Saturday, July 02, 2011

A Love for Learning...

For years I have heard adults of my parents generation complain that "kids today" haven't been taught how to learn.  I've heard the complaint time and time again, but I've never really thought much about it.

Then, I began homeschooling, and now I hear it all. the. time.  When we joined our co-op, we were asked to read the Lost Tools of Learning.  But, oops, I never did that!  The leaders of our co-op are passionate about "teaching children to think for themselves."  How many times have I heard parents talking or read blogs discussing the fact that society today is creating a generation of young adults who do not stand up and challenge, but on the contrary, they are lazy, indifferent, and only concerned about doing enough to get by.  Where is the passion?  the creativity?  the things that made America what it is, or what it was, anyway?

When Erik was headmaster for the first time this year (the Dads take turns each Friday ~ equals out to twice a year) he was impressed.  He sat in on a few of the high school and jr. high classes and entered into their discussions.  That evening he told me, "Erin these kids are impressive ~ even the least intelligent ones were impressive.  They sat in a group and discussed literature with intellect and deep thought."  They are in the process of learning through the classical model how to process and express their thoughts.

But, even after Erik and I talked that night, I still just didn't get it.  I remember running into MJ ~ one of my favorite Excelsior moms at Atlanta Bread one morning.  I have always enjoyed her and watched her from a distance.  Her classes are rarely taught indoors.  She teaches high school literature, and she prefers to bring her students outside under a tree.  They sit in a circle and delve deeply into conversations.  I know this because many times as I have been prepping for lunch I have had to walk by her class sitting there under the shade of a large oak tree.  I don't think any of her students ever noticed me.  They never turned their heads to look at me, not one of them.  They were always deeply engrossed in whatever they were discussing.  MJ doesn't lecture.  In fact, sometimes the kids teach the class.  She just facilitates discussion and allows the teenagers to learn from one another.

I digress....

So, one day at Atlanta Bread, I asked her point blank.  "MJ, I hear everyone talking about wanting their children to think for themselves, but I don't understand what that means?  I just don't get it."  Oh, was she passionate!  She talked on and on about her boys love for learning.  How one began reading history books as a young child, eating it up!  She talked about society and rules, rigidity and creativity stifled.... But, still it fell on deaf ears.  I just didn't get it.

Until this morning!  I was engrossed in a deep discussion with one of the two wisest men I know, Erik's Dad (The other wisest man is my Dad, of course.  Erik and I were both blessed with fathers who have great depth and wisdom.)  Pop was discussing how sad it is that education has become something where in elementary school, jr, high, high school, college, and at the master's level, in general, young men and woman are just lectured to, taught information and then asked to regurgitate it.  But, then suddenly when they begin doctoral work, they are asked to think for themselves, and they struggle with how to do that because they have never been taught.  We talked long about this.  I chimed in when my limited understanding allowed me the opportunity to do so.  I have long heard people compliment Pop on what an amazing teacher he is, but today I understood why.  He doesn't stand and lecture like he knows it all and needs to impart his knowledge to his students.  Instead, he teaches his students how to look at a text and figure it out for themselves.  They are not taught what to think, but rather they are taught how to think.  And, being taught how to think, how to form your own thoughts, is the missing link today!  And, ever so slowly, I began to get it. I began to understand!!

Then, Erik chimed in...  "In medical school you study and study and learn vast amounts of knowledge from books and lectures.  Then, one day, I'll never forget the day, they took me in a room with a real person and said take care of her.  And, I had to figure out, on my own, using what I had learned, what was wrong with her.  But, not only that, I had to present what I thought and stand on it.  Right or wrong, I had to stand on what I believed to be wrong with her."  This is when the point was truly driven home for me.

Suddenly, I got it!!  I understood what it means to think for yourself.  I began to understand what the lost tools of learning are!  I was taken back in my mind to one of my first nursing school tests.  I learned quickly after beginning nursing school that I did not like it.  All my life there had been one right answer. I could study and recall the information and make an A.  Easy peasy, study and regurgitate.  I had it down, but nursing school challenged that.  We took multiple choice tests, but all four answers were often correct.  They expected us to use "critical thinking skills" and figure out which answer was "best", not which answer was correct, but which answer was "best."  I hated it.  I made the first B of my college education right then and there.  I learned that sometimes the A students did not necessarily make the best nurses ~ I fell into this category!  Oftentimes, it was the struggling students who thought best on their feet, and in all actuality, were the more successful nurses.

When I got out of school, I saw this again.  I was an RN, BSN, and I had to sign my name behind the care given by the LPNs (Licensed Practical Nurses).  RN's with BSNs spend most of nursing school in the classroom with clinical rotations here and there.  But, LPN school is different it is "practical."  They spend the majority of the time on the floor working, real life. The LPNs often taught me, the nurse with the higher education, how to best take care of patients.  I learned quickly that being a nurse had little to do with what I learned in school and more to do with being able to assess a situation and make a decision.

The world is not black and white.  And, as I learned in the hospital, there is not one right way to  take care of a patient.  There are a plethora of right ways, as well as, a plethora of wrong ways.  But, someone who has learned to think for himself is able to look at the situation, come up with a plan, and execute without hesitating.  It take skill, confidence, and some amount of intellect.

And, since the world is not black and white, why do we teach our children this way?  our young people?  We give tests with one right answer.  I read an article recently that wondered how many Hemingways our society has put to death because English teachers spend more time correcting grammar and less time appreciating the creativity and thought behind the essays of their students.  Why not inspire them?  But, instead we red pen them to the point that they feel trapped between two blue lines on a page of notebook paper unable to draw out what is deep inside of them.

MJ, the literature teacher I mentioned earlier, is an editor by trade.  And, she told me once, "Erin don't worry so much about grammar (I hound her with grammar questions!).  When you get out of school, real writers do not always use perfect grammar.  A good foundation is needed, yes, but writers use freedom to express themselves.  They are not confined to strict grammar rules."  She warned me that too many times we focus too early on grammar, and in doing that, we stifle the inborn creativity of the child.  She encouraged me to make sure Joshua had a place to write, daily, where I did not correct him.  A place where he could focus on expressing himself freely ~ instead of focusing on getting the spelling and grammar correct.  If we teach them to write only in the confines of rule following, spell checking, then how will they learn to let their hearts overflow with words. I've always heard that there is a window of creativity when children are young.  This is the time when we need to foster and grow their curiosity and creativity!! MJ encouraged me that Joshua will get the grammar, but at this point, I should be focusing on the creative side of writing.  We want our boys to love to write and express themselves and not think of it as a burdensome chore.

Our Co-op uses an intense high school history curriculum that ends the year each year (9th-12th grade) with a 30 page essay test.  It is the big topic of conversation in April and May as students begin preparations for the big day.  I asked a student during lunch one day, "Is it really that bad?"  She answered, "Oh, yes!  We not only have to know about what the question is about.  We have to pull from everywhere to answer it.  We have to use knowledge about other countries, other times in history, to back up our answer.  It is so hard!"

Why is it hard?  Because they have to think!!!  Imagine that!  They can't just regurgitate information. They have to process information, form opinions, state those opinions, and stand. on. them.  Bottom line.  This kind of thinking creates well rounded young people who, because they have learned how to think,  are confident and believe in themselves and their ability to make a difference in their world.

We live in a culture where society defines excellence by being able to fill in the most circles correctly rather than by being articulate, intelligent, confident, passionate, and full of wisdom. We spend more time focusing on dotting i's and crossing t's and less time writing from our toes, with all that is in us, with God-given unbridled passion.  What good is intelligence without passion and creativity?

Wouldn't it be wonderful if the states gave money not based on test scores but rather based on schools that produced adults with a hunger and thirst for knowledge ~ young adults with insatiable appetites for learning!  If teachers received bonuses for inspiring their students, drawing them out of their comfort zones, and challenging them to be catalysts in a society of indifference!!  Now that would be something!

And, so this morning, in one fell swoop the classical model of education became brilliant with clarity anew!  I've always loved the classical model, but I have a renewed appreciation for it.  The classical model is as follows...  I'll throw in an example to help make it make sense.

#1 Grammar stage (approximately Kindergarten through 4th grade) ~ This is the stage my boys are in right now.  The main thing taught in the grammar stage is memorization.  Children memorize poetry, dates, historical facts, historical speeches, science facts, scripture, etc.  We are filling their little minds with lots and lots of facts.  I once heard it explained this way....  We are giving them file foldersin the grammar stage, and in the later stages, we will fill those folders up with more details.  Example: This year my boys studied World War II.  They learned a lot of basic facts about the war.  One of these facts was that the war ended when America dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

#2 The Logic stage (approximately 5th-8th grade) ~ This is the stage where they begin to look more deeply into things, to reason,  and to decide what they believe.  Example:  Why did America use atomic bombs?  Do you think Truman made the right decision?  It is now time to evaluate, to look at the problem from all angles and form your own conclusions. Logic is a class taken in classical schools and co-ops.  A class that presents information and asks kids to reason it all out for themselves, to learn to come to their own conclusions.

#3 The Rhetoric stage (approximately 9th-12th) ~ At this point young people are preparing for college and their launch into the real world.  They have learned the facts.  They know them well.  After all, they were exposed to them at a young age, and then spent several years digesting them, thinking about them, and forming their own opinions about them.  Now in this stage they learn to express themselves through writing and speech.  This is the debate stage.  Stand up, speak your mind, and attempt to convince your audience.  This is the stage where they already know how they feel about certain issues.  They are well learned and well read at this point.  So, they take that knowledge base, along with the confidence they have gained by learning how to draw their own conclusions, and here they learn to stand up for themselves and their beliefs.  This is the stage where they really grow up.  They not only have strong convictions, but they are learning how to confidently articulate these personal convictions.  Example:  The student might give a speech standing up for how he feels about the use of nuclear weapons. And, because of all the years he has studied history (Most classical schools and homeschool families study history in either a 3 or 4 year cycle ensuring the students go through history from creation to modern times at least 3 times before graduating from high school.), he has the knowledge base to back up his beliefs.  He is not blindly choosing a side and then attempting to do research to back up his new found convictions.  That is the way I used to do it!! :-)  But, I don't recommend it, and I pray my boys rise above the ways of their mama!

It is common sense, really.  There isn't anything magical about the classical model.  It is what we all seek to do as we parent and mentor the little ones God has entrusted to our care.  It is the natural order of learning for parents and for teachers who are intentional about their teaching and training of those under them.

But, being intentional is a challenge.  It is easier in all venues to simply not think.  I mean we do it with our spiritual lives ~ tell me what hoops to jump through ~ the checklist mentality that Erik challenges his college students with so often ~ prayer, check! quiet time, check! helped an old lady across the street - service, check!  But, spiritual growth is not about checklists and legalism.  It is about relationship, and that is immeasurable!  Why do we as finite humans always want to make everything measurable??  I do this so often with parenting.  I just want a book that says, "Do this, this, and this, and it will all work out!"  But, parenting isn't like that!  It is breath by breath, moment by moment.  There are not black and white, one right way methods.  It sounds good in a book, but when the rubber meets the road it is a different story!  You have to use your head and your God-given creativity every moment of every day.

So, I write all this, mainly, to get it off my chest!  But, it isn't about the classical model or school, really.  It is about raising our children to not become blind followers.  It is about raising kids to think and not to become indifferent.  We are raising the next generation, and this country was not founded by indifferent men with indifferent agendas who just wanted to get elected or worse who just wanted to get by day in and day out.  Our nation was formed by men filled with passion and conviction!  Men with creativity unstifled.  Men who believed in the impossible, and then watched as, with the help of God, they accomplished it!

So, I challenge you, find your child's bent.  What are they passionate about?  God has great plans for each child that will ultimately result in His glory.  It is up to us, as parents, to help our children grow in these areas.  In order to do this we have to give them the freedom to be creative and to be curious about the world around them.  Embrace the curiosity!  They have a world to explore and learn, and that is so exciting!  Like Pop said this morning, there is so much that they can learn through play, through being outside, and through trial and error!  Let them go and let them explore!

As we are rapidly approaching a new school year, today, I was inspired to grow and learn with my sons this year!!!  We will be studying ancient times (Creation through the Roman Empire), and I cannot wait to learn all sorts of new things right beside them!  Even I get a little wigged out about standardized tests.  The boys will take these yearly through a private school that allows homeschoolers in for testing.  Last year, I worried too much about the testing.  I worried too much about keeping them at grade level.  This year I really feel that God is calling me to let go and trust Him with their education.  I feel like He is calling me to slow down and dig deep.  And, I'm not just talking about digging deep into literature, I'm talking about digging deep in the mud!! :-)  This year we are going to do our math and grammar, but we are also going to spend more time reading and more time exploring our world with hands on learning!

I'll end with a quote from my sweet sister in love, who always encourages me to worry less about their math skills and more about their hearts :-)!!  She said, "Erin, if we can teach them to love to learn, if we can teach them to love to learn so much that they never want to stop, then we have done our job."


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Erin, this blog is beautiful and inspirational as always. I'm in my 2nd semester of Nursing school and during the 1st, all I wanted to do was quit. There are days where I still want to walk away and say "Forget it!" I'm no quitter and like everything else in my life, this is all in His hands. Thank you for those tidbits in your blog. They keep me encouraged.

Sunshine said...

This is an amazingly thought provoking post. I will be coming back here many times through the next school year (especially on the hard days!) to remind me why I do what I do. Thank you for sharing this! Sunshine

Anonymous said...

I will be starting my first year of classical conversations homeschool program with my 12 year old next year! I am very excited! She has been in regular Christian school until now!

Deidre said...

I love this post, Erin. Our school is a Classical Christian School and I am learning more and more to appreciate it. I don't think I understood it at first, but after working in the school for 2 years, I was amazed at the high school students and the freedom they had to 'think through' an idea. I love it! But, yes, I am still learning more about it.

From my girls standpoint (Olivia just finished Kindergarten and Emma just finished 3rd grade), the pace has been rapid and they have learned so much. I would doubt the chants and memorization work often, but once I saw the logic and rhetoric levels, it all started to make sense.

Amy said...

Excellent post Erin! So true! I've always strived to teach my children in a way that would excite and inspire them to dig deeper. You have such a gift of expressing your thoughts, I appreciate your sharing with us so much! Happy homeschooling!

Georgia Peach said...

Erin, you hit the nail on the head. As an educator, my 4th grade class struggled last year with critical thinking. When asked, "What do you think?" or "How would you respond in that situation?", they would reply, "I don't get this question." I would inform them there is no right or wrong answer. I just want them to think about the question and respond. If they don't learn as young children to think for themselves, they are in trouble when they hit the real world. Higher level thinking is so important for students today. Get away from what others say and be ready to defend/debate their thoughts and opinions. Great stuff girl!

Anonymous said...

This was nothing short of brilliant - made me think :) I don't usually leave comments, but this required one - what a great piece of writing.

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Hi! I live in a sweet country home overflowing with love, laughter, and little ones. I have been blessed to journey these days beside a man that I love, respect, and admire. He is my soul-mate and best friend. Together we are seeking to raise our seven children to be lovers of God, to be wise and discerning, and to be all that our sweet God created them to be. I am in the goldfish and cheerio stage of life, but I am keenly aware that these days are slipping right through my hands. This blog is my attempt to keep our memories safe for years to come.


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