Smuggling Authentic Learning Into the School Context: Transitioning From an Innovative Elementary to a Conventional High School

From Section:
Theories & Approaches
Apr. 20, 2009

Source: Teachers College Record, Volume 111 Number 4, 2009, p. 934-972


“Conventional schooling” was described by Varenne and McDermott. This term is characterized by underlying values of competition and credentialism implicit in an unconscious, cultural framework for U.S. institutional schooling. Schools that define themselves in opposition to this cultural heritage consider themselves innovative schools and tend to explicitly reject conventional practice in favor of a collaborative “free-choice learning environment.”

Focus of Study: The authors analyze the institution of conventional U.S. schooling through the interpretive lens of students who were experiencing it for the first time in their first year of high school. They examined how students who had attended an innovative collaborative elementary school interpreted their former innovative and current conventional schools. The authors also examined how these students used these interpretations to form coping strategies for success in the new environment.

Setting: The study was based at the Newark Center for Creative Learning (NCCL). Founded in 1971, the school terminates after the eighth grade.


The authors followed a cohort of 13 ninth-grade NCCL “graduates” through their first year of conventional high school. They also solicited views from their parents and former (NCCL) teachers.

Research Design: The authors employed a qualitative case study approach designed in collaboration with teachers.

Data Collection and Analysis: The authors conducted four focus-group interviews with NCCL alumni and analyzed their postings to a private asynchronous Web discussion set up exclusively for them to discuss their experiences. They also surveyed their parents, invited parents, staff, and students to a videotaped discussion of our emerging results, and invited personal e-mail feedback on our emerging interpretations.

Findings: The students in the study were generally academically successful in their new high schools yet clearly expressed a distinction between what they considered authentic learning and what they considered strategies for academic success in their new conventional schooling environments. Analysis of their discourse revealed distinct response patterns characterizing concurrent (sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory) projects of self-actualization and institutional achievement.


The analysis suggests that a certain critical ambivalence toward credentialism and competition can be part of a healthy strategy for school success. It also suggests that efforts to improve minority school performance should be modified to take into account the effect of the institution of conventional schooling itself. This aspect has, to date, been underanalyzed.

Updated: Jan. 17, 2017
Collaborative learning | Conventional instruction | Educational environment | Elementary schools | Experimental schools | High schools