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…

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

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

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

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

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.



Pushing with Paideia

What external forces can push someone toward an education?  In my last post I simply stated that motivation to learn comes from both external and internal forces.  I think it is easy to defend the thesis that internal motivations far exceed any external ones, but I cannot lightly dismiss the role played by these forces outside the student.  I have indicated in my mind map at least four such forces:  Parents (I might expand this family, as siblings and other relatives can certainly be involved), Government, “School” or what might be called the Academy, and general Culture.

Family paideia

Family is the single greatest external force for education on any student.  This can of course work in both directions.  A family that reads, has conversation, loves the True, Good, and Beautiful, and generally expects a member of itself to be growing in their knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, is pushing its members further into education.  This is almost a universal altruism, although there are certainly exceptions.  But a family which is not the above is not neutral to a student’s education, but often makes the gaining of such very difficult.  I have encountered parents who saw that their family was not what it ought to be seek to make up for that lack by buying into a good education at a great school and finding that their child was ill suited for that environment because they had learned otherwise in their own home.

A government can only use the coercion of law to motivate students.  In America, we decry the rate of high school dropouts, but we have made it law that students only have to attend until they are sixteen years of age.  We recognize the limits of these truancy laws and don’t even make them adequate to our desires (as in requiring a student to attend until completing a high school degree, for instance).  Perceiving that to motivate by law requires adequate law enforcement, our government has chosen to lessen the requirements rather than wage the truancy war it would undoubtedly have to wage if it chose to push the laws to eighteen or completion.  This form of “motivation” frankly just is not one that works well.

When the government is in charge of schooling, as in America, it makes it harder for the Academy to provide its own motivation.  In a land of non-compulsory education, where only those who want to be in school are in school, then the Academy can exert a lot more motivation.  Those who want the benefits of a good education will have to rise up to a school’s expectations.  But when schooling is compulsory, the standards have to be adjusted to what can reasonably be expected from all school aged children, not just those who are enrolled voluntarily.  I think this external pressure is potentially valuable, but thwarted by government intervention in our land.  Making a horse stand at the well is not the same as convincing the horse to come to the well because it is where the water is.  I think you take the compulsory nature of school out of the picture and American education shoots through the roof.

Finally, there is the general culture of a land.  The Greeks understood this pressure to be the culmination of all things in a culture collectively referred to by the almost indefinable and certainly untranslatable paideia.  In short (as I cannot possibly develop well here what it took a man like Werner Jaeger several thousand pages to define), this concept contends that the sum total of our activity as a community moves its members toward some ultimate end.  A strong culture will motivate its members toward gaining as much knowledge, understanding, and wisdom as each can because the culture knows such pursuits are good for all.  American culture presses its young members to pursue education, but the end of such seems more utilitarian than liberal.  It asks its young people, “What is your major?” and then asks “How are you going to make money off that?”  Not a bad end, mind you, just a much lower end than could be sought after.

External motivations can be very powerful and must be considered when discussing student motivation, but they are also much more difficult to change, affect, and influence.  So I turn the rest of my consideration to internal motivations.