Should We Forget Memorization in the Age of Google?

Dr. Jeff Walton serves as executive director of the American Association of Christian Schools, headquartered in Chattanooga, TN. He is the editor of Journal for Christian Educators.

This is the fourth in a series of five posts by Jeff Walton commenting on “five truths” of progressive education identified by Maya Thiagarajan in an Education Week blog on August 15, 2016.  Thoughtful Christian educators reject many of the practices of progressive American education because progressive principles and practices sometimes conflict with biblical truth about the nature of children and the nature of learning.  Maya Thiagarajan is an American-educated English teacher who has been teaching in Singapore.  She is the author of Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting in the Global Age.  In her Education Week guest blog on August 15, 2016, Maya frankly discusses five “universal education truths” that as an American teacher she believed and “religiously” followed until her move to Singapore in 2010.  In earlier articles, I commented on the first three truths.

Truth #4: “Making kids memorize stuff is not just unnecessary in the age of Google, it’s downright bad pedagogy. Twenty-first century learning is not about ‘knowing’ information, it’s about analyzing, synthesizing, applying, and creating. ”

In Singapore, and perhaps across Asia, many parents and teachers still harbor a deep reverence for the power of human memory….In his defense of a ‘knowledge rich’ curriculum, the former Singaporean education minister Heng Swee Keat said, ‘If creativity is about connecting the dots, you need to have solid dots in the first place, or you will have nothing to connect.’ Kids here memorize a lot of information, and they know a lot. Perhaps the emphasis on memorization in Singapore is excessive and comes with opportunity costs, but it has certainly challenged my paradigms.

In American education, the memorization-application pendulum swings, and debate (healthy, in my view) continues.  This is true in Christian education as well as in public schools. I have many times heard or read some form of the “students no longer need to learn facts in the Internet age” statement. To that statement I echo Dr. Keat’s response–How will students connect the dots in learning if they have no dots to connect?  On the other hand, I have many times observed in Christian school classrooms and have come away discouraged by the complete reliance on memorization and regurgitation of facts and missed opportunities to lead students to comprehension, application, and deeper understandings.

Often, students are memorizing multiple “dots” and struggling to retain the information about the “dot” with no connecting information to provide structure and understanding.  I have particularly observed this in math classes.  I have observed scores of classrooms where teachers required students to memorize an algorithm (a step-by-step process) for solving a type of math problem while missing excellent opportunities and making no effort to help students understand why the algorithm works. I have even sometimes witnessed teachers refusing to answer the why questions of inquisitive students, telling them to “just follow the formula.” That’s a tragedy. In those classrooms, only those students with excellent abilities to memorize and retain will make progress. Most will flounder, frustrated and confused because they can’t keep all of the dots straight and have no structure of comprehension to connect them.

So, do students need to automate information (memorize), or do they need to comprehend and apply factual information? I hope your answer is “yes.” Students need both. Learning facts provides the dots the student will connect. Comprehension and application and higher-level learning activities provide the connective structure that allows students to make sense of and retain the dots.

By itself, memorization is a form of learning and is a skill that students can and should develop. Wise teachers and school leaders will judiciously select the important factual content and will provide age-appropriate explanations and activities for comprehending and applying that information. For instance, when teaching junior high and high school history classes, I required that students memorize fewer than ten really significant dates in a school year, but they also memorized some key paragraphs from notable historical documents (more significant and worthwhile learning, in my view). We also thoroughly analyzed and wrote about those passages. In my high school math classes (most of my teaching experience) students memorized only a few commonly used formulas and spent a good amount of class time in completing exercises (automating fundamental skills) and complex problem-solving activities. Interestingly, my ninth- and tenth-grade students also spent time doing flash cards involving basic operations with fractions because many had not automated processes with fractions…so they struggled with more advanced math because they didn’t have the more basic dots to connect.

I’m sure the memorization-application debate will continue.  Wise teachers will reject the notion that we can “forget memorization” in a digital age but will also understand that memorization merely provides the dots that students must connect with more complex learning.

Reference:

Thiagarajan, M. (2016, August 15). Five lessons from teaching in Singapore. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/global_learning/2016/08/five_lessons_from_

teaching_in_singapore.html?qs=teaching+in+sigapore

Should You Be “The Sage on The Stage”?

Thoughtful educators continuously engage in reflective practice.  They read professional journals and articlesTeacher reading to class of teenagers (14-16) about education.  They listen to their students and the parents of those children.  They evaluate their instructional methods and classroom practices in light of classroom or school-wide assessments, standardized test scores, and other measures of student progress.  They are aware of current trends in education, and they weigh the value of new methods and tools for student learning.  They reflect on their practices and their beliefs about education, and they strive to make their classroom the very best place for meeting the very individual needs of the children God sends to them and parents entrust to their teaching and care.

Be a Critical Thinker

Thoughtful Christian educators engage in reflective practice but reject many of the practices of progressive American education because the practices and the principles those practices reflect conflict with biblical truth about the nature of children and the nature of learning.  Recently, Education Week published a blog by Maya Thiagarajan that questioned some of those progressive principles and practices.  Maya is an American-educated English teacher who has been teaching in Singapore.  She is the author of Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting in the Global Age.  In her Education Week guest blog on August 15, 2016, Maya frankly discusses five “universal education truths” that as an American teacher she believed and “religiously” followed until her move to Singapore in 2010.  I am going to consider each of the “five truths” in a series of posts, beginning with the third in Maya’s list.

Role of the Teacher

Truth #3: Good teachers are always “the guide on the side.”  No good teacher should be “a sage on the stage.”…With phrases like “sage on the stage,” American educational rhetoric literally ridicules the idea that a teacher has wisdom to offer young kids.  In every way, the rhetoric exhorts teachers to stay on the sidelines and play only a facilitating role while empowering kids to take the lead.

While I think that playing the role of a guide or facilitator has its place in a 21st century classroom, I’ve also started to think deeply about the Singaporean belief that the elder not only has wisdom to offer the child, but also has a responsibility to be front and center in the child’s life.

When I read American rhetoric exhorting teachers and parents to empower children by giving them more choices and greater freedom (and in the process, less explicit guidance), I can’t help but wonder whether it makes sense to marginalize the role of the elder.  When we let machines and peer culture teach our children, aren’t we devaluing our own wisdom and expertise?  Aren’t we abdicating a central responsibility that the elders in communities around the world have performed for millennia?  Don’t children benefit from some explicit guidance?  And shouldn’t there be some times when we are “the sages on the stage”?  (Thiagarajan, 2016)

What is a Sage?

Consider the meaning of sage—a wise and venerated elder.  Consider the pattern of learning repeatedly emphasized in Scripture—an elder (parent, grandparent, pastor, teacher) instructing, guiding, and mentoring one who is younger and/or uninstructed in truth.  Consider the example of Christ with His disciples.  Isn’t it apparent, then, that Christian school teachers should be the “sage on the stage” in their classrooms?  If you think that means a daily lecture in every discipline where students are passive listeners to your continual droning, then I pity the children in your classroom.  If you think that means a classroom without digital resources, online connections, and multi-sensory experiences for learners, then you are misunderstanding the real meaning of sage.

If your classroom is a place where you wisely direct active learning experiences for your students, connect to digital and online resources that enrich and reinforce student learning, share your knowledge of a subject with engaging lecture that sparks student questions and discussion about significant topics, and lovingly shepherd children and teens through their many social, emotional, and spiritual crises – then I think you truly understand what it means to be “the sage on the stage.”

Reference:

Thiagarajan, M. (2016, August 15). Five lessons from teaching in Singapore. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/global_learning/2016/08/five_lessons_from_teaching_in_singapore.html?qs=teaching+in+sigapore

This article will be included in the Winter 2017 issue of The Journal for Christian Educators, a publication of the American Association of Christian Schools.

How to Be an Eternal Thinker

For a society that seems enamored with futuristic thinking, the youth of the present generation could be described as excessively fixated on the present.  In spite of the media bombardment that casts dispersion on

global-thinkingthe past and glorifies the unknown beyond, educators work daily with young people that seem to embrace the here and now.

The secular educational culture of the 21st century seeks to develop global thinkers.  In a recent article published in Educational Leadership, Veronica Mansilla, part of a team from Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero, discusses “ongoing research into global competence and how we can best nurture it in our schools.”  She explains that a significant outgrowth of the project has been the establishment of a definition of global competence that has been embraced on multiple continents and by the U. S. Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO):  the capacity and disposition to understand and act on issues of global significance.”

As I read the article, I questioned the goals for Christian education.  What kind of attention and effort is given to develop eternal thinking?  As I read on, I realized that as Christian educators called to live in this present world, we are also called to develop eternal thinkers.  Mansilla stated confidently that “nurturing global competence will require more that adding more [content] to our already full K-12 curriculum.”

In order to achieve global thinking, Mansilla proposed that educators cultivate four global thinking dispositions into their students—

  • A disposition to inquire about the world
  • A disposition to understand multiple perspectives—others’ and their own
  • A disposition toward respectful dialogue
  • A disposition toward taking responsible action

Mansilla continued to explain that to assist teachers in help teachers succeed in the quest to develop global thinkers, her group is working to develop global thinking routines.  Why?  Because research screams that “students cultivate dispositions not through occasional lessons, units, or . . . events, but through ongoing participation in classroom cultures in which these dispositions are visibly valued and extensively practiced.”

The author’s concluded “when teachers make these routines habitual practices—part of “the way we do things here”—they pave the way for the kind of learning need[ed] to prepare . . . youth for our interdependent world.”

Wow!  I conclude that Mansilla in “spot on” in her message.  To develop global thinkers, the secular educational system is diligent in integrating global dispositions into the fabric of the secular classroom, and it will be successful.  The system will produce global thinkers.

But what about Christian educators?  How focused are we on developing eternal thinkers.  Are we distracted from the quest to produce students that “seek first the kingdom of God?”  Have we become so focused on teaching material and educational excellence (and I understand that both of these have merit) that we have lost sight of the eternal mission of our calling?

As I reviewed Mansilla’s four dispositions, I found a renewed energy to develop eternal thinkers.  Truly, if our students “gain the whole world” and do not learn to think with eternity in mind, the educational process is vanity.  What “routine habitual practices” are a part of our Christian education classroom that will ensure that we develop eternal thinkers?  We can succeed, but we must be intentional in our efforts.  Eternity is at stake!

Can you share a disposition(s) for developing eternal thinkers that you have made part of your classroom or school?

 

Mansilla, V. B.  December 2016/December 2017.  Educational Leadership.  How to be a global thinker?  ASCD:  Alexandria, VA.

What is an Educator?

“EDUCATION” – WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

If, as educators often do, we resort to the dictionary to find out what a word means, we find that  “education” is a combination of two Latin words: the prefix ex (out of) and the verb ducere (to lead).  This is the same verb which gives us “induce”, “reduce”, seduce”, “produce”, keep-calm-teach-on“deduce”, “conducive”, etc.  “Education”, then, means literally “to lead out of”.

From this rather dry information we can deduce 🙂 that “education” consists of four elements:

First, we must have someone who does the leading.  In education, this would be the teacher.  Second, we must have someone whom we lead, which would be student.  Third, the teacher must have something to lead the student out of, which we assume would be ignorance or misinformation.  Fourth, the teacher must have something to lead the student into, which we would again assume to be knowledge.

Biblical Perspective

Christians see the teacher as the depository and model of the Proverbs trilogy of knowledge-understanding-wisdom.  As for the student, we know that he bears the image of God but that it is marred almost beyond perception.  We understand his basic need is to be led out of rebellion against truth and authority.  And we embrace the Biblical goal of transformation into the image of Christ as the result of growth in knowledge-understanding-wisdom.  Otherwise, as Luther predicted, we will simply educate clever devils.

Does the previous paragraph immediately strike you as politically incorrect?  As a whole as well as in the four elements?  Unbelievers see each of these in ways diametrically opposed to those of Christians.  They see the teacher as a facilitator.   They view the student as inherently good.  They consider his problem to be an undeveloped intellect.  And they set self-realization as the goal.

Different worldviews produce vastly different perspectives.

In a previous article we established the intuitive point that “education is inherently religious” and that “religion is inherently educational”.  Here we have defined what “education” is and have identified its essential parts. Following these two introductions, we will address the components of education in four future articles.

Next: What makes a teacher a great teacher?

Religion and Education

Religion is inherently educational, and education is inherently religious.

muslim-children

Photo Source: Wikipedia

In order to survive and flourish, all religions demand an educational component.  This is true of false religions as well as of Christianity.  Religion is inherently educational.

Militant Muslims

Muslims train and teach their children to become accustomed, willing, and in fact eager to commit the most barbaric acts imaginable to please Allah.  They plan to eliminate all other religions and create a global caliphate.  They intend to begin this themselves and for their children to complete the task.

Judaism and Christianity

Judaism and Christianity are thoroughly educational. Our Lord Jesus could have chosen to come to earth as a scribe, a Pharisee, a tax collector, a farmer, a shepherd, or some other kind of professional or manual laborer.  His choice was to be known as “a teacher come from God”, often called “Rabbi.”

The last words He spoke to us were “Go . . . teach all things”.  This is not “the great suggestion”: it is the great commission.  2 Timothy 2:2 describes this as a process: “the things that thou has heard of me . . . the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.”  Paul teaches Timothy, Timothy teaches faithful men, faithful men teach other faithful men, and so on until a faithful link in the chain teaches us.

All Education Systems

Just as important, but much more subtle, all education is inherently religious.  In other words, we educate for a reason.  We educate children in order to perpetuate our worldview, our culture, our religion.

We observe this in literature: every novel, short story, and poem is written with an educational purpose.  That’s why literature is so powerful, for good or for evil.  Art for art’s sake does not exist.

When Nathan had to confront David regarding his great sin, he was putting his life in danger.  He disarmed David by telling him a short story that stirred his righteous indignation.  The king determined the appropriate response, painting himself into a very small corner.

The process simplified is that literature disarms, engages, and persuades.  Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan precisely for this reason with the same outcome.  He often used parables in this way.

Insightful, alert English teachers play a critical role in Christian education.   How valuable they are!

Education may not appear to be religious and may even insist that it is thoroughly secular.  Me thinks they do protest too much.  Secular humanism is, of course, a religion.

Be not deceived:  Religion is inherently educational, and education is inherently religious.

What is the Purpose of Education? Part 2

Today’s post is a continuation from part 1, which you can read here.

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We finished part 1, with this question and answer:

And that brings us to this most foundational question: What is the purpose of education?  Succinctly, we may state that education is the process of inculcating a worldview in the mind of the student.  

What is the Purpose of Education? Part 1

Martin Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben, Saxony (Germany).  His parents wanted him to become a lawyer but, in the university, he developed a love-hate relationship with Aristotle: he believed faith was the only way to know ultimate truth, but he also believed faith was rational and could be defended with reason and logic.

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Since his love for God was greater than his love of law, he ultimately left jurisprudence and became an Augustinian friar in 1505.  He had, in fact, rejected the possibility of finding truth by means of any of the infinite variations of rationalism: the reasoning of the majority, the reasoning of an elite group, or the reasoning of his own mind.  After all, there are just two choices on the shelf for acquiring absolute truth: rationalism or revelation.  Since all possible varieties of rationalism have differing internal conclusions, none can be trusted.

Recommitting to a Christian Philosophy and Community, Part 2

Today’s post is a continuation from our last post.  You can read part 1 here.

Value

In the absence of truth, values have become subjective and relative. Moral absolutes have given way to the consensus of the majority in which what was good is now bad and the bad has become acceptable. A biblical worldview looks to the Scriptures to define what is good and what is valuable.

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Doing the will of God, obeying the laws of God, sharing the love of God, and thinking the thought of God bring priorities, proper conduct, motives, and beauty to life (Garrick 1985). Through teaching, discipline, and modeling, regenerated hearts are led to submit to a life in accordance with God’s moral law.

Recommitting to a Christian Philosophy and Community, Part 1

The idea of mission is deeply rooted in Christian thinking and the Latin theological concept of mission dei, the mission of God. The Christian school community, centered on the person of Jesus Christ, has historically been on mission to extend and build the kingdom through its ministry to children. In obedience to Psalm 78:4-7, God’s  people are to “tell the generation to come the praises of the Lord, and His strength and His wondrous works that He has done…that the generation to come might know…that they should put their confidence in God” (NASB).

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The apostle Paul expressed his mission when he wrote, “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). This mission is the mission of Christian schooling, and it is to this purpose that Christian educators are called.