Thursday, May 27, 2010

Learning and Teaching, chapter XIV: Types of Teaching

In the chapter on 'Types of Teaching' the authors explore classroom methods from lecturing to drilling. They make a contrast between methods that resemble the "old system of Chinese education", which stressed memorization for an exam, with methods that emphasize depth of understanding. Although this book was published in 1918, the issue of cramming for exams hasn't gone away, here or in China. In 'Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization', author Yong Zhao demonstrates that the educational system in China still stresses the preparation for high-stakes entrance exams to the detriment of deep and/or creative thinking.

Sheridan and White first address the limitations of 'giving information':

It is often said that "telling is not teaching at all". The method certainly has many disadvantages...In the first place, people forget most of the things that they are told. Still another difficulty is that at the end of a course of lectures the students are often little better able to find out things for themselves than they were at the beginning.  

Gregory says something similar in the chapter on the teaching process ('The Seven Laws of Teaching'):

The chief and almost constant violation of this law of teaching is the attempt to force lessons by simply telling. "I have told you ten times, and yet you don't know!" exclaims a teacher of this sort, who is unable to remember that knowing comes by thinking, not by being told.

Althought these authors recognize there are some benefits to "telling", they assert, I think rightly, that this method should be used only rarely in classrooms of younger students.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Learning and Teaching, chapter XIII, conclusion

Sheridan and White conclude the chapter on 'Getting and Holding Attention' with the following:

Attention follows interest. Holding the attention is not a problem for the teacher of an interested class. but for emphasis it must be repeated: The interest, to be worth anything, must be interest in the lesson itself because the pupil feels that it has some relation to his own life.

Gregory addresses this idea in the chapter 'The Law of the Lesson' (Seven Laws of Teaching):

There are some who go so far as to say that no attempt should be made to impart knowledge unless the child feels a distinct need for it--unless he sees that it is essential to solve some problem that is real and vital to his life. This is doubtless an extreme view, but it is none the less incumbent upon the teacher to know what the problems of child life are and to utilize them in making his instruction just as rich and meaningful as possible.

Excellent teaching draws upon the interests and problems of students, not to determine what is learned or how, but to reveal possible connections that will attract the interest. Where this is done getting attention and keeping it take care of themselves.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Learning and Teaching, chapter XIII, continued

In the section, 'Interest in the Lesson', the authors briefly quote John Dewey. While Dewey may be, at least partially, responsible for many of the ills of American education today, not everything he wrote on the subject of education was equally false. Although certainly no friend of classical education, he, perhaps inadvertently, got at least one thing right.

Dewey wrote that, "I know of no more demoralizing doctrine, when take literally, than the assertion...that after subject matter has been selected then the teacher should make it interesting." And: "When things have to be made interesting, it is because interest itself is wanting." The authors quote him to support their argument that "external" and "superficial" means of exciting interest should not be overly depended upon, that these appeal to the child's "love of pleasure" rather than developing genuine interest.

Sheridan and White write "These methods have their place, but their place is not that of making the lesson interesting and holding attention. There are many and various methods that may be used to make the lesson more real, to illustrate, to help fix the lesson in definite form. But these methods should involve the use of nothing that does not bear directly and vitally on the lesson. They should direct attention to the lesson rather than to the device used."

Much of what is said about the use of technology in education certainly has the feel of what they call "artificial devices". Technology is often defended or even insisted upon because it is needed to get the attention of 21st-century students. If we don't use computers, or cell phones, or the latest software we will lose students, we are warned. This replaces an idea or a subject with a method or a mere tool, which in turn sets the parameters of what is to learned and how all future learning is viewed. The medium is the message, after all.

While Dewey may have meant that we should only choose subject matter that already interests children--an assertion that classical education utterly rejects--the point that is made in this section is a good one. Attention is best gained and held when the subject itself is interesting, and is presented in an interesting manner. "Attention follows interest" says Gregory, and "it is folly to attempt to gain attention without first stimulating interest." What teachers need to give thought to is not what things students are interested in learning today, but how the enduring truths or concepts that they need to learn can be presented in such a way that they can see the connection to them, can become interested in them.

Classical education seeks to teach that which is true, good, beautiful and of lasting value. These things are naturally and inherently interesting to human beings, whatever their age, and so creating interest in them should not be such a difficult task as it seems to be. Unfortunately, there are many more temporarily enticing distractions clamouring for the attention of our students. We do need to give careful and diligent thought as to what is taught and how it is taught, so that we present the excellent things we have to teach in an excellent way. The result will be that we will capture the on-going and fruitful attention and the interest of our students.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Learning and Teaching, chapter XIII, continued

In the chapter, 'Getting and Holding Attention', Sheridan and White emphasize approaches that are familiar to readers of Gregory, and to classical teachers in general. The primary responsibility for getting and keeping the attention of students rests with the teacher. Of course, the student has the duty to attend, but the teacher must make the lesson so interesting that the students simply will not be able to help themselves--they will attend because the lesson in interesting, not because they are being compelled, by the teacher or by duty,to do so.

In the section 'Good Teaching' they make the following observations:

"...the question of getting and holding the attention is chiefly a question of good teaching. Good teaching means, among other things: A lesson adapted to the capacities, interests, and needs of the pupils...genuine interest and earnestness on the part of the teacher; alertness and ability to use unexpected opportunities.."

"Demanding attention is a poor way of securing it...The ideal is to teach in such a way that the interest of the pupil is aroused, and thus his attention is gripped and held."


Sunday, May 9, 2010

Alumni Survey

[This post was originally sent as an email recently to Veritas School's parents.]

We recently conducted an on-line survey of our 60+ graduates, of which twenty-six responded. The survey was taken from the elements of our 'Portrait of a Graduate', the points of which were converted into twenty-one personal statements, such as 'my education at Veritas School taught me to reason precisely and to articulate persuasively.' Responders were asked to rank their level of agreement (Completely Agree, Somewhat Agree, Not Sure, Somewhat Disagree, Completely Disagree). We wanted to see what our graduates think of our efforts at fulfilling our mission and of realizing our goal of the Portrait of a Graduate.

The response was overwhelmingly positive, with the 'Agrees' heavily outweighing the 'Not Sures' and 'Disagrees'. On 15 of 21 items 'Completely Agree' was the most frequent response. On two items, there was equal response between 'Completely' and 'Somewhat'. On the others, 'Somewhat Agree' was most frequent.

While the survey was taken for our internal use, I thought it would be appropriate to share with you some of the results. I have selected only a few representative items from the survey for this email, but they give you an excellent idea of what our graduates think of their experience as a Veritas student.

My education at Veritas School encouraged/prepared me to:

  • reason precisely and to articulate persuasively: 96% Agreed
  • evaluate my range of experience in the light of Scripture, and to do so with eagerness and joyful submission to God: 89% Agreed
  • speak and write persuasively and wisely in any situation: 89% Agreed
  • persevere in difficult settings: 85% Agreed
  • initiate respectful dialog with those in authority: 92% Agreed
  • use logical reasoning to draw valid conclusions, recognize invalid reasoning, and make wise decisions: 93% Agreed
  • love the elements of a classical education, and gave me a desire to grow in understanding, while fully realizing the limitations and foolishness of the wisdom of the world: 85% Agreed
  • show in my speech and writing a mastery of the core knowledge of the liberal arts: 93% Agreed
  • know and love the Lord Jesus Christ: 89% Agreed
  • practice my Christian faith in thought, word and deed: 85% Agreed

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Learning and Teaching, chapter XIII

In Chapter XIII of 'Learning and Teaching', the authors address the issue of getting and holding the attention of students. Many of their points echo what John Milton Gregory says about the subject in 'The Seven Laws of Teaching'.

These are excellent reminders for us, especially as we near the end of the school year.

"[The teacher] must have the undivided attention of his class if he is to teach well. If the pupil's attention is somewhere else, the pupil himself might just as well be somewhere else...for either the pupil is getting nothing at all or he is getting the wrong impression and distorted notions and is being established in the habit of inattention."

"The best way--in fact the only way--to get attention is to arrouse interest."

"Voluntary interest...should be expected only as a result of interest in some ultimate purpose to which the lesson contributes. Interest is the motive; attention is the resultant state of mind. If we can get our pupils genuinely interested, we amy be sure that the attentive attitude, whole-souled effort and activity, mental and physical, genuine absorption in what is being said or done will be the result."

Learning and Teaching, chapter II

During the last break I found a book in our favorite book store in La Grande (Earth'n'Book) titled 'Learning and Teaching' (Sheridan and White, authors). It was published in 1918 by the Methodist church. It was written mainly for Sunday School teachers but it also was intended for day school teachers. While some of the theology is suspect (there is much about 'Christian living' and 'Christian service' but next to nothing about sin, justification or the work of the Holy Spirit) much of the discussion about teaching is excellent.

Chapter II: How We Learn

"...the first step in the learning process is realization of the inadequacy of present ways of acting and desire for better ways...Whenever an individual sets out to learn a better way of doing something he is driven to his effort by dissatisfaction with present ways of living, a sense of their inadequacy or incompleteness. This dissatisfaction may be manifested as an eager curiosity to know more--that is, dissatisfaction with present knowledge...In whatever realm, dissatisfaction with present knowledge is an important preliminary to the improvement of knowledge."

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Education Is Not Neutral—Why Christian Children Need Classical, Christian Schooling

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart... renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
-Ephesians 4:17-18, 23-24 (ESV)

[This article first appeared in Verbatim, the newsletter of Veritas School, Newberg, Oregon.]

The life of the mind and the life of soul are inseparable. How one thinks determines how one lives. In these passages in Ephesians Paul points out this inseparable connection. He commands—this must be the sense of ‘testifying in the Lord’—believers to put away the failed thinking of the unbelieving culture around them and to be careful to live and think in a manner that pleases God.

But this way of life he tells them to avoid does not come by accident, rather it flows from the darkened understanding that is itself an inevitable by-product of hard hearts, of souls that reject Christ. So living and thinking are intertwined, and cannot be divided. How you live reflects how you think and how you think changes how you live.

This is where classical, Christian education comes in: in order for our children to live in a way that pleases God—in true righteousness and holiness—they must also learn to think in a way that pleases God. If we don’t want their lives to be futile we must instruct them to think in ways that are not futile. This is something that classical and Christian education is uniquely designed to do. Our education is Christ-centered, that is, it acknowledges that Christ is Lord over all creation—all history, literature, science, math, everything that exists, is meant to serve and glorify him. Students educated from a classical perspective become adept at doing many things well, and are thus prepared for anything. Our classical curriculum and methods are meant to form the mind to think clearly, to train students to speak and write eloquently and persuasively, and to conform the soul to the truth of God.

The mission of Veritas is to cultivate wisdom, virtue, and godliness through providing an excellent classical, Christian education. Our unique academic program, which includes a thorough integration of history and literature, robust theological study, critical reading of the great books of Western civilization, is assisting families to develop, by the grace of God, thoughtful and faithful young people who seek to honor and love Christ with all their hearts and minds. We have seen remarkable academic results, but more important to us is the kind of people our students are becoming.

The 6+ hours a day, 170+ days a year, students spend in school have an impact on their minds and hearts. This should have a forming influence or it will have been a waste of time. Actually, it will form, whether we like what is being formed or not. Education enculturates, that is, it is a process whereby ‘an individual learns the accepted norms and value emphases of an established culture through repetition’. The question is, what are those norms and values that are being learned? Are they the values and patterns of life that we want for our children? This training process can never be neutral. What is the culture you would like to be formed in your child? The school he or she attends will inevitably shape this.

School choices abound for parents—secular schools (public and private), home schooling, Christian schools, and classical and Christian schools. The chief question for parents should always be, in which of these places will my child be most guided in the ways of Christ? Where will he or she most likely be led to walk in ‘true righteousness and holiness’?

Martin Luther many centuries ago gave the answer: “where the Holy Scriptures are not the rule, I should advise no one to send his child.”