Monday, January 28, 2013

Aristotle and Me: A philosopher for the 21st Century Educator?

Today's post is by @debmeredith13, a kindergarten teacher in Chicago.

So what does Aristotle have to do with my job as a kindergarten teacher?  
Learning targets, formative assessments, PLCs, 21st Century Skills, 1-1 iPad initiatives, The Common Core State Standards, Project-based learning, checking in on my Personal Learning Network and the ever-pressing challenge of increasing student achievement are at the top of my list.  So why would I choose to add Greek Philosophy?  Why?  Ah, the best critical thinking question of them all…why.  Would it be convolutedly clear for me to suggest that the why is why Aristotle is on my list?  Let me explain

If Aristotle were here in our 21st century, looking at my aforementioned list, I believe he would say: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”  Now, since I am in the business of educating minds, I need to do some serious thinking about that one….
You may be speculating that I am about to face a big dilemma: How do I entertain the expectations for teaching and learning and student achievement on my list with an educated mind of my own?  How do I entertain every new district initiative, possible new assessment method, view all of those super-cute looking projects that my teacher friends are pinning on Pinterest, read a great blog post and not try it?   You’ve all been there – we are in such a rapidly evolving communicatin society that the volumes of ideas available to us are breathtaking…and overwhelming.  At this point in time, it is more important than ever to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.  To do this I believe you must have a philosophy: a clear vision of what you do and why you are doing it, of what you believe and why.  And thanks to John Hattie (more about him later) you can no longer say, “Because it works for me.”  Here are some of the modern day thinkers (my Arisotoles, if you will) that I turn to when I need to entertain a thought.  Oh, and I’m sure you will ask…why?

Who:  Dan Pink author of Drive
Why:  I want my students to have ownership of their learning and their behavior, but what if a school-wide incentive program to increase desired student behavior becomes the policy in my district? 
Dan Pink writes, “A lot of the research shows …these policies [external rewards]can actually impair creativity. But at most, they’re a big zero. They don’t do anything. It’s very clear they don’t work very well for higher-order thinking, so we’re basically putting in place these policies based on the folklore about what motivates human beings rather than the science. There’s this push toward data-driven, evidence-based practices, but in this one realm of motivation, we’re kind of ignoring it. We have 50 years of research that says, ‘This is unlikely to work.’”

Who: Debbie Miller, author of Reading With Meaning (second edition)
Why:  Sometimes I just want to close my door and teach.  What difference can I make? 
Debbie Miller writes: “When we know the theory behind our work, when our practices match our beliefs, and when we clearly articulate what we do and why we do it, people listen… Read. Reflect. Read some more.”   Ms. Miller implores us to do more than think that something isn’t right.  Speak out about your thinking, say it out loud.  Be an activist and an advocate, not for fidelity to a program, but for fidelity to doing what is right for children.

Who: John Medina, author of Brain Rules
Why: Brain-based classroom?  Really?
John Medina writes: “If you want to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing you probably would design something like a classroom.  If you wanted to create a business environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a cubicle.  And if you want to change things, you might have to tear down both and start over.”

Who:  Carol Dweck, Author of Mindset
Why: The new Common Core State Standards are asking us to adopt a more rigorous curriculum, even in kindergarten.  Is it developmentally appropriate?
Carol Dweck writes: “ Many educators think that lowering their standards will give students success experiences, boost their self-esteem and raise their achievement, it comes from the same philosophy as the overpraising of student intelligence.  Well, it doesn’t work.  Lowering standards just leads to poorly educated students who feel entitled to easy work and lavish praise.”  (Ooops, I think this may apply to teacher evaluations as well.)

Who: Lucy Calkins, author of Pathways to the Common Core
Why: The Common Core tells me what children need to learn, but it doesn’t tell me the best instructional delivery model to use.
Lucy Calkins writes about using a workshop model for delivery of reading and writing instruction,: “workshops are kept deliberately simple and predictable, like an art studio or a researcher’s laboratory, because it is the work itself that is ever changing and complex…Each day’s teaching in a workshop does not set up a new hoop for the students to all jump through in sync.  Instead, the bulk of time during each day, students carry on with their work.  As they do so, they draw upon a growing repertoire of skills, tools, strategies, and habit.”

And finally, my Aristotle, John Hattie:
Who: John Hattie, visionary, researcher extraordinaire, and author of Visible Learning.
Why: When you need to make an important philosophical decision about new initiatives, projects, methods or just about anything else…  Read. John. Hattie.  He has done the research on all of the research.  And he found out that almost everything we do in education works…but since you can’t do everything, you’d better find out what really has an effect on student achievement (it might surprise you).

So, now I will close with a full-circle back to those Greek philosophers.  This time it’s good old Socrates: “ I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.”

It is my hope that I gave you something to think about.

Deb Meredith is 30+ year educator.  In her life as an educator she has taught everything from a 2 year-old playgroup to High School Math.   She now finds herself happily teaching Kindergarten in suburban Chicago.  Thanks for the opportunity to join the Kinderchat blog.  It’s a pleasure and privilege to contribute.
I would love to entertain any thoughts you may have


  1. I think my reading list has now multiplied! Thanks for presenting such an interesting view on philosophy and teaching. :)

  2. Love the resources. Agree with Meg I have a few to check out.
    Your final quote from Socrates was what caught me. I've always approached my work with children from the point of view that if I can help them develop their imaginations they will be about to succeed at whatever they do.