Educating the Whole Child

David Stow began his work in education in his Glasgow Sunday school in 1816. He was strongly critical of the education of his time. He stressed that effective education must be about much more than instruction. It must be concerned with the whole man. With apologies for the sexist language:

Man is not all head, feeling, or all animal energy. He is a compound being, and must be trained as such….The most influential and successful mode of cultivating the child is, therefore, the daily and simultaneous exercise of his intellectual physical, and moral powers.

Ahh, the old-timers knew what they were talking about!

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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.

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.

 

On Our Failure to Educate

Take every tragedy, every error in judgment, every injustice in the history of humanity and you still would not remotely approach the magnitude of our historical and ongoing failure to educate every single human being to his or her full potential. Entire swathes of the global population are, for a combination of social, economic, or gender-based reasons, simply disenfranchised from this most fundamental human right: the right to know. This is nothing less than a crime against humanity. Many reasons are offered for this failure: a shortage of trained teachers; the challenges inherent in providing a quality education to every sector of the population; or the perennial issue of money. Occasionally it is even whispered that the common folk themselves are to blame, that they are stubborn, lazy, inherently “unteachable.” But none of these justifications are convincing. They serve merely as excuses to salve the sore consciences of a lazy, unjust people. The proof is simply stated: our species daily accomplishes feats of science, imagination, business acumen, and general intellectual and organizational power that are far more difficult than providing enough one-room schoolhouses and minimally competent teachers for all young people. So the reason that hundreds of millions of children go to bed every night knowing no more than they did that morning (a fact that, given the political, socioeconomic and environmental challenges we are now facing, should fill every rational human being with terror) must be sought elsewhere. But one need not look far; the answer lies right in our own hearts. We just don’t care enough.

 

A Transformative Educational Idea

First, I wanted to say that I have decided to get back into blogging again, if only to make it easier to promulgate new ideas, proselytize, and in general persuade my fellow educators (and that rarest of bird, the truly concerned, engaged parent) of how lushly green the new pastures of 21st century pedagogy truly are.

So much for that. Now, I want to pass on the most innovative, groundbreaking, holistic, humane, effective and in all conceivable ways fantastic educational concept in human history after the invention of writing, the book, and coffee. That is not mere hyperbole. This program is easy to implement. It gets immediate results for ALL students no matter their academic level or particular combination of motivation and interests. Its long-term positive results are incalculable. You want 21st century skills? You got’em. And the 4 C’s (creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration) are just the beginning.

WAIT, THERE’S MORE!!

If you act now you will also receive, free of charge, the following:

A boatload of deep domain knowledge!

Adaptive expertise!

Independent inquiry skills and dispositions!

Turbo-charged motivation and confidence in their own powers!

More research skills than you can shake a stick at!

A healthy skepticism of the plausibility and reliability of information sources, whatever their provenance!

A willingness to take intellectual risks, to hypothesize and go out on a limb!

Super-duper study skills, self-regulated learning, and metacognition!

A sense of how to incorporate new information into existing knowledge in powerful, generative ways!

Global improvement in basement-level cognitive and affective processes vital for effective learning, such as concentration!

Active and positive problem-solving, and even more importantly, problem-finding!

A comfort with abstraction, with ideas themselves, leading to inculcation into Karl Popper’s fabled “World Three”, the world of concepts and true intellectual discourse!

A googolplex of good-old-fashioned reading and writing skills!

An enhanced ability to handle large amounts of authentic, complex and even contradictory information!

A capacity to create high-quality knowledge products, such as Power Point presentations, reports and stories; or, as Carl Bereiter states, the ability to “make productive use of authoritative knowledge!”

The ability to see ideas, events, facts,  and forces as connected in all kinds of ways!

Free and unfettered access to all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, from remembering to understanding to applying to analyzing to evaluating to creating!

A newfound facility with stories, with the construction and comprehension of powerful narratives that shed light on and give flesh to content of all kinds!

An improvement in general expressive power so fundamental your mother would not recognize it!

Understanding that is relational, that establishes a deep, flexible and enduring relationship with the target knowledge!

Profound growth in intellectual character: curiosity, open-mindedness, persistence, etc.!

Piagetian acceleration! (Do you even know what that is?)

An appreciation of consilience! (What about that one, huh?)

Irrevocable broadening of their intellectual, aesthetic, and moral horizons!

A vastly increased sense of how knowledge itself is created, how it flows and is transformed! And with it, the revelation of the actual relevance of meaningful knowledge in their lives; the discovery that knowledge really is power.

In conclusion, an extraordinary increase in engagement with all aspects of learning!!!!!!

Sounds purty good, don’t it?

But because it is late and because I am feeling mischievous, I am not going to tell you what exactly this educational manna is until my next post.

So there.