William Glasser Weekend

Last Friday I perused the “Professional” section of the school library, looking for something refreshing as I approached the half-way point of the ’12-’13 school year. I settled on two titles authored by Willliam Glasser, the American psychiatrist and education reform advocate.

I’d heard of Glasser throughout my undergraduate studies but never deeply read him. His Choice Theory is covered briefly in my text on Building Classroom Discipline, along with some of his other ideas around raising the quality of instruction and making school relevant to students. I found that intriguing and decided that now was the time to try to see what this Glasser fella was all about.

First of all, these books were a bit of a disheartening read given their place in history. Schools Without Failure was published in 1975, The Quality School more recently in 1998, and yet the problems in education remain the same still to this day. The advantage I suppose is that the time I spent on this material was not wasted since it still applies to my teaching practice; there was no point at which Glasser posed a problem that I could say had been solved – except perhaps homogeneous grouping of students. If anything, new technology has exacerbated some of the issues raised, such as the unbalanced importance we place on memorization.


Schools Without Failure is a criticism of public school education in which Glasser names failure as the key problem in education; a problem that cannot be blamed on external factors such as poverty, but that can only be solved by changing the education system itself. Glasser describes how students whose needs for love and self-worth are not met by school form a “failure identity” that is evidenced by delinquency and/or withdrawal. I think this theory around success in school still holds, based on how I hear at-risk students talk about themselves. Glasser goes on to criticize the emphasis placed on remembering objective information, and on the lack of relevance to students’ lives present in schools. He names several traditional educational practices – grading, objective tests, the normal curve, closed book exams, and low-quality homework – as being harmful to students, and ends by suggesting changes to the educational system including the emphasis of thinking over memorization, heterogeneous classes, the elimination of grading or at least failing grades on transcripts, and the use of classroom meetings.


The Quality School is a vision for public school education based partly on Glasser’s work in psychiatry. In this work he lays out two systems of management; boss-management that depends on external motivators, and lead-management which works to leverage a worker’s internal motivation and is based on Control Theory – which has been re-named Choice Theory. Control Theory is the idea that each person controls their own behavior, and only their own behavior, for the purpose of fulfilling needs. Glasser suggests that what is needed in education is a shift from boss-management of students to a system of lead-management; an educational system that addresses the needs and interests of students. One way to leverage students’ internal motivation that Glasser deems particularly important is requiring students to produce quality work.

I have to say that I agree with Dr. Glasser’s views on almost every point he raises. I do worry about the demonization of memorization, because there are some things that are useful to memorize. I think of some teachers’ misinterpretation of the whole language reading philosophy, who have eliminated instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics and over-emphasized text-to-self connections. Phonics rules and basic math facts and procedures are essentials that need to be internalized. It’s just that as teachers we need to carefully select what we require students to memorize so that memorization doesn’t become an end in itself, instead of the means to do higher quality work.

In The Quality School, Glasser describes the notion that each of us has a “Quality World”; an internal sense of what we believe the world should be like. For too many students, school is not a part of their quality world. Bringing education into students’ worlds, instead of allowing them to develop the sense that school is divorced from their lives, might be the most important challenge that we face as educators. Each of these books has challenged my thinking on the relevance of value of school. I’ve come to realize how different my experience and values are compared to some of my students, and how much the success of my work depends on occasionally setting aside my own middle-class values and framing school work through my students’.

All of this educational theory and philosophy is great, but my superintendent is a hardcore pragmatist so I have to think about how this effects my daily teaching practice, and how I can make changes that will increase the learning of my students and ultimately lead to visible results. I’ve settled on focusing on two strong pushes. First, I’m going to continue to move towards project-based learning and authentic assessments but re-emphasize quality work. Because I support students in their general education classes, I will also engage students in evaluating their own work and not settling for work that is low quality. I think a valid criticism of my support of students in the past is that the goal has been to simply get the work done. The second change I will make is to explicitly discuss the value of school work with students. What I’m looking for to be able to do this effectively is a model to understand why students should value school work in the first place. I’ve done a little bit of thinking in this area on my own, but I’m not sure if I’m missing anything. I know this will effect my planning because I will constantly be evaluating the value of each assignment I give or the information I present. I feel that teaching through this lens will help students be motivated, and I hope apply the same thinking to their other classes.

My William Glasser Weekend has been a mixed bag emotionally. I have gotten the mid-term boost I was looking for, but I’m also more aware of how dissatisfying school can be.

I’m also thinking of making the study of the work of people like Glasser a weekly activity. This week: Bob Marzano.

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