Monday, September 5, 2011

What Is Teaching? What Is Learning?

I’ve read several articles lately from homeschooling friends. They applaud families who jettison traditional educational models, requirements, testing, and curricula. They adopt child-directed education. Homeschoolers love this idea – that almost all children, left to themselves, will seek out learning on their own terms, and eventually accumulate a reasonable facsimile of a good education, without all the pain and expense of the public system.

And to some extent, they are right.

I agree that the public system particularly, and private schools if they model them, are woefully on the wrong track. The emphasis on end-of-year testing especially is misguided. I spoke with a woman this past week whose husband teaches history in an “alternative school” that emphasizes outdoor learning, only for the 10th grade year. The kids come each semester and all they ask is: what do I need to know for the test? They want to take in the information, regurgitate it for the test, and be done. They’re shocked to find that this school doesn’t function that way.

This article posits that our schools do this by design, that the whole intent of the public school method is to produce little factory workers. I’ve heard others voice this opinion also. (Doesn't the documentary Waiting for Superman say this also?) We are creating a populace of yes-men and –women, who will work for the boss and not challenge authority.

But I’m not worried. If that’s the system’s goal, it’s certainly failing. First of all, parents and children aren’t buying it, since more are abandoning the public system each year. And the public-educated kids aren’t little drones either. The modern teen, acquiescent? Hardly. Unrebellious? I don’t think so. Willing to kowtow to authority? No sir. Compliant? Have you seen what they’re wearing? Ha!

If anything, our teens today think the world revolves around them, not around their bosses or teachers. We have a child-centered world, plain and simple, not a boss-centered world. And lest you think these teens will have a rude awakening in college, many colleges are following the same track. So I disagree with this first article. Frankly, our public schools are designed to support their own huge bureaucracy. The system is the factory, spitting out children. And all factories work easiest if they produce identical items – cookie-cutter kids. The system has one, low standard. No one cares what kind of cookie it is, as long as it is produced. And since the kids all love being alike as well, it works for everyone.

Homeschoolers want their kids to be unique – to be themselves. This article on unschooling shows this preference. Children direct their own studies. They may disregard math or reading if they like. Parents assume they’ll eventually pick subjects up, when they need them. If they need them. Children pursue the things they love. They craft an educational world in which they are the monarchs. The world of thought and experience conforms to them. The feelings of exhilaration and conquest this brings give the child confidence. The noble goal is for the child to love learning for life, and to “get the classroom out of the way.” Both classroom and teacher are viewed as obstacles to the goal: a child who grasps his life with both hands and forms it into what he wants. He needs no one else to instruct him. He is his own best teacher.

I would be excited about this model (it is appealing), except it runs counter to all I know as a Christian. God does not desire my independence. He does not want me to grasp my life with my own hands, or direct my own life, in learning or elsewhere. He wants me to learn dependence on Him, and usually He does this by teaching me dependence on others. He doesn’t want me to grow accustomed to having what I want when I want it, to move on to the next area of learning just because I’m bored with the previous one. God usually makes me wait painfully, and develop patience.

I ask you: which model seems more to resemble God’s classroom of life – a classroom with an in-charge teacher at the head, and a child waiting twenty minutes for everyone else to finish, or a child launching out on his own, directing his own day and his own pursuits, gratifying his own thoughts and desires?

I’m a little scared to say this, but my dear homeschooling friends, we need to examine carefully whether the educational models we’re using for our children are godly ones, ones that will familiarize them with the way God will teach them.

A final article was so appealing to read; a teacher in a small Classical school enjoyed a serendipitous experience with his students – a Eureka moment, if you will. He had come to school with a lesson plan, but noticed immediately that his students were bored.

Bored students! Oh no! Say it isn’t so!

[When, oh when, will we accept that a bored student is not our fault? It is not our job to entertain? It is not our job to find a way of teaching that tastes like candy? (Dismount from soapbox.)]

I’m glad this his students ended up enjoying the class, I really am. That's a good thing, when it happens. I know exactly how he feels. (I’ve taught Beowulf myself.) Engaged, eager students are a delight. But this teacher took a huge risk. He was lucky – purely lucky – that the lesson went as it did, that one student made the connection for him (yikes!), and that the discussion finally got back around to understanding oral tradition in story-telling. Frankly, I don’t want to hope my lessons in the classroom are productive, if and when a student comes up with a nifty idea. How long was his class period? An hour? What did he accomplish? He very successfully communicated the definition of one term to his class, in that time. Frankly, in a Classical model, a definition like that should have been acquired years before. By the rhetoric stage, they should be beyond definitions.And the expressions they give in the rhetoric stage should be better crafted.

He says we teachers should be malleable in the classroom. To respond to the leading of the Spirit, or the Muse. I personally have always felt that there is a body of knowledge out there that students should attain to. As a teacher, I should acquire it before them. I am their leader. As my education broadens, so does theirs. I assume they are not always willing participants, that they are fallen and sinful. I assume they will need prompting and correction. They will be bored, and it’s not my fault. They will be lazy, and it’s not my responsibility. I must enthusiastically encourage them to throw off  boredom and laziness, and engage themselves. I cannot do it for them. I assume they should be malleable to me, not me to them – and both of us are malleable to the body of learning we have set for ourselves. Was the classroom experience this man describes a good teaching day? Yes. (Well, most of it. I would have left out the aliens, watermelon fields, and Harry Potter.) Shame on him for not thinking of it first.


  1. A lot to think about here, MK. I'm so very thankful that I have the sweet opportunity to speak into kids' lives. It's a great and holy privilege. I hope to help produce contributors to this mixed up concept we call society, not simply consumers. It's not about the test, it IS about the young and hopeful soul that rubs shoulders with her contemporaries for twelve or thirteen years and then begins her adult journey, desirous of connections that keep her helping, serving, thinking, and loving her neighbor.

  2. Pom - I think you are exactly the type of teacher that we need more of, in the public system. You have bright imagination, creativity, and a deep love for the students. Those characteristics are stronger than any bureaucracy, and will win in the end, and influence students :) I believe there was a time in the public schools when that was the norm.I hope it will be again.

  3. What happens when the teacher (me) doesn't like Beowulf? We didn't read it. Vive individuality!

    I love the cartoon! That would be me.



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