Sydney J. Harris was a 20th-century American journalist who wrote for the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times. His weekday column “Strictly Personal” was syndicated in hundreds of papers around America. What could Harris, a professional writer, mean by this quote? “The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.”
When we’re young, we often think about ourselves. It’s only natural that we use our personal frameworks to make sense of the world, but if we never push past our boundaries to consider other ways of thinking and seeing, then we miss out on true maturity. In this way, education is meant to take names, numbers, and facts and reveal a world outside of ourselves. However, if a student studies The Kite Runner or the Krebs cycle without context, she might not open her mind to the material. In other words, she’s staring at a mirror that only reflects her existing biases and knowledge, which may make her resistant to new ideas. The Krebs cycle seems useless to her because it has no bearing on her life.
What’s the answer to this problem? Well, we can’t simply order kids to be open-minded. Instead, it’s better to try and connect data to something they care about and show them how it impacts their lives. Teachers do this every time they explain how math equations put “really cool” satellites into space, or when they compare Afghanistan’s culture to America’s to make The Kite Runner seem more relatable. When learning is tangible and personal, it helps students feel it in their hearts, which is the first step to seeing beyond themselves. When a child says, “That character is more like me than I thought,” or “I see how calculus works in the machines that keep me alive in a hospital,” she is on her way to adopting a window approach. This mindset, more than any one fact, is crucial to students.
School deserves to be a window to the world, not a mirror bouncing disconnected facts back at learners. So link ideas to your students’ lives; it’s easier said than done, but if you take the time to know the kids in your classroom, or at least to know what’s popular with kids, it will be easier to frame things in the way they need. The way to the universal is through the personal. The way to the window is through the mirror. Help students see themselves in their education, and they’ll become more open.