If ever teachers needed justification for why their work matters — why teaching and the whole project of education isn’t just necessary but urgent — one need look no further than the current political pageant on display in the United States. When discourse has all but disappeared, when genuine argument and diversity of perspectives have come to seem ancillary to democracy, we find cause to get to our first principles of why school matters.
Why does school matter? This past weekend, I had the real pleasure of hearing David Perkins and Howard Gardner speak at the Washington International School. Jim Reese, WIS’s enlightened Director of the Professional Development Collaborative, has spent the last several years bringing the ideas of Harvard-Project Zero to the Washington, DC area. And lucky for us! Project Zero, a research group founded nearly fifty years ago in response to the paucity of knowledge on arts assessment, has now flourished into a global think tank of the very nature and purpose of teaching and learning.
Last Saturday, Howard Gardner reminded us all in his talk that one purpose of education — and surely there are many competing purposes at play as I will address here — was a social one. I am paraphrasing him, but the gist of his argument suggested that, in a democracy, the education of the polity is a civic responsibility, for how else would a democracy be sustained and protected if not for a population able to think, reason, and decide?
Think, reason, decide: did I mention that, as teachers, we have an urgency to our work?
Is the current political climate not a symptom of the failure of education to be guided by its proper object: the common good in a democratic society? Surely, students are still being taught things, but are we not missing a critical element in the mission: education for the sustenance of our democracy? Why has this disappeared? And can merely learning things achieve this broader social goal?
Not surprisingly, John Dewey has much to say on this point. And in a prescient article, written in 1899 (!), he offers views that haven’t lost a single grain of relevance. “We are,” he writes, “apt to look at the school from an individualistic standpoint, as something between teacher and pupil . . . Yet the range of the outlook needs to be changed” (“The School and Society,” John Dewey on Education, University of Chicago Press, ed. Reginald D. Archambault, 1964, 293). He goes on to say,
What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy. (293)
What does this mean, and how is this relevant to our day? Dewey implies that a ruggedly individualistic notion of education becomes antithetical to the shared responsibility of creating a community, whether at the local or national level. Indeed, we have seen that the trend over the last 120 years has been to view education in just these terms. “What is my return on investment?” a parent asks, after having spent lots of money on an independent school or through taxes for public education. And it is the definition of this “return” — i.e., what this “return” looks like — that reveals the motives of our culture. Sadly, this “return” is too often only measured by college admission and/or salary — and, too often, these are purely individual motives. College and career are not unimportant concerns; education of course has these objectives in mind, and we are indeed individuals with a right to our pursuits. But what about that more precious “return” — the intellectual preparation that allows for the evolution and protection of democracy where our individual rights and pursuits are protected? Surely, as a country, we celebrate democracy as the highest ideal toward which all civilization thrives. But how do we prepare our own house for this responsibility? Or do we at all?
And here we can draw lines of connection between the very pedagogy we choose as teachers (and schools and districts) and the civilization we hope to create. To be sure, educational research, theory, and practice has, of late, challenged the 19th-century model of education — i.e., the teacher merely transmitting information from the front of the room. We know that the transmission of knowledge is far, far less effective than students actually doing something creative with this knowledge, as Benjamin Bloom, over a half century ago, laid out and as researchers on neuroeducation have made plain. And so, now, more and more schools are coming on board to pedagogies and practices that coax higher-order thinking from students, that connect their learning to real questions and problems, and that employ authentic assessments to motivate them. But, for all this (and I am certainly in deep support of this pedagogy), we often omit talking about the social relevance of such teaching and learning — that is, how this kind of learning actually serves the ideals of a democratic society. To extend this, let’s hear John Dewey again:
The mere absorption of facts and truths is so exclusively individual an affair that it tends very naturally to pass into selfishness. . . . Indeed, almost the only measure for success is a competitive one, in the bad sense of that term — a comparison of results in the recitation or in the examination to see which child has succeeded in getting ahead of others in storing up, in accumulating, the maximum of information. So thoroughly is this the prevalent atmosphere that for one child to help another in his task has become a school crime. Where the school work consists in simply learning lessons, mutual assistance instead of being the most natural form of coöperation and association, becomes a clandestine effort to relieve one’s neighbor of his proper duties. Where active work is going on, all this is changed. Helping others, instead of being a form of charity which impoverishes the recipient, is simply an aid in setting free the powers and furthering the impulse of the one helped. A spirit of free communication, of interchange of ideas, suggestions, results, both successes and failures of previous experiences, becomes the dominating note of the recitation. (301)
The “stand-and-deliver” model of knowledge dissemination (I won’t call that model “lecturing” as such since true lectures can be very effective) isn’t merely ineffective from a neuroeducational perspective; for Dewey, it’s anti-democratic. Certainly teachers who ascribe to the transmission model are not consciously anti-democratic, but they may not be cognizant of the missed opportunity to teach to a higher purpose: what Dewey calls “the broader, or social, view” (296). In other words, social and collaborative practices where students are at the center of constructing understanding can help prepare habits of mind and intellectual dispositions necessary for a healthy democracy — personal qualities that can allow children and adults to “think, reason, and decide.” It is ironic, then, that in schools across the country, we celebrate the teaching of character, the support of service, the infusion of “soft skills” learning into our curricula but often ignore the pedagogy to really inculcate — or “enculture,” as Ron Ritchhart would term it — these qualities. This remains an ongoing challenge.
It is no wonder, then, that I am inspired by the burgeoning work of the researchers at Project Zero where the very heart of their project is to promote cultures of thinking (cf. Ron Ritchhart’s Project). In my own use of the Teaching for Understanding framework (still an ongoing exploration for me) or of the Thinking Routines that emerged from the work of Making Thinking Visible, I have seen develop what Jim Reese has called the most “democratic” classroom cultures I’ve ever encountered. On more than one occasion, a student of mine has shared that thinking routines have obviated the anxiety to be “the first hand up,” as is often the case in AP classes where participation isn’t so much encouraged as it is mandated. The competition inherent in such a competitive situation — real or imagined — makes for bad learning, makes for a weak democracy. I’m not sure this is an overstatement.
As we hurtle into the future, I’m as driven to innovate our practice in education as much for what new ideas hold for individual learning as they do for the very foundation of our democracy: why can’t we see the individual in the community and the community in the individual? I think we can. The good news — the very good news — is that pedagogical practices emerging from groups like Project Zero give us the frameworks to achieve both of these ends. Have we ever needed them more?