Joel Westheimer : What Kind of Citizen?


>>Hallie Cotnam: I want to move from Arkeem
to something that is at the crux of why we are here tonight, which is this notion that even
kids even students even grade-schoolers can be good citizens, or they can start on the
path to being good citizens.>>Joel Westheimer: Education for me right
from the get going, including my idealism when I went into teaching was about improving…improving
the world, you know, that sounds lofty and kind of cliché, but in whatever small ways
that I could, I wanted to teach kids that they have a role to play in history, that
they have a part to play that is not just as an audience member, that democracy is not
a spectator sport but a participant sport. Right? It’s one that requires the participation
of people.>>Hallie Cotnam: Are schools the right place
to teach that?>>Joel Westheimer: Many people would argue
no, right? In particular today, I think we have a kind of cultural moment where we see
schools as job training institutions, where we’ve lost kind of historical purpose of public
education which was to educate a democratic citizenry. It’s like that famous Thomas Jefferson
quote, which I probably will paraphrase badly, but he said that if citizens are not well
educated enough to govern their own affairs the solution is not to take that power of
governance away from them but to educate them. And I think that schools were supposed to
play that role and have always been about the broad goals of shaping citizens. But today
we are in a place where a lot of people would say that schools are about job training and
nothing else or that there are about making Canada competitive in the economy, you know,
with China or with other, you know, western countries. And that their not about shaping
who we are as people. But I think that a majority of teachers I’ve met and a majority of parents
do believe that schools are at least in part about getting kids to be the best version
of themselves that they can be and happy and productive members of society and so I think
it’s an important goal.>>Hallie Cotnam: I’d like to lighten things
up here now Joel, by asking you about standardization. [Joel laughs]
Is it a four letter word to you?>>Joel Westheimer: You really know how to
ask the tough questions. So, the trend that we’ve seen in the wake of 911, and I don’t
think it’s coincidental, was a scaling back of this idea of critical thinking and also
a scaling of the idea that all kids need to be learning the same things all the time.
People are often surprised to hear, after they hear me rant about, against standardized
testing, is that I am not against testing, and I’m not even against standardized testing.
What I’m…Standardized testing can have an important place and an important role to play
in getting a snapshot of where we are in schools and what we do and certainly I’m not again
standards, and in fact, I’ve never met a teacher who doesn’t have standards. I mean, we all
have standards right, and teachers are professionals and they are standards like everyone else
and all teachers feel accountable, they are accountable to their students and there are
accountable to the parents and the school, and the principal and the community. The problem
is not so much with standards as with standardization to the extent that standardization means “the
same”, which unfortunately it often does, right? By definition, and so standardization
isn’t something the enemy of imagination and creativity and the problem with it is that
when we decide that all teachers or all classrooms should be the same, what we, what we get is
the lowest common denominator of teacher practice because we are eliminating teachers abilities
to draw on their own passions and interests to make learning unique to their circumstances and
their students’ circumstances. And, so, the problem with standardization is not the idea
that, of course all kids should learn certain things right? There is no, sometimes in talks, i don’t know. When I’m feeling punchy I ask in talks, I say: “Could everyone raise your hand if
you are a member of the group Teachers, Parents and Educators Against Kids Learning How to
Read?” Right? And then no one raises their hand, and then they chuckle like that, and then
I say: “Could you raise your hand if you are a member Parents, Teachers, and Educators
Against Kids Knowing How to Add Numbers?” Right? And then, no one raises their hand. And of course, I say, of course there is no
such groups. So let’s get rid of the straw man argument that there is all these progressive
feel good kumbaya signing teachers out there who don’t want kids to know anything, right?
There are no teachers who don’t want kids to know the basics, right? Everyone wants
kids to know the basics, the problem is, that when we focus only on the basics, which is
what standardization does, right? This is only testing in math and literacy and even
in those subjects, it’s the most narrow band of knowledge in those areas, right? When we
focus only on that, we end up with and incredibly impoverished view of what education is about
and what educational goals are. So, I’m not, you know, everyone wants kids to know the
basics but we need to be shooting much higher than that. We need to know not just the kids
can read but that what they, they know how to tell what’s worth reading, right? Or not
that just kids can add numbers but that they know what these numbers add up to. In other words, how it
links to real meaning in the community and in the society and how it allows them to take
part in that society. So, I think it’s a four letter word in the sense it has become the
tail that wags the dog of education reform. I do think that there is form for spot standardized
testing that we could talk more about the benefits of, but as it is right now I think
it’s deeply deeply problematic.>>Hallie Cotnam: What would you say to people
who say that installing values and character is the parents’ job and responsibility?>>Joel Westheimer: That’s where I think,
you know, to borrow Jarrell Graff’s, an English professor at the University of Illinois, phrase
it’s very important to teach the controversies and there is a couple of different things
going on here but, I think that when we are taking about controversial issues in schools
that are not yet settled in our society at large, we have to teach kids that intelligent
well-meaning adults differ on important matters of social concerns and that part of our role
as citizens in a democracy is coming together to air those differences and come up with
a way to move forward, because we have to make decisions that affect all of us. And
it really goes to the way that you ask me whether standardization is a four letter word
but you know what people think is a four letter word? Politics, right? If I say, someone is
being political it’s like I’m, they are mud-slinging candidates running for political office and
care nothing about anything but their own advancement. But politics, in its traditional
sense, there is this famous book by Bernard Crick called In Defense of Politics and in
it he calls politics the way we come together in a democratic society and work out our differences
so we can move forward, right? It’s the wonderful meaning of politics and I think, so people
say we have to keep politics out of the school, I think that we have to bring politics in.
We have to teach kids that we don’t all agree on things and that they need to familiarize
themselves with different perspectives. [Music]

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