Classical Education and Technology

It is admissions season, and one of the questions I hear most often from prospective parents is, “How much technology do you use?” Some of these parents have certainly heard from politicians and educators who have called for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education at the expense of the arts and humanities.

As a classical school, we are a liberal arts school. This means we do not have a STEM focus with its attending digital devices at the expense of other subjects. Cornerstone resists this emphasis and takes a balanced approach to the academic disciplines with minimal student technology use in the younger grades through middle school.

Here is why…

Forbes Magazine contributor, George Anders, says, “Throughout the major U.S. tech hubs, whether Silicon Valley or Seattle, Boston or Austin, Tex., software companies are discovering that liberal arts thinking makes them stronger.”

Here is more…

These are pull quotes from online articles about STEM, technology, and education.

IEEE’s Spectrum Emphasizing STEM at the expense of other disciplines carries other risks. Without a good grounding in the arts, literature, and history, STEM students narrow their worldview—and their career options.

The New York Times: Schools nationwide have rushed to supply their classrooms with computers, and many policy makers say it is foolish to do otherwise. But the contrarian point of view can be found at the epicenter of the tech economy [silicon valley], where some parents and educators have a message: computers and schools don’t mix.

The Guardian: According to Sylvie Sklan, the school’s [London Acorn School] chair of governors, this ethos is informed by a belief that digital devices inhibit imaginative thinking, movement, human interaction and attention spans and have no place in the education of young children.

Students under the age of 12 at the school in Morden, London, are banned from using smartphones and computers, and watching TV of films at all times, including during holidays. The school’s ethos is of a “gradual integration” of electronic devices throughout the child’s development with students allowed to watch television once they reach 12 years old and then only documentaries that have been previously vetted by parents. They cannot watch films until they are 14; the internet is banned completely for everyone under 16 – at home and and at school; and computers are only to be used as part of the curriculum for over-14s.
It may sound draconian, but Thorne believes taking a more considered approach to the use of technology in class allows teachers to help students develop core skills such as executive decision making, creativity and concentration – all of which are far more important than the ability to swipe an iPad or fill in an Excel spreadsheet. Besides, Thorne adds, much of the technology considered cutting edge today is likely to appear primitive in tomorrow’s world.

School is a learning journey and you want to make it as complex, rich and interesting as possible. The problem with instant information is that the ease with which you can get from A to B and find the answers doesn’t reflect real life,” she says.

Alzheimer’s.net: “Over-use of smartphones and game devices hampers the balanced development of the brain,” Byun Gi-won, a doctor at the Balance Brain Center in Seoul, told the JoongAng Daily newspaper.

Manfred Spitzer [German neuroscientist] asserts that all digital technology should be removed from classrooms.

The Scientific American: New research by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer demonstrates that students who write out their notes on paper actually learn more.

All that said, there is a place for technology in education. Document cameras function as more versatile chalkboards and can make class time more efficient. Programming languages are logic heavy and require the hard work of critical thinking. Problems in the higher maths and sciences are often too complex to work out with a pencil and paper. Graphing calculators are an important necessity for high school math and children need to leave middle school knowing how to use them.

And those prospective parents–they leave impressed by the hard work, manners, and academic achievement of our students!

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When Mom Gets ANGRY

I can still hear her English accent in my head, “CHRISTOPHER!” It may have been for not putting something away, having a messy room, or making a foolish mistake and earning a bad grade. I think every man (at least every man with enough siblings) can conjure up the frustrated, angry voice of his mother. It never did me much good. It would boil over and then she would feel bad about it–I knew things were better when a favorite food showed up in the pantry or a good meal was on the table.

The frustration of mothers with their teenage sons is universal–a rite of passage.

It does not help.

For many boys reaching for independence, their goal is to navigate the day with as little involvement from their teacher and mother as possible. They do not want a blow-up from mom, but they know that it will blow over when it does happen.

When you respond with anger, you distract your son from his problem. He does not mind this distraction. Your anger also communicates that his problem is really yours. He does not mind this either–his life just got easier. “Mom’s really mad about this, I guess I do not need to worry about it–she’s got it!” If you take all the anger and frustration, there is none left for him. You can care too much for boys.

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Sign on the door at Little Rock’s Catholic High School for Boys

What should you do?

Boys need consequences, and they need to feel them. Generally, they learn about the world by breaking things, banging into them, and generating causes before they think about effects. They understand that actions have consequences. That is why they hit hard in football or disrupt the classroom with their loud talk, laughter, antics, or subtle jokes. They go around thinking, “What happens if I…?” They need consequences that affect them when they mess up.

If your child does not get his homework done, make him miss whatever he was going to do so he can finish it. You cannot trust him when he says his work is complete and done properly–make him write down all his assigned work at school and then show it to you when it is complete–every day. People who do not do as well have to work harder to succeed. (He is learning this from his coach.) If his grades are lower than his ability–require that he spend a certain amount of time every weekend on studies. If he has a habitual problem, hold a meeting with him when no one is angry and lay out the consequences of failure. Then, when he does mess up, be SILENT. You will be angry because that is your habit. If you need to yell, find his father, but do not yell at or in front of your son. If you have the consequence system set up, just put it into action. Enforce it. Use as few words as possible. A mother’s silence is terrifying. Then go back to normal. It is just the consequence. He does not need anything else. You are going to love him, drive him to school, kiss him goodbye–he just won’t get his cell phone back for another week.

Anger is easier. You get to blow off steam and get back to life. A helpful response will take more of your time because you must enforce it, but it is what your son needs.

Dads, your wife might be drowning. You need to check in with her to see how things are going. You are the one who needs to step in and break the anger-feel bad-peace offering cycle if it is happening. This all works better if you are involved. He is learning from you. If your son messes up, mom can just send him to you and you can enforce the consequences. If he wants to complain, mom should not have to hear complaints, they can go straight to dad. Dad, if you see mom blowing her top or caving to your son’s emotional appeals–step in, give her the night off, and deal with your son. Be unemotional, love him, lay down the consequence, love him, and let it be done. You know what he needs, you have been there before with your own mother and probably with your wife too.

As a general rule (I cannot think of an exception.) do not follow discipline up with some peace offering to make your son feel better. He does not apologize to an opponent for scoring a touchdown or for winning a chess match. You do not need to apologize for giving him consequences he deserved. He understands this. Despite your feelings, he will love and respect you more for a straightforward approach. A peace offering communicates that you did wrong by disciplining him. (If you did do wrong, apologize.) Even young children get this message. Discipline him, and, like a good football player, give him a hand up when he gets knocked down, but do not apologize or “make things better.” He is the one who needs to make things better–do not do it for him.

As a headmaster, moms are generally easier to deal with, but we intentionally involve dads in discipline issues–especially if they are habitual. Dads need to be checking in on things daily and we want to encourage that.

Divorced families. You must be on the same page with this. Mom, you must ask dad to step up to the plate and help. Your son needs both of you to do this. Dad, don’t ruin what mom is trying to do to obtain your son’s loyalty or love. If you want your son’s love and loyalty, be on the same page with mom for his sake.

If your son has a habitual problem, you need to go deeper. Do not talk to him about behavior only. He needs the consequence, but his soul needs tending. Talk to him about God, sin, the Cross, and forgiveness. We all need saving from things that cause us habitual problems. When your son messes up, you have an opportunity to help him cry out for salvation–you are more interested in that than in any specific behavior. When you recognize that problems are invitations for deep discussions, you can be thankful instead of angry. You want him to get to the point where he seeks forgiveness and restoration and makes restitution without your intervention.

Digital Media and the Decline of Thinking

“We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn…” C.S. Lewis–Mere Christianity

We operate under an assumption that all progress is only good, especially technological progress. Progress brought us nuclear power, but along with nuclear power, we gave ourselves the ability to annihilate the human race in minutes. We are capable of inventing destructive technology.

We appear to have done this with the television and the cell phone. Just as nuclear physics gives us light for our homes and nuclear warheads, so the digital revolution has given us both helpful and destructive powers.

I just finished reading The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman, erstwhile Chair of the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at New York University. The late author, writing thirty years ago, documents the affect of the digital revolution on childhood. He notes that, “…pictures and other graphic images may be said to be ‘cognitively regressive’, at least in contrast to the printed word.” What he means here is that a picture oriented or saturated world prevents the development of the mind necessary for a child to become an adult who can work with concepts and abstractions.

Julie Taylor, our (my school’s) speech language pathologist with USD 305, remarks that with increased technology use in the home she has seen an increase in negative behaviors and a decrease in proper speech development as children spend less and less time in conversation with their families and friends.

Indeed, we have been witnessing the results in our election cycles. Postman writes, “the mass-produced image has introduced a constant and pervasive element of irrationalism into both politics and commerce. …a candidate’s image has become more important than his plans, a product’s ‘image’ more important than its usefulness. Those old enough to remember will call to mind the importance of make-up in the Nixon-Kennedy debates.

What does this mean for us as Christian parents? God has given us children to steward for His glory. We must control our children’s access to media. What we do with our children and what we allow them to do in their free time teaches them what to love. We need to raise children who know words, can argue (well), can describe pictures with words, and can see behind the “image” of a candidate or a product to reason to truth. The importance of facility with words cannot be underestimated since our world began with the words of God. “In the beginning was the Word…” John tells us. God inspired a book with words, not a picture-book or painting.

This is why we turn Netflix off and tell our children to read or go outside. This is why we teach logic in the middle school and keep cell phones, gaming systems, and other electronics in a central part of the home and out of the bedrooms. The ability to abstract, use words, and argue gave us men and women who produced the constitution, modern science, and the freedom we enjoy in this country. Responsibility (even patriotic duty) means saying, “No” sometimes. This can be costly. There is a trade-off that requires delayed gratification. Your children may not be as far along as their friends in the newest video game or up on the latest episode of the popular television show or vlog. Postman in the epilogue says, “…there are parents who are committed to doing all of these things [controlling technology use], who are in effect defying the directives of their culture. Such parents are … creating a sort of intellectual elite. Certainly in the short run the children who grow up in such homes will, as adults, be much favored by business, the professions, and the media themselves. … Those parents who resist the spirit of the age will … keep alive a humane tradition.” A humane tradition this is certainly what we need to understand, proclaim, and live out God’s word for the sake of our country and our world.

Reading!


20161014_195608Despite my hopes, J did not start reading street signs from his car seat when he was three years old. He had very little interest in academic learning. He loved playing, especially with cars and trucks. He was less interested in crawling into our laps for a book than his sisters were at the same age. We let him play. His formal preschool education consisted of about twenty minutes of school per day beginning at age five. He is what I would consider a normal child. For some reason, in our culture, we hate to call our children normal–it hurts a bit–but he is, and that is okay. J is normal. Last night he started yelling everything he wanted to say. We have to tell him not to wrestle the dog. He spends most of his afternoon on his bicycle. Ultimately, the difference in our children will not be measured by how abnormal they are, but by how well we train and teach them–especially how well we teach them to work hard and obey.

We are in our third month of kindergarten and the only English Language Arts homework we have had has been the less than five minute daily review of phonogram flash cards. (We are up to 23 cards.) The teacher drills them at school, so he needs very few corrections at home. He still struggles distinguishing “d,” “b,” and “p.” He loves doing his phonogram “homework.” He has begun to read.

I set up his school desk in the corner of our dining room. Almost nightly, he writes random letters on sheets of paper. Last night, he heard someone say “gold.” “That starts with a g-j!” he said while writing “g”. He had some trouble figuring the “o” out. I had to elongate my pronunciation so he could pick it up. Then the “l” and finally the “d.” He does not always use the letter names–I do not know if he knows the alphabet yet. Regardless, he spelled out “gold” by pronouncing the word and listening to the sounds.

Here is what is beautiful (Not everything is…my home is proof that we need the Gospel!) about what happens in our house in the evenings. No one makes J sit at his desk. No one makes him write letters. No one makes him memorize his phonograms. No one made him spell “gold.” No one made him underline the “o.” (Our spelling rules require that the “o” is underlined when it says its own name.) He did it because he wanted to.

Here is a list of things we provide or do not provide in our home to create an environment that fosters excitement about learning.

Quiet in our home. There are times in our house when there is no music playing, no TV on, no yelling etc.

A place to play. J has space where he can do his own thing.

A time to play. There are times in our house when no one tells other people what to do. J has time to make his own choices. Over-scheduled children have to be told, “It is time to sit at your desk.” If this is their only experience, it will take the joy and playfulness out of learning. Schedules are for adults, not six-year-old children.

Books. Reading is not homework. It belongs in the life of every civilized person! We read a devotional, a Scripture, and a family read aloud most nights. (Taking time out for reading is not always easy. Sometimes it requires selflessness. It is good for a family to have the experience of choosing to do something that is difficult but valued.) These books have provided the fuel for J’s curiosity. The wonder, the stories, the conflict, and the happy resolution have drawn him to the world of letters and books. We have lots of good books in our home. We listen to audio books. From what he sees and hears, he knows that books bring pleasure.

Structure. J can count on our home being a place of predictability rather than chaos. (Most of the time!) We are at that stage of life when we cannot do whatever we want–we have young children.

Minimal screen time. Confession, we do not own a TV. Regardless, we do not let the computer, a cell phone, or the Kindle compete for J’s time. He does not expect to be handed a “device” in the car, the grocery, or at the line at checkout. He is too young and these things teach distraction while children his age need to be trained to focus. If we let him choose between being entertained or entertaining himself, he would rarely go to his desk to write letters and spell words for fun. He would also become sedentary.

No pressure. Young children (It starts to go away around Grade Three) have a natural interest and joy in learning, pleasing others, and showing what they can do. Good reading programs, families, and schools take advantage of this. Bad education kills these things. J is not on a timeline–no one in his life is worried about him learning to read by December or May. No one’s job is on the line if he does not start reading by Grade One or whatever.

He is my third child. All three have learned to read this way. We have been blessed to be in classical schools (or homeschool) that provide a structured approach to reading with good, solid phonograms programs. Despite what happens in many kindergarten reading classes, there is very little focus on understanding and lots of focus on memorization and practice. It is beautiful. Many children lose any natural curiosity and love they may have had for reading when they are taught to read under pressure. None of my children were reading before kindergarten. (The girls are normal too.) The two olders are now excellent readers.

A lot of what parents hear about early reading is just noise from benighted schools that are trying to prepare for a test at the end of Grade One.

Learning to read is a beautiful thing! It has been a pleasure to watch my children do it and they loved it too! School should not take this away. I am glad mine does not!

Education is about love.

The Association of Classical and Christian Schools has a good article by Louis Markos in their latest edition of Classis.

Here are some selected quotes with my comments.

I encouraged them [his children] to interact in a direct and spontaneous manner with the stories I read to them and the environment around them. I wanted them to know, not so much through study as through participation, how they fit into the world and how the world fit into them. “The world is full of magic,” I taught them, “—you just have to have eyes to see it and ears to hear it.”

This is what we want to do with our very youngest students and in nature studies. Don’t read “magic” as magic, but rather as mystery. The world holds together because God holds it together, and this is mysterious to us. The “magic” of science engenders curiosity.

Here is another good quote. It is especially relevant to science, especially grammar school science, and even more so to our pre-grammar school.

“It is exactly this experience that Mason desires for her pupils, an experience that can be expressed in numerous words, all of which combine the physical, emotional, and spiritual, and all of which produce that all-important humility that lies at the root of education: astonishment, wonder, awe, terror, fear. The child, Mason and Wordsworth both insist, has the ability to take in such experiences, even if he cannot immediately understand them. And it is right for parents and teachers to allow him to have that experience without incessantly demanding that it be broken down, analyzed, and categorized under scientific-sociological headings.”

Because the world ultimately exists by the Word and power of God, there is mystery in it. Not all of it can be boiled down into facts. The whole is greater than its parts. There are things we know about it that we cannot prove with science. Stories have meanings that are beyond the written words on the page. When we immediately break down and categorize, we cut our children off from this more holistic knowledge. Far better than an “abc” book for a three year old is a great storybook. The former desiccates the fertile soil of the child’s mind by presenting raw bits and pieces of facts while the other waters and implants it with a love for knowing, for stories, for the wonder of human relations, and for words. Cultivate a love for stories, books, and words, and the kindergarten or grade one child will readily receive his phonograms as if they were keys to treasure.

So, before we teach letters and words, we must engender the wonder of a story, of a book, of communicating through words spoken and written. A child must learn to love the awe, sadness, and joy of the world she enters into when a book is opened and read for her before she learns her letters. A child must learn to love these same emotions as he gazes at the world before we teach the analysis of science. Before we teach the facts of science, we must engender a wonder for and curiosity about nature. This is first the job of parents for the pre-school aged child. Familial love and a parent’s example are a necessary and powerful combination that inculcate values and loves in a young child.

Let us, therefore, as educators not put road blocks in the way of apprehension/synthesis. Let us stop comparing our children/students to others and insisting that they not “fall behind” in the three “r’s.” True education is not a race or a contest; it is a love affair.

What we do with our young children has a great effect on their love for learning.

Many parents of young children, when they interview for admission, are quick to talk about how intelligent their child is. Some go so far as to confuse disobedience with intelligence or precociousness. I care less about intelligence than other things. I want to know how well their child obeys. I want to know if good books are celebrated in their home for the love of learning, the wonder, morality, and curiosity they inspire.

Here is the link to the article by Markos: https://gallery.mailchimp.com/628235e71075ff6f1fa8e7ddc/files/16_September_Classis_Online.pdf

More to read: here is an article from Classical Academic Press about fostering love in the education of our youngest children.

 

Words are swords.

This morning we read Proverbs 12:18 in Convocation.

In this proverb, Solomon likens words to swords. Speaking thoughtless, mean words is like thrusting about with a sword. A reckless, sword wielding man is a dangerous, friendless man. Unfortunately schools are notorious for being hurtful places when it comes to words.

Contrasting the dangerous swordsman with a righteousness man, Solomon tells us that the words of a righteous man are salubrious.

Christ is the prototype of the righteous man who heals with His words. Luke tells of Jesus’ words to the paralytic let through the roof of the crowded house. “And when he saw their faith, he said, ‘Man, your sins are forgiven you.’ … he said to the man who was paralyzed—‘I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.’” (http://www.esvbible.org/Luke+5)

Here, our Savior and our example uses His words to heal not only the paralytic’s physical condition, but also his soul.

As Christians, we are God’s witnesses. Our words should bring healing and not destruction. We can all remember mean words spoken to us or mean words we have spoken, yet as we are recreated in God’s image through the power of Christ’s resurrection and the work of the Holy Spirit, we are transformed into healers, for as the proverb says, “the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

Our first witness as parents is to our family. Mothers and fathers, do your words heal your children? The neighborhood, the soccer field, the playground can be tough places. Your children need your healing words. Fathers, do you cut your wife down or build her up? Daughters learn their self-worth mostly from their fathers. Your words are powerful and necessary. As sinners, we are all born broken and in need of healing. Are you present enough to make a difference in the lives of your children?

At school, we talk and teach about the healing words of Christ. We expect our students to be instruments of healing in the lives of others. We expect our playground to be a place where our children learn the healthful power of words.

Contentment

During Convocation this week we read Ecclesiastes 6:9, “Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the appetite: this also is vanity and a striving after wind.” (ESV) I must confess that when I first read this verse years ago, I did not understand it. Like many good things, I had to read the verse several times and think deeply before it would yield its meaning. The “sight of the eyes” is what we can see in front of us. It is what God has given to us. The “wandering of the appetite” is wishing for something we do not have, something God has not provided.

Solomon tells us that wishing for something other than what God has given is vanity. I encouraged our children to be content with God’s provision. When we entertain a “wandering appetite,” we are telling God that what He has provided is not good enough. We are telling the world that our God is not great. Sometimes we sit down to dinner and complain about the food mom has made, wishing for something else. Our teenagers might wish for different parents, a different car, or a different body, but there is great contentment, joy, and lifelong satisfaction that comes from contentment with what God has given that we cannot change. The ancient wisdom of Solomon is good for us today. People who are not distracted by discontent have the mental resources and confidence to do great things with what God has given, making a difference in the world.