Late every school year things start to whirl out of control.  It is at such moments that many educators start to contemplate the issue of motivation.  I don’t know if any of the following is helpful, but it does help me to line it out…

The Problem:

In order for a student to learn, they must be attentive to the idea being acquired.  Many in our day find attending for an extended time difficult, and many just don’t see the point of learning.  So the problem is seeking to find a way to bring students to prolonged attention upon the lesson before the class.

Considerations and Factors:

  • Few children today are taught to attend either by their parents or their teachers.  This is a fundamental issue at the heart of the problem.
  • Many teachers today form lessons that are hard to attend to, in part due to a changing definition of education and in part because they themselves, working off the model of their own teachers, have a poor education themselves (I include myself in this group, so please don’t be offended, it might not apply to you).
  • Due to our move from normative education (which calls students to a high ideal) to something more akin to vocational training (which calls students to a good paycheck) it is harder to become passionate about education thereby be motivated to excel, because the ideals are gone.
  • At the center of motivation, at least as I understand it, is the heart.  It must be nourished on truth, goodness, and beauty so that it can properly order its affections and steer both the mind’s thoughts and the belly’s appetites toward a high calling (most notably “the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.,” see Phil. 3:14).

Possible Solutions:

To solve this problem of motivation, I see several suggested solutions in our current educational culture:

  1. Move the Standards of Excellence to the middle of the road so students find success redefined in much easier terms.
  2. Continue to press the “money” button as this is the only true motivation of the modern man – study or you won’t “get anywhere” in life.
  3. Carrot and Stick – modify the student’s behaviors by rewarding the grade hound and punishing the losers (ie. the low grade student).
  4. Let’s make learning fun – related to “1” above, this solution calls for us to use games, technology, parties, whatever is at hand and considered “motivating” at the moment to bring short term performance oriented results.
  5. Considering the problem above, one might simply work through the considerations and factors and seek to change some or all of those:
    • Teach the habits of mind that aid in attending – teach the memory, teach the tastes, teach the love of hard work, etc.
    • Focus on developing teachers who develop truly “interesting” or real lesson plans – have them teach from an overflowing and well educated heart, rather than the latest “book” (this will take generations to pull off).
    • Reorient education to norms again (this is why I tout Hick’s Norms and Nobility so much).  This is closely related to Adler’s call for the high school seminar – reorienting the classroom toward ideas away from “bare facts” or “skills” will do much to recover the student’s interest in the lessons taught.
    • But in the end, perhaps the most helpful thought I can share is the recognition that there is no silver bullet – no one “idea” will reform education.  The loss of true education in America was generations ago, and it was a loss of our collective soul, so you can’t simply write, read, preach, workshop, or pull things back into shape.  We must first recover our soul.  And that is a large task that requires supra human help.



Getting Real Local


I got to thinking about the reforming of education when I realized as a full time teacher that real education in America was broken.  This realization was slow in coming.  I saw many signs before I read their meaning.  And this was 20 years ago.  A quick overview of what I saw back then included:

  1. A lack of trust between parents, students, and school.  I could build this one out for several book’s worth of words, but the short version is sufficient – none of the three groups trusted the other.
  2. Efficiency replaced quality – finding a way to do the same instruction quicker and easier could get you a stage at a teacher’s conference in no time, but talking about how to go deeper, become better, take our time and really make this thing called education become humane got you a ticket out the door.
  3. Questions will kill you – I got drummed out of my teaching post for the stated reason that I sent students home to dinner asking questions they “just don’t need to be thinking about” (things like, “Why was Jesus poor His whole life?” or “Did God choose me or did I choose Him?” or “How does our family obey the Great Commission?”).  Asking questions, and getting students to ask questions, seems to be against the grain.  I just never knew.
  4. College is King – this one is really bad now, but it was bad back then too.  If my kid gets anything other than A’s in Middle School, he won’t qualify for Honors and AP in High School and then we are screwed in college.  So when my Bible class started giving folks anything other than an “A” and especially when some managed to fail, things just could not continue as they were.

That brings me to my title: educational reform must be done at the local level.

Any reform that is at a national, or organizational, or abstract level will fail.  That is just the way it works.  Organizations sustain themselves and unify their constituents by agreeing on things, and there is no way they can agree on enough to actually affect real change in specific ways: their agreements are just too general.  So a bill is passed, or an idea is put on bumper stickers, or some such grandiose thing is done, and people feel good because something “got done” and yet in the end nothing changes, or by diverting local action to the national level, things actually get worse in the meantime.  We must change our own appetites, and then our children’s appetites will change, and in a few generations, with enough change in appetites (away from the points made above), we may have better education in our nation.  And none of that happens without internal spiritual change, and none of it happens unless it is local, and I mean so local that it has the same address as your water bill has on it when it comes to your mail box.

Arts and Sciences

I mentioned in my post on Assessment that one of the major issues we face in reforming education is unraveling the severe confusion over the arts and sciences.  I have said this before but it bears repeating.  Until we first form the Liberal Arts in our students and then lead them into the four sciences, all four of them, education will be misdirected and confused in our land.

In short, the Arts are seven:  three for dealing with words (Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric) and four for dealing with number or matter (arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy [harmony]).  These encompass acts that one must perform with words and numbers.  They cannot be confused with the Sciences, which are the ideas and facts pertaining to the spheres of life.  The four sciences include, in ascending order, The Natural Sciences (that which is accessible to our senses), The Ethical Sciences, The Philosophic Sciences, and Theology.  There are all kinds of observations to be made about these lists, but the recovery of their reality, importance, hierarchical structure, and order is needed before education can really be understood.

And as we live in culture that is or already has actively sought to overthrow Theology (God is Dead), Philosophy (Truth is relative), and Ethics (Morals are man-made) is left with only one science, and has made that the entirety of authoritative truth (Natural Science).

One more thing I think adds to this reflection.  I have been reading in Richard Weaver and he is developing the idea that Form can become dangerous when it is worshiped.  His point is that whenever man finds a form that provides some delight or meets some desire, he runs the risk of idolizing that Form and thus devolving the delight into slavery or mindless slavery that in turn becomes a destroyer of the men who worship it.

I think this is the point I am finding in Salman Kahn’s book on his efforts at reforming education.  After examining the history of our modern classroom system (which he correctly attributes to the Prussian system of the later 19th century) he then asks if we have held onto this form past its time.  I am not sure the form ever was “right” or sound, but it rose to become the form of our system, and now may very well be the main barrier to real education occurring our day.  How I would love to gather a group of educators and discuss the form at length.  I think far too much has been set forth as educational reform that seeks to change dresses on the corpse.  We should be looking at the form more and the then once we have the right form, seeking to fill it correctly.

Is this not one of the joys of the small scale of home schooling?  Why do many try to structure their home school in the same patterns (forms) as that of the Prussian model?  Just think Weaver is on to something here.

arts and sciences

The Audacity of Udacity

What about all this excitement for online learning?  Is it the means for recovering the right path to a higher education? Some think so: Bill Bennett on Udacity.  I am not convinced.

 In my previous blog I lamented the turn in modern education toward slavery away from freedom.  As this turn completes and education becomes fully about certification and motivation, the new and rapidly expanding online alternatives will fill both these criteria much better than the expensive “traditional” factory college classrooms.  So I applaud the saving of some money.

But is it a better education?  What are the criteria for better?  You can take classes when you want, dressed in your pj’s or less, and spend less money.  You set the pace, the content, and get to interact only with a screen.  To many in our day that is much better.  You don’t have to leave home, so the rent is lower, the food is better (in many cases), and you sleep in your old bed, not a noisome dorm.

And the courses tend to be better fitted to the modern student: visually oriented, fast paced, generally assessed in a manner that gives you multiple shots at passing, and with no books, just online stuff.  The ability to gather information from the leading sources and specialists is superior to any on campus experience.  And did I mention it was cheaper?

So it is the idea that will revitalize education, right?  Not so fast. Education as defined by whom?  In my previous post, there is clearly two definitions.  One wants to see a person get into the job of his dreams, the other wants to see a person become more human.  The first goal is much lower than the second.  If the first is sufficient, then perhaps online certification may be a viable means. It should be noted that the most popular distance learning options are seeking ways to ensure that the online experience did in fact “take” by demanding some sort of final “face to face” assessment by another human before conferring their degree.

The issue of human interaction is at the heart of my concerns.  I have some experience with distance learning and distance teaching.  This experience and reading about other people’s experiences has led me to these questions regarding this latest attempt at educational paradise:

  1. A computer cannot, philosophically and practically speaking, replace a human.  It can be programmed to be intuitive but is limited to the imagination of the programmer, typically even falling short of that limited sphere.  So how can a computer judge a human’s abilities and give a true assessment of skill or wisdom?
  2. It is exponentially harder to transfer skill through recorded material than in a “live” setting.  So how will even the best video or magic whiteboard settings communicate anything other than one recorded way of learning?  I can see multiple versions of a lesson, but that assumes that a student having watched format A will know he does not understand and move to format B and C until he does understand.  The most basic problem any teacher of young people confronts is the over inflated notions they have of their own mastery of a subject.  Take one course in X subject and they talk like an expert, until they are Socratically questioned by someone who truly is an expert.
  3. The key component of most online learning is the internal motivations and character of the student.  That is true in the classroom as well, but the human teacher can catch the glint in the eye, the mannerisms, etc. that reveal either a truly engaged mind or one who is bluffing.  No online experience that I am aware of can discern the soul of its student.  So even setting aside the freedom/slavery discussion of my previous post, just the utility of the mode is questioned.  A lot of certified online graduates will show up to work and demonstrate that they are not ready when real people ask them to do real things.   That already happens with many traditional graduates, which is why most folks want to see a change in how we do college.  But I am not sure that the computer will do any better.
  4. The very things that have been jettisoned in the classroom and that have thus resulted in poorer education are not necessarily being recovered by the traditional teachers who are now going online with their stuff.  Yes, you can package the information in neater videos and charts, interactive games, and in many cases get by with more salacious content, but in the end mimetic and Socratic modes of teaching are just as absent from the online stuff as from the live courses.  So after the fallacy of “new is better” has worn off, and we have taken time (probably about 20 years) to evaluate the differences between the new new and the old new, there won’t be measureable differences, other than those of utility mentioned earlier: price, convenience, etc. So how is online education substantively different than classroom, other than price, convenience, etc.?

I say all this while currently being employed in helping to create an online environment.  In fact, I am trying to find ways to spur students to think more clearly than they will have to in their traditional college classrooms.  But the format is limited.  It is not a panacea.  It is only as good as those limitations.  In the end, education is a heart transplant.  The teacher’s life is recreated in the student’s.  I am not convinced that the online world can do that anymore truth, goodness, or beauty than the traditional classroom.  It is an alternative, not a whole new world.

Wrong Turn on the Road to Paradise

When did the pursuit of education change from freedom to slavery?  Was it when Industrialism convinced us to leave the farms and run to work in the cities?  Maybe.  Was it when Progressivism convinced us the Utopian society was just around the corner if we could simply assemble the right child in our factory schools?  Perhaps.  Was it after WW2 when the babies that boomed overwhelmed the production capacity of our public schools and because we were given to the idea of educating all, we had to change from teaching wisdom and virtue to that of finding some sort of work for everyone?  Likely.  It is hard to say which bad idea most caused the bad idea, but today’s education is aimed at churning out good workers, not good people.

This change in how education is defined is killing us.  I will map out the all too familiar scene for you, though you can probably say it in your sleep before I can:

In today’s world, we start kids at age 3 or 4 into time away from home to get a good education.  That good education includes making a successful navigation through any number of markers, metrics, and assessments to get us into line to earn a high g.p.a. in high school.  If the student builds the right resume, he can get entrance and probably some financial assistance at the college of his choice.  If he does not happen to make the top 10% of his class (and about 90% seem to believe they are top 10 material), he then has to attend less than the best college but he still has to go to college.

College is where he will gain the certification for a high paying job.  He can then find a job with help from his certifying facility (sorry, college), and start saving up for his children’s college fund.  These days he needs to save a little extra for that online master’s he will need to earn to get on up the ladder.  I will not lift up the veil on what kinds of things will happen along that college path in the way of assault upon the student’s soul.  That is for other times.  But suffice it to say that today’s educational aims are first and foremost practical, financial, and utilitarian.

The focus of a good education today seems to have two objectives in mind:  certification and motivation.

By certification, I mean that most of the “use” of a diploma, degree, or “education” is to show that the one with it is prepared to do some specific and specialized activity, usually for higher pay than if he had only gone through high school.  The general degree has fallen on hard times.  Specialization is where it is taking off.  And this seems to lead directly into the other objective.

Motivation is a big deal these days.  It hides itself with terms such as relevance, “fast track,” or “in demand,” but it really is about exciting the student to find something he “wants.”  Majors change with the wind.  Students are recruited into this or that specialty only to find they were one of only several thousand who listened to that sales pitch four years ago and so now they are all competing for limited jobs in a glutted market.  “I am my only special person.  There has to be a special major just for me.  Maybe Entrepreneurial Video Production with a Chinese Specialization is just that place for me.”

And thus now education is quickly headed down the tubes.  It is not practical, because it has built a “specialist” who is not very marketable outside his own specialty.  It is not proving much of a boon financially because so many college graduates are taking whatever job they can find, often outside their major, and thus at hourly pay (with staggering college debt to boot).  And the utility of such an education would be hard to prove when it does not seem to deliver on its promises even half the time.

So there it is: the turn was made.  Education used to be about becoming a more rounded, more fully human person.  It has always prepared students for the workplace.  It has just changed the means from that of broadening and generalizing the individual to a ever more narrowing of the student.  I recently posted elsewhere on the upcoming SCOTUS decision on Fisher v UT case on reverse affirmative action by comparing that situation to the closing words of MLK Jr’s “I Have a Dream Speech” wherein he sets forth the criteria for judging a person: the content of his character.  I tossed off the question, “What if colleges used the content of character rather than the color of skin in determining entrance to college?” as a rather quick and provocative one off.  But what if they did?  Or what if wisdom and virtue returned to front and center and “job getting” was simply a secondary effect?

And that brings me to my next blog: what about all this excitement for online learning?  Is it the means for recovering the right path to a higher education?