School Culture, Educating Citizens, Creating Democracy

democracy_and_educationExactly 100 years ago, John Dewey asserted that a purpose for our schools should be the creation of citizens who share the highest values of democracy. Only education can bridge the distance between our “uncivilized” nature and the skills and habits of people who have learned to exist in a thriving body politic.

American schools then perform their civic purpose by playing a powerful role in building democratic culture and educating citizens.

In progressive schools that take their democratic purpose seriously, students experience the complexity of democracy — they think critically, discuss and sometimes argue about ideas, co-create solutions to meaningful problems, and build community. A school culture that embodies civil discourse, and values conversations even when they are difficult, builds students’ capacity to act in the public world, to make good things happen. In these schools, students learn how to truly disagree in the way citizens who share a hope for common ground do, and then move toward finding that ground.

To create such a school culture, conversations about politics are essential. Because educators care about the affairs of their communities, and because they believe in the democratic process of collective decision making, educators should engage students in discussions of public affairs. To avoid what is political, because it might be difficult to discuss, would be an abandonment of the civic duty of schools. They would fail to cultivate in students the interests, skills, and habits of citizens.

Of course, educators should not use their authority to cultivate support for strictly partisan purposes. To advocate or oppose particular political parties or public political figures would be wrong. Engaging in open dialogue about public life among people with different ideas is not always easy, and requires courage. Educators can demonstrate the maturity, balance, and empathy required to listen and discuss ideas without becoming one-sided and closed to opposing viewpoints. Of course, mistakes will be part of the learning process.

Educators recognize that to engage in civil discourse, and to create a democratic and inclusive culture, students and faculty must learn to enjoy arguments and moments of discomfort. The civic duty of schools is to help students to listen and explore ideas, to co-create solutions and community, and to commit to building a world that values and protects every person.

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Sources:
Education Week, Bridging Differences Blog, Democracy in Schools: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences/democracy-in-schools/

Talk to Strangers

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Talking to strangers is certainly not something we encourage children to do, but importantly, talking with and understanding the “other” is essential for citizenship in a democracy.

American schools generally understand that democracies need active, informed and responsible citizens who are willing and able to take responsibility for their communities and contribute to the political process. For our schools to be incubators of engaged and effective citizens though, they require diversity. Being in a community of people with different ideas teaches students to listen, try on ideas, grapple with difference, develop empathy, and build compromise and cooperation skills.

Democracy requires that citizens respect the “other,” and regard them as one’s equal regardless of ideological or cultural differences. Citizenship requires the will to live with and for fellow citizens.

The 2016 election campaign symbolizes the current breakdown in public discourse that threatens our democracy – name-calling from both sides, and too much shouting without listening. Partisan media outlets (FOX, MSNBC, etc.), 24-hour news cycles, and social media has given everyone a megaphone to broadcast their views, and it is difficult to hear anything when everyone has a megaphone. The way candidates, pundits, and prominent individuals use media teaches young people that if they aren’t the loudest, their opinion doesn’t matter, and it shuts down opportunities for cooperation and understanding.

Schools can counterbalance this loudest-is-best, shout-without-listening culture. Our classrooms are places where students exchange and receive feedback about ideas. But too many of our schools are “echo chambers,” where conversations reinforce commonly held views. The lack of truly diverse opinions at some of our schools makes it too easy for students to hear their own opinions echoed back to them. Similarly, friendships in social media with people of like-minded ideas hardens beliefs and builds wedges against other ideas. The reaction by students in “blue” parts of the country since the election of Donald Trump helps illustrate that our echo chambers reinforce our own present world views, making them seem more correct and universally accepted than they really are. A democracy that descends into tribalism will not be a democracy for long.

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By engaging in civil discourse with people who share different values, attitudes, beliefs, and partisan identification, our students can learn to be citizens who know how to understand others, are more humble in their own beliefs, and are willing to compromise to work for the common good.

What is civil discourse?

Civil discourse is “robust, honest, frank and constructive dialogue and deliberation that seeks to advance the public interest” (Brosseau 2011). It is “the exercise of patience, integrity, humility and mutual respect in civil conversation, even (or especially) with those with whom we disagree” (Davis 2010).

Civil discourse does not simply mean being polite – argumentation is a social good. “Creating a culture of argument, and the thick skin that goes along with it, are long-term projects that will serve democracy well” (Herbst 2010).

How can a school that has a clear majority opinion develop a culture of robust discussion of diverse ideas? It’s a challenge.

On many occasions, I have joined classrooms together from around the country, across time zones, for discussions of common academic content, and to work on projects. When I taught for an independent online school, my AP Government students did this as a natural part of the course, and the conversations about politics brought forth a more diverse group of opinions than in any single brick-and-mortar classroom I have ever been in.

I am working on a project to join schools around the country to do this very thing. This election has proven to us the divisions of attitudes in this country runs deep, and there is a risk they will harden if we educators allow our students to imagine the worst about people on the other side of a debate.

I encourage teachers and administrators at all schools to look for ways to connect with each other across the country. If you want to join in this work, please use the contact form on my website to connect with me and I will include you in the project I am beginning.

 


References:

Brosseau, C. 2011. “Executive Session: Civil Discourse in Progress.” Frankly Speaking (October):http://nicd.arizona.edu/newsletter/october-2011#125.

Davis, J. C. 2010. In Defense of Civility: How Religion Can Unite America on Seven Moral Issues That Divide Us. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

Herbst, S. 2010. Rude Democracy: Civility and Incivility in American Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

 

Making Math Education Inquiry-based, Interdisciplinary, and Meaningful

A long-time member of my professional learning network, Alanna King, posted today about “wrestling with math.” Alanna’s son has found his way into the meat grinder that is math education in most schools, and she is thinking about his struggles in light of her reading of Building School 2.0 (recommended).

We all know the story of the kids who struggle in math. Long nights of homework, tutoring, and some of them never quite become the computational experts their personal computers are. This week I was in a parent-teacher conference with a really top student who excels in all of her classes but is struggling in Calculus class. All that anxiety and stress because she believes (and with good reason, unfortunately) that Calculus is a mountain she must climb in order to get into the college of her choice. The student disclosed in her conference that she wouldn’t be taking the course if she didn’t think it was necessary in the college rat race.

College is a real world goal for students, certainly, but if it is the only reason to take math, it seems like a poor one. Students should understand that math education has a more meaningful purpose, and that purpose should not be math itself. A “siloed” math education divorces the meaning from math and for students who don’t see it as fun, the typical question is “why am I doing this?” Math should be a problem-solving tool for the real world, and education in math should look like that.

what is math?I wrote about this on my blog back in November 2010, and about Conrad Wolfram’s TED talk in which he argues that computers should do most of the computational work of math, leaving the focus on the interdisciplinary purpose of mathematics: http://mikegwaltney.net/math-is-dead-long-live-mathematics/

Creative, Appealing, Meaningful Learning

[pullquote]In Project-based Learning, students experience school as appealing and the work of their teachers and peers as innovative. In well designed projects, students explore different perspectives and create their own understanding of the world’s most meaningful topics.[/pullquote]Grant Wiggins has just written about a study released in 1983 – my freshman year of high school. The study’s conclusions fit what I remember about schooling:

“School curriculum is sterile. Topics of great human interest on the way to the classroom are apparently transformed and homogenized into something of limited appeal. Students scarcely ever speculate on meaning or discuss alternative interpretations. Teachers teach as they were taught years ago in their own schooling. All the messages received by them conspire to reinforce the status quo. The cards are stacked against innovation.” [emphasis added]

Grant’s post ends with “plus ça change“, and I don’t doubt that in many classrooms, if not in most in the United States, the curriculum is STILL sterile, and the work students are asked to do is STILL neither creative nor meaningful to them.

But many schools and teachers are doing innovative work. It’s not hard to be inspired by the great project-based teaching at High Tech High, the Science Leadership Academy, and at the New Tech Network Schools. In my own career, I’ve been fortunate to have the freedom to see the required curriculum differently, to be creative, and my students have benefited.

Here’s just one example.

In my U.S. History course last year, I wanted my students to think deeply about the cultural effects of the Cold War on American life. After a unit of study in which we explored many of the key political events and social trends through socratic seminar (try this method, here), I put some questions to my students:

  • How might you have been affected by the events of the Cold War, if you had been alive then?
  • How do you think these events in the U.S. and around the world affected individual Americans, and the culture in general?
  • What cultural trends do you notice in America that might have been influenced by the Cold War?
  • What more do you want to know about the Cold War’s impact on American life?

 

Students came up with some truly interesting responses, and raised a number of potential research and discussion topics. I challenged the students to consider if the topics were meaningful to other people, and how. I told them that if the topics passed my vetting process, they would be free to research them, but that they would have to share their answers with the world. They agreed.

By designing a project in which students pursue their own inquiry, what I was actually doing was asking them to speculate on what is historically meaningful and to develop their own interpretations of history. I asked them to be historians.

Here are their topics, in this Google Doc:

Sure, I had content goals for this project in mind before I gave it to the students. My challenge was to fit those content goals into the project’s design. Where there were gaps between the curriculum and the students’ interest, I designed some short socratic seminar moments and embedded them in class at key points during their research. By the end of the project, I was confident that my students were learning in ways that were creative, appealing, and meaningful to them.

In Project-based Learning, students experience school as appealing and the work of their teachers and peers as innovative. In well designed projects, students explore different perspectives and create their own understanding of the world’s most meaningful topics.

How can you see your curriculum differently?

 

Building a Better High School Government Course

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My students at the White House (2010).

An energetic young teacher spent the summer of 1996 preparing to teach Advanced Placement U.S. Government for the first time. This week, that teacher finished teaching his last AP Government course. After 18 years, I am done with “AP Gov” for the foreseeable future.

I am as passionate today about teaching citizenship as I have ever been, arguably more so, and I will be teaching a different kind of course in government and politics next year.

A Better Civics Course

Though my school isn’t offering AP, I have the unique opportunity in 2014-15 to teach a new and different kind of government course. One that drops some of the things I’ve never quite liked about the Advanced Placement program – the breakneck attempt to cram content, the standardization of everything (knowledge AND students), and the high-pressure exam culture. My new course will be inquiry-/project-based and in line with our school’s and department’s mission:

OES prepares students… so that they may realize their power for good as citizens of local and world communities.

The department… motivates students to raise, investigate, and respond to meaningful questions about human experience, so that they may become active citizens locally and globally.

A “better government course” will give students the chance to actually be citizens, engaged in the community, and not simply academics studying citizenship and preparing for exams. I imagine students will do work that is meaningful to them, while preparing for both university and a life of contribution to local and global societies.

What is a great high school level course in government, politics, and citizenship?

Any ideas? I could use your help in designing my new course.

Complete this form below, or use the comment tool on this blog post. In future posts, I will describe the process of designing this course, from soup to nuts, and key events in its roll-out in 2014-15.

NAIS ’13 + EdCampIS ’13 Resources

I was fortunate to be able to attend and to lead sessions at both the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Annual Conference and EdCamp Independent Schools last week in Philadelphia. Here are some of the resources I used in my four sessions:

Leading with High Quality Project-Based Learning, NAIS (with Suzie Boss and Jonathan E. Martin);
How to Support and Advance PBL in Independent Schools, EdCamp (with Jonathan E. Martin):

Workshop Website with Resources: http://tinyurl.com/leadpbl[iframe src=”https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1U3YM30D3kR9RYP-7vySP1afI-1xndXoqAJRHpppZoK4/embed?start=false&loop=false&delayms=3000″ frameborder=”0″ width=”480″ height=”389″ allowfullscreen=”true” mozallowfullscreen=”true” webkitallowfullscreen=”true”]

Technology is Not The Answer, NAIS (with Brad Rathgeber):[iframe src=”https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/19HGzmjVxKZ_nOGPxr23yRwrU6THtiV_ANYkihFNanNU/embed?start=false&loop=false&delayms=3000″ height=”299″ width=”480″ allowfullscreen=”true” frameborder=”0″]

3. Teaching Writing in a Digital Age, EdCamp:[iframe: src=”https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1PsognVdS06jClop0zqkr3_oUEN44YeVxqnqtaBarMw8/embed?start=false&loop=false&delayms=3000″ frameborder=”0″ width=”450″ height=”357″ allowfullscreen=”true” mozallowfullscreen=”true” webkitallowfullscreen=”true”>]