« Birthday Thoughts | Main | Summerhill & I »

How To Get From Here to There


Dear Diane,

It’s helpful in some way to know that I “have to” write once a week for some audience—including first and foremost you. It makes me set aside snippets here and there to possibly write and think about. I put an old essay that Florence Miller and I wrote together about a book you and Chester Finn wrote 20 years ago onto my Web site. (“What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?”). I posted it in Florence’s memory—since she died a few weeks ago. She had a sharp wit, and I heard it in that piece. I still like that style, although I’m less convinced that it works. Given the change in our relationship, I felt uneasy at reprinting it. But it’s a useful reminder of where you and I disagreed—and probably still do.

Last week, I spoke at an “alternative school conference” in Troy, New York. Many of those attending were Summerhillian “free school” types. It was interesting to approach the curriculum debates from their extreme. But the common ground was our insistence that we find ways for adults and young people to meet together around interesting questions and projects—and the mutual respect that it assumes. It’s that “I, thou, and it” connection which David Hawkins wrote about that I find myself always going back to. It’s why I want strong adults, whose natural authority helps young people develop their own natural authority, whose passions inspire their passions, and whose disciplined “good work” lays the ground for novices honing their own self-disciplined work. It’s why I find it hard to agree with your focus on “what we know.” Especially in an age when just putting something into “Google” produces amazing results!

But there are those perennial trade-offs, dilemmas, conundrums that I realize seem critical to pass on to the young—in the name of democracy. In my keynote at the Alternative Education Resource Organization's conference I addressed the idea that modern democracy was just as “unnatural” and counter-intuitive as modern science. It’s filled with traps and trade-offs. There is no way to perfectly solve the question of whose voice “counts”, especially at the ballot box. Or where and why some decisions must be made close to the action versus others in more distant but representative forums. Why age 18? Why should non-experts have the same vote as experts? Why should an 18-year-old's vote carry the same weight as mine?

And if we agree that all votes are equal, then what else needs to change so that we all have somewhat more equal wisdom and power? Shouldn’t we all have equal leisure time to consider the merits, or the money to hire lobbyists to persuade our fellow citizens, or equal access to the media? And, at least, an equally powerful education?

One of our readers, Erin, keeps being disturbed at my attention to nonschool factors. Aside from sheer empathy for those whose lives are more fragile than mine, my quest for more just social policy rests on my obsession with democracy. Democracy presumes some—undefined—level of equality of mind, spirit, and condition (health, a place to sleep, food, etc). But just what level?

Then there’s the conundrum of conundrums—how to get from here to there. How to build a more egalitarian (and therefore more democratic) society in the absence of all those fundamental necessities? If one must create the future out of the stuff that the past and present offer us, is a more full-blown democracy a utopian dream? Efforts to get around this dilemma—vanguard parties of one sort or another—are not the answer. Yet the temptation is great to fall back on “vanguards”, and we all succumb to it here and there.

I spent many years trying to imagine how—if I had the power—I could design a test that would lead schools, teachers, kids, and parents to seek the kind of schooling I wanted them to have. As parent, teacher, school board member, and principal I was tempted to wish that the power rested with me. I gave up for two reasons: one, I doubted if I’d have sufficient power to do so, and two, because I kept seeing ways in which the unpersuaded could get around the ends I had in mind, but still pass the test!

But are there some “in-betweens”, measures that would increase the likelihood, the odds—on a broad and bold scale—that we could get schools to attend to creating a generation of motivated, creative, inventive, self-disciplined, and empathetic truth-seekers?


P.S. Remind me to get back to the 1967 civil rights agenda. That was the year I became seriously involved with schools and less with civil and economic rights. It was the start of an exciting experience in which I imagined we could change schools from below—and en masse—if only “they” gave us the time and resources. What were you in the midst of, Diane, during that period?


Debora, how interesting that your PS should recall "the start of an exciting experience in which I imagined we could change schools from below". And here we are at the start of another similar moment, where the power of the Internet offers us the chance to deliver content, evaluation, repetition, sensory-reinforcement, and more all directly to the student, no stops at state boards of education, textbook factories, district mega-offices, or curriculum directors.

Well, its a chance. I was more optimistic that we'd actually do it, back in '03.

Its useful to remember that we have a few generations now of pretty creative, motivated, empathetic people. But we need to harp and harp on the inequalities, as you two do so well.

I was talking race here; but we can also talk about the poor education of our press-so essential to democracy.

A good topic perhaps, this Happy Birthday US week.


As a clarification, there is nothing wrong what-so-ever with focusing on non-school issues from a social standpoint.

The difficulty arises in insisting that in "solving" these non-school issues (if they really can be solved) affect learning MORE than school based reforms.

By focusing only on social issues, you are ceeding all school based reforms to the Bloomberg/Klein model of schooling.

Not an inspiring idea.

Erin Johnson

Ed is so right when saying,

"And here we are at the start of another similar moment, where the power of the Internet offers us the chance to deliver content, evaluation, repetition, sensory-reinforcement, and more all directly to the student, no stops at state boards of education, textbook factories, district mega-offices, or curriculum directors""

I don't know to get there either. But we don't need to know in advance. Some things will shift the winds, and we will tack, and something good and great will happen.


Thank you for an interesting and unsettling post. I have many responses, thoughts, and questions, but will focus for now on one point you made, about the internet. With all the riches that the internet offers us, I am concerned that we make too much of the "information superhighway."

You write: "It’s why I find it hard to agree with your focus on 'what we know.' Especially in an age when just putting something into 'Google' produces amazing results!"

I would like to respond to the last part: "when just putting something into 'Google' produces amazing results." It is true. It does. I do that just about every day, for fun, for edification, and for information that I need.

As amazing as the Google results are, they can also mislead. How often have I found a poem misquoted, a phrase mistranslated? How often have I seen someone slandered on a presumably "official" website that turned out to be phony? How often have I found incorrect dates and numbers, incoherent statements, faulty conclusions, plagiarism? Worse still, how often have I failed to catch such things?

Also, much of the information, even when accurate, tends to be abridged. People expect shorter pieces when they go online than when they read a magazine or book. So, the great abundance of information has a trade-off: incompleteness. We get used to the sliver and take it for the whole cake.

To make any sort of sense of the internet, we need knowledge that will enable us to sort out truth from falsehood, good reasoning from skewed logic, superficial summaries from in-depth analyses. This cannot be achieved through critical thinking alone. We need to know many basic facts, concepts, terms, works, methods of investigation, and more.

Fact-learning has its pitfalls, like anything else. If students learn facts without striving to make sense of them; if they learn names and dates just to pass the test; if they pull all-nighters reading Cliff notes on literature instead of reading the books themselves, they gain little. But they gain no more when grappling with ideas out of context, debating concepts without knowing their history, thinking themselves original as they blithely rehash ideas from centuries ago, with much less skill than their forebears. This is a danger for adults as well as kids. I have to watch for it in myself all the time. At any moment I can slip into sloppy thinking--and, worse, get away with it.

It is exciting that we have so much information at our fingertips. But can we make good use of it, if we don’t have information in our heads?


Yes yes yes. That's why we need adults in schools who are s skeptical about tedtbo0oks as the internet, or any other source. Her help kids know how they might go abut making sense of thingds--those 5 habits of mind tht CPESS anf Mission Hill wre built on. The first was "hoe do you know what you know"--or think you know. It's part of every course--the nature of evidence. But fact-learning is not the anwer to it. I need to question my own memory--which is (in my case) a very weak reed.

Indeed they must learn early that "opinions" are at best a first wtep, possibly utterly worthless. What is valued are "ideas"--opinions that have gone stage beyond, and even then need the echange of ideas tht confronts us with questions and the need for a new set of facts or ways of interpreting them. That's what the social-interaction of a good classroom, and good authors, and the guidance of wise and smart adultds or experts can do for us.

Thanks for adding to my point...or were you disagreeing?



Yes, I was disagreeing with you, but I can see how I built on part of your point at the same time. Yes, we need to work with ideas in the classroom--but we need facts in order to do so.

Of course facts are always incomplete--but every stage of fact-learning makes the next level possible. In a history class, students should learn names, dates, and much more--but it should not stop there. The teacher should give them a glimpse into the next level.

Say one is looking into an aspect of the Great Depression. Such work flails if we lack knowledge of the basics: when it took place, what the most commonly cited causes were, how it affected the worldwide economy, how it was depicted in literature and art, and how we emerged from it. From there we can investigate any one of those or other topics. At a higher level, we would understand each of those topics in greater depth, and would be able to explore a subtopic or more general topic.

If the kids have no idea what the Great Depression was or when it happened, then we have to reteach the basics over and over again, every time we bring it up. That prevents us from working with the ideas.

Or let's take a language like Latin. It's no fun reading Virgil if you have to look up every word and refer to the grammar book all the time. It's lots of fun if you have built up enough vocabulary and grammar that you only have to look up words here and there. It helps if you have also read Homer and learned the basics of Greek and Roman mythology.

We need to learn the facts in order to question them, use them, add to them, discuss them--in order to do all those important things that you mention. The internet does not change this--if anything, we need to work harder now to build the knowledge we need.

Yes again, Diane. If we want to argue about baseball we need to know some facts about baseball. But, do we start off telling kids who aren't yet fans the facts or take them to a game in the company of expert fans and answer their questions? Or even, as I recall how my kids became fans, just being in the company of older fans turned them into fans--it was part of seeing oneself, ones identity and one "manhood"--or, in my case, "womahood"/.

So, first we have to decide how much of all the things "worth knowing" can be the focus of life in school. Suppose some of us (like) never learn Latin or read Virgil in the original. And if the answer is--not enough--then we have to hope that the "way" we deal with it in school leads learners to follow up out of school, on their own.

At Urban Academy they start with debates--between two or three acknowledged experts--on some essential question in the field of study. They start off introducing the kids to "the game" of ideas. Most kids haven't the foggiest idea about what you call the "next higher stage". That's where I began, thanks to a very special family. (Some learn it "on the street" or through political involvement.) Some kids pick it up on their own. But it's no wonder that great tennis players often come from tennis playing families, ditto for musicians, and so on and so forth. Schools are a very special publicly funded "family"--where adults can pass on a variety of the things they love and have expertise at--ideas, know-how, special art and crafts, and more.

Do you think most teachers haven't been trying to do what you describe for a century and more? Progressive education didn't kill this. It was barely tried where it was most needed. I didn't see a whiff of progressive education in any of the several hundred K-8 schools I subbed in during the 1960s in Chicago. My mother didn't see any in NYC public schools in the 1930s.

In any case, it's an approach well described by Ted Sizer in Horace's Compromise, and it's what we tried at CPESS, described in The Power of Their ideas. Read either and let's explore them together--yes, there were trade-offs. There have to be. That's what you and I need to debate.



I ordered two books today: What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? and The Power of Their Ideas. I will read them both and then respond to your latest points. I probably won't get to it until August, as I'm in the midst of books and projects right now. But I am eager to dig in, and will do so as soon as possible.

If we want to argue about baseball we need to know some facts about baseball. But, do we start off telling kids who aren't yet fans the facts or take them to a game in the company of expert fans and answer their questions?

Why must being a fan of the topic be a prerequisite to learning? What if the kid isn't a fan, but we want him to know the material anyway? What do you then?

And, the question of what to start out with has an emperical answer -- you start with whatever leads the student to learning more. If the time spent turning the kids into a fan prior to instruction, such as by attending ballgames, compensates for all the instructional time lost engaging in these activities, then that's what you'd do. Otherwise, such activities might prove to be a waste of precious instructional time.


If everything was as fun and interesting as baseball to learn about, then the techniques you describe work extremely well.

What happens when children would benefit from learning things that may not inherently be interesting to them? (e.g. algebra, US government organization, quality writing skills etc...)

While what people know (ie What our 17-year-olds know) may not capture the complete essence of what we would like our graduating student to be capable of, clearly without some level of knowledge any and all abilities will be limited.

Debates are great learning lessons. But without some knowledge of the subject, how could anyone possibly speak their mind? It is like sending soldiers into battle without bullets. With a full understanding and tip-of-the tongue knowledge base of all points of view and possible arguements, a student can use a debate exceptionally well to articulate his/her debates. But of what use is having the student stand up there and feel like an idiot because he/she knows nothing about which the other debators know?

Questioning the conventional wisdom is how we progress. But how can anyone really question what they know not?

Erin Johnson

K--You missed the point--maybe. I was describing a kid who ISN'T yet baeball fan. (It can be a very boring game to nonfans.)

But perhaps we disagree about the importance of fanship. I just want to spred it to topics ike history, literature, science and math---among many manyt more things.

E-Well, there's no point in deciding ahead of time tht everything can't be fun. No one is born "inherently" interested in baseball or tennis either.

Note also that the debaters I was describing who start off each coure are experienced experts--what we want kids to see is how the "game" is played in real life by real experts. It's precisely such experiences that might convince kids not to look like idiots and what they need to know to sound - even be - smart. It's easier for me to see if someone is "smart" if we converse about what he/she is an expert on, than by plucking quetions out of the air to see if they know the right answer. But what we clearly are disagreeing about are the "kind of" smarts that 12 long, too often tedious, years of schooling should produce. Since I find it hard to believe we can settle this by debate I think it wiser to let many definitions co-exist.


We need to teach students to tolerate boredom. This is controversial. It is customary (and more in keeping with the Eigenzeit), to eternally seek to interest students, requiring teachers to be the entertainment committee. Success is inherently reinforcing, as Skinner discussed, and good teaching strategically builds in reinforcement for successive learning. After having experienced success, students more willingly tolerate the boring parts of instruction. As Mary Poplin describes, we want students to think. BUT, as she puts it, and I paraphrase: We have to give them something to think about. It is a part of the role of the teacher to teach (and provide reinforcement for) the less than stimulating pieces of the curriculum. Learning is invigorating; learning is frustrating; learning is fun; learning is boring. The teacher works among these emotions to create a positive environment in which students may think, feel, and grow.

oddly enough, there is a somewhat famous cognitive science experiment by recht and Leslie (1988) relating to baseball and reading comprehension.

The researchers tested junior high school students who were either good or poor readers (as measured by a standard reading test) and who were also knowledgeable or not about the game of baseball (as measured by a test created for the study by three semi-professional baseball players). The children read a passage written at an early 5th-grade reading level that described a half inning of a baseball game. The passage was divided into five parts, and after each part the student was asked to use a replica of a baseball field and players to reenact and describe what they read. The researchers found that baseball knowledge had a big impact on performance: Poor readers with a high knowledge of baseball displayed better comprehension than good readers with a low knowledge of baseball.

The study shows that knowing something (facts) about the topic will aid the student's comprehension of a passsage about that topic. The facts are the import aspect. Being a fan of the topic doesn't necessarily mean that the student knows those facts. And, not being a fan doesn't preclude the student from knowing those facts. Becoming a fan of a topic might be one way of getting a student to learn about the topic, but not necessarily the only way.

I've been meaning to send a comment in regard to Deb's excellent essay, but I have to interupt the latest exchange. This discussion, questioning whether teachers should try to make learning fun, is bordering on narcissism. In the first place, I've never seen a contradiction between learning and enjoyment. I don't see how students can learn anything "real" with enjoying it.

But we need to back off and question the logic here. Are we educators so absolutely convinced by the soundness of our beliefs, theories, and personal judgements that we would place them above the intersts and attitudes of our students. Are we so convinced that they need to eat their brocolli, that we can't compromise and allow the substitution of green beans?

High school is differnt, but when I try a lesson and it falls flat, I back off, and try someday down the road when the chemistry is different. We live in such a fascinating universe, I can't see the point in wasting time battling with teenagers.

If the kids aren't interested or responding at our preferred time and/or pace, why would educators feel we have to stay on a predetermined schedule? Again, I'm not imposing judgements on methods of educators in other fields or with other ages, but just think about the lives of high school kids. If I'm on schedule to teach Federalism, which is one of the trickier topics and least interesting in the short run even though it is an important conceptual building block, what happens if we can't get it done before students start working Christmas hours? When December comes, my kids will come to class after three to four or five hours of sleep, max. I'm supposed to put my lesson plans above their energy levels?

Or when gang wars get fatal, are we supposed to stay on the "curriculum alignment" schedule? We can't just give in and allow standards to collapse, but we have to use some common sense. I guess that's my point, common sense and reading our kids has to trump adult's theories. Who do we think we are?

Well, Kim. Learning to tolerate boredom is surely the thing our schools are and have been good at for several hundred years. Except for the kids who do best in them--whom my experience tells me are overwhelmingly the least bored.

I tolerate boredom when I have to, but I do no purposely put myself in such a position except when I volunteer for it because I have other passionate interests. I used to joke with kids that the real test of our success was whether in solitary confinement we had given them the kind of schooling that would enable them to interest themselves.

I'm always completely puzzled by these responses, truly! Was it simply that I was lucky enough to have found life virtually always interesting?? I undertake hard and challenging and frustrating and even sometimes humiliating tasks out of the importance of the work itself for me and for those i care about. Whether it's motherhood, teaching, [ooring over the budget to see if I can get just one more position out of it, fixing an appiance, gardening, or whatever!

Ken. Fascinating study--I'll use it (can you send me the citation)--although to make quite a different point--that reading is always contextualized. My "trick" for handling this myself is to start reading books meant for much more naive learners--maybe upper elementary grades--if I'm exploring completely new subject; and then I work my way up. After all in some domains I am a 12 year old. But I skip it altogether if the subject bores me--meaning it doesn't grab me somewhere! Boredom is itself an interesting subject!


Deborah, John, Kim, KDeRosa, Erin,

Interesting stuff... why not debate? Deborah, I am a little confused, because at first you seemed to be calling for debate, and then in your next comment you said it was wiser not to debate the "kind of" smarts that kids need.

But is that really the question: what kind of smarts do they need? I would argue that they need one kind of smarts (facts) in order to enjoy another (ideas).

Ken, the study is very interesting and makes sense to me. I will look it up and read it.

I am waiting eagerly for those two books... I know I'll start reading them as soon as they arrive. I suspect that there's a way to reframe this question. Why assume boredom is bad, and why assume facts are boring?

I cherish the little bit of boredom I can come by. It is wonderfully calming. When I sit down to play the cello, I want to play my favorite pieces and my own songs. But it is immensely rewarding to play a technical exercise over and over, or to repeat a phrase until the fingers no longer get in the way of it. That sort of practice is tedious and boring and utterly satisfying.

I have found, to my surprise, that kids are often quite content when given the most boring things to do. A calm settles over the room, and they work away. This does not mean a teacher should strive to bore them, no! But boredom of a certain kind has its place and its meaning.

And facts are not cold, dead things. They are not "mere"; they are not "dry." A teacher can light up facts for the students, and then the facts start lighting up on their own. I refer to Latin because my Latin teacher was wonderful and did nothing special to get us interested. All she did was know and love the subject herself. Her style was deadpan, regular, impersonal--and I adored the Latin and her teaching of it.

That doesn't mean all teachers should teach the way she did. It does mean that knowledge of the subject, love of the subject, and willingness to teach it straightforwardly can go a long way.

Diana Senechal


I loved your essay because its title recalls the punch line of the old joke, “You can’t get there from here.”

I wanted to ask you whether your time at the Alternative school conference provided any ideas how to synthesize my requests for more alt ed slots for regaining order in urban classrooms. (And I should say up front, that I know it places me in a spot in order to not be hypocritical and yet argue that adults should demand certain behaviors when I’ll be seemingly contradictory in a paragraph or two.)

I also want to hear about your civil rights/education musings.

We need to synthesize to contradictory dynamics, uncovering knowledge and learning vs. discovering it. Both are real, as are the contradictions.

I can’t remember the famous historian who wrote this, but he recounted how in The Sound and the Fury, Bengie the idiot was always driven around the oval drive from right to left. One day they drive from left to right and Bengy starts screaming. Bengie was being the perfect, mindless historian, following one fact or image after another. (In Oklahoma we call it the “one damned thing after another” school after a quote by the renowned Gov. Alfalfa Bill Murray.)

Mindful historians/scholars/teachers use ideas. Ideas are filters. They filter out the extraneous. They prioritize. They focus. Our world is inundated by impulses, and we must teach kids to block out the extraneous, to create filters, to “uncover” what they already know.

But Diana is equally right. You can’t make the bricks of the mind without the straw of facts.

Here’s how I reconcile the two, and it works for me but I wouldn’t mandate it. We progressives went too far, beyond common sense, with our child-centered approach. Children and teens need to learn that they aren’t the center of the universe. In the battle for the mind, I’m still about as progressive and child centered as I was thirty years ago. In regard to behavior, I’ve become more traditional. But again that is a balance that works more me.

I think that educators should be much more modest in imposing their beliefs on fellow educators. I love a good debate. As in dealing with kids though, authoritarianism doesn’t work well.

After all, we are living in a democracy and that is what we model.

One reason why I love teaching is that I love the tension between both truthes. I’ll save you guys (for now at least) from more war stories, but this also explains why I am so eclectic. Classroom teaching did it to me.

Back to your title, with too many mandates, We can't get "there",to the education system we want from here.

To get there from here, we must be willing to release some control of the travel. But my experiences as a hitchhiker back in the day were that you needed common sense as well as a sense of adventure. Everyone needs to hit their own balance.

John T. We're on the same road. As hitchhikers too.

However, I never knew where the "progressive education" you describe occurred--the stuff that went "too far". Truly. I never encountered it in all my 43 years teaching or my 18 years of progressive education as a student! Looked at from a certain traditional mindset maybe some people thought it looked like that? Perhaps. Nor do I find it in any of the classics in the field. There has always also been another viewpoint--the one that many AEROers hold--based on the idea that children need only the space and safety to grow and they will become whatever they should. There's a 4th view--that is predominate today and that is w3ht I'm most worried about--which is neither child nor adult centered, and which views learning as a set of prescribed tasks monitored by adults (called teachers) and assessed by "machines"

The latter is the only one I'd like to outlaw.

There were also teachers who had trouble teaching and called what they did "progressive", perhaps?

Reminder also to
Diana--I love debates because - especially when both sides are equally well informed--they provoke me to think more deeply. They rarely "convert" me, but they almost always have an influence on me. I'd like to make none the "official" right answer.

And, Diana, your kind of piano practice, etc is not boredom! Boredom is a descri-tion of what's happening inside, not whether it's repetitive or novel. We should discuss boredom more. It's an important topic.



There is nothing hypocritical in asserting the children are as complex and dynamic as adults. The inherent contraditions in your essay are due more to human nature than any logical mistake.

As for "progressive education" vs. "traditional education", neither philosphophy has ever put student learning first (despite their claims).

The real world is much more dynamic and the needs of children greater than the limited scope of either approach.

Erin Johnson


I'm glad you called me on that. I can't recall those stereotypical progressives, so I must be slipping into my policial compromise language.

And yes I'm also

When hitchiking, my partner and now my wife of 30 something years always thought I was wrong about almost all of the time. If murder was legal, I wouldn't be here today.

And now my students almost always side with her. I'd try to beat that out of them with grades, testing, whatever, if I thought I could.


Thank you for your responses and clarification. Boredom is indeed an interesting topic. I am intrigued by the idea that true boredom is "a description of what's happening inside, not whether it's repetitive or novel." Yes--but in that case, what is wrong with a bit of lovely repetition in school? What's wrong with memorizing and reciting a poem?

I recall one of my favorite literary characters, Akakii Akakievich, the protagonist of Gogol's story "The Overcoat." For a living he copies letters and documents by hand. He loves his work so much that he takes it home with him. Certain letters of the alphabet are his favorites; you can tell when he was writing them because he "would be beside himself with excitement, softly laughing to himself and winking, willing his pen on with his lips...." He is a happy man until his tailor informs him that his overcoat cannot be repaired and that he needs a new one. The "novelty" ends up wrecking his life.

We have so much pressure to be novel, exciting, entertaining, in life and at school. In PDs and such we are told to "engage" the kids at every moment through "hands-on" activities (yes, really; I'm not making this up). Certainly some of these hands-on activities are worthwhile--but why the insistence on them, all the time? And why the insistence that these methods are "new"?

Why should we be "engaging" the kids at every moment? Why should lessons be conducted in such a frenetic manner, with grouping and regrouping and hands-on this and that? Why can't we trust kids to sink into the subject?

Demiashkevich put it beautifully (in The Activity School, 1926, pp. 34-35): "As the world goes, only the infinitesimal minority of the people can, with impunity, treat life as if it were an unbroken joy ride or a huge bizarre Coney Island." He is right; such a way of life is not enjoyable, rewarding, or even possible for the most part. Why, then, do we seem uncomfortable, as a culture, with quiet and repetition?

I agree that repetitive musical practice is not truly boring. You are right; it is perhaps only boring on the outside, not on the inside. Yet music teachers get lots of pressure from parents and administrators to keep the kids "motivated" by praising them and giving them new pieces all the time. Telling them to practice the same piece over and over--that's considered cruel!

(I have a lot of experience with that and could go into much detail--but it's a long story.)

Why the worship of novelty, when novelty is not what truly interests us? Why do schools throw away classics? Why do administrators announce to faculty, over and over, "if a novel was published more than ten years ago, it is out of date"?

Diana Senechal

Here is the cite:

Recht, D. R. and Leslie, L. (1988). Effect of prior knowledge on good and poor readers’ memory of text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 16-20.

See also Dan Willingham's article in American Educator, How Knowledge Helps, Spring 2006 which discusses this and other related cog sci research.

Diana and Deb,

The question of what is "boredom" and "engagement" are interesting, indeed!

Is it possible to know whether anyone other than yourself is "bored" or "engaged?" What are the signs? Diana, you mention the call for "hands on" learning--perhaps this is a proxy certain people use to tell whether students are engaged. Yet, I have seen countless classrooms where older students are cutting and pasting for the sake of doing something "hands on" and they are talking about anything other than the subject at hand (often math). I call that boredom!

We don't know whether students are engaged or bored. But we can look for evidence--are they talking about the subject? Are they asking questions relevant to the material? Are they making decisions about the material?

The problem with "boredom" in schools is that students are always thinking about something--but if the material is not interesting for one reason or another (seems irrelevant, missing a base of knowledge in order to see the relevance, seems insulting, or the student has pressing issues to think about--a tooth ache, a heart ache, hunger, a construction project just outside the window, a presentation in another class he or she is not prepared for...) the student will be thinking about other things.

Giving students more decision making power in their own education allows students to choose something that they will see as relevant (within acceptable limits set by the teacher--something the teacher/school also sees as important).

Sometimes students say something is "boring," which might mean "challenging." The way to assess student engagement is tricky, and many forms of evidence need to be considered!

Dear Erin,

Thanks for the insight! I surely don't intend to sound anti-intellectual or against the "knowing stuff". It's being "stuffed" that I'm against.

In fact my old mentor Lillian Weber--who provided the most seriously intellectual center of learning at City College I've ever experienced before or after--used to revel in the word itself--the "stuff" of life. If you get your hands on David Hawkins; work, do so. Yes, we must get ourself deeply inbedded in the "stuff" of the world--facts included. Factgs above all. Including close observation when possible. Of course! (But it's obviousoly not "of course".)

But that's just part of the story. The rest we need to reinvent over and over again given the particular kids, families, setting--and staffing. And ourelves.

It's too bad that progressive ed lost its meaning and to many, like you, turned into "hands on, minds off." Ugh.

In short--putting the "best" private elite school nonprogressive teachers (or progressive!) into a school of ordinary inner city (oh how I hate all these euphemisms) kids, and I am sure the results would not be a lot better. Above all if we only counted "results" in terms of scores.

Yes, Erin, figuring this out has to be turned into a joyous lifetime occupation--and it's in the figuring it out that kids--all of them but especially the so-called "hard to teach" ones get excited and learn alongside us.


I have been thinking about the question of boredom some more; thanks to Deborah for getting my thoughts rolling! I wonder how much of the conflict of so-called "active" and "passive" learning (utter misnomers, set up to favor the "active") has its roots in the ancient conflict between active and contemplative living. I think of the story of Martha and Mary in the New Testament (Luke 10:38-42).

It seems our culture has come to value the active over the contemplative, in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of reasons. We have forgotten our need for both action and contemplation; what's more, we neglect our need for a certain tension between the two. There are exceptions, of course; many find ways to contemplate on a daily basis. Still, the lack of contemplation in schools is striking and sad.

Diana Senechal

An article in the current Atlantic Monthly may be of interest to the participants here...

Is Google Making Us Stupid?




I agree! And this push for covering more and more "content" doesn't help matters!


Content is not the enemy of a quality education.

The "push" that you see stems from the very real observation that our children's education is largely devoid of quality content. The skill-based, test-prep mentality has done substantially more damage to schools than asking our children to learn about the US government, or algebra or any other content area.

So while you may have some very legitimate critisms of our school system, your pointing to "more and more content" seems rather at odds with a quality education.

How can you lay the blame that is due more to inept management of our schools on the content that is so essential for a quality education?


Very interesting article. There has been and will be multiple ways for our brains to be lazy and our thinking to be passive. Thank goodness for blogs like this that actually use the internet to expand our thoughts instead of limiting them.

Erin Johnson


I agree with you. It's not the "content" that's at fault, it's how it is "pushed."

G.B., thanks for the interesting article. Unlike the author, I don't lament what google is doing to our minds. He is right to go back to each of the luddites or nay-sayers who lamented the invention of the printing press, or widely accessible books, developments I also don't lament. But, I agree that the pressure of Tayorism can be a problem--especially if it is applied to teaching and learning (I think this push for stream-lined content, like an assembly line, could be interpreted as Taylorism--but, unlike assembly lines in a factory, this kind of education doesn't work to make learning more efficient! Students don't remember the "content!")

The internet and google make discussions like this possible, including your ability to send this provocative article, and perhaps to make our discussions more informed by sending hyperlinks to this or that reference.

I like to think the internet has a democratizing effect.

One and all,

I've been doing a lot of rethinking about "subject matter" vs "skills" and think Erin and Diana have a very important point. Diane too. It's connected, I believe, to what's truly wrong with our economy! No one whose running things knows well what it is they are "running".

But I was never a "skills" vs "subject matter" person either. Matthew is right to make that point. "Habits of mind" as we defined them were steeped in having to know one's subject well. Respect for knowing/doing something really well is what I think we share--which, for me includes knowing/doing chair-making well too. One needs deep respect for the knowledge-base--about materials, tools, history, strength, beauty to make a good chair. One has to be in love with.... I'm looking for the right words to describe this, which is why I so enjoyed Sennett's The Craftsman. But one can't ask folk to read that whole book to "get it". But to respect knowledge one cannot "cover" so much of it! And since we can't "cover" all the knowledge we can reasonably argue is important, I want to start with stuff that seems important but also appealing, and graspable, explorable, for which there is a lot of sources for seeing it wholly. Unlike Diana S. I loved each year exploring possibilities for the year, and hated giving that up (which we did at Mission Hill) for a more "prescribed" set of themes. Even if Hirsh's CORE was my dream currticulum I'd feel it deprived me of something. In the end the staff revolted, and we left one trimester for a "do your own thing"--with deep respect for the subject matter, materials, tools, purposes, etc of that "thing". We also each crafted the themes in quite different ways (essential also because they were K-7th grade school-wide themes.)

I'm working on this--thanks!


Comments are now closed for this post.


Most Viewed on Education Week



Recent Comments