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Habits of mind


Editor's note: Deborah Meier is in China for three weeks where she has been invited to give a keynote address in Shanghai at the World Conference on Transformation of Classroom Teaching. She also plans to speak to students at the Institute of Curriculum and Instruction at East China Normal University. She will return to the blog in June.

Dear Diane,

When you read this I’ll be in China.

But I did take a peek at your response before I left, Diane. The trouble is that my definition (there can be two or more) of being well-educated is closer to driving than it is to learning the kinds of knowledge that the tests you describe measure. (And with nowhere near the accuracy you suggest. For example, much depends on what kind of “distractors”—wrong answers—you imbed the “right answer” in, etc). It’s those hard-won habits that have stood us in good stead, even as we’ve forgotten the answers to the history questions you describe. But it’s the intellectual habits that every teacher should be attending to, even if it’s very time-consuming. That’s what schooling is primarily for and what, for me, everything else must come second. It’s hard work, but my goal is precisely to stop students from asking “WILL IT BE ON THE TEST”! The kind of attentiveness Shanker was describing (called cramming for the test) leads to bad habits. Twelve years of such bad habits are not good for most of us in real life.

Or maybe its just that I’ve had to depend on “habits” given my more rote memory! Maybe we all prefer the kind of education that suits our strengths?

But reading your comments and Wesley Null’s response leads me to realize that we are not going to “settle” this issue to everyone’s satisfactions. But why must we? The trouble is when we rush to turning our ideas into the law, then one of us wins and one loses, versus learning from each other about the plusses and minuses of our differences in actual practice.

In responding to Wesley, I wrote: “The trouble is, Wesley, that the way you and Diane would deal with curriculum doesn't make us think at all—us ordinary teachers, the ones who connect with the young, or their parents or community. All it requires of us is to ‘follow’ it, with our own pedagogical tricks. Indeed, in contrast, my notion of curriculum requires all of us to do that hard thinking about what's critical and why, and to defend it to our students and community.” I don’t object, in short, to schools that choose to follow a curriculum designed by others—by no means. Or one that rests its work on short-answer tests, but why do they want to insist that I do the same?

I know: equity. But that’s assuming that equity requires “sameness”, uniformity, etc. The rich can get high quality by following different paths—why not the poor?

The other answer: to create a common culture. Yet I've never found it hard to communicate or bond intellectually with adults whose schooling was very different than mine—especially the curriculum. It's an idea I've heard often for which all the empirical evidence I know suggests otherwise. I refer not only to Canadians and English, but Frenchmen, Egyptians and Chinese, not to mention those who went to different American schools. In fact, my definition of being well-educated erases parochial differences in curriculum and unites us in a larger community of thinkers. Maybe the one requirement might be that we all take one course on the argument itself (see Gerald Graff).

I suggest that there never was a common core that really worked for the ends you hope for. (See Rothstein, "The Way We Were?," on the state of common knowledge in 1890, 1910, 1940, etc). Alas or otherwise, our “common curriculum” is the pop media—and maybe directly tackling it might serve future citizens better than the curriculum academics are inclined to invent.

The best education I ever had was over the dining room table, as adults talked politics and culture (and how they dealt with the daily realities) in the presence of the young and with due respect for their contributions. Fortunately, my school was willing to pick up on those same arguments and concerns and to appreciate the spirit behind them. My personal favorite schools today do the same: they recreate a multi-age dining room conversation. Sometimes it’s even over the heads of the young—which works fine if no judgment is made about one’s intelligence based on this inevitable fact. Powerful adults are attractive to kids, and when we invite them to join us on matters we think important they often will, with enthusiasm. Then they will remember those facts that help them join the conversation. Ditto for “the power of their ideas” (hence the title of a book I wrote) and our joining the kids as they “read the world” in ways that can enlarge our understanding as well.

It’s the standards for such conversation that unite curriculum and pedagogy, what at CPESS we called Habits of Mind and that others codify in other ways.



Dear Debbie and Diane,

It seems that we (in the US) have blinders on when it comes to examining, and finding solutions for educational practices. We seem to be so focused on examining our own problems and thinking of solutions that we ignore that other countries may be doing things that we could learn from. I am referring to Finland which happens to score at the top of an international survey (2003)by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development in subject areas like reading, math and science. Other Scandinavian countries follow a similar system.

Critical components are:
1) Well-educated teachers. All teachers must have a masters degree.

2) A core national curriculum with goals and subject areas laid out. Teachers have the freedom to teach the way they want, with or without textbooks, in large or small groups, indoors or outdoors.

3) Regular recess periods throughout the day which are used for outdoor play, art and music.

4) Formal instruction in subject areas does not start until first grade. This is based on the philosophy that young children learn best through play. Most children have been in childcare since age one where much informal learning takes place (hence the importance of well-educated early childhood teachers, called pedagogues).

5) Creative art experiences and physical education are required part of the curriculum.

The above information paraphrased from the New York Times article "Educators Flocking to Finland, Land of Literate Children," by Lizette Alvarez (April 29, 2004)

What I referred to above does not mean that we mindlessly incorporate these practices into our own educational system. It does mean that we need to examine closely what others outside our own borders are doing successfully and adapt what seems useful to our own context.

I am particularly interested in your ongoing dialogue since I teach college students who are preparing to become early childhood and elementary school teachers, as well as those who are teachers returning to complete a Masters Degree.

I am so worried that we may be losing the best and the brightest of our students. I find that there is a great deal of dissatisfaction with current practices among my brightest students. They tell me that they are told what, when, and how to teach young children. Several have indicated to me that they will not remain in the profession since they do not feel that they are treated as knowledgeable, experienced professionals.

They tell me that what they consider to be good teaching and learning in their classrooms (pre-k through grade 2) has to occur as a subversive activity. They are working around prescriptive (and restrictive) curricula that limit young children's learning to what will be measured on whatever assessment system their district happens to be using.

The predicament is this:

Our students are becoming experts in early childhood education. They learn how to create envirnments and curriula based on their knowledge and understanding of children in general, of their particular group of children, as well as knowledge and understanding of the different subject areas.

They learn how to use all of the above into creating intellectually challenging and emotionally satisfying curricula for children ages 3-8. They learn how to document and assess their children's learning over time.

How can these educators use
what they have learned in their teacher education courses in an environment
that will not let them use their skills? Which other profession works like this?!

Sonja de Groot Kim


If we follow your argument to conclusion, then the best way of educating our children is abolish school and mandate parents talk to their kids during dinner time.

If we as a society have nothing to offer children except adult conversation, why waste their time in a school setting?

It would be more cost effective to have children shadow their parents during the day, listening to all the mundane problems that adults encounter daily.



Your conclusion is dead-on. Younger kids would be better suited learning from their families, and teenagers from mentors.

School is there for 3 reasons: none of which are best for kids.

1. Daycare
2. Jobs for the education industry
3. To standardize kids so they'll
resist being entrepreneurs and
buy in to our mass-consumption economy.

Imagine this model:

Kids work on projects of meaning to them and their families. Everything is based on individual choice. No one size fits all nonsense.

For example, a young person might intern two days a week in a field of interest. (intellectual development / career exploration)

Then that person might spend 1 day a week volunteering and serving a need in the community. (citizenship / moral development)

Kids spend the remaining 2 days of the week pursuing independent study.

(intellectual development)


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