Still the Best Guarantee

The single best guarantee of ensuring a successful, fulfilling life for a young person is still a rigorous, well-rounded liberal arts education. That is a bit miraculous, given the scale and pace of the current social, economic, and technological changes we are witnessing. But it is true.

 

A brief rationale: knowledge remains the key to academic and professional success nowadays, but not in its pure form. As they say, it’s not what you know, it’s what you can do with the knowledge. But that is precisely the goal of a quality liberal arts education: to teach young people “The best which has been thought and said,” as Matthew Arnold described the cultural canon, and simultaneously to familiarize them with the ways in which educated people think about, discuss, critique, and generally engage with the ideas and issues that have formed civilization. There can be no greater task and challenge for both educators and students, there is no conceivable cognitive, aesthetic, emotional or social capability or sensibility that a truly excellent liberal arts education cannot provide.

Does the classical paradigm need to be brought into the 21st century? Absolutely. Far more women, people of color, the voices of the common people and dispossessed…all must be put firmly into the core of the canon if the liberal arts are to retain their relevance in modern times. And some heartfelt mea culpas would not be inappropriate either. Just as importantly, the humanities need to explore new ways to respond to the digital age. It very well might be that the age of print is behind us: so what shall lovers of Dickinson and Flaubert do, hide away in libraries waiting for the world to end? Young people today are more in need of the insights and experiences of history’s greatest writers, thinkers, and artists than ever before. The question is how to get them interested in slow, subtle and deliberate thinking and feeling when their devices are leading them in precisely the opposite direction.

Above all, we should never forget the shining core and promise of a genuinely deep, broad humanistic education: to ‘educare’ , “lead out”, from every learner, in consonance with the contours of the most profound ideas, art, and language of our civilization, their intellectual and aesthetic best. Education is for eternity, not just to get a job.

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Self-Efficacy

Are you familiar with the concept of self-efficacy? If you are a teacher, you should be. The concept was developed by Albert Bandura. Self-efficacy is an individual’s belief in their innate ability to achieve goals. Bandura defines it as a personal judgment of “how well one can execute courses of action required to deal with prospective situations”.

Self-efficacy has obvious connections to education: we want our students to believe that they can achieve the various tasks we set them, as well as accomplish their own goals. Bandura tells us there are at least four sources that affect students’ belief in their efficacy in specific tasks or domains.

The first and most influential is the actual outcome of past experiences. “I always fail these math quizzes, no way will I pass this time!” The second is vicarious experiences. The performance of others who we believe to be similar to us can inform us as to the likelihood of our success on a task. The third is verbal input or persuasion from significant other people. Others’ opinions on our ability or chances of success, especially if we highly respect them, can greatly strengthen or weaken our own self-efficacy. The fourth source is one’s affective state while facing a challenge. Feeling excited at the prospect of performing a difficult task may indicate the potential to perform well; however, anxiety and hyper-vigilance can reveal a lack of competence.

There are at least three educational practices we can implement to help strengthen students’ self-efficacy.

1. Frequent optimal challenges. Not too difficult, not too easy, and specific, achievable, concrete and short-term goals.

2. Constructive feedback. I’ll talk more about this in another post.

3. Nurturing coping resources. Help students develop various ways of coping with achievement related stress.

We should always remember that what the students do and how they feel about their own learning is far more important than our actions and theories about what should happen in the classroom. If the student has high self-efficacy, the sky’s the limit, it’s that simple.

The Purpose of Learning Content

Carl Bereiter tells us that the real function of formal instruction is to give young people enough knowledge that they can build their own comprehensive and coherent understanding of the world. This is worth rolling around in our mind. It is decidedly a constructivist view of education. There are many implications here; one is that mastering the content of the curriculum is NOT the real end goal of instruction. There is a higher, supervening goal, one not controlled by the teacher. Learning subject matter is an indirect consequence of trying to understand, really understand, how the world works.

 

The Most Important Skills

An alien comes to your door and asks, “What are the most important academic dispositions and capabilities you want to teach your children? Please use very simple language!” My answers are: 1) the habit of daily, sustained and critical reading; 2) the desire and ability to write smooth, thoughtful, and creative prose in a variety of genres; 3) the capacity and willingness to engage in intelligent discourse, listening carefully and offering one’s own opinions without fear and 4) underlying all these performative acts their wellspring: the ability and disposition to think logically, creatively, and practically. I hesitate to say whether this brief and simple list has ever been taken in its pure form as the blueprint for an actual educational programme.

The Best Idea in Education, Ever.

Last time I teased you by hinting at the existence of a game-changing educational idea. Now I want to tell you about it. In future posts I will show you my students’ work and lay out more evidence for the bold claim in the post’s title.

It is called LiD (Learning in Depth) and it is, for my money, one of the best ideas I have ever come across in education. LiD is the brainchild of Kieran Egan, the Irish-Canadian educationalist. About Egan’s educational philosophy and work in general, I would only say, “Read his books and read them now.” Egan is the epicenter of an exciting educational movement called Imaginative Education, which is just as innovative and humanistic as the name implies. More information about this important thinker and his ideas can also be found at the website of his Imaginative Education Research Group, http://ierg.ca/

What is LiD? The concept is simple but profound. In Egan’s original conception, first-grade students are assigned an individual challenging topic possessing both breadth and depth (examples: Trees, Birds, Energy, Tools, Shells, Writing Systems, Clouds….) and then allowed to work on it outside of class, as a sort of more-or-less free independent study project. The children’s major concrete assignment is to amass an enormous individual portfolio, which they periodically review with the teacher. Egan also suggests presentations and other communicative products. The key element of LiD, and the stroke of genius that sets it apart from other progressive, topic-based and 21st century, student-centered schemes, is that under LiD the students continue to work on their topic until they graduate from high school. That means that theoretically a young person could pursue the same subject for at least thirteen years. Think of it: imagine the depth and breadth of their domain knowledge, the potential richness of its links to other topics; imagine the study skills, metacognitive knowledge, self-confidence, motivation, and sheer thinking power that would slowly and naturally develop over the years as the children explored their topic. They would become ever more sophisticated in their analyses, resourceful in their problem-solving, flexible and creative in their intellectual products…Egan himself speculated that the unprecedented gains from a program of such long-term,synergisticdynamism would result in students whose like has probably never existed in the history of formal schooling.

End dramatic italics. But I am in my fifth year of implementing a slightly modified version of LiD[1] and I can state with absolute certitude that Egan’s surmise was correct. Allowing students to engage over a long period of time (again, think years, not weeks or months, as is unfortunately the rule in our standard curricula) leads to transformative improvements in every conceivable (and some inconceivable) aspects of learning and teaching. At one stroke it clears away the extraneous, stress-inducing elements that have over time attached themselves to formal schooling like so many barnacles. I am speaking here of pop quizzes, prints, rigid deadlines and the breathless pace of the coverage curriculum, of exhausting competition for grades, of one-size-fits-all pedagogy, and most of all, testing, testing, testing. LiD reduces learning to its pure, beautiful essentials: a motivated learner, a friendly and helpful adult, an engaging, meaningful topic. Really, is anything else needed? Both learner and teacher are finally set free, free to explore the topic and possibly gently guide in any way they wish. They are limited only by the characteristics of the subject and their own imaginations, both of which are in principle unlimited.

Next time I will give you samples of my students’ work and a copy of my topic list. Until then….

 

[1] I meet students when they are already in junior high, so they have a maximum of six years with me. Consequently, many of my topics are somewhat narrower than his. Also, I do more in-class work with LiD and I grade it, whereas Egan suggests removing LiD from any formal evaluation scheme. Finally, I let students choose their topics, while he recommends assigning them, so that they learn that any topic is interesting.