Ranting at the End of a Long Week About Education’s Ability to Impart Joy…

Is education still possible in a dead culture?  Is learning capable of being what is now called, “fun”?  What does it mean to care?  As in, “I don’t care about what we are doing in school.”  Or what about the best moment of the week, when I was told, “It’s the teachers job to make learning fun.”

So let’s deal with the term first.  Fun seems to mean, in most of my student’s usage, enjoyable.  So how is learning linked to joy?  It would seem to indicate a possible dichotomy between means and end.

I think this is where things are breaking down for us in education, at least in part.  I was taught when I was young to enjoy something either by finding joy in the doing of it or the end results.  I was hard pressed to enjoy suicides in full pads on the football field, but I really enjoyed the win.  Mowing the yard was a pain, but that moment of silence when the loud engine is cut off, the waft of newly mown grass is breathed in, and the look of all that uniform green grass is surveyed that true joy is there for the moment.  But what if the pain of the suicide or the sweat and heat of the mower caused me to quit before the end?  No joy.  The end only comes at the completion of the means.

2008-Class-Party

But I think that analogy is inaccurate to what I face on long weeks like this one.  I think instead a habit has been instilled in many students that leads them to avoid all means but the one they consider necessary.  They don’t run any extra laps or go ahead and trim the hedges as well.  Instead, they seek whatever gets them the end (re: the grade) and thus have no joy in either the means or the real end that would bring joy, an education.  They get the diploma without any reality in it.

So my students sit there wanting me to make learning fun.  But they don’t want to learn, they want to get past “school” to the party they perceive to be waiting for them out beyond the school walls.  Their habits of life, the means they enjoy that they hope lead them to joyful ends, are antithetical to a real education.  They enjoy texting, but not reading a challenging text (in fact they don’t equate books and written passages with a text, they think a text is something on a mobile device).  They love to talk, but they don’t want to do so with any clear definition of terms, careful exposition of their thoughts, etc.  “Why you have to be smart all the time; you should be more dumb like us, Mr. El.”  And I will leave the skills of writing and listening alone, because it has been a long week of grading papers and speaking to a non-listening group of students.

These habits will greatly limit the joy my students can have in life.  They are headed for Thoreau’s “life of quiet desperation” but I am not sure how to give them an appetite for real joy.  I love them.  I want life’s best for them.  I recognize that my frustration with them only disrupts their perception of the joy that I have in my own life in both the means and ends of a vibrant and joyful life of learning. God save me from myself and draw my students out of their caves and into the bright light of truth.

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.

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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…

Connections: One Benefit of an Integrated Curriculum

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There is a lot of conversation about the Liberal Arts these days.  This is a good thing.  In the midst of many reevaluating the Progressive model of men like Dewey, while still holding that the traditional L.A. model does not fit the 21st Century, many seem to be calling for something altogether new.  This article about Connecticut College is just one of many I have come by recently.  One great result of these discussions in a renewed interest in integrating the curriculum.

If all truth is one, and it is, then anything taught is connected to any other thing taught.  The Ancients had that much down pat.  As a faculty seeks to cultivate its graduate, it should carefully consider how each part of its program forms that graduate.  What unique and necessary aspects of the desired graduate come only or mostly by the study of language?  Or math?  Or the arts?  Given the full range of development best epitomized in the Liberal Arts degree, each course should its piece to the assembling puzzle.

I am not a big fan of the term efficiency.  All too often it only succeeds in sucking the humanity out of whatever endeavor it is applied to.  But in this case I can argue for the efficiency of a whole faculty working together for one end: its desired graduate.  I would accept the knock on this view that it removes diversity and individuality if I did not see that such an education best prepares each graduate to realize their own humanity, their own goals and dreams, by giving them as broad and human an education as is possible.  The most efficient education, in the end, does not seem to one of specialization, but one that prepares each student as fully as possible for as much as is possible.

May each faculty of each school enjoy the conversation about integration and the role each course plays in forming a complete person.  God bless the Liberal Arts and its efficient manner.

The Power of Holding Out an Ideal

At the moment my school’s faculty are discussing and shaping for ourselves to ideals.  We are gathering ideas to produce a portrait of an Ideal Graduate and defining what an Ideal Teacher at our school would be like.  These are powerful pursuits because they can lift every student and teacher to a higher plane of community and unity.

But not everyone in our day believes in ideals.  I often hear that ideals lead to idealism, meaning having a standard that is impractical makes those who pursue it impractical.  This is often argued in the area of assessment.  The argument goes something like, “If you place some arbitrary ideal in front of a student, one they can never reach, you are just going to frustrate them.”

I disagree.  Some of the argument is due to the shift from “teaching the father of the man” to a child centered pedagogy in modern theory.  I will blog more extensively on the old concept that makes truth, not the person, the center of education later.  But when education became more focused on how children feel in school than on what they are learning, we definitely stopped believing in ideals.

An ideal anything sets the normative basis for that thing.  The ideal basketball player (who cannot possibly exists) helps the coach set before his players not only a vision they can never attain, but it also reveals to the players and coach what portion less than that ideal is acceptable on the team.

In another way of approaching it, if there is no “100%” there can be nothing to measure a 90 or 80 or 70 against.  The truly great education calls a student to something beyond his reach.  It certainly has to help him rise up to that calling, but once he believes himself lifted up to a higher plateau, he realizes that from that vantage point, there is another, higher, goal calling him yet up and in.  I have solioquized often about how powerful I think David Hick’s Norms and Nobility is as a modern work on education.  Let me allow him to more fully develop this idea in ways that are beyond my skill.

“In his quest for the best education, the ancient schoolmaster possessed two advantages over the modern educator. First, he knew exactly what kind of a person he wished to produce…Second, he agreed in form upon an inquiry-based or knowledge-centered – as opposed to a child-centered – approach to education.” (David Hicks, Norms and Nobility, p. 39)

“The past instructs us that man has only understood himself and mastered himself in pursuit of a self-transcendent Ideal, a Golden Fleece, a Promised Land, a Holy Grail, a numinous windmill. He defines himself in the quest, not on Kalypso’s unblown isle, where he is only judged against himself, where all obstacles are removed, where the question of human significance seems insignificant, and where there are no moral restraints or binding ideals. On Kalypso’s idyllic estate, Odyssean man is a nobody. He languishes in egocentric frustration, self-doubt, and insecurity. In many ways, he is a portrait of the modern student, seated “on the vacant beach with a shattered heart, scanning the sea’s bare horizon with wet eyes.” Only Odysseus’ knowledge of the past- his longing for Ithaka, Penelope, and Telemakhos- keeps him alive; and only the responsibility he takes for that knowledge rescues him from Kalypso’s pointless life of pleasure.” (David Hicks, Norms and Nobility, p. 51)

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.

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.

So I’ll 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.

This is a list of related posts that came after this introductory one:

  1. Contents Under Pressure – First column, Content
  2. What is the Big Idea? – major points on Second column, Ideas