Federal Opinion

‘Data Informed,’ Not ‘Data Driven’

By Deborah Meier — March 05, 2009 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Sometime I imagine “them” (the think-tankers) sitting up late at night inventing new titles for “reform” packages just to annoy people like you and me. There’s more interest of late in the name for the new NCLB than the contents of the bill! Ditto what passes for 21st Century skills. I can’t figure out who is on whose side, but they all seem quite happy to cheer each other on. What they—Ed Trust, Ed Sector, Heritage, Fordham, Klein, et al—seem to agree on is that everyone should follow the same path, that it should be measurable, and that teachers and parents are the main stumbling block (and bonuses for improved scores is the best way to get them to mend their ways).

I know of no way to teach intellectually useful skills without content. The five “habits of mind” we focused on at CPE and Mission Hill are content dependent. Back to David Hawkins’ triangle: I, thou, and “it”—with “it” the stuff teacher and student are studying together. You can’t practice good soccer skills without playing soccer—knowledge alone won’t get you far. Or learn the “skills” of biking until you get on a bike. Debate over the division between knowledge and skill drive me crazy. (I like to remind folks that I possess both when it comes to putting my keys in the right place, but I lack the habit.) There’s a thin line between these—very fuzzy and full of overlaps. And they rest on our very difficult-to-quash human persistence in tackling the “mysteries” of the world we are born into. I remember asking a scientist friend of mine how he’d recommend starting the study of science. He said, “on one’s back, looking at the starry sky at night.”

Our differences—yours and mine and E.D. Hirsch’s—are over depth vs. breadth. We both can make a good argument; but I think mine is better! I think we need to defend our choices of subject matter, but that there isn’t a simple right/wrong answer. So I want us to keep playing with different answers. (Also, I want us to think about how to use school for what is out of balance in 2lst Century kids’ lives.)

I know of virtually no subject matter that can’t serve as a powerful intellectual stimulus. We studied snails at Mission Hill for three months one fall because our yard was inundated with them, and our kids were enthralled—and I recalled that Stephen Jay Gould spent a lifetime on snails. At CPE and Mission Hill we chose only to be sure that (1) we asked students and teachers to tackle different disciplinary lenses in the course of their work, (2) that we could defend the work on the basis of the opportunities provided to actually practice our “habits of mind,” and (3) that we made room for plenty of external critique—ways of looking at our own and our students’ work through both multiple and disinterested eyes and ears. And, I guess, fourth, that we reviewed the outcome “data” (via children’s graduation examinations, their lives after they left us, etc.) regularly. We wanted to be “data informed,” not “data driven.” (If only our leaders had followed this lead with regard to our economic affairs.)

Human beings are going to create the 21st Century, not “fit into it”—I hope. And it might have been a great thing if all children had learned so-called 21st Century skills in the 12th Century and the 19th. (Granted they’d have used the technologies of their time.) When was the time in history when reflection, experimentation, critical thinking, collaboration, persistence, and creativity weren’t “useful”? And I’d argue these skills/habits must dig deeply into aesthetic and spiritual domains, too—the artist and “truth” seeker in us.

To me, the liberal arts are “merely” an extension of the good kindergarten classroom—the one described by Friedrich Froebel and other—aha!—19th Century thinkers!

I want the flexibility to respond to different kids differently, while also being mindful of the risks. And to respond to what is happening around us, the events that are shaping our world while also encouraging coherence and persistence. On a day that The New York Times editorial page includes a piece about the filibuster as a way of life in Congress, I’d like to explore that in a history course—as an example of what seems “inevitable” or “unchangeable,” when in fact nothing of the sort is true. “It’s just the way it is” as an exhausted parent and teacher’s response to a nagging or teasing child is quite proper; as long as we keep in mind that heard too often we produce that “unmotivated” child we all complain about. If it’s all “just the way it is,” why would anyone relish a liberal education? A liberal education is potentially more, not less, “useful” than any other kind. In fact, it’s essential to a democracy that every single potential voter has the wherewithal to live an examined life.

Of course, I’m begging the next disagreement: our definition of the liberal arts. To save time! But, of course, it doesn’t save time—so maybe that comes next?


P.S. Clarification: Annoyed as I am by the thrust of the new secretary of education’s rhetoric with regard to school innovation, and his past history under Mayor Daley, or the harm he may do as he uses the $5 billion dollars in discretionary funds, I’m delighted President Obama has directed a lot more money into preserving teacher jobs out there in the trenches. We can just imagine what a Bush agenda would have been like! Furthermore, as the Broader and Bolder folks have argued, jobs, justice, and health are education issues, too.

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