Why Don’t Students Like School?

Why Don’t Students Like School?

I’ve started in on Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School. The sub-line is more informative: “A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom.” See here, here or here.

Without giving an in-depth summary or review of the book, here are some of the more fascinating insights I’ve gained thus far (through 2 chapters). I’m sharing them largely as tidbits for reflection rather than being particularly analytical:

Thinking and Memory

  • Compared to the majority of the brain’s other functions, conscious thinking is actual rather slow, inefficient, and clumsy.
  • “Thinking” is defined as combining information in new ways and that information comes from both the environment and one’s long-term memory.
  • The argument that we ought to focus on teaching people/kids to evaluate information rather than acquire new knowledge because of the volumes of information readily available in the internet is false (I used to hold the evaluate rather than acquire view).
  • “Working memory” is the part of the brain where thinking and awareness take place.

“Chunking”

Knowledge is essential to reading comprehension. When it comes to learning and thinking, the effectiveness of our working memory doesn’t depend on the amount of information we are trying to take it, it depends on the number of meaningful objects, or “chunks” of related information we are trying to process.

The more “chunking” we can do with all the information around us, the more and faster we can learn. Chunking requires background knowledge in order to group things in our working memory, combining information and tying new information to existing information. Therefore, “background knowledge allows chunking, which makes more room in working memory, which makes it easier to relate ideas, and therefore to comprehend” new ideas or knowledge. Empirical studies have demonstrated — in reading comparisons, for instance — that the amount of comprehension depended far more on a reader’s prior knowledge than their reading level as indicated by standardized reading tests. To sum, comprehension depends on background knowledge. The more you know, the faster you learn, and the more you retain. 

Willingham addresses the proverbial (and demonstrable) “fourth-grade slump” whereby students from at-risk or underserved backgrounds tend to lag a grade level behind their peers in reading ability suddenly fall even further behind starting at fourth grade:

“reading tests start to emphasize comprehension. As described here, comprehension requires background knowledge, and that’s where kids from privileged homes have an edge. They come to a school with a bigger vocabulary and more knowledge about the world than underprivileged kids. And because knowing things makes it easier to learn new things, the gap…widens” (p.28).

Background knowledge is necessary for cognitive skills.

Long-term memory plays a much greater role in problem solving than specific critical thinking skills. Memory is “the cognitive process of first resort.” It is naturally what our brain turns to first before conscious thinking in working memory. Consider the difference in thinking required by a 15-year old student driver versus a 40-year old adult who’s been driving in urban traffic to work for decades. The latter has to do very little concrete thinking because of the vast knowledge bank (also called “experience”) they have accumulated: road routes, vehicle speeds, traffic patterns, muscle control, foot-hand-eye coordination, road locations, turn signals, exits, and so on.

Factual knowledge improves your memory

Experimental studies demonstrate that having a greater amount of background knowledge directly correlates to the amount of newly acquired information you retain as time goes by. Consider two people, one of which is a dedicated football fan and the other who knows virtually nothing about the game. Imagine they both are asked to read a summary of a college football game from the prior weekend. Which would you suppose would recall more details or have an easier time recalling those details from that article 24 hours later? The more knowledge you have of something, the greater your memory when absorbing new information because you have a much greater bank of knowledge to tie it to. Having factual knowledge makes it easier to acquire more factual knowledge.

Einstein was wrong…sort of.

Einstein supposedly once said, “imagination is more important than knowledge.” Willingham hopes to persuade us that Einsten was wrong. I concur. Knowledge is required for the kind of imagination that is needed for creativity, problem-solving, entrepreneurial work, and good decision-making. It is true that one can have knowledge and not be imaginative, but it is difficult to grasp how one could be imaginative without have a meaningful well of knowledge (data, facts, information, ideas) which are the raw ingredients for imagination. This is all the more ironic given the incredible wealth of knowledge which Einstein himself so obviously possessed. What I would contend Einstein actually meant (or should have meant) is this: you must acquire knowledge so that you may then use it to be imaginative in a way that changes the world around you. 

But knowledge you must have.

For Teachers

Willingham offers these implications for educators.

  • Build a good knowledge base before emphasizing critical thinking.
  • Do whatever you can to get kids to READ…and not music, social media, or sports sites on the internet.
  • Knowledge acquisition can be…and often is…incidental. Often, the best acquisition of knowledge happens by exposure in the midst of other things than in concentrated study or memorization; e.g., factual data wrapped in math or science problems, reading good historical fiction, watching documentaries, thoughtfully written movies, conversation with friends, reading the news, and the like.
  • Start early. Which also means early intervention in building exposure to the world of knowledge is both the greatest challenge and greatest gift we can give to kids.
  • Make knowledge meaningful. Simply expelling lists of facts (or dates or concepts) is not all that useful. Instead, connect the dots, make it interesting, tie facts to familiar things, make it about the excitement of discovery rather than the drudgery of memorizing another useless piece of data.

 

 

 

The Death of the Good

The Death of the Good

Great video here from Prager on why modern art is so bad. But it applies to the question of truth in general.

The loss of an objective aesthetic in art has led to a loss of the meaning of beauty, the celebration of the scatalogical, and the move, as he puts it in the video, from the transcendent to the trashy.

Art is a window to the human soul, which we peer out of to see visions of what could be or peer into for pictures of what is. In either view, the aesthetic of of much of modern art offers nothing of real substance or meaning because it is not grounded in any objective standard of what is good, excellent, or beautiful. The loss of an objective aesthetic is not merely a matter of art, then, but of culture’s understanding of truth in all it’s forms.

The highest ideal is no longer the nobility of the transcendent but the expression of one’s desires above all else. Here, then, art has become a progressive, intellectual, and secularized society’s own golden calf. Except this time, the calf looks like us and it’s neither excellent or beautiful.

The truth about society, marriage, sexuality, gender, or the meaning of personhood itself has followed precisely this same trajectory as classical art. There are no standards, no objective reality. Nothing except the sum of one’s feelings about, well…whatever.

In this sense, as a window (or mirror) of culture, modern art’s obsessive navel-gazing and deification of self-actualization both reflects and helps feed the slow death of society.

Dwelling Among Us

Dwelling Among Us

Written as a brief reflection for the final 2015 issue of Oklahoma Wesleyan’s Connect:ED faculty newsletter.

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As I write this, I am sitting in my daughter’s room at St. Francis Children’s Hospital here in Tulsa. She was admitted yesterday with a severe eye infection requiring several days of antibiotics. For the fifth time in the last 18 months, I have again been deeply touched by the ministry of the nurses and doctors who serve in these hospitals. They treat my daughter like family. They are kind, patient, loving, and servant-hearted. They have brought her Christmas gifts, changed bedding, and hunted down a favorite pudding flavor. Above all, they have been great sources of encouragement and hope.

Some of those who serve in this hospital or those like it all across Oklahoma and even Kansas are OKWU graduates. I am yet again aware of the effects on society that your ministry as adjunct faculty and Christian educators makes every day. Whether it be in the life of the senior pastor leading a small rural congregation, the store manager at the local Home Depot, the pediatric or emergency nurse, the assistant principal at the nearby middle school, or the young professional seeking training in apologetics in order to connect to non-believing coworkers: these are the real people whose lives you are helping shape. And they, in turn, are touching countless numbers of other lives every day. Week by week, the influence of Oklahoma Wesleyan ripples across the world quietly by powerfully. There are times when that influence is very public, like when Dr. Piper’s post that OKWU is a university and not a daycare recently went viral. We are grateful for the publicity and exposure those events afford us, but the long-term measure of OKWU’s vision is in the day-by-day work of our students and alumni wherever they are.

So, today, I am looking at our work not through the eyes of a dean or professor but of a father who deeply loves his hurting, suffering daughter. At this Christmas season, we remember that God is also a father looking with compassion upon a groaning, broken creation that he loves. Out of that deep love for us, he incarnated himself, he embedded himself into our circumstances, he identified with us in our humanness, he did what we could not do for ourselves: he closed the distance between us and himself.

As we celebrate Christ’s birth and real presence in our world, let’s take time to see our work as adjunct professors as an expression of God’s incarnation in the lives of our students. Look for opportunities to engage them as real people with real lives. Find ways to identify with them in their calling, their passions, their fears, and even their life challenges. Share those burdens as they struggle to balance work, family, and education. Be a listening ear as they face the stress of falling behind on assignments because of sick kids or problems at work. Be flexible and gracious in allowing opportunities to handle these challenges. But at the same time, point them to a better future. Challenge them to see the possibilities of who they can become as a result of attaining their education. Set the standards for quality high and then push them toward that with love, encouragement, and firm gentleness. For when you do — when you become incarnate in the lives of your students and help them become the best they can be in the midst of the messiness of life — they become vessels well-equipped and ready to embrace the challenges of the world into which they are called to serve.

As I sit and watch my sick daughter be ministered to by her nurse through excellent professional training wedded to deeply compassionate humanity, I am watching the reality of God made flesh at work in the world. Because God was man, we can love and truly serve others as God does. Because God was man, he can work through our lives to heal, encourage, or equip others. In Jesus, God dwelt among us as one of us. In the Holy Spirit, God dwells in us and works through us for the redemption of creation. So, this Christmas, live and teach out of the incarnation of a loving, good, compassionate Father who wants nothing but the best for his children. Let’s let that reality characterize the way we approach our teaching ministry to our adult students!

Merry Christmas and may you know the rich presence of Jesus this week,

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The Great Piano Project, pt. 4

The Great Piano Project, pt. 4

What I learned taking an antique upright piano apart to clean and restore the inside…

Part 1  |  Part 2  |  Part 3

Step 3: Cleaning Lower Case

This post is not nearly as interesting as the others, but it is the next step in my project, so for the sake of chronology and archiving, here it is…

With the action out to work on later and the upper part of the case and keyboard all cleaned, my next step was to remove the lower front board (#6 on the diagram) to clean out around the pedals and lower strings.
This board is quickly taken out by lifting on a metal spring that holds it in place. The board leans forward and can be easily pulled out.

With shop vac in hand, a few minutes is all it took to clean out the accumulation of dust from the base, around the strings, and along the pedal lifts.

The wooden levers that are moved by the pedals are connected to wooden push rods. Some pianos have 2 pedals and rods; most have 3. These rods run vertically in the left-hand side of the case and push up on various bars in the action. When you step on a pedal, the end of the lift bar drops down (see Image 1). This lifts the other end of the wooden block in which is sitting the wooden dowel stick. The upper end of this stick rests in a hole one of three bars in the action. Pushing down on the pedal causes this dowel rod to lift up toward the top of the piano, causing one of the bars to move in the action. Depending on which pedal you’ve pushed, you get different results.

  • Soft pedal (L) – attached to a bar that pushes all 88 hammers closer to the strings, thus making the sound softer when they hit
  • Sustain (M) – Pulls all the dampers away from the strings allowing the strings to continue ringing after being struck. Normally, a felt damper falls back on the string as soon as the hammer comes up. This causes the string to play and then be quickly muted.
  • Bass sustain (R) – Pulls the dampers away from the bass section. This allows the bass notes to continue ringing while the middle and upper keys play normally.

Up next in part 5: Tackling the action. I know this will at least involve reshaping hammers and replacing the bridle straps. This is the fun part…

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Image 1: Inside of lower case with the front board removed. Bass strings are on the left. Wooden slats on the bottom are the pedal levers that connect the pedals to the action.

Close-up of pedals with pedal lifts attached to steel lift rods.

Image 1: Close-up of pedals with pedal lifts attached to steel lift rods.

The Great Piano Project, pt. 3

The Great Piano Project, pt. 3

What I learned taking an antique upright piano apart to clean and restore the inside…

Part 1  |  Part 2

Step 2: Removing Keyboard for Cleaning

With the action out of the way, I need to take off all 88 keys. The keys themselves need to be cleaned as well as the space in the piano box underneath the keys. Each key rides on two steel pins with felt washers that creates the rocking action of an acoustic piano. These keys are basically wooden levers that trips a Rube Goldberg-like contraption that eventually swings a felt-covered mallet at the proper string.

Watch this short 3D animated demonstration of how the key action of an upright piano works (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2kikWX2yOto)

Removing the Keys

To get to the keys, I removed the two wooden side pieces that hold the music desk, the fallboard (the part that slides forward to cover the keys, and a thin wood spacer that sits between the keys and the fallboard. (Note: According to Sprunger, its called a fallboard because it wants to fall forward onto your hands…still verifying this one.) Removing all of this was very easy and quick. I used a flathead screwdriver to remove the few large wood screws that held it all in place. Once I took the vertical side brackets off, the fallboard easily slide forward and off two metal rails. I just sat all of this to the side and with that, I am looking down at the exposed keyboard.

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Exposed keyboard. I’ve already removed some of the bass keys. You can see the guide pins and felt washers underneath. The action mechanism sits on top of the keys at the very back.

Removing a key

Removing two keys at a time

I carefully removed the keys in order and placed them back in order on an outside table for later cleaning. From the outside, piano keys all look basically the same, but each key is cut at a very specific angle to fit precisely into the action. Each key has to be kept and placed in its exact position; you don’t want to get these out of order.

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Keys lined up in order on outside table.

Turns out each key is stamped with a number from 1 to 89 (88 keys). In the photo below, you can see the numbers. Also notice the slots midway up the key with the red felt lining. This felt bushing sits on top of a brass post in the balance rail. That’s what gives the key its rocking action for lifting the hammer assembly.

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Piano keys with factory stamped numbers. Red felt bushings in background are where the key sits on the balance rail pin.

Cleaning the Keys

With all of the keys out, I took them one handful at a time and, using the shop vac again, carefully blew the dust off the keys making sure to get the holes in the underside cleaned out. I had to also make sure to not blow out any of the felt bushings, which I managed to avoid doing. I then took warm water and a soft rag and cleaned the playing ends of each key off. There was a light layer of accumulated grime and grease. I observed that the black keys on this piano are simply stained wood. Some of the black keys are showing a little wear, so in time, it would be easy come in, lightly sand them and re-stain them, and put a light coat of lacquer or varnish to restore the original look. The white keys here show horizontal crack lines in the ivory. I rather like the aged, vintage look of these keys. As long as the ivory tops stay intact and are smooth, I’ll leave them alone. But I could come in and replace the white surfaces later by removing the old tops and gluing new ones down.

Dusting under the Keyboard

With the keys all taken care of, my last task here was to vacuum out the case under the keys. I had to be very careful to not accidentally suck up any of the felt washers that sit on the 176 steel pins in the case. But taking my time and keeping my hand over the posts as I went prevented any unwanted vacuum abductions.

Just as David Sprunger said, the board was very dirty. But a good cleaning made a real difference! Along with the fistfuls of dirt, I found pennies, markers, stickers, stars, bobby pins, and paper trash all throughout. I briefly imagined finding a priceless vintage coin down in the bottom and being able to call the owner back and return it to him, but no such luck…

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The board with all the keys removed. Note the green and white felt washers on the pins.

 

Another close-up of the dirty board

Another close-up of the dirty board

With the board and keys cleaned out, the final step was simply to reverse the process and reinsert the keys back in the piano. This was very easy to do but I just took my time to carefully get the two pins lined up on each key and make sure it moved freely before going to the next one.

Nearly done reinstalling keys. Note how much clearer the board is beneath.

Nearly done reinstalling keys. Note how much clearer the board is beneath.

With the newly cleaned keys back in the nice, clean board, I don’t have to worry about what all that dirt and dust is doing to the metal pins and felt bushings.

Up next, Part 4: cleaning and inspecting the lower part of the case and the pedals.

The Great Piano Project, pt. 2

The Great Piano Project, pt. 2

What I learned taking an antique upright piano apart to clean and restore the inside…

Part 1

STEP 1: Remove & clean action

Getting this old Gulbransen cleaned out was chore number one. Turns out that old pianos are terrific repositories of dust, dirt, and the plethora of things that get dropped between keys or inside the top cover. Dust is like course sandpaper to the delicate parts of the piano.

I found this video from David Sprunger at playpianotoday.com that helped me get started. If you want to try this yourself on your piano, I highly recommend watching his 3 videos on how to do it. Worked great for me.

Removing the Action

The action is crafted as a single mechanism that can fairly easily be taken out and put back into the piano. That needed to come out first. Following David’s lead, I removed the music desk and the vertical side trim. Unscrewing 4 brass knobs allowed the action to be carefully lifted up out of the case.

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Inside of piano box with action removed. The brass-colored harp and strings are seen against the back soundboard

Cleaning Dust from the Action

I set the action out on the back porch and used my shop vac to carefully blow the dust out. I made sure that it was blowing into the grass as there was a pretty good bit that came out. I was surprised at the coating of dust that was on all the felt and wood parts. It looked remarkable clean and, if not quite new, much younger than its 78 years.

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Front of action after cleaning dust. Note the grooves in the front faces of the hammers. I have to deal with this in the third step.

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Back of action after cleaning. Note how some of the backstops (little wedge shapes with brown felt) are laying back further. I will have to replace little silk straps that hold these in the proper position.

 

Now that the action has been pulled out, cleaned, and inspected for needed repairs, the next step is to take out the piano keys for cleaning.

Here’s what I know so far:

  • The hammers may need attention, but I’ve got some research to do here.
  • I can tell the broken fabric straps on the back are probably not good, but I’m not yet sure what they are called, what they do, or how to fix it. More research needed.

So I’ve got some more reading and investigation to do. But, first, I need to get the keys taken out. According to David Sprunger, the space underneath the keyboard is another treasure trove of dirt and odds and ends.

Up next…Part 3: Removing the keys

 

 

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