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The Teachers We Need Now

What’s the difference between teaching a student and training a parrot?

This isn’t the setup for a joke but actually a very serious question. To train a parrot you need to repeat a word or phrase that you want the bird to imitate, over and over again until it starts to articulate what sounds close to what you’re saying. With persistent repetition the parrot might eventually sound just like you, to the point of fooling someone listening in another room.

Even then we wouldn’t say that the parrot has learned how to talk or is ready to hold a lengthy conversation on a topic of interest, would we? That’s because merely repeating what you hear isn’t the same as understanding what it means or being able to think critically about something.

Once upon a time a curriculum committee got together and asked, “What do third graders need to know in order to move on to fourth grade?” This content knowledge was identified and then standardized across the public school curriculum, stacking up from one grade to the next. Lesson plans were designed around these learning objectives and assessment measures were defined that would let schools know whether students were ready to progress.

Eventually classroom instruction would get focused on “teaching to the test,” where this grade-level knowledge was repeated over and over until students could choose the right answers most of the time. By devoting a large amount of instructional time to preparing students for tests, teachers could improve passing rates and schools could attract higher enrollments, thereby showing themselves worthy of more funding for the resources they needed.

The acquisition of knowledge is a crucial first step toward understanding and meaning-making – what education is really all about. A full account of what I call “the learning ladder,” however, necessarily goes beyond instructing students in what they need to know in order to complete an assignment, pass a test, or move on to the next grade.

If it’s only a matter of being able to repeat what they hear in a lecture or read in a textbook, then teaching students is not essentially different than training parrots.

Beyond knowledge acquisition, genuine learning must involve students in a process of assimilating new knowledge into what they already know or think they know. Obviously, this kind of intellectual activity requires more from the student than just a talent for memorization and recall. To effectively assimilate new knowledge and then apply it to the work of solving problems and making meaning depends on the higher skills of critical thinking.

In How Schools Make the Problem Worse I pointed out that critical thinking, which should be the gold standard of education, is a skill-set that relies on executive brain functions located in the prefrontal cortex. To support the work of critical thinking, a student needs a good working memory, strong mental focus, and an ability to inhibit impulses that might otherwise distract attention away from the object of study. These brain functions which underlie the higher cognitive skills of learning are themselves a symptom of brain and body health – how rested, well-nourished, aerobically active, and internally centered a student is.

Schools that ignore this crucial factor of health in their students, or actually undermine it by generating unnecessary “test stress” and stocking vending machines with “fake foods” that impair healthy brain function, truly are making the problem worse.

The “problem” is that students are deficient in the critical thinking skills required in higher learning. In reality, the education system is making the problem worse in two ways: (1) by ignoring or compromising the health of student brains and bodies, and (2), reaching back to my earlier point, by devoting itself to teaching students only what they need to know in order to pass tests and get through to the next grade, not how to think critically for themselves.

It’s true that critical thinking demands more of students and their brains than does memorizing and repeating what they hear in class or read in textbooks. But there’s a nasty trap here: Memorizing and repeating information is inherently uninteresting – we can even say it’s boring if it has no relevance to a student’s personal experience and quality world. See my post The Relevancy Gap in Education for more on this.

Because schools have to rely on assessments to prove themselves worthy of support to state legislatures and external funders, it seems their only recourse is to push harder on students to “succeed” – which only makes the problem worse.

What schools have done by way of adapting to this cut-score culture of education today is increasingly to accommodate students’ lack of interest and effort by lowering the challenge gradient, essentially making it easier for them to pass and less likely to fail. If that’s unfortunate for the students, what’s doubly unfortunate for the schools themselves is how this over-accommodation has made it necessary to impose more and more interventions designed to stop the downward slide. Consequently the cost of getting students through the system has steadily increased over the past couple decades.

In an education system that is more about training parrots than teaching students, instructors who teach to the test most successfully – i.e., have higher passing rates than their colleagues – are those who get recognized and rewarded. This isn’t surprising, since every club or culture tends to elevate those members who exemplify its core values. If test scores are the metric of success in today’s culture of education, then teachers who produce better results are naturally regarded as more gifted, more dedicated, and presumed better at teaching.

But if teaching students is more about activating and shaping their critical thinking skills than getting them to repeat back on a test what they need to know before moving on, then the best teachers are those who demonstrate for students how to engage their topic as critical thinkers.

In How Schools Make the Problem Worse I analyzed critical thinking into eight logical operations whereby concepts are formed, factored, and reconstructed by the mind in the process of learning. In modeling the skills of critical thinking for students, good teachers demonstrate

  1. Analysis: by breaking a topic down to its elements or basic components
  2. Synthesis: by putting elements into patterns of higher relationship
  3. Induction: by moving from specific cases to more general principles
  4. Deduction: by deriving conclusions from broader generalizations or premises
  5. Abstraction: by constructing an overarching idea from diverse items or individuals
  6. Concretion: by condensing an abstract idea into its concrete examples
  7. Inference: by drawing reasonable conjectures from what is already known or given
  8. Prediction: by tracing a line of causality to the most probable or near-certain outcome

It’s essential for us to distinguish between what might be called the “catalog of knowledge” or what is currently known about a subject, and the critical thinking skills of which the catalog itself is a product. Students in a Biology class, for instance, might be taught the catalog of present-day biological science, and then tested for their ability to recall and repeat this information on tests.

Or they could be taught how to think critically about their subject (i.e., how to “think like a biologist”) using the eight logical operations of critical thinking. Teachers who can model critical thinking for their students and actually bring them into the activity of constructing meaning around a subject and deepening their understanding of it – opening their minds, igniting curiosity, and making it personal – are the teachers we need now, more than ever.

 
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Posted by on September 3, 2019 in Education, Timely and Random

 

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Looking At and Looking Through

When you stand before a Monet painting of water lilies, you might choose to analyze it according to its physical dimensions, the composition and pigment of the paint, the particular arrangement of highlight and shadow, and how close Monet came to a realistic depiction of actual water lilies.

At the conclusion of your analysis you would have a catalog of observable facts, to which you could also add more factual details such as the time period, historical circumstances, events from Monet’s personal life and his development as a painter. This mode of analysis employs the power of observation in order to explain what you are looking at.

But you might choose to contemplate the painting instead of analyzing it. In that case you wouldn’t be observing from an objective distance and reducing it to a catalog of facts, but rather encountering it as an artistic creation. His rendering of water lilies is not asking to be explained or compared with actual water lilies.

The intention of art is not to explain (literally to spread out on a flat surface for examination) but to reveal (to pull back a veil and allow something to be seen). Your contemplation of Monet’s painting represents a very different mode of perception from that of analysis, inviting a kind of dialogue between you and the artist.

A painting, like everything else made by the creative skill of human beings and not found in nature, is what we call an artifact. In evolutionary history, the threshold between animal nature and human culture is defined by the artifacts that our species created, as together they constructed a peculiarly human world – the network of tools, utilities, technologies, symbols, values, agreements, and beliefs that carry the meaning of life for us.

As one kind of artifact, a machine is the product of an engineering and technical intelligence. Monet’s painting of water lilies, on the other hand, is an expression of an intuitive and aesthetic intelligence. Such distinct types of intelligence co-evolving in human beings are what make us a wonderfully visionary, prolific, and complicated species.

The question of whether a given artifact is more art or fact is an interesting one, with far-reaching implications. When you analyze Monet’s water lilies into a catalog of physical and historical details, you are treating it as a fact – something to look at, to observe, and ultimately to explain. Once explained, the object is said to be ‘known’. Each color pigment has a chromatic number value. Each shape has proximal value with respect to real objects. The painting traces along a line of causality back to Monet himself, as the man who made it at a specific time in history.

Your thorough explanation effectively reduces the painting to an object before you.

In the second mode, of contemplation, you instead encounter the artifact as more art than fact. As art, Monet’s painting cannot be decomposed into its basic and essentially separate elements. Indeed, its artistic virtue as a medium of revelation (as a veil parting) requires that you behold the painting as a whole. Only then is it possible – and we can only hope for the possibility since it is nothing you can control or make happen – for the work of art to show you what cannot be observed.

To behold is an exquisitely receptive (as distinct from merely passive) act of contemplation. With patient and mindful attention, you may eventually come to see not what Monet saw but as he saw, ushered into his experience of water lilies.

We can easily summarize these two modes of perception as the difference between looking at (observation, analysis, explanation) and looking through (encounter, contemplation, revelation). It is the difference between treating an artifact as an opaque fact or as translucent art. In the first case, Monet’s painting is a rather inaccurate and unrealistic depiction of water lilies. In the second, it represents (i.e., makes present again) something that is not a thing: Monet’s experience of the present mystery of reality manifested in water lilies.

Now, you may lack even an inkling of art appreciation. To you it’s just a picture, and not a very impressive attempt by someone who fashioned himself a painter. He could better have painted houses or fences, for at least that would have contributed something useful to society. With today’s advances in photography, we shouldn’t have to settle for illustrations that are barely recognizable and basically worthless as depictions of actual facts.

There is a similar widespread inability, especially among those living in the light (or under the shadow) of modern science, for appreciating story as art – particularly the sacred stories of culture and religion known as myths. Stories, too, are artifacts, which means that we can choose how we engage them, as art or as fact.

Despite the difference in their media, a story is very similar to a painting in that both depict images for us to hold in mind. Originally and for many millenniums, human cultures composed myths that were intended for the modes of encounter, contemplation, and revelation. It would have made no sense whatsoever for a creation myth, for example, to be analyzed into its narrative elements or taken as an explanation of observable facts.

As art, the myth was not regarded as an eye-witness report of long-ago events in the history of the cosmos. Rather it was recited in sacred settings of ritual performance (not locked inside printed books) and the storyteller would usher his or her community into an experience of an awesome yet provident universe, the cradle and household of all living things.

With the rise of science, artistic insight into the present mystery of reality was gradually eclipsed by factual observations, empirical analysis, and rational explanations. This new mode of engaging with reality certainly marked a great advance in the human journey, but our fascination with knowledge and control came at a cost.

In his landmark meditation I and Thou, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber distinguished between two modes of consciousness, one ancient and the other more modern. He named these I-Thou and I-It, where the second term in each pair identifies the nature of what the I (ego) perceives and relates to. I-Thou lines up with the artifact as art, even regarding the whole of reality as opening in dialogue with our contemplative mind.

Buber wasn’t suggesting that a personal god is on the other end of the line, but rather that the human being stands in a reciprocal relationship with reality. Our own personalities are not an alien feature of the universe but expressions of it. As we gaze upon the stars, we are contemplating our own nature.

I-It is where reality outside the ego is not only depersonalized and pushed into the distance, but personality itself is reduced – to social conditioning, biological temperament, genes and chromosomes. This is the artifact as fact, and all of reality as nothing more than a great constellation of observable and theoretical facts. It is Monet’s painting of water lilies as so much paint and poor realism, the myths of religion as either supernatural journalism (e.g., the literal Bible) or primitive superstition.

Unfortunately the I-It mentality has affected both science and religion today. Wholeness, dialogue, contemplation, insight, mystery, and revelation are dropping away or getting disqualified as legitimate interests. For many, science studies this world as religion prepares us for the next. For a growing number of others, science has the answers we seek for the progress we need, while religion peddles deception, sanctifies ignorance, and ordains terrorism.

And in the meantime both enterprises are in danger of losing their souls.

 

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