Assessment Opinion

Treasuring Stubborn Interest

By Deborah Meier — May 11, 2007 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

I was speaking in North Carolina recently. In describing Central Park East’s “Five Habits of Mind” I used, as an example of the “what if” habit: “Supposing we had lost the Civil War"—A lady in front of me laughed and said, “but we did”.

Thus proving the value of another “habit of mind"—being able to place one’s self in another person’s shoes. Even if, as it says in the Mission Hill mission statement, it’s a viewpoint one despises.

Do I imagine that all teachers, schools and districts, if left to their own devices, are likely to select our particular rigorous habits? No, I don’t. But I have no greater faith in the federal government doing so, and even if they did, of being able to police it. Or wanting them to.

So-called “political correctness” is probably inevitable. Certain words, ideas and phrases seem banal in some periods of history and outrageous in others. I find it almost unbelievable how often the f-word is now used in respectable publications when up until about 20 years ago it was impossible for me to say the word aloud. My brother and I, in an act of great bravado in the early 1940s, went out into the deep forest surrounding our summer home and sang the word over and over as part of what he called the “F Opera.” That’s a rather tame example of the point I’m making.

In short, perhaps the only law I might like to make is that we teach everything as an argument—as though it were possible (if unwise) to hold a different view. Even in science I’d like to imagine the arguments that were made by the greatest scientists against ideas that soon became normative science. Like, so what’s such a big deal about light traveling in a straight line? How else could it travel? Who said otherwise? Being able to “defend” one’s ideas is only one form of evidence, but it’s at least one form I’d like any graduate to be able to exercise.

It’s in the silencing of those wonderful ideas that children bring into school with them at age 3, 4, 5 that we begin the process of closing their minds. Darrel at age 5, who insisted that rocks were an example of living things taught me how complex the idea of “living” vs. “nonliving” was. Sharon, age 6, made me rethink “up” and “down” in discussing what the first man on the moon saw. Frances, age 14, whose casual comment about how odd it was that the West Indies was in “the east” and the East Indies “in the west” as she pondered a typical world map on the wall of our school, set off conversations of a nature too few teachers allow themselves to explore. We spent 3 months on living/non-living thus forever ending any chance I had of completing NYC’s kindergarten curriculum, and we turned maps projections into the center of our curriculum because Frances’ question set everyone thinking. I wish it could be thus at every grade level.

With what pleasure Heidi Lyne (a former Mission Hill teacher) and I recall the semester Mission Hillers all studied “The Peopling of America"—in which her class got off onto “the dogging of America”. Actually they simply got waylaid by the love of dogs that infused the classroom. How nice that their teacher found an excuse to stay on the topic of dogs for a bit.

I treasure this stubborn interest in what seems most essential—at the moment—vs. covering any amount of the “common core”. It’s the form of intelligence I value in my landscaper, plumber, or tree specialist. I don’t want a “book answer”, but a investigative, curious mind that is prepared to solve my novel problem. “Get a new engine”, one car mechanic said, when in fact, all I needed was a mechanic with the curiosity to look further and notice that all I needed was a tightened screw.

We need a definition of “well-educated” that covers all the crafts, trades, professions or hobbies our fellow citizens engage in, plus that common one: being a citizen—of one’s local community, state, nation and planet.

As for statistics, damn statistics, I wasn’t using those statistics to argue for or against the USA’s rank order. Assuming my data were accurate, I was noting that the ways in which we label particular scores affects us, and how arbitrary it is. It’s like headlines that bemoan “only half” versus “nearly half”. Incidentally, 5th graders don’t take 8th grade tests but we have for a hundred years had no trouble claiming that some 5th graders read at an 8th grade level—and vice versa. It’s not any harder to figure out how NAEP scores compare to international scores—and they suggest different conclusions about what it means to be proficient. The National Academy of Education, the Center for Research on Evaluation, and the Government Accountability Office all have criticized the NAEP benchmarks for just this reason. (I’d also want to know what the test “covers” et al before deciding how seriously to take the results.)


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.