“It is dangerous to encourage people to talk -to express their feelings in words, to shape their ideas into coherent forms. The person in charge cannot predict what will happen; he cannot control the words. It is an open situation, and everyone becomes more vulnerable, more exposed, and thus more equal.” -Nancy Milio (from 9226 Kercheval: The Storefront That Did Not Burn, 1970)
Apparently the English have shown that when you teach students philosophy they improve in mathematics and logical reasoning skills. I am pleased to say that I teach and discuss philosophy with my students. The Socratic approach is the very core of what I do; it’s what I’ve been doing at DEMOI for three and a half years and it is what I am also doing at The Infinity School. http://infinityschool.ca
I’m also pleased to say that my students love the challenge of thinking philosophically and would excel in any school that makes philosophy a core subject:
Starting September 22nd, 2016 I will be facilitating a literature discussion group through the London Central Library. Here is a preview of the advertisement that will be appearing in the Library Newsletter this summer:
(Public Affairs Discussion Group for Young Adults who are Thinkers and Activists)
Ongoing, 1st and 3rd Thursday evening every month, 7-8:30 p.m. in the Flex Space, London Central Library
September 22nd: Introducing Our Mission & Team Building Session
October 6th: Discussion of Benjamin Alire Saenz’s novel Aristotle & Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe
Join a team of young adults (ages 15-25) dedicated to reading, discussing and debating contemporary works of fiction, literary non-fiction & memoir which cover pressing questions of ethnic, racial and gender identity and address matters of social, political and ecological importance. We will be presenting our findings to the City of London and the Community-at-large.
Further Information and Sign Up available at https://demoiindependentlearning.com
I am looking forward to my upcoming sessions with a local “philosophy group” comprised of teenagers who have spent some months studying the works of many important historical thinkers.
Beginning this Friday we will be having five Socratic sessions which cover a range of books including The Communist Manifesto, The God That Failed, To Kill A Mockingbird, Winnipeg’s General Strike and Utopia.
It is always exciting to see students taking ideas seriously and embarking upon the work of unpacking systems of thought. Like many critics, I also believe that all too often ideas are being turned into soundbites and quotes which are divested of intellectual, socio-economic and historical context. Therefore it is a pleasure to be invited to be part of a group that is working hard to educate itself and is not afraid of an intellectual challenge.
–Jeremy Nathan Marks
The name DEMOI is plural for the Greek word “Demos” meaning “the common people of a democracy.”
I decided upon this name because I fervently believe that education is a democratic enterprise capable not only of encouraging literacy, self-awareness and mutual understanding but that education is also an exercise in empowerment. I use the word “empowerment” with a specific meaning in mind.
The American philosopher John Dewey wrote that democracy requires a “democratic conception of vocation”: a person’s “work” should be their calling. In a democratic society each student has a right to be educated and to be given the opportunity to choose the work they would like to do. This is not a whimsical matter but goes to the heart of independence and self-responsible authority. Democracy requires vigilant and intelligent citizens who are capable of debating and discussing the pressing issues of the day and holding powerful private and public officials accountable through their own steadfast commitment to literacy, empiricism and intellectual honesty.
I share Dewey’s belief in the importance of a calling which is why I decided to become an independent teacher. I believe in public education but I also am promoting the need for one-on-one and small group Socratic learning. In one-on-one and small seminar sessions I am able to help students shape their own curriculum and pursue a rigorous course (or courses) of study that encourages personal independence and the idea that education is a lifelong objective. I model my pedagogical approach on the Oxford University Tutors who meet regularly with students to discuss what they are reading, to ask them penetrating questions as well as requiring them to write and debate the themes and problems which arise in their studies.
My goal is simple: I want each student to know that education is made for them. I want them to learn how to trust their own judgment, become critical thinkers and learn the dual art of rhetoric and literary expression. I am convinced that by acquiring these skills they will be able to discover and acquire their vocation and use it to better their own lives and the lives of others. Informed citizenship, personal autonomy and meaningful work all begin with independent learning.
–Jeremy Nathan Marks
What kind of teacher am I?
I have been thinking for a long time about what it is that I do as a teacher. Since I have taken what might be called a “non-traditional” route within the pedagogical world, I find myself thinking about how to explain to the people I meet the nature of my vocation.
How do I see myself? And what does it mean to be a teacher whose classroom is an office space in his house, the living room of a student’s home or even sits within a clutch of books carried around in his satchel? It certainly does not resemble the traditional institutional world I come out of: a world of hi-tech classrooms, large modern campuses and highly formalized curricular models. I have elected not to pursue that familiar pathway because I feel that my ideas and instincts, my pedagogical methods and my views on hierarchy and educational democracy do not quite fit within that institutional context. Instead, I see myself as part of a line of educators which includes reformers like John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, Jonathan Kozol and Paul Goodman. I offer this admission not as an implied condemnation of traditional schooling but to help sketch out just how I am looking for a different forum in which to teach and to be taught.
I would like to begin by clarifying something: I am not, strictly speaking, a tutor in the familiar sense of the word. I advertise and offer tutoring services and enjoy helping students improve upon their critical thinking and formal writing skills but I do not think of myself as being primarily a “supplemental” educator, a term implied by the word “tutor,” at least in our North American context.
When I founded DEMOI Independent Learning in April 2013 I originally advertised myself as a tutor in the Oxford University sense: I am someone who works with students to design a rigorous course of independent study and then meets weekly (or multiple times per week) with each student to discuss their reading, writing and what they are thinking about in response to the work. I think the Oxford Tutor model is an excellent one because it affords the teacher and the student the opportunity of designing a course and then assigns both the responsibility of steering that course. I like to think that what I have done is taken this model and adapted it to the home schooling/un-schooling model of pedagogy by making it primarily a project of informal independent study. I have found this to be a tremendously stimulating experience because neither my students nor I can ever predict precisely where our work together will go. There is a spirit of adventure to our endeavours and I believe that the educational experience we share is truly a mutual one.
I will explore this concept of mutuality in a subsequent essay but for the moment I would like to pause over what precisely it is that students and I do together in our one-on-one “Oxford-style” sessions.
I think that the greatest gift independent study has to offer people of all ages is the ability to concentrate on a chosen field of interest. Too often we are told that we cannot just jump into a new field of study because we lack the requisite training or have not taken the proper “prerequisites.” I have encountered this mindset in graduate school and it succeeded in denying me the opportunity to study advanced topics that truly inspired me. In order to avoid this mistake with my students I encourage them to challenge themselves and tackle material that might seem, at first, to be a little “too advanced” to some. The material that we select is based upon their chosen topic. For example, this past summer I read The Iliad with an eleven year old student because it interested her and she wanted the challenge. It was a great experience. I also have taught a European history class to a group of 12 and 13 year olds using a university-level textbook. The reason I think this can be done is twofold: if someone shows an interest in a subject then I think this is an indicator that they are actually prepared to undertake it. Also, because I do not believe in grades or tests I am not worried about having my students pass rigorous examinations designed to determine whether they have truly “mastered” the material. (Mastery is another subject worthy of a future essay.) I do not think that “mastery” is necessary unless a student decides to pursue a professional career where specific forms of credentialing and testing require that they demonstrate quite specific skills in order to receive certification. And even there, we could have a fun debate about where and when credentialing is appropriate and why.
I will be exploring many of the ideas mentioned above in subsequent essays. My website is now in its final stages of development and when it appears it will contain a blog in which I regularly discuss the work that I am doing in the pedagogical field and what my students and I are currently up to.
Thank you for reading.
Socratic Learning as Democratic Citizenship
When I first am introduced to a new class or begin working one-on-one with a student my initial concern is finding ways of helping him become a self-impelled learner. I believe this is achieved by initiating a conversation with the student about what intrigues him and by asking how he sees himself in relation to his world.
I look to discover two things: how a child learns and what motivates him to learn. I am of the opinion that the best type of curriculum is one that demonstrates flexibility toward student interests and group dynamics. The benefit of using interdisciplinary curricula is in its demonstration that every subject offers insight into the mysteries and problems of the world. I teach literature as a meditation on how human beings confront timeless (and historical) problems and I like to show how the arts often provide the most profound expression of the moral imagination. The Socratic Method’s appeal lies in its encouraging of an interdisciplinary approach to the curriculum by drawing from students their creative, rational and emotional responses.
A Socratic conversation offers students opportunities to test their individual gifts and abilities and indulge their interests and avidities by presenting them with the task of problem solving. I like to emphasize problem solving because I subscribe to John Dewey’s belief that people learn best when captivated by their tasks. If I understand Dewey properly I believe he was saying that education is a form of apprenticeship which trains students to become masters of the craft of their own learning process. I believe in the underlying democratic message of this form of education because it can help students develop confidence in their capacity to grow as learners, cultivate their reason and apply their emotional and moral insights to the pressing social and ecological problems in their communities.
My primary concern as a teacher is to avoid a managerial or hierarchical approach in my teaching. Far too often young people are led to believe that it is their duty to mimic the opinions of their teachers in order to merit high marks. I have seen this happen repeatedly just as I also have witnessed students who have attempted to be creative and original in their response to assignments and have their efforts subjected to withering (and irresponsible) criticism. This seems to me to be a gross injustice because it forecloses a valuable opportunity in the intellectual and emotional development of a young person to begin exploring their cognitive and creative depths. School should be a place where creative experimentation is encouraged and rewarded since it is a studio where students learn the various forms of communication, exposition and inquiry and are encouraged to apply to those forms their newly acquired skills.
In more than thirteen years of teaching I have found no better approach for encouraging creativity, debate and motivation in my students than the Socratic Method. In my personal life as a writer and student of the humanities I am constantly being reminded that writing, research and observation are creative processes that demand self-confidence, imagination, personal reflection and an exacting commitment to probity and integrity. Adolescence is a very delicate time when kids want to be taken seriously and explore their own emerging ideas, doubts and desires for greater independence while also looking to do so from a place of safety. I feel it is my duty to nurture my students by creating an environment where they will be taken seriously and feel that they are learning how to assume ownership of their education. Teachers and schools have been tasked with showing young women and men how to become conscientious contributors to their communities and demonstrating that by helping improve the lives of others they are realizing what their education is really for.
–Jeremy Nathan Marks