Relationships and Uncertainty Matter Most: David Brooks in the New Yorker on Educational Excellence

David Brooks is an old faithful for me, an inspiration for his ability to bring wisdom and broader understanding to the daily events of our time, and to draw from our society trends of larger sociological or even philosophical significance.  I don’t always agree with him, often I don’t, but I am nearly always intrigued by what he has to say. If you haven’t read his recent piece in the New Yorker,   Social Animal, How the New Science of Human Nature Can Help Make Sense of a Life, stop reading this post and go read it now!

In the piece, there is a small subsection of particular interest to educators; Brooks draws upon his wide reading of recently published research in social psychology, happiness pyschology, and human development to articulate a vision of effective secondary education, and in doing so, he offers two strong assertions about excellence in education.

1. Connections matter:  Students need to feel a deep and strong connection with their teachers.

One of [a successful student’s] key skills in school is his ability to bond with teachers. We’ve spent a generation trying to reorganize schools to make them better, but the truth is that people learn from the people they love.

I think this is exactly right, and we can never underestimate the value of building emotional connections with our students and seeking to ensure that they find them with us.   It is among the data points in the High Survey of Student Engagement I put the greatest attention upon: the percentage of our students who say yes, there is at least one adult who really knows and cares about me.   As Cale Birks wrote recently at Connected Principals (Research, the ultimate BS Repellent),

The relationship between the teacher and the student: What the research says:  Of the 138 factors, this ranked #11, with an impact factor of .72.  This is based on nearly 230 studies and more than 350000 students.  Some behaviours that are particularly important for teachers are empathy, warmth, and ‘non-directivity’: allowing students more student-initiated or student-directed activities for learning.

2.  With a bit more nuance, Brooks explores the idea that the way ideas are approached matter: teachers will best develop the kind of sophisticated thinking students most need for success when they acknowledge the limits of their own understanding and use uncertainty.

In eleventh grade, Harold developed a crush on his history teacher, Ms. Taylor. What mattered most was not the substance of the course so much as the way she thought, the style of learning she fostered. For instance, Ms. Taylor constantly told the class how little she knew.

Ms. Taylor was always reminding the class of how limited her grasp of any situation was. “Sorry, I get distracted easily,” she’d say, or, “Sorry, sometimes I jump to conclusions too quickly.” In this way, she communicated the distinction between mental strength (the processing power of the brain) and mental character (the mental virtues that lead to practical wisdom). She stressed the importance of collecting conflicting information before making up one’s mind, of calibrating one’s certainty level to the strength of the evidence, of enduring uncertainty for long stretches as an answer became clear, of correcting for one’s biases.

As Keith E. Stanovich, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, writes in his book “What Intelligence Tests Miss” (2009), these “thinking dispositions” correlate weakly or not at all with I.Q. But, because Ms. Taylor put such emphasis on these virtues and because Harold admired her so much, he absorbed and copied her way of being.

This comes a bit unexpectedly to this reader, but Brooks is arguing for a teaching that prioritizes inquiry, analysis, and process rather than mastering basic skills and learning the classics.   How we learn what we learn matters; in a piece last fall, entitled Against Actually, I explained my own passion for modeling a form of learning which emphasizes contention rather than certainty; interpretation and inference rather than conclusion and conventional wisdom.

As I wrote then, Harvard’s Ellen Langer is a thought-leader in this field and an inspiration; to quote Harvard’s David Perkins in his recent book, Making Learning Whole, on Langer:

For decades, Langer has sustained a rich line of research on mindfulness and mindlessness, demonstrating that in many ordinary circumstances, people fall into blind and narrow patterns of thought and behavior, muddling up situations where they could proceed more thoughtfully.  However people can cultivate a more mindful flexible stance, open to new information, and aware of multiple perspectives.   In the Power of Mindful Learning, Langer warns of the general trend in education toward mindless patterns of learning and show how it needs not be that way.

So accepting Brooks on these two points is not hard to do; putting them into practice is the challenge.  We need to promote a culture of learning where teachers are on the side of students, with time and support to build real relationships with them.

We need to promote the kind of learning which is anything but focussed on finding the one right answer but is instead “making learning whole:” an inquiry based approach where students discuss and debate ideas, understand the importance of critically examining accepted wisdom, seek out new information and new sources and put them into the mix, construct their own answers and put them into play against other perspectives, deepening their understanding as they build their cases and accumulate more evidence for their point of view, yet still respectfully recognizing the possible validity of other points of view.

We have to ask too, what kind of pedagogy facilitates these two things?  Not drill and kill, not lecturing, not textbooks and workbooks and multiple choice tests in which there is one right answer.  Project based learning certainly comes to mind as a meaningful approach, or any environment where students and teachers are on the same inquiring side, exploring ideas and making meaning together.

Surely many of us view the “educational reformers” agenda that is embodied in No Child Left Behind to represent anything but these approaches.     In these “reforms,” school effectiveness is measured solely by test scores on multiple choice tests, and not on whether students are deeply connecting with teachers or whether they are developing deeper understanding, a sense of nuance, a respect for multiple perspectives, a creativity that finds and then assesses many possible right answers.

Just over two years ago, David Brooks wrote a column which is impossible for me to reconcile with this new essay’s ideas.   There he wrote, in a piece entitled Who Will He Choose,

No Child Left Behind is about to be reauthorized. Everyone has reservations about that law, but it is the glaring spotlight that reveals and pierces the complacency at mediocre schools. If accountability standards are watered down, as the establishment wants, then real reform will fade.

It may be that his thinking has changed in two years, but if this is not his explanation, one has to wonder: how can we reconcile this January 2010 New Yorker Brooks with that December 2008 New York Time Brooks?   These are two competing and contrasting views of educational excellence, and the stakes are high.   I know where I stand: relationships first, and then from a position of intellectual uncertainty an open-minded search for understanding via exploration of multiple perspectives and a process based approach to nuanced understanding.

6 Comments

  1. Shannon said:

    Jonathan,

    I really enjoyed reading both your thoughtful post and the New Yorker article. I agree with you that relationships come first. When we demonstrate our caring for students, we open up a learning environment where it is safe to venture into the unknown, to make mistakes and to learn alongside our students. I model this with my staff all the time. I don’t have all the answers. What else can we try? I wonder what will happen if we give this a go? I think that being open in our learning also establishes trust with students, staff and community.

    Shannon

    January 17, 2011
    • Relationships are so very critical to learning and living. I appreciate your thoughts. The relationships we build within our learning communities weave a fabric of wisdom that gives meaning and purpose to our thoughts and actions. The connections we make with children, parents and colleagues strengthen our vision for what learning can be. Children need to know we care about their lives in and out of school. When they do, school becomes a place for living and learning collaboratively.

      I don’t think this is difficult to do. Informal conversations, greetings in the hallways, smiles, time to listen and observe….. It’s a much more fulfilling way to live and learn together.

      January 17, 2011
  2. […] Online teachers have the responsibility not just to create and curate great content, but also to build a community from scratch. As we’ve seen recently, the MOOC movement has suffered from too much emphasis on content and not enough on engagement. Gradually, the online learning world is coming to realize what the bricks and mortar world has known for generations: students learn and engage more when they like and trust their teacher and their classmates. […]

    March 26, 2014

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