Education

How To Raise Life-Long Learners.


All things considered, my educational experience was a good one marked by privilege. I can look back now and wish that I had been given stronger theory by more passionate educators in some arenas, but overall I had the world handed to me. The most regrettable aspect of my formal education was my own perspective on its purpose. To me, paying attention in school was always more of an obligation, part daily work day grind and part proving my own capability or normalcy amongst my peers. Rarely was I ever self-motivated toward the ideas or subjects to which I was being introduced. It took leaving college and spending a year or two without any kind of spoon-fed, intentional learning before I began to become a self-motivated learning. Now I’m constantly on the learning offensive, looking out for new ideas to readily devour.

Why is it that learning is such a touchy cultivation? There are a thousand factors at hand in growing as a person who wants to understand. For many of us the education we are handed forever dims any idea that we would actually pursue learning of our own accord. An education system involves all sorts of standardization, enforced subject matters, and comparison, both in grading and in social interactions. As someone who didn’t care then and loves learning now, I have an immense passion to pass on to my own children the internal fire and confidence needed to find their places through self-motivated learning.

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My Process

Step 1: Get to know your child personally so well that you understand what they are passionate about and why.

– It’s easy to know what they love, but a life time can be devoted to understanding why it excites them. It’s never to early to start this.

Step 2: Get them more of what they love.

– Books, relevant experiences, games, tutors. Don’t put all of your energy into diversifying their interests, focus on new ways for them to experience what they love.

Step 3: Repeat Step 1.

– Emphasis on learning their passions in the context of the new experiences.

Step 4: Repeat Step 2.

– Diversify and stretch your imagination and theirs concerning how they perceive what they are comprehending. Let them establish a launching pad and give them vision for directions they can take things.

Step 5: Ad Infinitum, Phasing Yourself Out Over Time.

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Obviously, this isn’t to say that people who don’t like math shouldn’t learn to add or multiply. There are certain skill sets that are universally useful, regardless of your tastes or trade, and learning to push through to understand things that are of little personal interest is also a valuable skill in and of itself.

My end game goal is to have children who are confident in who they are and capable of seeking out and processing information. They would never had a capacity for all available information and to attempt to cram it in them would only snuff out their own desires. Don’t beat yourself and your kids up about reaching outside standards if the experience at hand indicates they are learning and flourishing.

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Further Reading

Mary Berry’s Thoughts On Her Father’s Lasting Legacy

C.S. Lewis On Modern Education Theory

Masanobu Fukuoka On The Philosophy Fueling Our Science

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Wanna Change The World? Shake Someone’s Hand!


We see it almost every day. Whether its a government cover-up, corporate fraud, or a religious group’s controversial public statements, we are bombarded more than every by a constant stream of articles and headlines about the latest controversies. Thanks to social media, we are becoming the ones who are most responsible for determining what issues gain steam and become headlines. I’m just as guilty as anyone else of feeling required to chime in and make sure other people hear my opinions on the current big issue. We find it necessary to identify ourselves as being for or against these brands.

Brands, you may ask? Why yes, every political candidate, Hollywood star, and non-profit organization is, at its core, simply a brand. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the social media world of likes, retweets, and reposting sensationalized articles. We recognize and either endorse or condemn nearly every public entity as a brand to be consumed or blacklisted in our modern online context.

But what most of us really want is to make the world a better place, right? I mean, isn’t that what we think we want somewhere deep down? Isn’t that in some dysfunctional way connected to the root motivation of many of our pins and tweets and likes and posts? How can we begin to actually make this world a better place to live? By liking statuses and reposting inspirational memes?

Here’s the fact:  We are hiding behind our ideas of good and bad when we should be acting upon them. We’re trying to decide what to endorse when we should be asking ourselves how to take action and relate.

Relate? Yes, as in a relationship, where two beings enter into actually knowing one another personally and, often, in person. True, this does require more work than scrolling through a newsfeed and often it will entail sharing our own hopes, dreams, mistakes, and brokenness, but I will promise you something. If you do this often, it will prove to be worth your time.

What if we stopped investing so much of our time into reading articles about group’s stances and started reaching out to tell our friends what encourages us about them? What if we stopped trying to decide where to point the finger and started lifting one to help a new neighbor move in? Supporting a non-profit that helps the hungry in the third world is really important and hugely valuable, but helping the homeless in your own city has a greater impact on you and builds an actual, ongoing relationship between you and the people your helping.

So get out there! Be a great dad. Be a great mom. Be a great dad or mom to someone even if you have no children of your own. Make meals for people you don’t know well. It’s okay that it might be awkward the first time. Share a beer on your porch with the guy next door after work. Write a letter, on paper, and mail it to someone you highly value. Start investing into the real people all around you.

You might just find that pointing out the bad has never been as rewarding as doing the good.

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Related:

– On the dangers of being Optimistic

– Poetry and Children and War

– How does the Common Core Standard hold up?

Author Quotes: C.S. Lewis and Common Core Logic, Part II


“These well-meaning educationalists are quite right in thinking that literary appreciation is a delicate thing. What they do not seem to see is that for this very reason elementary examinations on literary subjects ought to confine themselves to just those dry and factual questions which are so often ridiculed. The questions were never supposed to test appreciation; the idea was to find out whether the boy had read his books. It was the reading, not the being examined, which was expected to do him good. And this, so far from being a defect in such examinations is just what renders them useful or even tolerable.

. . .What obsequious boys, if encouraged, will try to manufacture, and clever ones can ape, and shy ones will conceal, what dies at the touch of venality, is called to come forward and perform, to exhibit itself, at that very age when its timid, half-conscious stirrings can least endure such self-consciousness.”

– C.S. Lewis, excerpt from the Essay “The Parthenon And The Optative”

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In Part I of my comparison between C.S. Lewis critique of 1940’s British educational reformers and the modern Common Core logic, I discussed the areas in which we would possibly disagree. Now I strike on the overarch philosophy on which I believe we agree.

Lewis was fighting against a beast which is mostly foreign to us today. While some of his ideas sound more in favor of something like a Common Core standard, I would argue that his underlying assumptions were totally opposed to it and his expressed ideal circumstances were a call for a middle ground between a logical foundation and a passionate pursuit.

We should start by noting the four cultural ideals involved in our conversation. They are Lewis educational ideals, the reforming ideas of the 1940’s, the current ideas of the Common Core reform, and my own perspective.

1. Lewis is old school. While he highly values the emotions involved in enjoying literature, he starts (in all things) with logical undergirdings. From true understand appreciation can grow. He says that even when a student dislikes the material, we have “at the very least, taught the boy what knowledge is like. He may decide that he doesn’t care for knowledge; but he knows he doesn’t care for it, and he knows he hasn’t got it.”

2. The period reformers were attempting to shift to test students on their capability to appreciate rather than comprehend the materials at hand, and to do so by judging them on localized standards with educator peer reviews. Their goal was to give educators the freedom to make attempts revealing what the Norwood Report called the “sensitive and elusive thing” in appreciating literature instead of testing the “coarse fringe” that is testing for detailed comprehension. “The teacher’s success can be gauged by himself or by one of his immediate colleagues who knows him well.”

Lewis stands against both educating for appreciation and in-house assessments. He believes that students would be more hindered by trying to sound appreciative of the works for test performance than they would be by having to evaluate the actual materials for answers. He also questions whether anyone can learn the materials for their own merit if the testing is based on the professor’s interpretations of the material rather than its content. You have to agree with the professor’s preferences to do well.

3. “The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.” If you read this mission statement the wrong way it might sound like nationalist propaganda. We will tell the teachers and parents what to say. The students will be proud to make their nation great.

Common Core is based on a couple of nearly-standard American cultural premises. The first I would describe as a fast food standardization. You can get the exact same Big Mac at any McDonalds across the globe, and our industrial society sees this as a golden rule for progress, including within our education system. Leave a 5th grade class in small town Connecticut on Monday, pick up where your left the standard text in a classroom in San Francisco on Tuesday. Everyone should learn the exact same things at the same age, and this is automatically good for them. To personalize the system is to devote too many resources.

The second problematic idea behind modern education theory is that simple, blue collar work is less valuable than jobs requiring higher level expertise. Obviously, from a monetary perspective, many positions requiring an education pay better, but often a trade school education or specialized machinist skills can pay just as well with much less irrelevant education involved. We live in a culture that looks down on less intellectually charming roles. We have outsourced our manufacturing because we believe that we have transcended the lowly skills involved in creating our own things. Most people used to spend their time growing food, but now the idea of farming tends to conjure up images from The Grapes Of Wrath.

Common Core functions based upon the faulty cultural presuppositions that everyone needs to know everything equally and that higher education is automatically valuable to everyone. It is partially spurred on by similar hopes to those of the old educators who wanted people to really be engaged by and in love with what they were learning, but it also refuses to believe that a basically educated and simply enjoyed life is actually valid. “Ignorance is bliss” becomes not simply an unwise axiom, but a moral heresy.

4. Lastly, I come to my own ideas. I do not wish to lay a claim as an authority on education. I have had a handful of very illuminating conversations with educators and educational theorists, but those don’t hold much weight. What I have had is the pleasure of knowing and truly enjoy a lot individuals of all passions and education levels; the opportunity to see so many diverse people learning to explore their own giftings and interests makes the idea of an extreme and mechanical standardization of education a dystopian prospect. Education should pour out of relationships. Relationship most importantly of student to materials, and secondary of student to instructor.
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All four perspectives hold in common, as some level, some authentic desire for people to learn and to utilize and enjoy what they learn. There is no contradiction in that aspect of their goals, it is in execution where the distinctions become radical.

The old reformers push for a common modernist idea of focusing on interpretation almost to the exclusion of the source material. Their desire is overtly to pursue interest and response over basic understanding. The Common Core logic takes this idea and requires it of everyone. Every student must be equally interested in and capable of all things. Not only can we enforce interest, but we can standardize it.

Here we finally come to the points on which to take Lewis very seriously. Lewis proposes that we simply give the students the most basic materials and make sure that they are comprehending what they are given, then allow them to determine their own interest level beyond that point of understanding.
Revolutionary.

Lewis’ perspective on educating is like throwing seeds of knowledge and waiting to see what sprouts up when they find ample mental sustenance. Who are we to force things to grow were they are not wanted or sustained? Everyone benefits from being able to multiply, but is geometry valuable to all? I believe that passionate teachers (something Lewis seems to assume regardless) who can foster their interests should be the second goal.

The truth is that we should become as comfortable as Lewis seems to be with relequishing control and allowing a student to shun what we hold sacred. If the son of two Master’s degree parents wants to be a farmer, who should hold him back from it? If the daughter of a poor miner wants to become a neurosurgeon, who can hold her back?

Our system has made some great headway in making education available to all via public libraries and public schooling. We should continue to pursue greater excellence in these. But the innate desire to learn is often too valuable and fragile a thing to withstand years of training on arbitrary information. Great opportunities should always be available, but idealists shouldn’t be horrified when students don’t share their passions and industrialists shouldn’t be dismayed when students don’t desire their level of personal productivity.

Author Quotes: C.S. Lewis and Common Core Logic, Part I


“These well-meaning educationalists are quite right in thinking that literary appreciation is a delicate thing. What they do not seem to see is that for this very reason elementary examinations on literary subjects ought to confine themselves to just those dry and factual questions which are so often ridiculed. The questions were never supposed to test appreciation; the idea was to find out whether the boy had read his books. It was the reading, not the being examined, which was expected to do him good. And this, so far from being a defect in such examinations is just what renders them useful or even tolerable.

. . .What obsequious boys, if encouraged, will try to manufacture, and clever ones can ape, and shy ones will conceal, what dies at the touch of venality, is called to come forward and perform, to exhibit itself, at that very age when its timid, half-conscious stirrings can least endure such self-consciousness.”

– C.S. Lewis, excerpt from the Essay “The Parthenon And The Optative”
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When we look at education from such changed standards as those 75 years later, it is almost difficult to follow Lewis’ line of reason because education philosophies have shifted around so greatly. Even still, I can’t help but find immense application of Lewis’ timeless theories to critique the Common Core standards and modern education paradigms. Some of the things he expresses also seem to contradict my own thoughts and experiences. Before I explain our overarching agreements and what I believe he would think of the Common Core, let me discuss our possibly disagreement.

Lewis goes on to end the article by saying “Of course we meet many people who explain to us that they would by now have been great readers of poetry if it had not been ‘spoiled for them’ at school by ‘doing’ it for examinations of the old kind. It is theoretically possible. Perhaps they would by now have been saints if no one had ever examined them in Scripture. . .It may be so: but why should we believe it is. We have only their word for it; and how do they know?”

I confess that I am one of these people. I am now as a man an eager omnivore of a critical and enthused reader, but I was long dormant in my desire to learn. I felt very dull toward learning throughout high school and for almost five years after college. I would not say that this has as much to do with being tested as it did with a lacking of inspired teachers.

I had some apathetic teachers and some great teachers who cared deeply for their student’s well-being, but none of which were inspired by their course subject matter. I can only think of three teachers I have ever sat under whose own inspirations on the subject matter were palpable in the classroom, and these have stuck with me. I can only imagine what my education would have been like if my teachers had all been hired based on their response to the question, “tell me what you love about (_subject_matter_)?” In my mind, education on all fronts should always be 3x as concerned about inspiring a desire to learn as it is with any other aspect of how to teach.

I think C.S. Lewis would have appreciate the fine distinction between a student turned off by being tested and a student turned off by a bored teacher, although I cannot assume that he would necessarily agree with the justification of the one if he ridiculed the other. I can say that he himself, the professors who taught him, and those whom he surrounded himself with seemed always to have a lust for critical and impassioned learning. I have yet to read anything by him distinguishing between those in education who are passionate and those who seem disingenuous. It seems that most whom he agreed and disagreed with were at least passionate about their ideas, and perhaps the problem rarely arose in his own circles.

He is right when he says that literary appreciation (and all kinds of deep appreciation) is a delicate thing. I once had a roommate who could only really enjoyed reading instruction manuals. I understand and love that different types of people learn differently and enjoy things differently. That’s why we should all be exposed to passionate car mechanics, starry-eyed scientists, and enthusiastic book worms. Our system should not be so heavy-handed as to disengage the teacher from his materials. Every student should have the opportunity to see a dictionary, instruction booklet, and novel used appropriately and passionately. Then perhaps we could all start getting out of our comfort zones and appreciating our own natural passions and foreign ones at the same time. I have met numerous educators who are being disrupted from engaging with student’s minds by the Common Core. Some have even quit teaching after 30 years of service.

I can’t imagine that Lewis would have been eager to see a teacher’s materials handed down to them from on high with a big brother figure in the classroom a couple times a month, but I can say that I would love to sit and chat with him about this circumstance more than almost any other subject.

Stay tuned for the ways I think we agree in Part II.

Author Quotes: Neil Gaiman And The Value of Fiction and The Library


“. . .the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:

The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.

Tolkien
 Tolkien’s illustration of Bilbo’s home, Bag End. Photograph: HarperCollins

Another way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books. I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up. I had the kind of parents who could be persuaded to drop me off in the library on their way to work in summer holidays, and the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the children’s’ library I began on the adult books.

They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader – nothing less or more – which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.

But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.”

– Excerpt from the lecture “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming” by Neil Gaiman, presented for the British Literacy group The Reading Agency. View the entire lecture here.

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I value reading similarly to Neil; I believe that intention fiction sows and breeds hope and relatability in us. By “intentional fiction” I mean something very different from allegory or moralist tales. I mean intentionally building imaginary things in our own minds. One can and often does accidentally imagine things, but engaging fiction makes us intentional subcreators. We find the value inherant in filling in the imaginative gaps and sticking with the story to its fulfillment.

We learn empathy and also become more capable of relationship. Stories are generally about relationships or the trouble of lacking relationships. Protagonists and even antagonists give us first understanding of other perspectives and experiences, even for those with strangely skewed points-of-view. We are able to comprehend without validating, a skill seemingly on the brink of extinction in modern cultures.