What Our Kids Should Know

[This paper contains the testimony delivered by State Senator Magnani, then Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, before the Massachusetts Commission on the Common Core of Learning. The Commission was charged with providing guidance for implementing the Education Reform Act. Senator Magnani's listing of the core elements of education are of particular interest to us, and could have led to a serious transformation of public education in Massachusetts had they, rather than the MCAS exams, formed the basis for education reform. - The Editor]

First, let me thank you for inviting me to provide testimony today and more importantly for being willing to spend your time and effort to serve on this most important Commission.

Because the Education Reform Act was born in response to concern on the part of many, including the business community, about the functional abilities of many of our students relative to basic skills, I won't address those needs here. But before I begin, let me say emphatically, that the ability to read and to think quantitatively are absolutely central to a healthy modern society and a healthy economy. No educational system, no matter what else can be said about it, could be called successful if its students lack these basic skills. But precisely because, I believe, there is broad agreement on this score, I would like to focus my remarks today on some educational pre-conditions for measuring the success of our educational system, while trying to answer the Commission's central question: What should our children know?

First I will attempt to articulate some working assumptions I presume we share about children and learning. Then, I will attempt to outline value-based answers to this question, and four answers directly related to learning.

The working assumptions are:

First, that each child is not only a learner, but also a teacher, who brings to the learning setting qualities central to a healthy society. Among these are vision, innocence, the ability to offer and receive love, and hope. They are already full human beings with the right to be treated with love and dignity.

Second, each child is born with enormous potential and it is our solemn obligation to create conditions within which each can grow to reach that full potential. Here we should pause a moment to realize what a fundamentally revolutionary idea this is, in that no other nation has ever even pretended, either in law or in fact, that each, each and every child, should have such a right. The implications of actually delivering on this promise are staggering, both in the scope of the obligation and the power of the result.

Third, that, ideally, the present and future needs of the child and how the child learns best must be the starting point for all our educational policy decisions. But, if such an ideal is not feasible, we must be honest enough to defend administrative decisions on administrative grounds, and not seek to defend or explain them on any pedagogical ground. The 35-minute time slot for classes or the school buzzer or the P.A. system are a few examples. Putting the child at the center also implies that, while taxpayers, the business community, teachers, administrators, elected officials and parents are appropriate beneficiaries of a good educational system, the child must still be the primary client of the system. We must trust that what is psychologically and intellectually supportive of the child's development will result in children building a healthy future, socially and economically, for themselves and others. We should not, as public educators, conduct industrial market sector research to determine "What should children learn?" Though, I must say, that I have found that teachers can often speak more to students' real interests if they have had direct experience in other fields or can ground concepts in life off school grounds. For example, a day trip to a photovoltaics company can engender more learning about economic, social, environmental as well as scientific dimensions than any dry and scientifically outmoded lecture on the wave versus the particle theory of light. Think how productive a conversation between a student and a design engineer might be for both if a student were to ask whether solar pressure will affect the motion of a satellite.

I know that this Commission is already aware that a "Common Core of Learning" can't and shouldn't be simply a list of subject matter headings and subheadings. Rather, I interpret your task, at least in some measure, to be to determine, in the most fundamental sense, what does each child in the Commonwealth have a right to know as a result of years in the classrooms of the Commonwealth.

I will attempt to answer this in order of priority. And by priority I mean it in the same sense that Maslow did when describing the hierarchy of human needs: that each need is prior, that is, is a precondition for moving to the next level and that any intervention which seeks to enhance a higher level while undoing a more basic level will fail to address either.

So, if I am a child in the Commonwealth's schools, what do I need to know? I need to know that "I matter." I need to know that "Others matter." And, I need to know that "Our world, and what happens in it and to it, matters."

First, I must know that I matter, that some adult cares deeply about me and is willing to risk his or her own well-being for my sake, because my ideas and my feelings mean something and I will be listened to. Because I matter, some adult is going to take responsibility for my feeling and being safe and cared for. Any policy or curriculum idea or educational behavior which is willing risk any child's self-esteem or dignity can not be justified on pedagogical grounds, because a sense of self worth is a rock-solid prerequisite for good learning. And, by the way, such thinking implies no lightheaded permissiveness. No. Concretely, it means that the child knows, in spite of and perhaps as often because of disciplinary practices, he or she is cared for. The structuring of appropriate natural consequences for dysfunctional behavior, when accompanied by a clear but supportive voice, for example, will be understood as a necessary part of one's growth, rather than simply punishment or retribution. This also implies that children have both the right and the obligation to be in charge of their own future, to know that they have the ability to bring order out of chaos and to learn what they need to learn in order to do so.

Second, and frankly, if we only achieve this first level for each child, we will have already created a truly revolutionary education system. But second, I must learn that "Others matter - that just as I have a right to be here, so does every other person." When this idea is pushed past the level of a saccharine cliché and taken seriously, that is, when kids recognize that other people matter only because they do and that they matter only because other people do, some dramatic changes will occur in school and out. For children to learn well and to learn important things, it is our obligation to see that their heart is ready for learning, not just their mind. They must love to learn, but they must also learn to love.

Third, as a student in Massachusetts schools, I must learn that my world matters. Native Americans, after 350 years of struggling about it, are finally getting their "guests from the West" to understand how the earth resonates with its beings and, as the famous paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin once wrote, "We, as a species, are part of a continuing directrix of consciousness with all matter." So a healthy respect for the earth, and the various societies it supports, in all of its power and delicacy, will be the key to longevity for the species and for determining whether we really are "an educated people." I am not speaking here about granola crunch environmentalism - I am talking about taking our full relationship with the earth seriously.

As I mentioned, these first three items are clearly value-based. The last four are more obviously related to the intellectual aspects of knowing and learning.

Fourth, I must understand that knowledge is not a static quantity that can be stored, rather that I create knowledge every time I learn. I must know that my own creation, that product of my intellectual and often physical energy is valid. And I must have the tools of learning, computers for example, available to me and know how to use them. This learning to learn and loving to learn is so central to any core curriculum it can not be overstated. Since the modern workplace will require rapid learning and collaborative learning skills our schools must model and foster that. We will never survive any other way, given the current speed of change, technological as well as social. We must transcend the idea that holding "a body of knowledge" will be of much help in such a rapidly changing world.

For example, has anyone here ever read in their history books about a device known as a slide rule? After five years of engineering school I was so proud to have learned how to use all thirty-three scales on the slide rule I had received five years prior for my high school graduation! Within six months of my graduation, Casio had created a hand calculator with all thirty-three functions and six more. My slide rule, and the many hours had spent learning it, are safely ensconced in my attic.

Fifth, as a result of my Massachusetts school experience, I must know how to really communicate with others, to enter into a truly dialogical relationship with two or more people who perceive each other as inherently worthy, regardless of the intellectual paradigm or culture or language they might choose for that communication. Here I refer to language in the broadest sense to include, for example, mathematics as a language of communication as well as a tool of investigation. I will want to also be able to communicate in whatever communication vehicle is appropriate for the context, be it sign language, body-language, the visual arts, science, etc. But while each of these so called "disciplines" does tend to have a language of its own, with its own voice, syntax and vocabulary, I want to make it clear that we should not allow our children to confuse the language of science, for example, for science itself, nor the language of art with art itself and never to substitute the language of such "academic disciplines" for the doing.

Sixth, by the time our children leave school, and hopefully much sooner, they should have developed intellectual skills we didn't even know existed when we graduated. They should be self-aware as learners and thinkers. They should know how to examine knowledge itself, be aware of the various epistemologies and the utility or disutility of each in various contexts. They should understand, for example, that the creation of a Mona Lisa, the creation of a smile on the face of a homeless person, and the creation of a commuter rail system require fundamentally different ways of knowing; and they should know the power and limitations of each and therefore know when each is appropriate. Additionally, intellectual and pedagogical self-awareness means that I know what I know and don't know and I am rigorously honest about both.

Seventh, and finally, I must feel totally free to inquire and to feel that my natural inquisitiveness is a gift to be developed and respected. We must be sure that nothing we do in our schools ever threatens the natural human tendency to inquire. It is the raw material of learning and nothing can replace it, though an authentically inquisitive teacher can often, by modeling, foster a trust in questions and a sense that it's really OK to ask anything - anything? - yes, anything.

Now this support for inquiry sounds good in the abstract, but as a teacher trainer many years ago, I often sensed a certain apprehension about it. Will students pursue "inappropriate" questions? Will they go out of bounds?

Occasionally yes, unless they have totally assimilated the hidden curriculum of their institutions. But a society which tries to prevent such questions is soon headed for decay. For example, what if students should ask "radical" questions such as: If democracy is such a great idea, how come we see so little of it in the classroom, or the workplace, or the churches, or the family? How much democracy is good for me? When? Why? How can I really find out? Can I experiment with it? If I do, who wins and who loses and why?

Or, unless we believe that current economic arrangements are already perfected and immutable, a student might ask such things as What is "unearned income"? If it's unearned, where does it come from? If it is really earned, are those who earn it the ones who receive it? Why? or Why not? In other words, we must foster authentic intellectual curiosity. We need not fear that once the genie of open inquiry is out of the lamp it will work for Jafar and or for Aladdin. My guess is it will always work for us if it is we who rub the lamp.

So these are some musings on what I think our kids must learn if we are to build a healthy society and a healthy economy: Each child must know that he or she matters, that other people matter, and that the world matters; that he or she can create knowledge, communicate effectively, use a variety of ways of knowing, and can retain a fiery unquenchable thirst for learning, such that each drink from the cup of knowledge contains a little dose of red pepper.

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The views expressed on this page are those of the author. They do not reflect the official policy or position of the Sudbury Valley School.