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A Defense of the Teacher as Taskmaster (Choreographer of Student Learning)

** NOTE: The plain-text version of this article, below, has been corrected by the author to remove typographical errors generated by an OCR (optical character reader). Page breaks have been indicated in [square brackets]. Typographical errors in the misspelled words "makeing" and "choreoprapher" on page 108 were retained because they were printed that way in the original publication.


Kenneth R. Conklin, "A Defense of the Teacher as Taskmaster (Choreographer of Student Learning)," SCIENCE EDUCATION, LIX, 1 (Jan/Mar, 1975), pp. 107-111.

[A response was published, with the following citation: Ronald Swartz, "Schooling and Responsibility," SCIENCE EDUCATION, LIX, 3 (Jul/Sep 1975), pp. 409-412.


A Defense of the Teacher as Taskmaster
(Choreographer of Student Learning)

Boston University
Boston, Massachusetts, 02215

The current wave of free schools, open classrooms, and non-graded curricula may have already crested; but for lack of newer ideas many educator-pundits continue to buoy it up. Fads die hard! Perhaps this short essay can assist the much-needed euthanasia.

The main assumption underlying these fads is that students should choose and direct their own learning activities according to what interests them. This assumption was defended particulary well by Professor Ronald Swartz in an article in Science Education [1]. Professor Swartz notes that traditional schooling is a form of entertainment: the student is a passive, mandatory spectator who may be more or less interested in watching a performance which he did not choose to attend and which he cannot significantly influence. Swartz claims that education as entertainment is immoral. Routine spectatorship leads students into a dependency upon the leadership of the teacher and authority figures in general. The result is irresponsibility. Such dependency and irresponsibility is bad for the democratic system in general, and also bad in any particular case when the authority figure is not benevolent. Swartz observes that sometimes teachers make special efforts to arouse student interest by staging spectacular performances, such as burning magnesium strips; but such performances are almost always mere entertainment because they seldom stimulate student activity that goes beyond the course assignments. Swartz advocates the establishment of "personal responsibility" schools or curricula, where students rely upon their own interests to make personal, individual decisions concerning what and how to study.

In this paper the author hopes to show that the notion of personal responsibility in learning is vitally important, but is misunderstood by the advocates of "open" education. Knowledge is always personal, but people usually need systematic help in getting it. Most knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is learned through spectatorship at performances. It will be seen that even the scientist working in his specialty is seldom the autonomous director of his own inquiry, and even then relies upon knowledge produced and choreographed by others.

As children grow into adults, or as novices grow into experts, they pass through a series of universal and invariant stages of growth described by Freud, Kohlberg, Maslow, Piaget, and others. Although psychologists differ in their descriptions of the stages, they agree that the stages are universal (everyone in the world goes through them) and the sequence of stages is invariant (people may differ in their speeds of passage through the stages, but everyone goes through the stages in the same order). Therefore, people can use systematic help in getting from one stage, where they are competent, to the next stage, whose nature or even existence they cannot yet anticipate. Those people who are further advanced through the stages of growth can help neophytes by choreographing

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entertainments that deal with appropriate developmental tasks. Such help will be benevolent to the extent that it causes immature individuals to confront and master the requirements of the next developmental stage. Thus, because the stages are universal and invariant, a teacher who knows the stages and the student has authority to impose such help for the student's benefit, even when the student is uninterested or antagonistic[2].

Spectacular attention-grabbers can help ease the boredom or humor the antagonism while acquiring necessary background information. This may be crucial when a new way of thinking or feeling is to be learned (as in the case of acquiring a new developmental stage). Then the spectacular performance can hold attention until the student is able to see the relevance of the new, more complex or more advanced ways of thinking and feeling. If burning magnesim strips can hold attention and provide a takeoff point for learning about oxidation or valence, the teacher should go ahead with the demonstration. In such a case, the teacher is not merely entertaining the student, nor teaching him passive spectatorship; rather, the teacher is arousing the student's curiosity and preparing the way for him to master important concepts that will enable him later to conduct autonomously chosen and self-directed inquires. Thus, the teacher as choreographer of student learning renders a valuable service in leading the student toward new awarenesses. Choreography begins with the simple and familiar, and moves toward the complex and unknown (makeing use of spectacular attention-grabbers when helpful).

The teacher as taskmaster is truly benevolent both to the individual student and to the democratic system. Perhaps most readers of this essay have at some time taken a required course or read a required book which turned out to be so interesting and valuable that they were profoundly thankful it was required. Some kinds of subject matter most notably mathematics and the physical sciences have frightening reputations for difficulty or dullness. It is benevolent to the individual to require him to study things he might be interested in but which he fears for bad reasons. Society especially a democratic society legitimately requires that everyone possess a wide variety of knowledge and skills. Most of what needs to be learned seems incomprehensible at first and may never become interesting. Thus, it is benevolent to democracy to require great masses of people to hold in common certain rudimentary sorts of knowledge and skills. The mere fact that something is required often makes it initially unpalatable. Thus, the taskmaster's benevolence to individuals and to the democratic system is facilitated by his use of spectacular attention-grabbing performances which make students forget that their spectatorship is in fulfillment of a requirement.

The advocates of "open" education remain opposed to the teacher as taskmaster and choreoprapher of student learning. Even though a benevolent teacher uses spectacular attention-grabbers to enhance the student's enjoyment of entertainment which leads the student to valuable new ways of thinking and feeling, there is a vital element missing. The advocates of "open" education insist that the student should choose and direct his own learning activities according to what interests him. The student should be personally responsible for his own learning. These last two sentences may seem closely related; but it will be attempted to show that they are very different.

Why should a student choose and direct his own learning activities according to what interests him? One reason would be that education should be fun. But if that is the only reason, then education would be reduced merely to a form of entertainment. The advocates of "open" education (and especially Professor Swartz) surely do not have such a thing in mind. It is the author's belief that they believe that a student must choose and

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direct his own activities if he is to learn the meaning of personal responsibility. But it shall be seen that an individual is always personally responsible for his knowledge, whether or not he has received help (even the help of a taskmaster) in acquiring it. Thus, the demand that students choose and direct their own learning activities would in fact carry no weight other than as a matter of personal stylistic preference of the teacher or enjoyment of the student. The analysis below is complex and cannot be presented here in detail. However, more lengthy, documented analyses of individual points have been written about earlier and are mentioned in the references.

Whether one is talking about skills, feelings, or understandings, the analysis is the same. A thing is not taught or learned directly as a whole unit. Rather, a thing is broken into parts; the parts are mastered one by one; and then the learner somehow assembles or integrates his perceptions of the parts into a single whole. Programmed instruction and behavior modification may be able to control the selection, sequencing, and delivery of parts; but the integration of parts into a whole is an autonomous, personal, creative act of the learner which cannot be controlled [3]. Thus, the student is personally responsible for his skills, feelings, and understandings. A taskmaster may choreograph entertainments which convey the parts, yet the learner personally integrates those parts into a meaningful whole.

Even in the subject areas considered most objective and rigorous, knowledge is intensely personal. Mathematical knowledge has aesthetic qualities appreciated intuitively by the discoverers of theorems, who then use logic as a medium for expressing their intuitions. Proofs are sometimes judged for elegance, and the logical standards for acceptable proofs in mathematics have varied in different social-historical contexts[4]. The scientist integrates data into meaningful patterns in much the same way as a detective interprets clues or an artist combines blotches of pigment to make a painting. The warranting function of proof arises from its primary functions of expressing and persuading; hence, the study of proof standards is a branch of aesthetics and psychology[5]. Furthermore, the evaluation of student knowledge cannot be entirely objective. No amount of observation or testing can distinguish between a student who really has knowledge and a student who gives the correct responses through luck or clever inference. The validity of testing (the evaluator's knowledge that test results actually represent student knowledge) is a matter for personal, intuitive judgment [6].

The chief task of education has always been to transmit the culture. Neophytes are inducted into a culture by learning its cognitive, affective, and psychomotor folkways. This is true whether we are discussing the big culture with its folkways governing morality, employment, and family patterns, or the small culture of specialists in some subject discipline with its folkways governing proof-procedures and professional conduct. The community of specialists judges the acceptability of a collegue's work according to how well the work conforms to the commonly accepted canons of reasonableness in the specialty, just as the general community judges the activities of the citizen according to the commonly accepted folkways. Canons of reasonableness and folkways are values or opinions that happen to be commonly held and that are distilled into operating principles. They are personal judgments and must be mastered through personal involvement [7].

To obtain acceptance in a specialty or in general society, a scholar or citizen must behave in conformity with the canons of reasonableness or folkways. He need not actually agree with those opinions: he need only behave in conformity with them if he

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wishes to be accepted as a colleague or citizen. Thus, the task of the teacher is to help students learn how to conform to these canons of reasonableness or folkways. It is then up to the student's personal choice whether and when to act in conformity with them. The student is responsible for that choice [8]. The folkways of different socioeconomic or racial subcultures are so different that students of one group cannot achieve equal efficiency with the students of a second group in performing according to the canons of reasonableness or folkways of that second group. This is why compensatory schooling seems "unsuccessful," and it illustrates just how personal the learning of so-called "objective" course content is [9].

The single point attempted to be established throughout this paper is that teachers should feel free to exercise their responsibilities as taskmasters without fear of leading students to become irresponsible. The advocates of "open" education insist that students should choose and direct their learning activities according to personal interest. It has been tried to show that knowledge is always personal to the knower, and that the knower has responsibility for integrating into a meaningful whole the parts which may be selected and choreographed for his benefit by a teacher. Even the scientist is subject to the folkways of his colleagues, and takes personal responsibility for the wholes he integrates by assembling the partial insights choreographed by his colleagues. The unbridled exercise of personal interest is rarely productive for the individual or useful for society, and may constitute gross hedonistic irresponsibility. Teachers can help lead students to new levels of awareness by choreographing interesting entertainments for them, while students remain personally responsible for the knowledge they acquire and the uses they make of it.

Readers will rightly observe that this article is written in an oblique, one-sided manner. The characterization of "open education" is also sometimes over-stated. In reality, most classrooms operate as hodgepodges of various styles, and few if any teachers are entirely taskmasters or entirely nondirective consultants to their child-colleagues. The fact that this article overstates and magnifies the dispute between two poles of a dualism is not a weakness: this technique of writing clarifies a tangled dispute; but more importantly, it directly illustrates the claim that knowledge is personal. Blatantly one-sided writing constantly warns the reader about an author's bias, instead of subtly but effectively indoctrinating a reader with the author's unavoidable bias smuggled in under the guise of careful, neutral writing. Because this article is a personal statement, it is no weakness that all the references (except the first) refer to other works by the same author that would further expand particular claims. Nevertheless, anyone who reads the author's essays mentioned in the references will discover that most of them are documented with references to other authors, who choreographed their own ideas and presented them in a manner that helped the present author to develop his personal integration presented here.


1. R. Swartz, "Education as Entertainment and Irresponsibility in the Classroom," Science Education, 58, 1: 119-125, 1974.

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2. K. R. Conklin, "Developmental Psychology vs. The Open Classroom," Educational Forum, 39, 1: 43-47, Nov. 1974.

3. K. R. Conklin, "Wholes and Parts in Teaching," The Elementary School Journal, 74,3: 165-171, Dec. 1973.

4. Conklin, K. R., "The Aesthetic Dimension of Education in the Abstract Disciplines," Journal of Aesthetic Education, 4, 3: 21-36, July 1970.

5. Conklin, K. R., "Knowledge, Proof, and Ineffability in Teaching," Educational Theory, 24, 1: 61-67, Winter, 1974.

6. Conklin, K. R., "Educational Evaluation and Intuition," Educational Forum, 34, 3: 323-332, March 1970.

7. Conklin, K. R., "Due Process in Grading: Bias and Authority," The School Review, 81,1: 85-95, Nov. 1972.

8. Ibid.

9. Conklin, K. R., "Why Compensatory Schooling Seems to Make 'No Difference'," Journal of Education, 156, 2: 34-42, May 1974.

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