Education and the Natural Man

I’ve been noticing a theme lately in my study of what is education. That theme is the difference between learning and the natural man.

First,  before I started attending classes (the day I got my books, in fact), I read the article my brother had been trying to get me to read for a few months. It was a talk given while he was on his mission by John E. Liljenquist. It was amazing! It meant something to me on so many levels. I wont say it answered all of life’s questions, but perhaps it gave the framework for those questions to be answered. I wish I could link to the whole talk, but firstly, I do not have Elder Liljenquist’s permission (I think I might call and ask, or at least let him know that I’ve read his words and found that they are truth), and secondly, it isn’t available online (I’ve looked).

Elder Liljenquist discusses Elder Scott’s analysis of 3 different groups in the membership of The Church: Those with a testimony that are also converted, those that have a testimony but are not yet converted, and those who have no testimony nor conversion. The third group are pretty easily distinguished, because they are they whom we do not see at church. The breakup of the first two groups is a little trickier. I want to discuss the second group and I think it will help distinguish those members of the first.


The second group (those with a testimony but no conversion) are the members who are the biggest problem for the church. They are “unstable.” They follow commandments until it becomes difficult. They pay their tithing until money gets tight, they make poor financial decisions, they do not magnify their callings. Elder Liljenquist made some remarks on these group 2 members (he was specifically talking about the men, but It’s too close to the truth for my own life that I’m including all members). He says they were all returned missionaries, they were all married in the temple, and they all had children. They all attended sacrament services and accepted callings;  but that was the end of their commitment. They were negligent in preparing lessons, negligent in attending to their home teaching families, and rarely went above and beyond the minimal expectations. Sadly, this talk made me realize I need to work a little harder on my conversion. The nice thing is, it gave me a good gauge of my conversion and what conversion looks like. I  wouldn’t say I’m completely “not converted,” but there is definitely room for improvement.

Couch potatingElder Liljenquist then discusses his experiences as a doctor, and how the conversion process is mainly about “the spirit gaining control over the body.” In other words, conversion is overcoming the natural man. The natural man’s desires are set on junk food, fast food, soda and sedentary lifestyles; basically nothing hard and everything easily satisfying. He highlights that subduing the natural man requires a lot of suffering. Christ suffered for us, and if we are His, we must suffer for Him (see Doctrine and Covenants 138 and Acts chapter 5). Accordingly, we must constantly fight the natural man (thereby suffering for our Savior), and when we do so, we become closer to the Holy Ghost. When we draw closer to the Holy Ghost, we slip from a mere testimony into true conversion. When you are truly converted, the gospel is not onerous to you, but the drive to do Christ’s work comes from within.

So what does this have to do with education? For a moment, I’d like to switch over to my second recently-read article: Elder Bednar’s talk Seek Learning by Faith.

educationElder Bednar sets up a model of education. With his talk in mind, I surmise that it takes 3 different parts to make up education: Teachers, Curriculum (though he doesn’t talk specifically about curriculum, I think it is an integral part), and Learners.

Primarily, students need good teachers to learn. The ideal of a good teacher is often misconstrued. It is not the job of a teacher to force education. It is the job of a teacher to help the student learn to learn. Until the student learns the principles of learning, his education is null and void. As Elder Bednar points out, a teacher can carry “the message unto but not necessarily into the heart.” His discussion on teaching is beneficial, but I want to get to the meat of the subject before I’ve lost you all. A good teacher makes her primary focus on education the learning of learning. She knows that true education comes from within the student and not outside of it (Interesting. That’s the same expression we used for conversion. Conversion and education come from within). Furthermore, a teacher does not make learning easy; she forces her students to think and to learn.

In my own education, I had one teacher that redirected my entire education. Previously, most of my learning taught me that if I was meek and quiet. I could slide by unnoticed and at my own pace. Teachers often took pity on me or let me off easy. I often turned in assignments late and still received full credit. But when I became a student in Mr. Cleverly’s class, he was different. Suddenly being meek was not enough to pass a class. If I missed a day, I was required to make up for the time lost. If I was late for an assignment, it was too late to turn it in and no sad tale would work for his class. I worked hard! Drawing DesksI don’t think I got an A, and I don’t recall most of the history he taught in class, but I learned more about education in his classroom than I did anywhere else.  I learned that I was important enough for someone to expect something from me (pretty sad that such a concept did not occur to me until 7th grade), and I learned that it was my responsibility to take control of my own education. It is interesting to note that all of the teachers who took it easy on me only made me feel emptier and less human inside. They thought they were doing me a favor, but they weren’t. Instead, the teacher that held his expectation of me to a high enough level that I had to strive to reach it was the teacher that taught me about work and fulfillment. I guess you could say he taught me how to suffer.  There was no easy answer. Education takes work. It is through hard work and experience that students learn best. Experience is a form of curriculum.

In order for a curriculum to be good, it must have Principles. Principles are statements that hold their truth no matter the context. In the scriptures, we are taught that all truths are of God, whether secular or spiritual in nature (See Doctrine and Covenants 93:26 and 30). If it is a truth, it is good, and we are to seek after it. A good curriculum is also appropriate for the correct age level and cognitive development of the student. It grows steadily and slowly, building on knowledge that the child has previously developed. Even this is not enough; As Elder Bednar states, a quality education “causes us to put off the natural man (see Mosiah 3:19), to change our hearts (see Mosiah 5:2), to be converted unto the Lord, and to never fall away (see Alma 23:6).” See, there’s that word conversion. When we are converted, the natural man has less power. In order for a curriculum to be adequate, it must also encourage and build upon personal growth.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, learning requires a student. Though most important, the student is often the least considered element of education. As Elder Bednar states so profoundly, “Ultimately… the content of a message … penetrates into the heart only if the receiver allows [it] to enter.” It is the responsibility of the student to achieve learning. The key reason for this responsibility is our agency. An example of the role of agency is given in the story Adam in the Garden of Eden, when God asks Adam “Where art thou?” (Genesis 3:9). Clearly, the father knows all things. He knew where Adam was. He asks the question to allow Adam his agency “to act on the learning process and not merely be acted upon,” as Elder Bednar states. I love what he says next: “There was no one-way lecture to a disobedient child, as perhaps many of us might be inclined to deliver. Rather, the Father helped Adam as a learner to act as an agent and appropriately exercise his agency.” Agency is the ability to act instead of solely be acted upon. Agency plays a key role in education. When a student uses his agency to learn, he is primarily showing his willingness to learn by acting in accordance with what he has already learned. He is showing his willingness to suffer, to give up the natural man. Then he must open his heart (willingly) and seek out further knowledge. This is an act of faith; faith that such knowledge will be given to him.  A student must act and not just “passive reception.”

1470076_10203200591554922_509598652_nI was a student at BYUI when Elder Bednar was the president there. He often discussed the concept of acting and not being acted upon. I also think that is the main reason people settle for passive learning and never let that actual learning really seep in. I think the very fact that true learning requires action is the reason it is not often achieved. It takes a desire to act, and that desire does not come from the natural man. Perhaps that is why the natural man is an enemy to God. God seeks learning. The natural man seeks complacency. But overcoming the natural man brings growth and personal fulfillment. Overcoming the natural man makes me more like God.

Aren’t these reasons enough to seek a deeper meaning to education?

Mentally Scary Mommy Moment

I’m taking a break from all of this work stuff to watch a movie with my daughter. (Confession: I’m reading homework while she’s watching. Only half counts). It’s a quick-made Disney channel movie, but it’s still cute. In the movie, the princess must flee quickly. No big deal. Normal plot. And we’ve watched it before. Regular movie-watching, right? Then My daughter asks a question and I’m suddenly aware of how old she’s getting and how unprepared I am for the realization.

“Mom, where is her emergency kit? and shouldn’t she be taking it with her, like I would have to do?”

I should be thrilled she remembers such an important safety element. I am! But instead it suddenly occurs to me that she is aware of the concept that there could be a time when she would have to flee without me.

That is a scary thought. One I really don’t want to entertain. But I am beginning to realize that her Tinkerbell backpack is not going to cut it. Suddenly, I’m not thinking “what happens if my family had to leave quickly, what will WE need.” I’m thinking “what do I want my daughter to have if she were ever to get separated from me?” I think I’ll be re-vamping our emergency kits very soon.

Why Humans Need Repetition

As I’ve said earlier, I’m studying the brain in one of my classes and I find this stuff fascinating. It almost makes me want to study Neuroscience when I’m done. Almost. Okay, not really. But I do think it’s pretty cool and helpful stuff. Have you ever heard that humans learn best by repetition? Ever wondered why? Well, I’m no neuroscientist (duh), so my understanding is probably flawed, but here’s how it makes sense to me. First, some background: The brain is  full of nerve cells. The official name of a nerve cell is a neuron. Neurons don’t look like blood cells. They look more like the part of the tree where all the branches stick out. The branches are called axons or dendrites depending on whether they send or receive information. On the end of axons (the branches that send information) are terminal buttons. These terminal buttons let off chemical substances that act as signals to other neurons, called neurotransmitters. I had heard of neurotransmitters, but had no idea what they were. (in college-prep-speak, neurotransmitters : nerves as words : humans. If we’re following the same analogy, then terminal buttons would be mouths. They “speak” the information). The space between neurons where neurotransmitters are passed is called synapses. Neurons don’t really touch, (just think, it’s socially unacceptable to touch someone when you whisper in their ear). My definition of synapses was all wrong before I studied this stuff. Along the outside of the axon is a myelin sheath. Myelin sheaths are pretty cool. Not all axons have them. Myelin sheaths help “information” travel faster and clearer. It’s the brain’s way of saving cookies to a hard drive so that the internet page loads faster and better. The more the axon is used, the more myelin is created, the faster that information can be re-processed.

From Wiki Commons

So… the more we access certain nerves of our brain, the more efficient that information becomes. Therefore, we have lessons repeated and repeated and repeated in order for our brains to be able to access that data faster and faster. I think this would also explain why some information is only available to our memory until the day after the test (we – our brains – don’t think the information is important enough to build a super-highway). It also explains why, when we are trying to reprogram our brain for GOOD habits, it can’t be done overnight. And why it is so hard to break a bad habit (sometimes I feel like the myelin sheaths are pretty thick around those). Oooh, let’s look closer at that. I’ve got some more definitions for you! (I know, you’re thrilled). Our body makes new and thins out old synaptic connections all the time. It plows new pathways from  one neuron to the next. When our brains make new connections, that’s called synaptogenesis (makes sense. Synapto for synaptic. Genesis for creation). When our brains kill off old pathways, it’s called synaptic pruning. The thing is, it’s not as easy as just cutting off the pathway. The neuron still knows it’s there. First, we must re-direct traffic. We must convince our thought-cars to take a detour. With myelin speeding things up, it takes a while for our brain to even realize we’re trying to create a detour. Eventually, enough of those thought-cars have gotten the message to use alternate routes that our brain traffic in that area starts slowing down. From what I can tell, myelin sheaths don’t really disappear (except for in certain diseases), the whole road just gets “cut off.” And it doesn’t get cut off until it is mostly unused. How quickly that happens has a lot to do with age. Children grow tons of axons. Then their brains watch which ones get used and thin them out. There is lots of changing going on in a childhood brain. Most of the thinning-out seems to happen as a teenager, from what I can tell. It is still possible to thin out unused axons as an adult, but it is harder to do. Our habits are stuck harder. Why? because they’ve been used more (more myelination). Therefore, it’s much easier to break a habit as a kid or a teen than as an adult. I’m sure you already knew this, but now you know the science behind it.

How our brain works
Picture provided by Flickr user _DJ_

So… the more you do a task poorly, the more difficult it is to do the task correctly. For example, I hold my pencil “wrong.” I put wrong in quotation marks because obviously I am stubborn enough to think that I hold it right or I wouldn’t hold it that way. But because I hold it incorrectly, I have a permanent flat spot on my ring finger. The nail grows funny and everything. I was informed of my incorrect pencil-holding in third grade and seriously remember thinking “so what!?! I don’t care. I’m NOT going to change the way I write now. You guys (meaning all teachers. I was a little snarky) taught me how to hold a pencil, so perhaps you guys should have taught me correctly (see, snarky)!” So, I’ve continued all of these years to hold my pencil incorrectly. If I were to go back and change how I hold my pencil now, it would take AGES to re-learn how to write. At third grade, sure, it would have taken some work, and my handwriting would suffer a little bit, but what third-grader has ideal handwriting anyway? It would have required much less work at 8 than at 28. It also would have had less dire consequences. An 8-year-old that writes like a 7-year-old is less dramatic than a 28-year-old that writes like a seven-year-old. The moral of the story is pretty easy: stop a habit in its infancy. Pretty sure I didn’t have to give you all that information for you to figure that out. So why do we benefit from knowing how the brai

Fascinating

How our brain works
provided by Flickr user _DJ_

My schedule has completely deviated from it’s outline today. I just have to deviate. It would be a shame to stick to the planned itinerary when this information is so fascinating and crucial and important. I don’t want to forget what I’m learning and I don’t want to miss a chance to tell you about it. The best opportunities are often seized and not plotted. Especially when it comes to learning and teaching. So instead of doing the baby quilt on my floor, the half-finished mending projects, and reading the rest of my homework without taking a break to jot down what I’m learning, I’m doing some major note-taking and blogging today I’ve also just spent about 3 hours staring at the same page on Flickr to try to add a picture to this new thread. I gave up. No picture. Sorry. Flickr’s back! Yea for less frustration!

Can I say this again: This stuff is FASCINATING!

FIrst off, let me just say I highly recommend Once Upon a Brain: How Neuroscience Can Be Your Colleague in the Classroom by Thomas Morley for any teachers, homeschoolers, PSR workers, or anyone involved in a relationship with any other human that wants to improve upon understanding . I’m finding it incredibly valuable. I think it links so many pieces I have gleaned from other sources, like Charlotte Mason teaching methods, Thomas Jefferson Education methods, Love and Logic, and even LDS principals of accountability and how we do the “weird” thinks we do. I’m only in chapter 4 and I’m pretty impressed. I’d like to share about a million things from its pages.