iRevolutionize

Day by day we are seeing an ever-increasing use of technology.  The growth in the past few years has been exponential and, not surprisingly, educators have come to an almost Messianic view of iPads and other devices.

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Of course, while seasoned teachers are sifting through the packaging looking for the instruction manual, fourth graders are playing Temple Run II with the ease of duckling on his first swim.  They finger-swipe the front door of the house and stand perplexed that it failed to open (that truly happened).  So, since technology is so powerful and kids so love it, will devices revolutionize education?

Before we address the legitimate use of technology in education, please allow me to describe, rather than define, exactly what good education looks like.  This piece of the puzzle was not given to me – rather, one of my very wise daughters-in-law who homeschools just suggested I read a book that had been a real encouragement and help to her in her teaching.  This turned out to be piece two of three.

The ancient Greeks, and today the Classical Education proponents, viewed education as a triple-tiered process, appropriately named the Trivium.  In our modern grades 1-4, the emphasis was placed on FACTS: gathering and memorizing them.  This includes but is not restricted to significant names and dates and events in history, the mountains and rivers and political regions of geography, the building blocks of mathematics (such as the multiplication tables), the essentials of reading and writing, as well as the fine arts and physical development.  We intuitively realize that children in this age group simply love learning and imitating and reciting what they have learned.  This they called the GRAMMAR stage.

Then, in our grades 5-8, the emphasis was placed on understanding.  This means thinking about the facts, the significance and ramifications of what has been memorized, the relationships of the facts within and perhaps more importantly across disciplines, or, in a word, COMPREHENSION.  This stage we moderns have embraced as a sure pathway to future success.  But alas, the youth have no facts in their heads about which to think creatively, and educational success becomes a river without banks.

By analogy, we builders have attempted to construct the second story of our educational edifice without a first floor.  Sadly, we have also jettisoned any objective means of measuring the “creative” thinking of our young men and ladies, since, without a factual basis, one child’s creative thought is equally as valid as another’s.  However, with a vast storehouse of commonly shared factual information, intelligent persons can indeed create new explanations of phenomena and new relationships between the specifics across academic disciplines.  This they called the LOGIC stage.

In passing, it is critical to realize that academic disciplines are artificial en toto.  Knowledge is an integrated whole which we have partitioned in order to learn and teach it more easily.  Every literature teacher breathes a great sigh of relief and anticipation when she inherits a class of students who know the dates and names and movements of history out of which great writing springs.  Instead of teaching Math/Chemistry, they can really teach Chemistry when the students are solidly grounded in Algebra.

Returning to our Trivium, the students in contemporary grades 9-12 would focus on EXPRESSION.   The student, having accumulated the common body of knowledge shared by learned people and having thought through and comprehended the significance and inter-relationships of the elements of his learning, is now trained to organize and communicate his personal conclusions.  This is part skill and part art, since everyone who attempts it discovers immediately that he must spend much time selecting the components of his message, deciding on how to begin, sequence, and conclude his communication, then tailoring the whole to his audience.  Only after carefully setting in place the first two stories of his house can he successfully build the third story.  This they called the RHETORIC stage.

The method is holistic  p. 95

It is language-focused  p. 188

The first stage emphasizes reading, writing, grammar, and math – history/science are applications  p.349

It is word-centered  p. 604

THE TRIVIUM:   GRAMMAR  –  LOGIC – RHETORIC

An iPad cannot teach ANY of these three essentials of education.  It can reinforce what has been taught, it can help drill for mastery, and it can link a student to an unbelievably incredible wealth of facts, but It cannot teach him to comprehend these facts, and it is even less able to teach effective communication.  It allows him to cut and paste a book report composed of finds from an internet search, but it does not help him integrate those articles into a cohesive whole, much less to arrive at his own point of view, far less yet to communicate that in an rational, effective, compelling style.  Educators who see devices as the salvation of education will be as disappointed as those whose hope for student learning rested in the installation of blackboards in the classroom.

None of the above is original with the writer.  He owes an immense debt to The Well-Trained Mind, by Jenny Wise and Susan Wise Bauer.  This is a voluminous history and instruction manual for home schooling, co-authored by a mother and her adult daughter whom she had taught at home.  Recall that my daughter-in-law recommended it to me.

In fact, reading this work took place some six months after attending the first Googlefest, held in Charleston, SC, in the summer of 2012.  Our state school association had sent out an email blast about the event, I think the first ever in the States.  I went out of curiosity and a lighter schedule in the summer.  A truly captivating Google representative, Jaime Casapo, presented one of the general sessions (Google him for dozens of articles and clips.  His life story is fascinating but not germane to this monograph.)  He was warning several hundred attendees, many of whom were educators, that technology was a wonderful tool, but precisely that: a tool.

For the first time, the author heard that the essentials of education were COMPREHENSION, CRITICAL THINKING, and COMMUNICATION, all of which require a teacher.  A good teacher looks a student in the eye, works at transferring what is inside his head to what is inside his student’s head, and knows when the miracle has taken place.  No iPad can do that.  

GOOGLEFEST:   COMPREHENSION – CRITICAL THINKING – COMMUNICATION

Upon even a cursory reflection, the reader finds himself ahead of the writer: both the Trivium and the Google executive are saying the same thing.  Casapo does not treat COLLECTION as a separate activity but assumes it in COMPREHENSION (GRAMMAR).   Then, he moves to CRITICAL THINKING (LOGIC) as a distinct stage, and finally he simply treats RHETORIC as COMMUNICATION.

A suggestion would be to consider an eclectic four-part process:

COLLECTION – COMPREHENSION – CRITICAL THINKING – COMMUNICATION.

Having embraced this model, what should we do with devices?  We should use them: to aid in collecting (saves much of the time the previous generations spent in card catalogs, microfiche, etc.) and in reinforcing what has been collected.  Apps such as Quizlet motivate modern youngsters in mastering Spanish vocabulary, the multiplication tables, state capitals, the order and dates of US presidents, the elements of biology, etc. ad infinitum.  Kids take to iPads like fish to water, so they find this method fascinating and fun and the teacher finds it effective and non-ending in patience.

Nothing – NOTHING – can replace an instructor with a well-stocked mind of accumulated data, one who has studied and reflected and connected that data in a holistic, integrated manner, and one whose delight in life is seeing the “lights” come on in the learner’s eyes.  If that metaphor means something to the reader, this piece should encourage him and motivate us and refocus all our efforts in a purposeful way, reminding us of the “how” and more importantly the “why” of our first love.

I was excited to synthesize these two presentations into one whole, which would make Googlefest part two of two.

All my ducks were lined up – or so I thought.  Then, on September 25th our school had the wonderful privilege of attending the Southeast Association of Christian School Convention in Myrtle Beach, SC.  We enjoyed outstanding workshops, but the general sessions were the best group of three I can remember in the 36 years God has given me in Christian education. The center speaker of the three was Dr. Glen Schultz, best known for his work at LifeWay Christian Resources and now as the president of Kingdom Education Ministries.  He spoke from several passages of Scripture that contain these three words: knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. He developed these as a progression from gathering information to understanding that information to ultimately using that understanding with Godly wisdom.  He is a powerful speaker, overflowing and passionate.

What did not occur to me until later was that he had basically reinforced two of the previous three points we had made above. His development of Biblical Knowledge parallels the Grammar stage in the Trivium.  Casapo did not include this step in his presentation, probably because with Google one can access any information in an instant with Chrome or Firefox or whatever the next best browser happens to be. His treatment of Understanding parallels the second phase of the Trivium, which is Logic.  In the Googlefest this was Comprehension and Critical Thinking. Wisdom is a more uniquely Bible-centered concept than the first two. Non-Biblical thinkers do not seek for wisdom, which is a gift from God. Comprehension is as far as they go.

So what Dr. Schultz did was to combine his three elements from the Scriptures into two elements of the Trivium and the Googlefest presentation. He did not develop the third area, which is Rhetoric for the Trivium and Communication for the Googlefest. I would like to hear him develop the dynamic of communicating what you know, understand, and can use wisely. It is fascinating to me how God will give us more and more pieces to a jigsaw puzzle even when we don’t have all the border pieces, much less the box, to guide us.  Attending an event on a whim, reading a book recommended by someone younger than my oldest son, and listening to a speaker in a general session at a convention all converge and make sense now. Our God is sooooo patient.

This all comes back to the fact that teaching is THE way to influence the next generation.

It is sort of true that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world, but it is absolutely true that an effective teacher is much more character-shaping than the cradle-rocker.  Adolph Hitler knew and took full advantage of this dynamic relationship. The teacher who has a student for seven hours a day will have a determining influence on that student’s Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom. (Of course, a home schooling parent both rocks the cradle and forms the mind.) If the input elements are in place in place, teaching him the skill of organizing, sequencing, and then developing an engaging introduction and persuasive conclusion will be a delight for both teacher and learner.

Wonder if this is the whole puzzle?  Might there be a piece four?  Or five?

Can’t wait ‘til we get to Heaven and sit at the feet of The Teacher.

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Dr. Beach has served faithfully in Christian education since 1978. After a decade of leading a Christian school in another part of SC, he led Northside Christian in Charleston for 24 years. He currently serves as the treasurer of SC Association of Christian Schools and remains active in Christian education.