Review of Deborah Meier, In Schools We Trust

Deborah Meier, In Schools We Trust

Deborah Meier, In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization

The Tweetable Review
Meier, a passionate advocate for schools as democratic institutions, makes a case that what schools need more than anything else is trust.

Central to Meier’s thesis is the idea that in the days of yore, “learning” meant studying (often through apprenticeship) at the foot of an experienced adult, and she wants to see more of this in today’s schools. This is not nostalgia, though. She writes, “Greater, not less, intimacy between generations is at the heart of all the best school reform efforts around today and is the surest path to restoring trust in public education.” (13)

She uses the process of learning to drive as an example: “Think how efficiently virtually all young people learn to drive a car if they have lived for years in a family of drivers, have ridden in the front seat, have imitated (both in their heads and in their bodies) the motions of a driver, have gotten a feel for where the sides of the car are and how close the outside world is. . . . If we were to stop and think about all the discrete skills we internalized when we were pretending to drive, it’s actually both staggering and scary. Some of us need not much more than a few hours of formal instruction! . . . Lots of tasks that we think of as fairly simple seem so only because we learned them in settings like this.” (16-17) Key to effective learning in those situations is built on trust between “teacher” and “student”–and that trust is itself built on proximity, patience, and a belief that all students can learn what it is we have to teach.

As I read this, I found myself wondering: given the public safety that learning to drive represents, why don’t we “track” student drivers based on their early driver’s ed test scores: some people would only be qualified to drive at speeds of 45 mph and below, while others may roam the interstates with Autobahn-like freedom. And why is it acceptable to “grade” behind-the-wheel driving exams pass/fail but not math exams? It seems to me that a “D” driver represents a potentially greater threat to society than does the “D” math student, but the driver goes on about his merry way while the math student is stigmatized as inferior.

In keeping with her idea that students must learn in the company of adults, Meier reminds readers not to shy away from disagreements with their students. For one thing, the ability to disagree with others–even, or perhaps especially, those who might seen as one’s “superiors”–is a skill that goes to the heart of democratic participation. Beyond that, though, legitimate disagreements (as opposed to contrived “debates” where neither side has much of an investment in the outcome) also present some of the most powerful opportunities for personal and academic growth.

She writes:

Some of the best serious discussions we have with kids are moments of disagreement between adults or between adults and kids. They seem less afraid of strong disagreements than we are, and opening up alternate views is usually exciting to them, like the time some fourth and fifth graders were happy to miss lunch and recess to argue with each other–and James and me–about evolution, God, and damnation. While we all enjoyed it, James and I also saw skills and knowledge displayed that we had not seen before. Showing kids what a culture of debate might look like ought to be a function of democratic schools. (76)

This resonates with me, as I tell my students often: “Disagree is good for discussion.” I try to assign readings that will naturally promote disagreement at some level, but to my mind, there is nothing better than seeing two classmates go at it in a dialectical discussion, questioning each other’s ideas and assumptions, and forcing each other to provide evidence to support them. It doesn’t happen every day, but when it develops (often unexpectedly), it’s pure gold. The trick is make sure they understand how to disagree in a way that is productive for both parties (and for their classmates who are watching–often with bulging eyes and rapt attention).

Although it’s possible that a contentious classroom environment might make some students uncomfortable, I think it likely that many more students would be relieved to find themselves in a classroom where their ideas are taken seriously.

To promote trust between teachers, Meier advocates a school culture which makes regular classroom visits a norm. It’s frequently said that teaching is one of the most isolating professions out there, and I believe it. Sure, teachers are by and large a friendly bunch, and love to talk in the cafeteria or the faculty lounge, but how often do they actually observe each other doing their work? Rarely. Still, if we hope to create a culture where teachers can talk openly about the best ways to help children learn, they have to trust each other. Moreover, if we hope to create a culture where faculty can critique each other’s work (and model for students a “growth mindset,” to use Carol Dweck’s term), they have to trust each other. And that trust starts with seeing each other in a professional setting–as opposed to a social setting that just happens to be in the physical workspace.

Lastly, Meier makes a point of emphasizing the need for parent/community “buy-in.” For independent school educators, this is a given. We all know that parents and their tuition dollars play a significant role in a school’s budget, so a measure of transparency (especially about “big picture” issues of philosophy and policy) is appropriate. I find it even more interesting, though, that Meier is writing about public school settings. In “public” schools, how much do citizens–or even parents with school-aged children–really know about what goes on behind the scenes? And if the answer is (as I suspect), “Not much,” then can we really call them public schools?

Questions for Discussion, Critique, or Further Consideration

  • How can schools with established faculties (i.e., not hiring to build or remake a school “from the ground up”) promote the kind of share1d responsibility, trust, and collaboration seen at places like Mission Hill without the less than democratic use of carrots and sticks?
  • How can schools–particularly high schools–balance their role as a training ground for democratic participation with their role as a sorting mechanism for an increasingly competitive college admissions process?
  • How can schools best model the often messy and contentious nature of democratic discourse (among adults and students) in ways that promote passionate intellectual engagement and civility simultaneously?
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