Assessment Opinion

The Company We Keep, and Why It Matters

By Deborah Meier — April 21, 2011 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

Everything that needs to be said you said last week—and succinctly. You said it so well that it’s hard to know what more you and I can say that might convince the unconvinced. But I always rhetorically claim that (1) I might be misunderstanding my “opponents” and, therefore, (2) I might be wrong, so I keep at it. In real life, I often get too annoyed to do this well.

The other day at a meeting sponsored by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, on “social and emotional learning,” I lost my temper with several allies. One, a congressman I admire—Tim Ryan from Ohio—and the other, Special Olympics Chairman and CEO Tim Shriver. Both take tests seriously, even as they decry them for having narrowed the curriculum and missed the “social and emotional.” They want “better tests,” and more of them so that we can test social and emotional health.

I went back and forth feeling I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Of course, I favor healthy and socially well-adjusted adults. And, of course, schools play a role in this matter, as does the rest of life. Ditto for intellectual (often misnamed “academic”) health and vigor (and, I suppose, “rigor”?). Does it matter that the studies to which I was exposed suggest, for example, that from birth on we build theories—social, emotional, and intellectual—that have an affect on who we become? Newborns have both a biological clock of development and another that is driven by our relationship to, above all, our own species! We seem drawn to imitating everything we see and hear, but particularly the behaviors of those we are to become. Children watch 10 hours of TV in which adults speak the common “TV dialect” and yet they still learn to speak like the adults whose real-life company they keep. And so on. Should Ryan and Shriver have to “learn” this, too, before they make policy?

It matters who we keep regular company with from birth onward. For example, my brother and I, both devout Joe DiMaggio fans, watched him play differently. My brother was keeping company, living in DiMaggio’s shoes. But I knew Joe was someone whose shoes were not open to me. Those we admire and can (or allow ourselves) to imagine becoming have an advantage as our teachers. So it is with all the habits that family and school teach us. Sometimes, of course, they teach us to never be like that when we grow up.

As students, we are in school at most a third of our waking hours every year. Given “how” we learn, how best can we bridge school and the other two-thirds “efficiently”?

Schools are not ideally suited to the job. First of all, the ratio of adult company to peers hardly provides much for children to watch and listen to about how the adult world works. Nor, in many cases, are the adults to whom the young are exposed ones they admire and can imagine becoming—if they even see them as “real” adults at all.

Nor are the adults in a position to respond to them in authentic ways. The by-play of ordinary conversation is missing: “Did you mean ... ? Are you saying that ...? I don’t get it. ...” “But it seems to me that ...”, and on and on. It’s much like the AERA (American Educational Research Association) conference last week. When I got home I mostly shared the informal discussions I had over lunch and dinner, between sessions, and what I overheard in the group sitting next to me, even though I only attended sessions in which I had a deep interest, whose speakers I admired, and/or those being led by close friends. At some point I mostly felt like the child in the cartoon who says to his teacher: “My head is full. Can I go home now?”

It would have been even harder if I had attended sessions I knew less about or had come with a suspicious mindset, prepared to be manipulated by experts whose intentions I’m less than certain of, or who hold little respect for my ideas. Under such circumstances, we are spending at least some of our limited energies resisting, sifting, holding back. And that’s not a bad habit of mind, except that it sometimes “wastes” our precious energies, makes us even more tired, or bored, which is often a signal of a disconnect between what we’re hearing and our pre-existing picture of the world.

These, Diane, are the kinds of queries that caught my attention when I first started teaching. I couldn’t resist writing about it. (For details, see links to my early writings in Dissent magazine at the bottom of this piece.) I’m still puzzled by its implications. If the setting allows, differences can help us see problems we otherwise might have ignored. (See Eleanor Duckwoth’s The Having of Wonderful Ideas). It’s in part why 5-year-olds are intriguing—they are different. Thus, I was startled, but delighted, when young James asked (when told to line up ‘single file’): “What’s a single file?” But I knew that this curiosity and boldness would not always serve him as well as the docility of those who naturally followed the cues. Yes, it remained for James both an enormous strength and, on occasion, a “deficiency.” How we interpret such behaviors in schools does matter and is worth arguing about, for its impact both on “cognition” and social and emotional learning.

Styles of argument (which is where I get in trouble) may differ, but our reluctance to argue is a national deficiency and may account in part for why we get mesmerized by intentionally disrespectful radio/TV talk shows. Maybe if we didn’t teach children to “resolve” their differences, we’d all learn better how to pursue our differences in a variety of socially productive ways.

The acceptance among the billionaires club and the educational establishment around a “common core” curriculum—often including pedagogical assumptions—is chilling. The ideal, that one could transfer schools at any time in any state and more or less fit smoothly in, is dangerous. The heart of being an educated person lies precisely in the nuances that separate our choices. Let’s be cautious about aligning everything into a seamless garment.

I’m on my favorite topic—and have anecdotes (and some data) for each. I wonder what questions Tim Shriver and Tim Ryan find equally intriguing, and what settings would allow us to interact more usefully than those where I too often find myself. Probably ones that include more teacher voices than those at AERA or CASEL?


Note: I’d like to refer readers to two of my pieces for Dissent magazine in the 1960s: “Learning Not to Learn” and “A Report from Philadelphia: Head Start or Dead End?”.

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.