Monday, September 17, 2012

Opening Minds: Chapters 7-9

At this point I think it is safe to say that I am writing about Opening Minds just for myself. Writing these posts about this book and Choice Words have helped me process my thinking about Peter Johnston's work and given me a reference to refer back to in the future. I expect I will still reread these books but these posts are a quick, easy way to refresh my memory more frequently.

On to the final chapters! The end of Opening Minds becomes quite a bit about social justice and was, to me, exceptionally powerful. Both of these books are powerful to me, but the end of this one takes everything Johnston writes about up one last, meaningful mountain.

Chapter seven is Moral Agency: Moral Development and Civic Engagement. The key quote from this chapter, for me, is on page 91:
Whether we like to think about it or not, while we are teaching math or science or language arts, we are also nurturing particular forms of moral development. Pretending otherwise will not change the evidence or serve children or society well.
I may be wrong but I think that is pretty well understood at the elementary level, especially in early grades. The older students get, the more focused and narrow the content becomes, the easier it is to ignore this. The choices we make as teachers about everything we do is teaching our students something. It may not be what we intend to teach, but they are learning from all our actions.

The big idea about how to develop moral agency is summed up pretty well on page 88:
Parenting that provides a supportive environment and engages children in thinking about moral problems, providing explanations and suggestions, is the most appropriate course of action for parents. Teaching in school is no different.
Discipline without reason or understanding does not help children grow morally. It simply, maybe, solves the immediate problem.

In chapter eight, Thinking Together, Working Together, Johnston explores the idea that a group can be smarter together than they are individually. On page 98 he has a list of 'argumentation strategies' children generated. These look to me to be great sentence starters when helping students begin to truly have conversations that involve engaging together. A big piece of this, and one that Johnston discusses, is listening. We can not truly think together and learn from one another if we are not listening.

The final chapter is Choice Worlds. A big part of what struck me here was Johnston's exploration of the purpose of schooling.This includes the big, over-arching goals of education in a society (such as for economic gain) and the more micro purposes in a school or classroom. Am I simply teaching my students to prepare them for second grade? Or am I teaching them to prepare them for their now and for their lives?

A passage on page 114 reminded me of another book I am reading, Paul Tough's How Children Succeed. (It's quite an interesting book and one I will write about soon.)
Our main advantage as human beings lies in our ability to think together. Our main threat has become our failure to think and act together on larger scales and to act on the understanding that the sheer existence of our species depends on how we think together - how we experience and treat each other. We can think of this as an autoimmune disorder. In recent years in the United States the number of people experiencing physiological autoimmune disorders has grown quite rapidly, and there is reason to believe that this growth is associated with increasing stress.
Tough, in his book, cites several studies about stress, especially the stress of living in poverty, and its impact on people's health. The results are astounding.

At the end of Opening Minds I nearly cried. Johnston ends with these lines on page 124:
Given what we know, failing to attend to students' civic, social, and broader cognitive development in school is not only academically short-changing children, it is criminal.
Well, now you know... 


Dahlia said...

I really need to start reading this one. It's literally sitting within arm's reach of me right now.

This topic has been on my mind for a long time now...are we raising test-takers or nurturing citizens of our democracy? Which one will matter more to me on my deathbed, in 20 years, in 1 year? Which one will matter more to the world?

I am reading Black Ants and Buddhists (Mary Cowhey) and I feel the strong push to look in the mirror and into my own eyes so that I can remember my purpose as an educator.

I agree with you that in the primary grades, we work a lot on social education (sharing, cooperating, teamwork, etc...) and then we stop as we focus on testing. Are we sending kids the message that being a "good citizen" stops once you turn 8?

As usual, you have given me so much to think about...

Jenny said...

Dahlia, you are always so generous in your words! Read this book. I can't wait to talk to you about it.

Black Ants and Buddhists is one I began in the past and never finished. I need to pick it up again because it is an amazing book (and one Peter Johnston cites often in Opening Minds).