University Education As It Might Be and Ought to Be
Part I: What Is the Aim of a University Education?
By Marsha Familaro Enright
“Discipline must come through liberty. . . . We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is an individual annihilated, not disciplined.” — Maria Montessori
Standard education not only fails to teach the philosophy, history, economics, and politics of a free society, but its methods oppress individuality and instead encourage conformity and obedience. It does the opposite of teaching young people how to live as free, autonomous persons. For a detailed look at the collectivist and authoritarian purpose and history of traditional education, especially government-run, see my chapter “Liberating Education” in the book Common Ground On Common Core.
In the main, traditional university education’ methodology has been unchanged for centuries. Most classrooms rely heavily on an authoritarian, top-down structure of a single arbiter of knowledge, often in the position of lecturer, discussion leader, and knowledge authority, who conveys information to the waiting student-receptacles.
Of course, many colleges and universities are using all the bells and whistles of the latest physical technology, which makes the world’s knowledge available to their students through Internet-connected classrooms, cool electronic writing technology, online discussion groups, or handheld quiz machines.
But the more crucial and fundamental psychological and social elements to learning are often still ignored, especially at the university level. Yet, a free future demands more than the dissemination of information; where do free individuals learn how to use it in their lives?
Given what we now know about human development, learning, and motivation, education is ripe for a revolution in its psychological technology. Students need an educational program that embodies the ideals of self-sufficient, self-responsible, goal seeking, and autonomous individuals.
Furthermore, when freedom and autonomy are directly experienced, students become more engaged, interested, and enthusiastic learners and more often adopt the ideas and values of liberty.
Where can we find the kind of education that suits the development of autonomy? What specific considerations, methodologies, and curricula support this development? Such a system for lower education has been around for more than 100 years.
A Few of the Ingenious Features of the Montessori Method.
“When you have solved the problem of controlling the attention of the child, you have solved the entire problem of education.” Maria Montessori
When it comes to attention and learning, Montessori could have been talking about anyone, not just the child. Without attention, there is no learning. Attention is crucial, yet attentional resources (focus) are limited. They must be used well to efficiently learn the most possible.
Further, the developed ability to concentrate on work and goals and to self-maintain interest and focus allow a person to succeed in long-term projects and purposes. In Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism, Jerry Kirkpatrick calls this “Concentrated Attention.”
In his studies on intensely productive and creative people, University of Chicago research psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pictured at left) found that certain conditions elevate the ability to pay attention, and pay attention deeply for long periods of time. He also recognized that specially designed practices in Montessori classrooms provide these conditions throughout the school day. His research group, including the work of Kevin Rathunde, found many exceptional outcomes from these Montessori practices. (A picture of an engaging Montessori material to teach geology is below.)
The use of the Three-Period Lesson is a case in point.
Much scientific research shows that humans learn best if:
- They are highly motivated to learn the material for some personal end.
- They are physically engaged.
- They understand the application of the material to their lives.
The classic Montessori Three-Period Lesson ingeniously engages human attention. With small groups of students, teachers (or “Guides” as we prefer to call them in Montessori) demonstrate learning materials specially designed to focus attention on an important concept, such as whole number versus fractions. Objects and materials incorporating shapes, colors sounds, and textures concretely make the idea vivid. These Montessori materials engage the student’s whole intellect, sensory, motor, and conceptual, thereby powerfully imprinting memory.
The lesson’s three parts are Naming, Recognition and Association, and Recall. The Guide gathers one to four students ready for the particular lesson, seats them in front of the materials, and then demonstrates their use with only the essential words, naming the objects. For example, the Guide might use fraction circles to demonstrate the addition of fractions. (see picture below)
These are sets of metal, pie-shaped circles cut into different quantities of wedges with little knobs on each wedge. One circle consists of 4 wedges, another of 12, to demonstrate fourths and twelfths while all the circles in the material are the same size, to embody whole number. There are numerous kinds of problems possible with these circles, including all the operations of arithmetic. In the most basic, the child can literally see the relationship of different fractional proportions by taking the wedges out of the circles and putting them back in—in different combinations. Each lesson demonstrates one possible use of the materials.
During the lesson, the Guide speaks little, allowing the student to focus and observe the demonstrated examples carefully so they recognize the elements and form associations. The Guide encourages questions from the students; she also, models curiosity, and triggers discussion with questions of her own when students are not forthcoming. Truly successful teachers are exceptional at listening to students’ questions, surmising what students need to know, and modeling and encouraging thinking.
After the fraction demonstration, the Guide asks the student to explain what to do with the materials to solve the next problem and moves the materials has the student accordingly. Finally, the Guide asks the student to demonstrate the material, turning student into teacher and thereby recalling the elements of the lesson, requiring a more complete level of understanding for the student’s performance.
After the lesson, the student is free to pursue more problems with the materials right then or use them later to practice when the student feels interested in working on the material (on the principle that one learns best when one is intrinsically motivated). The Guide regularly takes notes while observing the children in her class and if she finds a child avoiding some material, she makes it her job to think of a way to interest the child in the work.
A key to the Montessori Method’s success is ensuring that the amount of material conveyed at one lesson is not overwhelming but sufficiently interesting, i.e. just the conditions necessary for Flow. More frequent, shorter lessons with follow-up exercises are preferable to one long demonstration. Of course, preparing shorter, pointed lessons is far more taxing to the teacher, but the Montessori Method has systems to make this aspect of teaching less time consuming.
The Three-Period Lesson can be fruitfully adapted to many college-level subjects. In fact, some college classes, such as chemistry, often use a version of the Three-Period Lesson, with the experiment as the final student demonstration. However, as with most excellent methods, the devil is in the details.
Lectures in Their Proper Place
Lessons with materials and concrete experiences are not the usual in university education; lectures are the most common format. If organized well, lectures can distill a vast amount of information down to a few principles and key examples. A lecture can be an economical introduction to a subject. The best lectures essentialize the subject matter conveyed by the lecture.
However, as a method, lectures are designed to be easy for the teacher, not the student. They allow the teacher to recount his or her knowledge without feedback or interrupting questions and side issues from the listener. Although sometimes necessary, lectures are usually a difficult way to learn because they frequently run counter to human learning tendencies.
For several reasons, students must exert an enormous amount of attentional effort to stay focused on what the speaker says during lectures. A lecture requires the learner to mostly listen and look a little. Unlike learning methods that make learning easy, the lecture usually does not engage the whole mind, including vivid perceptions and imagination, or the body of the student. Listening and looking during a lecture involves little sensory-motor work, which normally helps cement learning in memory.
One of the reasons visual aids such as Microsoft® Office PowerPoint® are preferred for lectures is because they offer sensory stimulation, providing at least some perceptual imagery to associate with the ideas being conveyed. Although, like books, lectures can have illustrations, the student cannot study the illustrations in a lecture as long as he or she wants.
Human interaction usually helps to increase interest as well as physically engage the student, but during a lecture, there is very little interaction between student and teacher. Often the lecture is aimed at a large or general audience and thus cannot address individual student goals, interests and comprehension difficulties.
A student cannot stop the lecture to ask a question or request a further, clarifying explanation or replay what the lecturer said. Once confused, the student may find the rest of the lecture very difficult if not impossible to follow. Consequently, students often miss the important points and substantial content of the lecture.
In a lecture format, the best teachers attempt to address human learning needs by weaving their information into a story. Stories incorporate drama, character, values, passion, meaning, purpose, a climax and resolution. Winston Churchill was a master at this. This method utilizes human tendencies to search for meaning and purpose, to connect knowledge acquired to personal circumstances, and to remember people, places and things more easily than abstract ideas.
Excellent lecturers use plenty of concretes to make the information vivid and connected to real experience and, at least in imagination, to stir perceptual memory and bodily feelings of the listener. Imaginative work and bodily feelings help the student feel much more engaged in the material. Exceptional lecturer MIT physics professor Walter Lewin spends 30 hours and three practice trials developing each of the lectures for his remarkable classes.
The best learners are active learners. They can gain from almost any lecture; they come to a lecture motivated to learn for their own reasons. They expend extra effort in imagining their own examples in order to concretize the ideas they’re hearing. As they listen, they maintain an internal dialogue of questions with the lecturer, noting what they don’t understand and with what they take issue. They also tend to seek answers to their questions after the lecture.
Many teachers recognize that this kind of student is rare and usually has high intelligence, strong intellectual ambition, and great self-motivation. For the most part, traditional education methods do not nurture internal motivation and inherent interest in acquiring knowledge—qualities essential in the new global economy, which demands the ability to lithely move from job to job, or change careers.
A long school career of lectures, drills, memorization, and teaching methods out of tune with learning needs usually turns most students away from enthusiastic learning at school. They are only too often motivated mainly by external rewards of grades, adult approval, superior social position and the acquisition of credentials.
Unfortunately, lectures are so difficult to pay attention to, and psychologically painful for most students, that students work hard to avoid them. During lectures, young students often goof around; consequently, they learn that they are “bad” and “undisciplined.” They are expected to know how to force their attention on boring material.
Older students attempting to pass their courses seek low-energy ways to fulfill requirements while maximizing grades, such as the use of tape recordings, buying others’ lecture notes, or passing multiple choice tests without attending lectures.
These students aren’t inherently bad, they are responding to the high psychological costs of traditional education in a psychologically economical way. They more profitably spend their limited attentional resources elsewhere.
Sadly, they often feel guilt, frustration and anger for failing to live up to the traditional classroom’s expectations, with a nagging disappointment for what they’ve missed—or should have gotten—from education. Many students desperately need help to become “active learners,” interested in the material and in charge of their own education.
Integration—But Not the Kind You May Think I Mean
What college graduates do with the information they learn will now, more than ever, determine their competitive edge. Consequently it is imperative that education teach how to think, create and integrate what students learn in one subject with what they know from another with what to do with it to further their lives. Broad knowledge and capability to learn combined with the ability to deftly integrate new material into one’s repertoire is essential to become an adaptable Versatilist, capable of switching careers as the economy demands.
However, teaching methods and curricula need to take into account key psychological features that aid integration. Before valuable information and ideas can be stored in the mind’s subconscious, they have to pass through the conscious mind, which usually can handle only about seven discreet items at any one time (see George A. Miller’s 1956 psychological classic “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information“) If you’ve ever wondered why you need a list to remember what you have to do, here’s the reason, and it’s one of the reasons for the limited attentional resources of our conscious minds.
Ideas—abstractions—are the primordial human inventions that circumvent this limitation, because ideas incorporate myriad data into a single audio-visual concrete, a word or symbol. All instances of babies are integrated into the idea of “baby,” and you can apply what you know about babies to any individual baby you encounter. Voila! You’ve saved a lot of time and energy.
Ultimately, the integration of simple ideas, like those of colors or types of animals, into more abstract groupings like “mammal” make the human mind extremely powerful. Imagination and integration work together to produce the torrent that is human creativity. Integration of information into ideas and actions into skills is the psychologically economical way to use our limited conscious resources when thinking and solving problems.
The person who is a master at the careful, fact-based integration of knowledge is a highly effective thinker and actor.
This is the reason any good curriculum must emphasize work on subject matter across domains of knowledge, by studying works that integrate epistemology with poetry, science with history, philosophy with action, especially by asking students to relate what is learned in one class and course to with what is learned in another.
Part II: Creativity
Integration to Creativity
“What I cannot create, I do not understand.”—Richard Feynman
Integration of knowledge across broad ranges of subjects is a characteristic of creativity—and versatility. Research consistently finds that highly creative people tend to have very broad, as well as deep, interests and knowledge. They apply unconventional information and ideas to problems, integrating information in unusual ways across conventional subject areas.
Famed physicist Richard Feynman (at left) is a case in point.
Think of his brilliant demonstration of the space shuttle temperature problem, Challenger’s O-Ring: by dropping an O-ring in an ordinary glass of ice water, he simply and directly proved it could not stand up to low temperatures. His demonstration integrated an esoteric, bedeviling engineering problem with a mundane experience.
He was also famous for his wide-ranging interests, which included samba bands and experiments on ants. He put no limits on his curiosity about the world.
Feynman’s measured IQ was in the high range—124—but not what IQ test-makers consider genius (135+). Contrary to what many people think but consistent with research findings, most recognized geniuses do not have IQ’s in the 135+ range. Measured IQs of people considered to be geniuses are 116 or higher, apparently making an above average IQ a condition—but not a sufficient one—for high creativity. (Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity). (No one knows how individuals acclaimed as geniuses because of their work, such as DaVinci and Newton, would have scored on the test. Given the findings with current individuals, the results of an actual IQ test on Newton might surprise us!)
Unfortunately, IQ tests—and most tests—cannot measure working creativity and intelligence. In other words, they don’t adequately measure how intelligence is put into life’s service by creatively solving problems.
For example, the number of highly creative and successful business people who score average to low on SAT tests is indicative of the test’s inadequacy in measuring working intelligence.
Conditions other than IQ seem to be highly important to the development of creativity, conditions which we can create in educational settings, thereby enabling education to actively develop creativity, rather than stifle it.
For example, the tendency to amass information from close, first-hand observation is very important. Michael Faraday, (pictured here) exhibited this tendency par excellence as a young man: he had no formal education and knew only arithmetic, but discovered the laws of electromagnetism through fascinated observation of and experiments on nature.
A mind that is curious and constantly problem-solving is another characteristic of the creative. For example, the inventor of VELCRO, George Mestral noticed his dog became covered with burrs during a walk. Examining how the burrs use microscopic hooks to stick to the loops of his pant fabric, he realized he could make a new type of fastener. A little nature hike turned into a billion-dollar industry.
What’s needed in education to develop creativity?
“Our care of the [student] should be governed, not by the desire to make him learn things, but by the endeavor always to keep burning within him that light which is called intelligence.” — Maria Montessori
We cannot change what nature gives our students in terms of basic intelligence. However, we can offer a program that nurtures those abilities and habits of mind needed for creativity and productivity such as:
- Objective reasoning skills, not just in science and math, but all domains of knowledge, including such areas as art, history, and literature.
- Knowledge of a broad array of information, ancient and modern.
- Habits of connecting information and ideas from one domain of knowledge to another (the way highly creative people do), by:
- Teaching through works that are cross-domain, like Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, a work of moral philosophy that founded the study of economics, or Plato’s Meno, which examines history, epistemology, and social interaction.
- Guiding them to draw cross-disciplinary connections by example such as how a city’s buildings and layout are related to its history; pointing out examples of the way in which original thinkers made crucial connections, such as Newton’s connection of the apple’s fall with the idea of gravity.
- Curiosity through:
- Encouraging their questioning
- Modeling enthusiasm and inquiry about what is being studied
- Careful observation of the world through:
- Demonstrating careful observation and the relation of any idea to the facts on which it rests
- Questioning the observational/factual basis of their ideas
- Awareness and thinking about the meaning and purpose in life, by presenting a curriculum infused with deep questions which connect knowledge to living by:
- Always asking what any given fact or idea means to human life
- Asking of any knowledge: to whom is this information valuable and how will it be used?
Using the Great Books, what are often called the Classics, in the curriculum schools students in timeless ideas, of the best thinkers in civilization, useful in any era or place. These works are extremely influential today. They include works from philosophy to economics, mathematics to literature, history to science and more. Simultaneously, the Great Books’ authors and their ideas serve as examples of the highest in creative thinking skills.
Properly schooled to think deeply about these works, a student economically recognizes patterns, trends and influences everywhere in culture, from art to business, from job trends to medical discoveries.
One small example: Did you know that there was a time when people were confused about how something could be one thing now and another thing in the future? The ancient Greeks pondered this for some time. In the 400’s BCE, “What is, is,” said Parmenides, who believed existence is timeless and change impossible, a mere illusion. “I can’t step into the same river twice,” said Heraclitus, who argued that all was continuous change. The Greeks couldn’t reconcile how states and change could co-exist. How could something be an acorn now and yet the very same thing an oak tree later? They could not figure out how that worked.
It took the genius of ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle decades later to resolve this problem with the identification of the concepts of “actual” and “potential.” Try to imagine our world without these ideas—how could we think about science and technology, societies or evolution?
Students need to learn about such great ideas as Aristotle’s breakthrough, along with the important fact that so much we take for granted in our great civilization was invented by creative individuals all through the ages. And reflecting on concepts that we take for granted raises students’ analytic thinking skills. This is just one benefit of studying the Great Books.
Knowledge Across Categories
Carefully crafted assignments, classes can purposefully integrate knowledge from one domain to another and encourage students to find connections between seemingly disparate material, just like creative thinkers such as Feynman and Mestral. Teachers can urge students to constantly seek connections among these great ideas and between the ideas and our contemporary world. Unfortunately, most college curricula and faculties make no attempt to execute these crucial tasks.
Discussing the place that a fact, idea or theory has in human life should be a constant aim. Teachers should consistently require—and offer–—proof for statements and beliefs, and explicit logical arguments. Everyone should examine the premises from which they draw their conclusions. Facts and truth, however unpleasant, should be the standard. By modeling and emphasizing these practices, faculty can encourage students to have excellent observational skills.
How to deal with unpleasant facts without denying them should also be a highly encouraged skill. Teachers who model such thinking teach volumes. And teachers need training to insure these aims—something which the rare university professor gets.
Ultimately, by consistently applying these practices, students will learn the skills needed to think objectively.
“First We Must Inspire, Not Just Inform”
Maria Montessori, pictured at left, noted that the student is a “spiritual embryo,” with his or her own innate pattern of growth ready to unfold, delicately and amazingly, given the right psychological and physical environment. The teacher’s role in this unfolding cannot be underestimated.
Maria Montessori said: Teachers “have to conquer minds stirring up the great emotions of life,” to achieve real learning in students. In other words, teachers must tap into students’ deepest desires and values, such as love, joy, and pride, to motivate students. And, although Aristotle’s dicta “All men by nature desire to know” captures the human species’ trait of curiosity, curiosity can be squashed through ridicule or sapped through boredom by teachers—or coaxed into riotous flowering.
Great teachers are often transformative to the student, helping him or her learn to love knowledge and serious work, to acquire heightened reasoning skills, to look at many sides of a problem, to gather information from far-reaching domains in order to find solutions and to be self-reflective and reasonable – all important ingredients to future success.
Famed investor Warren Buffet, who did not want to go to college, said of his time achieving a master’s degree at Columbia University, “But I didn’t go there for a degree, I went for two teachers who were already my heroes.”
These principles necessitate teachers of the highest order: those with the utmost respect for their students, who can teach by example and guidance through difficult material. To encourage the development of particular values and virtues in students, faculty become essential as role models. For example, by embodying great thinking, respect for independent judgment, and deep appreciation of individual freedom, the faculty model the very values of a free society, reason, individualism, and freedom.
While it is possible to be competent in communicating information and in conveying some of these traits long distance, in-person interaction is the most compellingly effective method. It’s important to have a program that actively uses technology of all kinds to creatively facilitate learning and collaboration and make scholars and public intellectuals from around the world accessible to students. But in-person classes with skilled, specially trained role-model teachers are indispensible for a great education.
Let’s examine some ways teachers influence students.
Teachers and Activation Energy
Csikszentmihalyi notes that human beings have limited mental resources and energy when it comes to paying attention (focusing on material), and these should be used wisely. Hence, a good program keeps these factors in mind and seeks to facilitate attention. And interest is one of the key ingredients to minimizing the use of attentional energy.
A small group of people, like concert violinist Rachel Barton Pine, seem to find riveting interests when they are mere toddlers. This kind of person often barrels full speed ahead in what they want to do; but most people are not as definite or enthusiastic about any particular interest. Teachers can make a difference in the subjects in which students become interested and even their choice of profession.
Often, a passionate teacher triggers an individual’s interest in a new subject. A previously unknown, boring, or distasteful field becomes the person’s area of professional interest through their teacher. I’ve seen many a student with no previous interest in, or maybe even a repulsion to, cicadas or worms, become enthralled with them after an enthusiastic teacher shows them the fascinating parts of the worm, the weird way the cicada flies, or how to eat it. The teacher fuels what research psychologist Csikszentmihalyi calls “activation energy,” i.e. the energy invested in learning to do something new.
Many complex and deeply engaging areas of knowledge and skill require an enormous amount of unrewarding work before they become enjoyable. Ballet dancing, mastering physics, or successfully managing employees are a few examples. Initially, the learner must expend intense mental energy in order to focus on the learning and become interested in the subject or skill: this is the “activation energy.” Learning a musical instrument is a good example: the student spends hours practicing physical movements and enduring awful sonic productions before acquiring enough skill to make enjoyable music!
In the early 20th century, Montessori noted the same phenomena and realized its connection to teaching: “I believed that at the start the teaching material had to be associated with the voice of the teacher which called and roused the [students] and induced them to use the material and educate themselves,” Maria Montessori.
A great teacher like the character of Edward James Olmos in the movie “Stand and Deliver,” or Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society,” helps students through difficult material with contagious excitement and the ability to make it dramatically interesting and well-related to students’ deepest needs and values. This goes back to the principle that human interest drives learning.
Long-time Montessori teacher, Pat Schaefer, summed it up, “First: we must inspire, not just inform. Second: It is in relationship that the secret of [human learning] power is released.”
Teachers and Great Questions
On the precipice of full adult life, the college student needs answers to the great questions: “Why am I here?” ”How should I live?” ”How should I deal with other people?” “What should I do with my life?” If the student is not already asking himself these questions, it is his teacher’s job to show him how to ask them and how to find good answers.
Knowing how to pose the right questions can lead to a great awakening with unforeseen, amazing consequences. Forestry Consultant Charles Tomlinson often regaled friends and family with stories of his experience at The University of the South (called “Sewanee”) with “Abbo.” Charles claimed himself a rather complacent product of a middleclass Southern family when he encountered “Abbo,” English Professor Abbott Cotton Martin. Abbo spent considerable hours poking holes in everything Charles took for granted, from football to religion, with some English literature thrown in for good measure. This was Abbo’s stock-in-trade.
Abbo taught Charles to thoroughly question and examine what he thought he knew, as well as his beliefs. But Abbo didn’t just throw students in the water of quandaries, he made himself available to talk all during the week, not just during Sunday office hours. Charles learned to “check his premises” through Abbo’s prodding as well as reading Ayn Rand. The other wonderful teachers at Sewanee helped too. They inspired him to demand more of himself, leading to a long, creatively productive, exciting life.
This included deeply influencing many, many people, including Jaroslav Romanchuk, a major figure in the opposition to Belarus’ authoritarian government.
Active Listening and Independent Judgment
“Be “careful not to ask [your] questions of the [students]. Only when [students] seek to answer questions which they themselves ask, do they commit themselves to the hard work of finding answers that are meaningful to them…give only as much guidance and encouragement as is necessary to elicit the [students’] interest.” — Maria Montessori
Inspiration is the fundamental mission of the teacher, because of motivations’ deep importance to learning. Active Listening is a powerful teaching tool which promotes an inspiring relationship between teacher and student. For one thing, Active Listening conveys deep respect for the individual’s independence in thought and value.
Active Listening is a key skill enabling teachers to nurture independent judgment. The Active Listener authentically tries to understand what the other person means, empathizing with the other’s point of view by working hard to grasp his or her full context. This means trying to understand the other person’s level of knowledge about a subject, their age, what emotional issues may be affecting their thinking, and the set of ideas they are using to grasp the subject.
Active listening promotes the spread of truth. Only by Active Listening do we end up having a full idea of what the other person means and thereby gain the opportunity to respond with appropriate facts and reasoning.
Used in teaching, this means the Active Listener asks clarifying questions about the student’s terms, respectfully allowing the student time to finish what he or she is saying before responding and, importantly, conveying an attitude of alert interest in what the student says.
The Active Listener must try to leave aside any personal feelings about the subject and squash the desire to assert and forcefully drive home the rightness of his or her own opinion. These actions only serve to distract a student from deep thinking and learning by bringing in issues of social hierarchy, personal power, and self-worth (i.e., do I know enough, what does the teacher think of me, he’s got more status than I, I should listen to him). These issues elicit powerful, distracting emotions.
Further, the Active Listener tries to sense any motives in the student’s statements beyond the informational. For example, if a student in a class on Freud asks “What if a son is extremely fond and affectionate toward his mother—does that mean he has an Oedipus complex?” The teacher needs to be aware that the student’s study of Freud may have caused him to feel anxiety about his love for his mother. The teacher needs to respond with gentleness, general reassurance, and kindness.
Independent judgment is the well-spring of real choice, and good discussions nurture true individuality and judgment.. Unfortunately these days, teachers sometimes find it difficult to conduct good discussions because students have been led to believe all opinions are equal in value and everyone should open their mouths to babble whatever they wish, no matter how inaccurate or trivial. Resulting from the reign of the Post Modernist attack on objectivity, this belief cripples students’ minds by encouraging them to think that any opinion is acceptable, regardless of foundation, as long as it is theirs.
While stoking their egos by making them feel whatever they think is important, this practice stops them from learning that true, valuable opinion must be grounded in facts and good reasoning.
Postmodernist ideology further deforms a student’s concept of self by equating diversity with group membership. In the Post Modernist schema, one’s diversity depends on race or ethnic background or sexual preference rather than considered, ideological judgment. It promotes a collectivist concept of tribal or social diversity rather than true ideological difference.
In contrast, Active Listening in the classroom conveys a deep respect for the independence of the other person’s mind: the Active Listener takes the student’s ideological point of view seriously and tries to respond to it carefully. The aim of Active Listening is full understanding of what the other is saying in the service of arriving at truth. Just imagine the kind of productive political discussions we all might have if we used these principles!
Some people have a rare, natural ability or tendency to listen like this, but since it can be learned, there’s hope for the rest of us. It is also typical of the Montessori teacher, because of his or her deep training in careful observation of students.
For university students, we can bring together all the elements I’ve discussed through a special way of crafting curriculum by a special methodology which the teachers can use.
Part IV. Socratic Practice: A Methodology That Serves Young Adult Needs
“It is a sign of crudity and indigestion to throw up what we have eaten in the same condition it was swallowed down; and the stomach has not performed its office, if it has not altered the figure and shape of what was committed to it for concoction…Let the tutor make his pupil thoroughly sift everything he reads, and lodge nothing in his fancy upon mere authority…To the fragments borrowed from others he will transform and bend together to make a work that shall be absolutely his own; that is to say, his judgment. His education, labor, and study aim only at forming that.” — Michael Montaigne
Socratic Practice is a formidable discussion methodology that, when used properly, incorporates Active Listening at its best and nurtures reasoning skills and independence powerfully. Classrooms using Socratic Practice are active learning environments, intellectually, socially, and physically engaging. By encouraging the learners to ask their own questions of what they are studying, the motivating power of individual interest is harnessed. Furthermore, because they are so engaging, Socratic Practice discussions don’t tax attentional resources, making learning much easier and enjoyable; students often get into a Flow state, forgetting how much time is passing because they are engaged.
I am referring to a very specific, carefully crafted methodology of teaching, which I will describe shortly. Some of you may have been to classes called Socratic Seminars which are quite different from what I mean. In these, a teacher might ask a question like “What is justice?” and then proceed to tell students they’re wrong when they give an answer the teacher doesn’t want. Well, that’s wrong; Socratic questioning is meant to develop the student’s ability to think about a subject, not to test them and catch them when they are wrong or call them on the carpet for the right answer.
Teachers looking for the right answer encourage students to focus on pleasing the teacher, not on thinking for himself or herself. But the truly excellent teacher aims at helping students learn how to find the right answer themselves.
Students often view school as the place to feed back the answer the teacher wants to hear, not learn new knowledge in order to figure out the truth with their own powers. Teachers skillfully using Socratic Practice often have to spend time rehabilitating students after a lifetime of being told what to learn, what is the “right” answer—or that any answer is right, with no standard of truth.
Consequently, in the beginning of a program using Socratic Practice, the teacher (often called “tutor,” i.e. guide to learning) must work especially hard to shape the learning environment. Just as in any Montessori school, the prepared environment is a key to success in developing the thriving, independent-minded learner.
For the college level, these are the conditions that foster good discussion and develop excellent reasoning and social skills, as well as a strong sense of autonomy:
Physically, the environment must be quiet. All participants are required to respect the appointed time of discussion, with no phone calls, text messages, etc. They sit in a circle facing each other. Attention must be on the discussion, and all participants are expected to have read the assigned text.
Psychologically, the tutor shapes the environment by many principles. He or she requires a formal politeness among discussants, to encourage rational, civil discourse. Sometimes participants must address each other by title and last name (e.g., Ms. Smith and Mr. Murphy).
The tutor picks a text or work that has rich meaning and is well-made. It is most often a text but can be other things such as a painting, sculpture, building, or experiment. The Great Books classics are often used because they embody “The best that has been thought and said” and because they powerfully combine ideas and knowledge from multiple domains, aiding the work of integration. The right piece elicits many interesting thoughts and questions in the participants’ minds. This becomes the meat to explore in the discussion. The goal of the discussion is to reason together about the material, in order for each person to arrive at his or her own, independent judgment about the piece and the ideas and values discussed. Participants think together to think independently. The tutor guides the discussion by evidence-based rules as follows:
- Ask questions of the text and each other.
- Cite the text to give evidence for your ideas and interpretations.
- Try to make connections between the ideas in the text and what other participants say, and your life.
- Each person takes responsibility for his or her own learning and for the quality of the conversation; if you would like to change the direction of a discussion, please feel free to ask the other participants if they are okay with that; then if they are, proceed.
- Treat the other participants respectfully.
- References to material outside of the text must be cogently linked to the text and discussion at hand, and explained in general principle, comprehensible to general reasoning. References dependent on knowledge not available to every participant are not considered cogent to the discussion.
- Be concise.
- In the discussion, reason is the only authority. This means no person is the authority on the text, but each must use logic and facts to support their opinions.
Unless a student starts the discussion, the tutor leads off with a thoughtful question about the reading—or often a factual question if the material is mathematical or scientific. The tutor always finds a question to which he or she genuinely wants to know the answer. This initiates a real inquiry. Students recognize leading questions requiring prescribed answers—which cuts off the student’s own thinking.
Learning to reason objectively about complex material requires the willingness to entertain possibly incorrect ideas in order to examine them fully, to measure them against the facts, and to analyze their rational foundation.
The tutor skillfully encourages questions and comments evincing an earnest search for truth, while discouraging or disallowing talk in which the student is proving his knowledge or disingenuous agreement with the tutor.
For example, during a seminar on Aristotle’s Politics, the tutor might deflect a student who says “Richard McKeon says that Aristotle’s politics…” from lecturing about these details by a question such as “What does Aristotle say that makes you think that is true?” The tutor aims to bring the discussion back to the facts of the text studied, plus the student’s own experience and reasoning. In order for the discussion to be excellent, all participants should be able to judge the facts discussed for themselves, firsthand. If a participant brings up a lot of facts and claims he alone knows, how can anyone else examine those claims firsthand? Instead, the tutor encourages observations of the facts, generalizations closely derived from the facts, and conclusions reasoned from the facts of the work the entire class is studying together. Any outside material must be explained in general terms, understandable to general reasoning.
The tutor must walk a fine line, skillfully encouraging excellent reasoning while being careful not to discourage students from talking because they might have errors in their arguments. If a student is too fearful of looking foolish or feeling humiliated when caught in an error, he or she won’t explore complex ideas thoroughly enough to find out if they are true.
To help students be more consciously aware of how to reason well, both inductively (e.g., how to make an accurate generalization) and deductively (e.g., how to derive a conclusion from already-given facts and ideas) the tutor gives students extra, explicit instruction in reasoning skills and logic. Sessions on logical fallacies especially valuable in sharpening students’ awareness of reasoning’s pitfalls.
When Socratic Practice is implemented well, the group engages in excellent objective reasoning, learning from each other because each person brings their understanding and thoughtful interpretation of what the text and its implications mean. The tutor doesn’t aim at a “right interpretation,” yet it is common to see well-functioning groups reasoning together arrive at solid conclusions, conclusions an expert would reach, about the meaning of very difficult texts, whether Plato’s Meno, Einstein’s Relativity, or Mises’ Human Action.
An excellent seminar leader asks intriguing, deep questions respectfully, keeps discussion on important topics but lets students diverge from the set topic if it means exploring something important and meaningful to them. Clearly, much art and judgment is involved, which is why extensive training is necessary.
To be a good listener, a teacher must be a careful observer. As a scientist, Maria Montessori, incorporated the scientific method into her teacher-training program. She urged her teachers to spend time every day sitting back and watching the students work, interact with each other and deal with problems. In this way, teachers learn a great deal about each student, their interests, abilities and difficulties, thus enabling the teacher to guide him or her well. Observe, empathize, respect—these are the basics of good teaching.
The only way teachers can learn these methods is by intensive questioning and self-reflective experience. Guidance by mentors with great knowledge and skill, plus plenty of experience, helps. Such training should be a key component of every teacher’s education—yet few university professors get any training in teaching at all. Good professors know their area of expertise, from philosophy to physics. But whether they know the subject of human learning and development is idiosyncratic.
The evidence that the methods of Socratic Practice, consistently applied, increases cognitive skills is strong. Our advisor, Michael Strong, extensively discusses these methods in The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice.
Strong established remarkable programs in four high schools around the country. He measured program outcomes with the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal, a cognitive skills test correlated with performance on intelligence tests and college entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT. Administering this instrument before, during and after a year at school, he found cognitive skill gains ranging, for example, from 30% to 84%. The mean score of one school’s 9th grade group moved from below the national 9th grade mean to above the 12th grade mean in one year, while one inner city student who scored at the 1st percentile on the initial test, scored at the 85th percentile by the end of four months. While more work is needed to fully validate his results, they were consistent from school to school. Any teacher would be proud to so deeply help students learn to think well.
Professor John Tomasi implemented this method in his hugely successful special program, The Political Theory Project at Brown University. He says: “Kids are sick and tired of being told what to think. They want to make up their own minds. They want to be challenged.” The kind of work done through Socratic Practice discussions of the Great Books does exactly that.
Scott Buchanan, architect of the Great Books program at St. John’s College, voiced the ultimate goal: “Have you allowed adverse evidence to pile up and force you to conclude that you are not mathematical, not linguistic, not poetic, not scientific, not philosophical? If you have allowed this to happen, you have arbitrarily imposed limits on your intellectual freedom, and you have smothered the fires from which all other freedoms arise.”
The Delicacy of the Young Spirit
Achievement and success require the vision of the possible and the ability to weather the actual.
To navigate the stormy waters of life, the difficulties, the disappointments, the setbacks and the failures, students need cognitive skills and plenty of encouragement and emotional fuel. They need great examples of other human beings who have successfully dealt with many difficulties.
As the scientific findings of Positive Psychology have recently identified, knowledge and cognitive skills integrate with emotional habits and character traits. Healthy, successful, happy people tend to have cognitive habits that deeply influence their emotional tone in a positive direction.
Models are particularly important as they provide concrete experience and A higher education program should always include instruction about human achievement and what makes it possible, both existentially and psychologically. Further, the teachers should implement his or her best attributes:
- commitment to clearly knowing what he or she knows and doesn’t know (the first step on the path of objectivity);
- passion for learning new material and integrating it with other knowledge;
- commitment to modeling the highest virtues of the free person, including honesty, responsibility and respect for the rights of others;
- commitment to the restless pursuit of personal improvement and growth;
- willingness to submit to careful investigation and evaluation in order to improve.
Through embodying these virtues, the teachers inspire students to the highest ends of the free man and woman.
To prepare a young person for life as a free, autonomous individual, capable of making his or her own choices and putting them into action, an excellent curriculum should endeavor to educate the student in the full range of ideas, history, and knowledge. This means using the works of the Classics as well as modern science, and significant modern works, which should include the usually neglected works of the liberty movement. The curriculum should include the study of philosophy as the basis of all knowledge and self-understanding, but also take into consideration findings in scientific psychology and neuroscience. And the teachers and other staff should be available to help students in many aspects of their lives.
This way, students come away from their education armed with inspiring and invigorating knowledge, skills, experiences, and habits that help them achieve their goals.
Published originally at TheSavvyStreet.com, Spring 2015