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Earlier this month, Valerie Strauss, in her Washington Post blog “Answer Sheet,” published a guest post by Steve Neumann entitled “Why kids—now more than ever—need to learn philosophy. Yes, philosophy.” Neumann, to his credit, recognizes the seeming absurdity of his claim, opening his manifesto by acknowledging that “The idea that schoolchildren should become philosophers will be scoffed at by school boards, teachers, parents, and philosophers alike.” But Neumann is not arguing for esoterica; his is a call for a more usable philosophy. As he writes, The kind of philosophy I have in mind helps kids become better citizens by turning the classroom into what the philosopher John Dewey called ‘embryonic society.’”

Laughable though it may appear, in today’s hyper-partisan society, Neumann’s call is spot on. In particular, Neumann takes issue with political polarization and the “state of discourse” in our current political culture—an issue that shapes my own educational philosophy. Neumann states, “I think most of us realize that society is a necessary compromise, and at least pay lip service to the idea that critical thinking and effective communication are virtues essential for its success. As we get older  many of us tend to be less open to new information, evidence, and arguments — but we can and should instill the requisite virtues in our children via K-12 education.” He quotes Frederick Douglass in support of this: “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Central to Neumann’s article are the concepts of inquiry and dialogue—hallmarks, to my mind, of any good classroom.

The focus is on asking questions because philosophy, as Socrates said, begins in wonder. We don’t just ask ourselves questions—we ask others, those who make up our society. It’s true that philosophy involves a lot of sittin’ and thinkin’ on one’s own, but as the late American philosopher Matthew Lipman wrote in his essay “The Educational Role of Philosophy:”

“Philosophy may begin in wonder and eventuate in understanding, or even, in a few instances, in wisdom, but along the way it involves a good deal of strenuous activity. This activity generally takes the form of dialogue.”

Dialogue is key because only then will our assumptions, reasoning, and conclusions be challenged. Only then can we become better thinkers. And in the process of becoming better thinkers through intellectually rigorous dialogue, our children can become better citizens.

Neumann argues for a constructivist classroom, or as he describes it, “a kind of philosophical apprenticeship where they learn by doing.” Although his focus is explicitly on philosophy, I think the idea holds for history as well. As he writes, “The teacher’s job is to guide and inform student inquiries, helping them pay attention to the quality of their reasoning, and making sure they realize they’re meeting on terms of equality and mutual respect.” That’s exactly what I try to do in my own classroom. I even wrote an article about this a few years ago.

As I read the news about Antonin Scalia’s death and the partisan rancor that swirls around his potential replacement, I can’t help but think of the opportunity that exists for those teachers brave enough to wade into the controversy. What a wonderful opportunity this offers to help students ask important and relevant questions, and then converse about it. In an ideal setting, the classroom would contain a spectrum of opinions which led to strenuous—though civil—conversation.

We have an opportunity to help our students become philosophers or historians or whatever they want to be, but we have an obligation to help them become citizens worthy of the name. Neumann is right: the younger generation has the capacity to create a better, more civil politics, but they won’t do it unless we help them. Left to their own devices (literally and figuratively), they will be socialized by the likes of Donald Trump and Michael Moore, and they will be trapped by our broken status. We, the Teachers, must help them become philosophers (in the sense that Neumann describes) so that they might envision a better way.

This is a great article and should be read by all teachers, but especially history/humanities teachers.

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On Monday, I came across this article on The Atlantic website: “A Better Way to Teach History.” It should be required reading for all history teachers. The author describes an undergraduate class at Harvard taught by Professor David Moss, who does most of his teaching at the Harvard Business School.

In a spacious classroom in Aldrich Hall on the Harvard Business School campus, 100 students are passionately discussing a case called “Battle Over a Bank.” But these aren’t MBA students deliberating over how much the government should regulate the financial sector. This group of mostly undergraduates, guided by the award-winning Harvard Business School professor David Moss, is diving into the fierce 1791 debate over whether the Constitution could be interpreted to allow the fledgling U.S. government the power to form a bank at all.

This class, “History of American Democracy,” is no pedestrian historical survey course. It uses the case method—the business school’s signature teaching technique—to immerse undergraduates (as well as a limited number of HBS students) in critical episodes in the development of American democracy.

The article was a revelation. As someone who is committed to a more constructivist classroom, I am always looking for tools and techniques to add to my toolbox. The Harkness method forms the cornerstone of my pedagogical approach, but students (and I!) sometimes need a change of pace. The case study approach looks like a wonderful way to bring the concept of contingency alive for students–to illustrate the present is profoundly shaped by each decision made in the past. By extension, the decisions we make in the present will shape the future.

Along those lines, the case study method offers a way to engage students in the learning process and also, as the article states, “help students develop an instinct for how to respond even to problems—whether they be furor over same sex marriage or a massive financial crisis—that feel unprecedented. Through sheer repetitive exposure to problems and problem-solving, students learn the art of decision-making.” This is very much in keeping with my vision of history education as a key to civic preparation.

Last fall, I discovered the National History Center‘s Mock Policy Briefing Program, which has the potential to do much the same thing: illustrate for students for students how the study of the past can, in fact, have relevance in the present and influence the future in important ways.

Read education journals or blogs for any length of time, and one thing quickly becomes apparent: educators are obsessed with the idea of “innovation.” And rightly so. But the ways in which we conceive of innovation tend to be confined to the classroom. One reason I so enjoy Steve Taffee’s blog, Blogg-ed Indetermination, is because he frequently offers an innovative perspective on the more mundane practicalities of school life–everything from classroom architecture to lab safety.

In today’s post, he offers a terrific take on why a relatively old idea–teachers’ unions–might be a crucial innovation for independent schools in the 21st century.

As Taffee correctly points out, there are very real concerns about the economic sustainability of the independent school model over the long-term. Particularly if we hope to make our schools more–not less–diverse, we must find new ways of keeping costs down while still providing a high-quality educational experience.

When you’re talking about someone’s kids, though, slash-and-burn accounting is unacceptable. As I’ve said before on this blog, in education–even private education–the bottom line shouldn’t be the bottom line.

Taffee puts it like this:

Financial pressures in independent schools, coupled with the need to demonstrate curricular leadership, may lead to the expectation for teachers to adopt new practices despite diminished support for professional development activities. Sabbatical programs, educational travel to conferences, released time for course development and collaboration may be compromised. Who is going to protect the ongoing investment in faculty and staff to guarantee that the quality of teaching and learning is maintained?

I encourage all independent school educators to read this terrific post.

New York Times Magazine, September 18, 2011
If you haven’t yet read it, stop what you’re doing and read Paul Tough’s recent article in the New York Times Magazine, “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” I’m not sure this is quite as radical as the cover suggests, but it’s an important topic nevertheless. Among other things, Tough explores the supposed difference between “moral character” (the kind of “character” with which we’re all likely familiar) and “performance character” (the kind with which we should probably become more familiar).

Although there’s certainly much to be said for moral character, it is probably more in line with the mission of schools to teach performance character–encapsulated, at least in the context of this article, by such traits as zest, grit, and resilience. The importance of this new push, according to Tough, comes from the research of psychologist Martin Seligman. According to Seligman’s research, there are twenty-four character traits that “represented a reliable path to ‘the good life,’ a life that was not just happy but also meaningful and fulfilling.”

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