Learning From Different Viewpoints

Recently, I had a startling experience. I got into an intellectual argument with two acquaintances over the Affordable Care Act. What startled me was the fact that these two seemingly reasonable people were saying things that were, in my estimation, totally unreasonable. Yet, they had a great many facts to back them up, or what they thought were facts. They had more facts then I did. They also had more conviction, so much conviction that I couldn’t even begin to get across my viewpoint. I tried to listen to them. They took my listening as an opportunity to repeat their view again and again. Anything positive I had to say about the ACA was, in their view, not just inaccurate but an abomination. They picked out as important very different aspects of the question than I did. We were looking at totally different realities.


After the incident was over, I felt bad. I had failed to convert them. Even more, our previous peaceful coexistence was, at least temporarily, ended. I was unsure what would happen when we next met. Then I realized I had learned a great deal from these two men. I realized I did not know as much as I thought. I realized how difficult it is to actually think from another person’s viewpoint. And I was reminded of how holding tightly onto an intellectual position can distort the situation you are involved in.


The possibility of such disagreements occurring is enhanced by the fact that many of us listen exclusively to people we agree with. One of the men in the discussion about the ACA said he researched the act with three different sources, but all the sources he cited were from the same political perspective. It can be difficult, unsettling, even threatening to be in the same room with people who you know have viewpoints, political ideologies or religions different from your own. The loud voices often used in political speech, for example, can easily remind you just how threatened people can feel from hearing differing viewpoints.


In the early 1970s, I often hitched rides. This gave me the opportunity to learn valuable lessons about talking with people who held viewpoints very different from my own. On one occasion, I was hitching to California from Arizona and was picked up by a marine who had recently returned from Vietnam. I was recently returned from the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone. He was very upset about how anti-war protesters spoke about soldiers. I had the long hair of a protester. Somehow, he started talking about the snakes and insects he had encountered. Maybe he was trying to scare me or gross me out.  However, Sierra Leone has an abundance of wildlife. After dueling with scary stories, we particularly bonded over our experiences with black mamba and other snakes.


So, how do you deal with different perspectives? Be aware that when you take on an intellectual viewpoint, it’s easy to think your viewpoint is the “right” one. You might think your position is privileged, outside or above it all and you are looking down on your “opponents.” You might think you know something that they don’t and if only they knew what you knew, they would repent. In Aristotelian logic, something is either true or false. It can’t be both. So, if this “other” view is correct, that means your view is incorrect. And most people I know don’t like being “wrong” or being looked down upon.


Start by mindfully noticing your thoughts and the story you are creating in your mind. Realize that as you are thinking of your “opponent,” she or he is thinking of you. Your viewpoint of this person, or of whatever question you are discussing, no matter how deep, can never encompass the reality of the person or question. Our description of the taste of an orange is never as delicious as actually tasting the orange. However, when you talk honestly with others about the reality of your life, often a connection is made. But, if you use buzz words with deep emotional and intellectual connotations, you can lose both the sense of yourself and the others you are with. When you hold your viewpoints with some lightness or humor, this leaves more room for others to enter.


These differences can also show up in a classroom. Students can seem to teachers to be “intransigent” or just “not getting it” when in reality they are simply disagreeing with something we said or the way that we said it. Teachers can seem, to students, to be judging them, imposing a viewpoint or value on them.  Of course, with students, teachers can have agreements about how to examine and analyze evidence, derive conclusions, and what constitutes a sound argument—something that is more difficult to pull off in the world outside the classroom. We can teach students that the most valuable lesson to learn in a class is how to learn, understand, and change. In that way, when they face a viewpoint that is different from their own, they take it as an opportunity to learn, not a threat.


So, when you run into perceived opposition, take a breath. Notice what you’re feeling. Breathe in the sense that this is another person you are speaking with. You are speaking with a person, not an idea. Feel the fact that the person is feeling something just like you; you feel you have the correct view, she might feel the same. Maybe he is feeling scared or defensive. As you breathe out relax, look at the other person, and only then begin to speak. Hopefully, you and the other person will then meet.

The Interview


Sasha Lilley, producer and interviewer of Pacifica Radio’s Against The Grain, interviewed me a few weeks ago. The interview was about alternative education or student centered learning, the attacks on public schools, how to teach to meet the needs of a diverse population, and how to teach critical thinking using mindfulness. It was aired on the radio last week. Here is a link to it.


Mon 6.16.14 | The Radical Philosophy of Alternative Public Education | Against the Grain: A Program about Politics, Society and Ideas


In the interview, I talked about using questions to engage students and develop their critical intellect. As an illustration, I used the historical question: Why was Socrates executed by his city-state, Athens? In the interview, I did not give adequate background to the question.


Socrates, who was one of the most influential philosophers in history, certainly Western history, was probably both a hero and a pain in the butt. His methods clearly irritated many of his contemporaries. He was charged with impiety and with corrupting minors, by encouraging his students to question their assumptions and beliefs. He was the teacher of several notable people, including Plato, who taught Aristotle, who taught Alexander The Great. He was executed in 399 BCE, just five years after Athens had lost the Peloponnesian Wars, had lost their once glorious empire and seen their democracy destroyed and rebuilt. The wars had spanned over 30 years. When given the opportunity to escape a death sentence but be exiled from his home, he declined. So, why was Socrates executed?


I was also unclear in explaining why test scores are poor vehicles for diagnosing what students have learned. When tests compare student achievement, as by using a curve or by ranking how the student stood in relation to other students, they do not say what a student actually knows. If everyone in a group does poorly, scoring 90% does not mean you did well. If everyone in the group is a high achieving student, scoring only 10% might be vey good.


And there are so many other reasons not to use standardized tests to assess student, teacher, or school achievement. So, why are the tests still pushed?


Also, this week LACS received good news. The radio interviewer asked me if an alternative school, which de-emphasized tests, grades and competition, could prepare students for the tests and other challenges of the world. I said yes. To support my assertion, the SAT scores for the year were announced this week. LACS outscored all the other schools in upstate New York. (Despite this, I still argue that standardized tests infringe on learning more than they assess it.)


I hope you enjoy the interview. Any questions or comments?



*The mural is by LACS students. The blue ox is the Blue ACS, symbol of the school.


What are helpful ways to bring the school year, or anything, to an end? How do you pull everything together so the year concludes on a high note and you don’t try to cram in too much and stress yourself and everyone else? One complaint I hear from students (about other classes, of course, not my own) is that by the second week of May they suddenly have too much to do and they claim no one prepared them for this.


And teachers, when preparing students for the standardized tests at the end of the year, can wonder if they did enough. They can be angry at the state for imposing new requirements; angry at the principal, a student or themselves when they feel they didn’t teach well or an issue remained unresolved. Stress arises whenever something lingers and you feel you can’t control or handle it.


While it might seem difficult, a teacher should begin the year by planning the end. Ask yourself, what do you want students to be able to do at the end of the year? What skills, knowledge, deep understandings do you think they should have? What standards must they meet? This is the backwards design process. Once you know where you’re going, you can develop a process for getting there—and let students know the plan. I encourage you to take a further step and have students help in the course design. Find out, once you have answered the above questions for yourself, what students want to know and think they need to know. By incorporating students into the course design, they will be better prepared. And engaged. Maybe part of the crisis mentality at the end of the year comes from students having distanced themselves from the class at the beginning.


In a good year, the end energizes me. I wake up to the fact that I have so little time left with the students. I want to give them whatever I can. Even if I am tired of all the effort teaching takes, I don’t mind so much. I pay closer attention. I feel the value of each moment. During the year, I sometimes resist the work; now I can’t.


Not being prepared for the ending can occur not only in school, but anywhere–when a relationship breaks up, or there’s a death, or you’re preparing for an event. It can seem a total surprise. It can feel like something was going on of which you were totally unaware. You feel that you weren’t paying attention. So one strategy is to pay attention, moment by moment. You don’t want to mourn for your own life.


Why don’t we pay attention? There are all sorts of reasons. Certainly, frequent use of multitasking with social and other media doesn’t help. Another reason might be that we never learned how to do it well. Attention training is not usually part of education. ‘Attention’ comes from the root ‘attendere’ which literally means to reach or stretch towards and can also mean mental focus, interest, and caring. Attention is not automatic; it requires energy. It is an active reaching out. We show we care with our attention. Students might not pay attention because they don’t care or they consciously or unconsciously resist the experience. And then, at the end, they might realize what they have lost and they panic. Or they get so used to panic and stress that they think they need it to get anything done.


So, it’s helpful to teach students about attention. Mindfulness can do this. With mindful focus, there is more clarity about what needs to be done and less stress about the year ending.


Also, people might stop paying attention to the end because it reminds them of the very fluid nature of the world. Change can be upsetting. Change means endings but is so much more than that. Taking a breath means change. Talking means moving lips, breath, thought. To know and learn is change. Fear arises when you cling to an end as if it continues and does not change. But even endings end. Change is just another way to say living, feeling, understanding. So, trust in the ability to know and feel the living world.


Take a moment. Let your eyes close, your body relax and your mind turn inwards. Have you ever just sat by a stream and watched the water pass by? Picture that stream, the water, the scene around it. Maybe there were trees nearby. Maybe there were rocks in the streambed around which the water streamed. Eddies were formed by these rocks. Some were small, some very large. Yet, the water continued on, adjusting. Maybe you could see the sunlight reflecting off the water, sparkling, like a jewel. Maybe you could feel a sense of comfort in looking at the stream as a whole and the scene around it. Just feel it. Isn’t there a sense of beauty in the whole? Notice that you can focus either on the constantly changing water, or the whole– the trees, the rocks, the streambed, the sky. The two perceptions, of the flowing water and the whole, support each other and you could go from one to the other fluidly. Now, just take in the scene and rest in it. If any thought comes, or feeling, let it be carried away in the stream and then return your mind to noticing the whole scene.


So, ending the year isn’t the problem. It is how we think about it. We all draw conclusions, about others, about the state of the world and, of course, about how our day, month, moment, or year went. We need to realize the nature of thought. Why do we have thoughts? What are they? When we think about how the year went, are we trying not only  to sum up a year but create an image of who we are? “The year went well; I am a good teacher. The year sucked. Do I suck?” We try to create a secure image of the past that can be projected into a secured future. But is any thought or abstraction of an event as encompassing as the event itself? Can we enjoy our memories without distorting them with judgments? Can we teach the importance of critical thinking and intellectual understanding, yet recognize that the world always exceeds our ideas about it? We need to hold our ideas more lightly and the world more intimately.


The value of reflection at the end is not only about what lessons have been learned, but about coming back to now. It is to view being in a classroom from a larger perspective. You are a human being living a life of which this school is just a part. The purpose of an ending is to bring you back to where you began: vulnerable, not knowing what will happen, but open to what occurs. In a class, that means that at the end of the year, reflect not only on what has been learned in school, but what being in this situation feels like right now. What do you feel about this new, unknown, ending, or beginning, and about going on with your life without the structure of this class? Always return to the reality of being a human being, in relation with others, now.


There Are Alternatives

I realized recently that there is a great irony in my blogs. For most of my adult life, I opposed what I thought was happening in public schools. Now, I am defending them.


In the early 1970s, after teaching for a year in a “normal” or traditional public school context, I taught in a private “free school” until it closed, largely because there wasn’t enough money to keep it going. In 1985, I started working in an alternative public school, which was then called the Alternative Community School. (The name was changed to The Lehman Alternative Community School or LACS after the original principal and founder, Dr. Dave Lehman, retired.) What is meant by a “free” or an alternative school is not always agreed upon or clear. Today, ‘alternative’ is often used to refer to schools for high needs or “underachieving” students. However, it has an older definition, influenced by the progressive movement of the late 19th, early 20th century, as providing something meaningfully different from the predominant model of a public school. I can think of five characteristics of this difference which many of these schools share.


First, alternative schools are small. The free school I worked in had 20-30 students. LACS had 185 students when I started teaching there; by the time I retired, it had grown to 310 students, largely due to school district pressures. Traditional public schools are larger, at their worst factory-like institutions where students face great pressure to conform and can easily feel lost. The high school I attended, although at the time was considered a fairly good school (especially for the white middle-class students), had over 6000 students. The alternative is a community of learning, where everyone in the school knows, by face and hopefully by name, everyone else. Teachers and students get to know each other comparatively well, which fosters empathy and support.


Secondly, following A. S. Neill, Alfie Kohn, John Holt and others, alternative schools focus more on intrinsic and not extrinsic motivation. People have a natural drive to learn, as learning is necessary for survival. So, alternative schools aim to develop in students this personal and natural motivation. Traditional schools often track students and use grades to rank student learning. By ranking and comparing students they create competition which motivates through fear and hope of reward while undermining or hiding away intrinsic motivation. LACS and other alternative schools do not track students and some replace grades with detailed, narrative evaluations which give students deeper and more personal feedback on their learning. They motivate by documenting growth—and demonstrating that what students do is seen and heard by teachers.


Intrinsic motivation is developed by incorporating student interests, concerns, identity, and ways of learning in both the content and methodology of instruction. So, thirdly, the curriculum is tied more to real life concerns and the student’s own authentic and personal questions. I think the label “free schools” was inspired by the “freedom schools” of the 1960s.  As far as I understand it, freedom schools arose as part of the civil rights and voting rights movements. For example, in Mississippi, during the summer of 1964, schools for citizenship were created. In order to change the socio-political system and awaken “the conscience of the nation,” students needed to learn how to think and communicate well. Alternative schools, inspired by this struggle, aim to create a curriculum that has real meaning for students, that teaches critical thinking and talks about issues like justice, rights and power.


Fourthly, alternative schools are democratic. Decision making is not limited to administrators but shared with the entire school community. In this way students learn how to speak their minds. They learn that what they do day by day, even outside the formal classroom, is part of the curriculum.


There’s a fifth characteristic that is not always stated. Education is not just about preparing for the future and getting and holding a job. It is about learning how to live and learn right now. It is about empathy, compassion and relating not only to others but to our world. There are depths to the human heart and mind that can neither be measured nor ignored and education must be about those depths.


So, why have I changed my attitude toward public schools?


To begin with, I was upset when I discovered that what I was hearing in the news about the state of public education was often inaccurate or lacking context. Public schools, instead of failing their students, are mostly doing the best job possible considering the economic and other realities they are facing.


Also, a democracy requires an educated citizenry. Privately owned schools, because of agendas other than the simple education of their students, cannot do this. Only a public system has a chance at creating a situation where all children have even a relatively equal chance to learn and succeed. It’s very debatable right now that we have either a functioning democracy or an educated citizenry—but without public schools, the situation would only get worse.


My last school was and is a public school. And it is only one of many. There are schools and coalitions such as the Coalition For Essential Schools spread through several areas of the nation providing an alternative.  They should be supported against “reforms” that could destroy them. Contrary to what “reformers” are saying about the state of education in the U. S., these schools are doing for children what schools should do for children. Despite frequent cuts in staffing over the years, these schools continue to show the enormous possibilities inherent in a public school. They are giving students what they need to grow up, develop their minds and hearts, and discover their gifts. As one LACS student put it: “The school took me in. I went from a situation where I was led by the hand– or tied by a rope to other students—to one where I could decide where to go and what to do.” By needing to make meaningful choices, he learned the responsibilities of choice. Stimulating classes gave him “enough to think about for the rest of my life.” He learned how to learn (and think and communicate) because the school became the context for his life, not something removed from his life. Learning was not just academics. It was about the reality of living.


It is schools such as these that not only should be defended but modeled.


*The mural of Rosa Parks was painted by LACS students.

Do We Want Corporations To Decide Who Should Teach Our Children?


The latest attack on America’s public schools is, like other attempts, hidden as a new “reform” idea. A few other well known examples of this reform movement include replacing:

*public schools with privately managed, publicly funded charter schools,

*teacher generated lesson plans with standardized teaching modules,

*localized methods for holding teachers accountable with statewide systems utilizing standardized test scores.

In general, creating the atmosphere of a crisis in public education and then selling the solution. The target this time are college education programs. The proposal: create a new licensing procedure for teachers. And, although the states would officially grant the license, who would actually determine who gets that license?  Pearson, originally an educational publishing company and now “the world’s largest education company,” which owns several publishing companies, digital learning products, assessment services, etc.. The federal government is also pushing for new standards for education programs.


Pearson worked with Stanford University to create a performance assessment, along with a calibrated scoring system, of a student teacher’s work in a classroom. Stanford is officially “the exclusive owner” of the assessment. This exam is being advertised as a national assessment, to standardize teacher certification. They would score two ten minute videotaped classes taught by a student teacher. This would be combined with a 40 page take home exam which includes lesson plans and other teaching strategies. (40 pages? Really?) I generally favor performance assessments over multiple-choice and other forms of standardized testing. So, what is my objection?


I object to the expense and the very idea of using a private company to assess learning instead of the classroom teachers. The assessment of two or three short segments cannot replace a series of observations over a few months by a professor of education. This new teacher assessment implies that university professors are not competent or trustworthy enough to evaluate their own students. It also tells the student teacher that they, too, will not be trusted. Power and responsibility is to be transferred up a hierarchy, and to whom? A corporation, with profit as its agenda.


Instead of thinking about more standardized assessments, we need to ask: What produces good teachers? Good teachers produce good teachers. We learn best from those who can inspire us and model what we need to learn. Great knowledge can be inspirational but is not enough. A love of teaching is needed, combined with compassion, empathy, and emotional awareness. Students need to feel valued and heard.  A good teacher learns about the home and community of their students and creates lessons informed by that empathy and understanding. And teachers need to learn how to apply that same care to their own mental and emotional well-being. Indeed, without such caring and understanding, it is difficult to give it to others. If we develop compassion in teachers, they will find a way to best meet the educational and other needs of students and will feel uplifted by it. If we just teach teachers how to meet the standards, they will struggle to just meet the standards.


My personal suggestions also include creating education schools (as well as public schools) which:

  1. Value teachers and their judgment.
  2. Give teachers creative freedom. What is most exciting about teaching, besides learning from and helping young people, is the creativity required to do the job well. A good lesson can be a piece of art. Following a script from a corporate produced teaching module does not promote creativity.
  3. Make decisions democratically. Give student teachers a voice in their education program so they can later know how to give students a voice– and take part themselves in making decisions in their school placements.
  4. Support the collegiality of teachers. They should be learning communities. Teachers are primarily learners and need to be provided time to plan with and give support to colleagues.
  5. Provide teachers with the opportunity to teach what they love so they love what they teach. In the same manner, teachers should be taught methods to discover and bring into the curriculum the deep questions, relevant to the subject matter of the course, which interest or occupy student’s minds.  In this way, the relevance of education to “real life” is made clear.
  6. Teach methods of self-reflection, based on mindfulness, and applied to thinking critically, acting responsibly, and learning in general.
  7. Teach  communication skills.
  8. Of course, teach a variety of methods of teaching, for a diversity of learners, content and levels of skill.


What would you recommend that schools of education teach?