Dr. Selma Wassermann on Teaching for Thinking, the Age of Disinformation, and Children’s Moral Dilemmas

October 28, 2019

Selma Wasserman is a Professor Emerita in the Faculty of Education. A writer, educator, and researcher, Selma is noted for her work in the areas of child-centered education, teaching for thinking, and teaching with the case method. With an extensive publishing record, her most recent works include, Teaching in the Age of Disinformation (2018), What’s the Right Thing to do?: Promoting Thoughtful and Socially Responsible Behavior in the Early Childhood Years (2019), and Evaluation Without Tears: 101 Ways to Evaluate the Work of Students (to be released in 2020).

Can you tell us about your background and what led you to the field of education?

I’m originally from New York. I began my career as a teacher in the United States specializing in individualized instruction before I moved to Canada in 1966 to spearhead the teacher education program at SFU. When I first arrived, I was shocked by the lack of advancements in the Canadian public education system. I wanted to do the kind of field research that would open teachers’ and principals’ minds to more child-centered teaching and learning. As the Professional Development Program took root, it became a leadership program, highly regarded across Canada, and I am grateful to have played a significant role in the early stages of the program’s development. Overall, it has been my work with students at all levels over the years that has informed my work as a writer. Students are my best teachers.

How did your recently released book, What’s the Right Thing to Do? first come about?

Ideas come when you least expect them. My books, Teaching in the Age of Disinformation (2018) and What’s the Right Thing to Do? (2019), were both written in response to the current political climate and spreading of disinformation. The recent social context and manipulation of truth, coupled with my continued focus in the areas of teaching for thinking, values education, and the emotional needs of children, brought about the idea for What’s the Right Thing to Do? The book is about helping children confront ethical dilemmas and offers practical strategies for parents and teachers that support children in making more socially responsible decisions.

What is teaching for thinking? How can teachers use this framework in the classroom? 

An effective curriculum framework for implementing teaching for thinking in the classroom came about when observing a teacher during Project Science Thinking, a two-year field research program involving twelve primary teachers in the Greater Metro Vancouver area. This teacher had set up five “investigative play centers” and in one of them the students were testing theories about floating and sinking through investigative play. Afterwards, the teacher debriefed their investigations by asking them “higher order questions,” such as, “do you have any theories that would help me understand this?” and giving them opportunities to conceptualize what they had observed. Theorizing about what was possible promoted students’ thinking and clarified their understanding of the scientific principles. After debriefing, the students returned to their centers to continue investigating.

From observing this teacher, I developed the curriculum framework I call, play-debrief-replay. The instructor begins with investigative play, followed by a debriefing period, and ending with the students replaying the investigations. This became a very useful paradigm, not only for science, but for other curriculum areas as well.  Involving kids actively in their work, providing opportunities for them to examine their ideas, and helping them through teacher-student interactions to understand the big ideas, proved to be a helpful structure for teachers and students in the classroom. Using interactions in the absence of evaluative judgment keeps the process open so the thinking continues even after the activity has ended.

Why do you think this book is important for teachers and parents in our current social and political climate?

I am reading about how a large group of Republicans continue to deny the atrocities of the man in the Oval Office. Talking about moral development, what morals allow them to do this? Moral dilemmas are all around us, even for young children. In raising questions that call for children to examine their beliefs and value positions, it is important for teachers and parents to phrase questions in a way that makes children feel safe and respected. If we pose questions that allow children to develop their own theories about the world, in the absence of judgment, they are more open to think their own ideas and come to more thoughtfully reasoned positions.

What is next for you?

My newest book to be released, Evaluation Without Tears (2020), begins with the history and theorization of marks and grades, pointing to a system rooted in classist and racist stigmatization which unhappily endures today. While most earlier books and articles have dealt with the inadequacy of grades and marks, none of them suggest alternatives. The book provides 101 tangible alternatives for how to evaluate students without crushing their spirits. 

Afterwards I am hoping to put Long Distance Grandmother into a 5th edition. The book speaks about how to keep an emotional connection over miles with your grandkids.

For Additional Articles

New Book Release: Teaching in the Age of Disinformation: Don't Confuse Me with the Data, My Mind is Made Up