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?

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…

What is the Big Idea?

This post continues the discourse I began a few posts ago on Adler’s Three Columns of learning.  I am listing all related posts at the bottom of that first post, so it would be the default starting point if you are just joining.

We have already established that acquiring knowledge is the beginning, but the not the end of education.  And it was stated that in acquiring “facts” we naturally yearn to make sense of them, to connect them.  This is the natural progress of Content toward the second column of learning, Ideas.  Ideas connect discreet facts into patterns of meaning called Ideas.  Bringing a student to an idea is perhaps the most significant act of teaching.  We actually don’t wish to bring a student to an idea, as in some sort of tour through an exhibition of “ideas” that are out there, but rather to bring our students to embody the ideas that bring meaning to life.

Ideas are what make education move from the impersonal notion of fact (there is some piece of truth lying over there in the road, or being spoken of in this classroom) to a personal relationship with the truths discovered.  That is the notion of embodying truth; of becoming different because truth is not simply acknowledge, but has become applied to the way in which the student moves in and understands his world to be.

This is much deeper and more difficult education than simple First column learning.  The teacher must follow somewhat of a careful pathway to bring a student to embody an idea.  It does not happen in any singular act, but comes from a series of experiences and engagements with an idea and its content.  The Circe Institute has outlined this pathway, naming it the Mimetic Sequence.  The following is a bald outline of the Sequence.  My next post will exemplify the process for clarity’s sake.

For a student to grasp an idea, the following basic steps must be included in the lesson he is being led through.

Stages Act Notes Move to next stage when…
1

Pre-Presentation Stage

Prepare the students to contemplate the idea by making them aware of what they already know about the idea Moving from known to unknown, building on last thing studied, why is this being studied, what is the compelling question The student is attentive to the idea
2

Presentation Stage

Present Types of the idea Finding at least two, preferably more types of the idea, especially helpful are opposites The student has seen at least two but hopefully more clear types of the idea
3

Comparison Stage

Compare the types with each other Teacher and student should converse about the things that are similar and disimilar and how they all reveal the idea Enough types have been compared to hopefully bring about an “ah ha” moment
4

Explanation Stage

Ask the student to express the idea in their own words This can be oral or written, or even through models or artifacts The student can clearly express the idea; if they can’t go back to Stage 2 or 3
5

Application Stage

Have student use or apply the idea    

In my next post will take these steps and show how they would look in a specific lesson on a given idea.

 

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.

A Farcical Interview With Myself about Cynicism

Interviewer (Myself, hereafter simply I):  I wanted to sit down with myself and see how if I could ask myself about the trap many veteran teachers face of becoming somewhat jaded, or cynical.  I found myself willing, seated on a firm but pleasant leather couch, some sort of smoke in the air, and with that smell was entwined a lower scent of good Burgundy, somewhere in the ’92 range.  It appeared that this seasoned teacher was letting himself go, what with tie at half mast and most of that hidden behind a rather bushy and long gray beard.  But I found him willing to talk, so we commenced.

Dude, you seem a little out of sorts these days in class.  What is up?

Whiney Seasoned (Perhaps with a little too much wine) Teacher of Youth, Tipping Toward Cynicism (Myself, hereafter simply Wine E):

It’s these Freshmen.  Every year I think, “This is the epitome, the zenith of ignorance, the new low standard, the worst it can get.  Then another year’s class breaks all records.  As a young teacher I ran into some older experienced folk who just seemed so cynical, jaded, even bitter.  And I remember wanting to not be like them when I got to their place.  But I feel I may be headed that way.

I:

Are you burning out on your teaching?  Is there an expiration date for your profession?

Wine E:

If anything, I feel even more energized and excited about teaching.  Never have I felt so keenly the need to positively affect the next generation.  So no, at least for me, it is not that I am tiring of school, or the process, or teaching, or truth.  I think the expiration date for teaching is my own retirement.  I am planning the retirement for that at a local graveyard.  But I do find it harder to keep my student’s attention, to bring them to a place of careful and sustained thought, to be motivated to think seriously.  I am not really as excited about explaining this phenomenon as I am seeking ways to keep it from turning me into Mr. Crabby.

I want to emphasize that I am not talking about the difference between a Freshman and a Senior.  That is maturity.  I can’t expect a freshy to be like a Senior.  But I am looking at each year’s crop of Seniors and sadly having to say that there is a strong decline overall in a love for learning.  We seem to have succeeded in convincing the students that learning is a form of power acquisition, not a humane love.  And that pushes me (as one who loves learning for learning’s sake) toward a form of cynicism.

I:

So then is it the students?  Aren’t kids just always kids?  Has anything really changed with them?

Wine E:

Well, it’s easy to blame them.  But I don’t think something that originated within the student himself would be so pervasive.  I do think kids are basically kids.  But there is a cultural component to all this.  I think it is more of a indication of how they have been raised than how they “are.”  I suppose that is why I keep going, because if it’s a product of education, then perhaps it can be taught back out of them.  But the pervasive nature of the issue is what is so wearying, so inexorable.

I read a while back an account of Ernest Shakelton’s adventure at the bottom of the world where he and his 28 comrades are trying escape from the frozen sea.  Their boats were subject to these huge multi-ton blocks of ice that had the ability to crush them with one push.  I thought when I read it that this was similar to my own attempts to overcome the affect of our culture upon my students.  It is a crushing pressure.

At issue is the value I perceive our culture shifting from what I will call traditional education to some new form that is much different.  In the traditional form, it was all about wisdom and virtue.  In this new world of education, it is about feelings and perception.  It is also about gaining power in order to find pleasure.  When you are “selling” something that seems against the norm, you just have to wonder how much longer you keep raising your voice in the market place.

I:

So if you are selling something the majority don’t want, that would seem to move you toward cynicism.  Is there anything you can do?

Wine E:

So that is the heart of the problem, right?  Selling ice to Eskimos type of thing.  It’s almost like selling ice to those who don’t believe ice exists.  But in this case, it is truth, goodness, beauty that are called into question, or at least any notion of those things being objective enough for one person to dare to speak to another about them.  I think the cure as it were is loving.  I have to love the truth or I won’t want to “sell” it.  And I have to continue to love my students (as they are, where they are, warts and weirdness and all), or I will no longer care to “sell” to them.

And a lot of loving my students comes down to being real about who they and I are.  The more differences I see between them and myself, whether that is a comparison of their love of truth to mine, or comparative virtue or whatever usually indicates the level of vanity and pride that has crept into my thinking.  I may feel like I love truth more than they do, or that it all lies with them, or some other excuse, but in the end, the reason to avoid cynicism is because I am a sinner saved by grace and that excludes any notion of superiority with them.

And so from my perspective, avoiding the rocks of cynicism starts with good friendships.  Finding even one other lover of truth, and holding onto their shirttail like a life rope is often our only hope.  Christ is certainly always there, as well.  I resist being Mr. Crabby because he has forgotten some of these simple truths, and I purport to love the truth, all truth.  So I have to love not only the truth, but the truth that my students are still worthy of my love if they already have been granted the love of Christ.

I:

Well, may God give you a heart of love for your students, for Truth, and ultimately simply for Him.  May the Spirit keep you from the Slough of Despond.  God bless your efforts.

Wine E:

If He doesn’t we are all hopeless.  Thanks for the talk.  It’s helped.

What Do You Want?

How central to a teacher’s thinking is the ideal graduate they are seeking to cultivate?  Over and over the teacher should return to a contemplation of what a formal school is hoping to grow.  We need to see the end in order to choose the best means.  The following questions are something of the type that I am thinking will keep us true to our calling.

contemplation

  1. What sort of student will seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, knowing that all else will be added to him as he pursues such?
  2. How does the Gospel inform my teaching? What specific aspects of teaching are directly related to Christ’s work in His Church?  By Whose authority do I teach?
  3. While it is necessary and good to fill my student with knowledge, how do I encourage that knowledge to lead him to understanding and carry him on into wisdom (Proverbs 2:6)?
  4. What kind of lesson will integrate in my student the knowledge, abilities, and heart of a true learner?
  5. In a world increasingly deceived by the notion that “knowledge is power” how do I cultivate virtue in my students, especially the virtue of humility?
  6. Of what influence is the atmosphere, the ethos, of my classroom upon my students? Is it too busy?  Is it too noisy?  Is the pace conducive to deep thought?  How to I consciously order this ethos so that it unconsciously molds the right heart in both myself and my students?
  7. How hierarchical is my teaching? Do I demonstrate a right ordering of my own loves in my teaching that my student might learn to order his?  Are the best things given prime time and lesser things lesser emphasis?
  8. How often are my lessons developed around a question or questions that breed contemplation rather than completion? How often are the questions ones I still want to think more about?
  9. How much of my “lesson planning” is simply my own further learning? Am I a student in my own classroom?  Does the content I am teaching still captivate me?
  10. How much coaching in the skills of good thinking, reasoning, reading, writing, listening, and speaking do I display in an average hour with my students?
  11. Are my lessons a display mostly of my own learning, or an arena for my students to add to their learning? How do I know this?  What are the criteria for my judgments?
  12. How does my student relate to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty? Are they real to him; do they actually exist in his world? Can they be known?  Can they be communicated to others?
  13. How permanent are the things taught in my classroom? If I assessed what I have taught to a student years later, how much would remain?
  14. How do I assess knowledge well? Can understanding or wisdom be assessed?  If so, how?  Are these the assessments I use in my own teaching?

I am sure there are many more, but just thinking about these questions as I have written them down have again brought me to that paradox of teaching: fearful expectation.  I fear all my weakness and inadequacies, but I hope and expect God’s grace to bring about great lessons for both my students and myself.  Think on these things.