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Essential Guiding Principles for When the Light Goes On

By Mike Rose

When the light goes on
Image credit: Louis Roe

Editor’s note: How do you dig through the discord and fragmentation of school politics and policy to reclaim the mind and heart of education? By remembering and reinforcing the fact that US education is built by and for people, not concepts. In his final work, When the Light Goes On, the late Mike Rose drives this point home with personal stories from people of all ages and backgrounds that illuminate how education added meaning and spark to their lives. By no means exhaustive or prescriptive, the guiding principles in this selection of his book emerge from those stories for the transformative experience of educators and students alike.


Educational opportunity depends on more than what happens within the schoolhouse. Employment, housing, food security, healthcare, safe streets—these are the social and economic issues that significantly affect how children do in school. They are the core problems in the community where I grew up, and in the many communities in our country that bear resemblance to South Central Los Angeles. Addressing these problems will require a combination of resources, political will, an engaged public, and a social policy driven by generous beliefs about the purpose of education and about human ability and potential. Such a virtuous combination seems unlikely as I write in mid-2021, but it has occurred at times in our past and occurs now in local settings, typically at a community-based school enmeshed in a network of parents, activists, and social services, constructed of brick and mortar and a faith in the capacity of its students, an existence proof of possibility.

What to do? As I hope is evident from all we’ve read, there is no simple checklist, no off-the-shelf program to make the light go on. But the stories do lead to some general observations about learning and teaching and the many needs students carry that can make them receptive to education. As well, the stories provide perspective on broader institutional issues and reforms and on key concepts—ability, achievement, potential—that inform institutional life. What we’ve learned doesn’t yield a checklist, but it does suggest for teachers, counselors, parents, and, yes, students themselves values and habits of mind and conditions that contribute to the light going on and enhance our receptivity once it does. Let me offer some principles and questions to guide us.

Assume intelligence. Assume people think and derive satisfaction from thinking. People do not want to be bored, to stagnate, to feel dead upstairs. Seek intelligence. Where is intelligence displayed in the particulars of people’s lives? And where in all the nooks and crannies of their worlds do the invitations to be intelligent reside: In a school subject? In social interactions? In play? In sports? In the activities of family life? In an interest or hobby, from dance to the study of bugs? In the way people make their way through the day—their skill in living?

Assume a desire for meaning. Assume that people want to find meaningful pursuits, to lead a meaningful life, to matter. What are the sources of meaning in their worlds, from relationships, to religion, to physical activity, to a school subject or trade? And given people’s characteristics and interests, what are they likely to find meaningful? Follow a hunch about what might appeal to someone, make an educated guess.

Be alert to barriers to intelligence and meaning. In the school itself, in the curriculum, in its routines and protocols, in the school’s “culture”—its shared beliefs and attitudes. What barriers exist in peer groups, in the home, in people’s location in the social order? What barriers to using one’s mind and finding what matters does someone face because of race or gender or sexuality, because of social class and background, because of appearance or language? None of us can be expert in understanding all these social categories and forces, so we need to consult and confer with others who know the territory, who can guide us toward understanding experience that is not our own.

Be vigilant for what people can do and precise in what they cannot do. Of special interest here is what people can do in circumstances where they are not doing so well in the central task before them, the main event. The boy scraping by in math who is obsessed with basketball statistics; the girl bored in her English class entering spoken-word competitions; the lackadaisical students who move with easy social grace among their peers. What skill, knowledge, finesse, or instinct do these people have that could be nurtured for itself, but also provide a pathway into school? Be vigilant for what people can do, but also be as keen-eyed and as precise as possible about those things that give them trouble. Pinpointing the difficulties someone has with grammar or mathematics or the use of a tool or execution of a physical movement is the first step to helping them do better.

Knowledge is emotional and social as well as cognitive. Acquiring and using knowledge (from knowledge of history to knowledge of woodworking) can be vibrant with feeling: discovery, competence, pleasure, excitement. Knowledge can become a means of communication and connection between teachers and students, parents and children. Putting effort into conveying and explaining knowledge can be experienced as a sign of caring. Knowledge brings people together, the social glue of affiliations and friendships. Knowledge has the power to enlighten and the power to connect.

There are many ways to care. Merriam-Webster defines care as “watchful or protective attention to help and protect,” and philosopher Nel Noddings has elaborated a comprehensive philosophy of care in education that emphasizes understanding and responding to students’ needs in ways that advance their welfare. In common usage, care tends to mean “affection for,” and, to be sure, it is good to have a helping and protective regard for anyone learning something new, in or out of school. But it is also important to remember that there are many manifestations of care: care is demonstrated by the effort one puts into helping others to learn; by the way a question is answered . . . and the question after that; through holding high expectations; through the way a teacher or parent responds when those expectations aren’t met; through response to error, blunders, bad behavior; by the way one handles one’s knowledge and one’s authority.

Educating the whole child means educating the whole child. We are astoundingly complex creatures. To understand ourselves, we have a tendency, at least in the West, to reduce our complexity: We, for example, think of our brain and therefore our mind as an information-processing computer or as a “meat machine,” definable strictly in terms of its organic components. This is the reductive fallacy. It emerges in our schools with a pendulum-swing urgency to emphasize some aspect of ourselves that we believe we have neglected. Because we tend to separate cognition from emotion, we, at times, emphasize one over the other. But the cognitive and the social-emotional coexist in us in complex interplay. Learning is rich in emotional response, and subject matter can be a powerful vehicle for social connection. Similarly, social interaction and emotional sensitivity typically involve reflection and self-evaluation, which are profoundly cognitive acts. This interplay creates multiple and rich possibilities to find a meaningful connection to school—the emotion of a subject; the idea emerging in a caring exchange.

Think of your school as a human system. Try this: For an hour, for a day, let buildings, hallways, yards, and landscape recede and foreground the movement, clustering, and gestures of human beings. See the campus as a hive, a ballet, a scrum. What are the patterns of interaction? Where are there opportunities for students to interact with teachers? With other students around a shared activity? Can you enhance and increase them? Do the routines of the school close down or open up the possibility of human contact? Do the normal and prescribed ways students are expected to interact with staff and teachers enable exploration of interests or discovery of new ones?

Words matter. It doesn’t take much to spark or shut down engagement. An observation, a casual utterance, a quick, scribbled comment on a paper. The words have to be based on actual performance, not hyperbole, not groundless encouragement or fake egalitarianism. A few words have the power to change the way people see themselves, for good or ill. On a broader scale, what we say in school and how we say it matters immensely. We are affirming or disrupting a relationship by our bearing, our tone, the way we carry our authority. Our talk, even in reprimand, has a primary purpose: to help people grow.

Listen. We’re surrounded by noise, animate and inanimate, by distraction, babble, casual cruelty, enticement. It is uncommon to have someone listen, to have someone try to hear us. “Everyone wants to be seen,” said one of the people I interviewed. And everyone wants to be heard. And it is an especially powerful experience to have someone hear what we can’t bring ourselves to say.

Be receptive to surprise. We are predictable. We fall into patterns of behavior, routines, ways of being in the world. Others begin to define us by this predictability—and we likewise define ourselves. Change doesn’t come easy. But especially during times of development or new environments—though not only then or there—we see or hear or read something that reaches deep within us, or another human being helps us rethink who we are and what is possible for us, or something we ourselves don’t fully understand opens a portal out of melancholy or boredom or chaos. This change can happen in and through school. Be ready for it and be on the lookout for signs of it.

No effort at decency is wasted. You might assume intelligence, and do your best to explain your subject, and make yourself available . . . and be met with silence, sullenness, even be rebuffed. Still, your decency registers and might be remembered years, decades later, recalled and valued in someone else’s classroom.


About the Author 

Mike Rose was an education scholar and author of 11 books. He was a research professor at the University of California-Los Angeles’ Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. A popular contributor to national media as well as commercial and academic literature, Rose has written approximately 125 opinion pieces, commentaries, and essays.