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    Norms and Nobility: Chapter Three

    August 6, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    Where, exactly, does learning take place? The answer to this question quite jumped off the page at me during my reading of chapter three of Norms and Nobility. I spent time reading one particular paragraph over and over while I tried to grasp all the ramifications, and I think this is important:

    What a child can do should not be the sole judge of what the student is asked to do. “A pupil from whom nothing is ever demanded which he cannot do, never does all he can,” wrote John Stuart Mill…The activity of learning takes place in a no-man’s land between what the student can accomplish and what he may not be able to accomplish. This fact sets up a creative tension in education, to which both student and teacher must become accustomed and responsive.

    At the Child’s Level?

    Norms and Nobility
    by David Hicks

    One of the ideas I have run into lately in conversations and articles I’ve read is that children must have everything catered to them at the exact “level” they are at, and this is often applied to school learning, Sunday School, music they listen to, books they read, and even the food they eat. We have, as a culture, manufactured an entire children’s culture based on this premise.

    And now we are complaining, as a culture, that men do not grow up and leave home and get jobs and take wives, that women spend time preening themselves like junior highers, that everyone under the age of 25 is incapable of an adult thought. These generalizations are not completely true, but I’ve read articles that assert all of these things. Perhaps its inventors did not anticipate that it would be difficult to graduate from “children’s culture?”

    We can see in our own lives that if everything we encounter is exactly catered to where we are at, we will not grow. We will not be stretched. We will not mature in the areas where we are petty. We will not defeat any particular ignorance we might have.

    Now, we take a child, who was created to be in a state of dynamic growth, and we tell him that this is the world for him, and please don’t bother the adults. These children will have stunted growth. They will be misshapen in some way by the end of their childhood.

    The Place Between

    I loved that Hicks said that learning occurs in that place between what the child can and cannot do or accomplish. This is a mysterious place, and as such should be approached with appropriate levels of respect and kindness, and also firmness.

    I began to think of Box A and Box B. Inside of Box A is everything the child can already do, everything they already know, etc. {If you have a child like one of my children, then Box A isn’t always certain and you might have to sort through it every once in a while to make sure everything is still there, but still this is pretty solid as far as metaphors go.} Inside of Box B is Everything Else, the whole entire world of ideas, both known and unknown. You will never get all of Box B into Box A no matter what you do.

    In between Box A and Box B is space to play, space to explore, space to learn. I picture a little toddler, teetering over the edge of Box B, grabbing an item or two. The child plays with what she grabbed. She puts in in her mouth, she throws it in the air, she chases it all around. She gets to know it, becomes intimate with it. And then one of two things happen. She either puts it back in Box B, to be retrieved later on, or she gently drops it into Box A, to keep forever.

    This is the art of learning.

    Where is the teacher in all of this? In my opinion, the teacher, first and foremost, keeps the play space clean. In a highly technological world, this can be a real challenge. Secondly, the teacher makes sure that Boxes A and B both stay open so that the child can access them when needed. Perhaps most important, when a child spends way too much time in Box A, for whatever reason, the teacher gently takes the child to Box B and shows her its delights. This might mean that the teacher will, for a time, need to spend some significant time in the Learning Space with the child, helping the child explore whatever it is that has been taken out of Box B.

    The teacher does not, by the way, ever, ever write a list of what is in Box B while keeping Box B closed. This is not learning, this is teaching to the test. Children are not robots that we can, for show and affirmation, program to list off the contents of Box B in order to pretend they are actually in Box A.

    Creative Tension

    I loved that Hicks mentioned the issue of tension. If you homeschool, there is tension in your home. People don’t usually tell you this, but it is true. After reading Hicks, I would say there are three types of tension, which will occur in any model of education, from the one-room schoolhouse, to the big government institution, to the homeschooling of one single solitary child:

    1. Boredom. This is when the child is forced, for whatever reason, to continually sort through Box A. They are bored out of their minds, and they will start to act up or act out in some way. Perhaps the almighty State has said to the child, “You are in first grade. This is first grade work. Whatever you are interested in beyond first grade standards will have to wait.” Or perhaps the family has not kept open any access to Box B. Perhaps the shelves are filled only with First Grade books and when the child looks longingly at Treasure Island he is told to wait until he is older because he couldn’t possible understand its contents, so why should he try?
    2. Frustration. This is when the child is too deep into Box B and he’s drowning. He literally can’t do the work, and he feels like a failure. His biggest desire is to quit. Perhaps his reading level was high and so the school moved him up two grades, but every subject other than reading is another opportunity for failure. Or perhaps he is told that he must do a certain type of math at the age of eight regardless of whether or not his mind is quite ready for it. Or perhaps it has been so long since he has seen his Box A that it is shrinking to such a degree that anything he tries to bring over from Box B has no place, nowhere to fit, and so it bounces back out and we sigh and say that for this child “nothing seems to stick.” Or perhaps the teacher has not maximized the playing space in some way, and so there is nowhere for the child to go with anything he occasions to grab from Box B, which is a different sort of failure, but failure nonetheless.
    3. Creative Tension. This is where the fun happens. If we can do our jobs as teachers, the children expend their energy bringing ideas from Box B and, after playing with them, finding them a place in their beloved Box A. We can call this tension, though, because sometimes the child will have to be forced to complete what they started. Sometimes, they will have to fight to master an idea from Box B. Children are not naturally virtuous, but they can become virtuous through practice. We teachers may have to help them practice perseverance, or bravery in grabbing something particularly challenging from Box B in the first place. With some children, we might have to grab something from Box B for them and inform them that it is time. The key is to do this while maintaining the creative tension rather than ending up over in the frustration category.

    I don’t want to be guilty of oversimplification, but I think this is helpful in a general sense. My plan for this year is to keep these categories of tension in my mind. When we have Moments in our schooling, I want to filter through the categories and discern what is really going on. Is this child bored, frustrated, or is this the good tension, the creative type? In addition to this is the question of whether I’m doing my job as a teacher: did I keep the playing field clear, or did I let it be cluttered up so as to interfere with the process? In our culture, I think the biggest clutter temptations for homeschooling moms are: going too many places during the day, allowing too much technology {movies/TV, computer games, etc., especially for young children}, feeding the children poorly {like sugar or food coloring impacting their brains}, and owning too many toys {a.k.a. overstimulation}.

    Swimming School

    This summer, my two oldest children were blessed by family and received swimming school. The school they enrolled in has, in my opinion, mastered these ideas in relation to swimming, probably without realizing it. Let me explain how it worked for our family. Our son and daughter were both not very water safe and so began at the same level.

    The classes were very small {never more than four children}. The swimming pool was perfect for the classes in every way. The teachers knew exactly what they were doing. In short, they had maximized the playing field in favor of learning.

    The children were not, however, confined to their level. We were not told that we paid for this level and this is where our children would stay until we dished out more money. This is the key to success, I think. Three weeks into lessons {weekly lessons for nine weeks is the standard}, our son graduated a level. This is the school’s way: when a child is ready, they graduate that day. Parents head right to the front desk, where lessons for all of your children are rescheduled, if necessary, to get that child into the new class. A few weeks after this, his sister caught up to him and she graduated. The next week, our son went up yet another level.

    This was so inspiring to our son, who now is saving for future swim school {they are year-round} because he wants to master all the levels. This awakened in him the desire to conquer, which in turn inspires his sister in her own way.

    And I know that Box B is really getting into Box A because when I take them to their great grandma’s house to swim, I no longer have to be in the pool with them to know they are safe.

    Keeping the Goal in Mind

    Raising up a generation is important work, and that is what we are doing. Education is shaping the future. If you are baffled at why our culture is the way it is, you must find out the philosophy of the classroom when that generation was in school {Abraham Lincoln said this, I think}. Or, Hicks quotes Bertrand Russell explaining this in reverse:

    We must have some concept of the kind of person we wish to produce, before we can have any definite opinion as to the education which we consider best.

    And so we begin with the end in mind, which means we aren’t just focused on getting Box B into Box A. We realize that different playing fields produce different kinds of persons. Period. If we are going to possess, as a culture, a virtuous citizenry, we have to realize that the ends are results of the means, and the child’s playing field is formative. As Hicks explained:

    Isokrates’ educative aim was to form an adult, not to develop a child, and his method was to teach the knowledge of a mature mind, not to offer relevant learning experiences at the level of his students’ stage of psychological development.

    And later:

    Isokrates, like Aristotle, looked upon childhood as the crucial period for forming the life of virtue in a person.

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  • Reply Brandy August 8, 2009 at 5:10 pm


    “You have to be observant to be a good teacher”–I had never put those words to it, but you are so, so right! You are also right about the coffee. I am having a cup right now, actually. 😉


    I am honored to have a Centurion reading here! I was not one, but I tried to read along as best I could while my husband was studying his heart out, and the program became very dear to me during that time. Thank you so much for your prayers and kind words. We have felt so much support from Prison Fellowship in general.

    Thank you also for the book suggestions…I know you thought I had given some to you, but I had actually forgotten that I wanted to read Our Mother Tongue, and you reminded me today. 😉

  • Reply Claire August 7, 2009 at 3:19 am

    I started reading your blog for news of your husband – I’m a Centurion this year – and have been praying for all of you. But – through your blog I have rediscovered Ralphy Moody’s books – I had only read Little Britches when I was young (I’m 64 – mother of four daughters – widow – grandmother and work at a newspaper). I am reading Jayber Crow and have Hannah Coulter and the Memory of Old Jack waiting in my stack along with Nancy Wilson’s Our Mother Tongue and The Fruit of Her Hands. Thank you for taking the time to work on the blog and for all the information you share.

  • Reply Mystie August 6, 2009 at 10:18 pm

    Wow, Brandy! The metaphor you used is very helpful and insightful. And the swimming school example is perfect — moving up when each child is ready.

    This helps me grasp where Hans is right now in math, too. Math-U-See emphasizes this sort of approach, not moving onto the next lesson until the previous one was mastered. If each new lesson is Box B, he is able to get into it, muck around, and figure it out and play with it and *do* it, and not be frustrated. However, it hasn’t yet gotten into Box A. He can get the right answers, but I finally realized he can do the process without effort, but without “getting” it. So we’re taking the next term off new lessons and going slow and easy and using multiple manipulatives until he grasps the relationships between numbers. I realized last week he thinks counting is similar to saying the alphabet — you learn the numbers, but the order has no relevance to the numbers’ meanings.

    And if the teacher isn’t there paying attention during lessons, there is no way to really figure out things like that. Your example emphasizes the teacher’s role of facilitator (opening the boxes) and guide (taking the child over to B) and manager (figuring out what’s going on and what needs to happen and how to make that happen).

    You have to be observant to be a good teacher.

    This is why I’ve had a hard time teaching without coffee. 🙂

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