Roland Barth

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Teacher, author, principal, founder of The Principals’ Center at Harvard Graduate School of Education, retired

interview date


“Therein lies sanity and insolence for a teacher.”


When I described the concept of this project to Roland, he said, “Sounds like you’re stirring up some good trouble. I’m always glad to be part of that.”

He talks here about what kept him engaged in his work for the long haul.


My parents were both Unitarian ministers. I’m sure this affected me deeply in ways that I’m not even aware. But there was sense of commitment to the well-being of other people that you get from growing up in that kind of environment. My father used to refer to my work as a teacher as ‘secular ministry.’  Interesting concept. You are ministering to that classroom or community.


I worked for a few years as assistant to Ted Sizer at Harvard School of Education, and one of my jobs was interviewing applicants for the M.A.T. I used to ask them, What drew you to education? And most of their responses fell into two categories. One group said that my own education was so rich, so stimulating, so rewarding that I want others’ schooling to be just as good. And the other group said, My schooling was so lousy, so abusive, so punitive, so deadly I want to be sure nobody else has to have it that way. In my case, it was the latter. My own schooling I found very thwarting and constraining. It didn’t work for me. Right from the start, and right through grad school. The poor quality of a lot of education that we provide is one of the great recruiters of talent in this field. In a peculiar way.

 What has kept you engaged in a lifetime of this work? 

For me there’s been a single, abiding question. One of my heroes is E B White, and he said, “We are but a pea vine in search of a trellis.” For me the trellis that has occupied my work and time and energy, and still does, is one question: What are the conditions under which human beings best learn? I knew from my own schooling a lot of the conditions under which I didn’t learn and a lot of others weren’t learning, either. Even the ones getting A’s and B’s were complying, but they weren’t learning a heck of a lot. If sitting in rows and filling out workbooks and worksheets and taking tests doesn’t do it, what does?

I guess my career has been constant search and constant evolution around that question. What are the conditions that will put people’s learning curves right off the charts? Little kids, big kids, teachers, principals, parents. My own learning curve. I’d say I had a kind of intuitive sense of what those were, and now, 70 years later, I think I have a better sense of what those conditions are for most people. I could share half a dozen of them with you and say a word about them, because they have really been the trellis my pea vine has been trying to wrap around.

First: novelty. The unexpected. Unfortunately, schooling is one of the most highly routinized professions on the face of the earth. It’s ten o’clock; time for history.  Kids get routinized; teachers get routinized, and we come to expect tomorrow what we had today. To me that’s a deadening condition.

Students pose their own questions.  Most of what goes on in schools and universities is problem solving. But someone else is posing the problem. What are the capitals of the states? What are the causes of the civil war? For me, as an educator, I ask, how can we turn this around so students pose their own questions?

The ready availability of resources. A kid who wants to know how many batteries it will take to light a bulb is going to need more than one battery.

Risk takingI find schools to be among the most catatonically cautious places on earth. We’re all playing not-to-lose and there’s not a lot of learning in playingnot-to-lose. Risk-taking is always going to be a huge asset to learning. I don’t think we understand that in our schools.

Working with a group. Learning is a social activity for most people. You learn in interaction with other people. Posing questions with others, being a resource with others, getting surprise ideas and novelty, with others. And yet, I think eighty percent of kids’ life in school is going it alone.

Learning outside the classroom. When I first started teaching, every classroom had two doors. One into the hallway. And the other outside. The outside was always an extension of the inside, an outside classroom. You could go and raise vegetables, or categorize leaves, birds, or run around and play games. Most of what happens in a school day happens in an eighty by forty foot classroom. Hell, they’re in a box studying the environment!

Opportunities and the expectation that we will reflect on our learning. Learning from experience is not inevitable. We all know teachers who have had many experiences over the years and not learned a thing from them. One of the major contributions of the Principal Center is being a sanctuary away from the school and system where people can stand back and make some meaning of it all, reflect on it. That popped into my head just now because of your asking me about my career and life and what got me interested in all this. I’m reflecting, now, and learning through the invitation to reflect.

So those are among the conditions that I find are associated with profound learning. Three years ago I celebrated by seventieth birthday. I decided to do it by fulfilling a lifetime dream. I had sailed the waters of New England for about fifty years and down here in Florida for about twenty. But I had never been in the water in between. I’ve got a little seventeen-foot sail boat, a Cape Cod catboat, and decided I was going to sail from Key Largo up to Cape Cod. You can find all those conditions in my voyage; they were all there in spades. Novelty, posing my own questions, risks, working with others (at least half the time I had others on board with me). The writing of the book was a great opportunity to reflect on it. That sums it up. That was probably one of the most powerful learning experiences of my life. Certainly more so than getting a doctorate at Harvard.

What’s the difference?

One is academic and the other is not. I find every one of those conditions in very short supply in schools whose purpose purportedly is to promote profound levels learning.

 As a really lousy student myself, I would have loved to have been schooled  under those conditions. How does it impact you that we’re not any farther along than we are with this, today?

Initially, it impacted me by making me say, Hell, I’m getting into this game, and I’m going to change it. As a fifth grade teacher, I worked hard and, by and large, I provided those conditions. I had thirty kids, and I was going to make damn sure their learning curves went off the charts. When I became a principal, I tried to provide those conditions not only for kids, but teachers and parents in those schools. I ran into all kinds of resistance and impediments from all sorts of quarters, including students and parents who didn’t think this is what school is.

 How did you handle that resistance?

I’ve always contented myself with increments of improvement. As a teacher, I could have a kid in my class who didn’t give a damn about school or learning, and I could get very depressed. But if I see him all of a sudden sitting up more than slouching down, I note that. That’s an increment of improvement. It’s not much, but I’ll take it. We have to be on the look out for increments of improvement. Not focus on the larger, darker picture.


You were twenty-two when you started. What would you tell a teacher in his mid-twenties today?

I think you’re swimming against more currents. There were plenty then, but more now. I’d say the important thing is figure out what your trellis is. If you don’t know where you stand and what’s true north for you, what’s most important to you, you’re just going to get pushed all around. You’re going to become just a cog in somebody else’s gear. If you really want to be an educator, it seems to me you figure out what’s most compelling about being an educator and you be that. You can withstand a lot of those impediments that are being placed in front of you.

This is one way: You keep two sets of books. You do enough of what they expect you to do and do it well enough; comply enough so that they’ll cut you some slack. And another set of books where you are doing what you believe. You keep cognizant that these are two sets of books.

Therein lies sanity and insolence for a teacher, and some sense of integrity that you haven’t totally sold out. But if you’re only keeping their set of books, I’d advise you not to stay in the profession.

How would you describe this particular moment in education?

I’d say, crisis-dash-opportunity. We hear that the Chinese ideograph is the same for crisis and opportunity. I’d say more of the same is not working: the same way of packaging learning, the same way of educating inner city kids, the same way training teachers and principals. It’s not working, so there’s a scramble and wonderful opportunities around the question of what are we going to replace it with? There are a lot of different views on that.

What’s at stake?

The learning of young people and their educators. Which is a lot. The future of learning. You can talk about keeping the U.S. first and staying ahead, economically. But I think that’s by and large a lot of bull. To me what’s important is that people are developing independence training so that they can learn without being force fed.  A big hopeful development is technology. School is no longer the only game in town. Nor are universities. I can go on the web and learn sowing instantly if I pose a question I want to know something about. I don’t need a teacher, a school, a professor or a library. I think kids are already keeping their own two sets of books. There are hoops they have to jump through at school and when they get home they can turn the computer on and, man, the whole universe is available to me!

I find this very heartening. You’d like the schools to be in sync with this rather than just tolerate it, but at the very least, with this computer revolution is going to come a lot of self-sufficient learners. I think that’s terrific. I just bought an iPhone. I am illiterate on computers, but one of my objectives for this winter is to be semi-literate. And I’m about seventy years behind these kids. But I am there enough to be able to see that this is a life-changer.

 Think we’ll get where we need to go?

Oh, I see big steps already.  I’m on the board for a group called Expeditionary Learning which has 150-200 schools around the country that are part of Outward Bound. There’s one in Portland, Maine. [U.S. Secretary of Education] Arne [Duncan] was there last month saying this is what we want for all our kids. Their evaluation there is strictly portfolio assessments, exhibitions, critiques. And here’s Arne Duncan who’s racing to the top saying this is what we want. Scores and attendance are up. And they don’t do tests! I think educators are educable. The opportunity now is that we know what doesn’t work, and when you find things that do work everyone is going to jump there.


At the end of our conversation, Roland said, “Now, let’s reflect on this. Let me ask you some questions. What did you expect or hope our hour would yield? And what do you feel it has yielded? Did you find in our conversation, room for optimism, hope, discouragement? I’m asking myself this question now, too. How am I feeling about this education profession, right now?”

 How are you feeling about it, now?

I felt, as I was talking with you, a surprising amount of optimism and hope because I didn’t realize I was feeling that optimistic and hopeful. I think that I’m not as discouraged as I thought I was. Also, I have, in the last year, in many ways, detached from this profession. There are little symptoms. I just canceled my subscription to Education Week, which I’ve been reading for fifty years. I’ve turned down opportunities to do consulting in a number of places, and just told people that I’ve retired. I still get Phi Delta Kappan, but I skim it in half an hour instead of four hours. All of this says to me that this is not where my heart and soul resides. On the one hand I am optimistic about this field; on the other hand, I feel like it’s your field, now, not mine. I feel I’ve kind of moved on. And that, perhaps, insulates me from a lot of the discouragement.

 Deb Meier wrote that she’d like to come back a hundred years from now and see what people have made of their work. Do you have that curiosity?

I don’t think hundred years or even five years from now anybody is going to know who Roland Barth is or was or did. I love Debbie, and she’s had a big impact on a lot of schools and a lot of people. Maybe a hundred years from now she’ll be alive and well, but I’m already history.

Roland Barth is probably the only person who thinks that.

Well, I don’t take myself too seriously, and that’s one way to survive.