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Saturday / November 18

Touching the Eternal

Is a class in argumentation—where we analyze complex issues like immigration, police policies and providing food stamps—necessarily a good educational experience? Yes, it seems in today’s world we need to be able to function with this capability—to take a stand, see the other side, and be able to draw reasonable conclusions using evidence to support our judgments.

End of story?

No, not so fast. There’s more to this kind of analytic experience when presented during a several weeks’ course.

I had the pleasure of sitting in on Andy Snyder’s course at Harvest/Collegiate School here in New York City. Harvest/Collegiate is part of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, where teachers create their own benchmark assessments—rigorous, authentic challenges—that can be used to monitor students’ intellectual growth over time. Participating schools are exempt from NY State Regents exams except for Language Arts.

At the end of the semester I asked Justin what he got out of the course. What was most important to him?

Justin reflected, “This class gave me the ability to consider things from the other side of the glass… caused me to care and understand others’ point of view… [It gave me] a new sense of empathy… Good not to take anything for granted, to understand how others felt.” (Barell, 2016)

He went on to tell me about living with his uncle who had very different ideas, for example, about who deserved to receive food stamps—“We shouldn’t give something for nothing.” Justin concluded with his own feelings of having to go to bed hungry on occasion, without sufficient nutrition.

Touching the Eternal

Why are these reflective questions important?

I suggest that this reflective experience is one we often overlook. Students take the test, we enter grades and, often, press on to the next topic without pausing to ask what our students found important, what they learned from our instruction, what was most significant. These student reflections just might differ from our planned expectations.

Justin’s observations provide us with his own personal meanings and understandings that illustrate his teacher’s vision for such an experience. “The goal of high school is not success,” Andy told me after our visits. “It should be about gaining deeper understanding of an issue, being able to ask good questions to refine or clarify [the complex situation]. What we need is an openness to inquiry throughout. That’s how we gain wisdom.”

What strikes me now about Justin’s comment is how he transcended making an argument. He has touched upon fundamental characteristics of the human condition, what it means to be a person living in our world—especially one in need. Part of the human experience for all of us is to encounter differences such as what Justin observed, but to be able to empathize with another person and his experience. As in literature, we can try on different roles, accept, and discard them. But in both instances we grow in our understanding of what it means to live in our world, yesterday and today.

In a subsequent reflective contribution, Justin acknowledged living on food stamps with his family and, on occasion, going to bed hungry. Perhaps the reflective questions caused Justin to spend a bit more time on the connections between his own suffering the plight of those who would go unfed as he had.

Such empathy provides us with a Mazlovian sense of Belonging to the human family, to that which is greater than ourselves.

This, I think, is what is implied in Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s claim about the nature of human beings: “Each individual faces the eternal at every moment and in every action of his life.”

What is “the eternal”? Well, it will have different importance for each of us. For me, “the eternal” here represents what it means to be an individual living in communities of others who have very different backgrounds, beliefs and aspirations all across the planet.

“The eternal” also refers to those fundamental principles, laws, and universal truths about living within nature—on this planet, within our solar system, galaxy, and the entire cosmos.

Justin is here transcending argumentation to gain a sense of belonging to the community of all humans across the planet, living within nature described by the laws of science.

When we teach, we have opportunities to extend students’ search for meaningfulness, as well as our own, by challenging them before, during, and after instruction, to consider these extended meanings.

We do so with such questions as:

  • What is important to you here?
  • How does this apply to you? To all of us?
  • How does this relate to other subjects, to your experiences beyond school?
  • What are the general truths we are discovering about being human living in nature?

In an exhibition for high school graduation I asked Catherine, a physics student, these questions about her research into the aerodynamics of lift-off runway lengths at LaGuardia airport for a 767.

“It tells me how the world works.” For example? “Well, how the subways I take everyday rely on the same basic principles of physics.” We proceeded to expand her observation from NYC transit systems to other modes of transportation and the relevant principles of force, mass and acceleration.

There you have it. Catherine has begun to see how physics helps explain everything around us. She is realizing that physics, the laws of science, help us gain control over our environments in order to improve the quality of life for all.

A variation on these reflections is more process oriented: “What have you learned about your reasoning in science (in art, history or math)?” A sixth grader noted, “I learned that not all experiments work and to use your mistakes to learn.” Mistakes are the pivot points toward discovery and not to be avoided.  “Progress,” noted Jacob Bronowski, “is the exploration of our own mistakes.”

All well and good, but how do we plan for such students’ insights? 

  1. Realizing the importance of extending students’ learning beyond the final test in order to achieve experiences similar to those mentioned here—touching the eternals in nature and about our struggles to survive and prevail within communities of others.
  2. Fashioning unit plans that recognize the wider meanings we will strive for by explicitly identifying them in our goals. We’re going for more than a lot of correct answers and reasonable conclusions about complex problems.
  3. Building reflection into our units and lessons at strategic points during and after instruction.  Journals help here immensely!
  4. Eliciting extended meanings that touch the eternals as culminating reflections and, perhaps, challenging students to make them even more significant by expressing them in forms other than the written language, any form of art, for example. Taking action is another form of recognizing the importance of these reflections.  (Kindergartners studied the pollution in the Pacific Ocean and told their principals they wanted to go down to the beach to share their findings and concerns with the general public.)

Why are these students’ understandings important?

They help them feel connected to the larger community of people who have similar experiences. We are not alone. We belong to the human race.

And we humans inhabit a physical world that we can know, understand and learn to control and explore for our own purposes, thereby achieving what one planetary scientist, Carolyn Porco (in charge of Saturn’s Cassini project) called “. . .a deep spiritual quest—to grasp, to know, to feel connected through an understanding of the secrets of the natural world, to have a sense of one’s part in the greater whole.”

“To have a sense of one’s part in the greater whole” may bring to some of us the comfort of expanding our humanity, of knowing that we, like all our kin, are searching for meaning and understanding.

“No man is an island.”

Education is a search for meaning for all of us, from infancy to more maturity, one that brings us into ever closer union with the eternals of nature and our human condition.


Barell, J. 2016 Moving from WHAT to What if? Teaching Critical Thinking with Authentic Inquiry and Assessments. NY:  Routledge.

Bronowski, J. 1978  The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Niebuhr, R. 1941  The Nature and Destiny of Man,  Vol. II.  Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press

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Written by

John Barell is Professor Emeritus of Curriculum and Teaching at Montclair State University, Montclair, NJ, and former public school teacher in New York City. For the past several years he has been a consultant for inquiry-based instruction and creation of science/social studies networks at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. For most of his educational career he has worked with schools nationally to foster inquiry, problem-based learning, critical thinking, and reflection. Barell is the author of several books, including Teaching for Thoughtfulness: Strategies to Enhance Intellectual Development (1995, 2nd ed.) and Developing More Curious Minds (2003).

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