Archive for the ‘educational theory’ Category

I’ve come to the end of my third year teaching, and it’s time to reflect on the highs and lows of teaching middle school in Yerevan (February-June).

The Good

1. Setting high academic expectations.

Middle schoolers are just at the point where you can start teaching against the textbook. I really enjoyed reading and discussing Plato’s Apology with my 12 year old class – many were asking all the right questions. Small group discussion is one of my favorite ways of teaching, and small classes at QSI really lends itself to this way of teaching.

Both 12 and 13 year olds also wrote an 8 page research paper. A couple students learned the hard way about plagiarism, but others said they took off reading and writing about topics of their interest. I was proud of some of the areas my students tackled: comparing Machiavelli’s The Prince to his Discourses on Livycomparing Greek art as mimesis and the use of fractals in computer graphics, comparing strategies of the Roman Empire to those of the US, and whether Ebola caused the Black Death (apparently yes, say some scientists).

We used a lot of technology – Edmodo continues to be useful, and I discovered Socrative, a free app that gives immediate feedback on quizzes and exit slips.

2. Having fun

I love teaching history. We enjoyed dressing up for our Greek god party on Mt. Olympus. Later we were served by slaves at our Roman patrician banquet, complete with proper reclining seating arrangement on mats. We also built scale models of the Pantheon, and Hagia Sofia (OK – the last one was a little hard to do!)

Any time you can do a field trip to a Mithraic temple (Garni), a medieval monastery (Geghard), and hike into a canyon is a win win.

We capped off our year by doing some archaeology – students were assigned one civilization from the text book and produced 3 artifacts for burial. Inscriptions were written on pottery, and then smashed with a hammer. After burial, groups then had to dig up other people’s artifacts and try to figure out which civilization they were from.

Debates were a great way to explore topics in non-fiction and get to the core ideas of texts. Students usually begged for more, because they think they aren’t actually working.

8 different classes a day is ridiculous for a 12 year old (for a fun critique of school’s hidden curriculm, read John T. Gatto‘s Weapons of Mass Instruction). Sometimes they just need to go outside and play soccer (and realize that their teacher is not bad).

3. Character education.

7th grade can be a social minefield for students. It was a privilege to be part of the conversation when the going got tough. I love that QSI rewards students for excellence in character, evaluates areas of improvement, and makes them part of the report card. You end up reflecting a lot more as a class about virtuous actions (however, I felt like my experiment with daily reflections morning and afternoon – the Stoic method – was a failure, since you can’t force someone to go through therapy, the have to want it).

Teaching about the Armenian genocide was a particularly rewarding experience. I have a blog post about it here.


The Tough

1. Way too much computer time.

When I arrived to Yerevan in February, many students in the 12 and 13 year old class did not even have binders – they just took notes on computers like a university class and handed assignments in on Google drive or in unformatted emails. Because I used Edmodo and Socrative, it was a constant challenge to change their habits, and I believe I failed at this – doing an 8pg paper to cover multiple units also didn’t help. I felt like I betrayed Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Your Brain. Students need less screen-time, not more. I believe principals who think they are doing their elementary a favor by getting I Pads are sadly mistaken.

2. Brain drain.

After picking up and moving to Yerevan from Winnipeg (in the space of a month) and teaching middle school for the first time, I spent way too much time researching for my courses, and not enough time planning the actual objectives. Perhaps reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of Rome (abridged of course) was an unnecessary burden that prevented timely assessment and contributed to burn out. There are other ways to engage the classroom without having all the good stories.

I also spent too much time blogging, which is way more work than it looks like. In the last 3 years I’ve written a 200 page book worth of material.

I drank way too much coffee, which made me into a (sweaty) walking zombie by the end of the week. Everyone reacts slightly differently to the substance, and I’ve realized that by Friday too many cups of coffee makes me slightly depressed. I remember a speech to our graduating class in Winnipeg telling us to “STAY AWAY FROM COFFEE.”  (Christine Rhodes) Now I know why.

3. Sweating the details

Switching from a large public school to a private school with classes of 10 or less has a way of making you more relaxed. But that doesn’t mean you should let go of the reins too much. Just because students aren’t really that loud and people are generally doing what they’re told isn’t good enough.

Treating my 12 year olds like they were more mature than they really were set me up for problems, especially with entitled students. I tried to live by the William Glasser approach (godfather of the QSI way), but there was something missing, and that was discipline and habit. Sometimes no amount of reflection on behavior will influence future actions unless students are explicitly told that they are wrong, and forced to make a habit of acting correctly.

The biggest thing I learned this year was to be prepared with a variety of immediate and incremental consequences and NOT to give warnings. Giving warnings is a recipe to be inconsistent, since you have to remember all the warnings you’ve given. Better to keep the learning curve and expectations high, and treat poor behavior like a bad habit.

The End

Over all, this adventure in Yerevan was challenging but really rewarding. I met some great educators, had some once in a lifetime experiences, and have lots of foibles to learn from moving forward. Many people said I had “the most challenging classes in the school.” Well, I’m both relieved and disappointed to hear that – relieved to know that I survived with a tough class, disappointed to hear that I wasn’t as effective as hoped in molding habits and behavior. Perhaps this is the best way to begin work for an organization like QSI that values character education.


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We need role models. What do we do when there aren’t many in our immediate surroundings?

I remember suggesting, in a class on Aboriginal perspectives in education, that we should bring to life the virtues and nobility of First Nations leaders such as Poundmaker. This idea has its critics, such as those who wish to uphold the authority of the elders, and the importance of oral transmission, rather than the imperialist technology of the book.

The great Cree chief Pîhtokahanapiwiyin, or "Poundmaker" (1885)

The great Cree chief Pîhtokahanapiwiyin, or “Poundmaker” (1885)

I read a couple character sketches of Poundmaker and Big Bear in school. Some of them were written before the turn of the 20th century, and were clearly influenced by the “great men” view of history. The historian Thomas Carlyle famously said that the “history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

Noting the obvious sexism in this view, I want to observe the classical background of this view, which is supported by a moral argument about education.

Reading biographies is one way to cope in the absence of role models. From a scientific standpoint, we now know that “visualizing” is a great cognitive benefit. “Visualizing” is used by Olympic athletes, surgeons, and musicians to rehearse actions they wish to take in the future, so why couldn’t reading and meditating on inspirational leaders do something similar, but in the realm of desire and ethics?

Visualizing yourself acting virtuously has been around a long time, and was even proposed by the Persian philosopher Ibn Miskawayh in 10th century Baghdad. He followed the works of Aristotle, who had analyzed the problem of wanting to be virtuous, but lacking the desire to act virtuously.

It is natural to recognize parts of yourself in other people, especially the desires that lead to actions. We all feel either ennobled or sickened by the actions of actors when we go to the movies. Maybe for this reason, it is important to be exposed to the foibles, but especially the virtues of past generations, so that we can feel ennobled by kinship, to be comforted in our failures, but also spurred on to goodness and greatness.

The Greek biographer Plutarch knew this, even though he focused exclusively on the “great men” of his age. Here is Plutarch at the beginning of his life of Timoleon:

I began the writing of my “Lives” for the sake of others, but I find that I am continuing the work and delighting in it now for my own sake also, using history as a mirror and endeavouring in a manner to fashion and adorn my life in conformity with the virtues therein depicted. 2 For the result is like nothing else than daily living and associating together, when I receive and welcome each subject of my history in turn as my guest, so to speak, and observe carefully “how large he was and of what mien,”1 and select from his career what is most important and most beautiful to know.

3 “And oh! what greater joy than this canst thou obtain,”2

4 and more efficacious for moral improvement? Democritus says we ought to pray that we may be visited by phantoms which are propitious, and that from out the circumambient air such only may encounter us as are agreeable to our natures and good, rather than those which are perverse and bad, thereby intruding into philosophy a doctrine which is not true, and which leads astray into boundless superstitions. 5 But in my own case, the study of history and the familiarity with it which my writing produces, p263enables me, since I always cherish in my soul the records of the noblest and most estimable characters, to repel and put far from me whatever base, malicious, or ignoble suggestion my enforced associations may intrude upon me, calmly and dispassionately turning my thoughts away from them to the fairest of my examples. 6 Among these were Timoleon the Corinthian and Aemilius Paulus, whose Lives I have now undertaken to lay before my readers; 7 the men were alike not only in the good principles which they adopted, but also in the good fortune which they enjoyed in their conduct of affairs, 8 and they will make it hard for my readers to decide whether the greatest of their successful achievements were due to their good fortune or their wisdom.3

Plus, after reading about guys like Aemilius Paulus, you learn cool stuff, like how his dad was defeated by Hannibal at Cannae (along with the famous pincer movement that won the battle for the outnumbered Carthaginians, Hannibal carried a cool Iberian sword called a Falcata), and his son , Scipio Africanus went on to destroy Carthage at the battle of Zama.

An Iberian “falcata,” which combines a sword with the center of gravity of an axe:

An Iberian "falcata," which combines a sword with the center of gravity of an axe.


Biographies have always been a productive escape for me personally. There is always a sense of kinship, no matter who the subject is. One of my favourites is “Memoirs of a Revolutionist” by Peter Kropotkin.

Peter Kropotkin, a Russian prince who gave up his title to work with the illiterate peasants

Peter Kropotkin, a Russian prince who gave up his title to work with the illiterate peasants

How did they cope with the same passions, the same questions, and the same relationships – how was their childhood? how did they deal with their first love? what decisions did they make under stress? Contemplating these is always the beginning of a moral philosophy, of an internal dialogue about how to live one’s life. There is always a kind of judgment of character lurking in the background while reading histories and biographies.

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I’ve written previously about the Socratic approach of  Northrop Frye. He says that the role of the liberal arts teacher is to create a structure of the subject matter around which the student can form their own understandings. This is exactly Maria Montessori’s view, but her approach is informed by Rousseau and the rationality of scientific method:

The didactic material, in fact, does not offer the child the ‘content’ of the mind, but the ‘order for that content’  Athenaeum, April 18, 1914

Montessori was a great champion of scientific progress, and I wonder how she views human rationality. The development of a child’s intelligence is a process of refining motor and sensory functions. The latter lays the foundations for intelligence “by a continual exercise of observation, comparison and judgment.” As I begin to read Montessori I ask the question – What is the end goal of the development of intelligence?

One of the goals of philosophic education for children is to introduce contemplative questions, which also develops intelligence by forming comparisons and judgments, but most of all by thinking about thinking itself – or metacognitive skills. How is this philosophic thinking different than experiential learning?

Contrast Montessori’s view that science should guide the development of children’s rationality:

It is by scientific and rational means also that we must facilitate that inner work of psychical adaptation to be accomplished within the child, a work which is by no means the same thing as “any external work or production whatsoever.” This is the aim which underlies my method of infant education, and it is for this reason that certain principles which it enunciates, together with that part which deals with the technique of their practical application, are not of a general character, but have special reference to the particular case of the child from three to seven years of age, i.e., to the needs of a formative period of life.

My method is scientific, both in its substance and in its aim. It makes for the attainment of a more advanced stage of progress, in directions no longer only material and physiological. It is an endeavor to complete the course which hygiene has already taken, but in the treatment of the physical side alone.

(Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook)

The building of intelligence through making comparisons and judgments is certainly the foundation of more abstract ways of thinking. What place is there for didactic conversational relationships with children younger than seven?



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‘Education to independence demands that young people should be accustomed early to consult their own sense of propriety and their own reason. To regard study as mere receptivity and memory work is to have a most incomplete view of what instruction means.’

G.W.F Hegel (1770-1831)


Check out Peter Worleys’s  Philosophy Foundation – which trains teachers how to conduct Enquiry with students.

From the intro video:

“It develops their speaking and listening, it develops their ability to sustain a train of thought, not just as individuals but together. They get the opportunity to express their ideas without being condemned or judged in any way, and that builds their confidence. There’s a special kind of thinking that philosophy engenders, and I would say that it is what some people would call second order thinking. You’re not just thinking, you’re thinking about your thinking. So you’re thinking about why you think what you think, and are you justified in thinking what you think, but more importantly you’re rethinking. In my experience, children that have been doing philosophy from a young age, when they get to year 5 or 6, are really quite formidable in their reasoning skills, and in their ability (one of the things I’ve noticed) to construct arguments.” (Peter Worley)

From their “About us – method” page:

Michael Hand, reader in philosophy at the Institute of Education, and editor of ‘Philosophy in Schools’ has said that there have been 2 models of doing philosophy in schools and neither was adequate. The first is, what he calls, the ‘Great Books Model’: the study of classical texts, and the other is the ‘Circle Time Model’, where the children generate their own questions and the teacher becomes a co-enquirer. He has called our method the ‘Third Way’: “It draws on the strengths of the other two models. Children do not study philosophical texts, but they encounter key ideas, arguments and puzzles from the canon of Western philosophy: the Ship of Theseus and the Ring of Gyges, Locke’s ‘voluntary prisoner’ and Mill’s ‘satisfied pig’, the Rawlsian ‘veil of ignorance’ and the Turing Test of artificial intelligence. Children are not left to pursue their own questions without direction, but there is a strong emphasis on exploratory discussion and dialogue…[the PhiE Model is] a significant contribution to educational theory.”

Become a member of the philosophy foundation FREE, and receive FREE lesson plans, games, and teaching strategies.

Other Youtube clips of kids doing philosophy:


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City Journal writers such as Sol Stern often criticize “student centred” approaches to learning, especially those baptized by Marxist pedagogue Paulo Freire. While Freire’s view of intellectual freedom in relation to Marxism is suspect, I think that this threat is basically ignored because university education lecturers read praxis as another instance of Dewey’s experiential pragmatism. Freire is one of the few cases where liberal westerners willfully ignore the token moniker of “Democratic” (which is the rhetorical appeal of every marxist regime) and buy into Freire’s rhetoric of self-determination and freedom.

If you remember, true praxis is the enemy of “filling the bucket” and “banking” approaches to learning. What Freire and Dewey have inspired, rightly I think, is a move away from rote learning. But their free-wheeling rhetoric on literacy has taken its toll on our approach to tradition and our general disregard for great books and high culture, Shakespeare notwithstanding.

The reason textbooks are so bad is not that they are filled with facts, but that they are filled with soul-sucking, mind-numbing and extremely boring narratives…or rather, facts without narrative.

This is what amazing teachers like Rafe Esquith understand (Hobart Shakespeareans in 5th grade…). Seeking to introduce inner city kids to great literature, movies, and ideas  transforms lives.

Here is Robert Pondiscio, a former 5th grade teacher, in City Journal:

…Math is relentlessly hierarchical—you can’t understand multiplication, for example, if you don’t understand addition. Reading is mercilessly cumulative. Virtually everything a child sees and hears, in and out of school, contributes to his vocabulary and language proficiency. A child growing up in a book-filled home with articulate, educated parents who fill his early years with reading, travel, museum visits, and other forms of enrichment arrives at school with enormous advantages in knowledge and vocabulary. When schools fail to address gaps in knowledge and language, the deficits widen—a phenomenon that cognitive scientist Keith Stanovich calls the “Matthew Effect,” after a passage in the Gospel of Matthew: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” The nature of knowledge and vocabulary acquisition all but assures that children raised in language-rich homes gain in reading comprehension, while the language-poor fall further behind (see “A Wealth of Words,” Winter 2013). “The mainspring of [reading] comprehension is prior knowledge—the stuff readers already know that enables them to create understanding as they read,” explains Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia.

To make matters worse, most reading curricula have focused on developing generalized, all-purpose reading-comprehension “skills” uncoupled from subject-specific knowledge—reducing a complex cognitive process to a collection of all-purpose “reading strategies” to be applied to any book or bit of text that a student might encounter. Attempts to teach reading comprehension as knowledge-neutral put an enormous premium on student engagement. For teachers, reading instruction can often feel more like cheerleading: sell kids on the magic of books, get them to read a lot, and—voilà!—they will emerge as verbally adroit adults with a lifelong love of reading. As generations of results show, this approach doesn’t work.

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Ontario has had a high school philosophy curriculum for some time – so why doesn’t Manitoba? Curriculum development must receive the blessing of the academy on high, and currently the steering committee is bogged down by differences of approach – the UofWinnipeg does more historical work, whereas the UofManitoba is more analytical. Do we want another IB program “theories of knowledge” emphasis, or straight up Platonic dialogues?

But who cares whether the curriculum favours one or the other method? Philosophy has been shown to greatly increase all around academic scores, especially literacy.

James W. Gray over at Ethical Realism counters some objections as to why philosophy should be a high school course:


1. High school students can’t learn philosophy.

The objection: Philosophy is too hard for high school students to learn. We can’t expect them to read what the world’s greatest minds think at this stage in their life.

My reply: First, we often underestimate how much students can learn. It’s insulting to just assume that they are stupid. Second, children of all ages have been learning philosophy for decades, and the classes and reading materials are directed for the appropriate age groups. Children can learn a lot about good reasoning by discussing philosophical issues at a young age without having to know who Socrates is or various abstract theories.

2. No amount of education will make people be reasonable or moral.

The objection: People will be unreasonable and immoral, even if they learn about philosophy, logic, and ethics.

My reply: The purpose of education isn’t just perfection, it’s progress. I agree that philosophy can’t make people be reasonable or moral, but it can help. In fact, there are proven benefits to philosophy. I have already discussed some of them. Philosophy even has proven benefits for young children including improved test scores, mathematical ability, and other cognitive abilities. “The Educational Testing Service evaluated the Lipman philosophy program in 1981… Tests on a cross section of 4,500 fifth and sixth graders in Newark public schools showed that those exposed to the program gained as much as a half year in reading, mathematics and and reasoning skills over those who did not take the philosophy program.”1 Go here for more information….

Jason Nicholson (“In Socrates’ Wake” blog)  also has a pro/con list with many comments.

Francis Beslin makes the case (1982) for philosophy in the American High School system based on harnessing natural skepticism:

Adolescents are a skeptical lot. Anything and everything is fair game to them. Woe betide
what is found wanting. The vials of invective are pitilessly poured forth. Criticism comes
easily to such professional skeptics. Irreverence is natural when one is taking the world’s
measure, cutting one’s teeth, finding oneself.
American high schools waste this irreverence. They fail to turn it to educational use. By
not providing programs which could tap this source, they forego their most useful asset
– the intellectual restlessness of youth itself. By barring this critical spirit from the classroom, high schools teach that questioning has no part in one’s education. If one wants it, one must get it on one’s own. Such is the message often conveyed.This is regrettable, since what could be an opportunity to exploit and sharpen this critical
temper becomes one of life’s what-might-
have-beens. Not that schools should be turned
into coliseums where intellectual gladiators slay their opponents, but into training
grounds which prepare students more ably to think for themselves….

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I once spoke to a Russian student who said that to this day they are required to memorize poetry in school.

What is the role of memorization in today’s curriculum? Does it make a difference in our lives, knit our identity together strongly, or is it a deservedly dead tradition?

A psychological argument might go something like this: your entire identity is dependent on how you remember yourself to be. But this is a flat description, devoid of the power of experience itself. At best, the psychologist will tell you “with different memories you would be a different person.” The question of memorization is also about what one should memorize.

In that sense, literary critic George Steiner has one of the best arguments for memory out there in his incredible book Real Presences.

Works of art, which are genuine experiences – real presences – shape the way we feel and think about the world as profoundly as our encounter with other people. Remembering works of art may be crucial to your own imagined self. We have a responsibility to them, almost a duty, to understand them:

The authentic experience of understanding, when we are spoken to by another human being or by a poem, is one of responding responsibility. We are answerable to the text, to the work of art, to the musical offering, in a very specific sense, at once moral, spiritual and psychological.

The performers of the work areexecutants” who “invest their own being in the process of interpretation.” So what about the memorizer?

In reference to language and the musical score, enacted interpretation can also be inward. The private reader or listener can become an executant of felt meaning when he learns the poem or the musical passage by heart. To learn by heart is to afford the text or music an indwelling clarity and life-force. Ben Jonson’s term, “ingestion”, is precisely right. What we know by heart becomes an agency in our consciousness, a ‘pace-maker’ in the growth and vital complication of our identity. No exegesis or criticism from without can be so directly incorporate within us the formal means, the principles of executive organization of a semantic fact, be it verbal or musical. Accurate recollection and resort in rememberance not only deepen our grasp of the work: they generate a shaping reciprocity between ourselves and that which the heart knows. As we change, so does the informing context of the internalized poem or sonata. In turn, remembrance becomes recognition and discovery (to re-cognize is to know anew). The archaic Greek belief that memory is the mother of the Muses expresses a fundamental insight into the nature of the arts and of the mind.

The issues here are political and social in the strongest sense. A cultivation of trained, shared remembrance sets a society in natural touch with its own past. What matters even more, it safeguards the core of individuality. What is committed to memory and susceptible of recall constitutes the ballast of the self. The pressures of political exaction, the detergent tide of social conformity, cannot tear it from us. In solitude, public or private, the poem remembered, the score played inside us, are the custodians and remembrancers (another somewhat archaic designation on which my argument will draw) of what is resistant, of what must be kept inviolate in our psyche.

Under censorship and persecution, much of the finest in modern Russian poetry was passed from mouth to mouth and recited inwardly. The indispensable reserves of protest, of authentic record, of irony, in Akhmatova, in Mandelstam and in Pasternak, have been preserved and mutely published in the editions of personal memory.

Amid the technological revolution where media is ubiquitous, Steiner suggests:

The danger is that the text or music will lose what physics calls its ‘critical mass’, its implosive powers within the echo chambers of the self.

British diplomat and philosopher Isaiah Berlin once described meeting the god-mother of Russian poetry Anna Akhmatova, one of the few artists to survive Stalin’s purges. It was a meeting so delightful and poignant – a meeting held in secret in a cold damp country house at dusk, observed in the distance by KGB. They spoke about music, literature and history until morning. It was a pure act of transmission,  a revelation of the human spirit and a mountaintop experience for Berlin. What was shared were her experiences with literature – a house full of real presences that could be visited many times in her loneliness. The voices of the past were alive in Akhmatova’s mind, ready to relate to a friend, and made her a truly free woman.

The other day I decided to give one of my students copies of Solzhenistyn’s  “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” and “Cancer Ward.”

I was taking a gamble that they would influence this young man the way they awoke in me a connection to history, literature and humanity.

What spoke to me in the Russian tradition was the hard won reflection on human nature amidst suffering and a search for identity. Pushkin, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn were the interlocutors of my prolonged adolescence – they were asking similar questions about life’s meaning.

This is what all great literature does. Should we actively encourage “ingestion”? Will it safegaurd our identity against conformity, or encourage conformity to tradition? Do we want our best traditions to have an “indwelling clarity and life force”?




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