The test of a good teacher

In Aphorisms for a Year, Alice Wellington Rollins proposes that the quality of a teacher is reflected in the depth of the questions asked by their students.

The test of a good teacher is not how many questions he can ask his pupils that they will answer readily, but how many questions he inspires them to ask him which he finds it hard to answer. (Alice Wellington Rollins, Aphorisms for a Year [Entry for October 11], J. J. Little & Company, 1895)

Rings true to me. The most significant teachers in my life have not necessarily been ‘instructors’ in the first order, but people who ooze a personal love for learning and questioning. These are the infectious ones. These are the teachers you learn from because they seem to live in a constant state of exploration themselves. You learn from them because they are learning, not because they are teaching.

In a teaching paradigm obsessed with quizzes and exams, embracing inquiry as the grounding basis of pedagogy is where the revolution begins.

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Graduation Rates Aren’t the Whole Story

Matt Ross

The high school graduation rate in the Thames Valley District School Board is about 12 percentage points lower than the Ontario provincial average. Why is this? As data lead on a research project investigating the issue, Matt Ross has some interesting thoughts and perspectives.

In this conversation, Matt and I discuss the reciprocal dilemma of measurement itself: what we measure determines what we fund, and what we fund determines what we measure. This raises the important question, who gets missed in this cyclical feedback loop? We also explore the dilemma of scale: when you want to create an intervention or program to serve a social need, who’s input should take priority in your planning? This chat ranges far beyond high school graduation. (We even talk about the US Consumer Protection Agency.)

Matt Ross (@mattasross) was data lead on a 2016 research project to better understand London’s high school graduation rates, which was instigated by the Child and Youth Network of London. He is a co-founder of the London Youth Advisory Council and is currently working on FillSpaces.com.

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We Are What We Learn

The authorship of The Education of Children is traditionally ascribed to Plutarch (c. 46-120 CE), the Greek biographer and historian. For a number of reasons, most scholars suspect that Plutarch could not possibly have written it, but for the sake of brevity and custom, I will refer to Plutarch as the author.

The essay argues that a “good education and proper training” is the chief ingredient that leads towards virtue and contentment in life. There is no happiness without learning. To say that education is paramount is an understatement; “the beginning, middle and end” of our children’s happiness and moral excellence depends on how we instruct them. “All other advantages” our children might have in life are small and trivial in comparison to the education we provide. (Plutarch, Moralia 5C, trans. Babbitt)

Consider, Plutarch urges, the limited nature of everything else we impart to our children. We all know that it is desirable to be well-descended, to come from a noble family line, and to be of “good birth” — but we cannot take credit for this. “It is an advantage which must be credited to one’s ancestors.” (5D)

What about riches? “Wealth is held in esteem, but it is a chattel of fortune, since oftentimes she takes it away from those who possess it, and brings and presents it to those who do not expect it.” The bigger the inheritance you leave for your children, the more lucrative a target they become for thieves and swindlers. Furthermore, wealth can be a property of the good and the evil alike, so what is the point in leaving your children with a lot of money if you deprive them of an understanding about what is truly valuable? (5D)

Having a good name, glory, and a high reputation in the community is a good thing, but it is fickle and unstable — all too easily maligned by gossip and rumours. Beauty, health, and strength are prized, but guaranteed to be temporal and fleeting. (5E) No matter how good your genes are, you can neither take credit for them nor consider them an eternal inheritance.

But learning, of all things in this world, is alone immortal and divine. Two elements in man’s nature are supreme over all – mind and reason. The mind exercises control over reason, and reason is servant of the mind, unassailable by disease, unimpaired by old age. For the mind alone grows young with increase of years, and time, which takes away all things else, but adds wisdom to old age. War, again, like a torrent, sweeps everything away and carries everything along in its current, but learning alone it cannot take away. (5E-F)

Plutarch’s thesis is straightforward: because happiness and contentment in life depend on learning — “and not upon accidental advantages” — parents ought “to make nothing of more importance than the education of their children” (6A). Training of the mind and reason is the only recourse we have for thwarting the otherwise immutable dictates of chance and fate. While he later admits that social and economic disparity create an unlevel playing field, Plutarch still insists that the first responsibility of every parent is “to provide the best education for their children” that they can possibly afford (8E-F). After all, if training children to live well and wisely is not the parent’s most crucial mandate and responsibility, then what is, exactly?

If we accept Plutarch’s argument, we then might reflect on the role of education in our own lives. We are not, as a modern incarnation of Plutarch might say, the mere accidental byproduct of a heredity gene pool. Well, we might be that, but we are also more. Who we have become — in mind and in reasoning — has been etched and carved by what we have learned and the people who have taught us along the way. Imagining ourselves apart from our education is to imagine people we have never met before. We are what we have learned, and what we learn today will inform who we become tomorrow.

In his essay, On educating children, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) delves further into the role that learning plays in who we become as people. Montaigne’s appreciation for the importance of education stems from his appreciation of human potential. Consider, for instance, the legendary Greek general Themistocles. When Montaigne reflects on the deeds, victories, and accomplishments of such a great man, he can not help but consider how unlike himself Themistocles used to be. Themistocles was once an ignorant, dependent, and uneducated little child; Themistocles started out like every other person. However, Themistocles would go on to earn the reputation of being one of the bravest, smartest, and greatest figures of ancient Athens. As far as Montaigne reckons, difference between an ignorant, nondescript Themistocles and famous Greek general Themistocles is what and how Themistocles learned about himself and others.

Education is, in Montaigne’s mind, the ground of our becoming. It makes us. We cannot extract Themistocles’ education and upbringing from his life and end up with the same great Themistocles in the end.

To think, then, that education is achieved by simply chaining a child to a pile of books and forcing them to memorize facts is to miss the instrumental importance of learning in the formation who we become. “What a wretched ability it is which is purely and simply bookish!” exclaims Montaigne. “Book-learning should serve as an ornament not as a foundation.” Of course, Montaigne loves his books dearly, but he argues that a true love of knowledge yields resoluteness, faithfulness, and purity. Everything else a student might be able to regurgitate from rote memory are “merely cosmetic” bits of data.

Do you want to train children well? Then you must teach them to be able to learn from anything and anyone — not simply from a curriculum you picked for them. In the real world, life is about the new and the unpredictable, which means that every exam you administer is at least partly obsolete before it is even graded. A student ought to take leave of their tutor or alma mater equipped to “sound out the capacity” of every new proposition and person they meet: “a herdsman, a mason, a wayfarer.” Even from the ignorant and foolish the student is prepared to learn, even if only to observe how the consequences of their poor behaviour are instructive for their own acquisition of wisdom. Everything has something to teach them; “nothing goes wasted” as they enter life to learn from it. If you want to create a great Themistocles, you need to train him as a boy to learn from everyone.

If releasing self-educating learners into the world is the ultimate goal of education, then the educator’s first most important task must be to “tempt” the student “to want to study and to love it: otherwise you simply produce donkeys laden with books.” In the end, graduating your pupils with a “pannierful full of learning” but without the ability to think for themselves is to do them a disservice that might well haunt them the rest of their lives. “Learning must not only lodge with us: we must marry her,” concludes Montaigne. We mustn’t educate children so that they will simply walk away thinking that they learned everything we know, but we must help them learn the joy of educating themselves.

(Earlier versions of some of this post appeared in Caesura Letters: Volume XV – Arising and Passing. To mark a year since the Caesura Letters project came to an end, Volume XV is currently available for free. Share the gift of contemplation this holiday season by sharing this link with others.)

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No Democracy is Stronger than its Investment in Education

To live in a democracy is to be free: not subordinate to tyrants, puppet rulers, or autocrats. Democracy is national self-sovereignty. A democracy is a nation that leads itself; a people of collective self-determination. Unlike a vessel state or an occupied territory, a free, democratic state is self-directing.

Definitively, then, no democracy is stronger than its ability to govern itself. A state that can not govern itself democratically will all too quickly be usurped by other forces, either internal or external. Therefore, the principle challenge for every generation of free citizens is to equip the subsequent generation to meet the responsibilities and tasks of self-sovereignty.

There are two essential ingredients for a stable democracy: a stock of leaders who are competent enough to lead and an electorate competent enough to elect them. This equation is elementary: if a free, self-governing nation is going to make smart, rational, educated decisions, it must be comprised of an adequate number of smart, rational, and educated citizens.

Ergo, no democracy is stronger than its investment in education.

An ethos of education that principally prepares students to ‘get a job’ assumes — and propagates the notion — that the central activity of citizenship is economic. Producing people-shaped cogs for bureaucratic/corporate machines fails to account that in a self-governing state, the economy itself is only as robust and sustainable as the worst decisions made by elected administrators. ‘Preparing students for the workforce’ must be a secondary footnote to ‘Preparing students be active decision makers in the matters of a sovereign nation-state.’

Yes, it is tempting to ignore all this talk of sovereignty as a nostalgic echo of bygone republics. These days, many of us are convinced that big banks, wall street, and corporate lobby interests run the show in government. We don’t feel like we are leading ourselves at all, and it becomes increasingly tempting to surrender this whole mess to someone who claims that they will fix the system for us. Never is democracy at more acute risk than when are tempted to relinquish our right to govern ourselves to a self-described savior figure, regardless of the side of political spectrum from which they hail. But such a time prompts the question, ‘How did we get here? Where are the leaders?’

Education can never become a peripheral activity or sidebar priority in a democratic state. On the contrary, education must be a central, self-imposed mandate of a self-governing nation. This is necessarily the fixed obsession of a people who successfully perpetuate their liberty from one generation to another. A state that is self-aware of its sovereignty (and the least bit cognizant of history) is a state that is acutely aware of how fragile democracy is. Today’s infrastructure investments and military defense spending are all a waste if they are only to be handed over to another generation who neither understands, appreciates, nor is competent to utilize them.

The purpose of education is to equip students to become full and responsible participants in society: to gain the values, knowledge, and critical thinking skills necessary be an active participant in a self-governing nation. Rote literacy skills and labor force preparation are critical, yes, but only scratch the surface of what education truly means for the inter-generational lineage of a self-directing people. Education is not just another budget item in a long list of public expenses, but the manifest evidence of one generation’s commitment to their society and culture beyond their lifetimes. As a democracy, sooner or later, we must realize that everything else is secondary to fostering the knowledge, creativity, and capacity of our young people.

By ‘investing in education’ I do not mean blindly forking tax dollars into existing schools and curriculum, as if the way forward is necessarily the way of the past. I do not mean uncritically feeding the inertia of the status quo for its own sake. No, I simply mean that no democracy is more stable than its resolve to bolster the knowledge and intellect of its young people. Democratic vibrancy compels a state to never stop searching for ways to more effectively invest its future leaders and constituents, lest intelligence becomes the purview of a fixed elite or ruling class.

Consider the implications for democracy if education becomes emblematic of socioeconomic status. Consider the implications if ‘access to knowledge’ equates or correlates to elitism and privilege. Consider the social and political disintegration that follows, if higher education becomes increasingly ‘unachievable’ to the majority of a population. Education, if not equally distributed, is democratic self-destruction: a self-reinforcing cycle of class division. A democracy that turns ‘learning’ into a status symbol has sealed its fate. In the long run, a democracy survives only insomuch as it achieves educational equity. After all, if the majority rules, a democracy is only as intelligent as the intelligence of its majority.

In a democracy, education is about more than battling ‘corporate amnesia’ at the national scale or passing on cultural identity and values to our children (although it is still about these things none the less). When a nation governs itself, education principally exists to give everyone the capacity to participate in the life of the state, culture, and society. When education fails this aim — when knowledge becomes decipherable class and status — it is only a matter of time before ignorance leads us all.

If we want to increase our capacity to govern ourselves competently, we must strengthen our investment in young people. If we want our children to be free, we must show them what it looks like to be active leaders and participants in a state where the people are sovereign. If we fail them at this, we fail to give them their freedom.

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