05/27/2015 09:45 am ET Updated May 25, 2016

Educating Our Children for the Common Good

Joel Westheimer, professor of education at the University of Ottawa and education commentator for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, unpacks important insights on schools and what happens in classrooms on a daily basis. His book What Kind of Citizen: Educating our Children for the Common Good takes a new look at many practices that are taken for granted and offers surprising gems of insight.

He begins with a provocative mind experiment by asking what is particular about education in a democracy or at least in a country that purports to be a democracy. He writes, "Citizens in nondemocratic countries governed by a single-party authoritarian regime or even a military junta learn a lot of the same things in school that our children learn. So what goals would be different for schools in a democratic society?"

Ultimately, he concludes, "Schools in democratic societies must teach students how to ask challenging questions - the kinds of questions that are, at times, uncomfortable, the kinds that question tradition." The current pressure for conformity and fidelity to prescribed norms, the attack on teacher professionalism and creativity, all work against this kind of education. Competition for test scores shoves aside the historical work of schools in citizenship training.

But most schools still consider citizenship education, the development of character and civic awareness, part of the school mission. So Westheimer sets out to explore what kind of citizen, what kind of training, is being promoted. Based on his own extensive research as well as a review of others' work, Westheimer has distinguished three kinds of "citizenship training" in US schools. These focus on the "personally responsible citizen," the "participatory citizen," and the "social justice oriented citizen."

The first helps out in food drives, picks up litter, and is honest and law-abiding; the second may organize the food drive, participates in community groups and takes leadership in established governance structures; and the third might attack the root causes of hunger, analyze and critique structures of power, and work to change systems.

Not surprisingly, his evaluation of citizenship training in schools finds that most are focused on individual, character-based programs that teach compliance. But we must admit that this kind of citizenship training would be welcomed in the totalitarian regimes we discussed above.

Westheimer then goes on to describe participatory and justice oriented educational projects - including powerful profiles of schools that are engaged in just this kind of work, including Washington High School in San Francisco and El Puente Academy in Brooklyn. Here students explore inequities based on race, class, gender and challenge the taken for granted. He gives us detailed suggestions and tools for what he calls a "thinking curriculum."

He argues that schools must help students think critically, learn how to ask questions, evaluate policy, and work with others towards change that moves democracy forward. He advocates (p. 99) that schools:

• Teach students how to ask questions.
• Expose students to multiple perspectives and viewpoints on important issues that affect everyone's lives.
• Provide opportunities to analyze and discuss different viewpoints.
• Show that "facts" are less stable than is often thought
• Engage controversial issues.

To wrap it up, Westheimer brings his considerable wit and insight to constructing a list of "Seven Myths about Schools." I won't tell you all of these, though. I leave it to you to purchase the book and find out.