One of the things that I have especially appreciated with Opening Minds is that Johnston tackles the most important issue in education – namely, what is the purpose of education? Granted, this issue has been debated for thousands of years, so I don't expect is to be solved in my lifetime, but in just the last 100 years, the purpose of education has become increasingly narrowed. As he highlights in chapter 9, the political purposes of education is the nation's economic survival and global competitiveness. This view had been forced on school systems, parents and the media through the focus on high-stakes testing and global comparisons. However, as the quote illustrates, making a living doesn't necessarily guarantee making a life. This is the ribbon weaving through chapters 7-9 – support for the moral and ethical purposes of education.
Moral Development and Civic Engagement (Chapter 7)
Too often character education is just another class or add-on to the school day. I remember school assemblies introducing each of the 6 pillars of character education with cheesy posters covering the walls and “Catch 'Em Being Good” slips handed out as a reward for acting like a good citizen through being responsible, caring, respectful, trustworthy, and fair. As a kid, I never made the connection that these behaviors were suppose to guide classroom interaction (and ultimately used in real life), it just seemed like something to worry about during lunch and recess – and hope that the teacher caught me being good. Johnston contends that every classroom interaction is a model for moral development and civic engagement – for better or for worse. Students are engaged daily with making moral decisions in the way they treat each other and interrogate ideas. How does my classroom apprentice students into becoming a member of society? Am I fostering intense engagement with texts and ideas or passive acceptance of facts?
Fairness is a huge issues with students, I know. And Johnston highlights a classroom that normalizes the discussion of fairness. Somewhere I once read a teacher's philosophy statement that said something like, “I don't want to treat students equally, just fairly.” I've used that idea with students before, but without the constant conversation about exploration of fairness, it just came off like a bumper sticker platitude. But, I think one of the best illustrations of this ideal is the cartoon about standardized testing. "Everyone is a genius. But, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." -Albert Einstein
A huge part of moral development and civic engagement is the development of social imagination, as mentioned in chapter 6. Not only in taking perspectives, but in recognizing that there are differences in perspectives across cultures and time. In studying history, it is called historical perspective taking or empathy, which is recognizing the social, cultural, intellectual, and emotional differences of the time period and not applying 21st Century mores to it. Much of multicultural education (and world religion curricula) have tried to bridge the similarities to create connections, but this diminishes the understanding of differences and how these differences may lead to diverse moral choices and actions. My classroom instruction needs to help students learn how to explore differences in a non-judgmental way which will lead to more empathy toward others, open mindedness, and a willingness to engage with difference.
Thinking and Working Together (Chapter 8)
“Thinking well together leads to thinking well alone.” (p. 96)
I have incorporated project based learning and cooperative groups in my teaching for years, but every year I have a parent or student who feel, as Johnston pointed out, that group work is unfair to the high-ability students or is in essence “cheating” because students are not working individually. However, in my experience, being involved in a group (like #CyberPD) forces me to individually clarify my thinking for an audience and revise my thinking as it is challenged by other perspectives. However, since most of schooling is based on individual achievement, many students do not know how to engage in thinking together. It is my goal this to help them develop the language and behaviors needed to work positively together and learn from each other. Listening is a major part of working together, as Johnston states, “Listening is the foundation of a conversation and it requires that we are open to the possibility of changing our thinking” (p. 102) Years ago I bought a book 125 Ways to be a Better Listener: A Program for Listening Success by Nan Stutzman Graser. At that time, I had my 8th graders develop mini-lessons for each other bases on the lessons in the book. I might need to break that book out again.
Most years I have my middle schoolers design posters illustrating (in comic strip form) the ideal classroom and the worst nightmare to talk about general classroom behaviors. Johnston suggests having students create “Rules for Thinking Engagement” - to focus on what makes a conversation engaging and productive. This makes thinking together an object of study and allows for review and revision of the process.
Choice Worlds (Chapter 9)
Returning to the big questions – what kind of world am I creating in my classroom through my language and actions? Does my language reflect my beliefs and vice versa? How have my students imitated this? And the biggest question – what is the purpose of education?
Although is seems like the main purpose of education should be academic success, the “failure to attend to children's moral and social development will lead neither to happiness nor to economic security” (p. 114). Yes, I will be teaching English and history content, but I will also be teaching and modeling how to be a member of a community and the broader society. Fair and equitable education is so much more than exposing kids to the same content, or expecting everyone to be proficient on a narrow range of skills. “A better concept of a fair education would be to try to have every child develop as fully as possible. Of course we have no way of knowing what is possible for each child. All we can do is arrange for children to be fully engaged in ways that we know lead to expanded development. . . When children are fully engaged in an activity, they press into service all of their resources and stretch themselves as necessary. Children are more engaged when they have choice, a degree of autonomy, and when they see the activity as relevant.” (p.118). I think this is an outstanding philosophy for a school to embrace!
In some ways, I feel a bit paralyzed when recognizing the impact my comments can make on students. The hyper-awareness is a bit daunting – but then I have to remind myself about the lovely word “Yet”.
Johnston's final words, spoken and unspoken, “Well, now you know . . . “ What am I going to do about it? What an exciting challenge to take up as I enter the new school year!