Posts Tagged ‘homeschool’

Principles of Reformed Education: Core knowledge?

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.

One of the big questions we have to answer as we seek to build a philosophy of education is what are we to teach? Is there a necessary core of knowledge that every student needs to learn? This is an issue which divides philosophies of education and has practical applications for how we teach and test as well.

On one end of the spectrum is the unschooling movement which says that no, there is no one body of knowledge that every child needs. The child, left alone, will learn what is necessary to him. Even if he shows no interest in some basic subject, it is not to be pushed. On a practical day-to-day basis, an unschooler, though not setting out perhaps to teach basic math skills, will often find himself doing so through every day activities like cooking. Many of the unschoolers I have known have been very diligent, busy parents. They may not set an agenda for what their child should learn but when he asks about dinosaurs, they are all over the library finding every resource they can on the topic.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Great Books movement, aka classical homeschooling including both its Christian and secular varieties. This philosophy of education says that yes, there is a core body of knowledge. It is often defined very much by western culture, relying heavily on Greek and Latin classics as well as more modern works from Shakespeare to Robert Frost. A classical educator is likely to make use of old-school techniques like memorization and traditional testing.

In between these two extremes there are of course other positions. Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education, on which I have blogged extensively, tries to bridge the gap. Miss Mason did believe that there is appropriate fodder for education but also acknowledged that one can never force another to learn and that each pupil is an individual person. This is an approach which takes the horse to water but does not force him to drink. The material is presented but the student must ingest it for himself. Again, this can be seen in the techniques used. Memorization is not prioritized nor are other methods which require the child to reproduce precise bodies of information (worksheets, true or false, multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank). Narration replaces these and allows the child to be more selective in what he or she gets from a given lesson.

It is perhaps easier to understand the differences if one considers how studying a classic book like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would look in each of these philosophies. The unschooler does not require her child to read the book. She might get it from the library and leave it lying around the house (this is called strewing). And certainly if the child were to ask for it, she would obtain it. After the child has read the book, the unschooler might have a casual discussion — “Did you like the book?”– but would not require any sort of report or testing. The Charlotte Mason (CM) homeschooler and the Classical educator would both require the student to read the book. In CM’s approach, the child narrates what he reads, that is, he tells what he has read, deciding for himself what is interesting or worth noting. This may be done orally or in writing. For the classical homeschooler, there would be more concrete ways of integrating the knowledge. These could include such things as reading comprehension questions and worksheets. There would be certain facts that the child would be expected to know — who the author is, for example, or the names of the main characters and some details of setting and plot.

We are going to return next time to how the student reproduces the material and how his learning evaluated. Today I would like to focus on what we are teaching — is there a set body of knowledge? And if so, to what extent should we enforce its learning? I hope the above examples show that this is in some sense a foundational question to answer before we can begin to talk about the hows of education.

Though we are ranging more and more into the realm of general revelation –i.e. topics about which the Scriptures may not have anything specific to say — we should always begin by asking what they do have to say, either overtly or more subtly through the principles we can derive from them.

When it comes to the knowledge of God, His Word makes clear that there is a specific body of knowledge we are to communicate to our children. Not only so we present this knowledge to our children, we fairly drill it into them, keeping it always before them (Deut. 4:9-10; 6:6-7; 11:9). To the extent that the other subjects we teach also reveal the Creator – and I have argued that this is exactly what they do and why we study them – it is reasonable to conclude that they are also, if not required, at least very profitable and valuable for our children. (I have argued previously for a broad education that is not confined merely to the trendy STEM subjects.)

As reformed Christians, we believe that there are absolute standards of truth and beauty. We also believe that all people are sinful and that all their faculties have been tainted by sin. Combining these two facts, we can draw two conclusions: There are ideas which are good and true and profitable and, conversely, there are ideas which are evil, false and dangerous. And, secondly, our children, left on their own, will not always – indeed, will rarely – choose the good ideas and reject the bad. We must, therefore, reject the unschooling end of the spectrum which allows the child to choose entirely what he will learn. We do not believe that the child left on his own will gravitate towards what is good or what he needs.

The flip side of the Bible being the only infallible rule for faith and life (“only” modifies “infallible” in this phrase) is that nothing else is infallible, not Calvin, not your homeschool curriculum. All human culture bears the stamp of our race’s sin. The pagan cultures which form the basis of so much of our western civilization carry with them pagan presuppositions and ideas. We must be especially wary and discerning because the underlying assumptions are often just that – underlying and not overt. We will not realize we are accepting ideas built upon ungodly bases. Which is not to say that we must reject them altogether; I do believe (as I have argued here) that all truth is God’s truth and that it may come to us through non-Christian sources. My argument is not that it is wrong to study the likes of Plutarch but that we must do so with great discernment.

We must be equally wary of “Christian” culture. There is no doubt Christianity has had some profound and real effects on western culture, but much of what passes for Christian culture (including Christian homeschool curricula, of which there is an abundance these days) does not reflect a reformed (which is to say, biblical) understanding of God, creation, and man. [1]

All work can, rightly done, being glory to God. While there is greater responsibility and therefore potentially greater glory (or greater rebuke) for the preacher and pastor (1 Pet. 5:1-4; James 3:1), the Bible teaches us that man is made to work and that all work can bring glory to God. (Gen. 2:15; Prov. 16:3; Eph. 4:28; Col. 3:22-24; 2 Thess. 3:10). If the work of a farmer or a physicist or a poet or an accountant is good and, rightly done, able to bring glory to God, then it follows that the study which gets him there is also good and that God can be glorified in our learning about plants and atoms, literary devices and spreadsheets.

The child is a person and no less capable of bringing glory to God through what he does. In our society, the work of the child is to be educated (and, I would argue, the Bible also depicts childhood as the ideal time for education). Just as his elders can work to the glory of God no matter their profession, so he can learn to the glory of God no matter the area of study (for a little background see this post on the child in the Bible).

Practically speaking, there are skills and ideas which build on one another. It is very hard to be educated in our society if one cannot read (and I have argued that words, and the written word, are vital to how we learn). It is hard to function in our society without basic math skills. Greater knowledge of math is needed to understand certain scientific concepts. There will be rare exceptions of children who are truly not capable of learning even the basics. We must be careful not to view them as less than persons and we must not deprive them of whatever learning they are capable of. For most, however, it is reasonable to require some basic common knowledge which will be needed for further learning.

One caution — just because some learning is foundational does not mean that  the early years must be spent on the basic and only the basics. He is capable of a relationship with his Creator from birth or before so we must nto deprive him of the tools of redemption and sanctification no matter his age.

As we get beyond the basics, I believe it is reasonable to require our children to learn certain things. The subjects we teach are general revelation, that is, they reveal God to us, and, as Creation has One Creator, they work together as a unified system (see this post). We would be neglectful to teach only history and omit any sciences (or, as our society increasingly does, to teach the sciences and neglect the humanities), because we would not be allowing our children to see the big picture of how God works throughout His Creation.

Our goals can affect what we teach. The Bible sets a good precedent for us to teach history as the story of what God has done for us so we often begin children on local history. The history of one’s own state or country teaches that God works in my life. If we then expand to world history, we see that He works throughout the world in the lives of all people. Similarly, in studying the sciences, we learn first that God makes the plants grow and created all the animals unique. But then as we delve deeper, we see also that He is involved in His Creation as levels we can’t even see – in the minutest atoms and in the farthest reaches of space. When we get to higher levels of math, we learn that even the intangible principles behind Creation are orderly and beautiful. Not every child will learn every subject and certainly cannot do so in depth. God and His Creation are so vast that none of us can ever be comprehensive, or even close to it. Nor do we all need to learn exactly the same things. We may start in the same places – with the foundational building blocks of further knowledge, with subjects that are close to home– but, because we are all unique persons, we will expand in different directions. I believe that we bring greater glory to God by doing so. We express our unique personalities, which He has given us, more fully, and we, as a race, are able to learn more of God’s work and therefore give Him greater glory.

Summary

Because this has been a very long post and has covered a lot of ground, I would like to end with a summary of the main points we have seen:

  • What we study, and whether we believe there is a set body of knowledge to study, will affect how we study and measure learning.
  • As reformed Christians, we must reject the view that children will, on their own, gravitate towards what is good and what they need to know.
  • When it comes to “religious” knowledge, the Bible makes clear that there is a fixed body of knowledge that we are to teach our children.
  • In other fields, we must use discernment. Because there are absolute standards of truth and beauty and goodness, there are also things that are bad and false and ugly.
  • All human culture has been affected by the fall and, while truth can come to us through non-Christians, no one culture has a monopoly on such truth.
  • Much of what passes for Christian culture is also not based on biblical ideas and it should also be approached with discernment.
  • As it is possible to glorify God through one’s work, so we may glorify Him through study.
  • There are some basic concepts which are foundational to later learning and should be required of all children (barring severe mental incapacity).
  • As even the youngest children are fully human, it is not a matter of memorization of basic facts for the young while withholding bigger ideas for later years. Even the youngest children deserve to learn ideas which will point them to their Creator.
  • Because we have One Creator, all areas of knowledge have an inherent unity. They all point us to God yet each teaches us something slightly different and new about Him. For these reasons, we should require a fairly broad curriculum.
  • Nonetheless, each person is a unique individual and we must not expect that all will learn the same things. Since learning ultimately points us to an infinite God, there is no end to what can be learned. No one can learn everything and we should not expect everyone to learn the same things.

Nebby

[1] Cornelius Van Til does an excellent job of explaining this in his book  Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974; see my review here).

 

Movie Review: The Test and the Art of Thinking

Dear Reader,

Thanks ot a local homeschool group, I recently had the opportunity to watch “The Test and the Art of Thinking,” a movie on the SATs. I wrote this review for my local group and thought I would share it here as well.

Not surprisingly, this movie was critical of the SATs (and ACTs though less time was spent specifically on them) as criteria for college admissions. It began with a brief discussion of the original purpose of the test. This was not actually entirely bad. Though it was the era of eugenics and most scientists expected the test to show differences between those of us who are more evolved and those who are less so, it also had an egalitarian purpose. Prestigious schools of the day each had their own admission tests and only offered them to students who were already at high level prep schools. A common test allowed students from different backgrounds to compete.

The main criticism of the test was that it does not really measure intelligence. This is true for a number of reasons including: There is not just one kind of intelligence. It is very hard to measure or even define true intelligence. Beating the test has itself become a game of tricks in which those who can pay for expensive prep classes have an advantage.

There was also some talk of the power of the test in society. Though started by those not looking to make money, it is now big business. While some colleges have dropped testing requirements for admissions, the big names still use it and it is hard for others not to follow suit. It was implied that these elite colleges somehow must benefit from using the test though it was not specified how. The national rankings of colleges also play a role and people watch them closely and the average SAT score of admitted students is considered in them (though it was not abundantly clear to me how large this one measure plays in overall rankings).

This movie was best when it was specific and showed ways the test can be “gamed.” They demonstrated for instance that in the essay portion (which is no longer required or even wanted by most schools in my experience) that a long essay gets high marks even if its content is complete drivel. They also showed some tricks prep agencies teach for getting probable right answers without even reading the problem.

I had a number of issues with or questions about the movie:

  • It relied heavily on test prep people and admissions staff (or former admissions staff). Every time a College Board (the people who run the SATs) person was talking it was recorded from some other forum. It may be the College Board refused to talk directly to them, but then this should have been said.
  • It was very low on statistics. In fact, there were almost none that related to the success or bias of the test. There was an allusion made to gender differences but no facts on what these are. Again, it was said in passing that test scores do not correlate to college success and that all they correlate to is parents’ educational level (all things I have heard before in other contexts), but hard numbers to back these things up would have been more persuasive. Nor was there any real discussion of how poorer and otherwise marginalized groups do on the test.
  • There is no doubt schools rely on test scores. What I have heard is that even top schools do not rely solely on test scores. Harvard gets a lot of 1600s applying and they look beyond scores for something more. The movie presented things as black-and-white, we use scores or we don’t. I think an honest assessment would need to look at how schools really evaluate students and how much of a role those test scores actually play. (I know a lot of this information is proprietary and that schools do not want to share how they make decisions but we need to at least acknowledge that it is not a simple process.)
  • The movie is dated. Though it was made in 2018, the SAT has changed recently and the essay is no longer required and (from looking at schools for my son last year) most schools don’t even want it. The best criticism the movie had was of how essays don’t even have to be true (see above) but it is no longer relevant. I laughed in appreciation when they said the reading selections are like articles from Time Magazine and there are still a number like this, but my experience with my children is that they are also now including passages from real literature (like Jane Austen novels). In my observation there has been some real improvement in the latest changes which was not addressed.
  • Most of the tricks shown which cheat the system had to do with the math section. There may be similar tricks for the reading and writing potions but this was not made clear. So I am left wondering if those portions are also as game-able.
  • At one point one of the talking heads talks about a hypothetical question about who was president during WWII and how some answers, though wrong, are still better than others. I get his point, but it wasn’t well related to the test which does not have these sorts of factual history questions. I assume he was meaning to say something about the reading portion which often asks for the best answer out of a selection of possible ones but this connection was not made clear.
  • Obviously some people pay oodles of money to learn the tricks of the test. I would like to know how much they actually improve their scores by doing so. My kids who have taken the test improved some by doing practice tests at home. How does this method of preparation compare to those expensive classes? How much can a 1400 kid (on a first try) imporve versus a 1000 kid? Again hard numbers are needed.
  • There is an underlying value system here which I don’t buy into anyway which says that one needs to get into the elite colleges and therefore needs the best scores. When my own son was looking for colleges, we saw that the elite ones require a certain number of SAT subject tests or AP tests. Knowing he would hate to do all that extra prep and testing and feeling that it would be a waste of his time, we eliminated such schools from our list under the assumption that if they attract people that are so focused on such things they are probably not good schools for him anyway. It is hard to avoid the SAT (or ACT) in our society, but one can keep it in perspective and get by without buying into the whole system.
  • Not really a criticism of the movie: The test was not originally game-able (even in the 1980s when many of us parents were taking it, this was not a big thing). Since it has become so, because people have discovered ways to get right answers without actually doing the problems, the whole thing has become a game and of less value overall. The film used a lot of test prep people who make lots of money teaching rich kids how to trick the system. (I don’t honestly know how these people live with themselves, but that’s a side issue.) I think we should not be surprised that human beings cannot create an un-game-able test but how this comes through in test questions thereby making them game-able seems like it would be a fascinating psychological study to me.

“The Test and the Art of Thinking” did not really provide new information. I went in expecting it to tell me just the things it told me: that the test is game-able, that those who can afford expensive test prep have an advantage, that it does not measure true intelligence. I didn’t find that there was much new added to the discussion here and I would really have liked to see the hard numbers to back all this up.

Nebby

The Power of Narrative, for Better or Worse

Dear Reader,

Alex Rosenberg, a professor of philosophy at Duke University, has recently published a book entitled How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of our Addiction to Stories which describes why we are so attracted to narrative and how it can lead us astray. I have not (yet) read the book but only some articles on it. The two I have run across are: Rosenberg, Alex, “Humans are Hardwired to Tell History in Stories. Neuroscience Tells Us Why We Get Them Wrong,” Time (Oct. 10, 2018), and Chen, Angela, “A philosopher explains how our addiction to stories keeps us from understanding history,” The Verge (Oct 5, 2018). Though my introduction to his work has been brief, I would like to examine Rosenberg’s ideas a bit.

Rosenberg’s contention is that we humnas “like to have all our knowledge packaged in stories — narratives with plots that involve people (and animals) with reasons and motives, carrying out their aims and designs, in cooperation or conflict, succeeding or being thwarted” (Time). This instinct, he says, leads us astray because we attribute emotions and motives to people when we cannot possibly know if they are accurate. His theory has a distinctly evolutionary basis — we have this propensity to ascribe motives to others because it helped us in a primitive environment (he mentions the African savannah). But to do so is false because: “neuroscience shows that in fact what’s “going on” in anyone’s mind is not decision about what to do in the light of beliefs and desire, but rather a series of neural circuitry firings” (Ibid.). “So,” he continues, “the brain can’t “contain” beliefs at all.”

Now obviously there is a lot here that from our Christian context we must reject wholesale. But there is also a kernel of truth that I think we need to acoount for.

On one level, I respect Rosenberg’s science. Most godless [1] evolutionists end up inconsistent. They want to believe in something beyond the physical though their presuppositions do not allow for a spiritual element. Rosenberg admits that his worldview is a purely physical one and that physical causes must account for all things — even what we term beliefs and emotions. Because of this, he does not just say we wrongly guess others’ motives; he actually says we cannot guess motives because there are no motives, only the products of neural firings.

As Christians,it is pretty fundamental to our belief system that there is a spiritual element to creation, and to humans in  particular, for which the physical alone cannot account. We also believe that we humans are capable of true belief [2] and that we do have motives, i.e. reasons we do things, even if our reasons are not always reasonable.

We may agree with Rosenberg, however, that narrative is instinctual to our race and that it is powerful. Charlotte Mason (whose educational philosophy I have blogged on extensively though I do not agree with her in all things) relies heavily on narrative as the basis for learning for just the reason Rosenberg cites — because we are programmed to learn informaiton through stories. The biblical text supports this view; narrative more than any other mode is how God Himself has chosen to communicate with His people. Our faith is largely belief in a story and this story is a powerful one (Heb. 4:12). So, while we do not come at the issue from the same direction, we can agree with Rosenberg that narrative is both fundamental and powerful for people.

Rosenberg goes one step further and argues that narrative is deceptive and even manipulative. As mentioned above, we do not need to reject all narrative as false as Rosenberg does because we do believe in motive. But he is correct is saying that narrative can be deceptive, whether deliberately or unintentionally. To that extent that such deception is deliberate it is also manipulative. In all honestly, even true narratives can be to some extent manipulative in that they are used to create a change in the audience.

Though there is a spectrum, narrative is apt to add to its subject matter. A historical novel often invents entire characters and situations. A biography may stick to real people and events but may makes unfounded surmises about how people felt and why they did things. A textbook may not take such liberties but often ends up as a dry compendium of facts which, as I think Rosenberg would agree, is hard to learn from.

Those of us who seek to use “living books” in our schools and homeschools (as I argued we should here)  need to take this crisitcism seriously. Too often we choose books based on the recommendations of others or from various lists which circulate and do not consider whether what they have to say is true. I remmeber reading two books about the pilgrims when my children were little and finding that they gave some very different versions of basic facts, even names and dates. These things were relatively easy to fact-check, though if I hadn’t been reading both books I would never have known there was anything to fact-check. And the more a book gets into motives, the more we are at the author’s mercy.

We have spoken some on the past of the need to vet our authors – and to use caution with those whose worldview differs from our own. Now we must add to that list: check their academic credentials and propensity for honesty. Sad to say, I find it is often the “Christian” historical fiction which seems to go the farthest in terms of inventing people, events, and feelings or motivations. A certain level of sentimentality anda tendency to explain the feelings and thoughts of others shoudl raise red flags for us to proceed with caution and a grain of salt. This does not mean we need to reject narrative-style living books altogether; there are books which use narrative but do a better job of sticking to the facts without assuming motivations and thoughts. Rosenberg admits as much citing Guns, Germs, and Steel as one such book (The Verge).

On a day -to-day in the trenches basis, this is a pretty thorny issue. If I were a university professor developing a class which I would be teaching again and again, I would spend a fair amount of time researching my sources and making sure that they balance narrative with truth. As a homeschooling mom who needs to find new books for multiple kids to read in about eight subject areas every twelve weeks and who is limited by what’s available at the local library and used off Amazon, I don’t have the time or resoucres to find the best of what’s out there every time.

I do think we can use a little discernment, however. With practice and with an awareness of the problem, we can make some fairly educated guesses about which books seem to give accurate acocunts and which clearly are supplying lots of suppositional information.

In sum, then, Rosenberg has raised some concerns which we need to take seriously. Though there are apsects of his theory which Christians cannot accept, he is correct that narrative is fundamental to how we learn and that it is powerful. Like most power, it can be used for good or ill. While I do not agree with him that all attempts at finding motive are in vain, it is true that we often make wrong suppositions about others’ motives and that narrative can thus be deceptive and even manipulative.

Nebby

[1] I do not mean this term derogatively. I am simpy refering to those who accept an evolution without any divine mind behind it. Those who believe in a divinely-guided evolution would not fit in this category.

[2] This is not a statemnt about total depravity and our capacity for good, but simply about our ability to believe in anything.

Principles of Reformed Education: Pick Your Teachers Well

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.

How do we grow in knowledge? How does one learn anything? Depending on the sort of knowledge we have in mind, there can be varying answers. I would not say I know how to scuba dive if I have only read a book on the topic. In all disciplines there are people who go out in the field or go back to primary sources and analyze and develop new theories.

Though some kind sof knowledge require hands-on experience and though there will always be the need for discoverers who return to the sources, none of us starts from scratch. We all get some base of knowledge from those who have come before. And most of the time, for most of us, the bulk of our knowledge comes to us through other people, whether in person or through books and, increasingly, other media. This is as it should be; God created us to be in relationship with one another (Gen. 2:18), and He commands us to pass on our knowledge to the next generation. This is especially true in the family (Deut 6:7) but is not exclusive to the family (Tit. 2:4-5).

Today’s principle is fairly simple: Most human knowledge is communicated from mind to mind therefore we should choose our teachers well. 

God Himself is the source of all wisdom and knowledge (Acts 7:10; Jam. 1:5). Because we, in Adam, were created in His image as spiritual beings (i.e. ones with a spiritual as well as a physical nature), we also are capable of obtaining wisdom and knowledge. Note that I do not say we originate knowledge. All knowledge comes from God. We “discover” it when God reveals it to us.

Though there are no doubt many ways in which we as a race go astray and follow wrong ideas, there is some progression in human knowledge. I am very grateful that we live in an era in which we know about bacteria and viruses. I have a child who is alive today because God allowed a man (Frederick Banting) to discover insulin and its role in controlling blood sugar. Still, we will never know everything there is to know.

There are “Eureka” moments in human history in which God allows one person to dicsover some truth that no human had ever thought before. But these “discoveries” are not built on nothing. The discoverer already has some base of knowledge, some reason to be looking in the corner they are looking in or to be running the experiment they are running. And when they make that great discovery, we do not all have to make it again. The knowledge gets passed on and built on.

As we discussed last time, when we want to convey specific knowledge, we use words, whether oral or written. This use of langauge seems to be inherent in how we are made. We were created by God’s Word and it is how He, who created and knows our natures, communicates with us. When He chooses to communicate specific truths to us (special revelation as opposed to general revelation), He uses words.

And so we use words to communicate with one another. When we think of teaching, we often think of one person standing in front of a class and lecturing and this is certainly a valid method of conveying human knowledge. But the words and ideas that flow from mind to mind can come to us in various media. In our day and age, we can preserve a lecture and share it with others. This has not always been the case. More than anything else the written word has been the means of preserving and transmitting human knowledge. Last time, I made the case for books as the primary tool of learning and for particular kinds of books which we are calling “living books” (see this post).  Today I’d like to focus not so much on the books themselves as on the authors.

As I have argued many times before, God’s knowledge can come to us through non-Christian sources (though we should also expect more truth to come through Christians).  Our “teachers” — live or on paper– will come to us from many walks of life and with many different worldviews. There are no uninterpreted facts. Even in the most mundane, practical subjects, there is some level on which the author’s beliefs will be reflected in what he writes. Because this is so, we must be discerning in who we learn from.

How shall we choose our teachers? It is not simply a matter of Christian versus non-Christian.  There are times when we will have things to learn from non-Christians and there are Christians who will either be factually wrong or who will, despite a profession of faith, have a wrong outlook. When one is young, either chronologically or in one’s faith and knowledge, it is better to keep a narrower circle. There are books I would give to my teen that I would not give to my kindergartner (apart from content considerations of course). The more we know what we believe, the easier it will be to be discerning when we need to evaluate others’ beliefs.

At this stage of my life, I spend a lot of time in the car. I have taken up listening to theological podcasts for entertainment on long drives. While it is occasionally interesting to listen to someone I know is radically different from me, for the most part I pick people who are from the same end of the theological spectrum — i.e. reformed Christians, even other Presbyterians. But even within this realtively narrow corner of the spectrum, I hear things which make me wonder “Is that really true?” But there is one podcast that is done by members of my own (small) denomination including an ordained elder and the president of the seminary.  I’ve never met these men but I know their pedigrees and I know that they have the stamp of approval of a denomination I have already chosen to give allegience too. There might be things they say that I would disagree with but as I listen to them, I am more relaxed because I know that I can have some level of trust in what they say.

My point is this: I have made a broader choice, that I will cast my lot in with a particular church, so when my “teacher” is someone from that body, I can have a certain level of trust. I do not need to vet everything to the same degree I might otherwise. We all make similar choices. We rely on indidivual reputations but we might also look at broader criteria: where a person was educated, what church they belong to, etc. These are not infallible standards but, when well chosen, they are far better than no standards.

When I rely on my church’s seal of approval, I am in some sense accepting their recommendation. We live in a age of reviews. I would caution you to also vet those from whom you get recommendations. Quite often I see people post on homeschool message boards “What curriculum should I use?” If you are going to ask someone for recommendations, make sure they are someone who thinks like you, who has the same goals and standards. Knowing the subject area is a bonus too. Your pastor may be a wonderful, godly man but that doesn’t make him the best person to recommend a grammar curriculum.

To some extent we can develop relationships with particular authors, even those long dead. We become familiar with their thought, and we can develop a trust in them. When you have collected a body of trusted teachers, you do not need to do as much work each time.

While I don’t believe there are any truly secular subjects, there are areas in which I am going to be more careful. I don’t research the religious views of the authors of my children’s math and grammar books, but I am pretty careful of what theology they read and also of what science and history.

Though the primary intent is to give us discernment in religious matters, the Scriptures do offer some criteria for evaluating teachers:

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock;and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” (Acts 20:28-30; ESV)

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.'” (Matt. 7:15-17; ESV)

These two passages give us two kinds of tests — Acts speaks to intellectual content and Matthew to practical outworkings.

In Acts we are told that false teachers draw men away from true doctrine. Good teachers, whether they themselves give glory to God or not, inspire us to praise. God’s general revelation should draw us to him (Rom 1:19-20). A teacher who knows his subject well and truly loves it can often lead us to see God in it even if he himself does not. I think, for example, of biologist E.O. Wilson (see this earlier book review). I do not agree with his belief in godless evolution, but when he speaks of his primary field, entymology, his delight in God’s smallest ceratures shines thorugh and though I am not big fan of insects myself, I grow to appreciate them and their Creator more.

Where Acts speaks to a teacher’s affect on us, Matthew addresses his own life. If I am reading a historian and find out that he was involved in eugenics programs, I am probably going to either drop his book or read it with a lot more discernment. I have blogged at length in the past about evolutuion and creation without coming to a solid conclusion. The one thing that has driven me away from Darwinian evolution in recent years more than anything else is  seeing how Darwin’s ideas played out in theology and philosophy. The consequences of the man’s ideas, in his own life and in those who took his ideas to their extreme conclusions, speak volumes about the ideas themselves (I discussed this a little in this earlier post).

If there is a general principle here it is: Be very careful who you let into your head. The rest are guidelines. There will not be one answer for all people. One may be able to read a book discerningly while another may be bothered by it. To sum up, the guidelines I am proposing are:

  • The abiity to discern grows with age and spiritual maturity. Those who are older, both chronologically and spiritually, will be able to make use of a wider variety of teachers.
  • Know what you believe. The better you are educated in your own worldview, the more you will be able to discern and avoid the fallacies in another’s.
  • Vet sources. Look at where a person was educated and what they believe.
  • Get to know your teachers. You can learn to trust particular sources.
  • Seek recommendations only from those you trust.
  • Look at outcomes in your own life. Does reading this person give you a greater sense of awe or does it pull you away from God and His truth?
  • Look at the outcomes in the teacher’s life and at how his ideas have played out through time.

Nebby

Principles of Reformed Education: Living Books and The Living Word

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 series is to define a reformed Christian theology of education and to give you practical principles which can be used in selecting materials for that education. Thus far, we have spent a good deal of time on the theoretical side of things (see this summary post). On the practical side, we have discussed the need for a broad education and for an approach that is interesting but not entertaining. Today I’d like to talk about one of the most essenatial parts of any education — books.

Words and The Word

Here is one of the most patently obvious statements of the day: Books are combinations of words. So in trying to get at why we use books and what books we should use, we need to begin with words. And, because everything is ultimately theological, we need to begin with the theology of words.

The Bible has quite a lot to say about words. It starts in Genesis 1 — God creates by the power of His Word (Gen. 1:3). We find out later that this Word is God the Son so that we may say that Jesus Christ is the Word of God (John 1:1-3).

Beyond Creation, words in the Bible are quite powerful things. To name something is to have power over it. Thus God names Day and Night (Gen. 1:5), Heaven (v. 8), and Earth and Sea (v. 10). But it is Adam who names the animals and the woman (Gen. 2:19, 23). Later on, when God establishes a relationship with a person and changes their life trajectory in some way, He also changes their name (Gen. 17:5; 32:28; Mk. 3:16).

Words are not inert. A word has power. We have already seen the power of God’s Word in Creation, but even human words have power. Words cannot be taken back. Blessings and curses in particular are powerful things (consider, for instance, the story of Balaam in Num. 22-24).

It is through words that God chose to reveal Himself to us. He makes a deliberate choice not to use images but to speak (Deut. 4:15).  The Bible, God’s written Word, is His complete revelation to us. The things we see of Him in Creation may reveal His character (Rom. 1:20), but it is His written Word which tells us the things we need to know for salvation. It is “the only infallible rule for faith and life.”  And this written Word again has power; it is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12; ESV).

The Power of Words in Education

The primary way our Creator, the One who formed our natures and knows them best, chooses to communicate with us is through words. I have argued that the purpose of education is sanctification, or better put that education is a subset of sanctification. As such it is a work of God. The stuff of education is general revelation. We may learn from what we see and hear and feel, but the information that we gather and pass along to one another is communicated primarily through words. This is not to say that there is no role for pictures and charts and graphs and even music and other media, but in the end when precise communication is needed we fall back on words.

A picture is worth a thousand words. I believe this is a true statement but the connotation it implies — that pictures are therefore superior — is not necessarily true. Movies are usually shorter than the books they adapt. There a number of reasons for this. A movie maker can depict in one image a scene that takes an author pages to describe. He does not need to say what each character looks like or what the scene is because he can convey these details in an instant. In this way images are more efficient.

But images also have their flaws. On one hand, they are too specific. An author may intentionally not tell what a character looks like or what she is wearing. The movie maker has to show the character somehow so he chooses an actress and wardrobes her. In so doing, he makes interpretive decisions that may change our opinions of that character and ultimately may change the story. At the very least,  he makes decisions that the author intentionally left to the audience.

On the other hand, images are often not specific enough. God reveals Himself to us in Creation but when He wants to communicate specific truths He uses words. Pictures are open to interpretation. We can look at the same piece of art and get different messages. This may happen with words as well, but the more we use our words the more clarity we give.

For all of these reasons, I am going to take the completely radical position that words, and particularly books [1], should be the backbone of our approach to education.

“Living” Books

If books are to be the primary means of education, the next question is: Which books?

If you are in homeschool circles, you may have heard the phrase “living books” [2]. Because the term is used in different ways, I am hesitant to jump on the bandwagon and use it as well. Depsite this, I am going to do so because I think it conveys an important truth.

In the verse from Hebrews quoted above, we are told that the Word of God is “living.” In the context of the Bible, to be “living” is to be life-giving. [Recall that Jesus promises the Samaritan woman “living waters” (John 4:10).] The Scriptures are living words in a unique way. Nothing else is on par with them.  Nonetheless, I am arguing that, insofar as education itself is the work of God and is part and parcel of our sanctification, the books we use should be living as well (living with a little “l”).  That is, they should be able, through the work of God the Holy Spirit, to give life.

How do we recognize a living book? There are not going to be hard and fast answers. We cannot go through our local library and make two stacks, living books and non-living books (though there may be some which clearly fall in one category or another). There are guidelines and criteria we can consider, however, among which I would list the following:

  • God tells us what sorts of things we should fill our minds with:

 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil. 4:8; ESV)

Living books should be true and lovely and pure. They should not be false or blasphemous or smutty.

Caveat: There are circumstances when we may want to read things that we know are untrue or have our children read books that we don’t agree with 100%. It is always good to know what the other side thinks and to consider new arguments. But such things should be read a) by those who are more mature and b) with discernment, knowing that all we read may not be true and that we are commanded to test all things.

  • Living books should be interesting. In my previous post, I argued that the education we give should be interesting but not entertaining. Our subject matter, which is the revelation of God, is inherently interesting, but many authors have a knack for making the interesting dull. On the other hand, many books written for children are designed to be overly entertaining in a way that adults think will appeal to children but which does not actually add content or value. Living books are written by people who love their subject and can convey that love. Because they find their subject interesting, they do not need to use gimmicks to sell it.
  • A corollary to the above: The fewer authors, the better. Because we look for books in which a knowledgeable author conveys his love for his subject, books written by committee are unlikely to fit this criteria. This is not to say all living books only have one name on the cover, but as a general principle books with fewer authors are likely to be better.
  • Living books do not need to be written by Christians. We have discussed previously that all truth is God’s truth and, as God uses the efforts of non-Christians, with or without their cooperation, truth may come to us through non-Christian sources. On the other hand, we should expect Christian scholarship to be better because Christians should have a superior understanding of truth (sadly, this is not always the case).
  • We are sinful people and we are not always attracted to what is best for us. This is particularly true if we have been accustomed to a diet of (intellectual) junk food.  Living books may not always be the most attractive books, and we may need to push our children to read something other than Captain Underpants.
  • Living books are worth reading more than once. When we read the Bible (the only capital “L” Living Book), we find ourselves getting new meaning even from familiar passages. Though no other book can approach it, little “l” living books are often enjoyable when read more than once. They may also have layers of meaning so that it is worth our time to revisit them.
  • Corollary to the above: A good test for picture books is whether the adult wants to read them again. If you groan when your child brings you THAT book once again, say no. On the other hand, if it is a joy to read aloud and the words roll off your tongue, it is probably a living book.
  • Living books can come in all genres and reading levels. They do not have to be non-fiction to be educational. They do not have to be written as fiction to be engaging. Prose and poetry, fiction and non-fiction, picture books and tomes can all be living.
  • To some extent, a living book is in the eye of the beholder. Many young boys can spend hours poring over what seem to adults to be very dry encyclopedia-like volumes on reptiles (or bugs or cars). If the child is soaking in knowledge, it is living to him. On the flip side, there may be a book you love but the child may just not connect with it. [But note that this requires discernement– the child may just be lazy and used to junk food (see above).]
  • The ultimate test of a living book is its effect: Does it draw us closer to God or reveal more truth to us?  If it makes you say “Wow, that is so cool,” it is probably a living book. The truth we get doesn’t necessarily have to be profound. It could be a small detail about the lives of ants. It could be a quite depressing yet realistic depiction of human nature from an unbelieving author. It could be a mental picture we get of another time or place we would not otherwise have known about. The size of the truth is not as important as whether it tells us something about God, His creation, or our own natures.

Which brings us to a final point: the power of living books is ultimately not in the books themselves but in God the Holy Spirit who enables us to apprehend the truths in them and to understand them within the context of His greater work. Just as the truths of the one Living Book (there’s that big “L” again) cannot be understood without the working of the Holy Spirit, so the truths found in other living books cannot be rightly understood apart from the work of God in our hearts and minds and a right understanding of the bigger picture of God’s creative and redemptive work.

Nebby

[1] I use the term books somewhat loosely here. Shorter works such as essays and pamphlets would fill the same role. There is value as well in the spoken word, aka lectures and talks, especially in a day and age when we can presreve them and return to them at will. The great value of books, however, is that they are timeless. They allow us to “hear” the words of a great variety of people from all points in human history.

[2] Charlotte Mason’s approach relies heavily on living books but classical educators will also use the term.

Principles of Reformed Education: Interesting but not Entertaining

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.

Having spent the first seven months of the year talking about the theory behind a reformed Christian philosophy of education, I am now attempting to spend the latter part of the year addressing more practical concerns — How are we actually going to do this? What will it look like? What should I be doing with my kids when they wake up this morning?

As I chip away at these posts, I have been debating how to even discuss the topic. I promised you many times that I would begin going through subjects one-by-one and talking about how and why we learn them. Upon further reflection, I think we need to spend time on some general principles.

My goal in all this is not to create a curriculum which can be followed without thought. Educating our children is always going to be a mindful enterprise and a major presupposition of this series is that we should not be just buying someone’s curriculum and using it as is without some serious discernment. Rather than creating something new for you to buy, what I’d like to give you is principles to apply and tools to consider in selecting among the many options that are already out there.

We have already seen a few such principles. We talked about the expectation teachers should have — that God will work in their students to bring redemption and sanctification — and the attitude the teacher should have which should be one of joy and delight in the things of God as he himself grows in knowledge. Last time we said that we need to give a broad education, a principle which is founded in God’s creation of and purpose for the universe.

Today’s principle is this:

Education should be inherently interesting but not entertaining.

I have argued that when we educate we are placing before our students the things of God as revealed in general revelation. It is God’s truth, goodness, and beauty that we are putting before them. These things have their own inherent attractiveness.

As teachers, our job is not to try to soup up the things of God and to make them more fun or entertaining. We could not do so if we tried. Just as loud drums and strobe lights in worship manipulate the emotions of the audience but do not make the worship more pleasing to God so too our efforts to entertain in education are manipulative but not ultimately productive. One of my favorite analogies for education is that of a meal. We place the intellectual food before our children; they have to eat. If we want them to eat squash and they are not initially attracted to it, we can hide it in brownies. We will achieve a short-term goal of getting squash in them, but we do so at the detriment of a long-term goal; they will not learn to like squash or to see its innate goodness and value. So too in education, when we gussy up the things we are teaching, we may get a few facts in our kids, but we are teaching them to love games and crafts and flashy videos. We are not teaching them to love knowledge and truth. In fact, we are sending quite the opposite message — that knowledge is not interesting and that it needs us to make it palatable. We need to beware, then, of curricula which entertain. They are manipulative and they do so at the expense of a genuine love of knowledge.

We can also go too far the other direction, however. It is quite possible to take these things — and remember they are the things of God — and to suck all the joy and interest out of them. I used two analogies above — that of worship and that of a meal — so I will use these again. While we do not need to make our worship flashy to make it more pleasing, we should also be wary of worship which because of its slowness and/or lack of enthusiasm is genuinely hard to listen to. I argued that the teacher’s attitude needs to be one of genuine joy and delight. If we are unenthused or if our books and materials are dry and boring, the child will believe that the things of God are thus. Tedious repetition, boring textbooks which do little more than list facts are the dry fiber bars of education. They may get the necessary nutrients into our kids, but again they do not convey a genuine love of knowledge and truth.

Education is not always going to be a joy for us or our students. Education is sanctification. It is the renewing of our minds. But our minds would not need renewing if they were not fallen and corrupted [1]. While we should always be expecting God to work,  there will be times when we are not seeing progress or when the work seems slow and fruitless. The way through these times is through prayer, repentance, and just continuing to do the things we know we are supposed to be doing.

There is no perfect curriculum. As we evaluate the choices before us for a given subject, we must keep in mind that the things we are teaching are God’s things. They have an inherent attractiveness. We need to be wary on the one hand of resources which try to dress up that godly knowledge too much and thereby send the message that it is not in itself interesting and beautiful. And, on the other hand, we need to beware of resources which strip all the beauty from the things of God. In the middle ground somewhere is the place where God’s revelation is allowed to shine on its own with its inherent attractiveness. This is where we want to be.

Nebby

[1] Would Adam and Eve and their children have needed education if there had been no Fall? As far as I am concerned, the jury is still out on this one. I do not think they had all knowledge (or all the knowledge appropriate for humans) but whether there would have been a gradual learning or whether they would have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge and gotten that knowlegde instantaneoiusly we do not know.  One thing I think we can assume — that knowledge would have been inherently interesting and attractive to them, as it should be to us, if only our sin did not get in the way.

A Broad Education

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.

In the coming weeks we will be going through individual subjects and looking at how we should view and teach them from a reformed Christian perspective. Before we do that, however, I want to make sure that we are understanding the context in which we do these things. While I will be talking about math and grammar and history individually, we are never to view these subjects as free-standing and unrelated disciplines.

This realization affects how we teach. It also affects what we teach. There is a time for specialization. That time is when one has a solid foundation of knowledge (and even then dabbling in other areas is quite useful intellectually). As our immediate concern is the education of children (pre-college) we are not too worried about that. There may be some level of concentration in the final years of high school, but most of what we are talking about is the years when one should be getting a broad, well-rounded education.

Why a broad education? In my recent  post on methodology  I discussed the kinds of evidence we can argue from. The biblical witness is, of course, always paramount, but, on issues to which the biblical text does not speak directly, we have recourse to logical reasoning and common sense on the one hand and observation  and scientific studies on the other. This particular issue is a good way to get our feet wet because arguments can and have been made from a number of starting points.

The trend in recent years has been to combine, or perhaps one should say recombine, various academic disciplines. This is exemplified by a change in acronymns.  Not so very long ago the buzz word of the day was STEM. STEM stands for sceince, technology, engineering and math. It was believed that to get ahead in this world (where getting ahead seems to translate to having the best technological innovations and therfore the best economic position) America needed above all a large number of students well-versed in these STEM subjects. This emphasis on one particular kind of knowledge led to an undervaluing of other subjects and an underfunding of the arts in particular. More recently,  popular opinion has backed away from this viewpoint and turned STEM into STEAM. The extra “A” is for arts as educators realized that the creativity which the arts engender is necessary for us to truly achieve their goals. [1]  Though the change is narrow (one wonders what has happened to history and the social sciences), the transition from STEM to STEAM represents a small concession to the idea that no one kind of learning can stand on its own.

While the STEM/STEAM movement pervades our elementary, middle and high schools, colleges and universities have also made a move towards what might be termed creativity education. In May 2013, Radcliffe Magazine reported on a conference with the title “Breakthroughs: Creativity across Disciplines.” The title of the conference sums it up. The keynote speaker, Richard Holmes, is reported to have said that “creativity, ‘with its criss-crossing patterns of inspiration,’ defies disciplinary borders” [Corydon Ireland, “How revolutionary leaps of insight occur across disciplines—they’re not always sudden,” Radcliffe Magazine (May, 2013)]. In 2014, the New York Times reported on the effort by a small number of colleges (four are listed in the article) to deliberately teach creativity.

“And creative studies offerings, sometimes with a transdisciplinary bent, are new options in business, education, digital media, humanities, arts, science and engineering programs across the country.” [Laura Pappano, “Learning to Think Outside the Box,” The New York Times (Feb. 5, 2014)]

The idea behind creativity education, as behind STEAM, is a very practical one — there are problems to be solved and crossing disciplines seems to allow one to solve them faster and more creatively.

Another buzz word,  “transdisciplinary” [2], implies a deeper philosophical viewpoint:

“Transdisciplinary teaching and learning operates from the belief that there is knowledge, concepts, skills, attitudes and actions that transcend subject area boundaries and forge the curriculum into a coherent transdisciplinary whole that is engaging, relevant, challenging and significant.” (“Transdisciplinary Teaching & Learning,” from Discovery College)

Such a transdisciplinary approach has been termed holistic in that it presents a worldview that seeks to unify all areas of knowledge:

“The transdisciplinary approach of holistic type, that overreaches the disciplinary fragmentation limits with its disadvantages, offers a vision of the world and life, as competent as possible, and has as starting point the human nature with all its complexity and diverse forms of manifestation.” [Daniela Jeder, “Transdisciplinarity — The Advantage of a Holistic Approach to Life,” Procedia: Social and Behavorial Sciences (July 9, 2014)]

The impetus of the STEM/STEAM movement is largely economic with some national pride thrown in. With transdisciplinary studies there is some awareness of a larger meaning. Ideas themselves are transcendent and there is some acknowldgement of a unifying truth behind it all. If, however, we begin with “human nature,” as in the quote from Jeder above, we will never get far or be able to establish a true unified view.

This is an argument Francis Schaeffer made numerous times and in numerous ways. Writing in the late 1960s, Schaeffer said that in humanism, or rationalism, “men and women, beginning absolutely by themselves, having only selves, try rationally to build out from themselves, having only Man as their integration point, to find all knowledge, meaning and value” (Francis Schaeffer, “The God who is There,” from Three Essential Volumes in One. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990). Because these men and women were not able to build a unified view of reality starting with themselves and having no idea of a Creator, they abandoned the effort:

“The philosophers came to the conclusion that they were not going to find a unified rationalistic circle that would contain all thought, and in which they could live.” (Schaeffer, p. 10)

In the 1960s and 70s, Schaeffer documented the abandonment of any effort towards a unified understanding of reality and with it the idea of absolute truth.

Now it seems that there is some movement back towards unification. This is a good trend and as Christians we should applaud it, but we also need to recognize that there can be no true and unified view that begins with man.

When we begin with God, we begin with unity. God is One (Deut. 6:4). It is He that has created all things, and this creation gives them their meaning (Jn. 1:3; Col. 1:16; Heb. 11:3; Rev. 4:11). It is also what gives them unity (Col. 1:17). As they have one Maker and one Sustainer (Heb. 1:3), they have one purpose as well (Rom. 8:28; 1 Cor. 8:6) which is to glorify and reveal their Creator (Ps. 19:1; Rom. 1:20).

We all tend to have subjects we don’t like. For one it is math, for another grammar or science or history. Yet the Bible tells us that all things are made by God and accomplish His purposes. Because they all both originate from and point to the same One, there is an inherent unity. On a practical level, we must learn our addition facts in one moment of the day and our spelling rules in another and our biology in still another. But as we do so we must always keep in mind that these things are part of one system because there is one Creator God.

Nebby

[1] There is no shortage of articles on STEM/STEAM available. One I found helful for explaining the trend and the changes in it is Christine Liao’s “From Interdisciplinary to Transdisciplinary: An Arts-Integrated Approach to STEAM Education.” [Christine Liao (2016) From Interdisciplinary to Transdisciplinary: An Arts-Integrated Approach to STEAM Education, Art Education, 69:6, 44-49, DOI: 10.1080/00043125.2016.1224873]

[2] One may see various similar terms — transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary. While they do have distinct definitions, delving into them is beyond the scope of this post. It is enough for our purposes to note that the trend is towards combining disciplines or at least crossing boundaries between them.

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