Education More Than Facts

All we are trying to do is teach our students what is real and true.  It is simple.  Well, maybe not.  But, it should be.  Without a confidence in what is real and true we become unmoored and hopeless. G. K.Chesterton, a Christian author, concurs, “ It is typical of our time that the more doubtful we are about the value of philosophy, the more certain we are about the value of education. That is to say, the more doubtful we are about whether we have any truth, the more certain we are (apparently) that we can teach it to children. The smaller our faith in doctrine, the larger our faith in doctors … (Chesterton, 1911)”

I would agree with his contention that without the presence of theology and philosophy at the core of the modern education, this inevitably leads to two mutually exclusive concepts of teaching and learning that are trying to co-exist.  He implies that this “constitutes a schism or schizophrenia at the very heart of the schooling:
“The truth is that the modern world has committed itself to two totally different and inconsistent conceptions about education. It is always trying to expand the scope of education; and always trying to exclude from it all religion and philosophy. But this is sheer nonsense. You can have an education that teaches atheism because atheism is true, and it can be, from its own point of view, a complete education. But you cannot have an education claiming to teach all truth, and then refusing to discuss whether atheism is true. (Chesterton, 1911)”
Chesterton regularly asserts, “The absurdity of the modern schooling’s attempt to build a university in the absence of universals. (1950) ” “Take away the supernatural,” says Chesterton (1911), “and what remains is the unnatural.”  “Education is only the truth in a state of transmission,” he wrote on another occasion, “and how can we pass on truth if it has never come into our hand?”

One consequence of this lack of truth or foundation in the school is what Chesterton called “standardization by a low standard, (Chesterton, 1928)” a dumbing-down of standards to a lowest-common denominator of prescribed mediocrity. In the absence of an integrated curriculum in which each discipline informs the other, each part making sense in the light of the whole, the modern academy has literally disintegrated itself into a plethora of fragmented particles, none of which is in communication with the other parts. “Everything has been sundered from everything else, and everything has grown cold. Soon we shall hear of specialists dividing the tune from the words of a song, on the ground that they spoil each other… This world is all one wild divorce court. (Chesterton, 1928).” When reading the reviews of Chesterton’s statements on education I was reminded of a conversation I had about Common Core.  First, I must say that I am ambivalent about Common Core.  Since I am in a private Christian school, we do not have to and have not adopted the state standards built around the National Common Core.  However, as professionals, we look at it, study it and see if there is anything to glean in our pursuit of excellence.  –Pardon the digression.  Amongst the many complaints I hear about the Common Core is the lower expectation and the indoctrination of a false and convoluted understanding of the world.  

In a recent blog I recently read, “Ironically, in exorcising the unifying spirit of theology and philosophy from the core curriculum, the modern academy has doomed itself to fractious fragmentation, in which each discipline has exiled itself from all the others. In excommunicating theology and philosophy, the modern academy has paradoxically excommunicated itself from itself!” (imaginative, 2014).  “Because the elementary school doesn’t teach theology,” wrote Chesterton, “it must be excused when it doesn’t teach anything. The bias of the modern world is so enormous that it will allow a thing to be inefficient as long as it is also irreligious.”  Isn’t this where we are?  

The modern fervor from almost any secular university and center of learning is against religion and is antagonistic and militant against Truth.  They vehemently oppose a unifying Truth.  Instead they prefer a hollow education to one that is “informed by the underlying meaning inherent in the truth-claims of religion or philosophy (imaginative, 2014).  I would agree with Chesterton (1950) when he says that this is education at all: “Every education teaches a philosophy; if not by dogma then by suggestion, by implication, by atmosphere. Every part of that education has a connection with every other part. If it does not all combine to convey some general view of life, it is not an education at all (Chesterton, 1950 p. 166).”
A cohesive and integrated view of a broad education is contrasted with the “disintegrated” education of the relativist:
“There is something to be said for teaching everything to somebody, as compared with the modern notion of teaching nothing, and the same sort of nothing, to everybody.” (Chesterton, 1950) Whereas the former conveys a philosophy by which one can understand the cosmos, the latter “is not a philosophy but the art of reading and writing unphilosophically [sic].” The former teaches its recipient how to think; the latter prevents its victim from thinking.”

I think my argument can get lost in the condemnation of a modern education.  Forgive me if that is true.  Because indeed, I am really espousing that there is an alternative to this hollow education.  Sure, the modern common school can have a robust amount of classes they offer with sparkling Chromebooks and magnificent edifices to their glory.  But, remember at the core it is missing key ingredients.  It is akin to the shiny genetically modified apple that is the perfect red with a shiny peel; but the substance is manufactured to look like the more nutrition realty.  The triumph of a Christian school is unfortunately, the tragedy of modern education, perceived with such brilliance by Chesterton, is that it has left us perilously ignorant of who we are, where we are, where we have come from, and where we are going.   In a Christian school Truth is at the core.  Truth is the mission.  The integration of philosophy and Truth is the essential ingredient that makes a Christian school what it is.   Those pupils and graduates of a Christian school are not lost and are not blissfully unaware that we are heading for the abyss.  In fact they have a perfect navigation system for life and have hope.

Chesterton, G.K.  (1911).  Illustrated London News, May 13, 1911
Chesterton  G.K. (1950). The Common Man, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1950, p. 168-169
Chesterton, G. K. (1928) Culture and the Coming Peril, being the text of a speech delivered by Chesterton at the University of London in 1928; reprinted in the Chesterton Review, Vol. 18, No. 2, August 1992


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Data and the School

Salem Christian School is continually pursuing excellence.  We know we have areas in which to grow.  Research shows that a flourishing school has a firm understanding of its success and the ability to measure the success and short comings.  The question is how do we do this?  We must have goals and desired outcomes for the teaching and learning at SCS.  Then, we must determine the paths that take us toward these goals.  Finally, we need to determine what success is and how do we determine if we have succeeded.

This requires us to use the data at hand to guide us in better serving the students we have the privilege of teaching.  We need to use the data to make wise decisions on how to best use the resources.   Considering our resistance to state and federal data mining efforts, Common Core, and other public school methods, we need to determine how we are going to make wise decisions based on our data at hand.

Data-driven decision making is widely accepted today as a necessary element of a flourishing school. Spurred by the movement toward standards and accountability in every state, educational systems today are under much greater pressure than ever before to produce measurable results. All across the United States, results in student achievement are driving responses by teachers and principals. Educators are realizing that failure to make changes that improve student achievement as measured by specific, external measures of performance is unacceptable. The ability to make quality decisions based on local data is important for the future of our school. This is why the faculty at SCS is working towards better using the interviews, questionnaires, Terra Novas, newly added PSAT’s and SAT data to drive us forward to a brighter future for all of our students.

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Block Schedule Image

Block Scheduling Done Right

Recently I was asked why we do block scheduling the way we do.  Much effort has gone into the study systems that will help SCS meet its goals of academic excellence and its extensive impact on student learning. As with any choice, there are both pros and cons. At Salem Christian School, we had to move towards a format which enables the school to provide more dynamic instruction, broader choices, and more nimble scheduling that this change enables. Some of the major advantages researchers have noted are the following:

Improved Teaching and Learning

With longer blocks, teachers have more time to complete lesson plans. More class time is available to develop key concepts, incorporate creativity into instruction, and try a variety of classroom activities that address different learning styles. Longer time blocks allow for deeper instruction instead of wider coverage.(O’Neil, 1995; Eineder & Bishop, 1997).

Ability to Focus Attention

Using active learning methods helps the students better understand and retain material.(Rettig & Canady, 1996). With block scheduling, students have fewer subjects during a semester, enabling the learners to explore deeper and allow the teachers to focus efforts.

Fragmentation Reduced

With block scheduling, instructional time is not fragmented by frequent transitions between classes. Fewer distinct classes means less time spent on classroom management activities, such as calling attendance and organizing and focusing the class. In addition, there are fewer opportunities for students to arrive late to class (Rettig & Canady, 1996).

Individualized Pace

The schedule allows advanced students to move through material at a more rapid rate, and they are able to finish sequential language classes within one academic year. (Woronowicz, 1996).

More Course Offerings

Students actually take more courses in a standard plan because they enroll in at least eight classes per year instead of six or seven (Rettig & Canady, 1996).

Stronger Inter-Personal Relationship

A hallmark of SCS is the family atmosphere. Anything to promote this is always welcome. The number of daily classes for which students and teachers must adjust and prepare is decreased, allowing students to develop the deeper interpersonal relationships that are integral to academic success (Rettig & Canady, 1996; Eineder & Bishop, 1997). Teachers get to know students more personally which enables them to adapt lessons to the interests of their students.

Attitudes and Comprehension Improve

Research indicates that teachers’ and students’ attitudes about their school improve. Both teachers and students state that they get more done in class and learn more because they are better able to focus their attention. Classes address material in more depth, and teachers feel students are better able to comprehend and retain concepts learned in a block period (O’Neil, 1995; Eineder & Bishop, 1997).


College Preparatory

Almost all of our students move onto a four-year college degree at some point.  The transition from eight 40-minute classes to four 83-minute classes is difficult.  The skill to handle this is learned in an environment that is more personally supportive and has more accountability for the student in high school than in college.  Thus, this model prepares the students for the expectations that they will face.  The second preparatory element of block scheduling is the use of college credit and dual enrollment at SCS instead of Advanced Placement courses.  This better aligns the schedule to accommodate these courses.

These were the reasons that we moved to this model and continue to stay within this model.  Of course, there are always areas to improve.  We could better use the model.  But, it has significantly made a difference in the academic prowess of our school.  In fact we have been used as a model for other schools in the northeast.

We had the same concern about gaps in the learning that seems like it would occur due to the space of time between courses.  There are two aspects to this that would need to  explore.  The first is whether the gaps do indeed pose a challenge.  The second is what does the school and students do to overcome the  challenges if they do indeed exist.

Theoretically, we are teaching towards mastery and automaticity.  This means, that the student has adopted the skills, concepts, or outcomes to a degree that he or she can confidently and automatically rely on them.   Of course there are skills and concepts that need multi-courses and years to develop.  But, these skills are scaled so that we can teach mastery of each step so that they can use them automatically as they move onto the next level of skills or concepts.  We see this most often in mathematics and reading.  We teach the same skills in reading instruction from grade one all the way through twelfth grade.  However, at every step the skills are expanded and become more complex.  The gap between the school years often allow us to catch the gaps that have occurred in students who haven’t truly mastered something and allows us to provide remediation and review.

We recognize that some courses are more vulnerable to this gap than others.  For example, we read in every class and incorporate writing in every class.  Thus, there is no specific gap in this, because we expand the vocabulary and writing skills each time we confront new material in other classes.   However, math is sequential in skills and may be more vulnerable to the skills.   Granted, geometry and algebra are very different maths.  Thus, the skills are different.  But, because we want to ensure mathematics ability is strong and continue to build on strong SAT scores, we require a math lab in the semester that students are not in a leveled math class.  At SCS, our students received significant more time in math each year than any other program because we have this system.  The math labs allow for remediation, enrichment, and SAT prep.  The teachers have developed this course (which is unique to SCS) in order to have outcomes that are tailored in order to ensure our students’ scores on college boards are strong.

All of this seems to be working well.  However, we want to measure it and have hard data that supports this.  Thus, we have instituted a few things.  We have entrance exams in every math course every semester.  It provides feedback to the students, parents, and teacher about retention and specific instructional needs for that semester’s students.  Additionally, we have instituted that every student in grade 8-10 takes the PSAT.  This will provide valuable data that we can track and use to measure the efficacy of our program.

Thank you very much for submitting your question.  I hope that I have answered it.  If it prompts more, then I can continue on this topic or move onto the next question when it comes.

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Shifting Sand

IMG_0288If you are interested in learning about the efficacy of learning, you probably have heard of Scott McLeod.  Although he uses the provocative title, Shift Happens, he asks some powerful questions and provides some interesting assertions.  A few years ago I was introduced to him through a video in an in-service.  I was gobsmacked with what he had to say.  For some reason, he has reentered my sphere and it what he has to say is even more relevant today that it was just a few years ago.

A few years ago, I was listening to his TED talk and he piqued my interest when he said, “if a job is able to be moved somewhere else, it probably will.”  WOW!  What does this mean to an educational system that is preparing students to be economically viable and masters of information?  As an educational leader and as a school, we need to answer these questions.  Dr. Mcleod asserts that the world is shifting into new directions.  And, I assert that the souls in the seats of our classroom deserve a solid and viable answer.  Furthermore, I would conclude that we need to have this and every generation duly educated so that the Gospel is those who carry the Gospel must be able to do by being relevant to the continues to spread in earnest.

McLeod posited that, in summary, there are currently two big shifts and a problem.  The first shift is economic.  He asserted that as a society, “We are preparing students for jobs that don’t exist.”  This small idea was planted in me and among many other things has driven me to push for better, stronger, and more nimble instruction in the schools I lead.   I have to ask, “If this is true, then what we are preparing our students for?”  I would be a billionaire and a noble prize winner if I knew this answer for certainty.  For clarity, I am neither of these.

I was fortunate to see an interview with Dr. McLeod where he claimed that he rarely is an early adapter to new technology.  However, he saw wearable tech and immediately asked, “How can this be used for teaching and learning?”  How can this or any other technology or methodology enhance classroom instruction, observations, walkthroughs and instructional rounds?

To address this economical shift, we have to think about every little thing as an opportunity and how we can capitalize on change. We need to be sure that our curriculum should emphasize this.   It seems apparent that being nimble and visionary is imperative.  It’s not an abandonment of the traditional values of education, but of an emphasis on process as well as product.

Think about it, as soon as the gadget or app is invented it is nearly a dinosaur.   As educators, parents and students we need to be innovative, risk taking, student centered, and grounded in 21st century instruction. This is the only way we are going to be sure our students a prepared what is coming ahead, not what has already happened.  We need our students to have the ability to ask questions and leverage the tools of today so that they can be the entrepreneurs, innovators, and inventors of tomorrow.  To do be prepared for the unknown they need to have the basics and the creative skills and thinking that are used to shape tomorrow.

The second shift is about our information landscape.  This has shifted since the printing press.  At that time information and knowledge was available for the masses.  We are now seeing something similar.  Instead of the dispersion of information, these days anyone can create and publish any bit of information with little cost and great ease.  We are hyper-connected across the globe, finding content and each other with little effort.  This expansive information landscape requires questions.

As a school we need to adapt to the informational and economic landscape of our time with eyes on the future.  This adaptation needs to occur in the youngest grades throughout the schools.  No longer is the “right” answer good enough.  These factual recall and basic skills work of years past are just that basic.   Yet, we cannot forget that the basics are still necessary.  However, the structure of our curriculum and the delivery of the teaching must require our students go beyond the basic factual recall.  Google can answer what the Intolerable Acts are and when they occurred.  But, what our students need to do in the  forward learning environment is to educate our students in how to ask questions and use the tools to connect these Dr. McLeod believes that educators increasingly will realize that learning doesn’t have to tied to the school day…, but rather a more open and flexible structure. Who knows if he is right?  As a private Christian school, we have great opportunities.  But, we still need to realize that humans learn the same way.  It’s the cultural and societal shifts that require the school to approach the ever changing student.

One thing that I appreciate about Salem Christian School is that we understand that each student is different.  (Albeit, we will always have room to grow.)  We do know that each student is a unique part of God’s creation.  And, God has provided this student with a specific and personal set of strengths.  Each person has a particular place in the universe that only he or she can fill.


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