You Were Right about those Grammar Worksheets being Pointless

By and large, the research is pretty clear: putting grammar worksheets in front of students and diagramming sentences simply does not improve student writing or correct grammar.

I have officially lost your interest. After all, what subject is less interesting than grammar?

But bear with me for a moment while I ask the underlying question: why are we still doing it this way? Why are we still diagramming sentences in classrooms and why are children still drilled in grammar worksheets and correctness? Even though reading and discussing stories and writing essays of personal interest yields far more correct knowledge than grammar worksheets, worksheets thrive.

My answer: sloth.

There is a point up to which shrugging and saying, “follow procedure” may be okay, but when we see a procedure failing over and over and over, and we refuse to change it, we become complicit in its failure. Schools do not exist for grammar worksheets, they exist for students; holding to a failing procedure no longer serves the students, but serves the procedure.

Now, I don’t want you to think I’m picking on teachers, because this is all of us. I doubt there’s any occupation or activity that doesn’t have “grammar worksheets” of its own. There are ineffective ways of living and working that we all slump into despite a lurking, hidden self-knowledge we constantly push away. Unconsciously, we convince ourselves that it is easier to continue pursuing stale, ineffective routes than to tear them down and build something new.

Sloth is not a sin we talk about very often in church these days. Perhaps that’s because we live in such an anxious, fast-paced environment that it doesn’t feel like this stressful life allows any time for sloth. But, I wonder if adopting useless procedures is a caffeinated culture’s way of being slothful by refusing to take the time or expend the energy to choose an effective, virtuous method.

(If you’re interested in a good overview of research on teaching grammar, see Constance Weaver’s Teaching Grammar in Context.)

Do I Want a Theologian or Philosopher?

When I was at Biola University, a conservative evangelical Bible college including the Talbot School of Theology, one of my anthropology professors talked about how Talbot professors served to screen every incoming professor in every discipline so that there was not accidentally an anarchist-feminist-atheist-environmentalist professor subverting students’ faith. There has even been trouble about having Eastern Orthodox professors at the university, given its evangelical Protestant leanings. Not only do you have to be a Christian to teach at Biola, you have to be the right kind of Christian! In my experience, Talbot oversight of the Biola faculty has been decently open-minded about acceptance of faculty with alternative views on some subjects, and theologians are not authorities beyond what they have studied. In any case, there is an important question to ask: When do I need a theologian, and when do I need a philosopher? Continue reading Do I Want a Theologian or Philosopher?

Education: Should We Teach the Bible in Public Schools?

Joe Carter summarized the debate rather nicely, including two opposing viewpoints, over at the Gospel Coalition this past week:

The Issue: Roma Downey and her husband Mark Burnett, the producers of the History channel’s hit mini-series The Bible, recentlyargued in the Wall Street Journal that it’s “time to encourage, perhaps even mandate, the teaching of the Bible in public schools as a primary document of Western civilization.”

The two sides of the issue presented in the article are simple: either you think that we should avoid teaching the Bible in our public schools because the material will not be taught in accordance with any Christian beliefs, or you think we should teach it, simply because any exposure to the Word of God is good. Joe concludes that:

The Bible is a foundational document of Western culture and any student unfamiliar with the text will fail to understand the thousands of references, allusions, and metaphors used in art, literature, and history.

And, well, he’s spot on.

But let’s step further down this rabbit hole, for a moment. The reason that the Bible is so deeply embedded in Western culture is because of the influence of Christianity. Even authors of great books of the Western canon who were not believers were familiar enough with Scripture to reference or make use of it. My high school reading list certainly had Biblical allusions that most of my classmates missed; I didn’t catch them all, either, simply because it was far too easy to separate my Sunday School classes with my government-mandated ones.

That said, the further I studied the Bible in an academic setting–admittedly a setting characterized by belief rather than doubt–the more I learned when I read just about anything else, particularly from Western history. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Spenser, Kant, Hume, Descartes: all of these authors become richer the more immersed in the Bible you are. The cultural value of the Bible seems reason enough to include the Bible in our public school curriculum, regardless of how it is taught.

But  maybe we can go a step further.

I suspect that while it would be valuable to teach the Bible in schools, it would be further beneficial to have it taught by someone who had studied it professionally, and preferably from a standpoint of belief. This will likely fall on deaf ears for many, but hear me out. I don’t intend to turn cultural appreciation of the Bible into through-and-through evangelism. But if education is intended to form individuals into thinking members of society, and if a part of that is understanding the texts which form our society, then it makes sense to give the Bible a fair reading. While a believer would not be the only sort of person who could teach the Bible adequately for the purpose of understanding the vast number of allusions present in the Western canon, there’s something to be said for encouraging sympathy to a position many of the authors we already read held. It’d be easy to write off allusions as simple foolishness if the Bible were simply taught as a book of lies; at the very least, let’s just teach it as another story book, with a nod to the fact that many believe it to be true, to some degree or another.

The counter-point to my suggestion is that we have to keep the church and the state separate: religious education, particularly when arguing for an inclusion of only the Bible, ought to take place outside of the public school system. There’s merit here, but I think the stronger point is still in favor of teaching the Bible, as an academic source. If we can better understand the texts we are already reading by studying the Bible–and the fact that we read these texts suggests they are important to understand–then it seems simple foolishness to avoid teaching at least the basic stories of the Bible in our school systems. Why not read Paul alongside Franklin and Lincoln, the Gospels alongside Shakespeare, and Proverbs alongside Machiavelli? There’s little to be lost and much to be gained.

The purpose, after all, wouldn’t to force religious belief onto those who don’t believe, or even onto the public at large; rather, the intention is to educate well, and education includes adequate background research. Surely the Bible is a part of our Western canon: let’s learn it well.

Your Mind and Your Bible Study: A Lesson in Compatibility

Research in education suggests that individuals have unique ways they best process, organize, and understand new information. If you’re curious about your ways of learning, here’s a great link to one test (it’ll take 10 minutes tops. Click “Learning Style Descriptions” at the bottom of your results page for explanations).

So, what does this have to do with Bible study?

In general, students are taught study techniques as though learning is a one-size-fits-all enterprise; this goes for Bible study as much as it goes for academic study. One of the best time investments for anyone to make is learning how they learn, reflecting on that process, stopping techniques that don’t work for them, and incorporating techniques that do.

When approaching your Bible study methodology, perhaps praying about what you’ve been told is the right method to study the Bible and about the way God designed your own learning modalities can help move you toward the best ways for you to learn and internalize the most important thing we study: Scripture. Here’s a couple attempts toward how you might think about incorporating into your Bible study the way God designed your learning process.

Active or Reflective?

If you took the test above, you saw that active learners work best by trying out an activity first, and reflective learners understand better if they have time to think about it before trying it out.

What does this mean for Bible study? Bible studies tend to be very reflective. If you’re very active, it may feel like you’re spinning your wheels when you try out the reflective methods your pastor or bible study book describes, like meditating or journaling. Since active learners prefer studying in groups, you may benefit from being part of a ministry that includes a group Bible study.

Sensing or Intuitive?

Probably the least helpful names for the most helpful concept, the difference between sensing and intuitive learners is a little complicated. Sensors like practicality, facts, and well-established methods, while they dislike abstract ideas and messy categories. Intuiters prefer innovation, possibilities, and abstractions, while they dislike memorization and slow, detailed work.

Fortunately, traditional Bible study practices reflect both of these, but it’s helpful to be conscious of how our methods fit or stretch our learning styles. Reading all over Scripture with varying questions in mind may be more helpful for Intuitors than memorizing the numerical references of the Bible verses they learn. Reading straight from Genesis to Revelation every year may be a better practice for the Sensor, who enjoys details and repetition more than the Intuitor.

But, the biggest difference is that Sensors like to know what to do with information, while Intuitors feel like application is of secondary importance to deep understanding. Keep in mind that both knowledge and practice are vital outcomes of Bible study, and remember to self-correct if you’re leaning too far to either side.

Visual or Verbal?

Visual learners understand best through images; verbal learners understand best through words, either read or spoken. If you’re verbal, pretty much every Bible study technique ever conceived is perfect for you. Congrats – it’s good to be you.

If you’re a visual learner, you probably haven’t had many Bible study materials that complimented your learning style. A Bible study suggestion I heard on one occasion was keeping a devotional sketching journal. Instead of responding to your Bible reading by writing words about the text, respond to it by drawing it; either draw the concept or draw the scene described. The quality of drawing isn’t important, of course; it doesn’t have to be a work of art to help you see Scripture a little better. Still, if drawing people or places is too daunting, you could always draw diagrams, flow charts, or color-coded graphs. Or, you could color-code your highlighting – every verse about trusting God could be in blue.

Sequential or Global?

Does studying details lead you to comprehension of the big picture slowly and gradually? Can you use the parts comfortably before understanding the whole? Then, you’re a sequential learner. Or, do you need the big picture before you can make heads or tails of the parts? Once you get the big idea, do the parts all slip into place? Then, you’re a global learner.

I remember trying to follow a Bible study program that involved underlining verbs and highlighting different people within the passage in different colors. You were supposed to fully understood each verse before moving onto the second. (I test as 100% global; I quickly stopped doing my Bible study until I determined I’d better just do something else). For a sequential learner, this may be an excellent way to go. The global learner may want to skim a larger passage, write down the key points, then closely read back through the text to understand how each part relates to the whole which they already understand.

The Torrey Honors Institute hires Dr. Chris Mitchell

Today, the Torrey Honors Institute announced that they have hired Dr. Chris Mitchell. It’s an exciting development, for a few reasons. First, as Matt Anderson notes,  “It doesn’t seem very often in the world of Christian higher education that people who are well established at leading institutions leave for different confines, especially when their responsibilities involve directing the highest profile center for C.S. Lewis in America.” Second, a scholar who has spent as much time with C.S. Lewis as Dr. Mitchell has is bound to share the vision for a classical education that Torrey has always attempted to work out in the real world (and, by my estimation, has succeeded in doing). Third, it shows that the Torrey Honors Institute is not only growing, but seeking to continue to support her students by hiring world-class faculty. The program has grown over the years, and already has first-rate professors, but still continues to seek and hire the best of the best. Dr. Mitchell even began his interaction with the program at the request of current professors, which shows that through-and-through, Torrey is interested in educating students in the best material and with the best resources available.

Dr. Fred Sanders, of the Torrey Honors Institute, recently interviewed Dr. Mitchell. When asked about the relationship between the great books curriculum and theology (particularly the amount of Bible read during the year), Dr. Mitchell had this to say:

The matter of being able to skillfully relate our learning of the faith to our learning of the world and our experience of the faith with our experience of the world is central to the life of every believer. It is a truth that informs my own practice and is one of the chief aims of my teaching and mentoring. The fact that the Torrey Honors Institute gives the entire Bible a central place within its curriculum demonstrates a clear commitment to this truth. Moreover, the program’s chosen form of pedagogy lends itself well to effectively achieving this indispensable skill. To be yoked with other like-minded teachers in a program that aims at inculcating this art is, once again, highly attractive.

It’s a response demonstrative of just how well Dr. Mitchell will fit in with Torrey. I’m excited to welcome him into the fold, so to speak, and look forward to his work out here in Southern California.

“You’re Just Plain Wrong (And Probably Evil)”: Adult Intellectual Development

“It gives them an excuse to push their own agenda on guns,” the words rolled out from under his mustache while he leaned back in his chair, agitated. “I think they’re glad it happened.” Glad it happened? I reeled a little with disbelief. How could he possibly think so?

There are three stages to the intellectual growth in adults (according to Perry’s scheme of development.)

In the first, all is black and white. The first stage means entering a math class and wanting the teacher to hand you formuli to memorize, but not wondering who wrote the formuli or why they work. All the facts of a discipline are unquestioned, and people in the first level tend to get irritated by professors who problematize or contextualize information. Think of the Pharisees, who have trouble acknowledging anything beyond the letter of the law.

In the second stage of development, adult learners swing to the other extreme. Challenged by enough cases where the rules don’t hold, they throw out all the rules. All knowledge becomes opinion, and there is no reason for one opinion to be more valid than another.

In the third and final stage of development, adult learners recognize that, though there are a variety of opinions, some views are more valid, more coherent, and more supported by evidence than others. In this stage, there are many ideas that reasonable people may hold, but one is the most true, and that is the view the adult adopts.

This development framework explains quite a bit. For instance, years ago, I assigned an elementary student an essay on the pros and cons of school uniforms. Opposed to uniforms, she spun one-dimensional and sometimes almost evil arguments on her opponent’s behalf. The implication was clear: to hold the opposite view from her own, someone would have to be the devil himself. Developmentally, this makes sense; the suggestion that someone might sympathize with her opponent appears to someone in the first stage of development as a call to switch sides.

To my mind, refusal to acknowledge legitimate aspects of opposing views reveals small faith in or understanding of one’s own view. After all, if the only thing you can imagine being better than is Satan, this doesn’t suggest a very high opinion of your own viewpoint.

As the adult’s understanding of the truth of her own view becomes big enough and strong enough to do battle against intelligent counter-arguments and still come out the winner, her understanding reveals genuine rooting in reality. If they believe their view is smarter than a smart view, they generally reveal more faith and understanding than those who believe their view is smarter than a stupid view.

So, what about this mustachioed, agitated young fellow?

If I ask him to acknowledge the non-Satan-hood of his opponent, he will think I’m asking him to switch sides, since his world is built on extremes. The only thing to be done is to ask him to move forward, to build a more intelligent understanding of others’ views and, so, of his own. Revealing respect for an opposing viewpoint is the only way to convince me that you genuinely understand and believe in your own.

Memorization in the MRI Machine

Last Wednesday, I went to the radiologist for an MRI (at the risk of spoilers, I’ll say upfront that the results came back totally clean). The doctor packed cushions around my head so it couldn’t move, squeezed earplugs in my ears to dim the jack-hammer sound of the machine, and then pushed the button and slid me into the narrow plastic tube. As she watched me disappear, she said “This’ll take about 40 minutes.” The sterile throat of the beast swallowed me, and I lay inside the machine.

My heart rate picked up with increasing claustrophobia: the containment, immobility, and, oh, crap, I forgot to ask them what to do if I just wanted to be let out, what do I do if I want out – I can’t move and they can’t hear me, can they? They’re in the other room, and that big, solid door  –

I grabbed hold of the reins of my mind, arresting my panic and launching my mind speedily onto familiar tracks: memorized words. “There is yet faith, but the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.” Yes, waiting. More Eliot, “Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky….” Breathing smoothly again. T.S. Eliot soothed my pulse until he brought up Michelangelo, who marks the end of my memorization.

Then, inside my head, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want;” that one I knew all the way through. I snuck in a few prayers for those I know whose hearts are going through the valley of the shadow of death (now that my mind was calm enough to construct its own sentences), then launched into Psalm 30. I stumbled for the words at the end. However, trying to pick up the pieces and put it all in the right order was no problem; I had the time for it.

My mind wandered, comfortably, from piecing together forgotten endings to musing about memorization. In classes on education, I’ve frequently listened to professors and classmates deride memorization. It’s true: rote knowledge does not constitute complete learning. Besides, they argue, it isn’t necessary – the internet satisfies those needs, anyway. Of course, in the magnetic marvel of medical technology within which I lay, the Psalms and J. Alfred Prufrock were closer to me than Wikipedia and Google. At least for these 40 minutes, I had gone where my MacBook couldn’t follow.

But, in terms of justifying memorization as a good practice, what does that amount to, really? How often does anyone need an MRI? Are there other cases where memorization helps? And, not just memorizing facts for your career for which you need quick and easy access, but even memorizing poetry and scripture and things you don’t urgently need to act upon?

Unless, perhaps, you do need those things urgently, at times. Maybe the sudden, quick decisions of real life rest on what’s already in your mind. Sometimes, a little word will trigger a memory, and your mind – starting from some term like “rest” – performs a quick search and accesses, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” It comes suddenly, when the words are memorized, and lets you make the quick decision about how to react to your circumstance. Having good words and thoughts and beauty constantly within your reach has applications outside that MRI machine.

It didn’t feel like 40 minutes when the machine calmly released me back into the world. The initial panic had lasted 30 seconds, and was the longest part. The doctor returned to free my head and have me sit up.

“How was it?” she asked.

“Kind of relaxing, to be honest.”

Utter Failure: Learning to Drive a Stick Shift

There’s a chasm of difference between doing what you knew you could and doing what you thought you couldn’t.

When I was 14, my dad bought a black sedan we called Shadow. At the dealer, he selected one particular attribute because, “You’re about to start driving”: Shadow was a manual transmission. I would learn to drive on mom’s automatic. The whole purpose of Shadow was to be dad’s car.

Four years later on the street in front of our home, dad found himself jerking back and forth in Shadow’s passenger’s seat while I eeked shaking, sputtering false starts out of the transmission. Again, he explained, “Push in the clutch, and move into first gear. Then, gaaaah! — ” and the car lunged. Then, died. Again. My dad is a patient sort of man, and it took him four little training sessions to give up on me.

My mom’s turn began in a parking lot where Wal-Mart used to be. I clicked into the driver’s seat. Inept, but knowledgeable, I depressed the pedal and turned the key, then released. Shadow leapt, my mom’s head bobbled front to back, and the familiar red light shone on the dashboard, marking defeat. “Good try,” she said. “Now, remember to put it in neutral before you turn it on–HOLD THE BRAKE!” We sunk backward in panic for three long seconds as I pumped gas into the engine, mistaking one pedal for another while Shadow growled his agitation. At 8:34, mom decided to take a walk while I practiced getting into first gear.

From my bedroom desk that night, I could hear my parents agreeing in the other room. On the wall between them and me, ribbons for dramatic speech, plaques for charcoal and pencil and painting, and a great, big valedictorian trophy cast shadows. I was 18, and everything I had ever tried had come pretty easy, if I put a little time in (sometimes a very little time). Behind every ribbon was a time when I couldn’t lose – always a matter of “good” or “better.” It was a wall full of “A+”s that might otherwise have been “A”s. Below, parallel parked on the street, Shadow sat. My first outright, no question “F”. For my untrained hands, Shadow was as mobile as a fat man on a barstool. Pitted against a manual transmission, I wasn’t between “good” and “better,” I was solidly in the failing camp. And, strangely enough, no one but me would really know or care if I failed.

I climbed into Shadow the next morning. I turned the key, and he yanked forward for just a moment, then quit and the red fail light flashed.

“10:44,” I said. “The last time I ever stalled Shadow was at 10:44.” I flipped the key left, breathed in the cool winter air, and twisted the key right. I heard the engine whir. Then, I tried to ease off the clutch as I shifted into first. Shadow flatly died.

“10:44 and thirty seconds,” I said aloud. “The last time I ever stalled Shadow was at 10:44 and 30 seconds.” Once again, I shifted the key back, took a long breath, and started the engine. That morning, I crept some 5 feet forward over 30 minutes. Conveniently, he was still basically parked where he had been at 10:43.

Afraid of whiplash, no one else would get in the car with me. Yet, every day for two weeks, I spent thirty minutes stalling and sputtering and jolting and irking. And, slowly, I watched the minutes between stalls lengthen. I could get him moving in first gear within nine days. Second gear proved another full-week challenge, but after that, third and fourth and fifth came easy. Of course, reverse was a freebie.

Finally, at the dinner table one night, I replied to some question or other, “I deposited my check at the bank today.”

“How did you do that?” mom wondered. Mom and dad had both driven their cars to work, and no one was around to give me a ride.

“I drove Shadow,” all nonchalant.

“To the bank?”

“Yep. He ran just fine.”

Three years later, the night before graduating, my friends and I gathered at our little rented house to preen. One friend, straightening her hair, cooed, “Think about what this represents, this diploma. Four years of work, tons and tons of effort. I’m so proud of it! This diploma is the greatest accomplishment of my life.” They nodded.

“I don’t know,” I dissented. “I worked hard for my B.A., and I’m really excited to have earned it. But, for me, I don’t think anything I’ve done took as much as learning to drive a stick shift.” Whatever the outcome, there’s a chasm of difference between doing what you knew you could and doing what you thought you couldn’t.

The End of the Semester and the Horror of Free Time

It’s that time. The end of semester.

A time of cookies and coffee and rest and parties and papers. Time for cozy pajamas and creating lists of all the books I’ve wanted to read for the last few months, but haven’t had the time.

It’s time. Free time.

The first few days after every semester, it hits like a wave of acid across the ground I’ve been standing on. What? I have time? I can choose what I do? I…I don’t have to write 15 pages by the end of this week…There’s nothing to procrastinate from?

What does one do with this “freedom” thing?

I tend to follow a pretty predictable pattern.

First is the “Finally Stage.” I finally get to do all the behaviors I longed for when the homework kept me nailed to the desk – watching movies, painting my nails, sleeping. After a few days immersed in the activities I use to procrastinate, I’ll get bored of them. Some things are only fun if you’re using them as an excuse not to do something else (see Youtube).

Then, there’s the “Self-Syllabus Stage.” Gathering all the scraps and notes wherein I’ve jotted titles of interesting books, I compile a list of 1,753 works I will read over the next three days, and frame a plan for accomplishing this task.

Immediately, I return to the “Finally Stage,” now that there’s something to procrastinate from.

Slowly, the list fades out of expectation. That’s when the procrastination ends. The planning ends. The over-use and under-use of freedom swings to its natural stop, and the reaction to the end of the semester fades away. The motivations and activities morph. Then, one day, I pick up a book because I want to, without a list to check off. That’s the moment freedom blooms – when I can choose the once stressful activities without being stressed. When I can read a book without watching the clock, or when I can get out of bed early without the pressure of class.

Freedom is a terrifying thing. It requires more from you than sets of rules and syllabi, and it leaves you responsible if things go wrong. But, after the transition shock, when the activities unfreedom forced on you become valid choices, again, and you don’t need to impose unfreedom on yourself to accomplish them, genuine, non-reactive freedom feels clear and fresh and worth all the risk and effort it requires.

Image via Flickr.

I like my iPhone, and Jesus does, too

“In the early Christian icons,” my priest explained. “You can tell the Christians from the non-Christians by the technology they’re using. The non-Christians are reading from old scrolls, but the Christians stand flipping cooly through books in the codex form. The early Christians were right on the cutting edge of technology.” Continue reading I like my iPhone, and Jesus does, too