Education Opinion

Hands-On and Minds-On Activities

By Deborah Meier — October 23, 2008 2 min read
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Dear Diane,

I’m sitting here in the hotel lounge in Winnipeg with my third try at this blog, plus one I tried hurriedly before I left. So far I’ve lost them all somewhere. But, as in schooling, there’s nothing more important than persistence. Well, maybe not. My colleague, Jane Andrias, who is up here with me in Winnipeg, reminds me that persistence—doing the same thing over and over—can also be sheer foolishness.

It’s interesting how we use the same words sometimes to suggest rather different ideas. My view of tinkering, and “hands-and-minds” on—like play and imagination—don’t separate the traditional crafts from the traditional “disciplines” of academia. We honor them both when we respect their particular forms of knowledge, and the particular ways in which we need to “play” with the materials we use. There is a knowledge base—a form of study—that is applicable across all trades. And I include the trade of historian and furniture-maker.

Tonight I’m talking about Democracy and the Playful Imagination. Of the five habits of mind that we invented as the underpinnings for CPESS many years ago, the one I often like best is one we called, “Suppose that...? What if....”? (The other four involve the nature of the evidence, alternate viewpoints, patterns, and ‘who cares?’)

So, to continue.

What’s special about a democracy is that all its members have joined the once-all-powerful leisured classes. In Athenian and Roman times voters were limited to those who had leisure. Even at the start of the good old USA, only about 6 percent of the total population had the vote—excluded were not merely women and slaves, but unpropertied people—whose income depended solely on their labor not their property. But that means both having the leisure and also having the training for using that leisure on behalf of making not only personal decisions, or craft decisions, but larger decisions affecting one’s fellow citizens. That, in short, was the promise of American public universal education.

We’ve forgotten it. Unlike you, Diane, I think there’s a weak case for this broader education in terms of our economic strength. But there’s absolutely one for our continued existence as a democracy. And, at its heart, is to be able to “imagine” not only one but many futures, and to see the patterns and connections between them, and to wonder “what if” we did x instead of y, and what kind of knowledge would help me sort through my decisions? And on and on through our habits of mind. To do so requires also having had “hands-on” experiences with the dilemmas of democracy, with its balances and trade-offs, with its peculiar rules (which are different for Canada and the U.S., for example), and more. It also assumes training in certain rules of evidence, as well as tolerance for difference, above all for imagining the possibility of being wrong.

These are both hands-on and minds-on activities that demand a craftsman’s respect for materials, tools, ends, and study.

If I keep on with this much longer, this computer will no doubt start acting up again, so I better end this while I can. Besides, I have to come up with some questions for my audience tomorrow—when I’m talking about schooling and democracy to 300 Manitoba secondary school teachers.


P.S. My libertarian reader and I come to that noble word with different liberties in mind! He rests his on the liberty of the “marketplace.” Alas, that liberty destroys too many others I value more highly. Even libertarians have to make choices and set priorities.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.