©2002 NewFoundations

The Educational Theory of Theodore Sizer

Analyst: Bonnijean Fry



edited 8/18/11

1. Theory of Value: What knowledge and skills are worthwhile learning? What are the goals of education?

The extent of items worth knowing is infinite and is ordered differently by different people. A person interested in computer programming would want to know more about mathematics and logic than would a prospective home economist, whose interest would lean in the direction of biology and social science. How to select is a critical issue (A: p. 109).

Skills are learned by experience. They are best taught by coaching. In sum, these skills- reading, writing, speaking, listening, measuring, estimating, calculating, seeing-and the basic modes of imagining and of reasoning should be at the core of school work. They should pervade all subjects offered and be visibly and reviewably part of the school program (A: p.106).

The goal of education is to continue to conduct a vigorous exploration of alternative means of assessment (those that get beyond a "facts and algorithms" mentality) because they have begun to yield usable methods (G: p. 229).

2. Theory of Knowledge: What is knowledge? How is it different from belief? What is a mistake? What is a lie?

The world, which offers to the human mind several distinct views, is the world in which our power that comes through knowledge is to be used, the world, which we are to understand and enjoy. The relation between the subjective power and the objective- or subjective- knowledge is inseparable and vital (B: p. 269).

The belief is that how children are taught in schools, makes a difference to what they derive from their education (C: p. 447).

The only way to learn and think well is by practice. The way a teacher assists this learning is by coaching (A: p. 216).

Any effort to simplify the curriculum will be as threatening to teachers as will be the creation of general graduation exhibitions. We have been trained in our specializations, and we step outside them with trepidation (A: p. 217).

2 Reconstituting the shape of the curriculum- strengthening it by simplifying it and making it cogent to students-will be a lonely, politically rocky effort (A: p. 217).

3. Theory of Human Nature: What is a human being? How does it differ from other species? What are the limits of human potential?

Perhaps the most basic of all human biological givens is a strong disposition to act on the environment, rather than being passive. From the beginning, human infants examine and manipulate things around them. This tendency is characteristic of all mammals, but it is most pronounced in the higher primates. The satisfaction humans get from discovery has helped our species survive by encouraging exploration and invention (C: p. 46).

There are no limits to human potential except mortality.

4. Theory of Learning: What is learning? How are skills and knowledge acquired?

True education means students who exhibit the right "habits of mind" ask inquiring questions and utilize knowledge in thoughtful ways (D: p. 62).

One purpose for schools-education of the intellect - is obvious. The other-an education in character -is inescapable. No other institution in the culture is solely devoted to developing mental powers. The existence both of powerful means of psychological and political influence through the organized media and of an intellectually complex culture and economy amply justifies, and indeed compels, a focus on the effective use of one's mind. Furthermore, intellectual training is eminently "useful": it opens means to educate oneself in any sphere of interest or importance. Without it, one is crippled. With it, one can gain, on one's own, that comprehensive learning which so attracted our predecessors (A: p. 84-85).

The average school is "stuck with the notion that a curriculum is primarily a list" (D: p.62).

Schools that always insist on the right answer, with no concern as to how a student reaches it, smother the student's efforts to become an effective intuitive thinker (A: p. 105).

Skills are acquired by a demanding intellectual education (D: p. 62).

5. Theory of Transmission:Who is to teach? By what methods? What will the curriculum be?

Schools teach.

There are five imperatives for better schools:

1.Give room to teachers and students to work and learn in their own, appropriate ways.

2.Insist that students clearly exhibit mastery of their school work.

3.Get the incentives right, for students and for teachers.

4.Focus the student's work on the use of their minds.

5.Keep the structure simple and thus flexible (A: p. 214).
To encourage learning, schools should reorganize each day into longer blocks of time and increase team teaching (D: p. 62).

Inspiration, hunger: these are the qualities that drive good schools. The best we educational planners can do is to create the most likely conditions for them to flourish, and then get out of their way (A: p. 221).

6. Theory of Society: What is society? What institutions are involved in the educational process?

Society includes the community in which a child's immediate environments exist, as well as social institutions such as local and national governments, health-care systems, and religious organizations. It also includes social and economic conditions in the community and in the larger society, such as birth and marriage rates, average family size, crime rates, employment patterns, income levels, and inflation rates (C: p 58).

Government, on all three levels, national, sate and local is involved in education along with individual schools.

Measuring achievement should come from student presentation of "exhibitions" rather than standardized tests mandated by the national and state government. Parents should control what their kids learn through local level school boards. To impose nonlocal standards is a form of intellectual censorship, "a dangerous and potentially undemocratic road" (D: p. 62).

7. Theory of Opportunity Who is to be educated? Who is to be schooled?

Virtually all American parents want their children "schooled" - that is, to be given the tools and attitudes necessary to flourish into adulthood. Beyond the obvious matters of literacy, numeracy, and understandings of civics, thoughtful and decent people can disagree, especially about curriculum (F: p 1-2).

Democracy depends upon devoted and informed citizens; and the secure future of a decent America depends upon schools which prepare such citizens (G: p1).

For many of us it is a building into which children go for a portion of their time, say 190 days a year or "990 hours a year of delivered instruction" (as one state bluntly defines it). A school is a place where children are gathered under the force of the law to pursue the learning of what the community believes is important (F: p.2).

If what is "outside" of school rewards a child and gives access to that which is valued within the school, a symbiosis results. If the "outside" neglects what the place called school values, the child is at best confused in school- "How could this be important when I see so few people in my own neighborhood valuing it?"- and at worst a failure in the school's eyes. For whatever they are worth, test scores and truancy rates tell the story (F: p.3).

8. Theory of Consensus Why do people disagree? How is consensus achieved? Whose opinion takes precedence?

People disagree on the subject of change. They really don't feel the need for consequential change the way educators do. The majority of the people in the universities really don't understand what's going on or keep up with the fact that society's changing and that what kids need now is different from what they needed in 1981. The world shifts and good teachers are with the world as it shifts (E: p. 6).

Politics corrupt the system. And it's unworthy of our democratic tradition. It is a sad statement that we can spend hundreds of millions to put a corrupt Kuwaiti government back in place, but we can't find a few millions to invest in better schools. The evasion of responsibility is part of politics so we agree to disagree and move forward (E: p. 5).

The notion of "break the mold" schools, is simply the assertion that we can do better in this country in the way we think about learning, in the schools. What isn't consistent is the notion that some small group of people will figure out cheap tests that will measure learning (E: p.4).

It's a matter of political will (E: p.5).


(A)Sizer, Theodore,R., Horace's Compromise Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston, MA. 1985.

(B)Sizer, Theodore, R. Secondary Schools at the Turn of the Century Yale University Press. New Haven, CN. 1964.

(C)Sroufe, Alan,L. Cooper, Robert, G. DeHart, Ganie, B. Child Development- Its Nature and Course McGraw-Hill, Inc. New York,NY. 1996.

(D)Toch, Thomas. Daniel, Missy. "Schools That Work". U.S. News and World Report. October, 1996.

(E)Novak, Carole. Interview with Theodore R. Sizer. TECHNOS Quarterly.

(On-line). Available http://www.technos.net/journal/volume1/1sizer.htm 1992.

(F)Meier, Deborah. A Sense of Place. Boston Review. (On-line). Available http://bostonreview.mit.edu/BR24.6/sizer.html 1993-2000.

(G)Sizer, Theodore. News From Brown. The Brown University News Bureau.

(On-line). Available http://www.brown.edu/Administration/News_Bureau/1987-95/93-075f.html 1993.

(H) Perkins, David. Smart Schools. The Free Press. New York, NY. 1992.