Teaching Opinion

Skills and Dispositions

By Nicholas S. Thacher — February 06, 2007 4 min read
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The arrival of a new year always generates, at least in aging school principals, a cerebral expedition for an annual symbol. What can possibly encapsulate the hopes, dreams, frustrations, and passions that lie ahead for our school community in 2007?

One night in January, at a faculty colleague’s suggestion, I spent 20 minutes listening to an audio recording that has been rocketing around the Internet. It purports to be an unedited copy of a young man’s dialogue with a series of customer-service representatives as he attempts to untangle his cellphone bill. In a nutshell, the listener learns that no one at this giant telecommunications company understands how to use a decimal point. Simultaneously hilarious and depressing, the recording sounds genuine. And even if it isn’t, the growing sense of consumer frustration, the bewildered and unhelpful bureaucratic bumbling of the “service department,” and the fundamental, appalling lack of basic numeracy strike a telling chord. We’ve all been there, “on hold” literally and figuratively, desperate to navigate the shoals of incompetence.

Education is learning the lifelong <i>value</i> of reading, developing the habits of open-mindedness, of sharing, of discerning, of thinking about others.

Still, in 2007, the dumbing down of America is not front-page news in my local paper or anywhere else. The fact that, even at the highest circles of “service response” in a global communications company, employees cannot comprehend the significance of decimals and place value merely reminds us of other recent commentary on America’s workforce: “If you can recognize the french-fries icon on the register keys, you’re educated enough”—at least to work at a fast-food enterprise. The active vocabulary of an American 14-year-old is 20 percent of what it was 60 years ago. If Americans read at all, they read USA Today or People. Better than The Star, I suppose. What is Britney up to these days?

The real question prompted in my mind by the Internet recording was this: Why do families entrust their children to a school such as ours? There are obvious answers beyond everyone’s reasonable expectation that teachers will make sure that, at the end of the experience, students can read, write, express themselves, and cipher—that is, that they will comprehend the meaning and power of a decimal point, in math class, in an engineering calculation, in a checkbook, on a telephone bill, in life. But education—especially at the elementary level—is as much about “dispositions” as it is about skills; it’s about developing attitudes and approaches that color a lifetime. It’s not just how to read (or calculate, or speak to an audience, or collaborate with a partner to solve a problem); it’s learning the lifelong value of reading, developing the habits of open-mindedness, of sharing, of discerning, of thinking about others. Skills, after all, are black-and-white; dispositions add the color.

Shortly after our faculty regrouped in January, the school librarian gave a brief multimedia assembly presentation to the middle school children about her weeklong trip to New Orleans in December. Her preadolescent audience was spellbound; you could have heard a pin drop (except that her slides and remarks were accompanied by a gentle Aaron Neville soundtrack). This was no casual report on “How I Spent My December Break”; it was a depiction of a middle-aged woman and her recently-graduated-from-college son pulling on Tyvek suits and respirators in the wreckage of the city’s Ninth Ward and spending hour after hour, day after day, scraping mold off the joists and ceilings of meager shacks that had been submerged for weeks under 10 feet of toxic stew. Backbreaking, unromantic, filthy volunteer labor, followed by sleeping in bunk beds (under police protection) with 150 other volunteers in a run-down church converted to barracks.

Let’s just say this assembly made you think. It made you think about how you’d spent your own December holidays, sleeping late, taking comfortable walks, swapping presents and stories and affection. It made you think—even if you were a genuine preadolescent caught up exclusively in the melodrama of your own existence—about what phrases like “community service” and “outreach” really mean.

And it made me think, as did the recording, about why schools like ours exist, about what a palpable and powerful obligation we teachers (and parents, to be sure) have to educate these kids. To give them the skills, sure, decimals and percents and all that, but also to give them healthy dispositions and habits of mind; to grab them when they’ve barely woken up on a Wednesday morning and shake them awake to something much more important than decimals; to model, as our librarian did, the importance of doing unto others, so that when we gather a week later to talk about Martin Luther King Jr., the talk will have meaning and substance, and it will feel as much about walking as talking.

Learning is a way of life, we say. It lasts a lifetime. That’s what our school is all about and is, I would suggest, what we want our New Year to be about: mastering decimals and learning to care. Skills and dispositions, black and white and the whole Crayola panoply—now there’s a complicated symbol to embrace in 2007. Complicated, challenging, apposite in a school community. And I would hazard a guess (perhaps a hope for the New Year) that understanding all this is probably why families make the sacrifices they do to send their children to a school like ours. That and the decimals, of course. Don’t forget the decimals. On we go.

A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2007 edition of Education Week as Skills and Dispositions


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