beginning, preschool coffee could be characterized as a time when: A small number of students and staff gathered around the large table in the office to drink coffee and chat; staff members performed minor tasks to prepare for the meeting or the class to follow; other students congregated in the hall or on the front steps of the building (depending on the weather) to smoke and talk. Although teachers were sometimes engaged in instrumental behavior (dittoing papers, collecting books, making phone calls), their interaction with students was generally expressive, not task oriented. Conversation rambled from birthdays to hang-gliding, from skyscrapers to backpacking.

The end of preschool coffee was customarily marked by one of the two major teachers, who would look at the clock at around 9:00 and announce in a public voice that it was time to move across the hall for the early meeting. The actual phrasing varied, but Ed, one of the two, often barked out in a mock command, "Let's go, boss! Move 'em out!" That students recognized the social as well as the referential meaning of that utterance is demonstrated by the following incident. One day in November, a student named Alice watched the second hand sweep around to 9:00; at precisely the right moment, she stood up and hollered, "Let's go, boss! Move 'em out!" The assembled students and staff convulsed with laughter. The joke, as I labored to explain later, rested in their shared knowledge of the respective roles students and teachers played in the transition from preschool coffee to early meeting. Alice had usurped Ed's role. A stranger walking in off the street might have missed the joke: There is no reason why the boundary marker between coffee and meeting could not have been performed regularly by a student. Members of the school knew, however, that the job belonged to a teacher. That particular aspect of the allocation of authority and responsibility, as I will document more fully, was symptomatic of a larger condition: In general, the students tended to rely on the staff to define contexts and initiate the transitions between them. (The single notable exception was the transition between morning class and lunch; students were very prompt and forceful in marking that juncture.)


The shift from preschool coffee to early meeting was clearly marked at its beginning by the mock command, but the rest of it was ragged. Students often took detours between the office and the big room where the meeting was held to finish a conversation, smoke a last cigarette, or visit the bathroom. Especially at the beginning of the semester, the staff also dawdled in transit, attending to some last arrangement for class or consulting with a colleague. Neither students nor teachers seemed to be in a rush to get down to business, even after most of them had collected in the big room.

The end of the transition rarely took the form of a clear call to order. There was no ritual for getting underway, no gavel banging, no bell. In fact, there was frequently no "OK, let's get started." Most commonly, Ed or Elena (the other teacher) would shift out of a private conversation into a public voice clearly intended to attract the attention of everyone in the room, and say something about what had to be done that day in the meeting. At that point, students would generally pay attention to the teachers, although an undertone of chatter often persisted well into the meeting. Two features of that transition stand out. First, the initiation of the meeting segment invariably rested with the staff. Even when small-group conversations had died down of their own accord, students never took the step of getting the meeting started; even in semiawkward silence, they waited for the teachers. Second, even those students who continued to chat after the meeting got underway appeared to be oriented to the meeting as a context: Their conversations were whispered; their primary postural focus was on the teachers, even while they carried on "side sequences."25 People clearly collaborated in enacting a meeting, and they agreed interactionally that part of the role of teacher meant leading the session.

In content, however, the early meeting fluctuated wildly from day to day. Sometimes there would be a discussion about plans for a trip; at other times, Elena would lead some sort of lesson, discussing how to take messages on the phone or the operation of the electoral college; still other meetings would be dedicated to announcements. Participation by students usually lacked vitality: They tended to sit back in their chairs, talk infrequently (except to their neighbors), and watch listlessly until the meeting ended. In the words of Daniel, one of the students, they seemed to regard the meeting as "our version of homeroom." They went along with the staff's quasi agenda, but in a desultory fashion, and resented the few students who prolonged the session by asking stupid questions.

When business was completed, or energy had ebbed to the point where nothing further could be accomplished, or time was running late, Elena or Ed would ask, "Anything else?" After a pause, she or he would remark, "To the pits, then!" People picked themselves up and began the transition to majors. Like the one from coffee to meeting, that move was usually ragged. Students and teachers again found diversions between rooms, whether another cigarette or another conversation. That the transition should take some time was neither surprising nor lamentable. Indeed, the teachers expected it. Traditional schools allot a certain amount of time between classes and mark that period with bells. But in this alternative school and many others, the transition lacked those clear segment boundaries. Without bells defining the allowable time for passage, without a standard performance of "beginning" by the teacher, and without a clear sense of what was about to happen, the students were often slow to settle down to business.

Majors In one videotaped scene, Elena's class entered her room after the early meeting and then took about seven minutes to get to work. Most people who have seen the tape have remarked on the apparent struggle going on between the students and the teacher. Outsiders consider the class unruly, resistant, and difficult. A close analysis of this strip of behavior, however, reveals that participants were in fact making sense of one another's actions, and that they were gradually producing a context that could reasonably be called class. That this production took some time and involved some wheel-spinning resulted, I will argue later, at least partly from certain structural ambiguities in the encounter. Nonetheless, I submit that people did have some roughly shared notion of what was going on, and did collaborate over time to enact an accountable context. Somehow, they managed to make the transition from not-class to class without suffering a collective breakdown. Analyzing that procedure demonstrates, I think, some of the salient features of the social order of the school.26

A casual look at the class's behavior at the beginning and then six minutes later suggests that they somehow settled down. My question was how they accomplished that, given the ongoing appearance of un-ruliness. What happened between the time the class entered the room and the time members could reasonably say, "Yes, we're doing class now"? My argument is that people gradually read the situation as class and began performing more and more behaviors from the set glossed as doing-class, and that the accumulated weight of their actions reflexively created a more or less coherent context.

A description of the incident: As students ambled into the room after the early meeting, a few engaged in a half-joking battle over the rightful occupation of the single padded chair. Elena (the teacher), who entered in the midst of the dispute, did not mediate or even comment; she put her books down, took her seat, and listened while she readied her papers. The debate wound down, and the students took their respective seats. After a brief exchange with the observer, Elena made her first attempt to start doing business: She raised her voice to a public key and said, "Some time today—" She had been looking down at her papers when she started that utterance; as she looked up, she realized that the room was half empty. Her tone of voice changed abruptly, and she said, "There's not even anyone here! Where are they?" That self-interruption effectively set off a chain of false starts, attempts to get underway that for one reason or another failed. First, she changed key again in her very next utterance: Starting to name the students she wanted to see privately during the day, she switched to a joke concerning one student who was habitually late. Several people followed with off-business comments. Elena tried to start again, saying, "Two things to do today—" but several students were still talking and a couple were just entering. One of them completed the teacher's remark-with an off-topic comment, and that derailed her again. Once more, she began an inventory of the missing. During the ensuing hubbub, Alice, a student from the other class, slipped into the room, said "Excuse me, Elena" (although the teacher did not notice her), and began a transaction with Lucy. By the time Elena was ready to start again—repeating "Two things to do today"—Lucy was calling across the circle to her friend Patty, asking her how to spell her last name for the basketball sign-up sheet. Elena got as far as saying, "One—" but stopped, sensing the interruption. She waited for a few moments, casting a pleading glance at the camera, but soon lost patience: "What is this?" she demanded of Alice, who beat a hasty retreat.

Over a bit of student muttering, Elena tried once more: "OK, start again. There are two things we have to do today." Even now she was battling an undercurrent of student talk, but she forged on, and they quieted down somewhat. The message was getting across: She means to get down to business. But she interrupted herself once more, and the momentum was lost; she mentioned an assignment people were to have written in their notebooks, and added in a questioning tone, "... which I hope you all have with you?" At that, three members of the class jumped up and left the room to get their notebooks. Two more latecomers arrived during the lull; one engaged in conversation with Elena. The other students chatted quietly. When the three returned, she started one last time: "The other thing we have to do today . . . ." Despite an attempted interruption from a student, she continued through the "other thing." Then she framed a repetition: "So, the two things are. . . ." At last, the students were settled down, quiet, attentive. Business was being done.

This scene represents the "typical" process of transition from not-class to class. I have described it in detail because one can see clearly that members of the class gradually began attending to and performing behaviors glossed as "doing-class." Despite the lack of traditional boundary markers defining class time—bells, announcements, or commands by the teacher—students correctly interpreted a string of contextualization cues and settled down. But one can see just as clearly that the scene was fragile, susceptible to interruptions. A minor change in behavior on the part of the teacher, such as a joke early in the session, touched off more not-class actions by the students. But once the teacher's intention was relatively clear, students by and large settled down to class. For instance, even though class momentarily broke down when Elena remarked on the notebooks and several members left, most of the students who remained opted to maintain their primary focus on the class rather than drift off themselves. That is, they performed the context "class-in-session-but-temporarily-suspended." In their minds, certain rules obtain in such a context; for instance, one does not leave a class-in-session (without permission or a good reason) or switch attention to side conversations.

In the Community School, settling down took some time. Interruptions were common, and behavior looked disorderly to an outsider. But in fact, the teachers and students had a sense of what constituted class, and attended to the cues creating that context. False starts were eventually overcome. Significantly, the students almost invariably left the initiation of the occasion to the teacher—as they did in early meeting—and so were ready to do not-class until the signs were clear. But that is not to say that they did not recognize the cues and respond to them.

"Of course!" one might object. "Of course they got down to business! We never said they were cultural dopes!" My argument may appear tautological: Members of the school were able to do what they did. In fact, there is more to the argument than that. Only one point suggested by the analysis is that, despite an appearance of disorder in the doings of the school, people were making sense of their activities. Order does not necessarily imply quiet, teacher-directed interaction. A second point is that informality does have some costs in terms of the intensity of the interpretive work that members must do in order to produce accountable social occasions. In the absence of cues that students have learned as routines through their previous years of schooling, people have to create new ways of getting down to business. But of course, that is one reason why people invented alternative schools. The trouble has been that too few people in such schools have realized that simply saying that people are free to create new ways of learning together does not answer the sticky question of how. A third benefit of this kind of analysis is a clearer understanding of the organization of behavior, of the roles and rules for interaction that do emerge in an alternative school.


Based on this analysis, there is more to say about the social order of the Community School than the fact that people knew to some extent what was going on in various contexts, and that to the extent that they did not, trouble resulted. One can say that members of the school organized their behavior in different patterns in different situations. From scene to scene, participation structures changed, and roles and norms varied systematically.27 In preschool coffee, where interaction was essentially informal and expressive, conversation could ramble, and anyone could initiate talk on virtually any topic. Roles differentiated people somewhat: Teachers did preparation work; students sat and chatted, socializing; a teacher was responsible for marking the end of the segment.

The transition to early meeting, habitually ragged, involved switching attention to more instrumental tasks such as decision making, teaching, and planning. Again, teachers were left the responsibility for initiating and defining the scene-for-the-day. Students tended not to understand or appreciate the reasons for the meeting, and behaved accordingly. The shape of the meeting never emerged clearly. Even the boundary markers—the call to order and the adjournment—seemed fuzzy and inconsistent.

Class time took a number of forms, and progressed through several stages. Settling down took a while; people had to finish their coffee and conversation, and they waited for the teacher to signal clearly that class was underway. Normally, settling down was followed by doing business, which meant establishing the agenda for the day and taking care of miscellaneous administrative and housekeeping tasks. The switch from settling down to doing business called for a change in participation structure: from expressive, dispersive, student-initiated chatter to instrumental, focused, teacher-directed work. In the doing-business segment, students could talk out without being recognized by the teacher, but their comments were expected to be related to the topic at hand. Of course, exceptions were permitted at times, particularly if performed skillfully (as a clever joke). The third segment of class time could be called doing learning, and took many forms: lecture (teacher talks, students listen); discussion (students talk on topic, with questions and directions from teacher); small-group work (students work together independent of teacher, though with some supervision); and others, including films, guest speakers, and trips. People clearly saw these forms as different: They behaved differently in producing them. Of course, their behavior was not entirely consistent even within segments—there were frequent interruptions—but members generally held each other accountable for breaches of the norms: They complained, cajoled, ignored, or ridiculed transgressors; or they went along briefly and then managed to restore the original context.


Interaction in the school, then, followed patterns; social order existed—to some extent. But that extent proved a source of trouble for people going about the business of doing school. More than many traditional schools, where students know the system even if they may try to beat it, people in this one struggled with many structural ambiguities that made interaction relatively difficult. Signs of stress were numerous: frequent interruptions of scenes; some expressed confusion on the part of students; occasional anger and frustration. A few times during the semester under study, entire days collapsed; that is to say, the characteristic forms of behavior that had come to constitute "going to school" never got done, and people in effect went home wondering what had happened. That these occurrences can be called interruptions or breakdowns suggests, of course, that there was some order that could suffer stress; in fact, some scholars pay particular attention to interruptions as a way of locating what is supposed to be going on. At the same time, it must be said that this school appeared to be more fragile than most.

Explanations of these problems in the school defy easy formulation. Students sometimes showed resistance. Teachers occasionally planned badly. The weather affected moods and behavior. But my analysis of the social order of the school suggests that a more fundamental issue was the problem of ambiguity: In several senses and for several reasons, people had trouble identifying and producing coherent and clearly defined situations. The types of ambiguity are only analytically separable. In real life they occurred in complex interaction. Nor were their effects quantifiable or predictable. Rather, this theory proposes a way of locating and understanding some of the sources of strain on the organization of behavior in the school.


Cicourel, in Cognitive Sociology, claims that people in face-to-face encounters use normative understandings to make sense of situations as they unfold. "Interaction participants," he writes, "presume normal forms of acceptable talk and appearances, or if discrepancies appear, attempt to normalize the action scene."28 In the Community School, teachers and students came together from widely different backgrounds and experiences. Their preconceptions about schooling—about roles such as "teacher" and "student" and about situations such as "class time" and "decision making"—varied enormously. Evidence for that assertion comes from both their behavior and their reports in interviews. A clear instance of discrepant normative understandings at work was the problem of getting the floor in class. Some students both practiced and argued in favor of a free-for-all discussion mode: Anyone who had something to say had the right to seize the floor. Other students, distinctly in the minority, adopted the technique of raising their hands and waiting to be recognized by the teacher. Predictably, the former group succeeded in getting the floor more often than the latter. That fact angered some people, and the class discussed the issue. Students were able to formulate their positions—their normal forms, if you will—rather clearly and forcefully. In other sessions, people argued for their conceptions of "what a teacher should do to lead a class" and "what kinds of work we should be expected to perform." The range of opinions was substantial.

Students also expressed a variety of normal forms in interviews. When asked about their previous experiences in schools, their responses differed significantly. Many hated their old schools—they had come to the Community School more to escape the traditional schools than to find something specifically new—and referred to them in such terms as "prison" and "boring." There appeared in their talk a strong sense that "me" and "my school" existed separately, even in an adversary relationship. On the other end of the spectrum was a student who had attended another alternative school in the suburbs. Her description of school was more positive, and reflected a sense of participation and collaboration: School was to her a group of people, of which she was a member, trying to find ways of learning together. Other students fell somewhere between these extremes.

The teachers in the school harbored still other versions of school. Although they were less consciously ideological than many alternative-school teachers, Ed and Elena had a fairly elaborate vision of what they were trying to create: It revolved around a set of definable cognitive and social experiences, and a friendly atmosphere that encouraged students to share themselves and to learn about the city around them. They viewed themselves as in charge, but as flexible and responsive. Staff members clearly thought more analytically than students did about the school, the curriculum, and roles people played. At the same time, their behavior manifested some inconsistencies and ambivalence, even within scenes. They struggled in particular with the balance between control and responsiveness.


Another source of ambiguity lay in the fact that some situations were not clearly defined. As distinct from occasions in which people disagreed in principle about what was going on, there were some encounters in which no one was quite sure. Since nearly everyone in the school was new at alternative education, the shared stock of social knowledge was necessarily limited. Members did share knowledge based on their previous experiences in other schools. But they also recognized the novelty of some of their forms of interaction. They realized that, to some extent, they were reinventing school. For some, that opportunity formed the basis for their decision to attend.

To be sure, the staff took much of the responsibility for the design of some new forms. But even they were not quite sure what shape some contexts would assume. On the second day of class, Elena announced to her students, "This group is a special group, because there are no rules to start with like in your old school." By word and deed, she demonstrated that she did not mean no rules, but she did mean that students would have a hand in creating the texture of the class.

Some new forms became institutionalized and regularized very quickly. Preschool coffee, despite its break from traditional school forms (where does one find students in the teachers' lounge before school?), emerged almost immediately and stayed fairly constant throughout the semester. Early meeting, on the other hand, never did achieve clarity. It was alternately a time for announcements, planning, teaching, casual conversation, even a birthday celebration. That is not to say that a single scene cannot accommodate a range of functions; on the contrary, class time probably took more forms, but was more rationalized. The problem with early meeting was that there were no clear cues for signaling or validating its various forms and functions; people could not know what to expect from it. As a result, they tended to flounder, struggle, and withdraw. Innovations in seating arrangements and procedures were attempted periodically, but never solved the problem. The same incompleteness of form plagued such interactions as group decision making, class discussions, and trips.


When people disagree on the definition of a situation, or when they have not yet figured out what is going on, then ambiguity manifests itself at the level of behavior. It was there that the multiplicity of normal forms and the incomplete forms became an issue in the everyday life of the school. This type of ambiguity might also be called contradictory contextualization cues or mixed messages. In face-to-face encounters, the problem lay in the fact that participants (1) disagreed about the meaning of specific cues, (2) misinterpreted cues performed by others, or (3) could not determine what the context was or what cues to perform.

This confusion did not render people helpless or immobile. In one class session in which a transition was being made from doing business to doing learning, there was a moment of awkwardness when Elena asked a question that the students interpreted as rhetorical but for which she seemed to want an answer, since she waited for fully eleven seconds after asking it before going on. A fine-grained analysis of the interaction preceding that point revealed, however, that the students had quite reasonably assumed that Elena was about to perform a lecture: She had "set the stage" for that by her talk and movement. She realized what had happened, and proceeded to deliver a lecture. The point is that, despite a glaring inconsistency in the teacher's behavior, the class managed to interpret the situation sensibly and to perform appropriate behavior.

While people were not immobilized, while they continued to act on the basis of their best readings of the situation, problems nonetheless occurred. The struggle to get class started took a toll in attention, morale, and efficiency. The confusion around early meeting rendered that occasion largely useless. Disputes over interruptions and getting the floor generated some tension in class, although talking about it helped somewhat. On numerous occasions, one could see that people were enacting different and sometimes conflicting definitions of the situation: Student A would be performing "casual talk time" while student B was doing "open discussion on the topic" and the teacher was attempting "lecture." Generally one definition rose to the surface and dominated—that was often a function of power, sanctions, and loudness of voice—but the scene often continued to include a good deal of interactional noise such as side conversations or sullenness. A substantial portion of the energy put into social interaction in the school was devoted to negotiating mutally ratifiable definitions of contexts. That negotiation process happens in virtually every human encounter, but at this school it may have demanded a disproportionate amount of time.


The picture of the Community School takes on more clarity through this mode of analysis. A small group of people from widely diverse backgrounds converged on a single building day after day and called themselves a school. Students' reasons for coming varied enormously, but most were negative: They wanted to escape conditions at their home schools. Their preconceptions about the school were fuzzy; they hardly knew what they were getting into. Their ideas about what constituted school took many forms. Despite all that, they managed from day to day to produce social encounters that were to them reasonable and accountable. They gathered for coffee in the morning; they held meetings; they attended classes, discussed issues, did work, took trips. They recognized each other as "teachers" and "students," though they took pride in calling each other "friends." Differences in race, sex, class, and residence notwithstanding, they built relationships of trust and affection; they got along well. Together, they worked through a succession of school days, surviving invasions by outsiders, skirmishes among themselves, and bad weather.

Members did their best to make sense of situations, even those that were inherently weird or confusing. It is not easy, when your parents ask you at dinner what you did at school today, to answer, "Well, we played hide-and-go-seek and rappeled down the side of the building." Trips to the New Hampshire woods hardly qualify as school to non-believers. One student laughed when he reported, "My sister tells her friends I don't go to school!" But underlying the joke was a serious question: If this is a school, what are we doing?

Rife with ambiguity, some occasions appeared fragile: They were interrupted easily and often; people got angry infrequently, but bored and frustrated more often; scenes sometimes broke down altogether. Transitions proved ragged and difficult; students resisted settling down, and teachers had trouble getting class started. Meetings lacked focus and discussions got off track. Planned events fell through. Over the course of the semester, attendance dropped off, and tardiness continued to be a problem.

The kind of analysis embodied in this paper suggests one crucial conclusion: Trouble in the alternative school could not be attributed simply to incompetence or contrariness on the part of students or teachers. Instead, much of it resulted from structural ambiguity in the social order of the school: divergent definitions of scenes, incomplete social forms, and inconsistent behaviors. Given that ambiguity, the reflexive production of social contexts proceeded fitfully at times. Making sense was difficult.

The strain of this interpretive work can be enormous. Teachers feel the burden most heavily. From day to day they must take the lead in creating new social forms that guarantee both humane relationships and high-quality learning. They must invent curricula for students who resist the very notion of school. By their behavior they must provide structure and direction, but remain flexible and responsive to individual needs and abilities. Moreover, they must reconcile progressive philosophy with daily practice, accommodating history and biography in their every act. Small wonder that they suffer lapses, exhaustion, burnout.

Students as well have to learn new ways of doing school. They must learn to make sense of a wide range of new experiences, and relations. Perhaps even more difficult, they must learn to attend to different aspects of relationships in different contexts: Chatting casually with a teacher is fine in preschool coffee, but there is a task to be accomplished in class. They must alter their conception of curriculum, seeing value in exploring a neighborhood as well as in reading a text. The reconstruction of school in these terms is no easy matter, especially after nine or ten years of contrary lessons.

But this is not to say that the effort is futile or worthless. On the contrary, I maintain that experimental education deserves more attention than it has recently received, and that this kind of analysis suggests ways of improving such schools. Eliminating ambiguity is not the answer. But understanding the various forms of ambiguity cannot but help alternative-school people to think more creatively, more confidently, and more productively about their practices. They may never resolve principled disagreements about social occasions, but knowing where the disagreements exist may prevent them from ascribing each other's actions to stupidity or pigheadedness. They may never invent the perfect social forms to accomplish their intended purposes—in the absence of a salute to the flag, what constitutes a creative ritual for beginning the day?—but they may recognize the poor fit between form and function in some of their present behavior. And they may never avoid entirely the momentary lapses in concentration and performance that lead to mixed messages, but they may understand their own actions more clearly.

The mode of analysis reflected in this paper provides what I believe to be a more fruitful way of thinking about alternative schools. Current arguments for or against "more structure" fail to come to terms with the complexity of the issue. By focusing on systems of interaction rather than on individuals, by understanding contexts as collaborative accomplishments rather than trying to comprehend individual behaviors, motives,

1 Allen Graubard, Study of Free Schools/New Schools Directory Project (Cambridge, Mass.: Center for the Study of Public Policy, 1971); and Allen Graubard, Free the Children (New York: Vintage Books, 1972).

2 Cf. John C. Can, Jean Dresden Grambs, and E.G. Campbell, eds., Pygmalion or Frankenstein: Alternative Schooling in American Society (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1977).

3 Cf. Hugh Mehan, "Students' Interactional Competence in the Classroom," Quarterly Newsletter of the Institute for Comparative Human Development, September 1976, p. 7.

4 Jack Douglas, Understanding Everyday Life (Chicago: Aldine, 1970).

5 Emile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method (New York: Free Press, 1938), p. 14.

6 Richard Gibboney and Michael Langsdorf, "Final Evaluation Report," mimeographed (Cheltenham, Pa.: Alternative Schools Project, 1972).

7 A.J.H. Gaite and Richard J. Rankin, "Patterns of Achievement, Attitude, and Behavior in a Tax-Supported Alternative School" (Paper presented to American Educational Research Association, 1974).

8 Richard W. Willard and Leonard J. Click, "Alternative Uses of the Delphi Techniques in Evaluating Alternative Schools" (Paper presented to American Educational Research Association, 1975).

9 Cf. Jerry L. Fletcher and William G. Spady, "The Development of Instrumentation to Measure the Alternative Operational Manifestations of Five Basic Functions of Schooling" (Paper presented to American Educational Research Association, 1975).

10 Hugh Mehan and Houston Wood, The Reality of Ethnomethodology (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1975).

11 Douglas, Understanding Everyday Life, p. 14.

12 David Thornton Moore, "Through Their Own Eyes: A Portrait of the Alternative Schools Project," mimeographed (Cheltenham, Pa,: Alternative Schools Project, 1974).

13 Graubard, Study of Free Schools; and Graubard, Free the Children.

14 George Dennison, The Lives of Children (New York: Vintage Books, 1969); and Jonathan Kozol, Free Schools (New York: Bantam Books, 1972).

15 Douglas, Understanding Everyday Life, p. 15.

16 Cf. Richard Johnson, Donald R. Moore, and Thomas Wilson, "A Proposal for Completion of Research on the Development of an Alternative School," 1971; "Decision-Making in Alternative Schools," 1972; "It Works This Way for Some: Case Studies of Fifteen Schools," 1973: and "Research for New School Programs," 1973 (All prepared for Center for New Schools, Chicago).

17 Frederick Erickson and Jeffrey Schultz, "When Is a Context?" Quarterly Newsletter of the Institute for Comparative Human Development, February 1977, p. 5; Donald W. Bremme and Frederick Erickson, "Relationship among Verbal and Non-verbal Classroom Behaviors," Theory into Practice 16, no. 3 (1977): 153-61; R.P. McDermott, "Kids Make Sense: An Ethnographic Account of the Interactional Management of Success and Failure in One First-Grade Classroom" (Ph.D. diss., Stanford University, 1976); Hugh Mehan, Sue Fisher, and N. Maroules, "The Social Organization of Classroom Lessons" (Final Technical Report to the Ford Foundation, 1976); and Susan Florio, "Issues in the Analysis of the Structure and Quality of Classroom Interaction" (Special qualifying paper, Harvard University, 1976).

18 R.P. McDermott, "Social Relations as Contexts for Learning," Harvard Educational Review, May 1977, p. 198.

19 Bremme and Erickson, "Relationship among Verbal and Non-verbal Classroom Behaviors," p. 2.

20 Ibid., p. 3.

21 R.P. McDermott, K. Gospodinoff, and L. Aron, "Criteria for an Ethnographically Adequate Description of Activities and Their Contexts" (Paper presented to American Educational Research Association, 1976).

22 Erickson and Shultz, “When Is a Context? p. 6.

23 John J. Gumperz, "Language, Communication, and Public Negotiation," in Anthropology and the Public Interest, ed. Peggy Reeves Sanday (New York: Academic Press, 1976); and Erickson and Shultz, "When Is a Context?"

24 Albert E. Scheflen, How Behavior Means (New York: Anchor Books, 1974); and Susan Ervin-Tripp, Language Acquisition and Communicative Choice (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1973).

25 Gail Jefferson, "Side Sequences," in Studies in Social Interaction, ed. David Sudnow, (New York: Free Press, 1972).

26 For a detailed description of the method, cf. Erickson and Schultz, "When Is a Context?"

27 For an analysis of participation structures, see Susan U. Philips, "The Invisible Culture: Communication in Classroom and Community on the Warm Springs Reservation" (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1974).

28 Aaron Cicourel, Cognitive Sociology (New York: The Free Press, 1974).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 79 Number 3, 1978, p. 437-460
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1162, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 11:21:26 PM

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