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Smart Ideas: Q&A Joel Westheimer talks education and democratic citizenship


This series sponsored by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences features notable humanities and social sciences researchers with smart ideas for a better tomorrow. This month we speak to Joel Westheimer, who holds the University Research Chair in Democracy and Education at the University of Ottawa.

sponsored-smartideas-joel-322Joel Westheimer is intimately aware of the meandering path through life pursued by individuals as well as entire societies. He has followed his own roundabout route from an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and computer science at Princeton, where he also became the university’s first male student to graduate from the women’s studies program, to his current position as University Research Chair in Democracy and Education at the University of Ottawa. His research has concentrated on the crucial role of education in helping society to successfully navigate the critical challenges and opportunities it faces. More specifically, he has reviewed school curricula across Canada and the United States to analyze how they instill the values of citizenship, especially those values unique to a democratic society.

In 2014, Dr. Westheimer was part of a team that shared a $380,000 grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to study how economic inequality is taught in the three countries of the North American Free Trade Agreement. He has captured the insights of this work in his latest book, What Kind of Citizen? Educating Our Children for the Common Good (Teachers College Press, 2015).

You started out wanting to be an engineer?

Dr. Westheimer: This may be the first time that that part of my personal life has gone public! Back then I was interested in technology in social service. I got involved in a youth organization running summer camps with a heavy educational focus and I eventually became camp director. I was always interested in this educational aspect, but I never thought of it as a career, just a hobby. At some point I realized that the thing I loved was working in some form of education, so I decided to go into teaching.

What was your teaching experience like?

Dr. Westheimer: I taught for a number of years in the New York City public education system. My book outlines what a tremendous learning experience that was for me. For example, I describe the creative tension that unfolded between me and Archeem, an African-American student in my 7th grade social studies class who struggled academically. Figuring out why school didn’t engage him – and what I could change so that it did engage him – was rewarding.

I had been trying to teach the students about racism and civil rights as part of a standard curriculum, but current events intervened when vandals trashed a gay pride display in the school. This was the 1980s and pride parades were controversial, even in New York. But the vandalism led Archeem to bring up the subject in class, prompting a lively discussion about how societies deal with differences amongst citizens. Some parents did complain about gay rights being discussed in school, but I was willing to take that heat and I was happy that this topic had inspired a difficult student to engage in some serious, critical thought.

When did your interest in education become more academic?

Dr. Westheimer: I decided to upgrade my credentials and wound up taking a Master’s degree at Stanford. Then, because life happens, it turned into a PhD. Among the most interesting things I did there was working with students who were studying to become teachers to create curriculum for inner-city kids by taking them out into the wilderness. But it wasn’t about nature education. It actually didn’t have anything to do with the environment, except in what it means to create an educational environment without walls.

You get to change the idea of school when you do this. You’re pulled in lots of directions when you’re at home or at school, but in the wilderness your whole world is right there. It gives you 24-hour time with the kids and you get the opportunity to create a whole world. That gives you a sense of possibility. What possibilities are there for creating communities in schools that function really well? It was all about experience-based education and helped develop my understanding of democratic communities in education.

Have educators actually been able to create these kinds of communities?

Dr. Westheimer: There never was a golden age of education, but since at least the Progressive Era of education reform, there has been a lot of research that recognizes the importance of relationships to teaching and learning. It’s a human endeavour with all the messiness that implies. Over the last 20 years, school reforms have started moving away from a lot of these human and relational aspects of schooling.

Today, there’s plenty of rhetoric about creativity, critical thinking, different styles of learning and multiple intelligences. But, in the end, school reform has coalesced around this myopic focus on standardization and accountability in only two subject areas: math and literacy. Across North America we’ve seen this terrible narrowing of the curriculum where everything unrelated to raising test scores is pushed off the table or de-emphasized to make room for months and months of test preparation. Our whole culture has become obsessed with metrics.

Why do educational metrics pose such a problem?

Dr. Westheimer: There’s a parable about a guy looking for his car keys under a streetlight on a corner. A woman comes along to help him and asks if he’s sure he lost the keys there. He replies that he lost them on another corner, but the light is better here. That’s what’s happened to us. We love numbers and if a newspaper can publish rankings of schools and this school gets a 33 while another gets a 32, we say as parents we’ll send our kid to the school that got 33. The spotlight shines bright on those scores. It’s not that the number means nothing, but it’s capturing such a small part of what goes on in classrooms.

We’re good at knowing whether kids can add two plus two and get four, we’re good at knowing whether they can decode the words of a sentence to get at the meaning, but we’re not good at measuring critical thinking, creativity, imagination, citizenship, ability to be in healthy relationships – all those things teachers and parents care about but aren’t measured. So what happens is like the guy under the street light: we start to care about the things we can measure because we can’t measure the things we really care about.

How do we even identify those things we really care about, much less defend them?

Dr. Westheimer: For me, the ultimate question is what should schools be doing in a democratic society that schools in a totalitarian dictatorship wouldn’t do? Is there anything different between Canadian schools and schools in North Korea? We’d like to think it’s totally different, but when you think of things such as fractions or chemistry or the life cycle of a glow worm, all this stuff is taught all around the world. One of the key things that has to be different in Canadian schools and in other democratic societies is we need to teach kids to ask questions and think critically about the world around them. In democratic societies you’re asking people to participate in their own governance and not take anything for granted or at face value.

Don’t we already cover that when we teach students about civics?

Dr. Westheimer: Even when people talk about citizenship education, it’s almost always things like character education – being a good person, picking up litter, showing up to work on time, paying taxes, giving blood when there’s a storm. It’s the same thing that the leaders of North Korea would want. There’s not a country on the planet that wouldn’t want people to be nice and not to litter, so what are the special skills required in a democratic society?

Democratic citizenship requires more. It requires that people participate in choosing things in their community and it requires that they are able to traffic in multiple perspectives. There are tons of teachers doing this amazing work in schools. I see it all the time when I travel. I see teachers doing incredible curricula, where kids are working in the community and tying it to their curriculum and asking tough questions. But the problem that I’ve seen is that right now we have too many teachers who are doing that despite the current state of school reform rather than because of it. It’s not done in systematic ways. You have super-talented, motivated teachers who are doing it, but there’s no support for them.
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