Archive for the ‘Parenting’ Category

The Socialization Question

Dear Reader,

Since reading The Hurried Child by David Elkind (my review here), I have been thinking more about socialization. If you have even considered homeschooling, you have probably had this word thrown at you. The first thing I always recommend when someone asks the dreaded question “What about socialization?” is to ask them what they mean by that term.

Socialization means different things to different people. I’d like to suggest that there are three main categories. Socialization can mean simply social time, i.e. time spent with peers. It can refer to specific habits and practices which people are expected to learn and use. I am thinking here of things like standing in line, saying please and thank you, and more subtle social skills like how to participate in a group discussion. Lastly, socialization can refer to one’s ability to be relational — to form,  build, and negotiate relationships. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

For some socialization just means time to socialize. It is spending time with peers. It is hard to deny that most school kids get way more time with their peers, but I would like to suggest that when discussing what is best for a given child that we consider the following:

  • Quantity is not the same as quality. Many school kids have to be told not to socialize in the middle of class. Homeschooled kids may have less overall time (probably do) but their interactions tend to come in contexts in which they are allowed and even expected to chat and play.
  • The need for social time varies, both among individuals and over one’s lifetime. My own very unscientific observation is that little kids really don’t need much social time with people other than family. The drive for social time at this age often comes from the parent’s need and expectations, not the child’s. Middle age kids (maybe 7-11) seem to need a bit more and teens are even more peer-focused. But there are also individual variations. I have one child who just sick of being around people very quickly. (She is quite happy in quarantine right now.) Again, parents need to distinguish between their own needs and that of their child. If your child is happy, you don’t necessarily need to push for more (though there may be separate issues when there are developmental concerns). In a family, even with just one parent and one child, there may also need to be some compromise here. Until you can leave a child home alone (or let them drive to a friend’s house alone), the more social may need to do with a bit less and the less social to get out a bit more than they like.
  • How much social time happens naturally as a part of your family life? If you have 9 kids, odds are your 8-year-old already has someone to play with. If you have an only child, you may need to make more effort to find him playmates once in a while.
  • We don’t always want what is good for us. Another very unscientific observation: the teens who seem to crave a lot of time with peers are also those who are most insecure and most easily influenced and led. Of course, in these days of social media, homeschooled kids are not protected from this kind of social mania just because they stay within their own four walls.
  • Which leads us to — not all social time is good social time. Peer pressure is a thing. The time your child spends with other kids may either a) make him unhappy or b) make him happy but teach him things you don’t want him to learn.
  • Peer social time is not the only option. Peers are good. I am not suggesting we isolate our children from other kids their age, but homeschoolers are more likely to get social time with people not born within 12 months of them.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of a little loneliness and boredom. Being forced to be on our own sometimes helps us become who we are (and perhaps a little less of just who we want our peers to think we are).

The second kind of socialization is the learning of skills. What the important skills are could be a big discussion  but here again are some points to consider:

  • Some skills can be learned, and perhaps learned better, in real world contexts. Homeschooled kids below a certain age have to go places with their parents. Places like the grocery store and the bank. Here they will learn valuable real-life skills like waiting in line. And they will do so in real world contexts.
  • Not all school kids are well-socialized. I have watched the socialized school kids in tennis camp with my kids. They are awful at waiting in line. Just sayin’.
  • Some skills are harder to learn at home. In this category I would put things like participating in group discussions. This doesn’t need to be a deal breaker, however. Being aware of the gaps, of what your homeschooled kid might be missing out on, lets you know what you might need to seek out or work on.
  • Some skills are better not learned. Oddly one of the big ones you hear is “how will your kids learn to deal with bullies if they don’t go to school?” Personally, I would rather my kid not have to deal with a bully. Not that there aren’t bullies in the adult world but knowing what is normal and acceptable behavior is hugely important. Thinking that bullying is normal and regular is not good IMO. My oldest said one of the hardest things when he went to college was dealing with all the drama his peers were wrapped up in all the time. It was new to him. But I would rather he is able to see the drama for what it is and know that human relationships don’t have to be that way.
  • On a related note, there are good skills and bad skills one can learn. Both are available on the playground.

Lastly, we come to what is probably the most important kind of socialization: Being able to build and maintain relationships. Here I would refer you again to Elkind’s The Hurried Child. He lays out his theory of how parents socialize their children which boils down to: we relate to one another through social contracts. The parent-child one is multifaceted and subtle. It is about freedom and responsibility but also about trust and loyalty. Elkind argues that this primary relationship is unequal and that kids need peer relationships too because they are equal and require a different kind of negotiation. I think he goes a little far on this point but essentially what he says makes sense. But it also means that it is in these close, long-term relationships that we really build relationship skills. My dad was a grouch at home but he was always very friendly and chatty with grocery store check-out ladies. My mom said it was because there was no depth there. You chat for two minutes once a week and nothing more is asked of you. It is the long-term relationships in our lives that challenge and stretch us. Elkind implies that a young child going from home to school to daycare is hurried and suffers for it emotionally. He has too many relationships to juggle and they don’t come with the loyalty and trust that the parent-child relationship does. I would argue that the homeschool environment is much better for being able to build these long-term relationship skills that are really the most essential type of socialization. The relationships a child has may be fewer but they have depth.

So the next time your mother-in-law says the S-word to you, ask her what kind of socialization she means and hopefully you will have some arguments to show her that homeschooled children are not inherently disadvantaged in this area.

Nebby

The Hurried Child: How Socialization Happens

Dear Reader,

If you are a homeschooler, you are probably sick of the “S” word  (if you are not, that word is “socialization”). Often used as a weapon by mothers-in-law and doubting friends, it is a slippery little word with so many possible meanings that it becomes hard to defend oneself against the “they won’t be socialized” accusation.

But it turns out there are actual scholarly definitions of socialization and theories about how it happens, or fails to. I recently picked up an older book, The Hurried Child by David Elkind, Ph.D (Cambridge, MA; Da Capo Press, 2007; 3rd edition). Elkind is a professor of child psychology who originally wrote this volume in the 1980s to argue that America’s children were being hurried into growing up too fast to their detriment. Even the revised revised volume I have is somewhat dated, but there is still some meat here which is worth considering.

Elkind does not start from the same place I would. There is no evidence he is a Christian; his view of human nature seems to be entirely physical, ignoring any spiritual element. He relies heavily on thinkers that I would consider suspect: Rousseau, Freud, and Piaget among them. And his idea of the child vis-a-vis the adult is not mine.

Yet a lot of the scholarship here supports and adds to some of the ideas about education which we have been discussing. A small example: I have argued, along with Charlotte Mason and others, for a broad education that does not allow the child to specialize too early. Elkind provides arguments from his clinical experience to back this up:

“Premature structuring is most often seen in children who have been trained from an early age in one or another sport or performing art. What often happens is that the child becomes so specialized so early that other parts of his personality are somewhat undeveloped.” (pp. 198-99)

Some other ideas Elkind presents with which I would agree:

  • Multi-age groupings of children are beneficial (p. 69).
  • Standardization in education is detrimental (p. 50).
  • Sex ed in the classroom does not work (p. 65).
  • Children confronted with tasks for which they are not ready blame themselves for failure and develop a “learned helplessness” (pp. 57, 131). [We also saw this idea in The Making and Unmaking of a Dullard; see this post.]

There were also a number of ideas I got from this book which I had not considered previosuly but which make a lot of sense:

  •  The motivation for learning to read is primarily social (p. 38).
  • A certain amount of repression is a good thing. Kids need to learn the rules, for instance the rule of romantic relationships, before they learn to break them. Thus movies and the like with adult themes do damage to kids. They see the breaking before they learn the rules (pp. 95f).
  • Grammar and algebra are best taught after age 11 or so. Both these subjects require is to think about thinking. Until that time kids are not ready to learn them (pp. 132f). [I need to think more about this one; I have generally resisted delineating stages in education.]

The biggest topic which made me think here is the one that seems to be uniquely Elkind’s theory. It is about how kids are socialized. He does not offer one clear definition but Elkind’s working definition of socialization seems to be that it is how children learn to live within a society (p.142).  Much to my pleasure, he places the primary locus of this teaching squarely within the family. After reviewing a few models of how socilization happens, Elkind presents his own which incorporates the others but is broader. His theory is that parents and children interact through a multi-faceted social contract. This contract has three axes which might be called the achievement-support axis, the responsibility-freedom axis, and the loyalty-commitment axis. Over time on each of these there will be change and renegotiation. Parents initially control the whole contract and set it terms but over time children are given more say in the contract (p. 147). When parents break the contract, or ar perceived to do so, children have problems. It is important to note as well that the elements of this contract are often implicit; they are not laid out or communicated verbally but are nonetheless understood on a number of levels (p. 155).

The responsibility-freedom axis is perhaps the easier to understand. The child is given more freedom over time in proportion to the responsibility he is able to take. This axis of the contract in particular prepares the child to be a responsible member of society. He learns that there is a trade-off between freedom and responsibility (p. 148).

I am a little looser on my understanding of the acheivement-support axis (pp. 149ff). Elkind argues that parents need to give their children support for their achievements (such as going to recitals and sporting events)  while also acknowledging that the child should not be made to feel that his success is for the parent’s gratification — which is all well and good. It does not seem to be as much of a trade-off, however, as the child’s achievement is not for the parent’s benefit and is certainly not something he owes the parent.

The loyalty-commitment axis is particularly interesting.  It says that parents expect a certain amount of loyalty and give their commitment (pp. 152ff). I think Christian parenting books especially are prone to identifying the responsibility-freedom axis accurately but to omitting the other axes. I haven’t thought of all the implications of this yet but I wonder if and how our strategies would change if we took this definition of social contracting between parent and child and applied it in a Christian context.

For Elkind the contract between parent and child is the primary means of socialization but it is not by itself sufficient. The parent-child relationship is a hierarchical one. The child also needs relationships with peers, those on his own level, with whom he has more equal contracts which also require much more negotiation (p. 155). And as he grows, he will also likely be the parent to a child. Elkind argues that he cannot learn the parent side of a contract directly from his parent (p. 155).

Overall I think there is a lot in this theory that fits well with Christian theology, and particularly with reformed covenant theology. Covenant theology says that God relates to us through a covenant which is essentially a contract. That we would also relate to our children in this way makes sense to me. For Elkind the parent-child contract does not actually teach the child how to be the dominant party in an unequal contract. I would argue that our contracts are actually mutli-tiered. We parents do our parenting as agents of God. We do so by divine, delegated authority. Thus even as we are authorities to our children, we are under authority to our God. Our children learn from us both how to be in authority and how to be under authority (if we are doing it well).

Elkind does not draw the lines he might between this theory of social contracts and our educational system He does at times say that requiring young children to move from daycare to school and back to daycare hurries them by forcing them to make more transitions than they are capable of but he does not go much farther than this. I would argue that every relationship is in some sense a contract. Asking young children to make too many contracts, particularly unequal ones in which they have little or no say, is dangerous ground. These kinds of contracts are in some sense in loco parentis. That is, because of the young are of the child, they mimic the parent-child contract, They can’t help but do so. Yet they offer some of the axes — responsibility-freedom and achievement-support — without offering all of them. Loyalty-commitment in particular is left out. And while I agree with Elkind that is is good and necessary for children to have peer relationships that require them to make equal contracts, I also wonder if throwing them into situations in which they are around 10 or 20 or more peers for long hours requires them to do too much negotiating. The deepest, most regular relationship, like those with siblings, are often the hardest to negotiate but can also be the most rewarding. Perhaps we were not meant to make so many “contracts” at a young age.

If you are a regular reader, you know that I am fairly pro-homeschooling. I understand, however, that this is not always a possible or even the ideal choice. I have concerns about how this social contract theory plays out when young children in particular are placed in the typical public school environment. But that does not mean that these problems cannot be overcome. If we are aware of the hazards, I think we can prepare our children for the many relationships they will have to negotiate. The main way to do this (that I can think of) is simply to be involved, to be aware of the relationships one’s child has, especially the unqueal ones which put the child in the subordinate position  and to make sure they are good relationships. And to always make the child aware that the parent is still involved and will have the commitment to them that they require.

As for that socialization argument that your mother-in-law badgers you with — Elkind’s theory provides is with some pretty good answers. If to be socialized is to learn to live in society, then the family is the first and primary society in which to learn this skill. Though it is a smaller classroom, it is an intense one and in it a parent can do more to ensure that the lessons learned are the right ones. It is a question of quality versus quantity. Better a few good relationships which involve all the axes the child needs than a large number which are yet only partial contracts.

Nebby

 

Inoculating Our Children (Ideas, not Measles)

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

At some time or another most Christian parents are faced with the question: Do I expose my children to some particular evil idea or shield them from it? Of course the immediate answer will depend upon the specifics, not least of which is the age of the child. But, since life-long isolation is an impossibility, there will be a point at which the child has to know what’s out there, from homosexuality to abortion, from the very real temptations to fornication to just plain bad theology. Sometimes these things come into our lives unexpectedly. But occasionally, we are given time to prepare and introduce ideas in a thoughtful way.

In two books I have read recently, I have come across the same model for introducing wrong ideas. It may be called the inoculation or immunization approach. In A Reformed Christian Perspective on Education (Grand Rapid: ChapBooks Press, 2011) Donald Oppewal presents a model for exposing students in a Christian school to “bad influences”:

“Seeing the classroom as an immunization center would seem to be more productive . . . The better strategy would be to plan deliberately controlled exposure to bad influences, after the manner of inoculations . . .  Applied to the classroom, the inoculation strategy would require tat the teacher expose the students to carefully controlled doese of ideas, lanuage and life styles that are not ideally Christian. . . . the teacher himself/herself can use the devil’s advocate method, and thus insure that the point-of-view gets an adequate hearing.” (p. 236)

Chap Bettis addresses parents in his book The Disciple-Making Parent (Diamond Hill Publishing, 2016). He refers to a study by psychologist William McGuire which showed, through a series of studies, that “[a] person can best handle an assault on something he believes to be true if he hears the arguments against it in a safe environment” (p. 213). Just as Jesus warned his disciples that there would be attacks to come, so we need to prepare our children by letting them know what challenges will come their way. In practical terms, this means letting them know what arguments they will hear.

Nebby 

What We Study and Why: Mathematics

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

Last time, we wrapped up the section of this series on practical details. You can find that summary post here. Today I’d like to begin a new sub-series on individual subjects. I have argued that the teacher’s attitude is paramount and so a large part of what we are doing here is just to frame each subject rightly. Whether you are a homeschooling parent or employed in a school setting, you may find yourself having to teach subjects that just don’t thrill you (what on earth does grammar have to do with the kingdom of God?). While we will touch on some practical details as well (why teach pagan myths? does everyone need calculus?), the main goal of this part of the series is just to show why we teach each subject.

There are a couple of big ideas behind what we are doing here, including: All truth is God’s truth; In education we lay before our students the things of God, primarily His general revelation which comes to us in many forms; and The purpose of education in the life of the believer is for the transforming of his (fallen) mind. (If you are just dropping in, I do recommend reading some of what has come before; see this summary post on the theory behind it all.)

With these goals and ideas in mind, we will ask for each of the subjects we address: Why do we study it? How does it point is to God? How does God reveal Himself or His truth through this subject? In answering these questions, we will look at Scripture whenever possible but we will also look at quotes from many other sources.

Finding God in Mathematics

Let’s jump right in then to mathematics. Most would agree that some level of math instruction is necessary. Beyond the basics, there tend to be two camps — those who see no need to go beyond the basics and those who find pleasure and meaning in higher mathematics. The problem is that there is a gap — we don’t convey the beauty of math when we are teaching the basics and so those who do not naturally enjoy it drop it as soon as possible and never get to the part where it seems to expand and take on a wider significance. The solution is to show that math is lovely even at the lower levels (that’s where the teacher’s attitude comes in again). So if you have lost to joy of math, or never had it, here are some quotes to inspire you:

The laws of mathematics point us to the Law of God:

“We take strong ground when we appeal to the beauty and truth of Mathematics; that, as Ruskin points out, two and two make four and cannot conceivably make five, is an inevitable law. It is a great thing to be brought into the presence of a law, of a whole system of laws, that exist without our concurrence,––that two straight lines cannot enclose a space is a fact which we can perceive, state, and act upon but cannot in any wise alter, should give to children the sense of limitation which is wholesome for all of us, and inspire that sursum corda which we should hear in all natural law.” (Charlotte Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education, pp. 230-31)

Mathematics conveys eternity:

“But education should be a science of proportion, and any one subject that assumes undue importance does so at the expense of other subjects which a child’s mind should deal with. Arithmetic, Mathematics, are exceedingly easy to examine upon and so long as education is regulated by examinations so long shall we have teaching, directed not to awaken a sense of awe in contemplating a self-existing science, but rather to secure exactness and ingenuity in the treatment of problems.” (Ibid., p. 231; emphasis added)

Math underlies the universe. It may even be called the langauge of God:

“Mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe.”  —Galileo Galilei

Math is the foundation of many other fields, both sciences and arts. Its beauty can be seen even by non-Christian authors:

“Mathematical analysis and computer modeling are revealing to us that the shapes and processes we encounter in nature — the way that plants grow, the way that mountains erode or rivers flow, the way that snowflakes or islands achieve their shapes, the way that light plays on a surface, the way the milk folds and spins into your coffee as yo stir it, the way that laughter sweeps through a crowd of people — all these things in their seemingly magical complexity can be described by the interaction of mathematical processes that are, if anything, even more magical in their simplicity.

….

“The things by which our emotions can be moved — the shape of a flower or a Grecian urn, the way a baby grows, the way the wind brushes across your face, the way clouds move, their shapes, the way light dances on water, or daffodils flutter in the breeze, the way in which the person you love moves their head, the way their hair follows that movement, the curve described by the dying fall of the last chord of a piece of music — all these things can be described by the complex flow of numbers.

“That’s not a reduction of it, that’s the beauty of it.” [Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (New York: Pocket Books, 1988) pp. 182, 184]

That’s all fine, you say, I am inspired but I am still teaching long division to cranky eight-year-olds. A couple of thoughts: I argued recently that when educating we must be careful not to provoke children. Math is a field in which it is very easy to provoke. It tends to come with a lot of repetition. I do think we should all learn to do long division without a calculator. But if I have ten such problems to do, I get my calculator. Why should we ask a second grader to do so many at once? Sometimes more is less (how’s that for a math concept?).

There is a certain progression to math; one can’t do algebra before learning to count. But that doesn’t mean the beauty of math needs to wait until high school or beyond. There are resources which are accessible at younger ages but which either introduce concepts usually reserved for later or give more of a big picture understanding of math, bringing out its complexity and elegance. (I will add a brief bibliography of some we have used at the end of this post.)

Lastly, there is the elephant in the room question: When will I ever use this? And its corollary (there’s a nice math word): Why do I need to learn calculus anyway? As for the first question, I reject the premise. Our approach to education is not utilitarian. Whether we will use upper level math has nothing to do with anything. The end we have in view is not the balancing of checkbooks or even being able to do advanced physics (for which I hear math is useful) but to bring glory to God which we do by learning about Him as He has revealed Himself through creation, and (as the quotes above are meant to show) mathematics is an integral part of that creation.

As for the second question, not everyone needs to learn calculus. We are finite people and time and energy spent on one subject come at the expense of another. So while I do think it is good to learn these things, beyond a certain point we must recognize that we are different — indeed unique, individual — people and that we don’t all have to learn the same things (see this post on core curriculum). So perhaps you don’t have to learn calculus.

I’d like to end with a plea — as I work on this section of the series, I am giving you my best ideas and resources but I could use some help. Please reply to this post or contact me if you can help with any of the following:

  • What questions do you have about teaching (insert subject here)?
  • Do you have good quotes about math, or any other subject, that you have run across, particularly about why we teach them and how they point us to God and/or teach us about Him and His creation?
  • Any favorite resources? Since math was our topic this week, feel free to add in the comments your favorite big-picture math resources.

Nebby

A Brief Math Bibliography

Life of Fred Math by Stanley Schmidt (Polka Dot Publishing) — You may have heard of this alternative math curriculum. It takes a narrative approach and follows the life of 5-year-old math professor Fred. Though the author says the elementary books can be used as a stand-alone math curriculum, I was always hesitant to do so. They do, however, make a lovely supplement to whatever else you may be using. The stories and such may be overly silly for some but my kids always loved them. The elementary series is a collection of thin books with short chapters. It is easy to add in one chapter a week. Ages 10 and up could breeze through them pretty quickly. The upside of these books is that they introduce concepts that usually don’t come up until later such as set theory.

Here’s Looking at Euclid by Alex Bellos

The Number Mysteries by Marcus du Sautoy

Thinking in Numbers by Daniel Tammet

These three books are all of a type. They are roughly middle school level books (and up) that have relatively short chapters which disuss math concepts like pi, prime numbers, and how people in Iceland count.  I am sure there are many other such books out there; these are just a few we have used.

 

 

 

Principles of Reformed Education: Summary Post

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

My goal in this part of the series has been to lay out some principles to help you evaluate books, materials, and curricula. For a summary of the big ideas behind it all, see this summary post.

This series within a series — the practical details — began with an explanation of methods. As we move away from theory and into the nitty gritty, we are not going to be able to find Bible verses that bear directly on the questions we have (Are spelling tests inherently evil?). To the extent that we can, I have tried to elucidate biblical principles while acknowledging that we are on less certain ground here.  We must rely more on personal observation, scientific studies, and logical reasoning. And as good reformed people we also acknowledge that our reasoning has been affected by the Fall and that we think is unassailable fact is often tainted by our own experiences, emotions (also tainted by the Fall), and presuppositions.

With that firm foundation, we dove right in.

Before we even get to curricula, we must begin by looking at ourselves, the teachers. I began with a presupposition: that the attitude and expectations of the teacher can do more to facilitate or to undermine learning than almost anything else he does. Therefore we must begin with right expectations and right attitudes. Simply put, the teacher should expect that God will work in the minds of his students. The attitude of the teacher should be one of joy and delight in the things of God because he himself is growing in knowledge and because he believes that they are the things of God and delights in them.

Once you’ve mastered that easy first step, you can begin to consider materials. So we talked about what to teach. I argued for a broad education that encompasses many subject areas [not just the trendy STE(A)M ones] based on the principle that all knowledge comes from God and as He is One so it is ultimately unified. More recently, we tackled another trendy question: Is there a core body of knowledge all people need to learn? With some qualification, my answer to that one is no, there is not (note that we are not talking here about religious knowledge as such but about all those subjects it is still legal to teach in public schools).

After we have considered the what, we must ask how? There are various aspects of this. We began by considering what the materials we use should be like. I argued that they should be interesting but need not be designed to be entertaining. Since the things we place before children in education are the things of God, they should be inherently interesting, We must be wary, on the one hand, of curricula which suck all the inherent joy out of knowledge and, on the other, of curricula which try to dress it up in clown costumes complete with red honky noses thereby sending the message that it needs our dressing up.

I also made the argument that the written word, that is, books, should be the primary tool by which we place such knowledge before our students. There is a place for other media as well, including but not limited to lectures, videos, audio recordings, visual aids (such as maps and charts), fine art, and music. Whichever we are using, we should use discernment in selecting our sources. We need not limit ourselves to Christian “teachers.” On the one hand, all truth is God’s truth and He may choose to reveal it to us through non-Christians. On the other, many who claim to be Christian are either not or are but have bad theology underlying what they are saying which affects their presentation of their subject. Nonetheless, we should expect more truth and better scholarship to come to through Christian sources. Because this is a tricky area, it is important for us to vet our sources and to consider such things as the age of the child we are educating. We also took a bit of a side trip to examine the power of narrative, for good or evil.

Lastly and most recently, we discussed what we do with this material— Do we ask kids to reproduce what they are learning and if so how and why? This includes testing but also more mundane things like worksheets, essays, and narration. Specifics will depend on the setting one is in (home vs. school, small vs. large class) but there are some principles we can seek to adhere to. First and foremost is not to provoke children with unnecessary and/or tedious work. Second is that we need to consider the benefit to the child. I argued for narration as a wonderful tool and discussed some pros and cons of other methods.

For the moment, I think these posts will wrap up the “practical details” portion of this series. I have been promising you that I will go through individual subjects one by one and my intention is to begin that next time.

Until then,

Nebby

The Holy Spirit in Education (A Podcast Review)

Dear Reader,

I am writing this having just listened to a recent podcast from A Delectable Education. Given the non-written nature of the material, I want to reflect on it while it is fresh in my mind. A Delectable Education, if you are not familiar with it, is a podcast devoted to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education. The episode in question (#140) is entitled “Live from Charlotte Mason Soiree Retreat Q&A” and was released on September 28, 2018.  As its title suggests, this podcast is actually the audio from the Q&A session of a recent retreat. The portion I am interested in comes about 35 minutes into the podcast episode.

The panel of speakers is asked how if, as Charlotte Mason says, the Holy Spirit is the prime mover in education, we can educate our children if they are not yet saved and have not yet been regenerated by the Holy Spirit. There are two answers given: that God is the source of all truth and that He does work in our children’s lives.

I am sorry I am not good at identifying which of the female panelists is speaking when, but one of them provides the first answer (not first in the order they say them; they go back and forth a bit), that all truth comes from God. This does not actually get to the heart of the question but it is a statement I heartily agree with. Art Middlekauff (the only male member of the panel) adds that just because we get a certain truth through say, Euclid, that does not mean all he has said is worth listening to. In other words, God may speak through an unbeliever on one topic or one set of topics but that does not mean all they say is inspired. This is a good reminder to us to use discernment.  In our own culture, we tend to put too much faith in anyone who does anything at all impressive from movie stars to sports heroes. I have read for instance that  Isaac Newton had some really wacky ideas on theology. This does not detract from his scientific theories but neither do his scientific theories lend credence to his theological ideas.

The second point, which is made primarily by Middlekauff, is that the question is flawed because our children are saved. My own church, like his, baptizes infants and considers them part of the body of believers. Middlekauff’s explanation is a good one as far as it goes. It addresses the case of Christian homeschooling parents educating their own kids.

We are left still with the question of other children. Whether at home or in a school context, we may find ourselves teaching children who do not have believing parents. Middlekauff partly addresses this issue. He says something along the lines of (paraphrasing, not an exact quote): even if you do not believe your children are saved, it is still the Holy Spirit that works in them and since your primary concern is presumably that they be saved you should very much desire and rely upon the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

Again, I agree largely with what Middlekauff has to say, but I do have two concerns. I believe that it is the Holy Spirit that is working even if our students are unregenerate. If there is any good to be done in and for them, it is He that does it. Charlotte Mason’s philsophy of education relies upon the student being able to choose the good and I would not say that the unregenerate (children or adults) have any power to do so. I think then that more needs to be said about how this philosophy can work for such children. (I do have my own theories about the purpose of education in the lives of both regenerate and unregenerate children; you can read them here.)

My second concern is that I am just not convinced that this is how Miss Mason herself thought of the issue. I *think* that Middlekauff is saying something very similar to what I have been saying in my current blog series, that the Holy Spirit works in the lives of regenerate covenant children and that if any are outside of the covenant we still educate them while praying and hoping for His work in them too. (I hope I am not misrepresenting his ideas; this is how I took what he had to say. Though we seem to get to the same place, I am not sure our reasoning is the same.)

In contrast, when I read Charlotte Mason’s writings, what I understand her to say is that her education is for all children (she is particularly concerned to include those her society would have deemed uneducable). I do not think she makes a distinction between regenerate and unregeneate children because I do not think that she sees such a difference. She had a very different view (from mine) of what it means to live in a “redeemed world” (her term) and of the general moral and spiritual ability of people apart from the saving work of Christ. (I just did a long post on that here.) The long and the short of it is that her philosophy relies upon the ability of all children to choose the good because she believed that all children were capabale of doing so. She does not address what we do with unregenerate children because she did not believe in them as such. She believed all children had, through Christ’s redemptive work, been given some ability to choose and do good.

So I guess my conclsuion on this episode is that I like a lot of what the panelists had to say. I was surprised, in fact, to find myself agreeing so much with them. I am less convinced that how they explain the situation is how Miss Mason herself saw things. I still think we need a philsophy of education which considers all children — whether from believing parents or not — and which finds its origins in a reformed understanding of human nature and the purpose of life.

Nebby

A Teacher’s Attitude

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Read all the posts here.

Last time we looked at the expectation a teacher should have. Today I’d like to examine a very closely related concept — the attitude of the teacher.  My assumption in all this is that the attitude and expectations of the teacher can do more to facilitate or to undermine learning than almost anything else he does.

What we are going when we educate is to bring before students the things of God and specifically His General Revelation. Whether the students are able to receive this material depends upon the work of the Holy Spirit and God’s eternal purpose (all this is explained in more detail in this post). Last time we said that, as the outcome is ultimately dependent upon the work of the Holy Spirit, that the expectation of the teacher should always be that God will work in each child to enable them to receive what is good and beautiful and true.

If expectation is about outcomes, attitude is more about our own day-to-day interactions with the student and the material. What we teach children is God’s revealed truth — whether the subject at hand is math or science or history or art or language, it comes from God and we can learn about His actions and character through it (See this post. My intent is to go through these subjects one by one in the upcoming weeks and to show you how each reveals the Creator. So if you are skeptical, stay tuned.).

The problem is that, in the midst of the daily grind, we often forget that the stuff we are presenting  to our students is all part of a bigger picture, a landscape, if you will, of divine thought and action. Teaching (and learning) math facts and spelling rules and Latin declensions is not always fun for teacher or student. Our students are not going to see the big picture and to exult in the glory of God as revealed in calculus or cloud formations if we cannot do so oursleves.

The antedote to the sense of drudgery which threatens us all is to remember our own place in the scheme of things. Education is the sanctification of the mind. That is something which happens in a special and intense way in childhood but it is not exclusive to children (again see this post for an explanation of the theory behind all this). Though as teachers we have some authority over our students, it is the authority of one who is further along in the process, not one who is outside it. If we are stagnating in the sanctification of our own minds, we are not going to be able to long help those who are growing in their own. All Christians, but perhaps especially teachers, need to be actively feeding their minds the good things of God and seeking His truth, goodness and beauty.

The attitude of the teacher then should be this: We need to revel in God’s truth and beauty as it is revealed to us in the subjects we teach.

Now here’s a big caveat: you can’t fake this attitude. If you don’t believe that what you are presenting to your students are the things of God, then you need to find or recover that perspective. Besides prayer, the best thing you can do to inspire your own sense of awe at what God has done is to study His works. The more we learn, the more we will be in awe of what God has done and the closer we will draw to Him. If you are not making progress, find someone who is. There is nothing more inspiring than someone who loves their work.

Last point of the day — if you have the right attitude, if you see God in what you are teaching, then you won’t need to beat your students over the head with how He is revealed in a particular subject. When a scientist truly sees the Creator in his work, this shines thorugh when he talks about his area of study. He doesn’t need to tell you all the time what God  has to do with physics; he can just talk about his work and you see how he delights in it. Not that it is wrong to ever point out the obvious (“see how God put the right king on the throne at the right time”) but we shouldn’t need to constantly state the obvious. If we love the Creator and we see Him in what we study, our own attitude will reveal itself in many subtle ways; we don’t need to draw attention to it and it may be counter-productive to do so.

The attitude of the teacher should be one of joy and delight in the things of God because he himself is growing in knowledge and because he believes that they are the things of God and delights in them. Of course, we are all going to have off days (and off years), but this is the ideal — to share something we love, because it is from God, with our students.

Nebby

A Teacher’s Expectation

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Read all the posts here.

Last time I laid out for you the theory behind my philosophy of education. Today we begin to move into the specifics of how one teaches. I want to start with something  intangible but which is actually fairly foundational to all we do — the expectations and attitude of the teacher.

As we move into the practical details and away from the pure theory, we are moving away from the clear testimony of the Scriptures and into the realm where we are using the sense God gave us and the wisdom He gives us through General Revelation, which includes both scientific research and personal observation. Today’s comments have to do with matters that are not directly addressed in Scripture. We need instead to rely upon our own discernment. As such, we should not hold to them too tightly but should be willing to revise and correct as God gives is greater wisdom.

Having said which, the underlying belief I am working with today is that the attitude and expectations of the teacher can to more to facilitate or to undermine learning than almost anything else he does. I am basing this largely on my own observation, from seeing the education and discipline of my own children and others. I do not think it is a particularly radical stance to say that a teacher’s mindset affects her students so I hope that you will be willing at least to venture forth with me in what follows . . .

If we will admit that this principle is true and that the teacher’s expectations and attitude affect the student’s learning, we must ask what those expectations and attitude should be.  There are actually two very similar ideas here — that of expectation and that of attitude — so I am going to divide what I have to say into two posts. Today we will focus on the expectation of the teacher.

My thesis for the day is this: A teacher should always expect the most and hope the best. Again this is not going to seem to be a radical opinion. I think it is worth spending a moment on, however, because there are going to be many times when it is hard to do just that.

Last time I argued that when we educate we place before children the General Revelation of God. Whether our efforts bear any fruit depends upon the responsiveness of the child which is turn relies upon the work of the Holy Spirit. In the covenant child or one who has made a profession of faith, the intended goal is his sancitfication, specifically the renewal of his mind. For the unbelieving child this presentation of God’s self-revelation in His Creation is a part of the external call of God.  The ideal outcome is that he will recognize and begin to respond to the things of God.

In education we bring before the child what is good, true, and beautiful, and yet the one who is unregenerate is not able to choose or do good. This sounds on the surface like quite a fruitless exercise. It is as if we are giving children food which they do not have the ability to digest. We can pour as much as we like down their throats but they are unable to get the good of it.  And if it were not for the role of God in all this, that would certainly be the case, not just for the unbeliever but for the believer as well. Ultimately, education is the work of the Holy Spirit . As teachers, we need to see ourselves as His instruments and we need to expect that He will work.

There are going to be times when teaching seems to bear no fruit. We should not be surprised when our students’ hearts are hard and they do not take in the food we present. This is the natural human state and a certain amount of futility is to be expected. Even in the believing child, there is still a sin nature which fights the work we are doing. Nonetheless our expectation must always be that God will work. When we present the gospel to someone, we do so in the hope that they will receive it. Though in education our message is more general, we are nonetheless bringing the things of God to our audience. We should do so in the hope that they will respond positively and in the knowlegde that God can enable them to do so.  I would even go beyond this and say that if God has placed an unregenerate child in the care of a reformed Christian teacher like you that He probably has plans for that child’s life and that there is a good chance He will make His words effective unto salvation and save that child.

I only teach my own covenant children in a homeschool setting and I can testify that there are times when it is a discouraging enterprise. If you have a larger class and have unbelieving children in it or perhaps even teach in the public schools in a setting in which you cannot speak as cleraly as you’d like, I imagine the temptation to despair is even greater. But we must, as always, see with the eyes of faith and know that the seeds we sow may be germinating though we see no little shoots sprouting yet. We sow the seed; it is up to God to bring the harvest, but we must always — with prayer — hope that He will bring that harvest.  This is the expectation of the teacher.

Nebby

 

Reformed Christian Education: Drawing Some Conclusions

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Read all the posts here.

I began this series in January by arguing that we need a distinctively reformed Christian approach to education.   It is now July and we have looked at a number of different issues. I would like to try and draw some of these strands together and to propose some conclusions. Thus far most of what I have said has been on a fairly theoretical level — it is about the why of education more than the day-to-day hows. I can’t promise there won’t be more theory in the future but my goal moving forward is to look more at the practical details and to begin to show how we can implement the theory in real life.

Early on, I tried to show that every philosophy of education makes some assumptions, whether acknowledged or not, about who the child is and why we educate. As such education is a very theological enterprise. If our theology is distinctive — and as reformed people we do tend to be pretty picky about theology — we should expect those distinctives to show up in our philosophy of education.

My goal today is not to say something new but to combine everything in one place so we can see how it all fits together. If you want more depth on any point and/or to see where I got these ideas, click on the links provided (or, again, all the posts in this series can be found here). First we will look at  who we are educating by reviewing the nature of the child. Then we we will look at what we are teaching. Finally we will look at what happens when you bring the two together, what is the desired outcome and how does it come about.

The Nature of the Child

Every philosophy of education makes assumptions about the child, his nature and abilities. We looked at the child in both the Old and New Testaments and saw that:

  • Children are not a separate category of being. That is to say, they are at a most basic level the same sort of creature as adults.
  • All people, including children, consist of physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual aspects. Though the Bible speaks of the mind, heart, soul and strength, it does not divide up a person in such a way that one of these parts can be addressed or can operate in isolation from the others.
  • Children are included in the body of God’s people and are called to obey God’s law.
  • Children are capable both of sin and of faith (through grace, of course).
  • Though they are in all these ways the same as adults, children are nonetheless ignorant and foolish. They are in particular need of education and discipline and the Bible says one’s youth is the best time for these activities.

Anyone who educates assumes that his pupil is in some way incomplete or imperfect. If he were both perfect and complete, there would be no need for education. The child’s lack of certain abilities, what we might call his immaturity, is generally not in dispute. An infant cannot eat steak or talk or walk or write his ABCs or do calculus. There are both physical and intellectual milestones which he has not acheived and cannot acheive in his current state.

One big question any philosophy of education needs to answer is how the child begins to be able to do these things. Will he pick up reading and calculus as naturally as he does walking and talking? Does he need input from adults to master these skills and if so, how much input?

How we answer these questions about the child’s physical and intellectual development is often tied closely to our view of his moral development. Those who view the child as inherently good tend to want to leave him to his own devices on the intellectual plane as well, trusting that he will aquire what is needful to him. This is the approach known as  unschooling.  Radical Unschoolers do not discipline because they trust the child to grow in correct ways on his own, not just physically and intellectually but morally and emotionally as well.

Most professing Christians would not go quite so far. Though all major branches of Christianity have some understanding of man’s fallen nature, how this is interpreted and what it means varies widely (see this post or this one).  The Roman Catholic Church, and many Protestants as well, accept the idea of Original Sin but stop short of the reformed doctrine of Total Depravity. As the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) lays out,  we believe that all the parts of human nature as being affected by sin (WCF IV). To the extent that the mind in particular is affected, this is going to alter how we educate and how successful we can be in education.

To sum up, as we look at who we are educating, we need to see that the child is fully human with all the aspects of a person, mind, soul, heart, and body. On the spiritual place, he is called to obey God’s law, but, like his parents, has a sin nature which makes him incapable of doing so. Nonethless, he also, again like his parents, is capable — by God’s grace alone — of true saving faith. His other aspects are not independent of his spiritual nature or of each other. They too have been affected by the Fall. His body, heart, and mind are not just immature due to his age and abilities but are corrupted.

The Fodder of Education

Before going too far, I want to reiterate a point that I made last time: when I speak of education I am defining it fairly narrowly as an intellectual activity. Because we are all made up of parts, the mind cannot be separated entirely from the other aspects of a person. This is easy to see on a practical level: we cannot easily educate a hungry child or one in the midst of emotional truama. So too education is also closely tied to discipline, but it is not discipline (see this post of biblical discipline). Nonetheless, education, as I am definfing it (and this is largely a matter of definition), is an affair of the mind.

If we want our children’s bodies to grow as they ought, we give them good food and exercise. If we want their minds to grow, we must also nourish and work them. Most of us already have some idea of what we want our children to learn — they must read and write and do at least basic math.  They should have some knowledge of history and science and maybe learn a foreign langauge. When we get into the specifics later this year, I will address each of these subjects and talk about why teach them and how. For now I hope that we can at least all see that there is some body of knowledge that comprises education whatever that may be.

All this stuff we teach, the fodder of education if you will, falls under the heading of Natural or General Revelation.  The Scriptures are God’s Supernatural Revelation to us in that they come not through the laws of Creation which God has ordained but directly from God Himself. They are also termed Special Revelation because they give specific knowledge to man about salvation and redemption. In contrast, God’s Natural or General Revelation comes to us through His Creation and teaches us about God in a more broad way.

Too often, I think, we limit General Revelation. We may take a brief walk in the woods and say some things about beauty and order and then we move on. But there is a lot more to General Revelation than we can get from a quick surface observation. The testimony of scientists, both believers and non-believers, is that the more we delve into the universe and look at how it works, the more wonder we find. Nor is General Revelation limited to the physical universe. God also reveals Himself through events  and through people:

“General revelation does not come to man in the form of direct verbal communications. It consists in an embodiment of the divine thought in the phenomena of nature, in the general constitution of the human mind, and in the facts of experience or history.” Louis Berkhof, Manual of Christian Doctrine [Grand Rapids: Eeerdmans, 1981 (originally published 1933)] pp. 26-27

Of course, believing parents will also teach their children the Scriptures, but the bulk of what we teach falls under the heading of God’s General Revelation. For a glimpse into how many of the traditional school subjects reveal the Creator, see this post.

What Happens in Education

Imagine yourself in front of a class of children. Some are from Christian homes. They are what we call covenant children. By God’s gracious decree, we assume them to be part of His covenant people. They are redeemed and, while still sin lives in them, they are capable of choosing and doing good. Others in your class are not from Christian homes. As yet we see no evidence of salvation in them, though of course we hope and pray that they will be saved. These children are not (yet) capable of choosing and doing good. When you teach a lesson to these children, they hear the same words and read the same books, but what is happening in them is fundamentally different because they are fundamentally different.  While there is one thing we do when we educate, there are two fundamentally different purposes, one for the believing covenant child and one for the (as yet) unsaved child.

Thus far we have looked at who the child is and at what we are teaching him. Now it is time to see what happens when we take the fodder of education and present it to our pupil. In education, we present to the child the things of God, all the truth and beauty and goodness that God has given is in His General Revelation. How this is received, whether it even can be received, will depend upon the character of the recipient and the work of the Holy Spirit.

It is actually a little easier to discern what is happening with the non-believer. Paul tells us in Romans what the purpose of General Revelation is in the life of the non-believer:

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Rom. 1:20-21; ESV)

General Revelation is a revealing of the Creator God. To the extent that men fail to see the Creator behind the creation, it serves to condemn them. Of course, if we are educators, we hope — and pray — that this will not be the case for our students. We desire that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, they will recognize their Creator in the things He has made and done.

Perhaps your student has seen a tree (I hope!) but maybe he has never appreciated the intricate process by which sunlight becomes food for the plant and ultimately for us. When we bring these things before our non-believing students, those outside the covenant community of God, we are playing a part in the process that will ultimately either lead to their salvation or seal their fate.  In theological language, this is the External Call which goes forth to all humanity (see this post). [1]

A covenant child or one who has made a profession of faith is in a bit of a different situation (for my previous discussion of this point, incuding a lot more verse references, see this post).  The base condition of man is to be unable to choose or do good. As discussed above, all aspects of his being are affected and are fallen or corrupted.  But once the Holy Spirit has begun to dwell in a person this is no longer the case. We are still pretty sinful people, but we are no longer ruled by our sin natures. We are in the midst of a process called sanctification which will last throughout this life. Sanctification means that we are gradually being made more holy. The image of God in us is being perfected as we are made more like Christ who is Himself the perfect Image of God (Col. 1:15).

As reformed people, we believe that the Fall affected all aspects of our natures. So too sanctification affects all aspects — body, mind, heart and soul (WCF XIII:II). In education we bring before our believing students the things of God. What happens when God’s people learn and think about what He has made and done? They are transformed (cf. Phil. 4:8-9) —

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12:1-2; ESV)

This renewal of the mind is one piece of sanctification and should be something we desire and actively seek for ourselves and our children.

We are often tempted to concentarte exclusively on the moral aspect of sanctification. We focus on whether we have sinned today and how much and is it any less than yesterday. Fighting specific sins on our lives is essential, but it is not the whole of sanctification. There is a lot to be said also for immersing ourselves in the world God has made not because it will make us better — though it will – but simply because He has made it. As I argued in this post, the pursuit of knowledge and beauty for their own sakes is valuable because all true knowledge and beauty come from and belong to God. Nonetheless, because all the aspects of our beings work together, we should expect that as we actively participate in the sanctification of our minds by feeding them the things of God that we will become better people as well. As I discussed in this post there is an intimate connection between faith and knowledge.

Conclusion and the Most Important Point

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov. 1:7; ESV; cf. Prov. 1:29; 2:5; 9:10)

You can’t go far in the book of Proverbs without seeing that faith and knowledge go hand in hand. True knowledge comes from God (James 1:5). When we educate we bring before people — no matter their age — the things of God. We show them what He has made and how it works and what He has done in history and how He has made us. These are things we should all spend more time contemplating.

What happens when we bring these thinsg before a particular pesrons depends not on us but entirely on the eternal plan of God and the work of the Holy Spirit in that person’s life. Let me say that again because it really is the most important point I can make today: We don’t “teach” anyone anything. We bring to them the things of God and whether they receive those things or not is dependent upon the work of God the Holy Spirit in their lives. If the student before us is not a believer, we hope and pray that they see God in what we show them and that it will be the beginning of faith. If they already have faith, we expect that they will grow in that faith and in their understanding of God as they  contemplate what He has done.

Nebby

[1] A side bar: You may be asking yourself: Why not just present Special Revelation, i.e. the message of the Scriptures, to the unbelieving child? Of course in the end we all need to understand the particulars of the gospel message. If you are teaching unbelieving children in a Christian school or in your home, you should certainly make the Bible part of their shcool day. But you might be teaching in a setting in which you cannot do that (a public or non-Christian school) or it may be that your student is not ready for the meat of the gospel yet. Special Revelation is essential to salvation in a way that General revelation is not, yet General Revelation is one of the ordinary means God uses to prepare hearts for the work of His Spirit.

Defining Education

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Read all the posts here.

I hope soon to give you a post which pulls together all the threads we have been following and begins to truly answer the question “What is reformed Christian education?”  It seems a little late in the game to define education but I am going to do so nonetheless in preparation for that post.

“Education”  is a word which seems to absorb new meanings and ideas. This is in fact due to the nature of education itself. It is very hard to address just one part of a person. Those who seek to educate tend to find themselves dealing with issues which may not strictly fall under that heading, from diet to discipline.

When I speak of what education should be in a  reformed Christian context, I am thinking of education in a very narrow sense — I am talking about what we might term schooling, education as the imparting of intellectual knowledge. So when I begin to lay out for you principles for reformed Christian education, know that these are about our kids’ minds — what we put into them, how it gets there, why we bother doing it at all, and what the end game is.

Having said which, our children are more than mind. They are bodies and souls and hearts as well (Mark 12:30). The Bible never speaks of people as being easily divisible into their parts. We cannot believe one thing and do another or love contrary to our convictions. The person is a whole. This is precisely why education tends to be so expansive. You can’t teach a hungry child. Or one that is emotionally traumatized. Or tired. (Nor, I will argue elsewhere, can you do much for one whose soul is dead in sin.) So our schools start offering free lunches and breakfasts. And then they offer counseling for children and their families and lessons on birth control and other controversial topics because they know that they can’t teach children when the rest of their lives is out of control.

Nor can you teach a child who is misbehaving. Education cannot be separated from discipline. We need some level of obedience before we can teach. Education, ideally, also produces correct behavior. Knowledge in the Bible is practical and leads to changed behavior.

All of which is to say that when I speak of reformed Christian education, I am speaking primarily in a very narrow sense of how we build up our children’s minds while acknowledging that we cannot divide the person into parts and that intellectual progress is linked to their physical and emotional states and that discipline must both come before and follow out of education.

Until next time,

Nebby

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