Notes from Roland Barth

Piers YoungNotesLeave a Comment

Roland Barth’s “Improving Schools From Within” is comforting and inspiring in equal measure. Well worth a read.

My notes:

Communities of Learners

School is not a place for important people who do not need to learn and unimportant people who do. Instead, school is a place where students discover and andults rediscover, the joys, the difficulties and the satisfactions of learning.

… In a community of learners, adults and children learn simultaneously and in the same place to think critically and analytically and to solve problems that are important to them. In a community of learners, learning is endemic and mutually visible

An anthropologist friend tells me that dramatic, profound learning takes place in societies in which people of all ages, generations and positions – grandmother, father, child, adolescent, hunter, cook – live, work and learn together simultaneously. The grandfather teaches the daughter. The mother teaches the cousin. Everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner. In many ways, schools resemble these cultures. Both have many generations living together, interdependently, in close quarters for long periods of time.

This last reminded me of a point made at the Festival of Education that intergenerational learning was finding fewer and fewer wellsprings (given e.g. the decline in congregation sizes in churches, the break-up of traditional family units etc.)

A community of learners seems to work from assumptions fundamentally different from those of the list makers [i.e. that if schools/governments can create clear lists of desirable characteristics then these can be delivered]

  • Schools have the capacity to improve themselves, if the conditions are right. A major responsibility of those outside the schools is to help provide these conditions for those inside
  • When the need and the purpose is there, when the conditions are right, adults and students alike learn and each energizes and contributes to the learning of the other.
  • What needs to be improved about schools is their culture, the quality of interpersonal relationships and the nature and quality of learning experiences.
  • School improvement is an effort to determine and provide, from without and within, conditions under which the adults and youngsters who inhabit schools will promote and sustain learning among themselves.


Staff development takes the form of workshops done to someone by someone else, as in the verb “to inservice teachers”. Many administrators are discovering what teachers have known all along. When a school or a school system deliberately sets out to foster new skills by committing everyone to required workshops, little happens except that everyone feels relieved, if not virtuous, that they have gone through to motions of doing their job. So, by and large, the district staff development activities we employ insult the capable and leave the incompetent untouched.

The importance of vision

The difference between an educator and a middle manager, between a leader and a bureaucrat, between a teacher and a teaching machine, seems to be be that the one operates from a personal vision as a guiding “independent variable” while the other responds to the demands of others as a subservient “dependent variable”

“The Kingdom of Heaven is within”
Not a religious point, or even a Funkadelic lyric, simply that research has found that a)

“Extracting effective school practices from one setting and replicating them elsewhere may make a bad school mediocre. To become a good school requires a change of vision from within.

and b) the visions in the most successful schools were noble, realistic and clear (The Effective Principal, Blumberg and Greenfield, 1980)

Avoid Mushroom Management

The lives of teachers and principals are more closely akin to one definition of a mushroom: “You’re kept in the dark most of the time, periodically you’re covered with manure, and when you stick your head out it gets chopped off.” … New unusual ideas must be viewed not as a nuisance or an embarrassment but as a sign of life.


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