When teachers skirt tough issues
It began as a nagging suspicion during Kathy Simon's years as a high school English teacher: that she and her colleagues weren't teaching what really mattered.Skip to next paragraph
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A discussion of "Macbeth" helped confirm her concern. After a student dutifully recited the famous lines: "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage...," Ms. Simon helped the class with the vocabulary, talked about the metaphor of acting, and discussed iambic pentameter. But the underlying question of the text - whether life has meaning - never arose.
It's a scenario replayed in far too many classrooms, says Simon. In her present position as director of research and professional development at the Coalition of Essential Schools in Oakland, Calif., Simon spent several months observing English, history, biology, and religion classes at public and parochial schools, to get a better sense of just how educators address - or avoid - moral and existential questions that are integral to their subjects.
Students, she found, are generally eager to explore the tougher issues. "They're fighting to find a way to stay interested," she says. "And they raise pertinent, deep, important questions. And those questions get shut down." The reasons are complex. Some teachers worry their supervisors might look negatively at a controversial discussion. And many teachers simply don't know how to handle such a discussion.
In her new book, "Moral Questions in the Classroom," Simon also takes the current public-school structure to task. With an increasing emphasis on high-stakes graduation tests and content-heavy curricula, taking the time for an in-depth discussion of, say, the moral implications of war may mean skimming over facts that students will be tested on later. But, Simon contends, that discussion will stay with the students longer - and engage them in a more intellectually rigorous thought process - than any glossed-over survey of historical events.
Critics of engaging students in moral discussions sometimes argue that public-school learning should be confined to academics, not values. At the heart of Simon's research, however, is the conviction that these questions are not only interesting and relevant to students' lives, but also vital to any true intellectual study. In a recent interview, she discussed some of her findings and advice for teachers:
Why schools need to address moral issues in the classroom:
The moment you restrict yourself from engaging in questions that have moral and existential importance, the potential power of the intellectual inquiry is lost. [Another reason] is that these questions are fascinating to human beings and they're fascinating to adolescents. Most school, for most teenagers, is dreadfully boring. I really believe that part of the reason for that is that we've systematically taken out the very questions they would find most interesting, which are questions of a moral and existential nature.
On making issues relevant:
Kids, like adults, won't pay attention if it's not relevant to them. It's not just something that's a nice icing on the cake. It's the only way for a human mind to be engaged. [But] more than that ..., I'm arguing that we've operated in schools under the illusion that we can separate out neutral, academic, intellectual content from controversial, complex, morally charged questions about life. We can't. Give me a deep question from one of the academic disciplines that isn't morally relevant or morally charged. It's really hard.
How the structure of the public school system affects what is taught: