Understanding Standardization as a School of Rock

Understanding Standardization as a School of Rock

The law library is quiet as I begin to sit down and think more critically about the movie School of Rock. I have seen the movie at least a handful of times. And, I always saw it as a movie of comedy and happy endings. After watching the movie and specific clips over again, I have been able to see that Dewey Finn (Jack Black’s character in the movie) challenges policies of standardization promoted in the schooling systems – and in this case a private school system. Similar to John Dewey, Dewey Finn can be seen as an “educational reformer” who contributes to social reform within the film School of Rock (John Dewey: American Pragmatist, 2011). There is a realization that social reform is shown through Black’s character’s spin on education, and the “standard” curriculum. Furthermore, there is evidence of how standardization through conformity takes place within the schooling system. This is seen both in conformity of those teaching and also being “schooled” at the educational institution (Metz, 1989).

The School of Rock is essentially based on a music obsessed loser, freshly kicked out of his unsuccessful and completely unknown band for his outrageous antics. Unwilling to give up his dreams of making a living in music, Dewey gets desperate and takes a job meant for his substitute teacher friend. Dewey/Jack is of course horribly unsuited to teaching. The only important thing he does on the first day of school is browbeat his class into giving him a sandwich. On day two he resigns himself to napping and just throwing the kids out the door for permanent recess. No, he isn’t won over by the beauty of teaching. Instead he discovers the musical talents of his class, chucks the lesson plan out the window, and starts forming them into his own personal metal band. It’s of high priority that no one, especially the kids’ parents, and the school’s principal Rosalie Mullins, finds out. If all goes according to plan, the band will perform in the local Battle of the Bands competition, and Dewey will have his chance in the spotlight again (White & Linklater, 2003). It is clear that Black’s character is creating a different “lived curriculum” for the students at Horace Green Prep School. He is showing them to think “outside of the box” – or in this case the standard “norm” of what they as students have always been brainwashed to abide to.

School of Rock Movie Synopsis

A dumpy, middle-aged man sits before a class at one of the most prestigious prep schools. The man, an aspiring rock star named Dewey Finn, is posing as a substitute teacher at Horace Green Elementary School. The school is considered the “best prep school in the state” (White & Linklater, 2003). Further, it is evident that the school strongly follows the standards and regulations set out by Horace Mann, an educational reformer of the 1800’s (PBS: Only a Teacher – Schoolhouse Pioneers, 2011). Mann argued that universal public education was the best way to turn the nation’s unruly children into disciplined, judicious republican citizens (PBS: Only a Teacher – Schoolhouse Pioneers, 2011). As shown within School of Rock – this is exactly what Horace Green Elementary sets out to do. The school as an institution allows and encourages students to conform to the norm of society – to abide by the standards and expectations set out for them by others around them.

One is truly able to see how standards and education play into affect at a private school during one particular scene of the film. One of the students at the school, Summer, challenges Dewey’s seemingly nonexistent pedagogy. After Dewey instructs the class to “Do whatever you want,” Summer sharply retorts, “I want to learn from my teacher.” After some additional dialogue between the two characters, Dewey responds to Summer’s challenge to his authority with the following monologue (White & Linklater, 2003).

What? You want me to teach you something? You want to learn something? All right, here’s a useful lesson for you. Give up! Just quit! Because in this life, you can’t win. Yeah, you can try, but in the end, you’re just going to lose, big time! Because the world is run by the Man. The Man. Oh, you don’t know the Man? Well, He’s everywhere. In the White House. Down the hall. Miss Mullins, she’s the Man. And the Man ruined the ozone, and He’s burning down the Amazon, and He kidnapped Shamu and put her in a chlorine tank, okay? (White & Linklater, 2003).

This scene is from Richard Linklater’s School of Rock. Dewey gives the children several lessons about “stickin’ it to the man”. However, through these lessons, Dewey manages to teach his students an important life lesson concerned with the importance of cultural capital in the production of knowledge (Apple & King, 1977). Set at a prestigious prep school, the film is fairly precise in its depiction of the way that the educational system transforms economic capital ($15,000 yearly tuition payments) into cultural capital (a liberal arts education) and back into economic capital (disciplined, productive members of society, who ultimately function within the established structures of corporate capitalism, and more importantly, do not question the goals or values of the system) (Apple & King, 1977). Of course, this system depends on the careful management of the educational curriculum to determine what constitutes officially sanctioned knowledge (Pinar & Bowers, 1992). By traversing the boundaries of the official school curriculum, Dewey’s class also receives a life lesson about the world outside this corporatized environment of academic achievements and social distinctions (Pinar & Bowers, 1992). The student’s exposure to Dewey and his value system enables his class to appreciate the value of rock and roll performance as a means of self-expression. Furthermore, the students begin to understand true pleasure in actually being educated in something, instead of “schooled” (Metz, 1989).

It has been said that Linklater has fashioned one of his most trenchant critiques of American youth culture; especially the role of the educational system in producing compliant social subjects who conform to the “norm” of society and continue the inequality amongst citizens (Metz, 1989). The film reminds us that the North American school system is perhaps the most hierarchical, ordered, and regulated institution in North American culture (Tomkins, 1981). Moreover, because of the vast gulf between public and private education systems, it is also one of the most salient and visible markers of class difference in today’s society (Tomkins, 1981).

In this essay, I wish to explore the social and political implications of Linklater’s “fish out of water” comedy by examining a few interrelated dimensions of School of Rock (White & Linklater, 2003): 1) the standardization of schooling and curriculum in today’s schools and Jack Black’s “spin on education” within the film; 2) the films use of popular music as a marker of differences (looking at the idea of conformity in education and “conforming to the norm”). In doing so, I intend to show that while School of Rock is hardly a “rock film” or a “kid-film” in the usual sense of those terms; it functions as a curriculum artifact. This can be shown in terms of how some teachers can go against the norm of standardization policies, which are continuously emphasized in both the private and public streams of North American education (Pinar & Bowers, 1992).

Provoking an Analysis: A New Spin on Education

The movie School of Rock takes a “spin on education”. The film shows how it is important to teach students not just the sciences, math, history, English, literature, art and current events, but as well as looking more inwardly and less outwardly. True to the nature of comedy, the film mocks, what in the education profession is held most reverent. This can be said to be our teaching philosophies, curricular approaches and pedagogical methods. Jack Black’s character’s teaching philosophy of “Stick it to the Man” challenges conformity. This philosophy is what he teaches his students – who are confused by his untraditional methods at first, but quickly come to embrace them (White & Linklater, 2003).

The turning point of the film is a scene where Dewey facilitates an impromptu lesson on writing a rock song in response to what he witnessed that morning on his way to class. One of the students, Zach, is being dropped off by his father, lecturing him aggressively about completing his homework, his bad attitude, and forbidding him to play rock music. In class with his head on his desk, Zach is clearly distressed by the altercation. In his lesson Black draws on students’ suggestions of what makes them mad as content for the song they write entitled “Ticked Off”. In particular he calls upon Zack to respond with what he would say if he were confronted by a bully (White & Linklater, 2003). Zach contributes the phrase “Step Off!”, and so the song goes:

I had to do my chores today, so now I’m really ticked off!

I didn’t get no allowance today, so now I’m really ticked off!

All you bullies get outta my way, cause I am really ticked off!

So Step off! Step off! Step off! Step Off! (White & Linklater, 2003).

The students all join in the song and by the end of the lesson they are sharing a laugh, feeling empowered by having expressed their frustrations and acted out, through their music, to standing up to a bully. Later at lunch in the school cafeteria Zack approaches Black at the teachers’ table to thank him openly for his “cool” lesson. The sense of fulfillment that Dewey gains from this triumph is evident (White & Linklater, 2003). It is after this successful lesson, which connects with the needs and realities of the students that the teaching/learning process soars.

Throughout the remainder of film we see Dewey, working through his rock-and-roll curriculum, becoming more and more the dedicated teacher. This is completed through developing relationships with students, making ethical choices about his teaching practice, and challenging students to think critically about the world (White & Linklater, 2003). At the end of the film, the class makes it to the battle-of-the-bands competition, where they play a song by the student Zach, entitled “School of Rock.” The following, two stanzas from Zach’s song, is a testament to the impact Black’s curriculum had on Zack’s insight into the process of his schooling:

Baby, we was makin’ straight A’s

But we were stuck in a dumb daze

Don’t take much to memorize your lies

I feel like I’ve been hypnotized.

Oh, you know I was on the Honor Roll

Got good grades, ain’t got no soul

Raise my hand before I can speak my mind

I’ve been biting my tongue too many times. (White & Linklater, 2003)

It is clear that through Black’s rock and roll curriculum, control of learning was put back into place to the students instead of the administration. Dewey allows the students to take risks and learn outside of the norm of “standardization” (Young & Levin, 2002). In today’s schooling systems students often wish only to adapt as quickly and proficiently as possible to fit in with the status quo of the school. Black’s character goes against the norm of the prep school and furthermore rejects marks from the outset destroying the regular teacher’s chart of gold stars and black demerit dots (Metz, 1989). By the end of the film, the student Summer, who had initially been a grade grubber, later comes up with an idea that ensures the band a place on the battle-of-the-bands program. Dewey suggests she deserves an A+ and 50 gold stars, but Summer insists that she did not do it for the grades (White & Linklater, 2003). Perhaps this is why the film had such appeal for me. I truly believe that standardized curriculum is not always the best approach. Students may be conforming in order to attain a grade and not actually taking any “value” from the learning experiences they are supposed to be engaged in.

Standardization through Conformity

On his first day as a substitute, Dewey shows up late, hungry, and dishevelled. About the only thing he teaches his class on that first day is the definition of “hangover,” and even this lesson is offered only as an explanation for why he is scrapping the regular instructor’s curriculum plan (White & Linklater, 2003). Since Dewey seems barely able to care for himself, he appears to be the last person to whom one would entrust their children.

School of Rock deviates from more conventional representations of teachers in one other important way. Whereas most “heroic teacher” films depict these individuals as forward-thinking and progressive, either in their pedagogy or their values, School of Rock presents Dewey as a figure behind the times (White & Linklater, 2003). This aspect of Dewey’s character becomes obvious early on when he questions his students about their own musical tastes. When they respond by citing contemporary pop avatars, like Christina Aguilera and Puff Daddy, Dewey dismisses their musical interest as being too pop-oriented, and thus, aesthetically worthless. Instead Dewey queries the class about their knowledge of seventies rock acts, like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and AC/DC (White & Linklater, 2003). These bands do not fit with the “norm” of the culture at Horace Green Elementary School. Both teachers and students seem to conform to what is “expected” of them and what is “valued” in what may call higher society (i.e. classical music as opposed to rock music) (Metz, 1989). It is clear that even though the students have conformed to what is expected of them – Dewey has not, and will not conform in order to “fit it”.

It seems that schooling has become a routine or ritual. Students and teachers cater to what they are “expected” to do and are not actually reflective in making sure what they teach and/or learn is something they can take away with them (Pinar & Bowers, 1992). Furthermore, due to standardization within the schooling system the current outcomes of schooling are beneficial for those who have access to more resources; conformity and societal stereotypes come through again to affect each individual (Young & Levin, 2002). As teachers in a formal schooling enterprise, are there implications for our future students? Will we place our stereotypes and drivers of technical rationality (i.e. standardization, control, importance for efficiency etc.) to the side and actually educate students – or just “school” them? Young and Levin (2002) suggest that in order for education to be successful, teachers need to determine a way to teach moral issues instead of imposing what we as a society are “supposed” to do to fit in properly and to be successful. Schooling needs to become less similar and more different (i.e. the “wholistic” approach to teaching). This is something that Black’s character in School of Rock is continuously showing the viewer as he does not fit in with the “norm” of a teacher in private school.

The School of Rock Curriculum

If Dewey is hardly a role model either as a rock musician or a caretaker of children should one conclude that his students learned nothing in doing their class project? If not, what exactly do the kids learn from their interaction with Dewey? It seems to me that, almost despite himself, Dewey manages to teach his students important life lessons. This idea adheres to the curriculum-as-planned and curriculum-as-live(d) (Aoki, 2005). The curriculum-as-planned is described by Aoki (2005) as the “conventionalized notion of curriculum,” referring to specific school subjects and mandated requirements to be taught by teachers to students (p.322). In relation to the film School of Rock, Aoki’s (2005) description of planned subject matter corresponds to the idea of standardized curriculum and conformity to norms in the private school. The students and teachers of the prep school are expected to adhere to the traditions and “rituals” that are expected of them in the school environment. For example, at Horace Green Elementary School, the students are unsure how to respond to Dewey’s teaching methods. They are unsure as to what they are supposed to be doing since they are not learning, are not following their regular schedule and are just having recess (White & Linklater, 2003).

Aoki (2005) speaks of “situational praxis” and how it relates to educational practice (p. 118). Aoki states that curriculum may be implemented in terms of a situational praxis. In the case of Dewey Finn – he learns that the students have the ability to play music and is therefore interested in that specific curriculum. Black’s character (i.e. the “implementer” of curriculum) has an interest in the transformation of the curriculum of music. However, he does have underlying assumptions and conditions (i.e. going to Battle of the Bands) in order for him to deliver the music curriculum, and thus make the transformation or learning in the classroom possible (Aoki, 2005). There is a realization that even though Dewey does not abide by the curriculum-as-planned, he does in fact implement a situational curriculum in order to teach the students music for an underlying possible benefit for himself – that being winning Battle of the Bands.

In contrast to curriculum-as-planned, Aoki (2005) suggests curriculum-as-live(d). This refers to the unplanned curriculum experienced by teachers and students “as they live through school life” (p.322). One of the students, Zach, begins to question the expectations that are set out for him (mainly by his parents). As mentioned, Zach has a run in with his father, and is told that he is not “supposed” to practice rock and roll as classical music is what “matters” (White & Linklater, 2003). Zach challenged the expectations through his live(d) actions, this is also with the help of Dewey. In the end, Zach continues to play rock and roll music. Aoki (2005) states that the space between the curriculum-as-planned and curriculum-as-live(d) can be “a site of both difficulty and ambiguity and also a site of generative possibilities and hope” (p.322). Therefore, Zach appears to be “living in the spaces of between” and troubling the differing ends of his planned and live(d) curriculum (Aoki, 2005, p.321). Through Black’s character’s teachings, many of the students, and specifically Zach, have the ability to live through their curriculum and become engaged in their learning. This also speaks to the fact that these students are now working towards a common goal and are no longer being “schooled”, but “educated” (Metz, 1989).

Conclusion

The great joy of the film School of Rock, for me, was in seeing how Dewey, despite his lack of any formal teacher education, made a connection with the students. Furthermore, by the end of the film he had everyone ecstatic at the educative experience. For instance, the students are thrilled at the opportunity provided them, Principal Mullins overcomes her fury to applaud their accomplishment, and the student’s parents express great pride in their children (White & Linklater, 2003). School of Rock is meant to be a story about a worn out rock and roller, who ends up taking a supply teaching position in order to make some extra money. There is a realization, that the film is much more than that. It shows how someone can learn and grow in a teaching-learning process (White & Linklater, 2003). Black’s character has the ability to teach beyond the “standards” and actually educate instead of “school” the students at the prep school (Metz, 1989).

I really was able to relate to Dewey in terms of the ethical practice that I feel while working with students. For example, when Tamika, one of the fifth-grade girls, confides that she is nervous about singing, afraid that people will laugh at her because she is fat, Dewey takes her aside to remind her of her abilities and even confesses his own insecurities with his weight to help boost her confidence (White & Linklater, 2003). This illustrates the extent to which Dewey has taken to heart the responsibilities of a teacher. My ethical ideal is caring, relational and respectful, with attention to detail, attention to difference and a genuine concern for issues of power (Pinar & Bowers, 1992). A participatory world-view would like to see all involved as equal participants in the teaching/learning process, yet power differentials, differing social locations, values and opinions exist that must be acknowledged and negotiated (Pinar & Bowers, 1992). This is true particularly between the teacher and students, and also amongst students.

In essence, education can and should be fun. This is a true message after watching School of Rock, and seeing how Black’s character takes the role of a teacher to a whole new level; taking a step back from standardization and conformity – and actually listening to the students needs/wants (White & Linklater, 2003). I would be most satisfied if students were to say of my teaching what Zach said of Black’s rock-and-roll curriculum in his battle-of-the-bands song:

Woo-Wee! He done spun my head around . . .

And now, baby, oh, I’m alive.

Ah Yea! I am alive. (White & Linklater, 2003).

References

Aoki, T. (2005). In William Pinar and Rita Irwin (Eds.), Curriculum in a New Key. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Apple, M. & King, N. (1977). What do Schools Teach? Journal of Curriculum Inquiry, 6 (4), pp. 341- 358.

John Dewey, American Pragmatist. (2011). John Dewey. Retrieved from http://dewey.pragmatism.org/

Metz, M. (1989). Real school: A universal drama amid disparate experience. Politics of Education Association Yearbook, 75-91.

PBS: Only A Teacher – Schoolhouse Pioneers. (2011). Horace Mann (1796-1859). Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/onlyateacher/horace.html

Pinar, W. & Bowers, C. A. (1992). Politics of Curriculum: Origins, Controversies, and Significance of Critical Perspectives. Review of Research in Education, 18, pp. 163-190.

Tomkins, G. (1981). Stability and Change in The Canadian Curriculum. In Donald Wilson’s (1981) Canadian Education in the 1980s, pp. 135-158. Alberta: Detselig Enterprises Limited.

Young, J., & Levin, B. (2002). Making Sense of Public Schooling. In Understanding Canadian Schools: An Introduction to Educational Administration, 3, 1-21. Scarborough: Nelson.

White, M. (Producer), & Linklater, R. (Director). (2003). School of rock [Motion picture]. Paramount Pictures: New York, NY.