- Critical Lessons: What Our Schools Should Teach
Everyone seems to have an opinion about what schools need, especially as the 2008 presidential election approaches. The biggest problem with many suggestions is that their inventors know very little about the complexities of our educational system or the sources of the problems schools face. It is refreshing to read a volume written by an individual who has the understanding and experience to offer a well-reasoned, if radical, plan for curricular reform in public secondary schools.
In her newest work, educator and philosopher Nel Noddings challenges our understanding of what it means to be educated in America and what it should mean. She accurately identifies several areas of weakness in the secondary school model, but insists that we have the ability to confront these weaknesses and create an entirely new paradigm for education. Yet Noddings also admits that most educators, pressured by high-stakes testing and hampered by outmoded organizational patterns, are not likely to make the needed changes in the near future. Feminist teachers, on the other hand, may be inspired by the book's emphasis on the [End Page 243] student as a whole person in relationship with self, others, society, and the environment. Noddings insists that education become personal and that the big ideas with which educators should be concerned transcend disciplines.
Noddings is especially critical of the current focus on standardized testing, which forces students to learn a series of discrete facts that they forget as soon as the test is over. It isn't that teachers don't "cover" the material from their curricula; the problem is that students don't make connections that allow them to internalize the information they encounter. To counter this problem, Noddings advocates interdisciplinary "critical lessons" that engage students in examining their own present and future lives. Noddings predicts if schools utilize more conversation about topics that secondary youth will deal with as adults, there will be increased involvement of students in their own schooling. What they learn will matter to them. In this respect, Critical Lessons reminded me of Arthur Applebee's Curriculum as Conversation, a work that has influenced the way I approach my own teaching. Both books should be required reading in teacher preparation programs.
Chapter titles chosen by Noddings indicate the shift in curricular emphasis she advocates. Each of the first ten chapters deals with one of the critical issues she proposes addressing in the secondary curriculum: "Learning and Self-understanding," "The Psychology of War," "House and Home," "Other People," "Parenting," "Animals and Nature," "Advertising and Propaganda," "Making a Living," "Gender," and "Religion." The eleventh chapter, "Preparing Our Schools," suggests that the needed changes must begin with teacher education programs. These topics lend themselves to interdisciplinary integration, and Noddings supplies many suggestions for places in the existing disciplinary structure where teachers might begin to open discussions.
Parenting skills are seldom mentioned in the secondary school. Noddings writes, "Few of us use academic mathematics as adults, but most of us become parents." Why, then, do schools do so little to prepare future parents while requiring them to complete classes they will not use? Being a parent is important, challenging, and rewarding work, and high school students should begin to develop a sense of themselves as accepting or rejecting this work. Students should read and discuss history concerning childhood and the history of motherhood. They should be exposed to a variety of opinions on topics as varied as how children learn to read, the use of punishment for children, child care in America, abortion, drug usage, responsibility, birth control, competition, and homework. While some of these subjects are "covered" in the present curriculum, students are rarely given the opportunity to investigate them thoroughly and to discuss their own ideas and questions. Questions raised in this chapter include: How should children be socialized? What sort of discipline is recommended? What special problems do poor working mothers face? What role should parents play in the completion of their children's homework? Should parents do anything to control overeating, failure...