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The Art of Teaching Sovereign Knowers

In this section, we will explore how a teacher can accomplish the monumental task of teaching in ways that foster agency and form sovereign knowers. We offer practical ideas on what teachers should strive to do, as well as guidance on what they should strive to avoid.

Narrative Approach

Children love to be told stories. Their capacity for abstract thought, for making clear distinctions according to well-defined principles, is admittedly limited, especially in younger children. But their appetite for stories at times seems to know no bounds. Very young children even ask for the same story to be read again and again. Repetition that appears tedious to adults is no obstacle to the youngster finding delight.

One reason stories are so appealing to children and adults alike is that they present a comprehensive, overarching context where the person is free to imagine himself as an actor, interacting alongside the other actors in the scene, considering themes and new perspectives in terms of a human narrative. Stories help us to make sense of reality in a broad way. We understand a particular in terms of its context and history. And this helps us to ponder it not as an abstract and isolated monad, but in a way that speaks to the human need for integrated knowledge.

Some subjects naturally lend themselves to a narrative approach. Telling stories is part and parcel to the subject, and to do otherwise would be seen by a reasonable person as doing violence to the subject at hand. In a literature class, a teacher can help a story come alive for his class by presenting the right background knowledge and facilitating the encounter of the class with the story (broadly understood as a novel, short story, letter, or poem). But a teacher who takes an overly mechanical approach that avoids themes and is instead fixated on minute, trivial details in the text, runs the risk of ruining the best of stories. It is a real shame when students claim that they would have liked a story if they had been allowed to read it on their own, but their literature class ended up ruining it for them. This is not to imply that all specific details are trivial minutiae. A good literature teacher will be able to draw out hidden layers of meaning through his knowledge of the poetic craft and literary constructions. As one engages in the finer points of linguistic excellence, there unfolds an understanding of the author’s subtle and ironic wit.

History is a subject that should lend itself to a narrative approach. The word “story” is part of the word “history.” And many history teachers do an excellent job inviting the class to enter a narrative of meaning. The class comes to understand why, in the context of the Roman mindset of the time, Julius Caesar’s decision to cross the Rubicon was such a decisive step. A teacher does well to reference the history and meaning of the Roman Empire from Cicero to the sack of Rome, as context behind the striking event of Charlemagne’s coronation as Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in 800 A.D. (a date all students of history should know). Even so, the trend in history education is to downplay the role of “story” in favor of a more neutered “social studies” approach. There is nothing wrong with analyzing data in charts that, say, compare the rise of the population of an area with advances in agricultural technology. Good historians analyze data and evidence to form overarching paradigms that help us make sense of the past. A good historical model is a sort of “line of best fit” for the current available data. But the type of analysis in a typical modern history textbook should be integrated into an overall effort to understand the story of a people. The Marxist notion that everything is based on economics, that any notion of human meaning is just an illusory superstructure built upon the hard economic facts, is not only reductive. It also does violence to the rich layers of meaning that our human past contains. Some people in history have acted decisively out of transcendent motives, living out ideals that have contributed to the building up of communities. It is not all about economic data. The human need for integrated knowledge is so strong that story not only plays a necessary role in teaching subjects like literature and history, but should really be present in every academic discipline, to a greater or lesser extent. To neglect the history of scientific advancement is to likely mispresent what modern science actually is. Modern science is not a clearly defined body of knowledge that explains the world around us according to theory. Modern science is best understood as human efforts to build models that have explanatory and predictive power, that help us discern the order in the world around us. It is a necessarily historical process and to leave out the history of scientific discovery is to teach in a way that does violence to the modern scientific method. To teach science in a way that tells a story is not only a more responsible way to present what modern science actually is, it also helps students to learn better. Consider possible approaches to teaching Newtonian physics. A teacher could write the formula F=ma (Newton’s law stating that force equals mass times acceleration) on the board and then work through mathematical problems involving the algebraic manipulation of the variables in the equation. The class solves the general equation for acceleration and then plugs in various forces and masses to get the results. This exercise is of limited value, especially by itself. But what if a teacher explains how Aristotle and other thinkers thought that heavy bodies fall faster than light ones and then gives an overview of the data Newton and others were trying to understand? What if the students were considering, alongside Newton, the historic moment when Newton first formulated his laws? They would understand these laws in context; some may even experience awe by their explanatory power. A wise teacher then would explain the limitations of Newton’s models, highlighting how they fail in extreme situations, as noted by Einstein and other twentieth-century physicists. It is not difficult to see which class would likely have better scientific understanding: the one taught by an overly algebraic approach or the one taught through a narrative. But there actually is no either-or choice. Nothing prevents a science teacher who begins with a narrative approach from then shifting to algebraic analysis at the right time.

There is a place for a narrative approach in every subject. In foreign language, the etymology of a word is often helpful to better understand its meaning, not to mention connecting the language to its broader cultural context. Music, art, and drama are about more than the isolated individual works under consideration. It is not that individual works of art can’t stand on their own, speaking for themselves. Works of art, especially literature, have the integrity to do just this. But the history of works of art and contextual knowledge can help one to better enter into the work: “This play was written shortly after a personal tragedy struck the author,” or, “He composed this piece partly out of necessity, to support his large family in a difficult time.” 

The best teachers even find a role for narrative in teaching traditional sciences like metaphysics or mathematics. Rather than diving into a lecture on act, potency, form, and matter, a teacher would do well to set up these highly technical, scientific concepts in a narrative context that helps the students make sense of them: “The ancient Greeks asked questions that are less commonly asked today. They tried to get at the fundamental principles of reality, something that for them was enriching and pointed beyond themselves. In the face of an ever-changing world, they saw the possibility of knowing the unchanging principles of reality as a liberation from the cyclic world of corruption and death, as if these principles were speaking to a longing they felt for transcendence, a recognition that humanity is both part of this cyclic world of flux but yet also made for something beyond it. For them the whole question of change took on profound meaning: not how a particular change happened, the mechanism by which it occurred, but rather how change is possible at all. Two thinkers stand out in the background of this drama: Parmenides and Heraclitus. We only have fragments of their writings and much of what we are able to piece together is somewhat mysterious. But it seems that, despite the common quest they shared for probing the principles of reality, they articulated opposite positions…” And then the teacher goes on to write next to Parmenides on the board an outline of his position that being is fundamentally unchanging, that it is permanent. Next to Heraclitus, he writes that the most fundamental reality is change, that reality is in a state of flux, perhaps quoting Heraclitus’s famous assertion that it is impossible to place one’s foot in the same river twice. Then the lesson weaves to subsequent thinkers such as Zeno, with his paradoxical arguments against motion, as well as Cratylus with his assertion that a radical following of Heraclitus’s position makes communication impossible. From all this the teacher works his way to Aristotle’s reconciliation of the insights of both Parmenides and Heraclitus in the hylomorphic theory of change. The lesson ends with rigorously defining act, potency, form, and matter with scientific precision. The narrative arc of this lesson makes it much more likely that the students will learn. A teacher who starts with definitions of act and potency would likely fail to engage students in a meaningful way.

It is even possible to promote student learning by adding a playful narrative taken from popular culture. I recently explained the asymptotes of rational functions by analogy to heroes from the Marvel universe. If the denominator of the rational function has a higher power than the numerator, it is like Thor compared to Hawkeye. “Hawkeye is a pretty tough dude, but let’s face it, he doesn’t match up to Thor. As the function moves away from the central region, the denominator will ‘overpower’ the numerator; Thor will win. The next result is to drive the function toward zero.” The class helped select Captain America versus Ironman as examples of the relatively equal heroes representing the case when the powers of both the numerator and denominator are equal. 


If agency is naturally engaged through a narrative approach, it can be aided by teachers expecting students to memorize the right things. Some memorizing builds up the interior world of the student, enriching him as a person. But teachers can also encourage memorization habits that detract from student engagement, that train the student to be a mere conduit of information held onto in short term memory for a time, until it is unloaded on the test. I recently heard a student casually mentioning to a friend in the hallway that he “crushed that quiz” and can now “forget all that stuff.” It was as if he were in a state of interior tension, holding onto the crammed content, and could now release the tension, allowing himself to forget. Memory can cut both ways. Teacher expectations can be decisive for whether students are reduced to information holding-and-unloading machines or whether they are collecting rich content in their memory so as to ponder it and come to an integrated understanding of the whole.

Let’s start with teachers making good use of student memory. There are at least three types of content that students should memorize: texts (like poems) that are memorized for beauty; content that builds cultural literacy, that helps the student to take ownership of our common patrimony; and definitions and paradigms that further knowledge.

To begin with the first, it is enriching to memorize a poem or well-written prose passage. Someone who has such a text committed to memory “owns” this text. The beauty and power of the poem or passage becomes part of the interior life of the student. He or she is able to ponder it at different times. The images and content become part of his or her interior space, not as something intruding, as an unwelcome song that is “caught” in one’s head, but as a companion that can be called up when desired. And by memorizing rich texts a student comes to appreciate and assimilate the author’s grasp of reality and how his insights are expressed. All of this helps hone his own developing voice. At The Heights School, where I work, during a recent festival day poetry recital, a teacher recited the poem Jim by Hilaire Belloc (a well-liked Heights classic) before a group of upper school students. As I looked across the students sitting on the bleachers, I noticed several of the students quietly reciting the poem along with the teacher. They remembered it from their lower school days, and it was obvious that the poem had become a friend of sorts to these students over the years. At the end of the poem there was an eruption of cheering from the students.

Students should also memorize content that builds up cultural literacy. This applies to all areas of study but is particularly important in history. Teachers do well to expect students to memorize key dates placed on a timeline. Done at the start of the course, these dates can serve as guideposts that help frame the narrative. Europe changed dramatically during the First World War (1914-1918), not only politically but culturally as well. As students learn more, they will be able to recognize the different cultural tone of people living in, say, Germany in 1913 and in 1919. Accounts of city life from both times should be understood in reference to pre- and post-war attitudes. A timeline is a “context building” tool. It fosters student understanding by helping students place events in a broader context, demarcated by clear guideposts.

Timelines are best learned in “layers.” The broadest possible timeline could be introduced at the start of a salvation history course, including events such as: the big bang, the formation of the earth, the start of life, the fall, the arrival of Christ, the Church, and the end of time. A broad timeline like this is informed by a philosophical and theological understanding of history. We are currently in the time of the Church, a time after Christ has won the decisive victory over sin and death, a victory being worked out, with eternal consequences, in the history of individuals and as an overall drama moving toward a decisive climax in the Second Coming. 

For history classes that are more specifically focused, a teacher does well to begin with a timeline that situates the scope of what will be studied with a few pivotal dates. A United States history class, for example, could start with dates for select milestones such as the Civil War (1861-1865). Before going through the history in a linear way, this overview and the memorization of key dates can help students situate what will follow in relation to these key dates. Later timelines can be divided according to theme, with one for military developments, another to trace economic developments and others showing such things as technological advances, political shifts, artistic works, and social changes. Timelines can be helpful for various courses, including survey courses in literature, philosophy classes, and even a physics class (showing the move from Aristotelian physics to Newtonian mechanics to relativity and beyond).

Teachers should require students to memorize vocabulary words, both to expand students’ working vocabulary and to help them become conversant in the correct technical words used in particular subjects. Regarding the first, some English teachers select vocabulary words exclusively from the literature that the students are reading. The main advantage of building vocabulary through encountering and defining words in the course texts is that students learn the words not merely as separate defined units but in a context, where nuances of meaning come through. Building vocabulary is also aided by focusing on the etymology of a word as well as the word’s component parts. It is possible to teach the roots of vocabulary words in an organized manner. It could make sense for a teacher to introduce some vocabulary from sources other than course texts if these words illustrate principles. Helping students understand, for example, the classical Latin and Greek roots of English words not only builds vocabulary but helps students think through new words they encounter with the help of this knowledge. It is good for teachers to test students on vocabulary so long as the teacher is aware of the danger of students falling into a cram-unload-and-forget cycle. If vocabulary is tested in such a way that students routinely prepare Wednesday evening for a quiz on Thursday, only to do the same exercise the next week with different words, it will be all too easy for students to mechanically memorize and forget vocabulary words with only minimal benefit. It is better to build in accountability for past vocabulary words, and perhaps consider including a vocabulary section on every or most literature tests as opposed to separate vocabulary quizzes.

Memorizing new vocabulary is also an important part of learning a foreign language. Continual use of vocabulary words, spoken in class as well as encountered in texts, is necessary to avoid the cram-unload-and-forget cycle. When learning a foreign language, it is also necessary for students to memorize grammar rules, word endings, and structures involved in understanding the language. One of the reasons learning a foreign language is so enriching is that the cumulative memory work pays off in ongoing mastery of the language: there is a direct, natural, and deepening connection between one’s efforts and being able to appreciate and communicate with the new language.

Students should be expected to learn the correct names of things. If a science teacher is teaching about the circulatory system, it makes sense to require students to know the meaning of the words used to describe the system’s parts. It is not good for a student to be unclear on the difference between an atrium and an artery. Knowing precisely what such words mean will help students understand what they read and hear. Students should be labeling diagrams of the circulatory system and many other such diagrams: countries and other geographical features on maps, the layers of the earth, the solar system, and the carbon cycle. All of this builds up what has been aptly called “cultural literacy” so that a student can make sense of the language used to talk about the world around us.

The third best use of memory is to help students take possession of a body of knowledge. More than just a set of facts or organized data, knowledge reflects a grasp of principles that lend insight into reality. Knowledge can be expressed in definitions or paradigms that help to make sense of different facets of a subject. This is true in a variety of subjects.

In math, it makes sense for a teacher to require students to memorize certain definitions, formulas and facts. Knowing the definition of a function adds coherence to what otherwise could be more disjointed math operations. A good teacher will explain the significance and purpose of the quadratic equation, as well as help the students derive it from completing the square. Once a student understands what the quadratic equation is, he should firmly commit it to memory. He would be disadvantaged if he needed the quadratic formula to analyze a particular function but did not have it memorized. Likewise, there is an obvious practical need for younger students to work diligently on memorizing the times tables. In learning math, memory is not the main thing, but it is important, a necessary condition for a student to be successful. A math student who has not memorized fundamental definitions and formulas is like a baseball player who shows up to a game without a glove. Some balls can be caught barehanded but many, like the hard-hit line drive, cannot.

In philosophy, students should memorize definitions and paradigms, especially definitions that add coherence rather than being merely notional. Aristotle’s definition of man as a “rational animal” is a good definition, especially if it is taught in the context of the “chain of being.” In the movement up from the inanimate to man, students learn what distinguishes each level, the “notes” that mark the divisions: life as distinguishing plants from minerals, sentient life as the distinguishing characteristic for animals, and reason for man. The simplicity and accuracy of Aristotle’s definition of man as a rational animal adds to the student’s overall understanding of the world around him. On the other hand, Plato’s somewhat facetious definition of man as a “featherless biped” does not. It is an amusing definition, partly because it describes man without attempting to say anything important about what it means to be human. It works only on a superficial level, neglecting to speak to the core of our humanity.

When learning grammar, students should memorize definitions of the different parts of speech. Prior to jumping into sentence diagraming, the student should have a clear understanding of what constitutes a noun and a verb. There are admittedly different paradigms to present parts of speech as used in the English language, some indicating eight parts and some nine, and there can be disagreement over which paradigm is best. A teacher does well to present the main parts of speech first and, depending on the age and mastery of the students, to work toward the finer points.

In theology, doctrines are often expressed in clear definitions that should be committed to memory. Students should know that the Incarnation refers to one Person and two natures and that the Trinity refers to one God in three Divine Persons. Granted, though it is important that students understand connections between the Creeds developed in the early Church and the revelation of Scripture, they also should memorize one or more Creeds.

As mentioned, memory can cut both ways. In addition to the positive role of memory fostered by good teaching, it is important for teachers to avoid, as much as possible, practices and expectations that lead to students falling into the cram-unload-and-forget cycle. Part of the solution is to expect and require students to retain content deemed worthy of memorizing over an extended period of time, perhaps even throughout the whole course. Good math teachers consistently do this, whether for multiplication facts in lower grades or various content helpful to analyze different types of functions in upper grades.

It is also helpful if memorized content is presented as establishing a foundation for additional learning, which will use and build upon memorized content. For example, seventh grade geography students who have memorized the countries in Europe as they currently stand could be shown a map of Europe shortly following the end of the Second World War. They could be asked to identify what in Europe has changed since 1948 and then to discuss how and why these changes came about. They could learn about the Iron Curtain and be expected to draw the Iron Curtain on a map (the complications of a country like Austria could be an interesting digression). Pedagogically, these exercises help solidify the political geography of Eastern Europe by placing the memorized data—the names of the countries—into a narrative paradigm, reinforcing knowledge by using this knowledge in a broader context. In all subjects, superior teachers are continually on the lookout for ways to integrate granular memorized specifics within a broader perspective, a narrative theme of the course.

Teachers can also miss the mark by expecting students to memorize content that is not worth committing to memory. Certain definitions and equations are worthy of memorizing, but it would be less valuable and perhaps counterproductive for a math student to be expected to memorize a verbal description of a mathematical operation, such as steps for factoring certain trinomials, or a list of logarithm facts verbatim and in order. In general, the bar should be set fairly high for a definition being deemed worthy of requiring students to commit it to memory. It should be a clear statement that is essential to the internal logic of the material, a statement that helps someone better make sense of the whole and how individual parts fit into the whole. Thus, teachers should require students to memorize relatively few definitions, but also expect them to memorize them well and not forget them. These definitions should be referred to at various points in the course, and the teacher should present these definitions as reflecting knowledge, pointing out connections between this definitional knowledge and the subject as a whole.

We have been arguing that it is suboptimal for a teacher to structure a course in such a way that students cram facts into short-term memory only to forget them shortly thereafter. Battling this tendency is not easy, especially since some students and parents value the predictable cycle of affirming students with good grades for the seemingly important academic work of writing accurate memorized information on assessments. Some students, especially students who are good at memorizing, become too comfortable getting good quiz and test scores by merely unloading memorized data at the right time, which for them can become an overly mechanical process. A good teacher will develop a habit of awareness of this problem so as to be on the lookout for ways to build understanding and coherence from what has been memorized.

Unfortunately, some teachers ignore this problem. They are in the habit of telling students what they should memorize for each quiz or test, perhaps by going through a review exercise on the board or a written review sheet given out shortly before the test. For example, if a history teacher tells his class that the essay question on the upcoming test will be on the causes of the United States Civil War and then proceeds, whether in response to student questions or not, to list “the four causes of the Civil War” on the board, he will likely receive several essays that read like these four points with various connecting words and phrases. He may even be tempted to think that the class parroting this paradigm back to him is real education. Many of these students, however, are unlikely to remember these four causes in a few short days. More to the point, this whole exercise is mostly a waste. The causes of the Civil War are complex, and a simple memorized list does not do justice to the rich narrative. Sure, students should have some understanding of the economic, social, political, and moral landscape leading up to the Civil War. But reducing this to a neat list and allowing the repeating of this list to pass for education should strike any noble teacher as repugnant. Even in the younger grades, students need to experience themselves as rational agents who are expected to make an assertion and give reasons in support of this assertion without being over-prepared for this task. The encounter with an essay question on, say, a test, needs to be a real encounter. An educator should resist the pressure, which will come from parents and students themselves, to give too much specific guidance in preparation for upcoming essay questions. The essays may not read as well at first, but at least they will be real and reasoned.

Teachers who are in the habit of long-term strategic thinking are better able to set the right expectations for memorizing. Educators need to think in terms of realistic, practical goals for students in the long term. It is not possible for a student who is taking approximately seven different subjects to take long-term ownership of all that is covered in each class. We all tend to forget much of what was covered in past classes. The content and how it was presented did contribute to our overall intellectual formation, and ideas from our schooling do remain, even if more implicit, as a nebulous background perspective. It would be uncommon for a student, when asked what is the best thing about his school, to indicate that it is the curriculum.

Given this, the academic “take away” from a particular class will necessarily be limited. It is reasonable for a teacher to identify just one key idea that he wants to pass on to his students long-term. A teacher will cover lots of things, for sure. But he would do well to identify one key idea that he can use as a thread throughout the course, an idea that will help his students make better sense of reality. For example, a middle or high school science teacher could emphasize that modern science is all about building and improving models with explanatory and predictive power, a human endeavor that is patterned on the order in the world but yet is distinct from “knowledge” in the traditional understanding of the word. This one idea, if the students really grasp and take ownership of it, can be impactful for one’s overall outlook on reality. Similarly, a logic teacher could repeatedly reference the definition of truth as the correspondence between the mind and reality. If students internalize this one idea in their freshman logic class, they will be less likely to fall into erroneous patterns of thought that identify the real with one’s subjective inner world of intuition and feeling.

From these examples of the positive uses of memory, we can begin to see how important it is for teachers to set the right expectations for their students. In the best of circumstances, it is hard to get students to think independently, as sovereign knowers with agency. It is all too easy for students to fall into the role of memorizing what the teacher wants for the test and then forget it. It is a problem if answers to an essay question on a test read like memorized blurbs, especially blurbs in response to teacher-generated study questions, with connecting phrases in between. It is possible that a student unloaded an answer from what the teacher told him in class without much personal engagement or understanding. The essay might sound competent to the grading teacher, using the right phrases, even phrases that could reflect real understanding in a different context. But the repeat-to-the-teacher-what-he-wants-to-hear model of education is a broken model. It resembles more a game of “playing school” than really educating. A teacher needs to constantly examine whether the way he structures his course allows for the cram-unload-and-forget cycle to pass for real learning.


Young children love stories. Toddlers are delighted with picture board books and will ask parents and older siblings to “read” the same books over and over, which amounts mostly to looking at pictures as these books have few words—sometimes none or only one word per page. Children a bit older enjoy being read chapter books, perhaps as they sit and quietly draw or work on an art project. And older children enjoy hearing novels being read. Receiving a story by listening to it aloud goes back as least as far as recorded history. In ancient Greece, the Iliad and the Odyssey were recited from memory, perhaps around a campfire as young and old alike were staring at the flames, mesmerized by the fire and Achilles’s prowess in battle or Odysseus’s cunning. The story of Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 24) not only relates the tale of Abraham charging his servant with traveling to find a wife for his son Isaac from his kin in the distant city of Nahor, but, in doing so, emphasizes the importance of story by relating a story within a story. The reader experiences the tale anew as Abraham’s servant retells what happened to Rebekah’s family. When the servant finishes his tale about his journey and mission, Rebekah’s uncle Laban acknowledges that this whole affair is marked by God’s providence.

Reading stories has been a strong part of our family culture. In the evenings, I have read countless books to my children as they gather around to listen. Sometimes they draw or work on a craft while I read. Sometimes they wrap themselves up in a blanket and just listen. It seems that no matter how long I read for—and over an hour per evening is not unusual—there are always calls for “one more chapter” when I indicate it is time to stop. I have been amazed at how keenly my children follow the books I read, as well as how accurately they remember details. They seem to remember much more than I do. When I forget what a character said and ask them, I’m amazed at the specific detail they relate in their answers. It is as if the act of entering into a narrative engages the person in a way that makes remembering what happens easy and automatic. My children are obviously not unique in this. There are many children and adults who remember stories in great detail, and without apparent effort, when they receive the story as an engaging tale.

Similarly, there is a place for the teacher reading stories out loud during class, regularly in the lower grades and with less frequency as the students get older. Students benefit from listening quietly or drawing while the teacher reads, say, The Wind and the Willows. There is no need for the teacher to test the students on the details of the narrative, as the students will likely remember the details of Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad’s adventures. In addition to artwork (drawing a character or a scene while listening), academic work could include studying some unfamiliar vocabulary words from the text, using words from the text in spelling tests, discussing themes of the work in class (The Wind and the Willows is all about friendship), and writing a short story in the same style as the text, perhaps even with the same characters. Even so, there is not a need to keep the students busy with other tasks while they listen to the teacher read. The main benefit is the contemplative listening and receiving of the story, which may be consistent with drawing but not much else. These other academic tasks will take place during a separate time.

In addition to listening to stories being read aloud, students should also read stories on their own. In some cases, a teacher will assign reading works of literature primarily as homework, with specific chapters or pages due to have been read on certain days. In this case, may be helpful to quiz the students, as some students will not read consistently otherwise. In the lower grades these quizzes should be simple, with questions designed simply to determine if the reading was completed. A discerning teacher will select a book that is accessible and engaging for at-home reading, saving the more complex texts for class. When reading is primarily done as homework, class time can be used for discussion, including seminars in older grades.

Though assigned reading is important, students should be reading more than just the books covered in class. The goal, shared by both teachers and parents, should be for the student to fall in love with reading good books. There is truth in the saying that students should read “the thousand good books” in preparation for reading “the hundred great books.” Teachers do a great service when they individually mentor their students to select books that match their interests and expand their horizons. At The Heights we have an extra-credit reading program that directs students to select co-curricular books from lists of literature and history books by grade. Students are encouraged to read books from the list and discuss the books with the teacher to earn some “extra credit.” Some lower school teachers have set up charts to track student progress through these books. The boys find getting check marks next to completed books very encouraging. 

For great works of literature there is a need for older students to engage in an exact study of the text aimed at uncovering layers of meaning not apparent at first sight. The richness of a text like the Iliad or a Shakespearian play is such that much study, including leaning into the text with a careful analytical approach, is needed to begin to uncover the depths of meaning that are present. It may be true that the human experience of receiving a story as it is read out loud or silently is in a sense fundamental. For this reason, the first encounter with great books should be an uninterrupted reception of the whole or a section of the work, before going back and analyzing the text. As has been noted, children who listen to or read a story often remember copious details from the text. Even so, especially for older students, a contemplative reception of the story sets the stage for a deeper academic analysis of the text, an analysis aimed at deeper layers of meaning. Experienced teachers know how to uncover rich details in the text. They will help students analyze how language is used and ask penetrating questions about the author, the text, and how this work is in dialogue with the tradition and human experience. For this analytical work, students move beyond contemplatively receiving a story to actively probing the text for answers to questions. The mode of student engagement changes.

And there are important texts, texts that students encounter in school and throughout their lives, that, because of the type of text they are, are not received as stories. These are information or analytic texts that, to a greater or lesser extent, lack a narrative framework. Students need to read explanations of natural processes, such as the mechanism behind photosynthesis. They need to read about how particular economic theories inform thinking about governmental interest rate policy. They need to read works of political philosophy and ethics, from thinkers going all the way back to Aristotle to more contemporary authors. They need to read works of philosophy which attempt to explain, among other things, motion as the reduction of potency to act, the divine attributes, the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning, and the conditional nature of modern scientific models. They need to read about polynomial functions in a math textbook. They need to read speeches, reflections, and sermons. They need to read firsthand historical documents, such as diary entries from soldiers and townspeople. 

The way one goes about reading these information-rich texts is quite different from the way one reads a story. It would be unusual, to say the least, for a student to befriend polynomial functions as he reads about their zeros and graphs in the same way he feels kinship with Mole or Rat. These texts require a different approach from the start. They are not necessarily profitably read, even initially, in a contemplative and receptive mode. An interrupted initial reading of a story is problematic. But for information and analytic texts, it makes sense for a student to read with a pencil in hand, taking notes in the books themselves, in a separate notebook, or on a worksheet designed to help students write down important information. Notecards can be helpful to match terms and paradigms, presenting information to be memorized in a way that facilitates study and retention. The goal for reading each of these texts is admittedly somewhat different. Memorizing the mechanisms involved in photosynthesis or cellular respiration so as to be able to present this information in a cogent way in written form or, perhaps even better, in a presentation to peers is not the same task as discerning which details of the diary of a Civil War soldier are relevant for a study of how leadership and authority is exercised in different armies. Even so, reading information texts necessarily involves an active process of drawing out the precise details that are important and working toward memorizing these details so as to better understand.

Especially as students transition to the middle grades, they need coaching in study skills helpful to distill, process, and retain information. At first, teachers may use worksheets that help students draw key information out of a text, sheets that ask leading questions that guide students who struggle to discern what is important. It is best if students also learn how to outline and take notes themselves, without the help of a worksheet, so as to learn how to determine what is important in a passage. Teachers should coach students in using mnemonic devices to retain information. The key is for a teacher to form good academic habits in students without following an overly process driven approach. 

There are real dangers associated with teachers who fail to strategically coach their students and instead rely on an overly formulaic approach, such as always passing out reading guides for every text read, even literature read for the first time. Doing so can ruin even the best of texts, classics like Homer’s Odyssey, training students to dissect the text with received wisdom before receiving it as story. The first reading of literature should be an uninterrupted reading. It is fine to give students some focus questions ahead of time, open-ended questions that are best answered after an entire chapter or section of the work has been read. What should be avoided are reading guide worksheets that interrupt the first reading of the text.

Limits of reading guides

It is easy for a teacher to fall into the habit of a reading-guide-driven approach. A reading guide is a teacher-generated set of questions based on a particular text or body of knowledge, intended for students to complete as homework or classwork.

These worksheets can be profitably used to guide students to focus on details as they go back and analyze a text that has already been read through once. Some experienced teachers will use such worksheets as a way to help students discern what is important as an intermediate step for training students to develop their own outlines or reading notes. This can be helpful because some middle school students will simply rewrite most of what a text says when outlining it, seemingly unable to discern what details are important and worth noting and which are not. 

New teachers, and some experienced teachers, however, often write reading guides with the intention of helping students to read a text attentively and write down key points as a type of notes. The teacher imagines his class of high school freshmen falling asleep as their eyes pass over the pages of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities or their history textbook. He thinks of the problem of students staring at a text and yet thinking of something completely different, their eyes moving across the page while their thoughts are elsewhere. The teacher is hoping that the reading guide he writes will help with the problem of student engagement, will help students to fruitfully engage the text.

And it is true that it appears satisfying for a teacher to see students industriously searching through a text for answers to questions. This is especially the case when compared to seeing students sleep during a silent reading period. But even in the apparent industry of the busy students, we can still see the problem. The guide is not really helping the students to read A Tale of Two Cities. Their eyes are skimming the text looking for keywords that will trigger that they are close to the section where the answer to the question can be found. When they find that section, the task of reading a few lines is perhaps experienced as a distraction from the task at hand, a quest to find the right text to copy to answer the question, or the right phrase that gives an adequate answer.

The whole exercise is a farce. The teacher sees what appears to be engaged students and thus feels he is doing something right. The students have received a structure that enables them to avoid the difficult task of actually reading the text and instead feel good about completing a worksheet. They even partly believe that they are studying Dickens’ great work and take some satisfaction in this illusion. And perhaps worst of all, when the time comes for a teacher to give a test, he draws from the worksheet questions, rewarding students who memorize answers to these questions, answers that are crammed into short-term memory. It is a very effective method to reduce a student to a conduit of information, a cram-unload-and-forget machine.

Strategic teaching

But if such a reliance on teacher-generated reading guides is not the best way to foster student engagement with a text, then what can a teacher do instead? When a classic work of literature or any complex text is placed in front of a media-saturated teenager or young adult, the result, if escape is not found in mischief making, is likely that the student will fall asleep. How should a teacher, particularly a beginning teacher, address this problem? 

The first point to make is that there is no perfect solution to getting a student to freely engage a difficult text, especially a sleep-deprived student growing up in today’s media-saturated environment. It might even make sense to use worksheet questions for a particular part of a text, perhaps a section that introduces several new characters and gives background information, such as family history, that will be important later. A wise teacher recognizes that, for these pages, the students need to write down names and key information so that they remember details important for understanding what follows. Students who take the time to write down foreign-sounding character names from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, as well as a few biographical details for each character, will establish enough familiarity to better engage the story. Similarly, a teacher hoping to facilitate an encounter between his students and War and Peace would do well to spend some class time reviewing the history of Europe in the early nineteenth century, especially Napoleon’s conquests and his invasion of Russia. These teacher interventions can help facilitate rather than hinder the possibility of a student fruitfully encountering Tolstoy’s great classic.

The goal is to help students read with comprehension, first in a human and later in an academic way. The initial experience of reading should be an enjoyable one where the student enters into and strongly engages with a text. It is a good thing if the student experiences a “losing of oneself” in the story. When this happens, when one is absorbed into a story, it is amazing how many details are picked up. There is a human dimension to reading that involves a contemplative intensity, an engagement that makes comprehension and retention happen in a seemingly automatic, easy way.

Even so, it is all too easy for an undisciplined student to read without engagement, and correspondingly without retaining precise details. Some texts, and perhaps most texts at some time, demand an intentional and academic approach informed by specific study habits and skills. Otherwise, important details are missed as information that should make it into one’s memory is passed over. Young students need help knowing what is important in a text, and they need to see the necessity of exerting effort to retain key information. 

A teacher can help by instilling academic habits that encourage reading for precision, teaching students to use comprehension-improving tools and techniques. A simple strategy is requiring students to take notes on what they read. A teacher may use class time to demonstrate what taking good reading notes involves. Similarly, for literature books, requiring students to annotate the paperback text is a sound practice, especially if the teacher has clear expectations. Teachers can also ask students to answer a set of questions, perhaps written from the board or from a worksheet, as they read. The questions need to be carefully chosen, as there are two dangers to this approach. The first is that students do not actually read the text and instead hunt for answers to the worksheet questions, letting this mechanical exercise pass for real engagement. Secondly, an overly detailed worksheet runs the risk of hindering the human pace of reading, instead fostering an interrupted relationship with the text. An alternative to worksheets given prior to reading is frequent quizzes on what has already been read. A good quiz will establish expectations for the type of reading students should be doing. It will have a mix of question types, such as quote identification and questions that require recall of details. A teacher should mentor students to use specific academic strategies, while also knowing that there is a constant danger of students over-relying on the method rather than fully engaging the text. The ideal of helping students read with a contemplative intensity that absorbs the meaning, details and language of the text is difficult to attain. The teacher’s role is a bit like a dance, strategically engaging the students in different ways, avoiding too much reliance on any one tool or technique.

It is important to try to get this right, as the extremes of reading without the necessary focus and precision, on the one hand, and hunting through a text for information instead of reading it, on the other, are both to be avoided. As we have argued, the worst reading guides follow a text in a linear fashion to encourage students to skim and write trivial information. The best require that students write down a few key details that will help them remember information that will enable them to read better what follows, and do so without a linear reading guide. There is also a place for a less intrusive reading guide that contains “focus questions.” Focus questions are questions that are best answered after the student reads the assigned pages; they are broad, thematic questions designed to lead a student to reflect on what he has already read. Such questions cannot be answered by hunting through the text. Instead, they help a student think more deeply about what he is reading as and after he reads it. For example, a question could highlight a general theme that is open-ended enough to apply to different parts of a narrative: “Describe the vision of hospitality Homer presents in the Odyssey using examples from various parts of the text. Why do you think hospitality was so important to Homer?”

These principles are particularly important for teaching in the middle grades. Students are ready for the demands of proactively engaging a text, reading it with precision, so as to pull out specific information, including content that is committed to memory. Teachers should help students discern which details in a text are important as well as how these details fit into the overall text. This is true for literature, where a student should internalize the need to remember specific characters, places, and plot developments, as well as other texts in disciplines like history or science. If the text is making an argument, the student should be able to explain the argument and support his explanation with details from the text. If the text is describing natural phenomena, such as the carbon cycle, the student should actively read so as to be able to describe the cycle on his own, using correct vocabulary as he describes what is happening from an accurate mental image.

Given their limitations, good teachers will balance the use of text-based reading guide worksheets with other means. Some class time could be devoted to reading through a text in the right way together, where the teacher stops to write notes on the board, modeling for the students how to alternate between reading and taking helpful notes. Teachers should describe the habits involved in engaged reading for precision. Significantly, teachers should be preparing students to read in this way in preparation for a quiz, without being given the questions ahead of time. Doing this may require that such quizzes at first have more general questions on them with some specifics, or even include some text passages from the reading as part of a question. Over time, the demands of these quizzes can be increased. This approach helps to avoid students hunting through texts for details they know will show up on a quiz, memorizing these details, and then quickly forgetting them.

A teacher should develop the habit of reflecting on his teaching and how his students are learning. Even a reading guide with non-linear, theme-based focus questions can end up doing more harm than good, impeding the encounter of the student with the text rather than facilitating it. If the students get the sense that they are graded on their journal-entry-like answers to such questions, they may, perhaps gradually at first, focus their efforts on writing reflective prose of the type that the teacher will reward with a high mark. Such students may then end up skimming the text, trying to adequately follow the narrative, so that they can craft an answer that will be well received. Even worse, they may turn to Cliff Notes or a Wikipedia summary rather than actually reading the text. What might happen is that some students start by actually reading the text and writing in an honest and reflective way. They figure out the skill of being successful in this way and, when they become busy with other things, cut corners knowing that they can still achieve the grade results they want. This relates to the problem of grading in general, that grades have an important purpose but can easily get in the way of an education.

A wise and experienced teacher knows how important it is to mix things up, to avoid falling into any structure that will manage students toward a particular outcome that inevitably (at least partly) obscures their learning. The teacher is like a general who develops a comprehensive strategy to achieve his objectives, a strategy that includes straightforward and asymmetric means. He begins by lecturing on Tolstoy’s life and the history of Napoleon’s conquests. Then the students start to read War and Peace and fill out a fact-based reading guide where they gain familiarity with the names of the main characters, places, and events. A quiz helps to solidify this background knowledge. 

Then there are a series of seminar-style classes where the teacher purposely avoids talking; he says as little as possible. The teacher begins by laying groundwork for the students to encounter the book, now he purposely pulls back to let the encounter happen. In the next several seminar-style classes, the students are expected to take the lead in discussing the text. It comes as no surprise to the experienced teacher that this does not go well at first. The students have become familiar with the teacher-led, “fact-oriented” approach and are thrown off guard by the change of pace. The first in-class seminar discussion is flat at best. The students are not satisfied with the class, and they know that their teacher is nonplussed as well. The teacher knows that the students need to experience being “left alone” with the text, that they need to be forced to face it on their own. He makes one small adjustment: he shares a seminar grading rubric with the class. The students get the message that they need to say meaningful things and ask thoughtful questions in the seminar class to earn a good grade. This works for a few classes, and the teacher is confident that a majority of the class is reading the text in a meaningful way. A few times, a very engaging and heated discussion of the text ensues.

But the teacher is not content to rely on good seminar discussions going forward. The seminar discussions still happen, but he now gives the class a few focus questions intended to encourage deeper reflection. He also tells the class that they are expected to annotate their paperback editions, asking questions and writing notes in the text. The students are to actively dialogue in writing with what they read. There are a few reading quizzes thrown in to keep the students honest and on track. The students continue to be graded based on their contributions in class, but some classes shift from student-led seminars to the teacher Socratically engaging the class. Some class notes are written down on the board. A test follows, with different sections, including a section asking for objective facts (names, events), a section on quote identification, and a short essay.

In response to one of the focus questions, the teacher announces an upcoming in class debate, with some students defending one position and others defending the opposite position on an open-ended question that can be argued either way. Likewise, students are required to write a paper exploring a theme in the text from a list of possible themes, with the option of a student choosing a topic not on the list if approved by the teacher.

The entire march through War and Peace is a strategic exercise on the part of the teacher, one in which he is constantly adjusting the ways he engages his students to overcome all obstacles to their actually engaging the text. The best of teachers will be able to get most of his students to encounter the great work of literature in a meaningful way most of the time. This is not an easy task, and a teacher who is successful in this way is truly a master at his craft.

Not all educators, however, would agree with this. There are a few teachers who are so sensitive to the problem of teachers over-managing the encounter of students with great works from the tradition that they object to any such interventions. From their perspective, a student must be able to encounter the text in a raw form, without being directed in any way as to what the text means. These teachers object to any type of worksheet and instead insist that the students express their thoughts in a seminar style class, with only occasional Socratic questions from the teacher. Those who argue this way are correct that providing historical context and drawing attention to specific characters and details from the text does somewhat frame the work of literature. The text as a work of art may have shades of meaning that are obscured by how a teacher presents it to the class. Even so, it is unrealistic to expect even older students to be able to encounter a sophisticated work of literature in an unmediated way. If the teacher does not provide some guidance, the students will undoubtedly fashion filters of their own, based on past experiences and perhaps even mistaken preconceptions. They also may just fall asleep. We have argued that a teacher does well to provide accurate perspective and a context that serves to facilitate a richer encounter between the student and the text, even if in doing so a particular interpretation is favored. A teacher who loves the book as an authentic work of art with human meaning will apply the right scaffolding and guidance so that the work of art can speak with its own voice to this next generation of students. To such a teacher, selling his own interpretation or a specialized critique of the work is rightly seen as abhorrent.


There are some educators who refuse to use any textbooks, and for good reason. When a teacher places a textbook in front of a student, the student thinks that this textbook is the standard for knowledge of the subject; that it is objective, impartial and comprehensive; that it presents the material in a pure form, providing not only content but the structure by which we should understand a subject. In reality the textbook is nothing of the sort. It is a conglomeration of information and opinions, including opinions on how one should go about structuring one’s understanding of the material. It necessarily frames a subject, at best in a somewhat helpful way and, at worst, in a way that skews reality, promoting ideologies.

Some of the worst textbooks are English literature textbooks. Anthologies of poems or short stories are fine, depending on the quality of the literature included. What is not fine are literature textbooks that purport to present the literary tradition and instead provide social commentary informed by contemporary political ideologies along with limited excerpts from authors, perhaps classic texts or letters the author wrote. These excerpts may be used to present the author as a revolutionary feminist thinker, a hero of sorts, or as a victim oppressed by societal structures. One such textbook, which will go unnamed, presents Jane Austen as struggling within a society that structurally oppresses women. It mentions that she wrote novels and provides a bit of information about these works, although the only passage of Austen that it presents comes from one of her letters. Such textbooks are a direct assault on the tradition, rejecting the possibility of great literature speaking to us with a human voice and instead pandering political ideologies. Parents have the duty to not allow their children to be educated by anyone who would willingly use such a book.

On the other hand, those who argue that all textbooks should be decisively rejected perhaps go too far. There are some textbooks that can be used profitably by teachers, so long as the teachers are aware of their limitations. Granted, a typical history textbook may have toxic political agendas informing how a time period is presented. In some cases, a discerning educator will be able to uncover traces—or perhaps more than just traces—of Marxist reductionism presenting economic factors, the substructure, as so decisive that the culture of a people is nothing more than a superstructure that arises from and supports the underlying material realities. But the best history textbooks, though unable—as any textbook is unable—to entirely avoid presenting some opinion as objective truth, are at least honest attempts to present the historical narrative. At The Heights we use some of these texts, but try to avoid making them the “backbone” of the respective history class. Instead, we have put together packets of primary source documents that complement the history text. Students will read and discuss excerpts from Josephus’s History of the Jewish War (detailing the Roman conquest of Jerusalem), Plutarch’s Lives and George Washington’s Farewell Address, to name a few examples. Two teachers from our history department, William Dardis and Thomas Cox, have written a textbook called Becoming Rome that, in addition to providing an overarching narrative of Roman history, presents a rich assortment of primary source documents, including several that they translated.

A good math teacher can make use of a textbook, especially as a source of problems to assign for homework. Granted, the teacher should avoid simply teaching from the textbook and instead develop his own class lectures that present the material in an attractive and accessible way, along with well-chosen class problems that support student learning and mastery. But there is nothing wrong with a teacher using the textbook as a problem bank, or even occasionally encouraging students to read a particular section and expecting them to learn some material independently from that section. Math is a subject that allows for a scientific presentation of the material, meaning a presentation that unfolds the material in a manner consistent with the inner logic of the subject itself.

Traditional manuals, textbooks for philosophy and theology, attempted to follow a similar scientific approach, an approach that still has its place in such areas of study. The best instruction in philosophy or theology will include both a scientific, manual-like presentation along with reading rich texts from the tradition. For example, a teacher who presents the theology of grace in a coherent and comprehensive way would do well to also have his students read St. Augustine’s tracts against Pelagius, discussing them in seminars.

The case with modern science is more complicated. Unlike traditional science, which deductively proceeds from known truths to derive a unified body of knowledge, modern science is all about building and improving models with explanatory and predictive power in particular conditions. The contrast between traditional sciences like Euclidean geometry and, say, modern physics is quite significant. Euclidean geometry is certain and true knowledge, albeit limited in scope. The models that physicists develop, on the other hand, are not certain knowledge but rather helpful tools that have wide applications to help us better understand phenomena like motion. The models developed in Newtonian physics enable us to analyze motion under typical terrestrial conditions, and other models, such as Einstein’s relativity, are helpful when dealing with extreme speeds. Modern science is best taught in a way that mirrors the scientific method: the students begin with observed phenomena and come to understand models that organize the observed evidence and are capable of predicting future events. Practically speaking, since it is not possible nor perhaps desirable for students to proceed exclusively from observations, such as those that can be generated in a science room or lab, it is fitting for students to learn modern science as the historical process that it is. Students benefit greatly from learning how scientists developed the models presented in a typical science textbook, especially because they better understand what these models are and how they work.

The problem with most science textbooks is that they shy away from an evidential or an historical approach, perhaps touching lightly on descriptions of real-world phenomena and the history of the models they present. Instead, they focus on explaining models, some of which are fairly complex, giving the students the impression that these models are what is real, that they represent real knowledge in a way similar to Euclidean geometry. In doing so these textbooks develop technicians who understand, at least to some extent, scientific models, but they fail to develop scientists, who are necessarily curious explorers probing the limits of current understanding. Some educators have realized this problem in science education, and efforts are underway to reframe how science is taught. In the meantime, it is best if a science teacher uses the textbook as a resource rather than as the driving factor in the course. Students should learn about how the scientific models presented in the textbook arise from and help us to better understand real world phenomena, and what these scientific models actually are, a task that requires going into their history. The students also need to know how to apply these models, including on problems that require complex analysis that can involve a significant amount of math. For this purpose, a science textbook can serve as an excellent resource for problems.

Open inquiry and evidential reasoning

A classroom should be a place where students can explore different ideas and perspectives in a calm and reasoned way. This should include both the ideas with which there is considerable agreement and the opposing positions. It is actually best if perspectives that diverge from the mainstream, or even perspectives that are rightly considered offensive, are critically examined, even presenting the strongest possible arguments for such positions. It is not just that all honest questions should be entertained, as if open inquiry is merely a way to espouse tolerance for those who are striving to voice in an authentic way the questions that have meaning for them personally. Rather, the classroom should be a place where there is confidence that it is possible to reach the truth through critically examining the evidence. An excellent way for this to happen is to strive to present the strongest possible arguments for opposing views and answer them. This broad-minded approach was exemplified in the disputations common in the first universities, such as the University of Paris, where those such as St. Thomas Aquinas would present opposing positions in the strongest possible way.

There are several things that a teacher can do to set the right tone of inquiry for his class, and some things he should avoid. One of the worst things he can do is rely too strongly on his own authority, setting up an environment where students are expected to accept whatever he says, committing it to short-term memory so as to repeat it on the test for a good grade. Everything about such an overly mechanical educational process cuts against forming sovereign knowers who have confidence that reasoning to the truth is possible. Likewise, teachers should be careful when presenting the opinions of respected thinkers, both those whose thought has passed the test of time and contemporary experts. It is better to present assertions along with the underlying thought process rather than giving too much credibility to the authority of the source of the assertion: “From an Aristotelian perspective, Democritus’s position that all physical reality can be explained by reference to small particles is inadequate because it fails to account for something both being a particular type of thing (form) and being able to change, including changing to a different type of thing (matter). For Aristotle, the consideration of change is what leads to the need for both matter and form as distinct principles” These comments do refer to the authority of Aristotle, but not without giving some reasons for his hylomorphic theory.

A teacher should ask thought-provoking questions and sometimes leave these questions unanswered, perhaps for part of a class or even longer, coming back to the question throughout the unit or even the course: “Today most people think of war as tragic and unnecessary, even uncivilized. Did those who decided to fight the Hundred Years’ War and the Thirty Years’ War have any justifiable reasons for fighting?” Some student questions, especially factual questions about specific data points, are appropriately answered by the teacher on the spot: “Let’s make sure we are clear about dates: the Hundred Years’ War spanned roughly 1337 to 1453 while the Thirty Years’ War was 1618 to 1648. Keep this straight on your mental timeline.” Other student questions merit pondering and input from other students: “Why would God decide to intervene in the Hundred Years’ War through St. Joan of Arc?” There is a place for teachers not answering some questions, at least not answering them right away.

It can be helpful for a teacher to use the board to summarize points of evidence and arguments, at times presenting a list of pros and cons: “Assertion: Robinson Crusoe should no longer be read in schools because it is racist. Let’s list the pros and cons to this claim.” He should use the board as part of his efforts to model critical evidential reasoning to the class. If a student makes a suspect assertion, it may be more helpful for the class if this assertion is presented as a proposition to be critically examined. The teacher can write it on the board and ask the class for the evidence for and against the claim.

It might be somewhat counterintuitive, but times of silence can help a classroom to be a place where real learning takes place. Silence can support an environment of open inquiry and evidential reasoning if it is used well. A teacher does well to ask students to take five minutes to jot down the strongest arguments for and against a particular position before allowing class discussion. This exercise will likely make the class discussion less impulsive and more reflective. Some uses of silence are consistent with a different type of noise. For example, a class studying the Civil War could be asked to put their heads down, close their eyes and imagine what it would be like to be at the battle while listening to a soundtrack of rain and rifle fire. The Normandy beach scenes from the movie Saving Private Ryan are particularly powerful because of the realistic sounds of the battle overlaying the background silence, such as the muted noise of bullets hitting the water. Experienced teachers will frequently use moments of strenuous silence, which is nothing like a sleepy lack of focus. A teacher will slowly walk through the rows of his math class while the students strive in intense silence to complete a problem from the board. The teacher will judge when it is time to move to the front of the room to demonstrate the problem, and perhaps cover new material based on this problem, but only after the students have had a chance to grapple adequately with the problem. An English teacher may expect students to try to memorize a two-stanza poem in silence for ten minutes, asking them to write the poem from memory as best as they can at the end of the time, all prior to discussing the poem.

One Heights philosophy teacher presents students with a posted list of “Norms for Class Discussion” that reflects this approach to open inquiry. The norms are:

  1. Listen to everyone, actively and without interruption.
  2. Practice hermeneutical generosity.
  3. Engage others’ ideas.
  4. When you disagree, disagree respectfully.
  5. Cultivate enough humility to remain educable, but not so much that you avoid speaking.
  6. Support your arguments with reasons and evidence.
  7. Feel free to express your feelings, but don’t expect them to persuade anyone.

About the Author

Michael Moynihan

Head of Upper School, The Heights School

A native of Rochester, NY, Michael Moynihan graduated summa cum laude from the University of Notre Dame Honors Program in 1992. After teaching for one year and earning a master’s degree in theology from The Catholic University of America,

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