Once, at a conference for American teachers and teachers from the Newly Independent States of the former Soviet Union, I met a teacher from Kazakhstan whose students had won a national recognition for their performance in competitive debate. This, in a formerly Soviet state—a country that had once upon a time brooked no controversy, tolerated no dissent. She gave a presentation about her strategies to mystified Kazakh colleagues whose shy, meek students would not disagree with them on the smallest of matters. How, they wondered, could Kazakh students, raised to be voiceless and compliant, come to debate their peers so skillfully as to win a national debate contest?
“That’s just it,” the teacher explained. “We began with the smallest of matters.”
The first topic of debate the teacher had put before her students was this: Spring is the best season.
“Spring is the best season,” the teacher declared. “Raise your hands if you agree with me.” Every hand went up.
“Raise your hands if you disagree.” No one raised a hand.
“No one disagrees?” she asked. “There is nothing about spring that you don’t like?” She waited. Finally, one tentative hand lifted.
“Well,” a little girl offered hesitantly, “in the spring, there is mud.”
And that is how this wise teacher began: small.
Students “debated” whether a particular food tasted good, whether a book was worth reading, whether a clothing style was attractive. In increments, she led the students to genuinely controversial topics and deeper, more incisive arguments until finally, they were debating serious topics in formal forensic style. She had had to warm the students to controversy, show them that nothing was to be feared from disagreement, and then teach them the skills of debate: researching and analyzing an argument, evaluating evidence, developing a claim, formulating effective support, using concession to advantage.
American teachers today are tasked with preparing students for a new kind of standardized test. Students will be asked to read and respond in writing to a variety of documents they will be given on unannounced topics in science, social studies, the arts—really, any area. On the new tests of students’ proficiency in the English Language Arts—coming in 2014-2015—students will need to read documents on the spot, formulate a claim, gather evidence from the readings to support their position, and use all their skills of analysis and evaluation to write a cogent, coherent essay defending their position. (At least this is what we are hearing now will be the format of the new assessments.)
What this means for instruction in the language arts classroom is a much more intense focus on reading and writing, with particular emphasis on argument.
Let’s leave politics aside. Ditto opinions about whether this is a valid way to assess a student’s progress or whether scores on these tests should be used to determine a teacher’s effectiveness. For now, too, set aside questions about the logistics of evaluating these writing-intensive tests and reporting the results in a timely fashion.
The immediate question is this: Are these skills students should have?
We live in a contentious society. Prominent people use public platforms to spout unsubstantiated opinions. Politicians twist the meaning of other people’s remarks, make snide insinuations, and sometimes tell blatant lies. Even ordinary people become irate without cause and seek redress for their grievances before they even try compromise or consider reconciliation. Would it be good to train our students to question claims, spot flaws in logic, evaluate evidence, counter arguments and expose specious claims? It would. If future citizens cannot read with understanding, write clearly and coherently to varied audiences, talk back to statistics, question authority, speak truth to power, and argue responsibly, where will our democracy be? To my mind, the new agenda is not an issue. It may even have evolved as a solution to the temper of our times.
But are we teaching these skills now in our classrooms? Can we do it?
Getting there will be easier than it was for the Kazakh teachers because our students don’t have to be led to argument. They love to debate and don’t back away from controversy. They’ve been raised in the land of free speech and exercise that freedom without trepidation. What my students need help with is what this new curriculum mandates: reading, writing, and thinking clearly. The new Common Core standards, subscribed to by forty-six states, present an interdisciplinary, grade-by-grade outline of the skills our students need to be “college and career ready” (new education-speak for “prepared for the future”) and the ones our country needs them to have to remain in its right mind.
We can do this—and we will. One step at a time. One grade at a time. One skill at a time. Start small, start young. Spring is the best season.