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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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The Paradox of Education and the Search for Its Soul

Human Education

Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe. – H.G. Wells

A paradox is something that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth. Its apparent self-contradiction can generate a tension so strong that it snaps and collapses into a dualism of either this or that, this versus that, this but not that. In a paradox, this and that are held as complementary in a larger truth that can be appreciated only as their tension is preserved.

The paradoxical nature of education is suggested already in the very definition of the word. Very simply, to educate is “to lead out.” From the Latin educere, it can refer to “leading” a mind “out” of ignorance and into knowledge, or to “leading” the deeper intelligence and native talents of mind “out” of dormancy and into actualization. Which is it? If we can honor the paradox, it is both.

But the paradox of education has not been honored, particularly in the West where the operating assumption is that what we need to know and know how to do, if we have any hope of making it in this world, is something we need instruction in. Our natural ignorance must be dispelled with the information and techniques that make society work. Otherwise we will be left in a ‘state of nature’ with the beasts, infants, and idiots – ‘blank slates’ forever.

In a way, this preference for technical knowledge over self-actualization, for mastering the outer world over nurturing our inner spirit, plays out in “the two cultures” (C.P. Snow) of Western education, with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) on one side; the humanities, the arts, religion and philosophy (HARP) on the other. Because STEM prepares students for professions in the industries driving our world economy, and while HARP amounts to a major distraction from real-world concerns, the Western curriculum in recent decades has been steadily shifting away from spirit and more to machines, out of feeling and more into thinking – more and more into facts, data, analytics, and the technical skills that society depends on.

As the gap widens, a general appreciation for and even an understanding of our own inner life is rapidly diminishing.

Working in higher education, the human cost of this shift is painfully obvious. As the process of education gets reduced to classroom instruction, standardized testing, grade rubrics, academic interventions, and remedial accommodations, students themselves get left out. It may appear as if students are the principal value, but in actuality they are little more than an ID number, a GPA, a graduation and job placement statistic. An expert stands at the front of the room and all the blank slates are arranged in straight rows, facing forward, passively absorbing the data-stream. More students than ever before are succumbing to boredom, depression, anxiety, and the autoimmune complications that fall out from these.

It might sound as if I’m advocating for more art and music in our schools, and while I think that would be a good thing, it’s not the point I’m making here. The leading-out-of-ignorance and leading-out-into-expression models of the educational enterprise are not mutually exclusive, as my argument for their paradoxical relation suggests. It’s not that STEM aligns with the first model and HARP with the second, and that we need more HARP to fix our problem. Our current crisis in education cannot be reduced to the disappearance of performance studios and the proliferation of laboratory classrooms.

As paradox, education is both about preparing students for the workaday world of adult life and assisting in their self-actualization as human beings.

When a paradox is functionally intact, the tension generated between its internal poles is apprehended by our minds all at once, as it were. It is one thing – paradoxically. But after its tension snaps and this unity collapses, repairing a paradox to its original state isn’t simply a matter of gluing the pieces back together. As in all dynamic unities, the whole is always more than the mere sum of its parts. So too, an active paradox is one plus one … plus. For education, I believe this non-added ‘plus’ is its soul, now lost.

In the nursery rhyme, Humpty Dumpty is depicted as a big egg who falls from atop a wall and breaks into pieces. “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.” Our solution for education will not come by tape and glue; we need to contemplate the chicken (unacknowledged in the rhyme) that came before the egg.

We should agree that education is not only a matter of preparing future employees for the job market; it is also about developing human beings. When the paradox snaps and the process becomes one of filling blank slates with the technical information and employable skills they will need to punch clocks and pay taxes, we stop teaching students how to think and start imposing an orthodoxy of what to think. It’s a short but precipitous slide from there to standardized testing, academic failure, and the crisis we have on our hands.

When I consider the soul of education, what I’m getting at is the deeper spiritual source out of which human consciousness, thought, feeling, desire, and intention arise; it is the grounding mystery within. My reader needs to know that I attach no metaphysical status to this grounding mystery: it is neither some thing or some place, nor can we properly say it exists on its own. It is not god – although I do regard the grounding mystery as the inspiration behind our best metaphors of god.

Finally, in calling this deeper source spiritual I am not thereby setting it apart from the physical realm and our animal life, as in the classical separation in religion of ‘soul’ from ‘body’ – yet another symptom, along with our current malaise in education, of the Great Collapse.

In the diagram above, I offer the image of a tree to illustrate what I mean by the soul of education. My use of an organic metaphor rather than a mechanical one is intended to make the point that education is a living enterprise; it is dynamic, vibrant, and constantly evolving – or it could be, and hopefully will be again one day. Just as in the life of a tree, there is directional flow in the life of education, which I represent in the four terms arranged around the tree.

The place within, where the grounding mystery – that wellspring and spontaneous stream of consciousness – first crosses the threshold from ineffable experience into the articulate network of language, is our imagination. Metaphors (from Greek, meaning to “carry across”) quite literally are preverbal images that translate experience into meaning and serve as foundational insights into the nature of reality. Imagination is perhaps what makes us most uniquely human, and its death is the moment when education begins to lose its soul.

These primordial images rising out of the metaphorical imagination stimulate a more conscious creativity, enabling us to see beyond the given facts into a wider range of probabilities, hidden frontiers of possibility, and even into what is only conceivable but not (yet) possible. Human creativity is a productive and prodigal force in the universe, generated by a powerful urge to simply bring forth and realize what is within us. When it gets blocked, stifled, or penalized for not staying inside the lines, the consequence is spiritual frustration and all the psychosomatic illnesses that Western medicine refuses to validate.

When creativity is allowed to flow and the imagined possibilities can continue to evolve, the wonderful outcome is innovation: bringing about something utterly new. What do we see when we consider human culture – its hardware in the infrastructure, architecture, art, technology, clothing, costumes, uniforms, utensils, instruments, tools, machines and all the rest? And what about its software in the languages, disciplines, theories, paradigms, belief systems, codes, laws, principles, ideas, and ideals that comprise our many systems of meaning? These things are not mere facts of nature but artifacts of culture, and all of them started as innovations of human creativity.

Which brings me quite naturally to my fourth term: community. From previous posts my reader will know that community is not merely a synonym for ‘family’ or ‘group’ or ‘tribe’ or even ‘society’. While these other terms can be defined quantitatively, as a collective of individuals who relate or are related in specific ways, community names a qualitative up-shift in the consciousness of a group, where the intentional and empathetic interactions of members prime conditions for a consilient leap to higher unity. (For more on this, see The Promise of Consilience.)

Community in this sense serves as an incubator of innovation, a provident support for creativity and a deep engagement with the metaphorical imagination. It is itself a manifestation of all this magic happening deeper down, even as it holds sacred space for the magic to happen. In my view, this is what education is and what our schools should be doing.

We need to become communities of learning by restoring the paradox of education and recovering its lost soul.

 

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