Curriculum Opinion

There Is No One Right Way

By Deborah Meier — February 04, 2014 6 min read
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Today, Deborah Meier writes again to Robert Pondiscio of CitizenshipFirst.

Dear Robert,

Grin away. I like making people smile. But long, long before E.D. Hirsch came along people thought the best way to educate involved thinking, exploring, inquiring about something of interest. I even went to a Progressive, pro-Dewey school in New York City and recall with delight all the wonderful subjects we delved into. But the Ethical Culture faculty decided what to study, when, what to emphasize, and, above all, how to “assess” their students.

First, I feel badly that you had such a different entry into teaching than I did. I knew a lot about what to teach—from my own life experience, supplemented by the many, many teacher memoirs, textbooks, events surrounding us, not to mention the curricula published by Chicago and New York City. In fact, my problem for those wonderful 50 years was suppressing a few of my “wonderful ideas” about what we might do in class and becoming a better listener to the kids’ wonderful ideas.

Second. My concern about Hirsch is not that he believes, as you and I do, that you need to actually be learning about stuff, but that he focuses on “covering"—recognition—rather than studying.

The Open Classroom Workshop Center at City College, run by Lillian Weber and then Hugh Dyasi, was for 30 years an extraordinary place for teachers to study subject matter. We did science and history there, with the finest tools, materials, and support, including support for thinking about how one might introduce this to young people. So did Dewey’s Lab School in Chicago.

So, enough about me and Hirsch. (Even the Summerhill School taught subject-matter courses—although they were voluntary!) However, the “free school” movement is not the same as Progressive education (capital P). As always, there are wonderful overlaps.

Our version of Hirsch. The entire Mission Hill school studies ancient Egypt at the same time (kindergarten through 7th grade) for two to three months, and the next year ancient Greece, followed by ancient China, followed by some particular early South American culture.

We decided this approach (which we also use for American studies and science) is helpful in building strong adult (as well as student) inquiry across grades. It makes it easier and more natural for older students to help younger ones, to have heterogeneous multi-age classes, to provide examples of how students, older and younger, have approached similar topics. It also reminds the young that any worthwhile topic can never be “covered"—it goes on and on. It means that children “repeat” the same subject matter twice (once in K-3 and again 4th-7th grades), and we hope many times thereafter.

This was based on my experience in the Central Park East Secondary School—where a team taught together with students in grades 7-8 and then grades 9-10. The team stayed with the same group for two years, and each team consisted of a teacher of math, science, history, and literature. I didn’t want to give up the great discussion this approach engendered. The New American Academy school in Brooklyn that I visited on that awful snowy day also works in teams like ours. They meet daily for more than an hour and ideally stay with students for the entire elementary experience.

Sometimes the CPESS staff met by subject-matter teams, as well. It was not only a matter of discussing individual students, pedagogical ideas, etc., but also where we came together around the shared subject matter and honed our own understanding of what those Five Habits of Mind were in relationship to our studies. We brought in experts, watched films together, did experiments, and argued. “Arguing the world” (the title of a film about City College’s culture during the 1930s and early ‘40s) was our intention. This was also at the heart of Gerald Graff’s fascinating book Clueless in Academe.

We were open to lots of visitors. (It turned out to be a great tool for giving students the opportunity to put our approach into their own words and also to practice talking with adults of all sorts.) Naturally, some of our ideas spread. It was fun to visit Fairbanks, Alaska, and see students and teachers with T-shirts that had our “five habits” on the back!

We also left room—maybe not enough—for youngsters to explore their own particular interests, sometimes with a classwide study, and sometimes strictly individual obsessions—about cars, or bugs, or the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry.

Having a “talent” is three-quarters the result of an obsession. We encouraged obsessions.

Just as we encouraged imaginary play, the chance to live out, play out, dream out ideas. The MacArthur Award people inspired a study on what the author, Michele Root-Bernstein calls “worldplay,” or the inventing of imaginary worlds. In an upcoming book, she will offer some interesting data on the role of imagination in the “2lst century skills” discourse.

But we didn’t “grade” such play—and didn’t make a point of even distinguishing work from play. We play tennis and baseball, but we don’t play ice skating or swimming. We play the piano, but we don’t play dancing. Play isn’t necessarily “easy,” nor work always “hard.” It depends ... As do most things in life.

We encourage “it depends” thinking.

But you can easily see why the common core and standardized and “aligned” tests don’t work well for us. What students remember of their studies varies, and how they carry it on in their mind varies, too.

For that reason, we always struggled over the best way to put it together in a homebound report card (or letter). We fiddled and fiddled and never found a “just right” way. But the fiddling was educational. And the tinkering became a bond between us and students and families. We focused on being descriptive rather than judgmental, but we also tried hard to be truthful. Those many face-to-face family conferences (with students always included) made this easier. We also invited all family members to these conferences, and found that sometimes there was an older sister, an uncle, or someone else who was critical to the student’s growth.

Did you know, Robert, that teachers in the United States have far longer “teaching” days than the so-called “high scoring nations,” although the professional day is about the same. This means they spend several hours a day engaged in professional work. Like any professional, the cost per hour is for far more than direct-client time. It’s in these nonteaching hours that teachers do much of their learning—unpacking the day, rehearsing for the next day. It’s the answer to “professional development.”

We had a marvelous British educator visit us ages ago. She took over a class for a day all week long while teachers rotated watching from a loft in the room. At the end of each day, we met for an hour or more asking her questions about why she did x, what she’d use as a follow-up with y, etc. It created a paradigm shift for us—actually witnessing how a master teacher learns while teaching and what needed to be done afterwards!

This cannot be mandated, but if half the effort and money spent on standardizing, aligning, testing, scripting over the last half-century had been spent on this kind of support, encouragement, and opportunity, we’d be in a very different and better place.



P.S. I just reread Al Shanker’s column on charter’ish schools. His description is wonderful and very different from what the phrase now means. I’ll try to sum it up next week.

P.S. 2: What would your dream school look like, Robert?

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