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Learning at its Best

An Ethic of Excellence – part deux

In the first half of Ron Berger’s terrific book, An Ethic of Excellence, the author beautifully describes many aspects of building a “culture of excellence.”  Excellence is not about individual achievement as much as creating a culture and building a community where a certain quality of work is valued and expected.  I love much of what Berger has to say about this.  He rightly positions community, culture and relationship within any definition of achievement or success.  I am particularly moved by Berger’s references to communities of caring and the importance of service learning.  In describing a project with a nearby school for the deaf, he writes about the children in his class:  “they will have the proud memory of being a part of one of the greatest human endeavors: showing kindness in hosting and caring for others…it expanded the notion of excellence to include excellence as a human being.”  Caring, kindness and community.  Right on!

Where Berger leaves me a bit flat, however, is when he seems to forget these key points and focus on “excellence” as evidenced by high quality work only.  He even goes so far as to suggest “using” (manipulating?) his high-functioning classroom community by tapping into “positive peer pressure” to encourage (coerce?) the desired quality of work.

I must say, when I taught public school elementary classes of thirty or so kids, I relied on such “positive peer pressure” often.  It is so easy, and so incredibly effective.  We had a bonus recess that the kids got, as a whole class, not awarded individually, at the end of each week for “good” work and behavior.  We’d start the week with 10 minutes on the board.  Then every time I had to wait for individual kids during a slow transition, or every time someone was talking out of turn or interrupting, I’d take a minute off the whole class’ bonus recess.  Conversely, an exemplary transition or work period might lead me to add a minute.  And the kids would do literally anything for that minute!  And they’d apply severe peer pressure to the kid or two who stood in the way of their recess minutes.  Those kids – always the same couple, were vilified and it worked to modify their behavior.  They got their act together and caused fewer disruptions.  What was “positive” about the peer pressure was that it achieved my objectives.  And we did have a culture of “excellence” there.  Using all kinds of extrinsic motivators, including positive peer pressure, we were able to lead kids to produce very high quality work and they were willing to jump through any and all hoops.

But by in large, I feel that it was a soulless place to learn and work.  My goals now are more toward nurturing curiosity and developing intrinsic motivation growing out of self-knowledge and inquiry.  I am more interested in building a culture of healing, of wholeness, of authenticity or integrity, and of caring in my school.  As Berger says, “the power of the culture rests in community.”  So let’s strive to ensure that it is a culture of caring as much as excellence and that it is a community of truth, not only one of achievement.

For those that haven’t read Berger’s book yet.  Here are a couple of videos which might give you a sense of his work.

Ron Berger presentation to Shutesbury Educ. Study Comm

Ron Berger presentation 10/19/2010 – Doing “Goo

What do you think?  Do you agree that culture is critical to learning?  What kind of culture are you trying to build?

About Paul Freedman

I am the founding Director of The Salmonberry School in Eastsound, WA. I have taught elementary school in public and private settings for the past 19 years. I serve as a contributing editor for Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice (Formerly the Holistic Education Review.) I also serve on the faculty of the Self Design Graduate Institute. I hold an MA in EDU from Goddard College.


7 thoughts on “An Ethic of Excellence – part deux

  1. Paul,

    Your critique is great. Thanks for sharing your own story. I read Berger differently in terms of the positive peer pressure. I think it had less to do with behavior or coercion and more to do with an understanding of child and human development. He saw that often it was the peers who could motivate the others to do good work, and that the natural human want and often need to be care for and loved helped to move children who were struggling to the next level. Same goes for adults, I see the type of teaching you do and the kind of life you live and I want to be since I respect and admire you, I am motivated to me more like you. This is the type of peer pressure I think he is talking about. It is problematic in the classroom often if it is based on work and not qualities of life. What Berger explains for me, was so radical from what I had read or seen in other classroom, that it made me realized that classrooms are mini world, mini communities, and ecosystems of learning. Peer pressure does not need to be used as bullying technique, but as a way to model good work and good behavior. I don’t remember reading that he used or wanted peer pleasure to be used to trick the students into behaving, instead he understood the nature power of it and used it to help students move beyond their own struggles and fear. I know I have wrote about it before, so I go back and see if I can find my own original thoughts on it.

    His role as a teacher can be seen as problematic, but he also saw the power and transformation that doing good work had on the children.

    Many unschoolers and free schoolers might argue that children do not nee to be controlled at all, and sometimes I agree. I also think an authentic adult and child relationship is more nuanced and widely complex then that, and often a teacher, or adult must use their best judgement to help a child get from one place to another. I have no problem with that, and think it is natural, my problem often lies in the lack of transparency or the willingness to make or admit mistakes.

    Sometimes we need to use behaviorism, sometime rewards and punishment help to achieve a balance that is lacking in a relationship. They are not ideal situations, or help achieve long term goals, but I would rather it be a process based on the relationship of the adult, child, and the peer community then a set of rules past down by a principal or a state, or the nation.

    These are my initials to your post, and what to dive deeper in to some of the questions and concerns you rise.

    How is your relationship with your students different from the relationship you have with your children?

    How is your relationship you have with your student as their teacher different than the relationship they have with each other?

    How much does positive modeling affect those relationships?


    Posted by dloitz | October 28, 2011, 3:50 pm
    • Hey David,

      Thanks for the comments. I agree with much of what you say. Yes, providing healthy models within a trusting relationship might be a “good” way to activate the intrinsic human impulse to follow a lead, and this can perhaps be termed “positive peer pressure.” It seems that Berger invokes this term around the story of a 6th grader, Jason, who transfers to his class (p.36) and was something of a misfit who “hated school”. Yet “underneath his tough exterior he still wanted to fit in.” Berger talks about his own need (teacher’s) for Jason to “buy in.” The ultimate success comes after he finally does some “good work.” Jason says, “I’m proud of this. I think it’s the first thing I’ve ever really done in school. (and in Berger’s italics) I think the class will like this.” (p.39)

      While I’m sure I would have been thrilled as Jason’s teacher and would have been excited for his improved work quality and in his sense of “pride,” upon some reflection, I think I’d actually be somewhat disturbed by his continuing locus of control and inspiration being rooted so firmly within his peer group. What happens if he finds himself in a less desirable setting? Would his behavior and work quality revert to that of the “old Jason?” Maybe this is an acceptable short term transition as jason begins to develop an internal locus of control and an internal source for motivation as he learns to become himself. But really, I see Berger celebrating the fact that Jason is being motivated by the peer group (as evidenced by his use of italics). I see this as a significant flaw in his celebration of a “culture or community of excellence.”

      That said, I do appreciate the emphasis on community, as I said before. Let’s just never let community, even an “excellent” one, replace the rightful place of selfhood, authenticity and integrity.

      Posted by Paul Freedman | October 28, 2011, 6:49 pm
      • I hear you, but to push back a little, much of today’s society and today’s schools are focused on a false idea of selfhood. I celebration of the “I” the “me” and what I can do to be better. He also contract this statement with the idea that most work in school is about an A and B relationship of the teacher and the student. Work is done for the teacher, often never even for the student, and even less for the community.

        I can’t speak for Berger, but what I see is him presenting a culture that says we are part of the community and our work is often not just for us, but apart of the whole, to be part of the community, to grow with the community. You are still very much a person and the work is ours, it is in some ways to serve others too. While just a choice of words, I like the term person-hood, better. I know self-hood in a spiritual sense is the same thing, but in our current society self is often very ego based. Also to be fair, this is a fifth grader who has years of no positive peer pressure from his community, sometimes you need a spark to start the fire, but that does mean you use matches to keep the fire burning… (love metaphors)

        Also another example or critique he present is the false use of praise from a teacher for self esteem, by praising a child enough his work or performance will improve, and therefore he will be a happy and successful child. This is something I call humanistic behaviorism, and I have experienced it in many of the preschools I work in. Berger believes self esteem must come from the child not from the adult, “We can’t first build the students’ self-esteem and then focus on their work. It is through their own work that their self-esteem will grow. I don’t believe self-esteem is built from compliments.” (Berger Pg. 65).

        I understand the power of self-esteem, but I believe we should be affirming not complimenting, we should be helping student to find success and help them reflect and share that success. In our school and our classroom we practice and promote self-esteem that comes from inside not a external source.

        more later….


        Posted by dloitz | October 28, 2011, 7:39 pm
        • Hi David,

          I very much appreciate your refinement of what you see as Berger’s position on the interplay of self within community. Your second paragraph, above, in particular is very helpful. Honestly it is knowing that this particular book has been so meaningful and important to YOU that has kept me attentively reading and re-reading Berger’s text. And I agree there is great value here. Forgive my need to be critical – part of my process of internalizing, I think.

          I’m just half way through the book, myself, so I believe many of my questions are still likely to be addressed.

          Posted by Paul Freedman | October 29, 2011, 7:36 am
        • Paul,

          Please continue to be critical. My experience with the book is also attached what I needed to learn at the time and what it opened up for me as a educator. The book Starting for Scratch by Steven Levy, and Jill Ostrow’s A Room with a Different View also helped to give a more holistic view for me of many of Berger’s ideas. I will try soon to pick it up and look through my notes and read again with a different perspective.


          Posted by dloitz | October 29, 2011, 12:56 pm
  2. Paul, you voice and your work comes through strong on this post.

    It is the work you are doing, with the character in which you poses, which many, if not all teachers should take a lesson from and with them into their everyday work.

    I appreciate you dear friend.


    Posted by caseykcaronna | October 28, 2011, 8:47 pm

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