How Do You Activate a Student’s Mind?

There is a number you call to activate a credit card.  There is usually some highly confusing route in order to activate an online account, full of questions about my favorite flavor of milk or who my mother’s great-aunt’s husband punched in the nose.  But despite frequently checking the bottom of my student’s feet, and looking under their eyelids and behind their ears, I have struggled to figure out how to get middle and high school students activated.  How do you get these kids to think?

Thinking can be difficult to define.  But we must pursue something akin to a definition of it if we are to break free from the misguided, inaccurate, and reductive definitions that have brought to where we are educationally in our day.  If we wish to see a revival of thoughtful citizens in our land, we must educate in that direction.

And I don’t think what passes for thinking in terms of critical thinking, or problem solving, or the like is not what we used to mean by wisdom.  Good thinking produces good living.  The modern, who refuses to admit of such verities as “goodness” and prefers to opine about what is efficient, or pragmatic, or the like, cannot move toward what he does not think exists.  Many today want simply to produce a great worker, one who can solve problems for his employer or provide great responses to the chairperson’s board room exercises in creatively seeking to sell more widgets.

But good thinking comes from a pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty.  It is disheartening to hear many of my high school students wonder aloud at this assertion.  “Seek truth, goodness, and beauty?  Why?  I can buy such things on iTunes, or find an app for it, or simply create my own truth, goodness and beauty whenever I wish.”  And that, of course, is very poor thinking.

So how does one’s teaching move beyond simple information and indoctrination to truly bringing a student’s mind into active thought?  Well, as an example, look again at the question just posed.  Then consider the question, and notice that your mind becomes engaged.  Questions engage the mind like nothing else I have met.

A group of students recently inadvertently compared two classes at my school, one being my own.  Prior to my class they were in a course (which I am keeping anonymous in case the teacher reads my blog!) that at least that day had been long.  It was the same fifty minutes as mine, but the students felt the two classes were of noticeably differing length.

The first long one had been characterized by the teacher talking a great deal about the subject matter.  They had a text they were considering, but the teacher was in a mode of telling what the text was about.  In their minds, the class did little more than give them material they would be tested on soon.

In my class (and please, this is not exalting my pedagogy I hope, because I can serve up a boring class with the best of them) on that particular day we had been considering a piece of literature that was very difficult for them.  It was a translation into English, it was from a time long ago, and it had lots of phrases and constructs they were totally lost in because it had begun its life as an oral poem.  Because I have taught this many times before, I could easily have simply filled in all the blanks and moved on.

But I was in the questioning mode, and I believe it is why the class seemed much shorter than the previous one.  They came out of the classroom, were transported to a land and time foreign but exciting to them, and watched as a mighty warrior rode a monster’s back till in terror the monster tore off his arm seeking to escape Beowulf, the warrior.  Why did this happen?  Is terror that powerful?  Have you heard about the wolf caught in trap who chewed off three legs and was still caught in the trap (Sorry, poor humor is a main stay of my classroom)?  Very little of the class was more than my asking questions upon questions and the student’s arguing with each other over the answers.

And this is not a discipline specific pedagogy.  Questions can activate any student in any subject.  One Spanish teacher took the notion of immersion a step further and instead of banal “conversation” in Spanish (Where is the bathroom?  Is there chicken on the menu?  etc.) she started asking them questions and making them respond to her questions.  The amount of thought required shot up.  Same in Physics, for sure.  As David Hicks, and many others have suggested, “Don’t ever teach a student what they can teach themselves.”  Questions activate the student’s mind like nothing else I know.  It can be messy, it can be hard to plan, but nothing makes for shorter classes.  And “Teach” often learns something too.

Algebra in Real Life

Facebook may be a nuisance, often trite, a waste of my time, and several other negative things, but it can make me thoughtful.  Especially these meme things.  You know what I am talking about?  The graphic with the text superimposed over it, usually witty or wittywannabe in nature.  It is the social media form of the bumper sticker.  And these things can go “viral” with ease, because they are so easy to agree or disagree with.

So one has come across my path at least twice now.  It’s text says some variation of “Another day I have lived without using Algebra.”  And gets liked and shared and commented upon a lot.  Allow me a few lines to first seek to understand what is behind it, and then comment on why I disagree with what I think it is trying to say.  All of this will eventually wind up at Wendell Berry’s Road and Wheel analogy again, this time to look at the two ways of “gaining” from learning: Possession v. Usufruct.

algebra dis

So first there is the meme.  It seems rooted in a frustration born out of a common misconception that is itself the product of taking a good thing too far.  I will see if I can reconstruct this argument chain:

  1. Man, even prior to the Fall, is a being made to “do.”  He was placed in a garden and was to tend that garden.
  2. The garden became work at the Curse immediately following the Fall.  Now there was sweat, but there was still “gain” from work – we now eat when we earn the necessary means to do so through the “sweat of our brow.”
  3. As we went through the Medieval period, work became a measure of manliness.  If real men honor God by their labor, then our labor is a measure of our faithfulness, our manliness, our godliness if you will.
  4. As God was erased from the picture, work remained.  Remember, it’s part of the Fall, it is now worked into the nature of our existence here.  We cannot escape it.
  5. So, instead, we ran with it.  If work could produce gain, and gain provided the means to not just survive, but even “move ahead” and find happiness through less laborious work, say using our saved money, our capital, to employ others to do for us, while we did things more enjoyable, then work was even more the measure of our abilities, our cunning, our clever use of the talents we had.
  6. But to be a good worker, one must know not only how to work, but how to do so well.  In fact, if by education you could gain an advantage in the work place, you would be a greater success than others.
  7. So now education was brought into a measure of work.  To the extent that our study made us more able to “get ahead” it was good.  Study for other reasons got in the way of the trump card: profit.  This is the lie that affects all that comes after.  Study in school must reveal itself as obviously and clearly profitable, or it is worthy of scorn and ultimately of being ignored.  Such studies are seen as superstitious relics of past curriculum that did not have as efficient and practical thinking at their core.
  8. So now we can get to Algebra (and you can insert any subject here, but Algebra I think is used because math in particular has fallen prey to the lie in spades).   If I don’t use something I learned in school, almost daily, then I wasted my time on it.  And that I believe is the soul of the meme we started with.

Wendell Berry in his extended discussion of the Road and the Wheel, which I have blogging on lo these past many blogs, compares the two views of life in this regard (among many): Possession vs. Usufruct.  Yes, I had to look usufruct up: literally, “the legal right to use and enjoy the advantages or profits of another person’s property” but often used to mean the understanding that what I “have” has been inherited, and will be passed on. That is why Berry also uses the term ” relinquishment” for it as well.  The life lived on the “road” seeks to gain and then hold on to or possess (picture a tightly gripped money bag) while life lived in the wheel acknowledges his debt to the generation preceding and seeks to pass on even more than he received from them to the ones coming after.

So with Algebra, the road walker would seek to find in Algebra that which will add to his own gain, that which will make the “walk” easier and more profitable to him.  The subject of Algebra is not his concern, but rather the gain or benefit to be derived from its study.  The wheel rider however will come to the same study with a much different desire.  There is something in this knowledge which helps me live in this world, as it did for my predecessors and will also do for my progeny.  So how can I honor nature and my family by learning these things in a way that makes me more wise?

The person who does not use Algebra every day never learned to see it rightly.  We live in a world of things, and therefore we need to relate those things to one another rightly.  This is the heart of any study of number.  Algebra, perhaps one of the greatest gifts the Muslim culture has brought to us, can in part help us think more clearly and more orderly about the world in which we live.  So either you used Algebra today and did not realize it; or you did not think today.