What is the Moral Economy of your Classroom?

When we teach, the overall structure and function of our classrooms and schools are often the product of a series of decisions taken in isolation from one another. Though issues ranging from how to address exceptionalities, how to provide intervention for students, how we will assess, evaluate, and report, what classroom material will be delivered and how it will be delivered, how class time and homework will be implemented, what kinds of activities and assignments we will have students complete, how we will include (or not) student voice and student interests, how we will manage challenging or anti-social behaviour, the layout of our school and classrooms, and so on can all impact one another, the multiple layers of authority and responsibility within school systems means that these choices are often made discretely from one another based on an ad hoc response to a new Ministry or Board priority, an emerging issue or area of concern within the school, or even in response to a particularly challenging student. Even within individual teacher’s classrooms, choices about behaviour management, differentiation, and assessment and evaluation may be chosen without careful consideration of how they impact one another, leading to a system that may be based on little more than a series of separate decisions by the teacher running the class.

We need to get past this way of thinking about teaching and learning as a set of discrete strategies. Instead, we need a holistic account of how the strategies we choose function in relation to one another. Instead of asking what kind of structure we erect, we need to ask what kind of learning system we are producing and what kinds of students it in turn produces. But how can we possibly put all of this together? 

A start is thinking about school as systems of exchanges between stakeholders. This gets us away from thinking of strategies and approaches as abstracted ideals and instead asks us to consider what rights, responsibilities, and outcomes are produced by these strategies and approaches. For instance, maybe in our classroom students exchange effort and engagement for praise and acknowledgment. Perhaps in a different class, students and teachers abide by a social contract and actively engage each other in reinforcing the boundaries of acceptable classroom conduct. In some classes, tasks are completed with the corresponding expectation of grades and useful feedback, in others it might be more routed in a shared culture of exploration and discovery where grades fade into the background. What is needed is a framework to help us critically reflect on these diverse classroom cultures that helps us progress from choosing strategies for supposedly discrete functions of our teaching practise, and towards thinking about what kind of moral economy our classroom and school entails.

In using the concept of moral economy, I am borrowing from a complex and diverse literature. Scholarship like that of Gotz, Arnold, Kohli, and Swenson who see “moral economy” as a concept that highlights the underlying values, rights and responsibilities inherent in any system of flow, circulation, and exchange, perfectly capture the dynamic and value-rich world of teaching and learning. In this sense, it bears some passing resemblance to the work in education around the hidden curriculum and character education, though it is more robust by highlighting that what would be considered the hidden curriculum, or the focus on building character is only one facet of the moral economy of learning in any school or classroom. It also gives us a way to operationalize some of the ongoing interest in shifting “school culture” by drawing our attention towards the need for a coherent and mutually reinforcing structure to effect this shift in culture. Using moral economy to conceptually understand our classrooms and schools draws our attention to the ways in which explicit decisions about how to deliver a lesson to students will intersect in dynamic ways with not only our approach to assessment and evaluation, but also the bell system in the school and the arrangement of desks in our classroom. Many teachers are intuitively aware of these connections, but are rarely encouraged to deliberately and explicitly account for their coherence with one another or their collective effect on student learning. The underlying assumption here is that the sum of these systems is much more than their constituent parts and helps explain why some initiatives succeed in some schools or with some students, while they fail with others.

To illustrate this, lets consider the International Baccalaureate diploma program. This program is generally lauded for its reliance on evidence-based approaches to teaching and learning and its high standards. Undoubtedly, for those whoare familiar with it, there is much to admire. Indeed, the curriculum documents or “subject guides” are brimming with a greatest hits list of effective approaches to education. Yet the approaches to teaching and learning, which stress teacher-supported inquiry and rich authentic tasks contradict their approach to assessment and evaluation which reduces two years of study to a series of high-stakes standardized tests worth 75%-80% of the final grade, something even the most traditional university professor would blanche at. Thus, while teachers are encouraged to employ diverse methods to assess their students’ achievement in one breath, they are implicitly offered a more direct option of teaching to the test in the next. The risk is that “rich authentic tasks” become a series of barely disguised variations on the IB final evaluations. Furthermore, as IB tries to produce a somewhat normal distribution across years by tweaking the boundaries between achievement levels and revising the standardized exams, any claims about a focus on learner growth or individuated education implied by the references to differentiation in the approaches to teaching and learning is at least partially undermined. The result is that the assessment and evaluation policy fundamentally conflicts with the approaches to teaching and learning, running the risk of turning them into little more than window dressing for another one-size-fits-all approach to education. Consider also that the “core” of the IB diploma program, Theory of Knowledge, the Extended Essay, and the Creativity, Action, Service (CAS) components are almost irrelevant in whether a student is awarded an IB diploma, or not. And here we are only scratching the surface of the program. What about everything else that goes into creating the moral economy of a classroom and school? It may lead us to ask who this program is even for or what it does. Is it in fact a rigorous program for all, or a particularly egregious example of the education systems transmutation of socio-economic privilege into merit? Probably neither, but the point is that it becomes very hard to tell exactly what the program is aiming for, aside from hitting enough of the right notes to sound like its vision for education is in line with evolving thinking on teaching and learning.

At the very least, using moral economy as a framework should make us suspicious of this “greatest hits of educational research” approach to designing educational programs championed by those influenced by John Hattie’s data-driven work. Though measuring effect size may tell us a great deal about what works, simply moving down the list of strategies doesn’t tell us how these strategies do or don’t function together. Hattie is aware of this, but much of the nuance of the original has been lost in the many iterative translations down the line. At worst, the greatest hits approach on its own leaves parents, students, teachers and administrators navigating mixed messages about what education is for, what it is about, and what is valued with little regard for context, local or otherwise. 

Rather, what is needed is a careful consideration of the various aspects of an educational moral economy in order to create a coherent set of approaches that are mutually supportive and reinforcing. If delivering an individually relevant and authentic learning experience is key,  then testing, quizzes, and exams should have minimal emphasis placed on them as assessments of learning. It also suggests that consistency across course sections needs to move away from a fixation on content and evaluations, and instead focus on a shared vision of a moral economy for the course between teachers. This is both more flexible than the current status quo in many schools with respect to the delivery of the curriculum and approaches to evaluation, and more restructive in terms of establishing a more robust shared vision of what learning should look like. At a whole school level, it means that a focus on exit outcomes, or improved achievement on standardized tests needs to be aligned with teachers’ classroom practice and that an “all of the above” set of goals is unlikely to produce success for teachers or students. Educators need to choose not just what works, but what works together.

What comprises the moral economy of education? The list is long, but some main aspects are the following:

  • A&E practices and feedback system
  • The process for determining success criteria and setting rubrics
  • Behaviour management (eg. late assignments, disruptive or inattentive behaviour), rules and expectations
  • Rights and responsibilities of classroom stakeholders
  • The use of class time
  • Relationship between teacher-student
  • Control over content and its mode and timing of access
  • (De)emphasis on reported grades
  • (In)validation of students culture and practices
  • Students’ attitude and goals in relation to education
  • Physical organization of classroom space and its digital extensions (or lack thereof)
  • Structure of the school year and day (semestered vs. non-semestered, 45 or 75 minute periods, etc.)
  • The official curriculum documents

With a list this long, the possible moral economies are legion and a full discussion of this topic could take up a whole book. Nevertheless, we can taxonomically group moral economies into four regions on a cartesian plane by considering two axes that are central to every educational moral economy. The first dimension is the authoritarian-reciprocal dimension which categorizes moral economies based on whether they are top down and hierarchical or based on shared authority and reciprocal exchange between stakeholders. The second is the individuated-homogenous dimension which looks at whether the moral economy aims at standardizing the experience and outcomes of students or offers a diverse experience based on individual needs and goals. This yields four possible general configurations outlined in figure 1 below along with a brief bulleted description of each quadrant:

Figure 1 – The Four Moral Economies of Teaching and Learning

Standardizing Hierarchy 

  • Learning is defined as meeting or exceeding teacher/board/ministry standards. Learning is a transaction.
  • Students are exchanging effort and engagement for grades.
  • Students are all given the same material and same information determined by the teacher. 
  • They are asked to show their competence of certain skills and products in a manner wholly or mostly defined by the teacher. 
  • Homework is assigned, checked, and “marked” regularly. All classroom work is counted and grades are an aggregate of results.
  • Feedback helps sort students along a continuum of achievement based on distance from teacher-determined success criteria.
  • Behaviour is regulated through a system of clear and universal classroom rules upheld through positive and negative reinforcement. 
  • Managing exceptionalities is done through aggregation of accommodations and applying those to all members of the class. 
  • Reported marks are highly valued for their precision and ranking of students against average and median achievement. 
  • Students’ existing interests, knowledge, and experience are de-emphasized or treated as “a way in” to classtoom content in order to better standardize learning outcomes.
  • Feedback is used primarily to justify the placement of the student within the hierarchy and demonstrate the fairness of the grade.
  • Seats are in rows.
  • The classroom is decorated with posters and resources providing authoritative information on topics of study.

Self-Improving Idealism

  • Learning is defined by meeting or exceeding your past performance. Learning is focused on mastery.
  • Students are exchanging effort and engagement for personal academic growth.
  • Each student is given the same content determined by the teacher but separate work tailored to skill level.
  • Students are measured in terms of personal growth and against established categories of achievement.
  • Homework is used for students to assess their own competence and understanding. It isn’t checked and marked, but taken-up.
  • Focus on building individual competence and growth through the achievement continuum.
  • Revision is encouraged to a small set of teacher-defined tasks with mastery as the ultimate aim.
  • Positive reinforcement is used to gradually improve behaviour towards teacher-established models of the good student. 
  • Rules are modelled by teacher and through explicit examples. They are enforced with appeals to growth towards dominant social standards that are expected in the world beyond the school.
  • Exceptionalities are addressed by assigning roles and activities to students that play to their strengths and through strategic pairing. 
  • Reported levels of achievement are highly valued for assessing students against ideal performance, but overly precise measurements are seen as less desirable. 
  • Students are encouraged to use existing interests, knowledge, and experience as a jumping off point for learning teacher-defined content. 
  • Feedback focuses on strengths, areas of need, and next steps.
  • Seating is in pairs.
  • The classroom is filled with exemplary student work from multiple years.

Performative Collaboration 

  • Learning is defined as collective growth towards achievement standards. Learning is about belonging.
  • Students are exchanging effort and engagement for membership in a dedicated learning community.
  • Teacher sets parameters for success based on established criteria and provides similar content and work to all students. 
  • Lets the student determine how to meet these criteria and “demonstrate their learning” and provides some standardized assessments for diagnostic and formative purposes. Teacher controls success criteria, student controls form and style.
  • Students asked to perform in accordance with success criteria in a way that makes sense for them. 
  • Homework is often aimed at deepening knowledge and sharing knowledge with whole class (i.e. jigsaw).
  • Feedback helps sort students along a continuum of achievement based on distance from co-constructed success criteria for pre-defined assessments. 
  • Behavioural expectations are based on a set of student expectations of teacher and teacher expectations of student that both must live up to 
  • Lapses in expectations lead to reminders about the social contract of the classroom.
  • Exceptionalities are addressed by discussing strategies with students for mitigating learning challenges and encouraging self-advocacy. 
  • Standardized self-assessment forms and systems help inform a teacher’s final decision as part of the assessment process and evaluation process based on a series of discreet single performances over time. 
  • Students are encouraged to use existing interests, knowledge, and experience in dialectic with course content and material to revise and refine their own ideas. Thus, exit tickets and other metacognitive activities are a consistent feature of the classroom.
  • Feedback focused on suggestions for improving the product to better meet the established success criteria.
  • Seating is organized in pods.
  • The classroom is gradually filled with student work selected by the teacher.

Self-Directed Exploration 

  • Learning is defined as individual capacity building. Learning is a journey.
  • Students exchange effort and engagement for personal academic fulfillment.
  • Students set parameters and criteria for success in cooperation with teachers. 
  • Work and content varies depending on student needs and interests. 
  • Self-assessment and dialogue with teacher form the basis of feedback and evaluation which is focused on personal growth. 
  • Students are given control over how they use class time with teachers providing suggested guidance. 
  • Lapses in behaviour are dealt with through a check in on social, emotional, and psychological well-being. 
  • Exceptionalities are addressed by working with student to tailor content delivery and tasks to fit their self-identified needs. 
  • Multiple revisions and resubmission of work based on continuous assessment paradigm. Work is not evaluated until the end of the course. Feedback focuses on how well work meets students own success criteria established in dialogue with teacher.
  • Students are encouraged to use existing interests, knowledge, and experience to teach other members of the class (teacher included) about new material or new ways of looking at a topic. 
  • Marks and standardized reporting are de-emphasized. In its place, the personal meaning and utility of the learning for the students goals are stressed.
  • Seating is adaptive and includes many options for collaborative and individual work.
  • The classroom is gradually filed with student-selected work.

Taking our IB diploma example from above, the reason we run into problems is that the assessment and evaluation approach is very strongly situated in the standardizing hierarchy quadrant, while the approaches to teaching and learning describe a form of performative collaboration. When parts of the learning experience exist in two separate moral economies, students, teachers, and parents are incentivized to choose an emphasis to avoid contradictions. As the assessment and evaluation policy offers a clearer and less ambiguous moral economy that is actually “counted”, it is unsurprising that it usually wins out as the basis of interaction and exchange that characterizes learning in the IB program. This kind of trade-off is common-place in learning and the use of moral economy as an organizing concept draws our attention to them. As educators we should be keenly aware of which trade-offs are happening as a result of our educational approach and whether they support student learning as we understand it. Moral economy as a framework offers us a way as educators and leaders to think carefully about how to avoid mixed messaging and undermining our primary goals by incorporating too many conflicting approaches into a single classroom, school, or curriculum. Claims about how we acquire knowledge should be consistent with how that acquisition is assessed and evaluated and reflected in the dynamics of power and authority shared between teacher and student. Student and parent complaints about fairness, are principally claims against the violation of an established moral economy, or confusion about the contradictory implementation or switching between multiple moral economies. Moreover, such inconsistencies make school based education feel like a game that students need to find their way through, raising questions about how incoherence in moral economies generate problems like academic integrity issues and generalized student disengagement with school. It is important to stress here that it is coherence that matters more than which moral economy is predominant. Each have strengths and weaknesses. Each system will work better for some learners than it will for others. It is also not necessary to stick to one of the four “ideal types” I’ve described for the classroom to be coherent. However, wherever a classroom or school sits on the plain should be aligned and make sense with the core educational goal. If you are genuinely invested in mastery, a moral economy that leans hard into standardizing hierearchy is likely to produce nothing but confusion and frustration for everyone involved.

All of this, of course, is highly preliminary and speculative. The above also doesn’t talk a lot about the school level, nor does it insert parents into this mix. It paints with broad strokes to put forward a potentially useful framework for thinking about how we organize learning broadly that hopefully helps us to diagnose possible sources of conflict and confusion before the problems arise, or helps us to explain the source of persistent problems that seem intractable. Education systems have many moving parts and unless we are thinking about both the parts and how they fit and spin together, we are unlikely to optimize the experience of our learners or their engagement in schooling. Given the precipitous decline in student views of schooling over time from JK to grade 12, I think it is high time we started thinking about the big picture, not just the little bits and pieces.

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