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A Life in Classrooms: Philip W. Jackson and the Practice of Education

reviewed by Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon - February 22, 2008

coverTitle: A Life in Classrooms: Philip W. Jackson and the Practice of Education
Author(s): David T. Hansen, Mary Erina Driscoll, and Rene V. Arcilla (Eds.)
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807747769, Pages: 182, Year: 2007
Search for book at Amazon.com

There is a fair chance that we are entering the post - No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era. Presently, the legislation to reauthorize NCLB lies buried in congressional committee, unlikely to emerge. It is not that the goal of NCLB is perverse. Indeed, strong achievement in mathematics and reading are desirable outcomes of schooling. But they are not the only desired outcomes. And it is not at all clear that even they are being achieved by the scare, punishment, and myopic tactics of NCLB. The moment has come when we should once again take stock of what we believe to be helpful for learning, and in particular, learning in schools.

The essays that were written to honor Philip W. Jackson and collected in A Life in Classrooms help one to look ahead and to reflect. The volume is not simply an assembly of students’ encomia to a fine and caring teacher. It is not simply a catalogue of Jackson’s contributions to the field of education. It is not simply recipes for success in teaching and learning, inspired by Jackson and cooked up by each of the distinguished authors. It is all of these things together. But, in addition, if read with a listening heart, mind, and ear, these essays offer ideas to ponder in the wake of NCLB.

I want to begin by talking about a topic that several of the authors take up, namely, Jackson’s vision of educational research. Phillip Jackson was trained as a clinical psychologist and first achieved widespread recognition for his work with Jacob W. Getzels (1962)—a quantitative research project. Jackson’s later seminal work, Life in Classrooms (1968/reissued 1990), turned the prevailing research paradigm on its head and had enormous impact as a result. It portrayed investigation as an act of unhurried observation. The message was not that quantitative procedures had no place but that careful, detailed description of what one can observe in classrooms, with patient and proper attention, could teach us much that quantification practices were leaving unnoticed.  

The chapters in the present volume attest to the power of Jackson’s approach to the study of education. Nearly every one of the essays tells a unique story of what happened when its author(s) began to look closely at things right in plain sight, particularly at the events that occur in classrooms. For example, David Hansen tells us that when working with Jackson on the Moral Life of Schools project, he (Hansen) took 1,300 pages of field notes and recorded 600 pages worth of conversation during the first year and a half (p. 42). Jackson did not tell Hansen what to observe. Rather, what to observe gradually occurred to him as he sat in classrooms and began to see the moral aspects of so many of the events taking place there.

Let me now consider three elements of Jackson’s vision of educational research, all of which are explored by the essays in the volume, and all of which remind us of practices that have not been at the forefront of classroom experience during the NCLB era. The first element, that of observation, has already been mentioned. The essay by Maxine Greene argues that with close observation comes the opportunity to exercise one’s imagination—to keep the learning going by envisioning the possible and perhaps cultivating new targets of empathy (p. 58). David Granger and Craig Cunningham urge that the observation of the “common and ordinary” enlarges the meaning or significance of something that we already know (p. 137). Linda Darling-Hammand, seconding Lee Shulman (p. 13), notes that “the longer and more carefully we look at something, the more we care for it” (p. 30). These essays dwell upon some important outcomes of patient observation that urgency over test performance may incline us to overlook.    

Another element of Jackson’s vision of research is that of questioning, i.e., identifying what one does not know and wants to find out. The essays by Mary Driscoll, Robert Boostrom, Rene Arcilla and Thomas James testify to the importance of questioning. Driscoll describes how Jackson, standing with her before a painting by Klimt entitled Portrait of Mada Primavesi, asked:

‘What do you see? What do you think about the objects at her feet? What are we to make of how her arm is positioned?’ Each question was followed by renewed observation, sometimes discussion. . .By the time we left, I had seen far more in this one painting than I had in previous masterpiece tours. (p. 93)  

Boostrum tells us that, “Jackson’s questions are different. They open new doors of possibilities.  They sound like the musings of someone who is seeking answers but is not at all certain what those answers are” (p. 62). Arcilla (pp. 73-74) makes clear that Jackson is quite capable of putting before students – and himself— eternal questions, such as: Why are we here? How do we live in the face of the fact that we can never completely answer that question? As we read these essays, it becomes apparent that observation, as practiced by Jackson, is the road into questions about particular facts and profound uncertainties. James puts it so well: “Phil Jackson taught us that the desire to illuminate what we do not understand must be stronger than the latest adult logic for explaining away what remains beyond our understanding” (p. 91).

Let me pause here to make an observation of my own: the kind of observing that Jackson and these writers engage in takes time. It takes time because it is not looking for something, at least not at first. It is looking at something, often something familiar, and waiting—waiting for things to be noticed and for questions to emerge. Time spent waiting, however, is not time spent doing nothing. Rather, it is time spent letting the familiar call out of us our questions, our ideas, our points of focus, and our emotional responses to them. In the NCLB era, we may not have given much time during the school day for such observation and questioning to occur.

Proceeding to the third element of Jackson’s vision of research, we come to interpretation. Observation, as practiced and preached by Philip Jackson, is often seeing, i.e., interpretation, and he seems acutely aware of this. In the new introduction to the reissue of Life in Classrooms, Jackson writes: “I have lately come to understand. . .that one of the things I was struggling to do as I sat in the back of those classrooms was to offer an interpretation of what was going on” (p. xvi). This is why questioning, often coupled with dialogue, is so central to his mode of investigation. When he asks Driscoll, “What are we to make of how her arm is positioned?” I take him to mean: How are we to interpret the positioning of Mada Primavesi’s arm in the painting? Answering that question will require Driscoll to see the arm position in relation to other features of the picture—to see it as playing a part in a whole--and in so doing, she will give some sort of meaning to the painting. When Jackson asks, “What do you think about the objects at her feet?” I take him to mean: How are we to understand what those objects are and why they are there? Questioning is our means of coping with the mysterious—of coming to see it as having particular meaning. Hence, questioning is required if, when we look at an object, we cannot readily interpret it. Dialogue, as it occurs in the context of questioning, helps us to resolve some questions and develop points of genuine doubt—things we do not know and wish to resolve. These points of genuine doubt might be called interests. They are central to learning because they draw us on to further reflection and investigation. Without them, schooling is empty.     

Jackson’s novel and highly influential vision of educational research gave birth to other contributions. As Lauren Sozniak reminds us, it was Philip Jackson who coined the phrase “the hidden curriculum,” that is, the curriculum which is not explicitly set forth in stated objectives and which may include “less visible and/or less desirable outcomes” of schooling (p. 111). While Dewey had directed attention toward what he called “incidental learning,” it comes as no surprise that Jackson was the one who gave detailed attention to the unstated curriculum and spawned a “cottage industry” of writing about it (p. 112). After all, its manifestations come to the foreground as one sits in classrooms and patiently watches, questions, and tries to interpret – tries to see the events there as having meaning.  

Today, precious little time in classrooms is devoted to the careful observation, questioning, and interpreting that these authors describe. Karen Zumwalt argues that “test preparation and ‘teaching to the tests’ have driven the curriculum, even in schools that should have no fear of failing” (p. 131). Life in schools could be otherwise, and readers of the present volume will have the opportunity to imagine and ponder it as such. Elliot Eisner, in the final essay, describes Phil Jackson as a “tough-minded scholar, a passionate person, and a caring human being” (p. 158).  These are characteristics of the well-educated person and ones which Jackson’s way of life in classrooms has clearly cultivated.


Getzels, J.W., & Jackson, P.W. (1962). Creativity and intelligence:  Explorations with gifted students. New York: Wiley.

Jackson, P.W. (1990).  Life in classrooms (reissue of 1968 with new introduction). New York:  Teachers College Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 22, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15021, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 1:23:37 PM

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About the Author
  • Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon
    Northwestern University
    E-mail Author
    SOPHIE HAROUTUNIAN-GORDON, Professor and Director, Master of Science in Education Program, Northwestern University. Recent publications include: "Listening and Questioning," in Learning Inquiry (2007) 1: 143-152; "Philosophy for the Fun of It," in Leaders in Philosophy of Education (2008), L.J. Waks (ed.), Rotterdam/Taipei: Sense Publishers; Cultivating Questions: A Focus for Schooling in the Twenty-first Century, forthcoming, Yale University Press.
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