Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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What happens in the brain when we read?

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Image by Наталия Когут from Pixabay

If we are a fluent reader we have a massive number of words stored in the occipital lobe of the left brain, which takes just 1/6 of a second to recognize each word and we read smoothly and effortlessly.

But that only happens if we have learned to read by recognizing the sound made by each letter. If we have learned to read by memorizing each word individually, our brain frantically searches the word pictures stored on the right side of the brain, then switches to the left side to decide what the word means. 20-25% of the oxygen used by the body is used by the brain, thus we soon become physically tired if we struggle to read like this.

It may sound contradictory to say that using memory storage on the left side is somehow different from using memory storage on the right side. The difference is in how that memory was stored in the first place. When we learn to read by phonics, we are teaching the parietal lobe in the brain how to recognize the word and what it means. After the parietal lobe has decoded a word a number of times it downloads that word to the occipital lobe for instant retrieval whenever needed.

When we learn to read by whole word recognition it is like having the pictorial part of the brain, on the right side, take a snapshot of the word. That takes far more memory and makes it more difficult to sort out all the pictures to recognize the one that matches the word on the page. Yet this is the method by which reading has been taught in the public schools for 75 years or more.

There was a time when most people in Canada and the USA were fluent readers; the literacy rate was at least 95%. That was back in the day when everyone knew that phonics was the only way to teach reading. The change in the method of teaching reading has been accompanied by an explosion of illiteracy and learning problems.

It is said that 40% of children will pick up the letter-sound correlation even if it is not being taught. Another 30% will eventually catch on. The remaining 30% will be labelled with some kind of learning disability. Many methods have been invented to help them learn to read, with only minimal success. Almost all of these individuals could learn to read if they were given direct instruction in phonics. That’s the way it was done years ago.

Children who have difficulty learning to read are often diagnosed as being dyslexic. A very small percentage of these children actually have the neurological condition that makes reading difficult. Even for those, the only workable solution is intensive instruction in phonics. Some children complain that the lines of type do not march straight across the page but wander up and down. Often the real problem is that their eyes are searching desperately here and there for some clue as to what this word means and the eyes lose track of where they started out. The solution to this problem is phonics, perhaps aided by a ruler or card to hold under a line of type.

There are programs in use that claim to use phonics, but don’t. Any program that uses flash cards or other visual aids is not based on phonics. Pure phonics focuses solely on the letters with no other visual distractions. Once the sounds are learned, a child learns how to blend the sounds together to make words. Every word needs to be sounded out, every time it is encountered, until the brain is able to instantly recognize it. Most children progress very quickly at this.

With proper instruction in phonics boys and girls learn to read at much the same rate. Without that instruction, girls learn much more quickly that boys. It seems that the female brain is more intuitive or flexible. What this means is that with our current method of instruction in the public schools most girls become fluent readers and at least half of the boys will struggle. The great majority of functionally illiterate people in the English-speaking world are men.

Some of the behaviour problems exhibited by boys in school may simply be due to the fact that they struggle to read and find it difficult to understand what is being taught. All subjects in school are dependent upon the ability to read. When a boy acts out the usual response is to implement some kind of discipline or behaviour modification. Maybe helping them learn to read would be more effective.

Matthew Effects in Learning

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Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

“For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath” (Matthew 25:29).

In 1986, Keith Stanovich published a study entitled Matthew Effects in Reading: Some Consequences of Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy. The “Matthew Effects” in the title came from Jesus’ parable of the talents in Matthew 25.

The study showed that students who early learned how words are made up of sounds represented by the letters of the alphabet progressed rapidly in learning. Those who were delayed in learning the letter to sound correlation fell farther and farther behind in subsequent years.

This concept of how words are composed of sounds (phonemic awareness) is easily taught to young children, but public schools are not doing it. Instead, for at least 70 years now they have been experimenting with other methods of teaching reading. The result is that about 1/3 of children quickly make the letter-sound connection on their own, another 1/3 will struggle at first but eventually get it and the other 1/3 will be labelled learning disabled. A large percentage of learning disabilities are created by inadequate teaching.

Since reading skills are the essential tool for learning everything else a child encounters in school, those with poor reading skills fall farther and farther behind as they progress through the school system.

This is a perfect example of a statement I once read: “You know that the bureaucratic state has been reached in an organisation when the procedure is more important than the result.”

What children need is a flexible system focussed on results. In learning to read and in learning basic math skills, a child needs to master one set of skills before being pushed on to the next level. The idea of teaching for mastery of the basic skills has long been absent from the public school system

If this sounds like an argument for home schooling, or the old-fashioned one-room school, well, yes, I believe that they are more successful models for results-oriented learning. In any case, parents need to overcome their sense of intimidation by the big school machine and be much more involved in their child’s learning, especially in the beginning stages[First posted three years ago.]

Illiteracy in Elementary and Secondary Schools

Is it possible that this timidity, this excessive appeal to “interest”, this consequent concern with the modern, the familiar and the simple in theory, combined with a multiplication of methods and techniques, is responsible for the well-known fact that up to the end of the intermediate or junior high school stage many Canadian pupils cannot read?  This is not a wild accusation.  It is based on statements in the programmes of study, all of which deal with the problem of remedial reading at every stage, some of them at considerable length.  Moreover, teachers in social studies and mathematics are warned that difficulties may arise from their pupils being unable to read.  One high school mathematics teacher asserts that this is literally true, and that pupils need help in deriving any meaning from problems expressed in perfectly grammatical and unambiguous English.  Programmes of study warn teachers to beware of this, to adopt remedial measures, and to guard pupils (aged thirteen to sixteen) against perils like “absolute owner” and “toll bridge” – children, by the way, who have received years of instruction in “dictionary skills.”  It is not suggested that if they can derive no meaning, either from the context or from the dictionary, they should not be in even a junior high school.  It is never suggested that there should be a pons asinorum over which non-readers may not pass.  It is simply assumed that many secondary school boys and girls cannot read.

To this frank admission of the schools that many of their senior pupils cannot read must be added the very frank accusations of universities and other institutions that too many secondary school “graduates” cannot write.  The matter has been much discussed, particularly in those universities which are compelled to introduce remedial English courses – from which it must be admitted students emerge still with a very feeble paragraph sense.  It is not easy to begin to teach things that should have been learned ten years earlier, and the student who has spent the years in poised if not polished oral composition undoubtedly lacks motivation for wrestling with the written word.  A recent comment on this matter comes from the University of Toronto, where, it is reported, the president, deans and professors join with becoming modesty that when the students fail in engineering and other examinations because they cannot write English, the fault undoubtedly rests with the university.  There is, in fact, just the faintest hint that some professors at this university cannot speak English.  Can these professors be the products of Ontario’s progressive schools?

– from So little for the Mind, by Hilda Neatby, Professor of History at the University of Saskatchewan,  copyright 1953.

Reality, Respect, Responsibility

A modest proposal to revitalize the education system

1. Reality

Education should be geared towards teaching children how to think, not what to think. This means equipping them to be literate, numerate and articulate. Those are the fundamental skills that will enable them to learn everything else they will need to learn in life. Children should master these skills at each level before moving on to the next level. Teachers who are unable to teach these skills may be social facilitators, but they are not teachers.

Great self-esteem may help you get a job, but won’t help you do the job. Self esteem without work skills will leave you unemployed and feeling the world has let you down.

2. Respect

Twenty-five years ago a co-worker mentioned that her high school daughter had come home and said that her teacher had told the class that it would be best if they didn’t tell their parents what they had talked about in class that day, “They might not understand.” It told me a lot about that mother’s relationship with her daughter that her daughter did tell her. It also told me a lot about that teacher’s lack of respect for parents.

Children are being taught in school not to respect the values of their parents or the historic values of most of the people of our country. That does not bode well for the future of those children in the work place and in society. It does not bode well for the future of our society.

The best and most natural environment for the development of children is a home with a father and mother, preferably the same father and mother all through their growing up years. Evidence shows that children from such homes grow up emotionally healthy and stable and make more useful contributions to the society they live in. Teachers, and the whole educational establishment, need to respect the home and its values. Then parents could also respect educators.

3. Responsibility

A child should not be protected from the consequences of his or her actions. Blaming someone else will not lead to a better outcome the next time. They should know that they are accountable for their school work and their conduct.

But children are not identical peas in a pod. There are differences in learning abilities and in learning styles. Parents and teachers should try to learn what works and what does not work with each child. The child should be accountable for doing the best that he or she can.

My wife has a younger sister who never learned to speak clearly and never did well in school. The school had a speech therapist and other resource personnel, but this girl was passed on from grade to grade with only minimal attempts made to help her. Her home situation was deplorable. We lived several thousand miles away. One time when we were home on vacation my wife tried to help her sister make the sounds that she did not say distinctly. I heard her begin to enunciate them more clearly. But we were soon gone and neither the home nor the school was any help.Her adult life has been miserable. We wonder if some intensive one on one help might not have made a big difference. Why does a school have these “experts” if they are not responsible to do that?

Reality, respect, responsibility. I have only brushed the surface, but I feel that much of the malaise in our educational system is due to the neglect of these principles. And far too much emphasis on things that do nothing to prepare children for real life.

Black day in July

Sunday, July 23, 1967. Detroit police officers raided an unlicensed bar in the offices of the United Community League for Civic Action. They found 82 black people celebrating the return of two soldiers from Vietnam and decided to arrest all 82. A crowd of people gathered on the street, largely outnumbering the police officers. The officers left, fearing for their safety, and people began looting a nearby clothing store. The looting spread through the neighbourhood and into other neighbourhoods.

State police were called in to assist and eventually Governor George Romney sent in the National Guard. The rioting went on for five days and only ended when President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in the army. Forty-three people died and 2,000 buildings burned.

The best-known song about the riot was Black Day in July by Canada’s Gordon Lighhtfoot. It contains lines such as:

Black day in July
Motor City’s burning and the flames are running wild

And you say how did it happen and you say how did it start
Why can’t we all be brothers, why can’t we live in peace

Why indeed? It helps to know a little of Detroit’s history. Huge auto assembly plants made Detroit into a booming city, drawing people from all over, many from the US South, both black and white. Anti-black feelings ran high. In 1943 the Packard Motor Company placed three black workers on its assembly line and all 25,000 white workers walked out. Three weeks later race riots broke out that lasted three days and left 43 dead.

White residential neighbourhoods made it known that they intended to remain white. If a black family moved in, they faced intimidation, threats, pickets, smashed windows and attempts to burn their house. In 1956 the mayor of Dearborn, a Detroit suburb, boasted that his city was more segregated than Alabama. Schools were completely segregated.

By 1967 black people made up 30% of the population of Detroit, but the police force was 93% white. Many police officers had strong anti-black feelings. A survey showed that the black population of Detroit felt that police brutality was their number one problem.

The Michigan National Guard was almost entirely made up of young white men from rural areas. They were sent into an urban centre that was unlike anything in their experience, to face a mob of black people that was terrifying to them. They were armed with lethal weapons. Nothing good could come from that combination. The army units that were sent in were integrated, disciplined and able to communicate with the rioters. They were the ones who brought the riot under control.

The riots accelerated the movement of white people to the suburbs. The population of the city, once 1,850,000, shrank to 700,000. Some auto assembly plants closed due to mergers and loss of market share to imports. Downtown stores closed. There are thousands of empty houses, plus empty apartment buildings and at least two huge auto assembly plants that have been empty for years. In 2013 the city of Detroit declared bankruptcy.

Detroit city is now over 80% black, the suburbs probably close to 80% white. Prejudice and segregation are less blatant but have not altogether disappeared. There are hopeful signs that Detroit may be reviving, but it is not likely it will ever be the city it once was.

Beware. Prejudice is like a boomerang, it can come back at you and destroy everything you thought you were trying to protect.

The hoary head

Continuing with the events of the day I was writing about in my last post, after finishing my supper at Tim Horton’s I went over to Dollarama. Two young ladies were just coming out of the store, loaded down with their purchases. I stepped aside to let them through and then one of them held the door open for me. I thanked her and was rewarded with a happy smile. I walked into the store filled with respect for a young lady who wanted to show respect for me as a Mooshum.

My white hair mark me as a Mooshum (grandfather in the Cree language). You see, both this lady and the two I mentioned in my last post were First Nations, or Indians. I respected the two young mothers who stuck to what they knew was right. Their boys are evidently getting different ideas from somewhere else. “Warrior,” “bow to no one,” indeed! Such an attitude, if maintained into adulthood, is a guarantee of a troubled life.

Earlier, on this same day, I had coffee with a friend who is pastor of an evangelical church. He told me that he and his wife are now home schooling their children and spoke of the change that has made. Their children, who would hardly look at them when they spoke to them, now look up and respond appropriately. What kind of stern discipline did it take to achieve such results? None. It was enough to simply remove them from a setting where their peers were the only people who really mattered in their lives.

Over 100 years ago, the founders of the public school system were quite open about their intention to remove children from the influence of the home to shape them on more “progressive” lines. They proceeded to implant in parents the belief that they were incompetent to raise their own children by incessantly repeating that children had to go to school and be with children their own age to learn social skills. We see now what kind of social skills children are learning in that setting.

The apostle Paul described our day well in 2 Timothy 3:1-5: ” This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.”

Perhaps I am starting to sound like the story of the two old Quaker men sitting on the front porch in their rocking chairs on a fine summer evening. One of them says, “All the world has gone mad, except for me and thee.” Then his rocker stops, he peers over at his neighbour and adds, “And sometimes I wonder about thee.”

Is it only the younger generation that has gone mad? What about those of us who are Mooshums and Kookums (grandmothers)? Can we really expect the respect that the Bible says is due to the hoary head if we don’t want to admit that we are old? Are we part of the problem?

Natural affection

I started school in 1948 in a one-room school. The first order of business on the first day involved cutting and pasting and I recall the teacher assigning me to help a little girl who had apparently never done anything of the sort before. I was already quite a proficient reader and the Dick and Jane readers were far too simplistic to hold any interest for me. But I could always eavesdrop on the lessons being taught to the grades ahead of me and learned a lot that way.

A few years later we moved and I was in a larger school where there were only two grades to a classroom. My proficiency in reading and math made school easy for me. I’m afraid I developed some very lazy work habits because of that, but I managed to read every book in the school library.

Schools have kept getting bigger and bigger, and dumber and dumber, since those days. My first teacher probably only had a summer course before starting to teach, but she was a super teacher and managed a classroom with eight grades without any major upheavals. Teachers today need a B. Ed. degree and are held up as the experts in all things educational. Parents dare not question or interfere in the teaching program of this expert. What parents are not told is that wonderful sounding degree only attests to the teacher having sat through several years of courses on the psychology of child development. The university never tested the teachers knowledge of the subjects he was about to teach, nor did it offer any training in how to teach them.

Along the way, numerous elements of pop psychology, social activism, environmental awareness, sexual awareness and tolerance for “alternative lifestyles” have been added to the curriculum, squeezing out time that would have been better spent gaining mastery of the essential tools of learning. History and grammar seem to have pretty much disappeared.

What is going on here? Aldous Huxley’s book, Brave New World, offers a chilling glimpse of where academic masterminds want to lead our world. First published in 1931, the book depicts a world without families, a world where even long term friendships are unheard of. Sex is purely a recreational activity, with no prudery or embarrassment attached. Babies are produced in factories, genetically manipulated into five levels: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon. Those in the Alpha group are the managers and leaders. The Epsilons are slow thinkers, designed for the drudgery of any manual labour that is still needed. No one is ever sick or handicapped and everyone dies at the age of 60 without ever experiencing pain or sorrow. If anyone feels bored, annoyed or upset, they just take a Soma pill and and become blissfully unaware of whatever was bothering them.

Is this starting to sound uncomfortably like the direction our world is going? Brave New World is a work of fiction, not intended as prophecy. Yet it seems that already in 1931 Huxley saw the signs of where some idealistic people would like to lead our world.

The apostle Paul twice mentioned people “without natural affection.” In Romans 1:31 he is speaking of his own time and in 2 Timothy 3:3 he refers to”the latter days.” We don’t have to look far for evidence of that today: the value of marriage and family is being subtly, and not so subtly, disparaged. The abortion of potentially handicapped, or just inconvenient, babies is seen as beneficial.  More and more it is being viewed as a good thing to help the terminally ill, or those just weary of life, to depart this life as painlessly as possible.

Is there any hope? I would like to believe that natural affection, though greatly abused and undervalued, may be just what we need to keep us from going over the precipice. There is in every person a longing to be loved and to love. To care so much about someone else that you feel anxiety and anguish in their struggles, and joy in their triumphs. A longing to mean something to someone else, and to finding meaning in loving that person. Can that longing ever be completely erased? Even Huxley did not appear to think so.

That longing for a meaningful relationship with someone outside of ourselves is at its root a longing for God. No one else can ever completely satisfy that longing. Even though everything around us seems to want to destroy our awareness of that longing, I don’t believe it can ever be erased from the human soul. And when someone experiences the fulfillment of that longing in a relationship with God, all human relationships become more genuine and meaningful. That is the way God has made us: “It is not good for man to be alone.”

Why parents still matter

Here is one paragraph from an article that appeared in the Autumn 2014 issue of City Journal. The writer is Kay S. Hymowitz and the subtitle states : Families shape their children’s prospects more profoundly than anything government can do.

Universal preschool is by far the most popular idea for easing poor children’s early disadvantages. The theory behind it is similar to the argument for parenting programs: if we give low-income children a middle-class, school-relevant experience when they’re young and impressionable, they will be as prepared for school as middle-class kids are. Yet since the 1960s, when Head Start got under way, preschool’s effect on children’s academic futures has ranged from nil to modest. A notable paper by Brian Jacob and Jens Ludwig concludes that even when cost-effective, preschool programs don’t significantly reduce the achievement gap. The biggest problem is what researchers call “fade out.” In some of the best programs, children appear to be as “school ready” as middle-class kids. By third grade, however, they revert to the same academic levels as their non-preschooled, low-income peers. Experts have struggled to account for fade out, but one likely explanation is that whatever educational habits these preschools impart are not reinforced in the homes of low-income children and in the elementary schools that they go on to attend.

Tongue-tied no more

I was painfully shy in my younger days.  The only child of older parents, I wandered the hills of our farm anddeveloped a lively imagination but felt inhibited in communicating with adults or in a large group.

In high school we had to give speeches once a year. I was good at researching and preparing a speech, but when it came time to deliver it to my classmates I would put my head down, read as fast as I could, and feel immensely relieved when it was over.

That began to change during the second half of my life. I found myself in circumstances where I had to get up in front of a group of people and talk, at church and at work, and I gradually began to relax and really try to communicate with my listeners. For a few years I was a missionary in the province of Québec and had to preach in a language that I was still learning.

This year I decided to go a step further and joined a Toastmasters club. This particular club is called the Christian Communicators Club and the core members are people I already knew. That made it easier to take the first step and as I see how Toastmasters works I wish I had taken this step sooner.

A friend of my wife joined at the same time as I did. She tends to get nervous and flustered in front of a group of people, but the talk she gave at last night’s meeting showed that she has come a long way in a short time. This is the beauty of Toastmasters, it provides a supportive setting to practice speaking and to receive advice on how to improve.

The talks are short, they are timed, there is a grammarian to count the number of hesitations and crutch words used, there is an evaluation. But we all take turns at these roles so that we are being evaluated by our peers, who know that we will also have a turn at evaluating them at another meeting. Weaknesses are pointed out, but with the aim of helping us do better. The whole format of a Toastmasters meeting is designed to give us the confidence to learn to communicate effectively.

When I think back to my school days, I suspect that my teachers didn’t really know how to help us become effective speakers. It was just part of what we had to do each year, with not much guidance on how to do it. I wonder if it’s still not that way in most schools. As a result, boys and girls are becoming men and women and still don’t have the skills to speak effectively and to the point when they are called upon to do so.

None of wider aspects of Toastmasters interest me, the local, regional and international competitions. It is not my goal to become a professional speaker. But if I can learn how to say the things I want to say more clearly, leaving out thoughts that ramble off the topic and avoiding distracting mannerisms, then I will feel the time spent at Toastmasters has been worthwhile.

I believe that many Christians would benefit from such a program, and it would be entirely possible to set up a group within a congregation. All that would be needed would be enough people willing to make the effort to learn how to share their thoughts more effectively.

 

Food for thought

It is a high German notion that life is explainable before it is experienced, and that it must submit itself to change according to the dictum of the learned. Wherever this fanciful idea is incorporated into the educational structure, all such schools become workshops for dissolution and death where the worms live high at the expense of life itself.  I completely reject this fanciful notion and maintain that if the school, as an educational institution, is to realize its potentialities for benefiting life, then this school, first of all, should not give the highest priority  to purely intellectual activity or to its own institutional status, but set as its chief educational goal thetask of helping to  solve life’s problems.  Secondly, the school should take a realistic approach to life, it should strive to teach about life and promote purposeful living.

N.F.S. Grundtvig, 1838. Grundtvig was the founder of Denmark’s folk high schools

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