Curriculum Opinion

Habits of mind

By Deborah Meier — May 21, 2007 4 min read
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Editor’s note: Deborah Meier is in China for three weeks where she has been invited to give a keynote address in Shanghai at the World Conference on Transformation of Classroom Teaching. She also plans to speak to students at the Institute of Curriculum and Instruction at East China Normal University. She will return to the blog in June.

Dear Diane,

When you read this I’ll be in China.

But I did take a peek at your response before I left, Diane. The trouble is that my definition (there can be two or more) of being well-educated is closer to driving than it is to learning the kinds of knowledge that the tests you describe measure. (And with nowhere near the accuracy you suggest. For example, much depends on what kind of “distractors”—wrong answers—you imbed the “right answer” in, etc). It’s those hard-won habits that have stood us in good stead, even as we’ve forgotten the answers to the history questions you describe. But it’s the intellectual habits that every teacher should be attending to, even if it’s very time-consuming. That’s what schooling is primarily for and what, for me, everything else must come second. It’s hard work, but my goal is precisely to stop students from asking “WILL IT BE ON THE TEST”! The kind of attentiveness Shanker was describing (called cramming for the test) leads to bad habits. Twelve years of such bad habits are not good for most of us in real life.

Or maybe its just that I’ve had to depend on “habits” given my more rote memory! Maybe we all prefer the kind of education that suits our strengths?

But reading your comments and Wesley Null’s response leads me to realize that we are not going to “settle” this issue to everyone’s satisfactions. But why must we? The trouble is when we rush to turning our ideas into the law, then one of us wins and one loses, versus learning from each other about the plusses and minuses of our differences in actual practice.

In responding to Wesley, I wrote: “The trouble is, Wesley, that the way you and Diane would deal with curriculum doesn’t make us think at all—us ordinary teachers, the ones who connect with the young, or their parents or community. All it requires of us is to ‘follow’ it, with our own pedagogical tricks. Indeed, in contrast, my notion of curriculum requires all of us to do that hard thinking about what’s critical and why, and to defend it to our students and community.” I don’t object, in short, to schools that choose to follow a curriculum designed by others—by no means. Or one that rests its work on short-answer tests, but why do they want to insist that I do the same?

I know: equity. But that’s assuming that equity requires “sameness”, uniformity, etc. The rich can get high quality by following different paths—why not the poor?

The other answer: to create a common culture. Yet I’ve never found it hard to communicate or bond intellectually with adults whose schooling was very different than mine—especially the curriculum. It’s an idea I’ve heard often for which all the empirical evidence I know suggests otherwise. I refer not only to Canadians and English, but Frenchmen, Egyptians and Chinese, not to mention those who went to different American schools. In fact, my definition of being well-educated erases parochial differences in curriculum and unites us in a larger community of thinkers. Maybe the one requirement might be that we all take one course on the argument itself (see Gerald Graff).

I suggest that there never was a common core that really worked for the ends you hope for. (See Rothstein, “The Way We Were?,” on the state of common knowledge in 1890, 1910, 1940, etc). Alas or otherwise, our “common curriculum” is the pop media—and maybe directly tackling it might serve future citizens better than the curriculum academics are inclined to invent.

The best education I ever had was over the dining room table, as adults talked politics and culture (and how they dealt with the daily realities) in the presence of the young and with due respect for their contributions. Fortunately, my school was willing to pick up on those same arguments and concerns and to appreciate the spirit behind them. My personal favorite schools today do the same: they recreate a multi-age dining room conversation. Sometimes it’s even over the heads of the young—which works fine if no judgment is made about one’s intelligence based on this inevitable fact. Powerful adults are attractive to kids, and when we invite them to join us on matters we think important they often will, with enthusiasm. Then they will remember those facts that help them join the conversation. Ditto for “the power of their ideas” (hence the title of a book I wrote) and our joining the kids as they “read the world” in ways that can enlarge our understanding as well.

It’s the standards for such conversation that unite curriculum and pedagogy, what at CPESS we called Habits of Mind and that others codify in other ways.


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.