What Would Constitute the Teacher’s Creed?

My school has asked me to articulate the basic tenets of education at our institution.  Is this is frustratingly fun exercise for me.  Frustrating because I am trying to boil so much down into few words, and fun because it is asking me to articulate the most exciting project I know: that of educating the souls of God’s children.

The following is not what I have put together for my school – it is its own community and cannot be expected to follow my thinking fully (I don’t think any school should fully follow any one person’s definition of education, while many try and thus fail).

The Teacher’s Creed

I believe that all education is a leading souls out from darkness into the Light of the eternal Logos, Who is Christ.

The direct effect of embodying the Logos is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue in the life of the learner.

Integrated learning within the Logos casts aside all fragmentation of knowledge, seeing the unity of all Truth within the Godhead.  All learning is moral and leads toward a greater understanding of God’s world, His redemptive plan for that world now fallen, and immortality in Christ.

Good learning in the Logos teaches…

  • that God honors those who honor Him, which is the foundation for a proper view of oneself. Respect for others and self is best found in a sincere love for the Truth.
  • all real learning occurs in the mind that is taught nothing that it can teach itself.
  • that with increased learning should come increased service and responsibility. Real learning changes how one lives, not just what one knows.
  • that loving God with our minds requires we learn to think clearly, critically, and independently while maintaining a proper respect for authority and tradition.
  • that the basis for all learning is the embodiment of ideas, so that education leads the learner from knowledge, to understanding, and then on into wisdom, which is simply artful living.
  • that most learning begins and continues in the context of great, open, compelling questions.
  • that no learner is an island unto himself, but a part of the community of truth. This means the learner must gain the ability to respect and interact with others, especially those who disagree with them.
  • that the mind, body, and soul of every learner is an integrated and real entity, requiring that all three aspects be addressed by anything wishing to be called education.
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What is a Grade?

I get asked about grading and assessment often enough to know that our modern minds do not know how to deal with the issue well.  From some type of cosmic game show to a quantitative evaluation of a person’s worth, misunderstanding in this area is rampant.  Teachers seem to labor over obtaining a chimerical objectivity in their grading, while students seem more intent on how to “get an A” than how to become truly educated.  And reform in education is almost totally fixed on outcomes, on the grades achieved either in standardized tests or some other number generating endeavor.

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In the following series of blogs I will consider a number of related questions regarding how learning is assessed and how that assessment is communicated between two minds.  I don’t promise to be thorough, but hopefully to reinvigorate a discussion about these things as I am convinced many of the current issues in education are issues of assessment and grading.

So first, what is assessment?  Every act of learning follows a sequence of events.  The mind must first come to perceive it’s need to know something.  Once this is done, learning begins.  The mind seeks and hopefully through good teachers is able to find an expression of the idea being sought.  If all goes well, models are given of what is being learned.  These are compared and the new learning begins to be embodied in the learner.  Assessment comes at the end of this sequence when the learner, and often the teacher, determine if learning has been thorough and effective.

Not all assessment is the same.  The distinction most helpful is the one between quantitative and qualitative assessment.  When assessment is for oneself, this is intuitive and almost always results in both types of assessment.  But for the teacher who has several or many students, and is often assessing a number of them together, this distinction is necessary.  Quantitative assessment determines how much has been learned.  If a child is asked to memorize the bones of the body, he is then assessed by how many he was able to recall on the assessment, whether that is verbal, written, or otherwise.  Modern education loves this because it feels more objective.  It is not, but we will leave that for later.  Qualitative assessment seeks to determine how well learning has occurred.  If the previous student has been asked to teach a lesson on the bones of the body, qualitatively the assessor will indicate how clear, how complete, or how compelling the presentation was.  This requires a master of the lesson to comment on or coach the student in their progress toward becoming a better student of the subject at hand.  Again, much of what passes for assessment in most classrooms is a mixture of these two types.

Before going deeper, it may also help to state in rather short fashion what assessment is not.  Stating the antithesis can often make the thesis clearer.  Therefore, assessment should not be construed to be…

  • an objective measurement. This is one of the strongest fictions in education and will be dealt with in full later, but for now I will say that no assessment is totally objective.  All assessment is a master assessing a student through various means.
  • a singular method or instrument. Learning cannot be assessed by one means only.  It requires multiple forms of assessment.
  • a judgment upon the student. Assessments only show where a student is.  They can be compared to show progress or trends, but they can only demonstrate a moment in learning.  They cannot define a student, only communicate where they currently are.
  • (because of the previous statement) an indicator of ability, only a demonstration of where the student was during that assessment. One of the horrible things that happens with too much emphasis on assessment and grading is the stratification of learners into tight boxes of ability: these are the “A” students and these are the “struggling ones” etc.  More on this when we get to grading.

Before ending this first meditation, let me state that we must put cart and horse in order here.  Assessment is the overall term for assessing student learning.  Grades, which often are placed in the forefront, are simply an attempt to communicate between the parties involved (teacher, student, and parent) what has been seen in assessment.  If assessments are subjective, grades are even more so.  I think this places us before a lot of questions yet to be answered.  More on this soon.

Show Me Your Work

The concept of collecting a student’s work over a given year or school career has a long and successful history, but with the coming of the digital classroom, seems to be enjoying a revival of popularity.  Now more than ever it is easy to form a student portfolio of work.  But why?  Does building a portfolio for each student really have any demonstrable purpose for all the work involved?

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Defining the term:

According to a great white paper on eportfolios (electronically collected portfolios), Dr. Helen Barrett divides the practice into two categories: the Positivist and the Constructivist approaches (Barrett).  The first type are created for learning, while the second are as learning.  The Positivist approach is usually for some lengthy project (a research paper, for example) where the student gathers evidence of their work for a summative grade at the end of the project.  In the case of a research paper, the portfolio would include their notes, outline, and successive drafts.  The Constructivist approach is often a series of works that show formative assessment, with each entry showing progress toward overarching goals, like a series of ever increasing essays to show writing improvement.  The two can certainly be used in tandem, but generally these two categories cover the major reasons for having student portfolios.

I think good practice would be to have a single Positivist type eportfolio that shows work from all classes throughout a four year high school career.  Certainly Constructivist portfolios for major projects could be rolled into the Positivist one, but one portfolio to rule them all should the ultimate goal.

Arguments for their use:

What are the arguments making this kind of long term effort worthwhile?  Isn’t this just a form of “cya” in education where teachers kind of shrug their shoulders and say, “Here is the best they could do”?  No, there are several compelling arguments for positive portfolio pursuit.

Let’s start with the obvious.  The move in education toward digital work is almost complete.  What is needed these days is a way of storing all the work in such a way that it is organized, useful, and accessible.  Portfolios are a simple way to get this need addressed.  It is the parking garage for all a student’s digital work, maybe with some “public” and some kept private.

A second great reason for portfolio use is the “resume” argument.  Showcasing a student’s work in high school is becoming an ever increasing need for college entrance.  Requiring a student to form such a portfolio throughout high school greatly reduces the stress of forming one late in their high school career.

But the most compelling reason for me is a pedagogical one.  I have often stated that education is not about any one day or lesson, but the whole string of sausages.  It is a cumulative enterprise, in other less picturesque words.  A portfolio promotes lifelong learning in a student through causing them to contemplate their work.  In doing so, they determine a number of things including but limited to: what is their best work (and why), the incremental development of their learning skills, finding connections between assignments and projects stretched out over several years, and, of course, an appreciation for how far they have come over the course of the collection.

I could further argue the case with the assessment value of such a portfolio as it pertains to parents and teachers assessment of the student’s progress.  But the above student contemplation is more important perhaps than even this clear advantage.

Possible pitfalls:

But portfolio use is not a panecea.  There are any number of possible portfolio pitfalls.  First is the question of who decides its content?  I would argue for the student leading the decision with a set of criteria provided by the school.  As stated above in discussing the need for “storage” I think all digital work should be kept, but some should be shared publically (becoming the actual portfolio) and rest kept “in house” and out of access to all except those involved in the assignment.  This becomes a skill that is helpful to the student throughout life: learning to critique their work and select that which is their best effort for public display.

But this begs another question: that of privacy.  Shouldn’t a student’s work remain private: just between himself and his teacher?  I will grant the question but ask in return for the possible reasons for this to be so.  Is there something negative in the work that should be kept private?  Most of the time this argument is coming from a place of embarrassment or the like.  I would argue that both student and teacher enter into the class work with more vigor when the final result might be on display for all to see.  Policy to protect the privacy of students can easily be put in place, but again I think the question of why is important to consider rather than just assuming it.

Perhaps the issue whether to display the content with or without grading and instructive marking addresses the previous privacy issue.  In many cases the student just doesn’t want everyone to see how much “red ink” is on the paper, or what the final grade was.  I think it is quite appropriate for such to be left off, and with digital work this is very easy.  The grade book keeps the grade record; the portfolio shows the work.

Another possible pitfall is the manner of presentation.  If the portfolio is online (and some schools choose to use offline digital means: thumb drives, CDR’s, etc.), then the question of access must be addressed as the portfolio process is put in place.  Certainly all the portfolios should pull from the same sources, look roughly the same, and be consistent.  But making such fully public, or a shared private domain, are issues that need to be addressed as the means of making the portfolios are investigated and determined.  In the Resources section below there are loads of places both free and by subscription that can help address this issue.

But one pitfall stands above all others:  when a portfolio system is implemented but then not used and therefore becomes a huge waste of time.  If a school is going to do this well, teacher and student must buy in and be prepared to use the system across the curriculum and consistently.  Keeping things going all along the career of a high school student is way more beneficial and time conscious than when one tries late in the career to go back and build one.  I recommend beginning such a project with a given Freshman class and building it forward with that class each year, not trying to back log anything from the past.

Suggested Use/Process:

Anyone who knows me knows I use Evernote extensively.  I would therefore adhere to those who believe this product to be the easiest way to curate the portfolio.  A simple “portfolio” notebook within Evernote, shared with all concerned, would be rather simple.

If the school chooses to have some summative presentation for the portfolio, either at the end of each year, or end of Senior year, then the student would need to “clean up” the notes into something a little more flowing, but that would still be easy within Evernote, given its “Presentation” tool in Premium.  Of course a no cost solution would be to export the portfolio to some other presentation tool when that time comes.

There are online portfolio options, the best of which cost money, but this seems the simplest to me, and keeping it simple seems the best way for it actually get used.  (See resources below for more options).

The most practical thing to keep in mind is simplicity of use.  The more steps and the more work, the less likely for everyone to keep using it, teachers and students alike.

Great resources:

 

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.

John Milton Gregory’s 7 Laws of Teaching

I was recently surprised to find that although I have mentioned these laws, I have never listed or blogged on them here.  These laws, stated in a book originally written to make sure Sunday School teachers knew the basics of teaching, are quite valuable in helping a teacher contemplate the basics of teaching.  Below is the outline I prepared for these laws some twelve or so years ago.  No updating necessary…

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The Seven Laws of Teaching

John Milton Gregory – 1884 – written for Sunday school teachers

  1. 1. The teacher must be one who knows the lesson or truth or art to be taught.
  • Guidelines:
    • We must know our subject well – prepare fresh every year.
    • While planning, ask yourself, “What am I teaching and why?”
    • Use several resources for teaching.
  • Violation:  Teachers who don’t study the material well enough.  You should know the material deeply enough that you never have enough time to teach everything you know about it.

 

  1. The Learner is one who attends with interest to the lesson.
  • Guidelines:
    • Never begin without the full attention of the class.
    • Adapt lesson time and style to the age of the students.
    • Prepare thought provoking questions.
    • Make your enthusiasm contagious.
  • Violation:  Teachers who start or continue to teach without the attention of the students or who exceed student interest.

 

  1. The language used as a medium between teacher and learner must be common to both.
  • Guidelines:
    • Study how your students are using what you have taught them when they use the language.
    • Require full and complete answers – not one word answers – written and verbally.
  • Violations – Using slang. Not insuring that they can rephrase the lesson in their own words.  Using clichés they don’t understand.

 

  1. The lesson to be mastered must be explicable in the terms of the truth already known by the learner; the unknown must be explained by the means of the known.
  • Guidelines:
    • Plan to compare to what they already know.
    • First, find out what they already know so that you know where to start.
    • Arrange your lesson in logical steps from known to unknown; simple to complex.
  • Violations – Asking for what you haven’t taught, pushing along too rapidly.

 

  1. Teaching is arousing and using the pupil’s mind to grasp the desired thought or to master the desired art.
  • Guidelines:
    • Tell the student nothing he could learn for himself. 
    • The students are the ones who do the work.
    • Your work is planning and guiding.
    • Keep asking yourself: “How can I make these kids understand?”
    • Realize that mental digestion is as individual as physical digestion.
  • Violations – forgetting that telling is not teaching, thought by the student is necessary.

 

  1. Learning is thinking into one’s own understanding a new idea or truth or working into habit a new art or skill.
  • Guidelines:
    • They can do all the work and it just goes by them.
    • Don’t let the test be the end-all, be-all.
    • Help them to have a clear idea of what is going to be done.
    • They should be able to tell you what they’re doing.
    • Don’t settle for incomplete thoughts-make them articulate.
  • Violations – the pupil has an imperfect mastery, the student merely believes what the book says without reasons or practical applications given.

 

  1. The test and proof of teaching done – the finishing and fastening process – must be a reviewing, rethinking, reproducing , and applying of the material that has been taught, the knowledge and ideals and arts that have been communicated.
  • Guidelines:
    • Completion, test and work of confirmation of the work of teaching must be made by application.  Not tests alone – find out what they know in other ways.
    • Show me, do it, give me a quote, tell me why this is important, make a timeline.
    • Reviews are always in order and are never a waste of time.  Make students apply what they do.  Begin and end the lesson in review.
  • Violations:  Not doing it because you think you don’t have time.

 

Chicken Soup for the Classical Teacher’s Soul

We approach the end of a school year; we are tired, therefore say these types of things over and over, when it’s quiet and you are alone:

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  1. Truth exists.
  2. The Truth will set you free.
  3. You cannot make truth, nor can you sell it, nor can you make it into anything. It is.  You are related to it.
  4. Your students need Truth, as do you.
  5. Truth leads to a great number of things: God, joy, happiness, wisdom, a vocation, the ability to live rightly in this world which includes loving (a small part of which is being able to earn the money needed to care for the needs of yourself and others), etc.
  6. Much of what is frustrating in the classroom is some error or impropriety regarding #1-5.
  7. A lot more of the frustration we face in teaching is outside #1-6 and lies in other expectations and pursuits we import into education when all that is truly important is contained in #1-5.

I truly believe that if we would maintain some mantra-like grasp of these 7 things, we would teach better, with more focus, and find it much easier to love our students as God would have us love them.

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?