Let’s Get Out of this Cave!

It happened some years ago now, but I think it could still happen today.  I started a conversation without defining my terms.  Some teens and I were talking about classical music.  At some point it was clear they were thinking of the Beatles and I had Bach in mind.  Once they understood how I was using the term, two more things became all too clear.  First, they knew very little of orchestral or “classical” music and secondly, they did not wish to do the work necessary to get to know it.  When I played just a little of Bach’s most accessible stuff (his Air on the G string, BWV 1068) they recoiled with distaste.  Just not our thing, Mr. E.  The Beatles were old, but still kinda cool; Bach was dust.

I thought of that moment again recently when talking with teens about Plato’s cave analogy.  I was captivated with the collateral response.  Plato makes it clear that if the guide returned to the cave to free another “slave” he would be killed if they could get their hands on him.  Killed.  For leading men into the light of truth!  Ask Socrates about that kind of thanks.

platos-cave

Our modern word “educate” has as its roots the meaning, “to lead out.”  That is the educational enterprise, according to the word’s root meaning.  I can’t contemplate that well without Plato’s cave coming to the forefront my mind.  My job as teacher is to educate, to lead those enjoying shadows in the cave out into the brilliant light of the truth.  While I can take their hand and lead them, they must follow.  There seem to be many who wish to stay in their chains.  “We are okay with the Beatles, but kindly keep Bach to yourself.”

I came away from my music discussion thinking about this issue of taste.  Lots of questions come to mind.  What is good taste?  Is there something that defines Bach as better than the Beatles?  Who am I to assert that my taste is better than a teen’s?  How do you lead someone toward higher tastes?  What relationship is there between knowledge and taste?  Is it a fair reading of the Cave Analogy to state it involves the improvement or heightening of taste?

Good leading out “converts” the one led.  This much is clear in Plato.  They don’t want back in the cave once they are used to life in the real world.  Their affections have become more rightly ordered.  So there is something that occurs in the heart of the one who leaves the cave.  None in the cave want to leave, but those who do, do not wish to return.  Their tastes have changed.  The teacher is a convert themselves, so if they remember the cave, they should have mercy on those still chained.  I find myself hanging around the door of the cave and thinking about these things.  So few of my students have found their way out into the light.  To some extent this is me.  But I can’t get past the notion that our society has trained the youth to enjoy the video lit dimness of the modern cave.  Come out.

 

Preparing to Meet an Idea

Aristotle teaches us to move our students from the known to the unknown.  We cannot learn new things without some attachment to what we know already.  This insight alone greatly guides the teaching enterprise.  But there seems to be innate within this principle another principle that needs more attention.  If we are leading minds from what they know to what they ought to know, we must prepare their mind for reception of that “new” idea. Without proper preparation, the mind is asked to “jump” into a new idea without proper connection to what is already known.  This is a problem many teachers should be on guard against in their teaching.

The problem I think often comes from the teacher’s own expertise and experience with the subject at hand.  Even new teachers have already learned most of what they are leading the student through.  Because their mind is already accustomed to the movement from old to new that they are now calling their students to make, they don’t properly prepare and manage that movement for their students.  The mind needs to be ready to receive a new idea, have a clear sense of how this idea connects with their overall knowledge, or it will not become a part of them but will remain some factoid to be forgotten as soon as it is assessed.

Consider the teacher who is now pushing (let’s say) thirty-five years of age.  They, if they are possessing the heart of a learner, have been adding to what they know twice as long as their high school pupils.  They are more skilled at learning, have more knowledge from which to add, and long ago (15-20 years ago) accomplished the feats of learning they are now asking from their students.  To their own mind this stuff is “easy.”  It is a familiar, well-worn path in their mind.  But for the student, each day brings new ideas.  Or at least each week.  And their minds need preparing for each new thing.  The teacher must understand the student’s needs enough to plan for this preparation.

What the preparation looks like will differ based on what is being taught.  Language, mathematics, to some extent the natural sciences all build on previous learning in clear and ordered ways.  History tends to be chronological (knowing what has come before, here is what happens next).  But many fields in the humanities, philosophy, theology are not as incremental.  One of the great crimes of modern literature instruction is its inability or unwillingness to connect studied works into a meaningful whole.  I won’t decry the sad state of the New Humanities and why this is so here, but I will mention one popular view that seems intent on destroying this habit of preparation.

Progressivism in education makes this preparation difficult by calling the student to break with the past.  If the past is obsolete, it is logical that my own past is becoming obsolete, therefore each new learning experience is expected to stand on its own two feet.  I have not met many progressivists willing to actually state this, but the logic of their position is clear.  Don’t look back, look only forward.  But looking back seems not only necessary, but the most efficient means to learning something new as well.  If A, B, and C, then surely D rather than Y, correct?

The learning mind, given the tools to teach itself, by high school should be a highly intuitive thing.  Much of preparing that mind for something new is simply a review of A, B, and C so that they themselves begin leaping to D, E, and maybe even F.  As teachers, we are pursuers of the truth, not dispensers of mystic knowledge.  We are not waiting to reveal secrets, but excitedly trying to impel our students past us into truths perhaps even still new to us.

I am convinced the best learning of new material comes from a contemplative teacher who remembers, who reconstructs their own past learning so as to lead their students down the same path.  They are not there to tell them what is true, but rather to lead them, compel them, prepare them to go down the path of truth themselves.  This again reiterates a common theme on this blog:  questions are the most powerful teaching tool in the world.  Ask them to remember what they know, then ask them to anticipate what would come next.  Remember what it was like when you were where they are?  What is the next question?

Should School Be Hard?

I want to think more deeply about an issue I raised years ago on this blog.  Should someone’s experience in school be “hard”?  Of course such an ambiguous term needs defining first.

My use of the term “hard” here refers to activity which is challenging, difficult, causes the student to expend effort.  While many today believe it to be the opposite of “fun” I disagree and will develop that disagreement below.  But if we can agree to stick with this basic definition of not easy, but hard, difficult, making the student have to rise above their normal level of effort, then we can progress with the question.

My answer, as with most really good questions, is mixed.  It depends on why the student finds the activity challenging.  I can think of at least three reasons for school to be hard, and they each have a differing level of legitimacy in my mind.  I will label these three reasons as: ability, motivation, engagement.  I think any given person may experience all three even in the same day of school.

Ability

In this case, the student finds school activity difficult or hard because they have been attempting some act of learning for which they are ill prepared.  If a teacher assigns work that the student lacks the ability to do well, it will be difficult for them.  This is not necessarily illegitimate by the by.  Math and foreign language teachers do this every day (or should).  Here is a problem or translation, go see how you do on it then we can work on the issues it raises when you have tried and fallen short.  If the teacher does this too early, without proper preparation for the exercise, the hardness of the experience may cause frustration before it can be used to any learning advantage.  But if it is timed correctly, the student is shown his areas of lack and the learning curve actually picks up speed.  While I do see teachers ask things of students that they have no idea how to do, it is really what happens once that ignorance is discovered that matters in our question.  I think this is an excellent part of a good education, if done well.

Motivation

Some school activity requires a willingness from the student to push through a difficult moment, or to invest time in the work that they may wish to invest elsewhere.  I stop short of calling this form of hardness “laziness” but some will call it such.  I don’t just mean kids who don’t want to work at all (though they should find school “hard”) but in particular the common problem of competing motivations.  A simple and common illustration of this is the household rule, “homework before play.”  The parent sets boundaries in order to get the less desirable work of Algebra done before hours of “work” are put in on basketball.  Note: this is an issue of motivation because I can guarantee you the student will put forth more physical and character effort practicing their free throws than will be expended on quadratic equations, but they will “feel” as though the later was more difficult than the former.

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Engagement

I think the last note above leads right into the heart of this issue.  There is a point in school at which a student’s mind changes its view of whatever is at hand in the classroom to that of a delight rather than a chore.  The physics class falls away, with all its attendant details and difficulties as the newly lit light bulb of understanding the lesson transports the student to a moment when they no longer are considering anything other than this beautiful new idea.  They have forgotten the work for the pleasure of what the work has wrought.  This is the most compelling category of my question.  Whether the transport happens because of the genius of the teacher, or the nature of the student, or both, or neither, is for other considerations.  But the fact that truly engaged students, students who have moved into the reality of the lesson, forget the hardness for the wonder and awe, motivates me as a teacher to get them there if I can.

I regularly hear from students that school is hard.  It is said often in a way that implies they would like it to be easy.  I, as a student, commiserate with their wish.  But proper hardness and difficulty lead to winning the game at the free throw line with 2 seconds left, and finding that new idea to be beautiful and exciting and even transporting.  The blood, sweat, and tears are worth it.

Millennialism

I am not sure how legitimate our habit of pigeonholing each decade or generation is, but it does happen and there is a lot of discussion about the Millennial generation right now.  This presentation was particularly provocative.  Does anyone care to discuss it with me?  Does he have it right?  Is there any assumptions that are wrong here?  Needs all the time I can give it.

 https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fdeltaprotective%2Fvideos%2F10157890106040640%2F&show_text=0&width=560

To Build a Language

The author Jack London is not someone with whom I share a great deal of philosophical affinity.  His nihilism stings my mind’s nostrils.  But he was a good writer, and many passages from his works can work on my own mind.  I was reading one of my favorite works of his with some friends yesterday and was struck by the following few sentences.

“This man did not know cold. Possibly all the generations of his ancestry had been ignorant of cold, of real cold, of cold one hundred and seven degrees below freezing-point. But the dog knew; all its ancestry knew, and it had inherited the knowledge (Jack London, To Build a Fire).”

As this is not a lit crit blog, but rather one on teaching, let me relate the thoughts on teaching that came to me from this passage.  London seems to exalt in the fact that the dog’s instincts are clearer or more compelling than the man’s knowledge.  And this is tied to generational knowing.  Dog instinct, inherited through the parent’s genes, is powerful in its consistency.  A dog breed is behaviorally consistent from generation to generation.

But man, though connected to past generations, is dependent upon memory rather than instinct.  He knows what he knows by what others older than himself have taught him.  This makes curricular issues poignant.  Whenever a change is made to the path of learning, all the strength of the past is weakened by the new path.  Ideological change inevitably brings such curricular changes.  This is particularly noticeable in the area of language study.

As the philosophy of language study has changed, the path by which a given language is to be taught has become less clear.  And as several generations have now passed since the great upheaval in language occurred in the early 20th century (see T.S. Eliot’s work on this here), many currently teaching language have to teach it the way they were taught it and they were not taught it in the old paths, but what were considered new in their own youth.  This weakens teaching.

I asked one Spanish teacher if she finds herself teaching as much English grammar as she does Spanish in a day’s work.  She was quick and clear that such was not only so, but necessary.  A loss of trust in rules has brought us to fewer and fewer dependable, generational rules of language.  Look at this chart.

15b-punc-marks

Most students are no longer taught such rules of punctuation, but rather are coached on usage from within a given written passage.  In other words, rather than passing down rules of usage from generation to generation, students today are taught in somewhat of an historical vacuum.  They have no anchor in the past with which to moor their current yacht of language.  As a result, most of my writing students think an essay is just a really long text message.

'Just think of it as if you're reading a long text-message.'

The implications are far reaching and beyond this short blog.  But it is worth contemplation.  It is also a great argument for slowing down the rate of experimentation and change that is rampant in modern educational curriculum practice.  Every time you change something, you weaken the past.  Dogs know its too cold; why don’t intelligent human beings?

Here Is a Big Idea

In my last post I set forth the basic steps involved in what has been called the Mimetic Sequence.  It is the normal means for presenting a student with an idea that they can hopefully grasp to the point of embodying.  In short review, the steps were as follows:

  1. Pre-presentation Stage – the student’s mind is prepared to receive a new idea
  2. Presentation Stage – the idea is presented in types, giving them as least two but hopefully more types to work with
  3. Comparison Stage – the teacher and student compare the types for similarities and dissimilarities.
  4. Explanation Stage – the teacher determines to what degree the student understands the idea by having them put the idea in their own words, either written or oral.
  5. Application Stage – the student seeks to apply the idea to their life.

Much of my teaching experience comes in the Humanities, where the ideas tend to be large and take a lifetime to apply.  But the Mimetic Sequence is relevant to all subjects, at all ages, in all aspects of instruction.  It is integral to moving the student from simple knowledge (knowing facts) to the deeper more permanent mode of understanding the truth revealed by the connection of facts to each other.

So, as promised, let me set out a simple plan for teaching an idea.  I have recently had Juniors in high school consider the idea of prejudice with me through a presentation of the novel by J.F. Cooper, The Deerslayer in English class.  The following were the steps through which we considered this idea.

  1. In our first lesson together, I presented the students with several instances from the news of prejudicial thinking. Some were racially based, some were political or economic.  For the most part, these were things the students knew from their own attention to the news.  We discussed why prejudice is a problem from several angles: logic, socially, politically, religiously.  I then ended the lesson by stating that our class would be reading a novel that dealt at length with the idea of prejudice.
  2. Given the size of the novel, the second stage, that of Presenting, took several weeks. As we read the novel in class, I regularly would point out how every character in the story demonstrated various forms of prejudice, whether it was racial, cultural, or religious.  It helps when the idea being discussed is embodied in the lives of even fictional characters as they are presented (stories are powerful teachers).
  3. Especially as the novel came to a close, we regularly discussed the various character’s virtues and vices, comparing and contrasting their choices. This comparison stage is a very powerful way to distinguish the nuances of an idea.  For instance, the racial prejudice was almost over the top in the novel, but the gender prejudices were more subtle and yet clear.
  4. The student was able to express the idea in two ways. First, they kept a journal throughout the reading in which they voiced their responses to the actions of the characters, explaining in particular how the prejudices of the novel were similar and dissimilar to our own time.  Secondly, they were given a series of essay prompts to write on, most of which revolved around prejudicial thinking.
  5. The last stage of Application will take the student the rest of his life, but even during and right after the novel, class discussion and hallway banter indicated that the idea had been clarified and pressed home to the soul of many of the students. They were seeing the idea more clearly and trying to live differently in light of the truth learned.

The fun of teaching is to creatively take this basic sequence of learning and apply it to all subjects.  Every lesson has an idea, a unifying principle that takes the content and makes it join into the whole of truth.  Seeking those ideas is one of the basic joys of teaching and learning.

But there is a third column…