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Articles by Dr. Spencer Kagan
What Is Worth Teaching?
At a time when there is so much pressure on us to boost test scores, it would be wise to pause and ask a simple question: What do we most want to give our students?
If our students get a perfect score on the test, but do not take away from our class a love of learning, we have failed them. This is increasingly true as the change rate accelerates and our students will have to become life-long learners to be successful. Half of what an engineer learns in school is outdated five years after graduation. The content of our teaching is not as important as the process — we must ask if our students are acquiring the will and skill to continue the learning process?
But, as Daniel Goleman has so eloquently demonstrated, preparing our students for success demands they learn more than academic content and skills.1 The student who lacks knowledge and control of her/his own emotions, or who cannot understand and relate to the emotions of others, will not be successful on the job or in life.
What then, is our true mission as educators? I have been thinking about this for some time and have concluded that to give our students what they most need, and to make a better world, we need to fan five fires within each student. What are these five fires we want to burn brightly? Truth, Beauty, Empathy, Innovation, and Excellence.
A true statement is one that corresponds accurately to reality. Whether we ask a student what are some of the things that happened during the great depression or what are some of the things that happened right before the fight on the playground, we want them to respond with the truth. Truth has two sides: Knowing and being able to accurately describe external reality (What does the Bill of Rights guarantee? How did the prism cause the light to break into colors?) and accurately describing memories, perceptions, and feelings (How much time did you spend on your homework? Did you take Johnny’s book? What did you feel when you didn’t pass the test?). Searching for, accurately describing, and respecting both types of truth will make our students more successful and make it a better world.
It seems self-evident that as teachers we want to promote both truth seeking among our students as well as truthfulness. Who would argue that our students will be more successful if they think the sun rotates around the earth or if they respond dishonestly to others? Let’s examine each of these two sides of truth.
Truth Seeking. When Einstein talks about Truth as an ideal that lighted his way, he is talking about the classic ideal of seeking the truth. He dedicated his life to seeking a true picture of how the world works. The search for truth is the motivation for scientific discovery. It is the basis for making wise decisions. If I know how the world really works, I will be more efficient in my actions. Making wise decisions is the basis for success on the job and in one’s personal life.
How can we promote truth seeking among our students? How can we inspire in students a habit of mind that seeks to understand? The answer to this question is contained in a true anecdote from Einstein’s life. One day Einstein was walking on the beach. He noticed how his feet sank into the warm fluffy sand. As he walked closer to the water’s edge he noticed how his feet no longer sank into the sand — they were supported by the damp sand. He then waded into the water and noticed that his feet again sank into the sand beneath the water. He asked the question: Why? He thought about it and went back to write a formative paper: The properties of solids and liquids (water) and gas (air). How many of us have walked on the beach and had the same experience, but never asked the question? One difference between Einstein and most of us is that he asked the question. The way we can promote truth seeking among our students is to foster in them a habit of being curious, of generating questions.
Years ago Chuck Wiederhold and I worked together to develop the Q-Matrix. From the matrix we designed spinners and dice to promote student question generation. We found that within a few minutes of putting the dice in the hands of students of any age, we released curiosity. With these simple tools in hand, students can generate a fantastic range of questions about any academic content. There are many structures students can use with the Q-Dice. For example, a simple AllWrite RoundTable lets each student in turn roll the dice to generate a question that all students record. Later they can prioritize the questions in terms of importance or difficulty and/or plan how to answer them. What many teachers today don’t realize is that it is more important to foster student-generated questioning than it is to have our students give the correct answer to a teacher-generated question. Fostering questioning among our students is the royal road to making truth seeking a habit of mind.
One of the most important truth-seeking structures is Find My Rule. In Find My Rule the teacher places items into a graphic organizer without telling students the categories of the organizer. The simplest form is simply placing pictures, words, or objects in one of two boxes. The students work together using RallyRobin and RoundRobin to generate and test hypotheses about the rule the teacher is using to place the objects. Find My Rule has students practice the inductive thinking of a scientist who observes the world and generates and tests hypotheses about how the world works. When Find My Rule becomes a habit of mind, students become truth seekers.
Thoughtful educators have gravitated to the importance of fanning the fire of curiosity and truth seeking through fostering student questioning. Unfortunately, in the press to boost achievement, we are focusing too narrowly on having students give us correct answers. In the process, they learn to memorize and repeat back the answers we have given them. Do we really want a nation of parrots? — Or would we prefer a nation of truth seekers?
Truthfulness. To have our students be more successful in life and to create a better world, we want our students not only to seek truth, but also to tell the truth — we want to foster honesty. To tell the truth, to be forthright and honest, creates trust which is the foundation for successful interpersonal relations. If I am honest with others, they will come to trust me and I will not only maintain good relations, I will more likely become a leader. It is those we trust that we are more likely to follow.
If student-generated questions are the royal road to truth seeking, how can we best foster the other side of truthfulness — honesty? Perhaps the most important tool we have is ourselves. We are models for our students. If we are honest with our students, truly honest, they are more likely to be honest. There is tremendous power in self-disclosure. When we admit to our students that we found it difficult to solve a problem, we pave the road for their being more honest about their own difficulties, inadequacies, and fears.
For example, let’s say a student is lying to us. We could say, “Don’t lie to me.” Alternatively we could disclose our feelings, “I have a hard time believing you right now, and I want to be able to trust you. I want the best for you. I want you to be truthful because I know that will serve you well throughout life. When you are honest, people will trust you and feel good about you.”
Notice, in the first example the teacher communicates non-acceptance and gives the student no feedback about how dishonesty affects others. In the second example, the teacher models honesty and communicates acceptance of the student. The more we can accept students, the easier it is for them to accept themselves and to be honest.
Parents and teachers sometimes inadvertently push their students to be dishonest. Let’s say a student does not feel like doing homework or a chore. If the student says, “I didn’t do it because I didn’t feel like doing it,” the student may well be punished. If on the other hand, the student can come up with a good enough (albeit dishonest) excuse, the student may get out of the punishment. If the student’s behavior has it’s own predetermined consequence, we sidestep the trap of inadvertently rewarding dishonesty.
Structures for Honesty
Honesty is not best fostered by preaching about honesty in a one-time lesson; it is best fostered by having students practice honesty daily. We want to create honesty as a habit, not as a moral precept. There are a number of structures that we can use on a daily basis which in a few minutes have students practice honesty. For example, we might ask our students which problem on the homework gave them the most difficulty and why and have them share with a partner using a Timed Pair Share. In two minutes each student in the class has had the opportunity to practice honesty. As a team builder we might ask students to do a Timed RoundRobin each sharing for a minute a time they were really frightened, angry, or shy. Not only do they have the chance to practice self-disclosure and honesty, they bond with teammates because they learn others have similar emotions.
Empathy is another form of truth seeking — Seeking the truth about another. Empathetic understanding is among the very most important of all qualities for us to foster among our students.
Why should we elevate empathy to such a high position? Of all of the many social virtues, why emphasize empathy? Because from empathy springs all that is positive in human relations: caring, kindness, charity, cooperation, social responsibility, fairness, justice, understanding, tolerance, and respect. If we could only have every child leave our schools with a deeply developed capacity and habit of empathy, we would have succeeded in eliminating most sources of misery in the world.
To be truly empathetic is to do what philosophers of all ages have declared as the highest virtue: to treat others as we would hope to be treated, to seek win-win solutions. What is the difference between someone who stops to help the person who has tripped and the person who walks by? What is the difference between someone who tries to get as much for themselves as possible compared to the person who considers the outcomes for others as well as their own? The difference is empathy.
Brain science reveals we are biologically prepared for empathy. The discovery of mirror neurons is among the most important of all recent advances of neuroscience. When we watch someone pick up a glass, neurons fire in our brain as if we were picking up the glass. When we see a happy or disgusted face, neurons fire as if we were happy or disgusted. Mirror neurons explain the extraordinary importance of modeling as a method of teaching and explain why contagion of emotion is so common.
Mirror neurons that don’t function well or that don’t function at all explain the plight of the autistic student and the psychopath. An autistic child was asked at the dinner table, “Can you pass the salt?” The child answered in all innocence, “Yes,” but did not move to pass the salt. What was wrong? The child failed to consider context and failed to register the emotional state of the other. The psychopath can harm others with no remorse. What is wrong? The psychopath does not feel the emotions of others. The fully developed person constantly monitors and responds to the emotions of others. And that person is not only more successful, but also creates a kinder, caring world.
A revealing set of experiments were carried out to test the effectiveness of punishment v. empathetic reasoning to reduce aggressive behavior. Parents were encouraged to either punish their students for being aggressive or to have them reflect on how their aggression made the other person feel. Children who were punished became more aggressive; those who developed their empathy because less aggressive. Why? Parents who punished were modeling aggression; their actions spoke louder than their words. Parents who had students practice empathy were modeling the use of impulse control but also were developing empathetic understanding. When empathy is fully developed, I can’t hit someone without feeling hurt: Your pain is my pain. Empathy is a social cushion; it makes us not just individuals but part of a common humanity.
How can we fan the flame of human empathy? The more often we get our students to feel, really feel what it is like to be someone else, the more we create a habit of mind that will result in kindness and all its related positive social virtues.
We can develop the skill across the curriculum: What was the character feeling? Use Paraphrase Passport as you discuss in your teams what is going well and what is frustrating about your progress on your science experiment. I want you to just listen as I tell you how I have used long division in my life and afterwards, I want you to list ways long division has helped me. If you were the father of four and the stock market just crashed wiping out your life savings, what are some of the things you would be thinking and feeling?
If we elevate empathy to its proper place in our curriculum we will find many ways to make students more sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others. And when that happens, we will have created greater success for them and a better world.
Structures for Empathy
There are a number of structures we can use which further our academic content goals while at the same time fostering empathy. For example, all of the structures that cause students to reach consensus (Team Statement, All Write Consensus, Proactive Prioritizing) cause students to listen carefully to the ideas of others. The structure that is most clearly designed to foster empathy is Paraphrase Passport.
I have often done this experiment in workshops. I give a topic to participants to discuss, something I know they will have some strong feelings about. For example, I might have them talk about ways students have shown them disrespect, or whether or not they feel there should be a stronger dress code. After about four minutes of discussion, I have them continue discussing the same topic, but introduce Paraphrase Passport. In that structure, to earn the right of anyone to speak, the person must accurately paraphrase the person who has spoken before them. Following the Paraphrase Passport, I ask participants whether the structure caused them to listen more carefully. All hands shoot up! When we structure so our students are held accountable for empathetic listening, they develop that skill.
The world values beauty more than it does education. We pay huge sums for those who provide beauty in any form — play music, dance, paint, sculpt, photograph, craft jewelry, design clothes, design buildings. We are not satisfied with the building or bridge that is strong and functional, we demand they also be graceful. We pay more for the architect that creates space that is not just functional but also captures the light and inspires. We pay far more for the key ring that is elegantly designed than the key ring that is merely functional. Our musicians earn more than our engineers — we demand to be uplifted, to connect to our deeper self.
The appreciation and creation of beauty is innate. Bears have been observed climbing a hill simply for the opportunity to find a good viewing spot to sit down to observe the sunset. Whales show preference for certain kinds of art. Elephants given paint and a brush created paintings. Our ancestors drew on cave walls not just to tell stories, but to express what was important in their lives. Children with no instruction, given the opportunity, express themselves with crayons or paint and show great satisfaction when they have completed their creation. We have a drive to express ourselves not just with words but in myriad forms.
Yet in the press to boost achievement we define achievement so narrowly that beauty is not part of the formula. Why would we allow achievement in school to be defined as the ability to remember a date or perform a rote calculation, when at the same time we define achievement in society as the ability to create beauty in any of its myriad forms? If in the real world we demand bridges that are not just strong but also graceful, should we not help our students appreciate and produce beauty? Would they not be more successful and make a better world?
In many schools the panic over tests has resulted in cutting time and funds for music and art. How sad if this results in less inspired students and a duller world.
Importantly, those schools that have resisted the temptation to narrow the curriculum not only have happier students, but have students who perform better academically. Schools that were lagging academically and which adopted a multiple intelligences curriculum, without intending to boost achievement went from the bottom of their district to the top, and in some cases doubled the percentage of students reaching academic proficiency! Students who find in school a place to connect to their creative side, like school more and peform better across all courses.
How, then, shall we proceed to write beauty back into our educational plans? In our work in the area of multiple intelligences we have described in depth, ways to engage and develop the visual spatial and musical rhythmic intelligences. Without going into detail, I would suggest four approaches: Assessment, Integrated Curriculum, Appreciation, and Creative Expression.
Assessment. From the teacher’s perspective, that which is tested gets taught. From the student’s perspective, that which gets assessed gets mastered. It would be self-defeating to grade students creative expressions; we don’t want students making a painting for a grade. We can, however, teach students to distinguish the instruments in an orchesteral piece and to recognize the styles of different painters, and if we assess their skills in this area it will ensure teaching and learning occurs. We show, through what we assess, what we value.
Integrated Curriculum. Across the curriculum there are myriad ways to promote the appreciation and production of beauty. When we study the great depression, why are we satisfied only with students who can pass verbal test questions about the facts? Should they not experience and relate to the paintings and music of the times? Why would we not have each student or student teams produce paintings, music, skits, mimes, and/or sculptures that capture the feeling of that era. The students will not only better remember the meaning of that unit, they will better remember associated facts.
This arguement can be extended to all traditional areas of the curriculum. We can give students feedback, not just on the accuracy of a geometry proof, but its elegance both in the number of steps and also in how it is laid out on the paper. Scientists talk about a beautiful experiment and what they mean is an experiment that is parsimonious in how it ruled out alternative hypotheses. Students can learn about and learn how to create beautiful experiments. They can study aesthetics with scientific methods. What are the elements that make a painting or piece of music perceived as beautiful? Why do we say this bridge is beautiful and that one not? We can teach scientific method while integrating beauty as the content.
Language arts lends itself in many ways to developing appreciation for and the creation of beauty. Students can respond to and produce poetry. They can study and practice using literary techniques. They can write about their reactions to beauty they find in a flower, dance, or movie. Once we open the door to include beauty in our curriculum, the possibilities are endless.
Appreciation. One of the most important findings of brain science for educators is “Use it or lose it.” The brain is constantly rewiring itself and if sensory tracks are not used, we rewire ourselves so that portion of the brain is dedicated to other inputs. If we draw the attention of our students to aesthetics, they become more sensitive to the beauty that surrounds us. We can bring beauty into the classroom in the form of a butterfly, a flower, a painting, or a sonnet and have students study it and respond in any number of ways. Alternatively, we can send students out to find beauty in any of its many forms. They can photograph, sketch, draw, or create a model of a beautiful building, landscape, or sunrise. The more we do this, the richer will be their lives and the richer will be the lives of those around them as they in turn draw attention to the beautiful gifts of nature and mankind.
Creative Expression. Typically we have fostered creative expression through art and music classes. With proper instruction, students without special gifts can perform at extraordinary levels. Howard Gardner has been one of the most important advocates for schools to develop musical and artistic skills he calls intelligences. His description of what is possible should be an inspiration for us to set our goals higher. He provides a glowing description of his visit in 1980 to the Suzuki Talent Education Center in Matsumoto, Japan.
Gardner describes ordinary preschoolers performing like exceptional prodigies. Where would our students be, where would our world be if we elevated beauty to a primary place among the goals of education?
If we truly would give beauty its proper place in the curriculum, we would expand the opportunities for students to create beauty in its many forms. A rich curriculum would afford students opportunities to express themselves by crafting jewelry, designing clothes, making model homes and skyscrapers, performing dances, decorating rooms, and creating flower gardens. If we did, the lives of our students would be immeasurably enriched, the lives of those around them would benefit, and they would like and perform better in school. What we value in life, we should value in school.
Structures for Beauty
Part of the ability to appreciate and produce beauty is attention to detail. A number of structures are designed to orient students to detail. Same Different has students focus on the details within drawings of objects; Match Mine has students focus on the details of the relations among objects. Another skill related to the appreciation and production of beauty is the ability to visualize what one will paint, perform, or play. Both Guided Imagery and Visualization develop that skill. Perhaps the structure most directly related to the appreciation and production of beauty is Observe-Draw-RallyRobin. Each student observes an object, draws it, and then shares their drawing with a partner. The structure can be modified to foster visualization by removing the object from view during the Draw step, or it can foster attention to detail by keeping the object in view.
If we look around and ask who has been successful and who has improved the lot of mankind, we gravitate not just to those who create beauty, but also to those who have been innovative. The ability to create the proverbial “better mousetrap” certainly is partly a genetic gift, but it certainly is partly a gift we, as teachers, can give our students. When we have a student do a project, our eye should be not just on the facts and information our students acquire, but also on whether we are fostering the spirit of innovation. The spirit of innovation can be taught.
Those students who acquire the will and skill to be innovative will be the ones to make a better tomorrow for themselves and for the rest of us. If it were not for the spirit of innovation, we would not have eliminated polio, flown to the moon, figured out how to control inflation without creating unemployment, designed cars that run on corn or water, or have come up with Velcro or sticky notes. The products of innovation surround us, improving our lives daily. How innovative will our students be? How can we increase the probability each of our students will leave class more likely to make the next innovative breakthrough?
How can we make our students more innovative? It turns out that innovation is a meta-curricula. It can be developed while we teach anything. It is a habit of mind.
We ask our students, as individuals or teams, to create a plan to solve a world problem such as global warming, pollution, extinction of an endangered species, or poverty. We tell them their plan will be evaluated, in part, on how innovative it is. Does it include ideas not previously thought of?
We place before our students, as individuals or in student teams, four objects: a sheet of paper, a paper clip, a Styrofoam cup, and some scotch tape. Then we lay down a challenge: What can you make from these in then next ten minutes. If we want to foster cooperation, we tell student teams that each teammate is in charge of one of the objects and is the only one who can touch that object.
We give each student five words: Run, Typewriter, Beanbag, Gorgeous, and Listless. We lay down a challenge. You have five minutes. What is the most innovative paragraph you can write incorporating those five words?
We give students a physical challenge: How quickly can you toss a ball so each student in the class catches it. You have five tries, and we will record your time each attempt. Your goal is to beat your own record each time.
As we give our students problems in math, science, language arts, social studies, and physical education, our eye needs to be not just on their ability to solve the problem at hand, but rather on whether we have fostered in our students the spirit of innovation. How well have we made innovation a habit of mind?
Schooling is incomplete if it does not instill in our students a drive for excellence. Too often we ask our students if they have completed an assignment without asking if they have done the very best they can.
As an employer, I watch who excels and who does not. One of the most distinguishing variables: Those with a drive to do their best compared to those who merely want to complete their job. Pride in excellence drives innovation and improvement. If we want to serve our students well and make a better world, our curriculum needs to instill the drive toward excellence.
The drive toward excellence is a meta-curricula, an attitude toward all that we teach. We want to create a habit of mind that always asks, have I done this as well as I can? Can I improve on what I am doing? If we are to do our best for our students, this attitude needs to pervade our curriculum. Students need to ask if they have mastered as fully as they can an understanding of the academic curriculum. The goal is not that they master the curriculum better (although that would be a great by-product), but rather that they leave school with a drive for excellence. This attitude needs to extend not just to the academic curriculum, but also to understanding others and the range of aesthetic appreciations and expressions. Have I fully grasped the artist’s intent? Do I really understand how my study buddy is feeling? Have I made my essay as convincing and complete as it can be? Does my pottery have the grace I would most like?
Paradoxically the drive for excellence, to do better, must be coupled with self-acceptance or it will be self-defeating. None of us can successfully strive to be the best we can be if at the same time we do not accept who we are. Without self-acceptance, the drive for excellence becomes a hammer with which we beat ourselves on the head: I will never be good enough. What we want to instill is the feeling that I have done the best I can to this point, but with time and effort I can improve. The more we accept ourselves, the more we can advance from that position without falling into depression. To realize that we do not measure up to our own highest standards without a basic feeling of self-acceptance is a prescription for discouragement and giving up.
How can we create this attitude? By accepting our students for where they are and communicating that acceptance, while at the same time getting them to question themselves as to how they might improve. When we validate our present postion, we have more energy to move forward from that position.
The attitude I am describing is related to humility. As we read Einstein’s writing, it is pervaded with a sense of humility. He speaks of “A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds….” He knew with his best efforts he could only very dimly grasp the way the world is. This humility, this always knowing we could do better, is associated with the willingness to continually strive to improve. What would our world be like if each individual were to strive for excellence in all pursuits?
How successful would our students be in life and how much would the world be improved if our students left school with excellence as a habit of mind? We want excellence as an internal mantra: How could I improve — Make a better photo, sonata, poem, or juggling performance? How could I better grasp what another experiences? Gain a deeper, truer representation of reality? Create a more beautiful expression?
In the drive to boost test scores, we forget that the most important outcomes of schooling are not content, but creating within each pupil a process — a habit of mind that will serve them well for life.
Structures for Excellence
Many cooperative learning structures increase the drive for excellence among students because they are held individaully accountable. For example, in Showdown students each solve a problem on their own, then show their teammates what they have done. Because they will be held accountable to their peers for their performance, they try harder than if they were working solo. A number of structures hold students accountable for doing their best on their part of a problem. For example, in Blind Sequencing students in turn each have to describe their card as well as possible and deduce the order of the card in the sequence for their team to succeed. In Jigsaw Problem Solving students have to use the clue provided by their card to advance progress toward the solution of the problem, and then get feedback from their peers.
The drive for excellence is fostered by structures in a number of ways: Because students receive peer encouragement and support, they are more motivated and more successful, so students who otherwise would give up, find they can succeed. And success increases self-confidence and motivation which in turn increase future successes, so students become more willing to tackle more difficult problems. Knowing “I can do it” promotes the drive toward excellence.
I have not been sharing in this essay anything new or even anything most of us have not known and thought about. I am hoping only to have shined a brighter light on what I think is our noble mission as educators. To be all we hope to be for our students and for the world, we might well ask ourselves a question each day:
These ruminations about the goal of schooling make me conclude that we would do well to focus far more on process and far less on content. There is an important truth in the witticism: “Education is that which remains, if one has forgotten everything he learned in school.” We cannot predict the content our students will need to think about, but we can predict with relative certainty the habits of mind that will serve them well. The measure of our success is far less what our students learn than what they become.
To help our students become all they are capable of, we, ourselves, have to be innovative and strive for excellence. To the extent we refocus on the true goals of education, to that extent we will have reclaimed the nobility of our profession.
Let’s prepare our students not for tests, but for life.