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.

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:

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.

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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