Reflections on the various dimensions of feminine vocation from liturgical homemaking and child rearing to education and the spiritual life.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Sunday, November 16, 2014

You Know You Have a Good Math Program When . . .

. . . your seven-year-old solves her first four-digit, three-number addition story-problem independently, without you telling her how, . . . and then says, "Can I PLEASE do another one? I want to do one of these every day!"

My daughter was positively thrilled with her own discovery, with her new-felt math prowess. With the first-grade book in Right Start Math, she was solving word-problems that would normally involve "carrying" in the usual algorithm. However, not yet knowing the algorithm or the concept of "carrying," she gleefully solved the problem in her head using an abacus. She thought it was as fun as anything.

I call that age-appropriate math play. The student is using her mind to form concepts and figure out creative solutions to challenging, hands-on problems. I like that there are lots of this type of figure-it-out, thinking activities in Right Start Math and that there are hardly any worksheets.

We've also been enjoying the TOPS Get a Grip kit which operates on a similar philosophy. Using guided discovery, Get a Grip develops math and science understanding through measuring play with a bunch of different sized containers and a big box of . . . lentils!

Sometimes my Kindergartener likes to complete the TOPS activity booklets, and sometimes he prefers to free-play with the lentils. Since kinetic free play is as important as any structured learning, especially at his age, I am just fine with that!

My older scholar likes to free-play but also enjoys the increasing difficulty of the activity booklets which will gradually guide her from easy comparison activities to "sneaky algebra." And the physical, hands-on element is important for her, too. With it's progression to more advanced concepts, the kit can meet the needs of students up to sixth grade.

But my hope here is not so much to recommend particular math and science programs as it is to highlight a kind of learning that tends to be highly effective for most students. And that is play.

With math as with other subjects, students at every grade level tend to learn and retain concepts well through interactive learning. At least this is what I've observed and read.

There is no sound dichotomy between "play" and "real learning."

For example, we might think of a good Socratic discussion of a classic text as age-appropriate play for highschool and college students. Some skeptics might suspect that less learning is happening in such a discussion than in a traditional lecture situation because prescribed content is not being "delivered" in a controlled way. But you and I know that deeper, more substantial learning does take place in a Socratic dialog, even if it might sometimes feel more like play to the participants. (And if you don't know this, perhaps you should give the dialectic a try!) There's a place for lecture, but there is at least an equally important place for the dialectic.

In the same way, real learning often happens in the primary grades through play, especially certain kinds of educational play. That kind of authentic, active learning sometimes sticks better than many "traditional" educational approaches which can devolve into "in one ear, out the other."

Since later is better, I like to start in on a formal math program no sooner than first grade, maybe even second grade. Sometimes we fly first with only the free, custom printables—mostly the time and money worksheets—from But first we get hands-on with actual coins and clocks around the home.

For other tips on getting started with math play in the early years, I liked Ruth Beechick's Arithmetic booklet. Inexpensive and brief, it covers both foundational theory as well as practical applications for homeschooling the early years.

By Galilea at de.wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Here's a final angle to consider: Who is the "real" mathematician doing "real" math? Is it the folks who successfully apply the symbolic algorithms like the Pythagorean theorem? Is it the people like Pythagoras who play with shape, measurement, and relation in order to discover the principles and create the symbolic algorithmic formulas that the rest of us use as ready-made tools? How can we best prepare students to think like a mathematician?

Do you play math with your budding mathematicians? What works well in your home?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Katernican Revolution

Since my own history education was so lacking in school, I have loved (re-)learning it along with my daughter. We've enjoyed our journey so far through Susan Wise Bauer's Story of the World series.

When we got to the chapter on Copernicus and Galileo in Volume 2, I read ahead and supplemented with some research of my own to try to get a clearer picture of what happened between the church and the scientists at that time.

It struck me how similar it all seems to the contemporary tension between young- and old-earth creationists. See for example, the recent hot pot stirred up in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Or examine the speaker list and session descriptions for many a regional Evangelical homeschool convention.

On the one hand, there is the sincere and pious group who believes that faithfulness to the Word means sometimes denouncing data that seems to contradict our current understandings of Scripture. Some act as if even peeping at the naked data would be an infidelity. Some of Galileo's contemporaries, for example, refused to look through Galileo's improved telescope to see the newly-visible moons around Jupiter:
"My dear Kepler," Galileo wrote to a friend, "I wish that we might laugh at the remarkable stupidity of the common herd. What do you have to say about the principal philosophers of this academy who are filled with the stubbornness of an asp and do not want to look at either the planets, the moon or the telescope, even though I have freely and deliberately offered them the opportunity a thousand times? Truly, just as the asp stops its ears, so do these philosophers shut their eyes to the light of truth."

On the other hand, we have Christian scholars who fearlessly (if sometimes pompously—see Galileo's comment re: the common herd) embrace new data and wrestle to understand how the faith and the universe can be reconciled to each other with fidelity to both.

The essential tension seems to be hermeneutic: How are we to interpret and understand certain puzzling passages in Holy Writ?

During the Copernican Revolution, exegetical debate focused on the passage wherein Joshua commands the sun and moon to stand still (Joshua 10:12-14). For some authorities in the church, affirming heliocentrism amounted to "distorting the Scriptures in accordance with [one's] own conceptions," and was considered "likely not only to irritate all scholastic philosophers and theologians, but also to harm the Holy Faith by rendering Holy Scripture as false."

Copernicus, Galileo, and their like-minded contemporaries saw it differently. In a letter to Madame Christina of Lorraine, Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Galileo studiously demonstrates an exegesis of Joshua that harmonizes the truth of the faith with the newly-discovered astronomical realities. Galileo also warns of the ill that can come of authoritatively wielding Bible passages to dismiss scientific theories:
It seems to me that [. . .] such men [. . . ] who, being either unable or unwilling to comprehend the experiences and proofs used in support of the new doc­trine by its author and his followers, nevertheless expect to bring the Scriptures to bear on it. They do not consider that the more they cite these, and the more they insist that they are perfectly clear and admit of no other interpretations than those which they put on them, the more they prejudice the dignity of the Bible—or would, if their opinion counted for anything—in the event that later truth shows the contrary and thus creates confusion among those outside the holy Church. And of these she is very solicitous, like a mother desiring to recover her children into her lap. [. . .] [T]he Bible [. . .] was not written to teach us astronomy.

I laid out the key facts in simple terms for seven-year-old Katherine: Some people in the church at the time [including Martin Luther and other Protestants, btw] thought that the Bible said the earth had to be in the center of the universe. They thought believing what Copernicus said would mean saying the Bible was false—for example, in this passage in Joshua where it says the sun stopped moving across the sky and "stood still" for a while.

"What do you think?" I asked her.

"Well, maybe," she mused after a moment's reflection, "the person who wrote Joshua was just saying how it looked to him. It looked like the sun moved and stood still. He didn't know about the earth going around the sun, since Copernicus hadn't discovered it yet."

Perhaps we understand both special and general revelation less well than we might like to think. Perhaps a childlike wonder—a revolutionary humility—could lead us to perceive more purely and insightfully both Word and world.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Fourth Year of Formal Homeschooling Underway

This is the time of year when I pinch myself and realize again how blessed I am to spend my days learning alongside my sweet babies.

And it's also the time of year when I remember how much those sweet babies need to use their Pencil Grip Crossovers with their Pens. (Forgot to add these items to the original version of my Kindergarten Take 2 list. The omission has now been corrected.)

I wish all my fellow homeschoolers delightful learning adventures in the new school year.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Sayers and C. S. Lewis on Education, continued

In the previous three posts (1, 2, 3), we've identified several goals of a classical liberal arts education. We've noted that students should acquire organized knowledge of language as well as an understanding of a wealth of interdisciplinary subject matter.  We've also seen that there are certain essential skills that a student should master: A student should learn to listen, speak, read, write, and think well. Additionally, we've seen, with help from C. S. Lewis, that students ought to develop good habits of feeling and valuing—what he terms "sentiments."

We've touched briefly on a variety of approaches for developing knowledge and intellectual habits, but how are we as parents and educators to assist students in developing habits of sentiment?

Perhaps Sayers did not discuss values, attitudes, or sentiment because she knew what Lewis knew from Aristotle, namely, "that only those who have been well brought up can usefully study ethics." If the parents or initial caregivers do not establish a wholesome atmosphere and convey ethical attitudes and habits to a child from the cradle, no amount of scholastic study will make that child moral.

On the other hand, in undertaking the writing of Abolition of Man, Lewis demonstrates hope that by changing how we educate we might encourage (or at least avoid discouraging) proper sentiment.

Lewis doesn't say how exactly we might go about an education that engenders right sentiment, but he does give some hints.

First, Lewis observes that, barring an omnipotent state, personal autonomy allows individuals the freedom to discover and determine for themselves who they will be, what they will value, and how they will live. In the face of absurd theoretical schemes of education, Lewis thanks, "the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and (above all) real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses." When we acknowledge and respect the autonomy and free-will of children, we create an appropriate environment for the development of noble sentiment.

Second, Lewis commends a system of child-rearing and educating wherein the teachers' aims and motives are themselves directed by the first principles, what Lewis calls, for shorthand, "the Tao." To rightly approach sentiment formation in the young, teachers must see the student not as a project or an experiment to control but rather as a fellow initiate "into the mystery of humanity which over-arches him and them alike. It was but old birds teaching young birds to fly."

Old birds fly before teaching young birds to fly. Likewise the first step to engendering virtuous sentiment in one's student is to develop it in oneself. We teach the mystery by living the mystery, by modeling more than by instructing in any pedantic way.

In other places (notably, "On Stories" and, in the same collection, "On Three Ways of Writing for Children"), Lewis extends the idea of modeling and initiation when he describes the power of story to engender proper sentiment. Stories provide models for the reader to imitate, but they also give us experiences that we could not otherwise have. Through the noetic-psychological power of image and metaphor, stories (and other literature) awaken the moral imagination. Moreover, in a phrase used by Eleonore Stump, narrative gives us "second person experiences." Such personal encounters convey knowledge that cannot be reduced to propositional knowledge.
Stories stir imagination. Stories impart irreducible knowledge. Stories ignite love of beauty, of goodness, of truth. Stories inspire desire and action. Students can encounter stories through hearing oral tellings or in reading on their own, as well as by watching stories enacted on stage or screen.

While great books are used, as Sayers says, as material for praticing and honing language and thinking skills, Lewis reminds us that stories are also, throughout the trivium and beyond, valuable as experiences in themselves. Through the word, we come to know—deeply and experientially, as we can know no other way—humanity, ourselves, history, culture, even the Divinity. The Divinity, knowing how we know, thus sent us the Word and secured his revelation in poetry and narrative.

So we see another reason why, as Adler notes, the material we give to students should be worthy. The texts, like the live teachers, must respect the autonomy of the student, must model rather than preach, must initiate rather than manage. The texts ought to be beautifully and skillfully written, offer experiences worth having, and be ultimately redemptive (or, failing that, at least culturally or historically significant). In the selection of material, there is much more at stake than merely language and communication skills. The texts students read, like the influential people in their lives, will inform their sentiments, will color their attitudes toward themselves and the world.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Sayers and C. S. Lewis on Education

(This is the third in a series. Click here for the initial post and here for the second.)
In the brightness of C. S. Lewis's Narnia, Mere Christianity, Screwtape Letters, and other popular writings, it may be easy to forget that Lewis was, by profession, a scholar in medieval and renaissance literature. Beginning as a fellow and tutor at the appropriately-medieval Oxford, Lewis was eventually elected to the position of Chair of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge, as they say, "that new school." In any event, Lewis was quite sharp at his vocation, and he wrote the book on the Medieval model, (more than one, in fact) including a chapter on "The Seven Liberal Arts" in The Discarded Image.

But a couple decades before he wrote The Discarded Image, Lewis produced a small but potent book on education. In 1943, four years before his friend and colleague, Dorothy Sayers, gave her "Lost Tools" address, Lewis published The Abolition of Man originally subtitled, Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools. Rather than elucidate the medieval trivium or outline any specific plan of education, in Abolition of Man Lewis turns a laser-like spotlight on precisely the question that Adler left us with at the end of "Liberal Education—Theory and Practice": "how to overcome the weakness of the flesh on the part of both teachers and students."  

Both Adler and Lewis point to the reality that all the discursive reasoning powers in the world are not sufficient to protect one against the "animal organism" of appetite. Adler hints at it. Lewis cuts to the chase: If we embrace an "extreme rationalism" that fails to accept moral truths as the first principles of practical reason, what Lewis refers to as "the Tao," then the only path open to us (apart from suicide) is "wholly irrational behaviour," namely, obedience to impulse. 

Lewis recognized that more had gone awry in modern education than a simple straying from the liberal arts. Modern educational revisionists, such as the pervasively influential John Dewey, had challenged the very philosophical and anthropological foundations of education. Pragmatists, as they have been called, had rejected the traditional understanding of what it means to be human and to flourish. Some of the revisions they brought about were helpful. For example, Dewey did much to correct the view of the student as a passive absorber of didactic information. However, many pragmatists drew on empiricist and utilitarian schools of thought and rejected metaphysical realities including the existence of universal ethical truth and universal aesthetic value.

In opposition to empirical pragmatism, Lewis argues that an education that debunks traditional values, attitudes, and ethical sentiment in favor of such a misguided "rationalism" leaves students unequipped for human flourishing. Students raised on such a deficient educational model are likely to become "Men without Chests": "It is not excess of thought," writes Lewis, "but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary; it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so." 

In contrast, a fully human education requires attention to the entirety of the tripartite soul. Lewis explains it succinctly: "The head rules the belly through the chest." By head he means reason. By belly he means appetite. By chest he means "the seat . . . of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments." A well-ordered soul has habituated rationally-guided feeling-turned-sentiment. Such a well-ordered individual more easily avoids falling into base impulse or appetite and more reflexively chooses what is best and right. For example, if one feels strongly and persistently that one ought to give alms to the poor, it is more likely that one will be driven by that habit of thought and feeling to actually hand some cash to the beggar on the corner.

Perhaps we could speak of these "stable sentiments" as revealing or stemming from our basic attitudes toward the world. In contrast to those peripheral beliefs to which we give a mere token mental assent, sentiments direct our actions in practice. Because of the way a person views and feels about the world, she either is moved to give alms or is not.

In another way of looking at it, we could say that our sentiments align with what we habitually and affectively value. The Tao (the platitudes or first principles of practical reason), says Lewis, "is the sole source of all value judgements." If we truly value beautiful music, for example, we will be more likely both to pursue occasions to hear it and also to feel pleasure when we do.

These habits of acting and feeling, the value we ascribe, these come from sentiment or attitude.

In "Lost Tools," Sayers does not make any explicit reference to the necessity of imparting to students the values, attitudes, or proper sentiments that are constituent in the moral-rational-intellectual treasury of our human heritage. This is most likely because Sayers herself was standing firmly within the Tao and rightly assumed its existence as that within which we live and move and have our being.

Defending the ethic and aesthetic foundations of human life and thought was beyond the scope of Sayers short 1947 address. With prophetic vision, however, Lewis dedicated an entire book to the problems that result when curriculum designers neglect or reject axiological underpinnings.

Looking at Sayers' essay as in conversation with thinkers like Adler and Lewis allows us to gain a fuller picture of what education involves. With hints from Adler and freight-train-like insight from Lewis, we see that we must expand our educational goals. In addition to knowledge sets, communication skills, and intellectual habits, we need to aim for formation of sentiment—values, attitudes, habits of feeling and acting and appraising.

But how?

See the next post in the series here.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Dorothy Sayers and Mortimer Adler in Conversation

[This is the second in a series following the first: Dorothy Sayers' "Lost Tools of Learning" in the 21st Century.]

During the same decade that Sayers gave her "Lost Tools of Learning" address in Oxford, England, Mortimer Adler published a flurry of articles and books addressing the ideal nature and structure of a liberal arts education. In the 1940s, Adler published the first edition of the best-seller How to Read a Book as well as several essays on education and The Revolution in Education. He continued to contribute to the conversation about liberal education until his death in 2001.

Adler is perhaps most famous for his work in founding The Great Books of the Western World program and the Great Books Foundation. He also instituted the Paideia Proposal and the Paideia Program (now the National Paideia Center), which are specifically devoted to envisioning and facilitating a democratic liberal arts education for K-12 students in the United States.

Rather than give an overview of Adler's entire schema for K-12 education, I'd like to highlight what specifically he offers to the discussion as it relates to Sayer's "Lost Tools of Learning" paradigm.  

Adler agrees with Sayers regarding the goal of a liberal education. For both Sayers and Adler, a liberal arts education should equip the student for a life of on-going learning. In "Liberal Education—Theory and Practice" (1945), Adler describes the "product" of successful liberal arts education as "a good mind, well disciplined in its processes of inquiring and judging, knowing and understanding, and well furnished with knowledge, well cultivated by ideas." And, like Sayers, Adler acknowledges that learning should beget a lifetime of learning. He explains:
"No one can be given a completed liberal education in school, college, or university, for unlike the body, the mind's capacity for growth does not terminate with youth; on the contrary, the mature mind is more educable than the immature." ("Liberal")
Where Sayers is by necessity sparse, Adler offers clarification. In her "Lost Tools" address, Sayers does not give a precise definition of what she refers to as "the tools of learning." What exactly are they anyway? They could be the practice of the seven liberal arts, or perhaps the practice of the first three arts, namely, the trivium. They could be knowledge acquired in the course of study, or attitudes, skills, or habits. If so, it would be helpful to know which knowledge, attitudes, skill, and/or habits we mean. Distinguo! 

When Sayers first introduces the phrase "tools of learning" (seventeenth paragraph), she correlates the tools with thought and language. Language, she says, is "the medium in which thought is expressed," and the three arts of the trivium are correlated with the development of language and thought:
  • The art of Grammar develops knowledge of the structure of language and "of language itself." 
  • The art of Logic (or Dialectic) then teaches the reasoning skills and habits of mind necessary for constructing and evaluating propositional thought expressed in language. 
  • Finally, the art of Rhetoric is concerned with the eloquent expression of ideas in language.
So, at the outset, Sayer's "tools" seem to include both knowledge sets (the grammar of a language or languages) and also skills and habits (of discursive reasoning and creative expression), all organized around communication. 

In this Sayers lines up neatly with her American contemporary. Adler writes of the same subject in his 1941 essay "What Is Basic about English." He explains that the three liberal arts—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—"train a mind for the most characteristic function of human life—communication." These three liberal arts, he elaborates, regulate the operations of the initiation (speaking and writing) and reception (listening and reading) of communication.

For Adler, the distinctions are clear. The three arts of the trivium are concerned with the four operations of communication—listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Therefore, the arts are developed through the study of language and literature, namely, spoken and written language.  

The distinctions can be somewhat confusing since the four operations of communication have now become known in some circles as the four "language arts." The four language arts are related to, but distinct from, the three liberal arts that constitute the trivium. According to Adler, the three liberal arts regulate the four language arts/operations.

Because he has honed in on communication as the unifying theme, Adler is also able to offer a reason for the modern practice of expanding the trivium to greater subject matter than the Latin studies that characterized medieval schools. He explains:
"To the extent that teachers of English are concerned with these four operations, they are concerned with the three arts; and in so far as they are properly concerned with these operations, and with their arts, they should transcend every limitation of subject matter, for they should be concerned with every type and every phase of communication." 
The three liberal arts are only effectively taught within the context of actual language and literature, but every subject matter offers fodder for a liberal arts education. 

Sayers agrees that "we must, of course, exercise the mind on other things besides Latin grammar." She recommends that the young student exercise his keen faculties of "observation and memory" on Latin, modern languages, English, history, geography, natural science, math, and theology. Sayers reminds us that Theology is the mistress science which shows "all branches of learning to be inter-related" and "that all knowledge is one."

While all knowledge is one, Adler clarifies that the material selected for study must be worthy and not twaddle. For example, it would be better for students to attend to the work of master artists than to commercial greeting-card art. It would be more valuable for young students to hear the poetry of Robert Frost than to hear only the silly kind of rhymes written solely for children.  Da Vinci is more worthy than Hallmark, Mozart is more worthy than American Idol, and Shakespeare's plays are more worthy than the latest take on the teen vampire romance. 

Adler also observes that the three liberal arts cannot be effectively taught in isolation from one another even if there is somewhat of a hierarchical progression from grammar to logic to rhetoric ("What Is Basic"):
"The three arts cannot be separated, for no one of them is sufficient to regulate good writing or reading. Each requires the supplementation of the other two; the three must interpenetrate one another; they are mutually supporting disciplines for the simple reason that language without thought is nonsense; thought without language is ineffable; and both without consideration of the human context in communication are lacking in direction. (Discourse is not simply rational, but social, for man is not just rational, but socially so.)"
While, as Sayers observes, there tend to be dominant abilities/interests correlated with the different stages of child development, communication always involves grammar, logic, and rhetoric working together. Thus true learning is both interdisciplinary with regard to subject and multifaceted with regard to the liberal arts and the tools employed.

So between Sayers and Adler we gain a clearer view of both the ends and means of a classical liberal arts trivium education. A trivium education aims to impart organized knowledge as well as to develop skills and habits related to listening, speaking, reading, writing, and thinking across a wide range of subject matter. Adler also clarifies a third goal implied in Sayers' address: cultivating a depth of understanding of ideas, concepts, and values. 

As the goals are distinct, so are the means. To assist the acquisition of organized knowledge, Sayers recommends memorization and Adler acknowledges the importance of a limited amount of didactic instruction. Both Sayers and Adler highlight the dialectic as an indispensable means to developing habits of mind and depth of understanding. Adler also recommends coaching through modeling and questioning to cultivate intellectual skills. And all this activity focuses on interdisciplinary subject matter of high quality.

Adler knows intellectual knowledge, skills, and understanding isn't enough, however. In "Liberal Education—Theory and Practice," he ends with a problem: "how to overcome the weakness of the flesh on the part of both teachers and students."
C. S. Lewis has a lot to say about that particular problem and it's solution, but I'll save that for another post.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Dorothy Sayers' "Lost Tools" in the 21st Century

Dorothy Sayers is fine proof that you don't need to have a degree or expertise in education in order to be able to critique the educational system and propose powerful solutions. Sayers begins her famous "Lost Tools of Learning" address by freely acknowledging that she is one "whose experience of teaching is extremely limited." In her day job, Sayers was a professional advertising copywriter, and she was a prolific literary writer and translator as well. Of course she was also one of the first women to graduate from Oxford, having earned first-class honors. 

With a degree in medieval literature from a classically-modeled school, Sayers is quite qualified to inform her audience regarding the structure of the classical/medieval model of education.

When I first read Dorothy Sayers's now-famous address, I was so moved by her wit, insight, and moxie that I became an instant fan. As readers, we are disarmed by her humor, impressed by her erudition, and convinced by her incisive criticism of a broken educational system.

I own and have read most of Sayers books. I love her. And so do lots of other folks, in particular those in the classical education movement who have rallied around her Lost Tools essay. Douglas Wilson wrote a whole book around it. Institutions have been erected on its ideas, and schools and groups have taken Sayers' name.

And thank God for the revival in classical liberal arts education that Sayers' essay helped bring about. Long live the trivium! Long live quadrivium! 

We are indebted to Sayers for reminding us that the medieval model of education has something to teach us—not, as she says, that we should emulate it exactly, but that we should correct the modern educational error of straying away from the liberal arts. The seven liberal arts equip students with the tools of learning necessary for any field of study and for discernment in life in general.

Our society needs this reminder no less—and probably more—than at the time of Sayers's original presentation of "The Lost Tools of Learning" in 1947. Students do not need to acquire more and more technical facts and information; they need the learned habit of thinking critically and well. They need to know how to make distinctions, to define terms, to follow and evaluate an argument. They need the fine-tuned ability to discern good from bad, beauty from ugliness, truth from falsehood. And the seven liberal arts offer a framework for developing these human potentials. So Sayers reminds us.

But what would Sayers say to us today? In this age of information, we have access—at the click of a button or swipe of a finger—to a wealth of research, "best practices," and volumes of authors past and present, all of which can inform our educational choices.

If Sayers spoke to us today, I think she would urge us to see her "Lost Tools of Learning" address as an attempt to start a conversation and not necessarily as a definitive blue print for K-12 education. 

Sayers is not the only eloquent thinker to highlight the benefits and features of a classical liberal arts education. And the habit of critical discernment which she recommends, demands that we, the readers, pause to evaluate the soundness and veracity of her own ideas. Entering into a critical dialog with the text of her address would be a sign that we have truly understood the principles she advances.

I am sure Sayers would be honored to see us filling out and finessing her "necessarily very sketchy suggestions" with insights from other thinkers. The banner-carrying classicists of the 1940's come to mind—Mortimer Adler, C.S. Lewis, and Jacques Maritain. Charlotte Mason is another strong advocate of a robust liberal arts education. Each of these thinkers and practitioners of the liberal arts offer unique insights into the ideal nature and structure of a classical liberal arts education. 

How can we best synthesize the valuable insights from Sayer's "Lost Tools of Learning" essay with the complimentary insights from other liberal-arts-minded powerhouses of theory and practice?

[This post is the first in a series. The next is "Dorothy Sayers and Mortimer Adler in Conversation."]

Saturday, March 15, 2014

"As If We Sing to One Another All Day"

 In the introduction to his book, The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide, Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky explains the amazing phenomenon that comes with natural language acquisition:
Every speaker, intuitively and accurately, courses gracefully through immensely subtle manipulations of sound. We not only indicate, for example, where the accent is in a word like "question," but also preserve that accent while adding the difference between "Was that a question?" and "Yes, that was a question."

It is almost as if we sing to one another all day.

We do not need to be taught such things: if they were taught in school, we would find them hard and make a mess of them.

In this regard, the way we use the sounds of language is like the way we use "down" and "up" with certain English verbs: I have never heard a child, however small, or anyone, however stupid, make a mistake when discriminating among such expressions as: "Can you put me up?" and its cousins—"Don't put me down," "It brings me down," "I wasn't brought up that way," "Then what it comes down to is, why bring it up?" and so forth. If we learned these distinctions by making charts and memorizing them, or by rules, we would blunder.

It is the same with what Robert Frost calls "sentence sounds." Because we have learned to deal with the sound patterns organically, for practical goals, from before we can remember, without reflection or instruction or conscious analysis, we all produce the sounds, and understand them, with great efficiency and subtle nuance. [. . . It is a] skill, acquired like the ability to walk and run [. . . ]

The hearing-knowledge we bring to a line of poetry is a knowledge of patterns of speech we have known to hear since we were infants. If we tried to learn such knowledge by elaborate rules or through brute, systematic memorization, then just as with the distinctions involved in putting up with me and putting me up, we would not be able to use them as fluently as we do.
Wouldn't it be lovely to acquire second languages in such an automatic and natural way as our first? We can't perfectly recreate the process from first to second languages, but we can approximate it. This is the genius behind the highly successful methods of Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone language learning. (And, of course, there is actual immersion. But that is not always an option.)

As Pinsky goes on to explain in his introduction, there is a time and a place for going on to learn and attend to the rules, rhythms, and reasons behind language use. To attend to these intricacies is the essential purpose of his book. When we become aware of the patterns—be they grammatical, structural, or syllabic—that underlie and govern the use of language, our ability to employ and enjoy language increases.

Language is primarily and essentially spoken and heard, and only secondarily becomes abstracted to symbols to be written and read. We naturally learn our first language through listening to words and phrases spoken in context. Gradually we begin to imitate the sounds and find ourselves speaking. Only much later do we learn the alphabet, phonics, etc. to read and write.

Precisely because of our propensity to invert the natural process of language learning in traditional textbook approaches, the learning of second languages, especially so called "dead languages," can be a tough slog. First you learn the abstracted symbols—alphabet, reading, and writing—and then, if you succeed wildly, you may figure out how to pronounce individual words and phrases without every time doing the mental gymnastics of transliteration/phonics, accent, and pitch navigation. 

Learning a language backwards, by the book, does not get us to the easy fluency and delight of a living language learned through hearing and speaking. We resort to studying a textual artifact rather than entering and participating in a living word. As a result, we "find [the subtle manipulations of sound] hard and make a mess of them." We blunder.

Is this a necessary drudgery, or is it due to a lack of imagination? Innovators like Pimsleur and Rosetta founder, Allen Stoltzfus, show us what imagination can do.

With imagination and innovation, we keep the song alive.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Core Arts Standards without Beauty

The National Coalition for Core Arts Standards (NCCAS) is currently conducting a "final public review of the draft PreK-12 arts standards in dance, media arts, music, theatre, and visual arts."

In principle, I am not opposed to the idea of standards. However, there is something fishy about national grade-level standards handed down by a committee and intended to guide everyone everywhere.  

The problem with these kinds of national standards is three-fold. 

First, national education standards are overly discrete and specific for the kind of thing they are. Goals intended for universal adoption should stop at general terms. For example, it is all fine and well to state as a goal that students eventually be able to "synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make art." On the other hand, dictating that, in order to meet that general goal, all children in all places ought to "create art that tells a story about a life experience" while in Kindergarten and then "create works of art that reflect community and cultural traditions" during their fourth grade year, and so on, is just plain silly. 

Okay; it's more than silly. It's demeaning and limiting to students, families, and educators. It's micromanaging. Nobody wants that.

. . . Except for those in the curriculum and assessment businesses. 

Which brings us to the second problem with national education standards: They are usually linked to product for profit. Discrete, grade-level standards give publishers the scope and sequence road map for lesson plans that will be acceptable to schools operating under the standards umbrella. 

Assessment and curriculum publishing is a multi-billion dollar industry. In 2012, the market-leading Pearson company sold over $9 billion dollars worth of product. The College Board, one of the leading stake-holders on the NCCAS, has an annual revenue of over $65 million

If everyone everywhere is learning discrete goal x in such-and-such grade, then companies like Pearson can write generic textbooks for universal sales, and the College Board can sell universal testing services to see if students have done x in such-and-such grade. Whether x is worth learning or teaching to every student everywhere in such-and-such grade really doesn't come into the picture for the mega business plan.

Last, but far from least, national education standards, being pluralistic and allegedly value-neutral, are unavoidably vacuous and slanted in core areas. A review of the draft of the specific grade-level standards for visual arts (pdf) reveals an emphasis on social awareness and change. Social awareness is good. Social change can also be good. What about imitation, mastery, or acquaintance with historical masters? These terms and goals are not mentioned in the NCCAS standards draft. This is rather telling about the values and commitments of the coalition.

Even more noticeable is the absence of any mention of beauty. That's right. The national Core Art Standards for visual arts contain not one mention of the word "beauty." 

Comprehensive art standards that have nothing to say about beauty?!? Sadly, this is not surprising, but it should be. Shouldn't it shock and disturb us that students across our nation will be taught, through a deafening silence, that art and beauty have nothing to do with each other, that beauty is no worthy artistic goal? This is what the NCCAS would have for our nation's children.

I have quite different goals for my own children. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Kindergarten, Take 2

I'm gearing up to tackle Kindergarten with my second-born in the fall. Having already had an initial go leading my first-born through kindergarten, I'm feeling pretty clear-headed about my priorities, especially with going-on three years of perspective and hindsight to guide me.

Here's what I'm hoping my son will learn and do:

Human Core:
  • Listen to Bible stories.
  • Take nature walks and free play outside as much as possible.
  • Attend to and draw objects from nature in a "nature notebook" as often as he fancies.
  • Listen to beautiful music, especially classical music, and especially live music.
  • Listen to poems.
  • Listen to captivating picture-book and chapter-book stories.
  • Make lots of arts and crafts, mostly self-directed.
  • Go to the zoo as often as possible.
  • Have plenty of unstructured, imaginative free-play.
  • Develop harmony with the body and increasing skill in sustained physical activity. (For my daughter, this has been through dance; for my son, I'm thinking swimming.)

Moral Core:
  • Sustain life-giving personal habits such as a rule of prayer, tithing, and responsible chore completion.

Literacy Core: (multi-year goals)
  • Write and read the 70 basic English phonograms.
  • Write somewhat legibly in cursive handwriting.
  • Start spelling, writing, and reading some basic words and sentences. 

Essential Resources:

Optional Resources:
  • A home library well stocked with quality books and music
  • The Pencil Grip Crossover
  • Colored pencils
  • Miscellaneous arts and crafts supplies
  • Near-by parks and nature preserves 
  • Local music performances, especially free ("Music at Noon" programs are the best!)
  • Swim team or some such
  • Zoo membership
  • Spell to Write and Read (a.k.a. SWR) and the corresponding Cursive First package

Formal math curriculum? Traditional science instruction? Social studies? State standards?  . . . Ain't no soul-lovin' home-kinder-teacher got time for that!