You taught for a number of years in the New York City public
school system. When did your interest in education become
I decided to upgrade my credentials and wound up taking a
Master’s degree at Stanford. Then, because life happens, it
turned into a PhD. Among the most interesting things I did there
was work with students who were studying to become teachers
to create a curriculum for inner-city kids by taking them out into
the wilderness. It actually didn’t have anything to do with the
environment, except in what it means to create an educational
environment without walls. It was all about experience-based
education and it helped to develop my understanding of democratic communities in education.
Have educators actually been able to create these kinds
There never was a golden age of education, but since at least
the Progressive Era of education reform, there has been a lot
of research that recognizes the importance of relationships
to teaching and learning. It’s a human endeavour with all the
messiness that implies. Over the last 20 years, school reforms
have started moving away from a lot of these human and
relational aspects of schooling. Today, there’s plenty of rhetoric
about creativity, critical thinking, different styles of learning and
multiple intelligences. But, in the end, school reform has coalesced
around this myopic focus on standardization and accountability
in only two subject areas: math and literacy. Across North America
we’ve seen this terrible narrowing of the curriculum where
everything unrelated to raising test scores is pushed off the table
or de-emphasized to make room for months and months of test
preparation. Our whole culture has become obsessed with metrics.
Why do educational metrics pose such a problem?
There’s a parable about a guy looking for his car keys under
a streetlight on a corner. A woman comes along to help him and
asks if he’s sure he lost the keys there. He replies that he lost
them on another corner, but the light is better here. That’s what’s
happened to us. We’re good at knowing whether kids can add
Smart Ideas: Q&A
The Federation for the Humanities and
Social Sciences presents a six-part series
of interviews with notable humanities and
social sciences researchers with smart
ideas for a better tomorrow. This month we
speak to Joel Westheimer, who holds the
University Research Chair in Democracy
and Education at the University of Ottawa.
Education and the ‘lost keys’
to democratic citizenship
two plus two and get four, we’re good at knowing whether they
can decode the words of a sentence to get at the meaning, but we’re
not good at measuring critical thinking, creativity, imagination,
citizenship, ability to be in healthy relationships – all those things
teachers and parents care about but aren’t measured. So what
happens is like the guy under the street light: we start to care
about the things we can measure because we can’t measure the
things we really care about.
How do we even identify those things we really care about,
much less defend them?
For me, the ultimate question is what should schools be doing
in a democratic society that schools in a totalitarian dictatorship
wouldn’t do? Is there anything different between Canadian schools
and schools in North Korea? We’d like to think it’s totally different, but when you think of things such as fractions or chemistry or
the life cycle of a glow worm, all this stuff is taught all around the
world. One of the key things that has to be different in Canadian
schools and in other democratic societies is we need to teach kids
to ask questions and think critically about the world around them.
In democratic societies you’re asking people to participate in their
own governance and not take anything for granted or at face value.
Don’t we already cover that when we teach students about civics?
Even when people talk about citizenship education, it’s almost
always things like character education – being a good person,
picking up litter, showing up to work on time, paying taxes, giving
blood. It’s the same thing that the leaders of North Korea would
want. There’s not a country on the planet that wouldn’t want
people to be nice and not to litter, so what are the special skills
required in a democratic society? Democratic citizenship requires
more. It requires that people participate in choosing things in
their community and it requires that they are able to do so from
multiple perspectives. There are tons of teachers doing this amazing
work in schools. But the problem is that right now we have too
many teachers who are doing that despite the current state of
school reform rather than because of it. It’s not done in systematic
ways. There’s no support for them.
SMART IDEAS SUPPORTING YOUTH AND EDUCATION
Leading thinkers are reinventing how to educate young people to better prepare them for the future.
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