Extending Lessons with the Right Questions

Not all students being the same, no lesson fits them all.  General or Universal principles of teaching are needed to ensure that all learning at all ages, and toward all student abilities is occurring.  I have recently posted John Milton Gregory’s 7 Laws of Teaching as I think they are helpful.  Adler’s 3 Columns is another helpful set of principles.  But my purpose here is discuss how to move around in the ability pool of any given class to make sure everyone is learning and being challenged.

The simplest way to describe a challenging course is one with high expectations.  Many teachers try to teach to the middle or bottom of a class, but high expectations have us teaching toward the top.  This means that even then, some will need more, and others will need help to keep up.  I believe Socratic questioning is the key to handling this spectrum.

First, I have tried to be clear in my writing that questions are the most powerful tool a teacher has.  There is certainly a hierarchy of questions, the highest of which cause the student to think for themselves, not simply spit out information they have been given.  So the good teacher is already keeping every mind active in their class by asking questions that generate thought in all students, not just a few.

But when this condition is present, it means that the struggling student knows both what questions are causing them difficulty and that the teacher is not there to “do it for them” but rather to help them think their way to the answer.  But at the very same moment, a good question has the ability to press the student is “always out in front” to go farther up, further in.  This student is able to go farther with the same question.  It is not that there are two lessons to be taught, one for the average and the other for the gifted, but rather that all teaching being connected to infinite Truth means that no lesson is ever fully taught.

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So what are the best questions for this quest of the differentiated learning experience?  Aristotle believed it was questions of cause.  If you know his theory of causation, you know his four causes:

  • The material cause: “that out of which”, e.g., the bronze of a statue.
  • The formal cause: “the form”, “the account of what-it-is-to-be”, e.g., the shape of a statue.
  • The efficient cause: “the primary source of the change or rest”, e.g., the artisan, the art of bronze-casting the statue, the man who gives advice, the father of the child.
  • The final cause: “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”, e.g., health is the end of walking, losing weight, purging, drugs, and surgical tools. (Source)

Working with these causes, a great teacher will make sure his student is increasing in knowledge of all four causes in relation to whatever is being studied.  So the questions in the room have to do with what “this” (subject being studied) is made of, is meant to do or be, who is active in doing/being “it” and why “it” even exists.  These how, why, what for kind of questions are basic to both remediation and extension of any lesson.  A struggling student is led back to the most fundamental questions of the lesson; one needing more is sent to the next level of questioning.  There are no end of questions in any field of study.  Thus questions build a continuum of instruction.

So “lesson planning” is much more question creation than it is content churning.

Thoughts on How Best to Read Literature with the Modern High School Student

The following are my own meditations on reading literature in our modern setting with high school students.  I have struggled with this idea for some time.  I find very few who truly love reading.  Some view it as a means toward the education they believe will lead to big paycheck.  Others view reading as an antiquated form of entertainment that has been long since been replaced by other more engaging screens and images.  So if my job is to engage students in a study of literature, it would seem I must convince them of its being worthwhile, then leading them toward a delight in and felicity with great literature.  This would include heightening their taste, training their abilities, and directing them toward self-motivated reading.

Why are we even doing this?  Literature is a part of the Humanities.  It is how we prepare young people to pursue the moral maturity that adult humans must have to be happy.  Fictional stories cultivate a moral imagination in young people.  Poetry brings them to feel sublime.  Truth is posited, Goodness exemplified, and Beauty is loved in the great works of literature.

So my first task is to present to their minds an apologetic for reading, and for reading great literature so as to develop a moral imagination.  Hence my first “lesson” must be the construction of the idea of a moral imagination, using mimetic teaching to birth this notion in their own hearts.  Vigen Guroian has written most helpfully on this subject in many places, including here.

I believe that the experience of a good literature class will do more than a single lecture to convince students of their need for a moral imagination, but that is where is should start.  Moving beyond simply saying they should pursue a moral imagination through great literature, the class should delight itself in that literature.  I currently teach two literature classes:  American and British.  Delighting in these things includes a good understanding of the context of these works, having some knowledge of the authors, but mostly would include the following key components:  having the time to delight (no break neck speed or firehose velocity here), allowing students to find what they like rather than telling them what to like, and open discussion that hears the students more than the teacher.

So how does one teach a student to read with delight?  I think there are three levels to this delight:  simple apprehension, connections, and reflections.  In simple apprehension, the student skims over the story looking for hints as to the characters, places, and such.  In short, finding the nouns.  It amuses me that for many literature classes, this is all that is expected, is converted to objective questions on a test, and every one claps their hands.  But that is only very surface enjoyment.  Going deeper, the student seeks to find the connections, how the plot is developed by the characters, places, “things” of the story.  Here he is in essence seeking the verbs.  What led to what?  What are the causes and effects?  But the best is kept for a final reading of the text, this time with the heart.  Given my knowledge of the text, having skimmed it over twice now, what passages move me?  What do I like about this text?  What is meaningful to me and why?

An easy way to teach this reading, and it can be done independently in this manner, is teach the student to mark the text in each reading with a differing color.  Having the student mark the important nouns in pink, the connecting verbs in green, and the really good stuff in blue allows them to return with the teacher to the text in class and discuss it well.  Yes this means they have to own the books, but this is a small price to pay for truly great reading and discussion.  If highlighter is not your thing, give them alternative ways to mark these three layers of reading.

This leads to a pedagogy something like the following for most texts (any form of text):

  1. Preparation – saying just enough about the text to gain the student’s interest, give them a context for the book, and guide their mind toward the one or two great ideas of the work. The key here is brevity with engagement.  Wow, I really want to read this book now.
  2. Direct Interaction with the text – whether alone or in the classroom, the student should read the text twice quickly and then a third time slowly, following the pursuits and markings mentioned above.
  3. Discussion – the great texts are above everyone’s head. This is why we read them.  Thus they are best when discussed with others.  Students have to be taught dialectic to do this well.  Some success can come from a teacher presenting them with key passages to be discussed, but often a simple “playing the blues” or discussion of those things they have highlighted in blue will suffice.  The key is to focus on the moral aspects of the story.  What was true, good, and beautiful?
  4. Fastening – I don’t like the term assessment in relation to good reading. Schooling demands feedback, but this is much more mentoring, discipleship, and apprenticeship than mastering a discreet set of information.  The content, skills, and understanding can be assessed, but one should always remember this is much more a start than an end.  The best form of assessing one’s interaction with great literature is writing.    While the essay or paper is certainly good and legit, more is gained by guided journaling.  Here is a great blog on that issue.

All this to say that great literature classes are an art form.  At the heart of it is the teacher’s own passion and enjoyment of great literature.  Beyond that, we are trying to see ice to Eskimos, but when we really passionately love the ice, it sells itself.

And if any of this needs more, I have written on these things before: here, here, and here are some that come readily to mind.

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.

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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)