This is the third a in series of six posts that we’ll feature in the coming months commemorating the 25th anniversary of Stenhouse Publishers.
What Stenhouse Stands For
The headwinds that came in the early 2000s affected everyone in the education marketplace. The federal No Child Left Behind, which went into effect in 2002, made test preparation an urgent focus for school districts, defining curricula and consuming teachers’ time and energy. A recession, meanwhile, meant belt-tightening for schools that bit into their professional development spending. And the market for thoughtful books about teaching for teachers, all but untested waters when Stratton and Seavey began working together, had both grown and matured. Stenhouse now had plenty of competitors.
Yet on the strength of its quality publishing and reputation as a curator of ideas in education, Stenhouse continued to do well. Highlights CEO made that clear in a report to the board of directors: “The real star of this show is Stenhouse. Their results continue to astound me.”
Most publishers do not have a coherent and consistent point of view. They put out what the market demands, hitching their wagons to trends that promise to yield mass sales. This isn’t what Stenhouse does. Stenhouse has not and will not put out books of student worksheets or teacher lesson plans stripped of the ideas that inform them. The company has built its brand on a reputation for publishing deeper books about teaching, books educators will continue to value over time and that apply across curricular trends.
Educators—who are both the creators and the consumers of Stenhouse products—also recognize that Stenhouse stands for something. In 2010 the National Council of Teachers of English honored Philippa Stratton as Outstanding Educator in the English Language Arts, the only non-educator ever to receive the award. And more than one educator has told Stratton that the Stenhouse name on a product is tantamount to a kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval.
So what is the Stenhouse point of view? After a quarter century in operation, the philosophy inheres in just about everything Stenhouse does. And its essence can be spelled out.
Learning is by its nature active. Learners, whether children or adults, are not mere bins into which educators dump whatever material they choose. To learn anything at all, the learner’s mind has to, if you will, pick it up. So children learn best when their minds are active, when they are encouraged to inquire, explore, discuss, arrive at their own discoveries, and build their own meaning. In its books, videos, and other products, Stenhouse strives to present examples that are both creative and pragmatic.
Learning is both individual and social. When a teacher engages each learner (by letting kids choose a topic to write on, for example) learning accelerates. But learning is also fundamentally an act of collaboration between and among people. Stenhouse publishes books that recognize the diversity of experiences in the classroom and that convey a sense of the lively, real-time, real-world drama that unfolds there every day.
Learning, though hardly automatic, is natural. Children learn best when the teaching environment respects and harnesses important innate impulses—the urge to communicate, for example, or to understand the world of their everyday lives. Kids have number sense—an understanding of the concepts of more and less—before they begin to work with digits on a page. They know how to handle a book and turn its pages from left to right before they can read a word.
Teaching is a human process, not a mechanical one. If kids aren’t bins into which curriculum can be dumped, neither are teacher conveyor belts or winches whose function is simply to transfer a standard package of goods from educators to students. The teacher, the most influential person in the classroom, is a professional and an individual. So a “teacher-proof” curriculum is dead on arrival. “You can’t account for the spontaneous interaction that wonderful teachers have with kids, the adjustments they make in the moment,” says Dan Tobin, Publisher of Stenhouse. “A good teacher seizes the opportunity.”
Teaching involves continual learning. Experienced teachers “go to school” in their own classrooms, studying their students and noting their progress. They want to understand not only what their students are learning but also how they’re learning it. Excellent teachers experiment, trying new techniques as well as ones they know have worked in the past. Stenhouse products bring teachers together in a kind of learning community of their own. The books create a voice, and often it’s the voice of a peer who says, “This is what I tried in my classroom. This worked; this didn’t work so well.”
As Lawrence Stenhouse, the British education thinker wrote, “It is the teachers who in the end will change the world of the school by understanding it.”
(End of Part 3)
Next: The Stenhouse Perspective on Editing and Publishing