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Linear Learning

I was recently asked if “learning is linear or non-linear” by, of course, an art teacher.  We discussed his definition of “learning” for a few moments, but the main point of the question was this comparison of learning with that of a line.  We tend to define learning as a line, starting with the small child and progressing formally through high school or college or the rest of life.  And the chronological timeline notion is legitimate for many reasons.  But the best learning cannot be simply adding one new thing to the collected line of known things each day.

I happen to be working my way through a great work on Aristotle’s views of teaching (here on Amazon, though it’s out of print so if you see it in a used book store, snap it up).  In that work Aristotle does not use linear/non-linear, but deductive and inductive, which I contend are basically the same ideas, but broad enough to encompass more.

In deductive learning, or what my friend meant by “linear” learning, one adds line by line, precept upon precept new learning to what is already known.  This is the syllogistic type of learning.  Premise A is true, and Premise B is true, therefore we can deduce from those truths that something we did not know before is true (the conclusion of the syllogism).  Aristotle is often credited with formalizing this type of learning, or logic.  Certainly there is a place for this learning, and many methods can lead to its outcomes.  But often many mistake this for all there is to learning, and Aristotle soundly rejects that notion.

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Inductive learning is not so linear.  In this non-linear mode, a complexity of experiences are used to learn new principles, that can in turn become perhaps the premise in a new deduction.  But induction is more like a web than a line.  It is the bringing together and comparison of many specifics to gain new categories and generalizations.  We sometimes say “connecting the dots” but two connected dots is one definition of a line.  Here is imagined a scattered group of dots, each representing a specific sense experience, and when compared, contrasted, pulled apart and thrust together, new learning occurs.

So my answer to the question about linear or non-linear is both/and.  Neither really can separate itself from the other, and the great teacher seeks to have both constantly conversing with each other and the souls in their classroom.

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Contents Under Pressure

I introduced this blog in my last blog.  There I set out the three columns from M.J. Adler’s Paideia Proposal in a general way.  I now take up the first and most basic of those columns: Content.  It fascinates me how often I meet folks who think this is the sum total of what education should be.  “Just the facts” folks are like Professor Gradgrind from Dicken’s Hard Times.  “Now, what I want is, Facts. . . . Facts alone are wanted in life.”  That is from Chapter 1 of that inimitable book and should be read by anyone who loves good learning to see what it is not.  Dickens saw in his own day what we now see in spades.  People confuse learning with trivia.  But let us organize ourselves here, and stop giving you the Dickens.

In the chart from the previous post the following information was conveyed about this first column:

Column Content
Goal Acquiring organized knowledge
Means Questioning

Lecture

Texts

Conversation

Classical Trivium Grammar

Content is about knowledge, but it in particular concerned with the organizing of that knowledge.  Students do not need facts from a fire hose, but rather the restful, leisurely ingestion of the important knowledge necessary to any given study.  The means mentioned above are all appropriate, and should all be used.  Note that in many classrooms, the last (conversation) is often foregone for the sake of the “lesson” which is again adjusted something akin to that of a fire hose at full force.  Instead of gaining content in an integrated and restful way, here is what I have seen.

The questions are rapid fire and mainly divided between right and wrong, or “how did you feel about” this.  Lectures are, especially in our day, but even back when I attended the local cave school, boring.  One mind is listening to another.  I will come back to this in a moment.  And then there are the texts.  Today, almost without exception, this is translated out of the original into “textbooks.”  They are books, and they do have text, lots of it, but again, in being made to be easily accessible, they have become boring.  And I have already suggested that conversation is absent from most learning environments today.

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Students must be engaged in Column One: Content learning.  You can’t develop skills or ideas (the other two columns) without any knowledge.  Scripture is clear that knowledge launches the life-long pursuit of truth (Proverbs 2:6).  But is supposed to lead on to understanding and wisdom.  So the knowledge being taught must be well ordered, and we must not confuse ourselves into thinking that such knowledge transference becomes the sum total of education.

We should ask questions of our students that drive them toward finding the knowledge a given scientia requires.  We should use questioning to reveal their lack of knowledge.  We should constantly expand their world by using questions to reveal the wide boundaries of a given subject.

Lecture, the direct communication of ordered knowledge through a prepared talk, is a legitimate teaching exercise.  But, but, but it should not be our go-to or fall-back mode.  Knowledge delivered in this manner can quickly overwhelm the student, burying their mind in so many facts that they don’t have time to consider all they are “learning” and thus often they are gathering trivia for the next test rather than actually bringing knowledge into their lives.

The use of texts to teach knowledge is basic and historically without doubt the most common form of presenting knowledge to a student’s mind.  But the text should be eloquent.  It should be beautiful.  It should spark their imagination and wonder. The modern use of call outs and pictures and graphics and such is not necessarily bad, but it can be a distraction.  The point of a text is again to bring order to the “facts” being presented.  Too much extra “stuff” leads the student in too many directions at once.

The most fundamental form of knowledge acquisition known to man is almost absent in our factory oriented schools.  Modern education does not have the time it takes to have a good honest time consuming conversation.  Teachers who love the rabbit trail, and who allow things to go off the tracks are viewed with disdain.  After all, there is an end of grade test to be taken and everyone must be focused on getting those scores up.  A teacher and students taking the time to bring lecture, questions, and text all together into a rambling conversation just seems inefficient.  And it is, if the test is the thing.  But it the only way I know to know that the lecture, text, and questions have resulted in real learning, not crammed information.  And conversation begins bringing the other two columns into the class as well.

I will continue soon.

Close Up Of The Tops Of A Row Of Corinthian Columns And Arches

Minding the Columns

Mortimer J. Adler and his collaborators in the Paideia Proposal, should be viewed from the current vantage point as an important but mostly failed attempt to recover the Liberal Arts in the early 1980’s.  That happens to be when I was beginning to consider the art of teaching for myself in college.  Many of the arguments that the Paideia Group made struck me as mandated by the system, the government school system, that they were seeking to reform.  In other words, they only suggested certain reforms or principles because those fit the public school system.  Fixing a broken thing is much different from trying not to become broken.

But a very useful and positive distinction was made by the group, one that I have written only briefly on in this blog, and that was several years ago.  So I am going to pump the volume a little on the great discussion in the Paideia Proposal of the Three Columns of learning.  I will briefly overview them here, then draw each out more in succeeding blogs.

Soill briefly overview them here, then draw each out more in succeeding blogs.t discussion in the Paideia Proposal of the Three me caveats are required up front.

  • The columns overlap. They are not cut and dried distinctions, but rather something like a continuum upon which all learning lies.
  • While practical things come from contemplating these columns, they are not themselves necessarily “practical” in the sense of directly applying to a lesson, but rather lie behind the lesson and the teacher’s understanding of what is happening in a lesson.
  • “Skills” is a very oily word these days in education. John Dewey is probably to blame for that.  He emphasized in his form of progressive education a much different meaning for “skills” development than what Adler and his bunch meant by the term.  Dewey was seeking to instill skills that brought one into societal awareness and becoming a part of the collective.  Adler is speaking of those skills necessary to pursue truth, or in other words, the Liberal Arts.  The corrolation of a “skill” with the ancient notion of “art” can be read about here.

Without further ado, here is a chart of the three columns as presented in the Paideia Proposal:

Columns Content Ideas Skills
Goals Acquiring organized knowledge Embodiment of Virtuous Ideas Development of the Skills needed for Learning
Means Questioning

Lecture

Texts

Conversation

Mimetic Sequence with Socratic Questioning Coaching

Drafting

Exercises

Supervised Practice

Classical Trivium Grammar Logic

Rhetoric

More will be coming in the weeks to come.

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After the boys of summer have gone…

It is summer time, so excuse me if the blog gets weird.  During the school year, my thoughts stay pretty focused on the direct aspects of my teaching, but summer lets me take rabbit trails.  In fact, this is about my thoughts of education and Summer.

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  • Summer vacation in schooling is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it is nice to have time off, but on the other, it flies in the face of good teaching.
  • Having summer off has not always been a thing. It derives, as best I can ascertain, from an agrarian culture long since lost in America.  You had to give kids time to help their families get the harvest in.
  • So why have we held on to it after its purpose has gone? I think it is correlated to the rise in the factory school system right as we moved from farms to town.  So while we no longer need time to get the grain in, we need time to recuperate from the increasingly difficult and repetitive work we now call school.
  • School, schola, used to mean leisure. I wrote on this already, so I won’t repeat myself, but leisure is different from work.  Leisure is revivifying, work takes it out of you.  Leisure may not need two and a half months of the year for recovery; something like factory schooling may.
  • Given the cultural perniciousness of having summer off from class, it would be good to use it to further our lifelong pursuit of truth rather than to waste it. I do this through reading, writing, thinking about school, the subjects I teach, meditating on the nature of things, etc.  I would invite others to do the same.
  • It is sad that we continue to make school harder with the continuance of so long a vacation each year. It makes a good teacher have to review and remind and cajole up through and into October before they can really attack new material.  Education is a long series of dominoes.  If you place a large gap between any two of the dominoes, you will have to restart it all after the gap.
  • Almost all the reasons given for continuing to have summers off say way more about our poor conception of learning than any positive humane considerations for the teacher or student.

Not sure if these wandering thoughts help anyone else, but as this blog’s readership increases, the comments section is a wonderfully easy way to discuss these things.  Feel free, and be free during the summer break.

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The Classroom of Clarice

Analogical thinking is often clarifying for me.  You can tell me a theory and it goes right by me, but if you show that theory in motion, give me a story or a metaphor, some analogous way of seeing the theory, I usually catch it.  I find a great deal of help in examining education as it is portrayed in stories, whether through text or film.  That is the basis for this short meditation from the film, The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

If you are not familiar with the plot, one psychopath (a cannibalistic murderer named Hannibal Lector) is used by a young FBI agent (Clarice) to gain understanding of another killer.  Clarice meets with Lector on several occasions, and if you put aside the horrific trappings of a maximum security prison, it becomes by the direction of Lector a classroom wherein he seeks to teach Clarice in something of a Socratic manner.

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Lector is a trained psychologist.  He is bored.  So he decides that rather than just answer Clarice’s questions, he is going to analyze her and the unnamed subject of her investigations together.  He gives her a clue about the killer in exchange for some piece of personal information from her.  He reveals to my eye several important aspects of good education.

Indirectly Teaching:  If, as David Hick’s writes in Norms and Nobility, we should “never teach a student what they can learn for themselves,” then analogical learning is paramount.  Lector does not just “give” Clarice what she is looking for, he makes her figure it out.  A good teacher is not obtuse, or obfuscated, or inordinately difficult just to be difficult, but perhaps better described as coy.  “I know the answers, because I know the material.  But I want you to learn the material by figuring it out, not simply benefiting from my knowledge.”

It is never business, it is always personal: The best teacher walks a thin line between co-learner, authority, and tutor.  Purely authoritarian “instruction” (or perhaps a dysfunctional form of the lecture it could be called) typically results in impermanent learning.  The students receives, shows he has received, and then forgets.  There must be a commonality and an otherness in place for the relationship to work.  I think this is one of the most artful aspects of educating rightly.

There are norms:  In the movie, Hannibal has a sense of normative rightness.  Certain things just simply must be.  Clarice is not allowed to deny these norms.  Our modern sense of what constitutes education has left this idea behind as old and outdated.  Hicks says it best:  “The abandonment of the normative question for the operational – ought for can – was predictable.  Since the Enlightenment, education has developed an acute case of schizophrenia.  Its antipathetic selves have fought over the question of man’s identity, the old self asserting a knowledge of man derived from the transcendent ideas and inherited truths of religion, art, and letters, and the new self insisting that man can know himself only by examining the composition of the material universe and drawing his inferences from that.” (p. 8)  Clarice wants to catch the killer; Hannibal wants her to figure him out, to understand him.

Knowledge is nothing without wisdom:  Ideas lead to action.  Hannibal is keenly aware and wants Clarice to see that the unsub’s actions are connected to his vision of the world, warped though it may be.  We are led in watching the film to extrapolate out from this lesson a contemplation of what kind of thoughts would be behind the horrific behavior displayed by Hannibal himself.  Knowledge should not be a path to power, but a road to truth.  We should not bend knowledge to our desires, but our desires to the truth.

There is more there, but modern blogs should not be long, so…

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The Slow Death of Liberal Thinking

I shock my US History students every year by stating that I am a Liberal Conservative.  This is because both of those terms have been hijacked.  I love people and wish to see them free in every good sense of that word.  That makes me a Liberal (in stark contrast to how it is often used today).  And I love mankind in a way that wants to conserve the best of our thought and conversation from the past in a way that makes our move toward the future wise and happy.  That makes me a Conservative (again in stark contrast to the way many would use that term today).

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I was part of a discussion this morning that was discussing the contrast in means and ends between what was called a Liberal Arts Education and a Utilitarian Education.  The first seeks to bring a student into a place where they have acquired the arts necessary to aid them in a lifetime pursuit of wisdom and virtue.  The second simply seeks to produce a wealthy and satisfied person who is comfortably numb.  While much good was said and many points raised for pursuing both kinds of education, especially in college, there was a poignant moment when one young man brought me up short.

He stated something I have often guessed out but had never heard put into words before.  “Nothing against you teachers,” he stated, “but it seems like all these questions that concern a Liberal Arts person are questions only old people are really wanting to answer.  Young people just don’t care about these things.”  Another student responded by saying she did not know that it was apathy, but ignorance.  I chimed in that when given even a basic level of facility with thought and philosophy I have found most young people engaged by the great questions.  When I was young, restless, and seeking answers, I found people and places that provided me with some level of instruction in seeking truth.  Do my young charges any such places to turn to?  I think there are still places where the Liberal Arts are applauded, but not as much as prior times provided.

I hope I am helping to push back this loss of life, this loss of how to learn, this position of being chained in front of a cave wall.  God’s Spirit alone can fully unchain the human heart.  May He use me as He desires.  “Bunch of old people” in deed.  Eternally I am young in the pursuit of He Who is True, Good, and Beautiful.

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How Big Can the Grade Balloon Inflate?

Assessment is perhaps the toughest thing in education, and reporting one’s assessment may be right behind it in difficulty.  Grade inflation has been hitting the headlines off and one for some time.  Keeping abreast of the trend is both discouraging and yet leads toward wisdom.

Here is a commentary on grade inflation.

That comment is based on this website.  http://www.gradeinflation.com/

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