In A More Beautiful Question, I feature the story of the education reform pioneer Deborah Meier and her remarkable Central Park East schools. Here’s an excerpt with Meier’s story:
What if our schools could train students to be better lifelong learners and better adapters to change, by enabling them to be better questioners?
How might we create such a school?
To start answering those questions—attempting to envision a school of tomorrow with questioning baked in at its core—it is instructive to glance back at New York’s Harlem neighborhood in the 1970s, where a substitute-teacher turned principal named Deborah Meier created a radical model for a school designed to foster inquiry.
In education circles, Meier, now in her 80s, is seen as a legendary figure today. A pioneer of the “small schools” movement that emerged several decades ago, she was the first educator to receive a MacArthur “genius” Award in recognition of her work at the groundbreaking Central Park East schools in New York.
Today Meier remains involved with a number of schools she started in the Northeast, and writes a popular blog about education, where she poses unfailingly interesting questions:
– Is a test-driven education the most likely path for producing an inventive and feisty citizenry?
– What would it look and sound like in the average classroom if we wanted to make ‘being wrong’ less threatening?
And this one, which I particularly like: What might the potential for humans be if we really encouraged that spirit of questioning in children, instead of closing it down?
I asked Meier about that second question and she said it originally popped into her head about 40 years ago, when a third grade student at her Harlem school said to her, “What’s different about this school is you’re interested in what we don’t know, not just what we do know.” Meier was very taken with that comment; it confirmed to her, more than any of the impressive test results her school was achieving, that she was doing what she set out to do when she started the Central Park East Schools.
Meier opened the first of her schools in 1974 in a dilapidated old school building in East Harlem, an area that, at the time, “epitomized the collapse of the New York City school system,” according to Seymour Fliegel, a former school official in that district. Meier was herself the product of a tony New York private school education. After getting her Master’s degree she eventually found herself teaching in a Chicago public school and was dismayed by the conditions. She began working on experimental approaches to education, which brought her to the attention of a New York school superintendent—who, faced with a desperate situation in Harlem, offered Meier a chance to try out some of her ideas.
Meier felt that instead of just pushing information at kids, schools needed to teach them how to make sense of what they were being told so they would know what to make of it and what to do with it. She said in an interview at the time: “My concern is with how students become critical thinkers and problem solvers, which is what a democratic society needs.”
Five learning skills, or “habits of mind,” were at the core of her school, and each was matched up with corresponding question:
- Evidence: How do we know what’s true or false? What evidence counts?
- Viewpoint: How might this look if we stepped into other shoes, or looked at it from a different direction?
- Connection: Is there a pattern? Have we seen something like this before?
- Conjecture: What if it were different?
- Relevance: Why does this matter?
Meier’s core questions came out of her own connective inquiry; they blended elements of her early education in an ethical culture school with ideas she picked up from other well-known education innovators, including John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Theodore Sizer.
Before settling on her five habits of mind, she started with two particular ways of thinking she wanted to emphasize—skepticism and empathy. “I believe you have to have an open-mindedness to the possibility that you’re wrong, or that anything may be wrong,” she said. “I’ve always been very concerned with democracy. If you can’t imagine you could be wrong, what’s the point of democracy? And if you can’t imagine how or why others think differently, then how could you tolerate democracy?”
As Meier established her question-based schools, the classes were run in unorthodox ways, with students given much more autonomy and freedom. Upon visiting in the late 70s, Fliegel encountered “an astonishingly rich educational program” which, for example, “included extensive mapmaking, studies of Native American woodlands culture in seventeenth century Harlem, Egyptian and Roman history, the Dutch settlement of New York, printing and newspapers, the emergence of cities (including a mini-study of the neighborhood around the school) and African American history.”
A third grade class studying medieval society “not only read books but built castles and made armor” while a first grade class “developed the idea of building a mythical city.” Students were taken to the local museums and studied nature in Central Park; Meier felt that “outside the classroom children tend to observe things more keenly and ask more questions.”
In some ways, Meier was trying to extend the kindergarten experience through all grades. Teaching kindergarten “was such an extraordinary intellectual experience, and I thought, Why couldn’t we just keep doing that?” Only in kindergarten, she told me, “do we put up with kids asking questions that are off-topic.”
Meier learned to listen very carefully to students’ questions, finding that they often contained insights that prompted her to re-think her own assumptions and occasionally reconsider the curriculum. “We had one of those world maps with the U.S. right in the middle—remember those? And one of the students looked at it and said, How come the East Indies are in the west? And that question got me thinking about the impact of what you put in the center, and what it does to everything else. And it became part of our curriculum. It had so many implications for how you see yourself.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the students warmed to Meier’s approach—but the parents were another story. Some did not know what to make of the unorthodox lessons and the kids’ autonomy; an environment like the one Meier created suggested to some a lack of discipline and structure. As Meier pointed out decades later, however, while it’s counter-intuitive to many teachers and school administrators, often when you give kids more freedom to pursue what they’re interested in, they become easier to control. The much harder thing is forcing them to sit still for 5 hours and pay attention to information they don’t care about.
The complaints at the time led to an inquiry. Fliegel (who wrote about his experience several years later), was sent by the school superintendent to investigate. He came away thoroughly impressed, and recommended the school board back Meier, which it did. And in the years that followed, the remarkable success of the Central Park East Schools became evident. Over the next decade, in a city with a dropout rate that ranged between 40 and 60%, only 1% of Meier’s students failed to finish secondary school.
Meier’s question-driven schools struggled after she left and there were few imitators—until recently. Today, around the world, a growing number of schools are embracing some of the principles Meier was trying to teach: that students must develop the “habit” of learning and questioning, that knowledge cannot be force-fed to them. But such schools still represent just a drop in the bucket in terms of the overall education system.