What Did You Learn Today?
I was sitting on the floor, fixing a desk, when one of my students and her mother came into the room. They were unaware of my presence as the mother helped her daughter gather her homework. Looking at the board, she said, "Nothing is written down for math. What did you do in math today?" Her daughter's response was, "Well... basically, we drew a mountain and that's about it."
If her summary of the day's events hadn't been so comical, I would have been mortified by her answer. Was this all she remembered from my complicated lecture on long division? Though I was tempted to hide myself further under the desk, I stood up and probed my student's memory further. With the right questions, she was able to tell me that the mountain was a metaphor for the steps involved in learning long division and that we'd spent most of the class discussing quotients and remainders.
Her mother was satisfied with this but I was not. My student, quite understandably, remembered the most unusual and silly part of the class and not the lesson. While I'm happy that my students have vivid memories of the metaphor, it is useless unless they recall the metaphor's meaning! I was concerned that this might be the typical kind of answer parents received to that age-old, important question, "What did you do in school today?"
At the end of the next day's lesson, I decided to ask that question myself. "If I were your father and I asked you what you did in class today, what would you say?" The response I got was interesting. Most children could give a vague answer, but not as specific as I would have liked. They could tell me we did long division problems, but it would have been more accurate to say we did problems with a four-digit dividend. I helped them to form this more precise answer.
This exercise, naming what we've learned at the end of each class, has become a routine part of the class and the kids love it. Each of them is eager to come up with the most precise answer. They strive to capture the finest detail that separates today's lesson from previous lessons. I love it, not because it prepares my students to be questioned by their parents, but because my students are refining their own understanding.
It's very easy for a student to let the activities of the day become a blur. Even the best students in the best classes can go through the routine of the day without taking a moment to reflect. But by taking a few minutes each class to discuss what we've learned and give a name to the work we've done, the knowledge they've gained is no longer a blur, but a firmly held concept. It becomes a hard piece of knowledge with clear edges.
Furthermore, this exercise helps the motivation of my students. Naming what we do helps them to remember that each day holds a new lesson. It is very satisfying to look back on a class and say, "We've accomplished this." One of the things that sets VanDamme Academy's curriculum apart from others is that we want our students to hold their knowledge conceptually; knowledge that can be put into words and has a clear connection to reality. It is a goal we pursue doggedly. Naming each lesson is one more way we achieve that goal.
"Pedagogy": The art and science of teaching.
Two years ago, Mr. Travers introduced art appreciation into the VanDamme Academy curriculum. Like the name suggests, the purpose of this course was neither to teach students the history of art nor to train them in the production of art. Rather, his goal was to help them learn to deeply, sincerely enjoy or appreciate art.
Toward that end, Mr. Travers teaches students how to look at a painting or sculpture. He demonstrates to them that looking is not automatic-it is actually an active-minded, methodical, purposeful process. Students learn to do a "reading" of a work of art: noticing and cataloguing all the details, making connections and generalizations about what they observe, comparing and contrasting their observations with other, similar pieces, arriving at a basic theme of the work, and finally, connecting that theme to their own lives.
This process integrates perfectly with the VanDamme Academy literature curriculum, for which the process of analysis is much the same. And indeed, Mr. Travers often makes a point of finding artworks that reflect the values and characters presented in the novels students are reading for literature.
This year, Mr. Travers has introduced music appreciation into the junior high curriculum.
In music appreciation, students listen to a short composition with a definite emotional tone and are asked to describe the scene that plays through their mind in connection with the music. I witnessed one of these classes, and the results were remarkable. First, though the scenes they recounted varied greatly from student to student, the commonalities were fascinating to note. Second, the students' writing was delightfully uninhibited-this assignment really allowed them to be creative free spirits. Lastly, I was moved by the variety of ways in which their performance on the assignment reflected their education overall: the compositions were articulate and eloquent, they often related to great scenes from history or literature, and they showed a capacity for a deep and meaningful connection to art. Listening to Mr. Travers read the students' work aloud while the music played, I was moved to tears.
Here are some samples of the students' writing about Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings." I recommend that you listen first, and then read.
"A wave comes onto the shore, bringing a man to his home town. He is dead. Memories flash of his life as the procession leads him to his grave: his wedding, his first born son, his captaincy. Nothing is banal any more."
"An army has just defeated their enemy. However, their greatest hero has fallen. It is raining, and everyone is crying, especially the hero's family. The hero had hugged his family right before he was shot. It is pitch black except for one light that is shining on the hero."
"Trees are swaying in the forest as the flowers are slowly blooming. They twirl at the sun's powerful heat. One day, they suddenly shrivel up. Kids are staring down at their once beautiful flowers, depressed and heartbroken. The trees begin to shrivel. The pinecones open up to let new seeds be planted."
"I see a boy walking up to a large building in New York for the first time and he can't believe its size. He is amazed and his mouth is ajar. He goes into it, and he is riding up in the glass elevator. He has reached the top; he looks at the view and yells happily off into the city. He is overwhelmed. He feels like a small sand in the desert."
Tell Me Everything You Know
I have invented a new educational game. I call it "Tell Me Everything You Know."
Here is how the game works in my grammar class: I write a sentence on the board, set a time limit, and then have the students write down every grammatical fact they can name about the sentence. When the time is up, I go around the room, asking each student to volunteer one of his observations. If someone else in the class has written the same thing, both must cross it off their lists. If no one else has made the same observation, that student gets a point. Victory goes to the student with the most points.
For example, yesterday I wrote, "When it is Taco Tuesday, we go to the park that is down the street to eat tacos."
Their observations ranged from the simple …
- "Tuesday" is a proper noun.
- "The" is an article.
- The sentence is declarative.
- The sentence ends with a period.
to the more esoteric …
- "To eat tacos" is an infinitive phrase used as an adverb modifying "go."
- "When" is a subordinating conjunction linking the adverb clause to the word it modifies.
- "Tacos" is the direct object of the infinitive.
- "Park" is the antecedent of the relative pronoun "that," which introduces the adjective clause "that is down the street."
At the conclusion of the allotted time, my 7th and 8th grade students had as many as forty to fifty things to say about the grammar of the sentence.
This game works equally well in other classes. Mr. Black and Mr. Steele have played it in their math classes. With one 3rd-grade level math group, Mr. Steele wrote on the board, "362 ÷ 3," and said, "Tell me everything you know."
These 7- and 8-year olds made comments that ranged from …
- The divisor is 3.
- The dividend is 362.
- The quotient is 120 with a remainder of 2.
to such acute observations as …
- The 3 in 362 is in the hundreds' place and stands for 300.
- 362 is a 3-digit number and an even number.
- The divisor, 3, can be subtracted from the dividend, 362, 120 times. (Connecting division to repeated subtraction.)
This game both cashes in on and reinforces the VanDamme Method. All the teachers in all the VDA classes stress conceptual understanding of the material. We work hard to ensure that the students are not taking a rote, thoughtless, pattern-seeking approach to their work, but rather that they fully grasp and can fully explain the concepts they are learning. So when they look at a problem like "362 ÷ 3," we want them to possess a depth of understanding that allows them not just to solve the problem but to thoroughly explain the problem and its solution.
Playing this game also serves as excellent review and reinforcement. It helps the students to probe their own understanding, to dig through their subconscious minds and retrieve all they have learned about a given subject. They listen carefully to others' answers and in doing so are reminded of aspects of the subject they may have forgotten or not readily retrieved. They revisit and focus on aspects of a subject they know but may not have recently brought into conscious awareness.
In my experience, because the students are well prepared for the rigors of this game, because it is a fruitful review, and because it is benevolently competitive—they love it. Students share their insights eagerly and are delighted when others cleverly dig up obscure facts that hadn't occurred to them.
I had to boast about having invented the game because I have to confess to having lost the game. Though I am the self-proclaimed grammar guru, I was bested by 11-year-old Melissa McWilliams. Well, as Leonardo Da Vinci said, "Pity the student who does not surpass his master."
Does My Child Know Grammar Better Than Me?
I would say that a debate is raging in our culture over whether or not we need to preserve the formal rules of grammar, but the sad truth is that there are too few defenders of grammar for a debate to rage. I am lonely in my fervency. Nevertheless, a few recent books and articles have brought the dispute between grammar snobs and grammar slobs to the fore.
Pundit of punctuation Lynne Truss tried to rally readers to her "zero tolerance approach to punctuation" with her bestseller Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. Alas, Birmingham, England didn't heed the call. In January, the city council abolished apostrophes from street signs, inviting criticism from pro-grammar organizations like the "Apostrophe Protection Society," and from our own students at VanDamme Academy, who condemned the decision in a paper written for Mrs. Battaglia's (or "Mrs. Battaglias," if we follow the Birmingham precedent) writing class. "If children grow up there, they will learn not to put apostrophes in possessive words," said 8-year-old Greta. "Usually kids learn from their surroundings."
This debate has also been given center stage unwittingly by President Obama. Obama, widely praised as a consummate intellectual, has been criticized by advocates of grammar for committing such common blunders as the inversion of "me" and "I."
In a February New York Times op-ed, Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman echoed the sentiments of many Americans when they defended President Obama against the "grammar junkies," claiming that the rules for pronouns are 19th-century creations that have no necessity in reality.
To illustrate my answer, I brought the following example into my Room 4 grammar class. Rather than the innocuous, "President Bush graciously invited Michelle and I," what if President Obama had said, "Michelle likes President Bush better than I." Is this a mere difference of opinion about the former President, or a scandal? The ambiguity is resolved with a universal understanding of the rules of grammar.
"Michelle likes him better than I," as my grammar students can tell you, contains an elliptical adverb clause with "I" as the subject, and means, "Michelle likes him better than I like him." On the other hand, "Michelle likes him better than me," contains an elliptical clause with "me" as the direct object, and means, "Michelle likes him better than she likes me."
So, if you whose children are gaining a thorough mastery of the rules of grammar have ever asked yourselves, "Does my child know grammar better than me?" the answer is no, he should know you better. And by the time he graduates, he will know better than to ask the question like that.
Life After VanDamme Academy
"Life After VanDamme Academy."
The following is an interview with Evan Storms, a VanDamme Academy graduate currently in the process of applying to college. Perhaps my favorite part of the interview was his answer to my request for the interview itself: "Considering what I gained from your school, I would write a doctoral thesis for you if you needed it; but I can settle for the interview."
When did you attend VanDamme Academy?
I attended VanDamme Academy for two-and-a-half years from 2003 to 2005, from sixth to eighth grade.
Where had you gone to school prior to that, and how did your experience there differ from your time at VDA?
Before VanDamme Academy, I attended a reputedly exceptional public elementary school in Laguna Hills. My education there differed from my experience at VanDamme fundamentally. Where VanDamme offered a logically-structured, ordered curriculum, my elementary education consisted of unconnected lessons seemingly chosen at random; science would cover volcanoes one week, and the anatomy of a frog the next.
Where do you attend high school, and what have been the strengths and weaknesses of your experience there?
I attend Fairmont Preparatory Academy in Anaheim. Academically, the school is, to the best of my knowledge, the strongest in the area. Fairmont offers a wide range of AP and otherwise advanced courses, generally taught by knowledgeable teachers who present their material clearly and logically.
Moreover, the school allows considerable academic freedom; it has, for example, allowed me to create my own independent study philosophy course, and has created two new math classes so that I can continue to advance. The number of intellectually ambitious students at the school, however, is small. And despite the strengths of the higher level courses, the curriculum in general emphasizes memorization over understanding, with the widespread use of multiple-choice testing and the heavy reliance on textbooks.
What have been some of your most important achievements since your time at VanDamme Academy?
Since attending VanDamme Academy, I have excelled in every facet of my academics: I have earned nearly perfect grades, taken and earned fives on eight AP exams, and been recognized as a national merit scholarship finalist.
Where have you applied to college, and why?
Though I applied to many schools, I am only sincerely interested in attending two: Duke and Stanford University. Both schools offer strong general academic programs, so that, whichever course of study I ultimately choose, I will be able to study under a first-class department.
How do you think your experience at VanDamme Academy shaped you?
At VanDamme Academy, I gained the foundations of an independent mind. I learned that ideas have consequences, are important, and are worth pursuing. I learned to think logically, to allow myself no half-formed knowledge or superficial understanding. I learned to appreciate great literature, to analyze facts scientifically, to write with clarity. And I learned that the sublime is possible to the man who thinks.
A Pygmalion of the Soul
The first work of literature read in Room 4 this year was Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw. The musical My Fair Lady was based upon this classic play.
Pygmalion is the story of a lowly flower girl who is invited into the home of a brilliant phonetician after he makes a bet that he can teach her the elegance and speech of a proper English lady and pass her off as a duchess at a garden party.
In the play's most comical scene, a favorite among the students, Eliza, the flower girl, ventures into society for the first time. Having been told to confine her conversation to the benign and inoffensive topics of weather and health, she discusses, with the utmost elegance of manners and articulation, her suspicion that her aunt who had allegedly died from influenza had actually been murdered over a hat. And so begins a comedy of errors, in which, as Higgins the phonetician says, the problem is not "how" she says things but "what" she says.
With more training, Eliza learns to curb her coarse speech, and she becomes thoroughly polished, dignified, and charming. Her debut at the garden party is a smashing and unmitigated success. She has become a proper English lady.
But in the last and most important scene of the play, we discover that though she has learned to be a lady, she has not yet learned to be a human being—an independent, self-sufficient individual with her own judgment and her own sense of self worth. She has learned how to conform to the standards of elite society, but she has not learned how to form her own standards.
It is only when she drops her decorum and stands up self-confidently against Higgins that he says, "By George Eliza, I said I'd make a woman of you; and I have."
Because for Higgins (and for Shaw), the mark of a worthy person is not conformity to the standards of the upper classes. Rather, a worthy person is one who has-in my favorite expression of the play—his "own soul," his "own spark of divine fire."
Teaching the play this time, it struck me as metaphorical for my own view of education.
Just as Eliza was taught in a way that allowed her to be passed off as a duchess at a garden party, the best of schools today teach children in a way that allows them to be passed off as educated at a cocktail party. But have they learned to be independent, self- sufficient, clear thinking, passionate human beings? Have they gained their own "spark of divine fire"?
That is our goal at VanDamme Academy. Our aim is not to teach the children a stock set of facts that will make them culturally literate. Our aim is to empower them with the lessons of history, to equip them with the tools of math and science, to provide them the fuel and inspiration of literature—to endow them with the wisdom that will give them the means to live the life of a rational, happy, efficacious human being.
That is why the following were highlights of my week.
First, when Room 4 read that last act of Pygmalion, we came to a scene in which Higgins calls Eliza a fool and she responds that the comment is "not proper." I put down the play and asked the class what Higgins's response to that would be. 11-year-old Taylor's bright eyes became incandescent with understanding and her hand shot in the air. "He would say he doesn't care what's proper!" In that moment, she had not just grasped something deeply important about the character, she had grasped something about Shaw's philosophic perspective on life. She had understood that Shaw cares little for conformity to social standards. And her expression revealed that that kind of understanding was thrilling.
Second, I was stopped in the hall one afternoon this week by the mother of a 7-year-old girl named Emily. She told me that Emily had related to her a story from her book Adventures of the Greek Heroes. Emily told her mother the tragic tale of Admetus the king and his true love Alcestis. Admetus was dying, and the gods declared that if he were to remain with his love, someone would have to die in his place. Admetus went to his loyal subjects, his soldiers, his servants, then even to his own parents, but all feared to die for him. Finally, in a tragic twist, his own dear Alcestis, the love for whom he wanted to live, gave her life for his. As 7-year-old Emily shared the story, her voice became halting, and her mother noticed that she had tears in her eyes. (And as her mother told me this story, both she and I both had tears in ours.)
Our goal at VanDamme Academy is not to produce students who are refined, polished, and superficially educated. It is to produce students who are thoughtful, passionate, and sincerely educated.
My favorite author, Victor Hugo, has a passage in which he describes the role of a teacher. He says, "It is a beautiful thing to mold a statue and give it life; it is more beautiful to shape an intelligence and give it truth." And he captures this whole metaphor in an exquisitely poetic description, calling a teacher "a Pygmalion of the soul."
Most math curricula are an absolute pedagogical mess.
I have long known that math programs treat children like human calculators, programming them with processes they use to input numbers and churn out results. But this became poignantly clear to me when I tried to teach my daughter long division this summer.
Confronted with a problem such as 2,832 divided by 8, I began my "explanation," hearkening back to the process that had been drilled into me in third grade. "8 goes into 28 how many times? 3. So you write a 3 above the 8. 8 times 3 is 24. Subtract 24 from 28 and you get 4. Then bring down the 3. 8 goes into 43 how many times?..." and so on. At the conclusion of my presentation, she said something simple but telling: "That is going to be a lot for me to remember."
Indeed, it is a lot for her to remember, because she is remembering, and not understanding.
If you want to grasp the poverty of your own education in math, I offer you the following challenge: explain long division. Explain it to a child, to an adult, to yourself—but really explain it. Use words to describe not the process, but the reason for the process: why each number goes where it does; why you subtract, or divide, or bring down; why the process works. It won't be easy. I maintain that if you had been educated properly in math, it would be.
One of the defining principles of the VanDamme method is a concerted effort to ensure that every item of knowledge possessed by the child is true knowledge, to ensure that he understands it thoroughly, independently, conceptually. To realize this goal in math will require a total overhaul of the standard curriculum. It will require that someone strip the program down to essentials, arrange the material with total faithfulness to hierarchy, and design assessments that are true tests of the child's understanding.
Meanwhile, we can take moderate steps in that direction, by requiring, for example, that the children give complete, verbal explanations for all that they do in math.
Mr. Steele, VanDamme Academy math teacher for a group of 7 & 8-year-olds, demands of his students that they not just blurt out answers, or crank through mechanical processes. He makes them explain the processes using the proper terminology and demonstrating that they understand what they are doing and why.
If, for example, he is teaching subtraction with borrowing, and puts a problem on the board such as 2700 – 350, someone in the class will invariably ask, "Can I just tell you the answer?" Mr. Steele's answers are charming—and pedagogically correct.
Sometimes he says, "I don't want you to do 'magic math.' I don't want you stare up at the sky, come up with a number, and blurt it out to the class. That doesn't help us understand, and that doesn't show me that you understand. I want you to explain how you arrived at your answer."
At other times, he says, "Let's play a game called 'Mr. Steele bumped his head and can't remember math.' Don't just give me the answer, teach me the process by which you arrived at your answer."
The students proceed with explanations that demand, among other things, that they use concepts of place value (if they begin the problem above by saying, "0 minus 0 is 0," he says, "That's true," and waits for them to tell him that you put a 0 in the ones' place before he writes a 0 on the board), and that they explain what they are doing when they borrow (if they say, "Cross out the 5 and put a 4, and put a 10 in the tens' place," he will ask, "What does that 10 represent? 10 what? 10 monkeys?" which will make them giggle and offer the correction, "10 tens silly!").
These children are not treated like human calculators, they are treated like thinking beings. And when they truly grasp the concepts they are using, when they can explain them fully and articulately, when they retain them because they are not memorizing, but understanding—that is real math magic.
Motivation, Part 5
Last time, I explained that in order for a teacher to properly motivate his students, he must really know the purpose of teaching his subject, and that purpose must set the standard for selection of the subject's content. Let me now add that the content selected must also be hierarchically appropriate if the purpose is to be achievable.
In a literature course, for example, the works selected for a given group of students must contain characters and themes to which they can relate. They must contain abstract material that the students are capable of grasping and can connect to their own lives. I once gave a workshop on hierarchy in education to the Maryland Homeschoolers' Association. In the discussion, I threw out, as a contrived example of the violation of hierarchy, the absurdity of reading Tom Sawyer to your toddler in the name of getting a jump on the classics. A parent approached me after the talk, thanked me for it, and confessed, his head low, that he had been reading none other than Tom Sawyer to his 2 and 5-year-olds, with what he had regarded as inexplicably disastrous results. It is not inexplicable-the works introduced to a child must not just be meaningful, they must be meaningful to him.
The value of the subject must also set the standard for the method of the course. Every exercise must be purposeful; it must be carefully selected to further the ultimate goal of the course. The method by which we achieve the purpose in literature is to have daily discussions of the reading, and daily writing assignments, that are integrated around the central value of the work-discussions that help the students to gain an understanding of the plot, of the characterization, and of the theme, so that they gain, over time, a deep appreciation for the story and for its meaning.
Key to this method must also be active integration of the material to the rest of the child's knowledge, including his knowledge of other subjects and the experiences of his life. He must not view the knowledge he gains as isolated, free-floating items of information, but as part of a whole, connected body of knowledge that he is working to master because of the guidance it will offer him in the pursuit of a fulfilled, happy life. Each subject has profound value-real, practical, selfish value-and the teacher must make a purpose of conveying this fact through connections to real life.
The final and most important principle of motivation is that the teacher must identify, explicitly and abstractly, the value of the subject to the students' lives. He must explain, as an important and recurring theme through every course, why the student is learning this, and what is the benefit to him. Motivation is fundamentally cognitive; it is knowledge itself-knowledge of the value of the material he is learning.
Andrew Lewis once gave a presentation to the VanDamme Academy parents about his method of teaching history. He said that the subject of history, as taught by most history teachers, answers five questions: Who?, What?, When?, Where? , and How? He then explained that a proper history course absolutely must answer two more questions: Why? , and the one most relevant to my purpose here, So what? This question must be answered not just in history, but in every subject.
The basic principles of motivation are really quite simple: the teacher must identify the value of his course, design the curriculum accordingly, and name the value explicitly. If he does this properly, he can dispose of the pizzas, gold stars, and rulers, and enjoy the radiantly eager response of children who really grasp what they are learning and why.
Motivation, Part 4
In this and the next newsletter, I will outline the principles that define a proper approach to motivation.
The first of these principles is that before a teacher can motivate the material of his subject, he must first carefully and explicitly identify the value of his subject. He must know, clearly and consciously, why a study of his subject is crucial to the child's life. This task is neglected for a variety of reasons. As I indicated in a past newsletter, the intrinsicist teacher does not regard his subject as having any value to the child's life; it is a duty imposed upon him, and the answer to why he should learn it begins, "Thou shalt..." The subjectivist teacher can offer no principled, absolute statement of a subject's value; value is relative, and depends on a variety of subjectively-defined, concrete goals, goals that change rapidly with the educational fashion. Even those with a more objective view of their subject's value rarely identify that value in terms so explicit that they can use it as an absolute standard guiding the approach of the course and can communicate that value explicitly to the students.
The VanDamme Academy brochure and website state concisely the essential value of each of the core subjects. On more than one occasion, a parent coming into the school has commented to me that until reading our website, he had never considered why each of these subjects is crucial. But the why-a statement of the indispensable value of this material to a person's life-is a prerequisite of a proper curriculum and of proper motivation; it should dictate the whole content and method of the course, and as I will explain, it must serve as the basic means of motivating the students.
The next important principle is that the purpose of the course must set the standard for the selection of its content. In literature, the purpose of teaching the child to experience literature as an art form sets the standard for the selection of works; the course must include those novels, plays, and stories that can achieve this purpose. If the purpose of reading is loosely defined in the teacher's mind as a way to expand the students' vocabulary, develop their ability to identify the main point of a given paragraph, and learn factual information in a fictional setting, then any textbook reader will do. If the purpose is a political agenda, of exposing students to other cultures, teaching them "tolerance," and shattering the belief that great literature is the province of dead white males, then any modern, PC novel, no matter the quality of its writing or depth of its theme (or even whether it has a theme) will do. A proper literature curriculum must be made up of literary classics for children and adults, classics that have endured because of the timelessness of their themes and the eloquence of their presentation. Exposed to great art from an early age, students become sophisticated and impassioned readers.
Next week, I will elaborate on this principle and identify one more essential key to proper motivation.
Motivation, Part 3
In Part 2 of this letter, I described the approach to motivation taken by advocates of classical or traditional education. Most educators of this tradition appeal to duty, and not to the interests of the child, as the source of motivation. The child is to rise above his own interests, and fulfill his moral obligation to learn.
There is another school of thought that advocates appealing to the child's interests-his fleeting, short-range, childish interests. To the extent that there remains any real academic content in today's schools, I would say this is the primary form of motivation offered. This is the view, in essence, that to make the drudgery and labor of learning palatable to a child, you must offer him immediate rewards for enduring the process. These rewards must tap into his current interests, his childish values, so that he has a clear and present reason for doing the tasks he is assigned.
A wildly popular example of this approach is the "Book It!" program established by Pizza Hut in 1985 and promoted in teachers' colleges to this day. This program, which has been used in 900,000 classrooms by 22 million students, offers children certificates for a personal pan pizza in exchange for meeting a monthly reading goal. In 1992, The Wall Street Journal reported a growing number of such incentive programs in an article titled "For Some Students, the Value of Learning is Measured in Pizzas and Parking Passes." The article quotes a New Mexico English teacher, who says, "It's a terrific idea. Those students who wouldn't ordinarily work for academic achievement are now getting something tangible to work for." It describes the array of reward programs, which offer students everything from a day off, to free food, to orthodontic discounts, to cash.
A 2005 Associated Press article reported a shocking example of this approach, of tapping into teenage values to motivate learning. According to the article, school officials in Baltimore spent $2 million developing a reading program called "Studio Course," which "uses teen magazines, places grammar on the back burner and lets students write about whatever they want." The curriculum includes a teen magazine that defines a noun as "stuff" and a verb as "what stuff does," as well as Cosmo Girl, which at the time when the article was written featured such articles as "Five Hot New Kisses" and "Flirt Better."
This approach, of indulging a child's immediate desires in order to get him to perform academically, falls in the subjectivist tradition. The message sent to children about why they should succeed in school is that it is entirely subjective-that it will get you what you happen to want right now, whatever that may be, whether pizza, video games, money, or lessons on kissing.
So, in education today, there are: first, the Waldorf types who evade the problem of motivation because they evade the responsibility of education; second, the Catholic school types who proclaim education a moral duty; and third, the public school types who think gold stars and pizza provide the only compelling reasons to learn.
Next week, I will offer a rational alterative to these disastrous answers to the question of motivation.
Wednesday's Lunar Eclipse
On Wednesday, February 20, during convenient evening hours, the entire North American continent will be treated to a total lunar eclipse. During a lunar eclipse, the moon is opposite to the sun in the sky, and on the evening of the 20th, the sun will set in the west and the full moon will rise in the east within a few minutes of each other. Coincidentally, observers in Southern California (and with a clear view of the eastern horizon) will see the eclipse begin at almost the same time. The sunset, the moonrise, and the beginning of the eclipse will all happen almost at once, within a few minutes of 5:40 P.M. (The farther to the east you are, the higher in the sky the moon will be when the eclipse begins.)
The sun and the moon are continually chasing each other in east-to-west circles across the sky. For a few brief minutes on the evening of the 20th, after the moonrise but before the sunset, the sun and moon will both be in the sky at the same time. The sun will be just above the western horizon, and the moon will be just above the eastern, but not quite exactly opposite to the sun, not quite on the same line. The earth's shadow, which is on the same line, always exactly on the opposite side of us from the sun, will be slightly behind the moon in the east-to-west race. Since the sun moves through the sky slightly faster than the moon, the earth's shadow does too, and for the next few hours on the 20th, as the moon rises into the eastern sky, the earth's shadow will overtake and pass it. A full timeline (Pacific Time) is as follows:
5:31 Moonrise. Bear in mind that this means the moon passes above the horizontal plane on which you stand at this time, not that it will rise above any particular mountain that happens to be to your east. If you are at sea, the moon will rise at very nearly 5:31. If you are on land, it will probably take a few minutes more to rise above objects in the distance. (If you are not viewing from Orange County, also bear in mind that rise and set times vary with longitude.)
5:40 Sunset. Again, times will vary depending on your location and view of the horizon.
5:43 Partial Eclipse begins. The shadow of the earth will begin to be visible on the moon's lower edge. For the next hour, both the moon and the shadow will rise into the sky, with the shadow overtaking the moon.
7:01 Total Eclipse begins. The moon and shadow will continue to rise into the sky, but now the shadow will entirely cover the moon. The moon will not be completely dark, but depending on worldwide weather will glow with an orange or red color--the color of all the world's sunsets and sunrises shining onto the moon.
7:52 Total Eclipse ends. The trailing edge of the earth's shadow will begin to pass over the moon, exposing the lower edge of the moon to direct sunshine once more.
9:09 Partial Eclipse ends. The earth's shadow will be ahead of the moon, lost in space, and the moon will appear full again.
A total lunar eclipse provides a unique opportunity to observe with your own eyes both the shape and size of the earth. The shadow that passes over the moon is clearly circular, and if you imagine the full circle in your mind, you can notice that the earth is several times larger than the moon. (To be precise, the shadow is approximately three times as wide as the moon, while the earth itself is very nearly four times as wide as the moon.) North America will not enjoy another total lunar eclipse until 2010, so I encourage everyone to make plans to view this one. For more information, I recommend the following websites:
Lunar Eclipses and the History of Science
Did you know that Greek scientists used lunar eclipses, along with other evidence, to prove that the earth was round over 2000 years before Columbus?
You can learn all about this discovery in our new, FREE, 5-part mini-course, "Introduction to the History of Science," available now exclusively at:
Science." The material in this course comes directly from the introductory lecture of David Harriman's comprehensive "Fundamentals of Physical Science" course. (It has been edited lightly by VanDamme Academy for written presentation; Mr. Harriman has not reviewed these changes.)
Here is a preview. Enjoy the lunar eclipse!
Excerpt from "Introduction to the History of Science"
You have probably heard that in the Renaissance, when Columbus sailed to America, a lot of people thought that the earth was flat.
It turns out that educated people had known for a long time that the Earth was (approximately) spherical. Aristotle knew. There were people in the Renaissance who thought the Earth was flat, but they were uneducated. The Greeks knew it was round. How did the Greeks know that? After all, it looks pretty flat, if you just look around. What did they cite as evidence for the Earth being round?
Put yourself in the position of people in early human history who don't know anything. It's not obvious that the earth is round. One crazy myth that some ancient people believed was that the earth was a disc and if you asked well what is the disc resting on? What holds it up? The answer was: It's on the back of a giant turtle. One person that believed that was asked: What did the turtle stand on? The answer given was: That's a stupid question. It's a turtle...
People believed all kinds of silly things before the Greeks; the Greeks were the first to get the ball rolling in the right direction. What evidence did they have? One of the first pieces of evidence they had was the horizon. Greece was right on the Mediterranean Sea, and the Greeks had many ships sailing out to sea. On a clear day, when you can see the ships going out for a long ways, you don't just seem them get smaller and smaller until the whole ship disappears. What you see is that the hull starts to slip below the horizon--you can still see the mast of the ship clearly, but not the hull anymore, it's sinking below the horizon. This means that the ocean is falling off, it's curving, and that gave people the idea that the surface of the earth is curved, not flat.
Here's another way in which the curvature of the earth showed up: by observing stars.
At nighttime, let's say you're traveling north. As you travel north, if the earth is curved, what do you see? If you're paying attention to the stars on the horizon, as you travel north, you will see stars that you couldn't see before, because they were below the horizon, starting to appear on the horizon. New stars are rising up, because of the curvature of the earth.
So, to summarize where we are so far: the first reason Aristotle gives as evidence for the earth being spherical is the ships sailing away. Second, as one moves north, stars rise above the northern horizon and disappear below the southern horizon.
And I've saved the best for last. During a lunar eclipse (an eclipse where you can see the shadow of the earth on the moon) you see that the shape of the shadow is a circle. You don't need a full eclipse; if you see any part of shadow on the moon, you can see that circular shape. How often is are lunar eclipses visible to Greece? That maybe only happens once every ten or twenty years, but it still happens often enough so people knew about. The shadow on the moon is striking, really convincing evidence. If you can see the shadow of the earth on the moon, and see the circular arc, that should convince you that the earth has to be a sphere. And Aristotle laid out all this evidence very clearly in one of his books.
Even though educated people in Greece knew the earth was round, there was a long period when that knowledge was lost to the general public. A lot of the writings from Ancient Greece were destroyed.
Educated people in Greece knew the earth was round. Even during the Renaissance a lot of people hadn't caught up with the Greeks yet. Columbus may have known that the earth was round, but he didn't know the size of the earth, which the Greeks also knew--less than a hundred years after Aristotle, they knew it.
Want to learn more? To get the full, free mini- course, go to
Motivation, Part 2
Last time, I described the "all day recess" approach of Waldorf-type schools to the issue of motivation, which have children engaging in wood carving, finger-knitting, and movement games rather than learning to read or write because they find the former activities more "personally engaging." This is akin to a mother motivating her picky eater by letting him eat cookies.
This approach is irrelevant to a meaningful discussion of motivation. These educators are not solving the problem of motivation; they are evading it by pandering to the spontaneous impulses of the child. The real issue of motivation is: how do we inspire children with the ambition to master real academic content, to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary for mature life? How do we help them to develop a deep and lasting interest the subjects they must study if they are to become informed, intelligent, efficacious adults? How do we encourage in them a love of math and history and literature and English and science?
To this question, today's educators offer two basic answers. The first is the one put forth, implicitly or explicitly, by advocates of classical or traditional education. And their answer as to how you motivate children to master the academic curriculum is, in essence: you can't. The classical educators regard learning as a noble, lofty pursuit that appeals to man's higher nature. It does not appeal to his desires and interests, which are this-worldly and base, but to his intellect, which is above selfish and material concerns. Because the idea of motivation is that the child must be given a personal reason for putting forth the effort to learn, because it suggests that there must be something in it for him, the very concept of motivation would be regarded by such educators as a selfish concept, and as such, at odds with the purpose of education.
The spirit of the traditional, classical movement in education is one of duty. The student is bound by obligation, to his community, his country or God, to develop his character and intellect through the study of mankind's accumulated wisdom. His goal in becoming educated is not a personal, selfish one; on the contrary, the very purpose of education is to help him rise above his childish selfish impulses. In Norms and Nobility, by David Hicks, a popular treatise on classical education, Hicks condemns modern public schooling, saying, "In its utilitarian haste, the state often peddles preparation for the practical life to our young as the glittering door to the life of pleasure; but by encouraging this selfish approach to learning, the state sows a bitter fruit against that day when the community depends on its younger members to perform charitable acts and to consider arguments above selfish interest." By contrast, classical education, he says, aims to "satisfy man's deepest longings to belong, to transcend his disconcerting self-centeredness, to serve the whole, and to know his purposes and meaning within the context of the whole." It is this spirit of duty that yields as the image of traditional, classical education the military taskmaster or the nun with a ruler.
This view of education falls in the intrinsicist tradition. Education, like all other values, is not a value to an individual for a certain purpose, but is intrinsically good-good in itself. Values are severed from reason and from reality, so the child can be given no explanation as to why he should develop his intellect, no this-worldly purpose for doing so. Education is simply a moral obligation detached from his life and his interests.
We have heard the intrinsicists' answer to the question of motivation; next week, we will hear from the subjectivists.
Motivation, Part 1
The following is from an article featured in the education section of USA Today on January 28, 2008:
"Teachers have long said that success is its own reward. But these days, some students are finding that good grades can bring them cash and luxury gifts. In at least a dozen states this school year, students who bring home top marks can expect more than just gratitude. Examples:
- Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso last week promised to spend more than $935,000 to give high school students as much as $110 each to improve their scores on state graduation exams.
- In New York City, about 9,000 fourth- and seventh-graders in 60 schools are eligible to win as much as $500 for improving their scores on the city's English and math tests, given throughout the school year.
- In suburban Atlanta, a pair of schools last week kicked off a program that will pay 8th- and 11th-grade students $8 an hour for a 15-week 'Learn & Earn' after-school study program (the federal minimum wage is currently $5.85)."
This article, which understandably makes many parents and educators bristle, raises a real and important question: How do we motivate our children to learn? In my lecture "Motivation in Education," I addressed the "cash for grades" and other desperately misguided attempts at motivation. I boiled the motivation theorists down to three essential categories, which I will explain over the next few weeks.
The first category includes those who attempt to create "motivated" students by allowing them to engage in activities of their choice, activities that are inherently enjoyable given their juvenile desires.
The Waldorf Schools, for example, say that until the age of seven, children should be taught no academic skills, including reading or writing. Instead, they are encouraged to participate in activities believed to be natural to their stage of development, such as finger-knitting, storytelling, and movement games. The FAQ section of a Waldorf charter school says that at Waldorf Schools "abstraction and conceptual teaching are kept to a minimum, especially with younger children. In this way children become more personally engaged in whatever they are learning." (emphasis added)
An Atlantic Monthly article praising the virtues of the Waldorf method describes the activities of a dozen fourth graders in the original Waldorf school. "The class was finishing a year-long project: making mallets for wood carving out of stubborn pieces of hardwood, which they were patiently filing and sanding by hand. One boy, who had finished his mallet, was making a knife out of teak, and regularly paused to feel its smoothness on his cheek." The author also respectfully describes the enthusiasm of a 12-year-old Waldorf student in a depressed California town, saying, "[He] sat with me after school, regaling me, in enthusiastic detail, with a creative mixture of Greek and Roman history. The boy could barely read, but he'd been inspired by the oral storytelling that Waldorf teachers emphasize."
These children are-in a sense-"motivated," but motivated to do what?
To say that a person is motivated is to say that he has some drive or desire that incites action. For the purposes of a rational discussion of education, that drive or desire must incite the ambition to learn. It must incite the drive to acquire knowledge-and not just any knowledge, but that knowledge necessary for life as an adult human being.
Motivation cannot be confused with any feeling of eagerness, enthusiasm, or joy independent of the focus of those feelings of the purpose of the action they incite. The manager of a company would not describe his employees as motivated if they were eager and excited to come to work every day so that they could play basketball in the company gym or spread gossip in the break room. A motivated employee is one who is inspired to action consistent with the central goal of his job.
Similarly, it is not relevant to a meaningful discussion of motivation in education to discuss the suggestion that the problem of motivation be solved by offering children a program of all-day recess. This is not a solution to the problem; it is an evasion of the problem.
In the next newsletter, I will describe another theory of motivation-in this case, a wrongheaded and disastrous approach to motivating real academic content.
Yesterday's Highlights: Stories From Home
We at VanDamme Academy love hearing stories about things the students do or say at home that reflect their VanDamme Academy education. I recently asked parents to share some stories from home. Here are a few highlights:
I was talking to Calvin about the upcoming trip to Schoolhouse Rock, and I told him how much I enjoyed the songs as a child. I started singing "Conjunction Junction for him: "Out of the frying pan and into the fire. He cut loose the sandbags but the balloon wouldn't go any higher. Let's go up to the mountains or down to the sea. Always say 'thank you' or at least say 'please.'" Then Calvin said, "Pan, fire, bag, balloon, mountain and sea are nouns."
Mrs. O'Brien's poetry discussions and literature readings have had an impact on Calvin. He's begun to describe things metaphorically. Yesterday he told his little sister she has a smile of sparkly snowflakes. He told me my eyes are made of fairy dust, ocean water and chocolate milk. (They're green with flecks of brown and a rim of blue.) Later that evening he was thinking of Mrs. Beach and her black hair. He said, "Mama, Mrs. Beach's hair is made of night-time sky and pretty, pretty stars."
Last week we were sitting down to dinner and Calvin said, out of the blue, "Daddy, would you rather eat leather or die?" (I hope my cooking didn't put that idea in his head.) After some prompting from us, he told us he learned from Mrs. Beach that Columbus and the sailors on his ship ran out of food and had to eat leather to survive. He made a little game out of thinking of other things that might have some nutritional value and could pass as food if he were stuck on a ship in the middle of the ocean. "Would you rather eat sawdust or die? Would you rather eat leaves or die?"
Allie, Johnny's younger sister, received a copy of the Disney film Pocahontas. She was telling him about the movie when he said to her: "That's not the real story at all." He then proceeded to tell her his entire history lesson on the subject. When I asked him if it bothered him that the movie wasn't the real story, he said, "No, movies aren't real."
Yesterday, on the way to a birthday party, we passed La Paz Rd., and Lana declared, "La Paz is the capital of Bolivia!" (A fact learned in Mr. Mizrahi's geography class.) Later that day, she feared Greta was being too rough on their dog Gracie, and said, "Be careful not to hyperextend her paw." (A term learned in Mr. Krieger's science class.) Over the summer, when I was at the gym with the girls and Lana heard someone say his son didn't "do too good in school," Lana waited until he was gone and whispered to me, "Don't worry, Mom. I corrected his grammar in my mind."
Darcy was telling me that she missed her family in Virginia and wanted to move back. I told her I understood how she felt and that it would be so nice to be near her aunt and grandma. I then said that if we did go back it would mean that Darcy wouldn't have her friends Lana and Greta nearby, wouldn't be in Mrs. Beach's class, wouldn't have her classmates, etc. Darcy said, "I have an idea. We can do what they did in olden times and start a colony."
At home one evening, Bianca was plotting schemes to steal balls from the boys at recess in their benevolent, ongoing boy-girl rivalry. She read her plans to me in the car on the way to school. I was instantly struck and thrilled by her scheme: it was in outline form! I thought to myself, "My child has an orderly mind! She THINKS in outlines!" This is unquestionably the result of the structured note- taking and writing she does at VanDamme Academy.
Yesterday's Highlights - "Success"
This week and last, I have had the pleasure of teaching poetry to Rooms 1-5. This gave me an opportunity to get to know each of the students a little better, and to share with them something I love.
In each class, we studied a poem that connects to the novel the class had recently completed. If you want to learn more about your child's education, help him study his poem, and ask him to explain how it relates to what he has been discussing in literature.
For example, Room 5 is memorizing the following gem of a poem, which I only recently discovered, and which immediately struck me as having an obvious connection to The Miracle Worker.
If you want a thing bad enough To go out and fight for it, Work day and night for it, Give up your time and your peace and your sleep for it
If only desire of it Makes you quite mad enough Never to tire of it, Makes you hold all other things tawdry and cheap for it
If life seems all empty and useless without it And all that you scheme and you dream is about it,
If gladly you'll sweat for it, Fret for it, Plan for it, Lose all your terror of God or man for it,
If you'll simply go after that thing that you want. With all your capacity, Strength and sagacity, Faith, hope and confidence, stern pertinacity,
If neither cold poverty, famished and gaunt, Nor sickness nor pain Of body or brain Can turn you away from the thing that you want,
If dogged and grim you besiege and beset it, You'll get it!
The students were quick to identify and explain that this poem captured Annie Sullivan's dogged, dauntless determination to teach language to Helen Keller. They noted that she "gave up her sleep for it," immediately implementing ideas that struck her in the middle of the night; that she held Helen's obedience and grooming as "tawdry and cheap" compared to her need to learn language; that she endured the bodily pain of being slapped, kicked, stuck with a pin, and having her tooth knocked out, and never gave up on her goal; and that she lost all terror of God, man, and Captain Keller for it. Now, they have seen this theme demonstrated in the inspirational character of Annie Sullivan, and they have heard it eloquently captured in the words of Berton Braley.
Poetry is incredible fuel for the soul. After your children have memorized the poems, they will have a claim to them, and will have them at the ready when a relevant time arises. Just today, a parent shared with me a charming story of her daughters reciting their poem "Courage" to her when she was afraid to jump from the Jacuzzi into the pool.
I will take inspiration from "Success." This school is something I have had to "fret for" and "plan for," something that has at times taken all my "strength and sagacity," something I "schemed" and "dreamed" about. And my life would definitely be "empty and useless" without it. Thank you for helping all of us at VanDamme Academy achieve our "Success." We, in turn, will help your children to do the same.
The First Day of School: VanDamme Academy Style
I have often been told that, when asked what was special about their VanDamme Academy education, graduates say, "We always understood why we were learning what we were learning." This important effect has many causes, the most significant among them being that what the students are learning is, in fact, important, and that the teacher always makes a purpose of conveying, implicitly and explicitly, why it is important.
In a discussion of the distinctive VanDamme Academy history program, Andrew Lewis said that the little history that is taught in today's schools typically addresses five questions: Who? What? When? Where? and How? Mr. Lewis recognizes that the answers to those questions are inadequate without answers to two more: Why? and So what? The story of history must be causal and explanatory, the explanations must be relevant to the students' lives, and the students must understand the relevance.
It is this principle that defines the first day at VanDamme Academy. In each class, the teacher begins with the questions: What is this subject? and Why do we need to study it? Here is what I glimpsed walking through the school's halls on that inaugural day:
In Mrs. O'Brien's grammar classes: She discussed what grammar is (principles concerning the proper use of language), and answered the cliché objection, "We don't need grammar; we just need to make ourselves understood." She demonstrated that we cannot consistently make ourselves understood without the rules of grammar, presenting humorous examples from Eats, Shoots, and Leaves and Anguished English of the problems and ambiguities that result from the placement or misplacement of a comma (e.g., "Slow, children ahead," and, "Slow children ahead.") or from an amphibolous construction (e.g., "Customers who find the waitress uncivil ought to see the manager."). She introduced a theme to which she can refer throughout the year: that a mastery of grammar is vitally useful.
In Mr. Travers' literature classes: He began with a discussion of the personal value of literature. He explained that a great plot presents an extraordinary sequence of events that is purposeful and has an abstract meaning, differentiating it from the story of an ordinary day, which is full of the mundane, accidental, and meaningless. He showed how that abstract meaning can illuminate the world around them, and referred to the inspiration they had drawn from the themes of works they had previously studied (e.g., the virtue of independence in An Enemy of the People.) He showed that great works of literature present people who have been distilled to an essence, that they highlight the nature and consequences of certain traits of character, and discussed how this could help the students in understanding and evaluating qualities in others and in themselves.
Educators often wrestle with the question: How do we motivate the students? Many resort to the carrot and the stick, dangling rewards or threatening consequences. But the technique employed by Mr. Travers, Mrs. O'Brien, and Mr. Lewis, and the way they will make good on their promise to present what is important and show why it is important-that is the essence of motivation, and a defining feature of the VanDamme Academy curriculum.
The VanDamme Academy Field Trip
In my recent newsletter "The Failure of Field Trips," I explained what is wrong with traditional school outings. The typical field trip is irrelevant to the students' education, either because they have been unprepared to appreciate it by their schooling (e.g., City Hall or the opera) or because it is intended as a reprieve from their schooling (e.g., the water park or bowling alley).
At VanDamme Academy, we use field trips as opportunities for students to have experiences that enhance their education-experiences that directly relate to their schooling but are not available to them within the walls of the classroom. Past field trips include: an astronomy night, to observe a lunar eclipse and to find the constellations they had mapped on a star chart in science class; a performance of The Importance of Being Earnest, to watch on stage a play they had read and thoroughly analyzed in literature class; the King Tut exhibit at LACMA, to see relics of a time they had studied in depth in history class. In each case, because they were so well prepared, they relished the experience.
Probably the most thrilling of the VanDamme Academy outings, and the one that best exemplifies the very meaning and purpose of field trips, was our visit to the San Diego Museum of Art. This field trip was attended-and enjoyed- by every student in the school, from kindergarten to eighth grade.
The students had been thoroughly prepared for the experience by many aspects of their education. They were well read in literature: five- year-olds delighted to find a painting of the myth of Apollo and Daphne; elementary students discovered portraits that reminded them of Arthur and Lancelot; junior high students argued over which artist best depicted a figure with the strength and independence of An Enemy of the People's Dr. Stockmann. They were knowledgeable about history: all the students had some familiarity with the cultural context in which a Medieval, Renaissance, or American painting was produced; many students identified portraits that reminded them of historical figures, like Charlemagne or St. Augustine; the junior high students could relate the philosophy of asceticism to three different renderings of Mary Magdalene.
In addition to being broadly well educated, the students were also expertly trained in the process of analyzing and thereby appreciating a work of art. This is thanks to Luc Travers who--with his knowledge of philosophy, literary analysis, and art history, and his unique ability to see to the theme of a painting, relate it to real- life values, and make it accessible and meaningful to students-- has developed a remarkable course in art appreciation.
Mr. Travers has taught all the VanDamme Academy students how to "read" a work of art. They learn how to make detailed observations, about the setting, the objects, the facial features, the expressions, the posture, the attire, etc. They learn to make explicit their immediate impressions (that the central figure looks brave, or apprehensive, or proud, or determined), to connect those impressions to their observations (the muscular figure, the furrowed brow, the upright posture, the clenched jaw), and to then make further observations and refine their original impression. They learn to compare and contrast their observations with closely related works of art, and identify subtle differences (the furrowed brow of concentration vs. the furrowed brow of anger vs. the furrowed brow of resolution). After repeatedly cycling through this process, they formulate a statement of the work's theme. Then, to round out their understanding of that theme and harness its power, they relate it to history and literature and their own life experience.
Armed with the knowledge of how to analyze a work of art and having experienced the rewards of doing so, the students stormed the museum grounds, clipboards in hand, eyes and spirits wide open, ready to discover and enjoy a new work of art. As one parent arrived on the museum grounds, her six-year-old daughter Sydney cried excitedly, "Le Cid! Look! It's Le Cid!" There, proudly leading his troops to battle, was the sculpture of the Spanish hero she had analyzed, contrasted with the meek and weary Don Quixote, and come to love. Walter, a junior high student, found a wealth of visual images of the moments and traits he had encountered in literature: one reminded him of Marguerite from The Scarlet Pimpernel when she was in fear for the life of her husband, because she is "on her knees," has "her hands folded," and has "an upward, teary gaze"; another reminded him of the novel's villain Chauvelin, because of his "tightly closed, almost snarling mouth" and his "sinister gaze"; another called to mind Montfleury from Cyrano de Bergerac because of the "dull, inane look in his eyes." Chelsea, a junior high student, did a reading of an unfamiliar portrait, noting her glossy eyes, her coal-black pupils, her smooth, peachy skin, her erect posture, her slight smile, and her seeming unhappiness. She brought these and other features together into her determination of the theme: "She smiles, yet her eyes droop; she seems happy, yet sad- the woman is LONGING for something."
Far from enjoying a diversion from school or being forced through a cultural experience they were unequipped to enjoy, these students were cashing in on the groundwork laid in their education. That is why they met with universal enthusiasm the news of next week's school-wide trip to the Getty Museum. The experience is sure to justify a newsletter of its own.
The Writing Process: One Step at a Time
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (or NAEP), the average high school student is an incompetent writer. To evaluate their writing ability, testers asked high school juniors to write a paragraph based on notes they were given about a haunted house. The performance of half the students was judged to be either unsatisfactory or minimal. The following is a "minimal" response:
"The house with no windows. This is a house with dead-end hallways, 36 rooms and stairs leading to the cieling [sic]. Doorways go nowhere and all this to confuse ghosts."
This is the student's complete, word-for-word response-and represents the performance of nearly half of all eleventh graders. Most of the other half were evaluated as writing "adequate" paragraphs. Just two percent wrote something that was judged to be "elaborate," a step up from "adequate."
This explains why when Francisco LePort, one of my first students, started college at the age of 13, he was pulled aside by his humanities professor and asked, "Where did you learn to write so well?" In an age plagued by misguided efforts at preserving students' "self- esteem" (by leaving their mistakes uncorrected), classrooms bursting at the seams, teaching-to- the-standardized-test methods, and a disdain for the traditional, rigorous, academic approach to education, essay writing is simply not taught.
It is taught at VanDamme Academy. Our K-1 students learn to write complete, articulate, properly punctuated sentences; our lower elementary students learn to write coherent, grammatical, well- structured paragraphs; our upper elementary students learn to write clear, fluent, logical essays; and for our junior high students, who have been through this evolution, the writing process is second nature. That is why when a law professor evaluating the school for her children, after seeing samples of the junior high students' essays, asked whether she could photocopy them to show her law students what real writing looked like.
Those of us educated in a public school in the last few decades probably remember with a mutual shudder what it was like to face the blank sheet of paper. On those rare occasions that we were asked to do any writing, it was treated as an automatic or inborn skill. We were given a topic, an injunction to write about it, and that dreaded piece of paper, and at best managed to pour out a semi-coherent series of sentences loosely related to the assignment. That is why most of the parents of VanDamme Academy students confess, shame- faced, that they do not know how to write well, and then confess, amused, that they ask their children to proofread any letters they send to me.
At VanDamme Academy, writing is not crammed in with vocabulary, spelling, and literature under the heading of "English." Writing is its own course, and students have a daily opportunity to learn crucial writing skills.
The writing process is broken down into small, incremental steps learned, practiced, and mastered over the course of their nine years at the school. From learning what makes a sentence complete at the kindergarten level, to learning how to create the topic sentence of a paragraph at the elementary level, to learning when one has adequately supported an essay's theme at the junior high level- students build their writing skills methodically over many years.
When they begin to write essays, at about third or fourth grade, they are taught and asked to follow a deliberate sequence of steps in the writing process, and these steps are reviewed and supervised by the teacher along the way. First, they are asked to create a "laundry list" of points, in no particular order, that are related to the topic at hand. Then, they are asked to group these points into categories. Next, they are asked to formulate a theme for their essay, and to use that theme to identify which points from their laundry list are relevant and which can be discarded. Using the theme as a guide, they create an outline of sub- points to support the main idea. Then they write a rough draft of the essay using the outline as a blueprint. Finally, they reach the last three stages of the writing process: edit, edit, edit.
All of this is done in class, with the guidance and feedback of the teacher, over a course of weeks. It is this approach that led a former student of mine who, at her past school, had loathed writing, to become and eager and enthusiastic writer. "What changed?" her mother asked. She replied, "The teacher showed me how."
It is important that a child learn to write not just so that he can draft a compelling essay for his college applications or compose a persuasive cover letter for a resume. The repeated practice of a deliberate, structured, systematic approach to writing is critical for training students in a deliberate, structured, systematic approach to thinking. It is in writing class that they are asked to take the knowledge they have gained in other subject areas, contemplate it, organize their thoughts, and express their understanding with clarity and purposefulness. If we want students to develop clarity of thought on any issue, if we want them to harness the power of the knowledge they gain over the course of their education, they must learn, practice, and master the skill of writing.
The Failure of Field Trips
Many educators stress the importance of field trips—opportunities to get students out of their desks and away from their books, and to give them direct, vivid, sensory experience with the world around them. Reflecting on my own education, these excursions off campus are indeed some of my most memorable moments—but not because of their educational merits, not because they brought alive the important knowledge I had gained in the classroom. I remember them either as days off—reprieves from my painfully dull schooling—or as painfully dull experiences in themselves.
Whether the trip was playtime or punishment depended on which of the two main purposes that field trip was to serve. In practice, one of the goals of the typical field trip is to offer a treat, a diversion, a rewarding break from the “daily grind” of learning. Mrs. O’Brien, a VanDamme Academy teacher, witnessed this when working as a student teacher at a Minnesota public school. She relayed to me a discussion among some teachers planning a trip to the park, desperately seeking some “educational” excuse for the outing. “We could stop by the cranberry field along the way, and give them a quick lesson about cranberry farming?” suggested one.
This attitude toward field trips can be seen reflected in the popular destinations, from water parks to movie theaters to bowling alleys, and in the reasons offered for given destinations. An on-line educators’ resource recommends visits to a taxidermy shop—for the “ick factor”—and to a bakery or grocery store—for the “free samples of their wares.”
Clearly, the need for these in-school vacations, these diversions entirely unrelated to the curriculum content, is the consequence of a much deeper problem: the work is not motivation in itself. Teachers and students alike view education as a painful chore to be dutifully endured—and occasionally rewarded with a “Pajama Day” a pizza party or a park trip. (See the other issues of this newsletter for a different attitude toward education: www.pedagogicallycorrect.com.)
Others use field trips as opportunities to expose students to culture, to politics, to important worldly knowledge and experiences that they view as sadly lacking in the children’s day-to-day education. I distinctly remember a junior high field trip to a production of Madame Butterfly, or rather, I distinctly remember falling asleep. In school, I had never been exposed to operatic music, I knew nothing of the story or historical context of the drama, and I was consequently thoroughly unprepared for this cultural bolt-from-the-blue. Similarly, at a performance for students of Cyrano de Bergerac, I watched in sadness as the teenage audience giggled, passed notes, and whispered in each other’s ears, becoming engaged in the play only when something went awry or there was some blatant, physical humor. I didn’t fault the students; it is the school system that should be held accountable.
The problem inherent in field trips of this kind is that they try to cash in on a bankrupt account. Students are exposed to a cultural experience, whether a trip to Washington, a classic play, or an art museum, that they do not have the educational background to value. This error is one example of a problem prevalent in education: the violation of hierarchy, or the proper order of knowledge.
Another violation of hierarchy is the field trip designed to promote a political cause. In California, for example, an increasingly popular outing is “Ocean Day.” In 2006, over 7,000 California kids converged at the beach to clean up trash. The day culminated with the students posing for a picture meant to capture the experience: they were lined up for an aerial photograph in the shape of a fish with an oxygen mask. The express mission of the program’s sponsors, the Malibu Foundation, is “to motivate children to care about their environment and to do something about it.” To demonstrate the program’s success, the foundation’s website describes an 8-year-old participant gazing out at the water, declaring, “I think I can save earth.”
If this were simply a community-spirited effort to have trash-free beaches, its worst offense might be no more than a waste of the children’s precious school time. But such an outing is fraught with political and ethical questions: Is community service a moral obligation? Should industry be regulated to protect marine life? Does earth need to be “saved”—and if so, by what means? Field trips like this smuggle in implicit answers to these important, complex, abstract questions.
I contend that an 8-year-old has no business contemplating or forming judgments on these issues, because he does not have the knowledge of history, the thinking skills, and the life experience that would allow him to consider them rationally. An 8-year-old should concern himself with such problems as how to master long division, when to study for his history test, and what to wear to school in the morning…not how to save the earth.
At VanDamme Academy, we believe that it is our sacred duty to identify that knowledge which is essential to the development of a child into an informed, thoughtful, mature adult (which means, no diversions), and to present that knowledge in a careful, hierarchical sequence that allows for the student’s thorough, independent understanding (which means, no propaganda).
On our view, field trips should give students the opportunity to make observations or have experiences not available to them in the classroom, but directly related to the crucial knowledge being gained in the classroom. My next newsletter will offer a glimpse of the VanDamme Academy field trip.
The VanDamme Academy Curriculum... On One Foot
When visited by prospective clients, I usually have the span of a half-hour appointment to learn about the family and their reasons for seeking a new educational environment, to explain the basic history and structure of VanDamme Academy, and to describe what I regard as the defining virtues of the school. I have therefore had to become adept at a “standing on one foot” description of the VanDamme Academy curriculum. This is what I tell them.
First, I highlight the fact that ours is a core knowledge program.
Nowhere in our schedule will parents see the array of time wasters that clutter a typical grade school curriculum, classes that range from the traditional Phys Ed, Home Ec, and Wood Shop to sundry modern incarnations like Tech Ed, Sex Ed, AOL (Awareness of Other Languages), and Conflict Resolution.
At VanDamme Academy, we do not regard all subjects as created equal. We are ruthlessly possessive of the school day, and will give time only to those subjects essential to the child’s development into an informed, intelligent, rational adult capable of making good judgments and leading a fulfilled life.
We teach them history, so that they learn on a grand scale the consequences of men’s ideas and actions, and can bring that understanding to bear on everything from their political opinions to their personal lives; we teach them great literature, so that they are introduced to an array of intriguing situations, masterfully drawn characters, and insightful world views, and can then face their own lives equipped with this wealth of knowledge and experience. We teach them science, so that they come to recognize their world as an orderly, law-governed place that can be harnessed for man’s welfare. We teach them math, so that they grasp the power of gauging, scaling, and measuring the physical world and appreciate the value of precise, logical thinking. We teach them the language arts, so that they become thoughtful, logical, articulate writers (which means thinkers), who can consider and express the knowledge they have gained with clarity and precision.
I then point out how the content of the classes differs radically from that of today’s schools.
We do not teach socialstudies, we teach history. Rather than a random assortment of facts, figures and dates that bore a child to tears and leave him always questioning, “Why do I have to know this?” we teach a purposeful and compelling story of mankind. As we present it, the story is integrated and causal and offers profoundly valuable moral lessons. So, the feeling of a VanDamme Academy graduate is, “How could anyone not know this?”
We do not teach an English class, cramming literature, writing, grammar, vocabulary and spelling into a single period and consequently doing a woefully inadequate job of all of them. Instead, we devote a significant portion of the day to these subjects—to ensure that students have ample time to discuss, digest, analyze, write about and enjoy the literature they read, to see to it that they have plenty of time to learn, practice, and master the art of essay writing, and to allow them the time necessary for developing the precision of expression that comes from a thorough study of grammar, vocabulary, and spelling.
We do not, in place of a meaningful understanding of scientific truths, offer them abstract jargon to be memorized (“in protein synthesis… ribosomal subunits attach to the messenger RNA and amino acids are joined to form a polypeptide or a protein through a process called translation”), political propaganda (“evaluate the social, economic, and environmental costs and benefits arising from the methods of electrical energy production”), or purposeless “hands-on” activities designed to engage students by blurring the line between science class and recess playtime. We teach them scientific facts that are age-appropriate and accessible and that make real to them the order and intelligibility of the physical world.
Hearing this presentation, most parents sigh in a sort of melancholy recognition that this is what constitutes a real education and lamentation of their own and their children’s lost years. The majority then enroll their children, and ask with a smile (as if they are the first) whether we also enroll adults.
For now, VanDamme Academy offers an educational oasis to ninety Southern California students and a physics course for adults. In time, as the number of products grows, as the quality of the curriculum continues to improve, and as the school’s philosophy spreads, I hope we will help pave the way for an educational revolution.
I began my career as a private teacher for a few families committed to providing their children with a real education. These parents had abandoned a fruitless search for a school in which their children would read the classics of literature, learn the story of history, grasp the fundamental principles of science, and develop the clarity and precision of thought that comes from an understanding of grammar.
I knew that a rigorous course in English grammar must include the art of diagramming sentences, but it was no easy task to find a good diagramming textbook in an age when grammar itself is unfashionable. Then, one day, a student’s mother brought me a copy of Phyllis Davenport’s Rex Barks. Here was a masterful presentation of grammar—a well-structured, incremental course in diagramming with clear explanations and memorable illustrations of each new principle—housed in a hand- folded, type-written book with a stapled binding and a tattered yellow cover. Such is the state of education today.
Schools everywhere have abandoned grammar either as unnecessary or as incompatible with the principles they hold most sacred. Educational theorists insist that the fundamental goal of education is to socialize the child, not to force upon him so rigid and academic a skill as grammar. Prominent linguists tell teachers that grammar is an innate faculty and cannot be taught. The so-called self-esteem movement calls for teachers to encourage and praise, not to correct. The “diversity” movement grants equality to all forms of speech and rejects the notion of a universal standard. Lending support to the myriad of reasons for expelling grammar from the curriculum is the often-repeated and self- contradictory view, “You don’t need grammar; you just have to make yourself understood.”
Phyllis Davenport understands that if you want to make yourself understood, you need grammar. Her textbook abounds with examples of the ambiguities that result from an ignorance of grammatical rules. Without knowledge of pronouns and elliptical clauses, you lose the distinction between, “You like Millie better than I” (which means, “You like Millie better than I like Millie”), and “You like Millie better than me” (which means, “You like Millie better than you like me”). This subtle distinction can have profound consequences if you and your wife are engaged in a deep discussion about your relationship with Millie. Or consider the confusion that results from the misplacement of a modifier. To cite a memorable example from Rex Barks: “Hanging over the side of the ship, his eye was caught by a piece of rope.” (The author wryly comments: “There goes that eye, like a fried egg or one of Dali’s watches!”) Clarity is impossible without grammar. As Mrs. Davenport points out, “Even the ‘educationists’ who write books about the unimportance of ‘grammar’ do so with sentences technically correct.”
Even among educators who acknowledge the value of grammar, diagramming has been scorned as an old- fashioned exercise in mental rigor. On the contrary, Rex Barks shows us that the value of diagramming lies not primarily in the mental gymnastics it requires, but in its presentation of a systematic method of identifying the relationships among words in a sentence. To any student who has studied this book and is struggling to identify the function of a word, you need only say, “Picture the diagram!”
Diagramming serves another purpose not served by other approaches to sentence analysis. A diagram brings the relationship among the words of a sentence to the perceptual level. Upon completing a diagram, students are given a visual reminder that, for example, the subject and verb are the core of the sentence, that prepositional phrases are modifiers that add clarification to other words in the sentence, and that dependent clauses are subordinate to main clauses. Through the process of diagramming, you both understand and see the functions of various parts of a sentence.
The art of diagramming sentences provides students with an indispensable foundation for the study of grammar, and Rex Barks makes the process of learning this skill manageable and fun. The book is laid out in logical, incremental steps, and students are given the opportunity to master one concept before proceeding to the next. They begin with sentences like “Rex barks,” and work their way up through modifiers, prepositions, verbs, clauses, verbals, and other complexities of grammar, until, to their delight, they are able to diagram the first sentence in the U.S. Constitution.
One of the best features of Rex Barks is the ever-present personality of the author. Mrs. Davenport reminds the reader of that teacher we all once knew: the strict, demanding teacher who made her students think and work hard, who knew her subject and required that her students learn it, who never accepted excuses—and who was loved best by everyone in the school. The book is filled with her firm admonitions for students to stay in focus. (In response to the question of how one can ever learn the difficult task of distinguishing among the various types of verbs, she says, “By THINKING.”) It contains many clever devices to help students with tricky concepts (e.g., prepositions are to be remembered as “anything a squirrel can do to a tree.”) And it is pervaded by her sense of humor and enthusiasm for her subject.
I am delighted that Paper Tiger Books is republishing this gem of grammar instruction. If today’s schools awaken to the importance of grammar, Rex Barks will be available to help them teach their students the lost art of diagramming. Such, I hope, will be the state of education tomorrow.
Director, VanDamme Academy
Laguna Hills, CA
Life in Junior High - Part 2
Last week, I contrasted the cliché junior high classroom—of raucous teenagers throwing spitballs, passing love notes, and giggling at lewd jokes—with a VanDamme Academy junior high classroom—of young adults in raptures over Cyrano de Bergerac. How we produce students with such maturity and enthusiasm for learning is something I hope will be made clear over the life of this newsletter. But for now, I can at least indicate the answer.
The high achievement, the sophistication, and the reverence for learning of VanDamme Academy students ultimately derive from the school’s basic philosophy. Our view is that the goal of education is to provide children with the knowledge and skills indispensable to life as an intelligent, informed, flourishing adult. We do not treat school as a holding room for adulthood, where we keep students busy until they reach the age when they can strike out on their own. We do not treat it as a grooming salon, where we prepare them for tests and build them a resume for admission into the best high school, colleges, and careers. We do not treat it as a Boy Scout camp, where we train good citizens with lessons in values and enlist them in the latest political trends. The busywork, the “to the test” teaching, the propaganda that results from these approaches defaults on the real responsibility of education and sours students on learning.
At VanDamme Academy, we believe that the purpose of a real education is to prepare the child for life as a capable and fulfilled adult. The curriculum, therefore, consists of only that which promotes this basic purpose, and is presented with this purpose always firmly in mind.
In literature classes, for example, students read the great classics for children and adults. These works are chosen for their timeless (i.e., insightful and eternally relevant) themes, for their captivating plots, and for their defined, memorable, and often inspirational characters. The goal of class discussions is to mine these values from every work, coming to a real understanding of the story’s events, the meaning of these events, and the applicability of this meaning to the student’s own life. I will always recall with satisfaction experiences such as the following: a junior high girl seeing to the essence of a Turgenev villain’s soul (“He is so shallow, phony, and pretentious!”) and then drawing out a lifelong lesson (“I would never date someone like that!”).
This can be contrasted with my own education in literature. We read the stock list of mediocre American novels (The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, etc.), and focused our discussions on stylistic devices (e.g., simile, metaphor, irony), an array of arbitrary “themes” that present themselves throughout the story (e.g., the symbolism of colors), and standardized test preparation (e.g., learning vocabulary words and identifying topic sentences). This experience encouraged in me, as it does in most, the view that literature—and education in general—is an obligation to be reluctantly fulfilled: not that it is deeply selfish, profoundly satisfying, crucially relevant.
It is by offering a core curriculum program, one that consists only of that which is most essential to the child’s intellectual development, and by presenting it in a way that conveys to the students the power of the knowledge and allows them to harness it for themselves, that VanDamme Academy cultivates an environment of reverence for learning. Put in colloquial terms, the experience of a VanDamme Academy student is, continually: “That is so interesting!—I really understand it!—I see why I need to know it!”
Just yesterday, we were visited by five VanDamme Academy graduates. They had just finished final exams at a local private high school, and chose to spend their time off at their beloved alma mater. During their visit, they argued (somewhat facetiously) that VanDamme Academy should require more homework, to prepare students for the pain of the piles of un-graded busywork they will suffer in high school.
These same graduates had presented Mr. Lewis with a crystal trophy at their graduation, engraved with the following words, which they had composed: “Andrew Lewis. The man who has taught us to look at kings and see more than crowns, to look at wars and see more than bloodshed, to look at laws and see more than words. The man who has shown us the world of ideas.”
Such is their feeling about a VanDamme Academy education.
Life in Junior High - Part 1
When I tell people that I teach literature to junior high students, the response is nearly universal: an expression of profound sympathy. Teaching junior high is regarded as a martyr’s job, to be taken on only by those with such a selfless commitment to children and education that they are willing to endure the daily torture of a classroom full of obnoxious, disrespectful, hormone-driven, teenagers who have nothing but contempt for learning.
One can see the basis for this view by looking at the state of most junior high schools today. A recent New York Times article about the problem of “chaotic middle schools” describes a scene from a typical New York City classroom:
...paper balls fly and pens are flicked from desk to desk. A girl is caught with a note and quickly tears it up, blushing, as her classmates chant, “Read it!” The teacher, Laura Lowrie, tries to demonstrate simple machines by pulling from a box a hammer, a pencil sharpener and then, to her instant remorse, a nutcracker--the sight of which sends a cluster of boys into a fit of giggles and anatomical jokes.
Is this sort of behavior an inevitable stage of development, the curse of the teenage years? Does puberty cause children to abandon the pursuit of knowledge in favor of spitballs, love notes, and dirty jokes? Must all junior high teachers be candidates for sainthood?
Not in my experience. Here is a scene from the last week in a junior high classroom at VanDamme Academy.
I entered the classroom five minutes before my literature class, the first class of the day, was to begin. The students were milling around and talking, until the first one saw me enter and alerted the others of my arrival. They all bolted for their seats and then sat erect with hands folded, for a deliberately exaggerated message: “We want to finish the last act of Cyrano de Bergerac right now.”
I had been absent the day before, and the class had read act four with another of the VanDamme Academy teachers. Mattingly, age 11, said, in a tone playful but earnest, “I don’t think it’s right that our literature teacher was not with us when Christian died.”
I took a few minutes at the start of class to talk about plans to view the movie, in a discussion that included their protests against the modern, Gerard Depardieu version in favor of the 1947 black-and- white version of which they had watched one act. “If it is not Jose Ferrer, it is not Cyrano,” said Geoffrey, a 12-year-old student.
I assigned parts, and the students read the act aloud, with sincerity, expressiveness, and understanding. As Cyrano lamented the tragic end to his tragic life, the tears streamed down my face. Seeing movement in the desk across from mine, I looked up at Allison, the 12-year-old girl seated there, who was wiping the tears from hers.
This maturity, this reverence for learning, this capacity for enjoyment of art is to be expected in a VanDamme Academy junior high classroom—and it can be replicated anywhere with the right curriculum and teaching methods.
I will explain why in next week’s issue.
Writing and Understanding
Several weeks ago, in my article "Pattern Recognition vs. Real Understanding," I stressed the crucial connection between writing and understanding:
For the student to write explanations, in complete sentences, about every subject—whether history, literature, grammar, math, or anything else—requires that he have a true understanding of the concepts at hand. But he can often do well on multiple choice, matching, or other rote exercises with no real understanding.
Let me elaborate on this topic.
If a student's understanding of a given idea is genuine, if he holds the idea independently and clearly sees its relationship to reality, then he can offer reasoned support for his view. In asking the students to write paragraphs and essays in every subject, we are able to emphasize this crucial aspect of thought—we demand that they give reasons for their assertions.
Far from the "every opinion is sacred" attitude learned in most all of today's schools, our students learn that "any unsupported opinion is sacrilege."
Several years ago, some of our older students were asked to write an essay about their opinion of school uniforms. Word about this assignment got around, and some younger students became concerned that this was a policy we were giving serious consideration. They complained to their parents, who agreed to come and discourage me from requiring uniforms.
Apparently, these 9 and 10-year-old students told their parents, "Now don't just go in and state your opinion about school uniforms. You have to be prepared with clear reasons for your view."
Knowing that their parents had not attended VanDamme Academy, they feared this was a lesson they had not learned.
The fact that the students are universally required to support their abstract assertions means that the teacher is always able to discover how they hold those abstractions. The teacher learns not just whether the child recalls the abstract conclusion, but why he believes it is true.
Often, the child's explanation will reveal an error in thinking. This gives the teacher an opportunity both to correct this particular error, and to point to the principle that will allow him to avoid this category of error in the future.
For example, several years ago I taught the play The Admirable Crichton, and after reading and discussing the play, I asked the students to write a description of the essence of each of the main characters.
I made an interesting discovery: they thought they understood the characters, having heard my lectures about them. But rather than giving examples to support their character analysis, many simply repeated the abstract point.
The restatements were sufficiently different from the original point that they felt like they were justifying their assertions—but in fact, they were simply saying it again, in different terms.
For example, one would assert that Ernest was self-absorbed, and then, in support of this assertion, would say, "If he had a smile on his face he was probably thinking about himself."
Another, in support of the view that Lady Mary was "condescending," would say, "She thought others were beneath her and not worthy of her time."
This seemed to reflect both a failure to really understand the characters, and a failure to grasp the point that an assertion must be grounded in facts.
I had to make clear to them that what constituted proper support of their conclusions was concrete examples of the characters' actions in the play.
I decided to illustrate this point in a memorable form. I walked into class and (making it clear that this was an exercise, and intended to prove a point), I said, "One of the teachers at this school must be fired." Following my lead, they asked "Why?"
I responded, "Because he can't be trusted." Again, they said, "Why?" I replied, "Because you can never count on him." Again, starting to get the point, they said, "Why?" and I said, "Because he is never there when you need him."
I then asked them what was unsatisfying about my explanations, and they identified that I never in fact mentioned anything the teacher had done to warrant this evaluation.
I then applied this issue to their analysis of the characters in the play. This made it possible for them both to gain a real understanding of the characters and to learn a valuable epistemological lesson.
This lesson was only possible because of the conceptual, objective approach of the class—because I had asked them to write a clear and supported statement of their ideas.
Pattern Recognition vs. Real Understanding
Every year, when I give my first test in a grammar or literature class, some new student asks me whether the test will be multiple choice. Every year, I look him in the eye and say “I can assure you that you will never, in any class, under any circumstances, at any point in your education at VanDamme Academy, have a test that is multiple choice.”
The vast majority of the students’ work at VDA is written—in complete sentences, paragraphs, or essays. There is no surer way for the student to master the material, and for the teacher to determine whether he has mastered it.
For the student to write explanations, in complete sentences, about every subject, requires that he have a true understanding of the concepts at hand. But he can often do well on multiple choice, matching, or other rote exercises with no real understanding.
Children have incredible, sponge-like brains, that give them an almost unlimited capacity for memorization and pattern recognition. The teacher’s job is to ensure that this amazing talent does not become a substitute for understanding.
I have encountered this issue repeatedly in grammar class. Grammar texts typically introduce a new concept, such as the prepositional phrase, define it, provide examples, and then ask students to do a series of rote exercises in which they identify the prepositional phrases in a sentence.
Year after year, I find that students do very well recognizing prepositional phrases, such as “in the park,” “after the show,” “with my friend,” and “under the bed,” but will also occasionally underline groups of words like “is the winner” or “has the answer” because these groups of words seem to vaguely fit the pattern of a prepositional phrase.
The vast majority of the time they will properly identify the prepositional phrases, and will appear, therefore, to understand what they are doing—but the fact that they identify just one or two of these other groups of words indicates that they in fact have no understanding of the concept, and are simply pattern-seeking and performing the exercise by rote.
If, on the other hand, they are required to write, or at least to explain, that a preposition indicates the relationship between its object and some other word in the sentence, if they are required to describe the nature of that relationship, and if they already have a good, conceptual understanding of verbs and their complements, then they have a real understanding of prepositions, and will not make this error.
David Harriman tells a story about his own educational history that perfectly illustrates the difference between pattern seeking and knowledge.
When Dave was a sophomore at UC Santa Barbara, he took his first course on differential equations. It was a class with 200 students, so the teacher didn't assign homework that was turned in and graded. Instead, he handed out long lists of practice problems, and recommended that the students select and solve enough of the problems to gain confidence in their understanding.
Dave, given his brilliant mind, intellectual ambition, and (according to him) lack of much of a social life at the time, did ALL the practice problems. He thinks he may have been the only student in the class who did. The final exam in the course was supposed to take two hours, but Dave finished in 40 minutes, and got a perfect score.
About a year later, Dave was working on a physics problem, and it involved solving a differential equation.
He remembers staring at the equation and drawing a complete blank, thinking, “What the hell do I do with this?” A year earlier, he would have been able to solve the equation without even thinking. But, of course, that was his problem: he had always solved the equations without really thinking.
Solving differential equations, according to Dave, is an art. There are quite a few techniques, and the trick is to recognize which technique will work on the particular equation of interest.
Faced with the application of differential equations to physics, Dave discovered that he had developed a subconscious, automatized ability to look at an equation and instinctively just know what technique to use. But he had never explicitly identified what he was doing, or why that was the right approach to solving this particular problem.
What he possessed was not real knowledge, but an acquired talent of pattern recognition, which—as it always does—faded when it was no longer in use.
The goal of promoting real understanding rather than memorization or pattern-seeking—is accomplished through hierarchical, integrated, purposeful lectures, and by requiring the students to write. In every subject, students are consistently required not just to provide an answer, but to explain how they arrived at the answer, to justify why it is the answer. For example:
- On a grammar test, rather than underlining the properly conjugated form of the verb “lie” or “lay” in a given sentence, students might be asked to explain the difference between the verbs “lie” and “lay”— that lie is an intransitive verb and lay a transitive verb that requires a direct object—and then to write their own sentences to demonstrate the proper use of these verbs.
- In science, rather than simply being asked to draw and name the phases of the moon, students might be asked to explain what causes the moon’s phases, and illustrate the relative positions of the earth, moon, and sun for any given phase.
Every assignment demands that they think, that they understand, that they explain, to ensure that they are not automatizing patterns or thoughtlessly repeating conclusions. By asking them always to write, we ensure that they cannot give a false appearance of understanding.
The Homework Lie
Every year, dozens of parents sit at my desk and describe to me the intense frustration they feel as they watch their children get churned through the public schools. One of the refrains of their complaints: endless homework.
And no wonder:
- The work itself is largely pointless. Students must complete countless contrived worksheets meant primarily to satisfy state standards for homework volume.
- Their children are overwhelmed, trying to cram this busywork into car rides between after-school activities.
- Parents do not know the material themselves. They are often unable to help, and sometimes they even hinder the children with their own confused instruction.
- There is no sacred family time. Instead, the time for bonding between parents and children is compromised by battles over homework.
- There is no sacred free time; the time the child should be allowed to rest, play, spend time with family, and pursue personal interests is compromised by the looming responsibility of performing hours of homework drudgery.
VanDamme Academy has a policy of no homework. Yes, you read that correctly.
At VanDamme Academy, the only daily, on-going responsibility given the children outside school hours is to read. Reading is an activity best done alone, in the quiet of the child’s own bedroom. It is a very independent and personal task, and—if it is the right book and taught properly—a very pleasurable one, too.
Math practice is done in math class. We give students ample time to learn, practice, and master new concepts under the close supervision of the teacher. Essays are written in writing class. Writing, which is one of the most challenging and comprehensive skills a student must learn, demands the constant monitoring and assistance of the teacher.
That such disciplines are neglected during the day—and then sent home in a mad-dash effort to get the kids up to speed for standardized testing—is criminal.
It is not surprising that our no-homework policy does wonders for parents’ relationships with their children. I will never forget when a parent sat at my desk one day and, told me, with tears in his eyes: “You have given back our family life.”
But, you might ask, how do VanDamme Academy students fare when they are sent off to high school with their homework-laden peers? Well, consider this typical comment by a parent of a high school student at a school attended by several VanDamme Academy graduates—each of whom had several homework-free years: “Do you have to be a complete genius to go to that school?”
You don’t have to be a genius to go to our school or learn from our courses—but the level of knowledge and caliber of thinking that our curriculum instills can make our graduates seem like geniuses.
Our students shine because we make efficient use of the school day, focusing on those subjects which are most essential to the cognitive development of the child—because we give students careful supervision in the development of academic skills instead of shunting that task off to parents—because we revere and enjoy the work itself, and do not feel compelled to “jazz it up” with treats and distractions—because we present the material in a careful, systematic, hierarchical manner, one which allows the child to grasp and keep the knowledge presented—and because the effect of all of this is intelligent, driven students who love to learn.
A few concrete results:
- Many VanDamme Academy graduates leave 8th grade having completed Pre-Calculus or Calculus. Over half the 8th graders have completed the school’s rigorous grammar curriculum, and can both write with impeccable grammar and parse any sentence under the sun. Their parents refuse to send me an e-mail until it has been edited by their children.
- And our students often do voluntary “homework”—inspired, ambitious, personal homework. When I assigned the abridged version of Les Miserables, half the class purchased the unabridged version, and read it in pace with the rest of the class.
- One year a 10-year-old student, inspired by his study of European history and Shakespeare, took up fencing, and wrote an entire iambic pentameter play over the summer.
Here is the prologue:
This sad tale of Phillippe Joan and his love,
The beautiful Milady Hauthorne Grey,
Doth sadden many of the stars above.
In effort to be with her every day,
He was forced to fight, and sail the great seas,
And slave for pirates in his captured care
And dueling. Love had him down on his knees
As he yearned for his lady. O, she was fair,
And more so than Helen. A man would lay
Gladly his life down for her. He was lost
His country, though, which was her husband. Hate
For Phillippe was on all his lips. That host
Ingracious was both of their tragic ends.
So, gentles, do patience to this play lend.
Remember this poem the next time you hear that the problem with American education is that kids don’t do enough homework.
P is for Pajama Party or Paragraph?
Recently, I was visited by a mother frustrated with her son's education and looking for something more. She informed me that mid-way through his kindergarten year, they were still learning their letters—most recently, they had been studying the letter “P.” And in honor of the letter “P”, they were having a pajama party in the classroom.
During the discussion, I had on my desk some paragraphs written by my Lower Elementary class, which now includes a boy named Johnny and my daughter Greta, both of whom move up to my literature class from the K-1 Montessori room. Here is the paragraph that Greta, age 5, had written about the novel Abel’s Island:
"It seems that Abel really loves his wife Amanda. He has a lovely picnic and they went into the forest to eat the picnic. He picked a daisy for his wife as a parasol. He goes to get his wife’s scarf even though it is pouring. He plunges into a river and goes down a waterfall but he gets out and he thinks about Amanda. He loves Amanda."
Here is the paragraph written by my daughter Lana, age 7, reflecting a few more years of reading and writing experience at VanDamme Academy (and written entirely on her own):
"It seems that Abel really loves his wife Amanda. Abel prepares a lovely picnic for Amanda. While Amanda is reading under a fern he picks a daisy for her to use as a parasol. Abel braves a storm just to retrieve Amanda’s scarf. While Abel is thrashed about, pushed under water, drowning, desperate for air, all he thinks about is his wife Amanda. It seems as though Abel is risking his life just for Amanda."
The 7 and 8-year-old students are universally capable of writing well-structured paragraphs, with topic sentences, examples, and a “clincher.” This ability has been developed gradually: from writing clear and complete sentences about history, literature, and science in the Montessori classroom; to writing paragraphs together as a group under my guidance in the Lower Elementary classroom; to systematic instruction in their writing class with Mrs. Fingerhut; to constructing paragraphs on their own. I now enter the classroom to a din of eager demands: “Can we please write a paragraph by ourselves today?”
The relevant principles are simple. 1) Do not underestimate the ability or motivation of young children. They are capable of more than the letter “P,” and they need not be plied with pajama parties. Producing a well-formed paragraph about a delightful novel is motivation in itself, and a much deeper and more lasting motivation. 2) With proper, systematic instruction, children can advance far in their reading, writing, and thinking ability. The careful, incremental structure of our program enables them to progress naturally, effortlessly, proudly, and happily. 3) We are continually engaged in what I call a “war against boredom.” If Greta and Johnny were learning the letter “P”, pajama party or not, I would have lost them to learning for good.
We are only just beginning to see the academic distance that can be traveled by a student given our belief in their capability, given our systematic approach to teaching them, and given our commitment to continually challenging them. And it is an impressive sight.
The Imperative of Lecturing
Every class in elementary and junior high school should be in a lecture format. The teacher must be an authority on the subject, he must grasp its basic purpose, he must carefully define the knowledge to be conveyed by reference to that purpose, and he must present that knowledge in a hierarchical, integrated, and engaging form.
When I teach a literature class, I go in to each class armed with an understanding of the value of studying literature, and the knowledge that this value is derived primarily from an appreciation of the novel’s plot, an understanding of the basic nature of the characters, and a clear grasp of the novel’s theme.
These broad goals then guide me in defining the goal of any particular class. If I am teaching Sinclair Lewis's novel Arrowsmith, for example, I might give one class about the idealistic characters and in what way they are doomed to suffering in the world, another about those who abandon their ideals and achieve practical “success,” another about the basic moral/practical dichotomy this implies, and another contrasting this view with that of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead.
In each class, I would set out to convey a definite point about the novel, and to methodically lead the students to a clear understanding of the principle through the events of the novel. I would not conduct the class as question-and-answer, back-and-forth, bull session.
This is a notable contrast to most literature classes today. English teachers often select novels that are disintegrated and purposeless, and therefore have no single, objective interpretation. And even if they teach a good work of literature, with a definite theme, they allow students to take charge of the class, treating every one of their arbitrarily held, sometimes unintelligible, and often contradictory interpretations as sacred.
Several years ago I visited an English class at a reputable college prep school in my area, in which the students were reading Macbeth. The class had a “seminar” format, with the chairs in a circle, and the teacher treated as just one of the student’s peers.
This teacher explained to me that the class is “student driven.” He doesn’t give reading assignments, but instead defines “reading goals.” He does not lecture to the class, but assigns each student a section of the play, asks them to prepare a presentation, and listens without comment as they discuss their interpretation with the class.
Other teachers commit the same error in a less flagrant form. A method often used by well-meaning teachers that encourages subjectivism is the overuse of questions and answers. Some teachers go in to class with a definite, objective end in mind, but either in the name of promoting independent thought in the students or of making the class lively and engaging, they think that the steps toward this end have to be elicited from the students.
Many teachers will, for example, introduce a new topic of history, and rather than presenting the relevant facts and integrating them into abstract conclusions, they will ask the students to guess— both the facts and the conclusions. For example, in discussing the founding of Jamestown, such a teacher might ask, “How big do you think the original settlement was?” or “What sort of governing body do you think they established?”
It is appropriate, once in a while, to ask the students to guess the answer to a factual question, particularly when they will be surprised by the right answer. And it is appropriate to ask abstract questions that clearly draw upon their prior knowledge and that they therefore have the context to answer. But to routinely play a guessing game as part of the basic format of the class promotes a subjective, anything-goes view of knowledge on the part of students.
Students habituate the idea that knowledge is not the product of a scrupulous and methodical process of integrating the facts of reality, but instead comes from randomly throwing out groundless views.
This does not promote intellectual independence and enthusiasm; it promotes intellectual unseriousness and eventually boredom. Questioning of the students should be secondary to the teacher’s directed, purposeful, positive presentation of a clearly defined body of knowledge. For every class, the teacher should seek to convey definite knowledge, presenting the essential facts and integrating those facts into abstract conclusions, thereby leading the students to a clear understanding while also modeling rational thought.
This does not entail passivity on the part of the students. On the contrary, they will be engaged in answering questions when appropriate, asking questions that occur to them, making connections with other relevant items of their knowledge, and following the logical progression laid about by the teacher—which itself is an active and independent process.
Introducing Pedagogically Correct
Many people understand that education is in desperate need of reform, but few recognize how radical the reform must be.
What is needed is not a bigger education budget, a stronger teacher’s union, smaller class sizes, or more rigorous testing procedures.
But neither is the solution simply a renewed spirit of intellectualism and mental rigor, or a return to the traditional curriculum of Western civilization and literary classics, or the expulsion of politically correctness from the classroom.
What is needed is a basic, pedagogical revolution—a revolution in the selection of content taught to students, and the method by which that content is presented.
This revolution entails a ruthlessly stripped-down curriculum that includes only that which is indispensable to the child’s basic intellectual development, ridding education of non-essential content that distracts from and dilutes the core material. It entails a vigilant commitment to ensuring that students have a real, grounded, independent grasp of everything they are taught, and are never merely parroting the teacher. It entails a presentation of the material that is always integrated around a definite purpose, with each piece related clearly to the whole, and constant encouragement of the students to seek connections of their own. It entails a continual effort to properly motivate the students, demonstrating the personal value to their own lives of the knowledge they are working to acquire.
Our goal at VanDamme Academy, the proper goal of education, is to foster the conceptual development of the child—to instill in him the knowledge and cognitive powers needed for mature life. Our goal is to take the whole of human knowledge, select that which is essential to the child’s conceptual development, present it in a way that allows the student to clearly grasp both the material itself and its value to their lives, and thereby supply him with both with crucial knowledge and the rational thinking skills that will enable him to acquire real knowledge forever after.
This is the ambition upon which VanDamme Academy was founded, and we believe we have made unequaled progress in its achievement—though we still have much to discover and improve.
It is with this spirit that we proudly announce that we are converting our email list into a new, free, weekly e-newsletter: Pedagogically Correct. Every week, we will send you a new article about the principles of teaching that we employ at VanDamme Academy, and relay stories about the results we are achieving.
We encourage you to foward Pedagogically Correct to friends, post its contents on your 'blog, or do anything else you can think of to spread the word about VanDamme Academy and our unique educational philosophy.