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When teachers skirt tough issues

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There's incredible pressure that teachers feel to cover material. They really believe that if they have a textbook, they need to get through that textbook during the course of a year. And that belief is reinforced by standardized tests, and by perceptions that administrators give them about what their job is to do.... I don't know why we have this cultural phenomenon of coverage, but it doesn't have to be so. There needs to be a nationwide relaxation of the notion that mentioning a lot of different topics constitutes teaching.

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How to avoid teaching only one set of values:

The school adopting the kind of program I'd like to see would need to be up front with parents - that they're not going to shy away from controversial issues ... and that they're going to do that in as open and reflective a way as possible. Which means the doors are open. It's not like the doors get closed and teachers are going to cram kids with values that parents aren't going to have access to.

Suggested lesson plans:

[One idea is a course on] "the conundrums of democracy" - an American history course. The framing question is: Does democracy result in effective, representative, and humane governance?

[Or,] imagine a biology class whose overall question was, What is the impact of biological discoveries and technological advances on society and other living things? A subquestion that certainly could come up under that is, 'How should we use what we're learning from the Human Genome Project?'... Another subquestion might be, how do human beings and their technologies affect larger ecological systems? Kids could study things like their local water systems. Or local marshes. And watch the chain of effects.

On the constraints of a curriculum:

There's a delicate balance. It's just that, right now, the status quo isn't balanced at all. It's all about, "Wait - you have an interesting question? Well, in five years, when you're in college, you'll be able to ask it, but right now we need to find this molecular formula."

So the trick, and it is a trick ... is to ask the important questions, to get kids interested enough in those questions that they'll want to get some of the scientific know-how that will help them answer [the questions].

On assessment:

Our starting place needs to be, What kinds of human beings do we want to emerge from this educational system? Often the thinking goes backwards: We're going to need to put a score on this, so it had better be something that I can score easily. And there are ways to score that that don't necessarily score the students on their moral beliefs. You can score them on depth, and rigor, and use of resources.

If the teacher isn't skilled:

You want to say, if moral questions aren't going to be taught well, you'd rather just not have them taught. But ... they are taught all the time. So that teachers who aren't particularly skilled at moral issues will do things like just delivering the right answer.... There are always going to be teachers with better and poorer skills, but the larger issue for society and for educators is to think, what can we do to structure our schools in such a way that teachers are likely to develop the skills they need to have these kinds of conversations?

Why these questions are so central:

I would argue - and this really comes from John Dewey - that the curriculum we have is a stockpile of information that human beings have collected over time. The reason human beings collected that information is because, in some way, they needed it because of the moral and existential questions that drove them. That's the curriculum we have. So it's got to be loaded with all of those things.... The people who started studying the stars started studying out of the existential questions of who we are and where we fit into the universe - so we got all the stuff we now know about supernovas. That technical information came from the spiritual exploration.

• E-mail paulsona@csps.com

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