Author Archive

News — Spring 2015

Sunday, May 17th, 2015

National French Teachers Examination

Congratulations to Mrs. Mary Catherine Lavissière’s students Katie Cruse, Alana Ross, Micah Wittenberg, and Moriah Wittenberg! These four Scholars Online students placed with honors in the National French Test Le Grand Concours 2015. The test is offered annually by the American Association of Teachers of French to identify and recognize students achieving high proficiency in the French language.

Madame Lavissière offers courses in both French and Spanish through Scholars Online. See our Modern Languages course descriptions for more information.
Update on Summer Session Courses for 2015

We’ve added several new courses for the summer session, which runs from June 8-August 21, 2015 (individual courses may span different periods within the session, so check your course description for exact start dates). Most summer classes are chances for students to build new skills in fun but still useful ways. Click on the course name to see descriptions of class schedules and costs, and on syllabus links to see detailed course content and assignments. Enrollment must be completed by May 31 to ensure placement in the course, and payment in full is due before students can attend chat sessions. Enrollments received after May 31 may not be processed in time for students to attend the first sessions of their course.

  • Explore the many facets of J.R.R. Tolkien’s creation in Looking at Middle-earth. Discussions will focus on Tolkien’s world-building, use of language, his theology of “subcreation”, and his work as a philologist. Students are expected to have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
  • Sample Shakespeare’s comedy, tragedy, and history plays, including Twelfth Night, As You Like ItThe Taming of the Shrew,The Merchant of VeniceA Midsummer Night’s DreamKing LearJulius CaesarRomeo and Juliet, and Richard II in Summer Shakespeare I. Students taking Scholars Online’s literature series, supplemented with Summer Shakespeare II and III, have the opportunity to study and discuss all of Shakespeare’s plays. [See the Full Syllabus for details.]
  • Gain practical writing skills with Molding Your Prose (based on an idea suggested to Dr. Bruce McMenomy by Mary McDermott Shideler). Learn to organize your ideas and improve your dialectic skills in Molding your Argument. Both of these popular courses requires short weekly writing exercises, with students analyzing each others’ work to learn to identify and improve their own writing.
  • Jump start your academic year Physics course with an overview of key theories and concepts in Introduction to Physics, a survey of the fundamental concepts of classical mechanics and modern physics, and gain essential analysis and problem-solving skills. Students planning to take the combined AP Physics 1 and 2 course will be able to count lab work from this course toward their AP lab requirements. [Full syllabus]
  • NEW COURSE! In The Age of Reagan, discover how the events and decisions of the Reagan administration have shaped current political, religious, economic, and environmental policies. Students opting for the media studies component of this course will also examine how movies, TV, and ads portray cultural messages (parental guide available in the full syllabus).

Reminder: PSAT/NMSQT and Classics Exams Online Deadlines

Sunday, September 28th, 2014

2014 PSAT/NMSQT 15 October and 18 October

Register now: The 2014 PSAT/NMSQT, otherwise known as the National Merit Test, will be offered Wednesday October 15 or Saturday, October 18, depending on the test site. When taken in your junior year, your score on this $14 standardized test (plus any small additional fee a school may charge for administrative costs) is used by many companies, non-profit organizations, colleges, and universities to identify students qualified to receive merit scholarship awards, and by many students to prepare for the SAT examinations in their senior year. The examination is only offered at high schools, so you must contact a local school to register, pay the fees, and make arrangements to take the test. Check the College Board site for schools near you offering the test, and further information about the program.

For more information bout the PSAT/NMSQT: check the College Board general information page on the National Merit exam.

Homeschoolers planning to take the National Merit exam should check these special instructions.

2014 National JCL On-line Exams

The National Junior Classical League offers online examinations to students, with medals awarded for gold, silver, and bronze achievement levels.

Registration for the National Classical Etymology Exam (NCEE) opened September 1. Regular registration at $4.00 per student closes October 17, and late registration at $8.00 per student closes October 27. Payment must be mailed by November 3, 2014 so that proctors can receive instructions and examination copies. The exam is administered between November 3 and December 5, 2014.

The NCEE tests a student’s ability to handle Latin and Greek derivatives and their usage in the English language. For an overview of the exam contents, and to practice with the 2013 exam, visit the NCEE Overview page.

Registration for the National Roman Civilization Exam (NRCE) opens November 3, 2014. Regular registration at $4.00 per student closes January 30, 2015, and late registration at $8.00 closes February 5, 2015. The examination is administered between February 11 and March 20, 2015.

The NRCE tests a student’s knowledge of Roman society. For an overview of the exam contents, and to practice with the 2013 examination, visit the NRCE overview page.

New this year is the National Latin Vocabulary Exam. Registration for this exam (NLVE) opens November 3, 2014. Regular registration at $4.00 per student closes January 30, 2015, and late registration at $8.00 closes February 5, 2015. The examination is administered between February 11 and March 20, 2015.

The NLVE tests a student’s command of Latin vocabulary, and consists of 70 multiple choice questions which must be answered in 45 minutes. Vocabulary lists are tested at six levels: ½ and 1 (first and second year Latin), 2 (preparation fo Caesar), 3, 4, and 5+ (Latin vocabulary for Caesar, Vergil, and Cicero). The wordlists are available by free download for study.

Homeschoolers should use their last name and “Homeschool” as the name of their school, and arrange for someone who is not the parent teaching the student to proctor the test. If you have further questions, contact


Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

Orientation sessions on using the Scholars Online chat are scheduled for

  • Monday, 25 August, 8pm Eastern / 5pm Pacific
  • Wednesday, 27 August, 3pm Eastern / noon Pacific
  • Friday, 29 August, 11am Eastern / 8am Pacific

Policy orientation sessions have also been scheduled to allow parents and students to meet with Scholars Online administrators and teachers to discuss our policies and ask questions in live chat. Long-time parents and students are also welcome to come and share their SO stories!

  • Wednesday August 27, 8PM Eastern / 5pm Pacific
  • Thursday August 28, 8PM Eastern / 5pm Pacific

To attend orientation sessions, log into the Moodle with your Scholars Online userid and password, click on the “Sign up for orientation” link in the upper left-hand corner of your personal home page, then select the Chat link you wish to review or attend. Chats are only open during the times specified. Note that the Moodle may be down during the period between August 20 and August 24!

If you are unable to attend a session, you may still review logs from earlier sessions.

We also encourage you to check out our website pages for information on our policies, teacher contact information, and especially our “Frequently Asked Questions” link. If you have a question you think should be answered on the FAQs page for the benefit of others, please let us know.

Creative Writing Course Changes

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

Mrs. Krista Alsop has been forced by changed circumstances to drop the Creative Writing course, but Dr. Bruce McMenomy is planning to take it over if there is sufficient interest. His plan is to draw on Mrs. Alsop’s materials, but he will be rethinking the course and adapting it to his own styles and approaches to writing. We’ll work with creative writing fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. A possibility will be participation in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November, but that certainly is not required. So far enrollment is right on the edge, but if your student is interested in this opportunity, don’t hesitate to enroll. If you have questions about it, please write to Dr. McM at

Moodle Upgrade

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

The Scholars Online Moodle environment is being upgraded during the period between August 19-August 24 and may be unavailable for several hours at a time during this period. The Scholars Online home page, account management centers may also be offline briefly during system reboots to install security patches. We plan to be online and stable as of Monday morning, August 25. There will be a period of transition while we work out the new theme, so the appearance may change. We thank you for your patience during this period!

August News

Saturday, August 2nd, 2014

Enrollment and Registration Deadlines

It’s hard to believe that it is already August. Open enrollment for academic year courses continues through August 22, and full tuition and fees are due by August 29. This applies even if you are using the installment option, unless you make arrangements with the accounts manager. While we may accept enrollments and payments after that date for some courses (pending teacher approval), any delays in processing account information could prevent students from being admitted to chat sessions—so please complete registration and enrollment as soon as possible!

Each new student with a paid membership will notification of his or her temporary password at the student’s registered email address. Please make sure that these notices are not being filtered to junk mail!

Scholarship Deadlines

The Scholars Online Board of Directors allocates part of our annual budget to our scholarship fund, as well as all income from our bookstore affiliation with Families may be awarded waivers up to 50% of tuition for demonstrated need, including job loss, medical expenses, or other family emergencies.

Scholarships are granted on a case-by-case basis for tuition assistance when students would otherwise be unable to take courses due to job loss, medical expenses, or other family emergencies. Contact as soon as possible if you wish information about applying for scholarships for our 2014-2015 courses. Some scholarship funds for this year have already been allocated. Final decisions on remaining scholarship distributions will be made August 15. Please consider your request prayerfully; our resources are limited and once distributed, are not available for other families.

Direct contributions to our scholarship fund are tax-exempt, as Scholars Online is a 501c(3) organization. To make a donation by check or online, see our Scholarship page. You may also donate by making purchases from through the Scholars Online Bookstore site or by designated Scholars Online as your charity of choice at

Moodle Access

We will be installing and testing a long-delayed upgrade to the Moodle software starting August 11. Although we will attempt to limit outages to evenings after 6pm PDT or weekends, access may be restricted at other times as well. Students submitting over-the-summer examinations or lab work may need to adjust their schedules to complete all assigned work by their course deadlines.

Students and families who are not returning to Scholars Online for the fall will lose access to the Moodle on August 31. If you need to download assignments or scores for your records, please do so prior to that date. Families will continue to have access to transcripts and invoice records through the Account Management Centers.

Scholars Online Curriculum and the AP Program

Saturday, July 12th, 2014

We’ve had a number of inquiries about our AP programs at Scholars Online.

While we endeavor to help our students gain recognition for their work through the AP program where appropriate, we have focussed on creating a curriculum that meets our primary mission: to provide a rigorous classical Christian education for our students. There are cases where our mission and the AP program are at odds.

To use the term “AP Course” and offer AP credit requires approval of the course syllabus by the College Board review team. In some cases, Scholars Online teachers have elected to create and submit a course syllabus for review (a lengthy process, for which the teacher does not receive remuneration, and one which has to be repeated every 2-3 years at the whim of the College Board). Three of our science courses have received official approval in the past to grant AP credit on school transcripts, providing students complete all required lab work. Students must still take the AP exam for exam credit; some elect to do so and others do not.

For some of our other courses, the teachers have determined that the College Board requirements for the delivery of material are in fact not in the best interests of students following a classical Christian education curriculum with its emphasis on close analysis and critical thinking. While these courses meet and exceed requirements to cover specific material and topics in preparation for the AP and SAT subject exams (and our students do very well on these exams), we cannot grant official AP credit for these courses. Again, students must take the AP exam for exam credit.

Even when students have AP courses on their transcript, or score well on the AP exams, individual colleges and universities differ widely in how they use AP credit and AP exam results for admission or course credit, and that there is a growing controversy over the usefulness of the College Board testing program. If you are a parent of students who will not be attending college for several years yet, you should be aware that the entire AP/SAT/CLEP/ACT exam system is changing, and this may affect your choice of courses and how you validate your students’ work.

In the list below, links to the entire SO sequence are given, so that you may see how each individual course fits into the overall Scholars Online curriculum.

Official AP courses at Scholars Online  [Scholars Online Science Sequence]

  • AP Biology (current AP syllabus approved 2013)
  • AP Chemistry (past AP syllabus approved 2009; new syllabus under review for 2014-2015 academic year)
  • AP Physics (past AP syllabus approved 2010; new syllabus under review for 2014-2015 academic year)

Courses at Scholars Online meeting or exceeding preparation requirements for subject AP Exam

As always, parents should consult with our independent curriculum advisor, Mrs. LaJuana Decker, with any questions on whether our courses are appropriate for their students. She may be reached at

Failure is not an option

Monday, March 21st, 2011

When I taught my first class as a graduate assistant at UCLA, one of the students asked whether my Western Civilization section was a “Mickey Mouse” course. What he meant was, “Is this a course with a guaranteed A if I show up and do the minimal work assigned, or will I run the risk that the work I do won’t be good enough for an A?” I said no, it wasn’t a Mickey Mouse course; the history of the Western World was complex and it would take work. I would not guarantee his grade.

He didn’t show up at our next meeting and the enrolled student printout the next week confirmed that he had dropped the class. He couldn’t risk the possibility of failure (which apparently was determined by having a less than 4.0 GPA), and so he missed the opportunity to learn why the reforms of Diocletian changed the economy of the Roman Empire and influenced the rise of monasteries, or how the stirrup made the feudal system possible, or how the academic interests of Charlemagne led to the rise of universities and the very institution he was supposed to be part of.  He chose to fail to get an education rather than fail to get an A grade.

When I taught my first chemistry course online, I was blessed with an enthusiastic bunch of brilliant students who tackled the rigorous textbook and beat it into submission — except for one student we’ll call Joe. Joe lacked the science and math background that would have made the course easier, and he had a learning disability that made reading anything, but especially any kind of formulae, a real trial.  By the middle of the fall semester, it was clear that Joe was in serious trouble. His mother discussed the possibility of dropping the course, but I thought I could teach any willing student anything, so I offered extra help. Joe and I agreed to meet an hour early before the rest of the class and work through the problematic material. When I realized the extent of Joe’s problems, we backed up and started over. He continued to attend the regular online sessions with the rest of the class, but I excused him from keeping up with the homework and quiz assignments while we tried to establish a foundation he could really build on.

At the end of the academic year, the rest of the class had finished the twenty-two chapters of the text. Joe had finished four.

But he really knew those four chapters. He could answer any question and do any problem from them, with more facility and conviction than some of the students who had seemingly breezed through the material months earlier. I reluctantly entered a failing grade on his report, but wrote his parents that I didn’t think the grade reflected Joe’s real accomplishments that year. He had managed to learn some chemistry. What’s more, I’d had a salutary lesson in perseverance.

What I hadn’t realized was that my lesson wasn’t over. Joe didn’t accept his failing grade as the final word. Three years later, out of the blue, I got a letter from Joe’s mother. Her son, fired with the discovery that he could actually learn chemistry given enough time, and the realization that he actually liked chemistry, had gotten a job working part time so that he could pay a chemistry student from the local college to tutor him. He applied the same dogged determination he had shown in our extra morning sessions to his self-study and with the help of his tutor, slogged his way though the rest of our text. Kindly note that no one was giving him a grade for this work. But when he was done with his self-study, he took a community college chemistry course and passed it.

Like so many things, failure is a matter of perception. In his own estimation, Joe hadn’t failed — despite the F on his transcript. Many students would have given up early in the semester — certainly before the last withdrawal date — rather than risk a failing grade. For Joe, the grade was not a locked gate blocking his passage; it was merely measure of how far he still had to go. The educational reality was that he was four chapters further than he had been at the beginning of the year. He took heart from the fact that he was making progress, and kept going.

Our dependence on grades frustrates the educational progress of many otherwise willing students. They take easy courses where they are confident they can do well, rather than risk lowering their grade point average by taking the course that will actually challenge them to grow intellectually. In some cases, teachers even enable the process by giving “consolation” grades rather than risking damaging the fragile self-esteem of students — but everyone, even the students, realizes that they didn’t actually earn the report. We’ve created a schizoid educational system, where even though we know that recorded grades at best inadequately reflect a student’s real accomplishments, and, at worst, distort them, we still base academic advancement and even financial rewards on those abstractions for the sake of convenience. The result is that students pursue grades, rather than education.

Real education requires discipline and serious reflection, but it also requires taking risks, making mistakes, and learning from those mistakes. I would venture that making mistakes and recovering from them is not merely a normal part of learning, but an essential of classical Christian education. We do our students an enormous disservice by making them afraid to fail to “get it right” the first time. We teach them to back down, rather than to buckle down and tackle a new topic with gumption.

Gravity is an uncompromising and unforgiving teacher. Lose your balance, and you will fall.  But every child learns to walk, sooner or later, despite many tumbles along the way. We expect toddlers to fall, and we try to minimize the damage by removing sharp edges and putting down carpets. But we let them fall: how else will they learn to recognize imbalance and practice the motor skills to correct it? We teach them such tumbles should not be a reason to give up learning to walk; we laugh, encourage them to get up, and try again. Ultimately, every healthy child learns to walk, and we really don’t care how many tumbles they took, or how long it took. Parents may report the accomplishment with glee to friends and grandparents, but when was the last time anyone asked how old you were when you learned to walk? The important thing is that you didn’t give up: you chose not to fail, you are walking now, and that gives you the ability to do things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do as easily.

The phrase “failure is not an option” comes from the movie Apollo 13. The script writers put it in the mouth of Gene Kranz, the NASA Flight Control director at the time. He never actually said those words, but they reflected a firm conviction evidenced by Mission Control that the team would not consider failure among the possible outcomes of their efforts. They could not choose to fail if none of the other options worked — failure was simply not on the list. Of course, failure was still a possibility, but it wasn’t a choice. Their goal was to find a solution that would bring the astronauts home safely, and if none of the proposed options worked, to propose something else that might, and keep working until they succeeded.

Our goal as Christian parents is to educate our children to know God and His creation better, to love all the people He has created, and to serve Him by using the talents He has given them to show His love in that world. To accomplish that, our children need to grow intellectually and spiritually. They need to tackle many subjects, push the limits, and be willing to reveal their ignorance by asking questions. If we are doing an effective job of classical education, we will teach them how to read so closely and carefully that they recognize when things don’t make sense, and be eager to find out why.

Questioning the material won’t be an indication of students’ inability to figure it out for themselves, but a witness to their deep engagement with the content of the text, whether it is making sense of a Latin translation exercise, following a geometrical proof to conclusion, imagining the ramifications of relativity theory, or understanding how the concept of nature influences the behavior of Hawthorne’s characters. When failure is not an option, we understand that students have committed to stay the course, even when they make slow progress by some arbitrary standard, or have to take a detour to pick up necessary skills. Students are freed to make the mistakes they need to make to learn, grow, and ultimately succeed without the prejudice of failed expectations, and we are free to recognize the true achievements in their education, whether or not that is reflected by their current grade level or GPA.

Not the Blog Entry I Had Planned

Friday, December 17th, 2010

The phrase “Continuing in the Word” has taken on a new aspect in the last two weeks.

As many of you already know, our writing instructor, Jill Byington, lost her battle with breast cancer on December 8, 2010.  Her students and their parents had a chance to work with Jill and understand what her loss means to Scholars Online, but it seems fitting to share something of Jill with the wider SO community.

I met Jill in the mid 1990s, when we were both working for Boeing. I had to get some documentation in order for the project I was coding on, and her job as a technical writer was to reformat it for presentation on this new-fangled computer-based system called the Boeing Internal Web.  She occasionally offered suggestions to correct grammar and improve the clarity as well.  As people do, we focused first on our assigned tasks, but then during coffee breaks and lunch, branched out into other discussions, sharing our passions for teaching, writing well, and trying to be good mothers.

We finished our project and Jill went on to other assignments inside and outside Boeing, and I didn’t hear from her for several years until an email arrived at my non-Boeing address.  She remembered that I was homeschooling our kids, and wanted to talk about homeschooling for her own son.  We exchanged emails at irregular intervals, and then we got the one announcing that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.  I told her that I had decided to walk in the Komen Breast Cancer 3Day in 2005 (now Komen for the Cure) and wrote her name on my shirt, along with other breast cancer victims that were relatives and friends or friends of friends.

The timing of that email was profound:  Scholars Online Academy of ISLAS was in the process of becoming Scholars Online, a separate institution.  We wanted to offer a full high school curriculum and had found several teachers who committed to teach Latin, Greek, literature, mathematics, history, and science for us, but we desperately needed a writing program.

In her interview of April 30, 2009 with “Be the Star You Are”, Jill said that she found out some friends of hers were starting an online school and she asked if she could teach for them.  I remember it somewhat differently.  I was training for the 3Day, and Jill agreed to meet me at Jamba Juice in Factoria to cheer me on my way home.  I was anxious for the meeting because Bruce and I had talked long about what we wanted in a writing program and even more about what we wanted in our writing program instructor.  We needed somebody who was an excellent writer (Jill was), someone who had taught writing already (Jill had, in several contexts and for different age levels), who was willing to take on new technology (which Jill obviously delighted in doing), and who saw her calling to teach as part of her Christian ministry (which was central to Jill’s whole approach to teaching).  In short, we wanted Jill, and I spent five miles working out a fine speech to convince her to join us.   I recall that it involved begging, if necessary.

Once we ordered our drinks and sat down to wait for them, I rushed into my speech.  I said that we were starting an online school and that we needed a writing program and that was as far as I got.  Jill launched into possibilities: she could start with a summer course as a try-out, and a one year-long course while she figured out the possibilities of the medium.  She was undaunted by the fact that we couldn’t promise much by way of pay — it was the possibility of teaching and students that excited her.

Bruce and I set up an account and a dummy Moodle course for her to develop her course materials, pointed her at the documentation we had available on the Moodle, and went back to trying to learn it ourselves.  At one point Jill ran into a problem and asked for help. I had no idea what she was talking about. It was then we realized Jill’s propensity for playing with a new technology and making it work for her.  She had discovered aspects of the Moodle delivery system I didn’t even realize existed, and formatted her courses to make the best use of its asynchronous and cooperative learning features.

By the time Scholars Online opened its virtual doors, Jill had her offerings ready. Her courses were organized, well thought out, and demanded the best of her students.  Parents loved working with her because she took their concerns seriously and answered them thoughtfully.  Students loved working with her because she could “chide with charity”: she had that remarkable gift of being able to correct and encourage in the same sentence.  We loved having her teach for us because we could see real improvement in the compositions her students submitted to our courses, which made our jobs immeasurably easier.  At the end of that first year she was bubbling with enthusiasm and plans for a three-year core program on writing for college-bound students, a basic summer refresher in practical grammar, a short course on advertising, and others on playwriting, poetry, creative short stories, even rhetoric and style.

For Scholars Online’s first three years, Jill taught classes and I carried her name on my shirt, right next to my mom’s, in each fall’s 3Day event . Then in April 2009 came the disturbing report that her cancer might have returned.  At first our emails were hopeful exchanges of contingency plans, but by mid-July it was clear that prognosis was not good, the cancer had spread, and the aggressive treatment proposed meant Jill would be too exhausted to teach any courses for the 2009-2010 academic year.   We told her we’d deal with the schedule changes and we did, canceling some classes and asking other teachers to take over “for the year”, still hoping that Jill would respond to treatment this round as she had four years earlier, and be back to teach for us this year.

So began a new phase of our relationship.  In a group mailing in July 2009, Jill wrote “I haven’t arrived at the Oasis of the Heroic Cancer Patient yet, and quite possibly never will.  The truth is that I either walk through this or I die, and my current plan is to complain loudly with each step.  I met a couple of Heroic Cancer Patients when I was in treatment last time.  Annoying creatures.  Completely slappable.”  She started a blog for her friends, and the list grew to over 7000 readers who followed her battles.  She wrote about them with wicked humor that kept us laughing and demonstrated  that, despite her protests, she did indeed exhibit the more admirable aspects of heroism.  For a while it looked as though she were gaining on the cancer, and we made plans for her to teach at least one class in  2010/2011.  But in August 2010 she wrote a long, grim personal email to us, concluding “I can’t make any promises for the future at all.  I wish I could.  I share a lot on my blog, but I hesitate to share too much because of former students and so forth.  I don’t know if this kind of reality comes through there, but I thought you needed to know.  I have been honored to teach through Scholars Online.”

It is we who were honored, and we who were blessed by her witness of faith and her example of courage and grace under fire.  And though I will miss her terribly, I rejoice in the thought that this teacher who loved words so much is now healed and at peace with the Teacher who is the Word.

The True Test of Education

Saturday, April 24th, 2010

Sometime around 1969, standing in the breezeway of Balch Hall at Scripps College in Claremont, I typed “Echo Hello World” on the keyboard of the metal Texas Instruments paper terminal, saved the string as a text file named (with masterful originality) “ChristeHello” over a 300 baud phone line connection on the CalTech computer 35 miles way in Pasadena, typed “Execute ChristeHello”, and watched “Hello World” appear on the next line. Thus began my sometimes rapturous, sometimes contentious relationship with ARPANET, programming, and distance learning.

I hung around the computer lab and made friends with the senior geeks who performed their workstudy duties by feeding the computers large stacks of buff-colored cards and fixing the magnetic tape leaders when they broke. If I brought food, I could get them to talk to me. They spoke a strange language full of acronyms and electronics terms, little of which made sense, but they did explain how to write simple BASIC instructions, and I eventually got the computer to calculate my astronomy lab results. I probably spent five hours programming successful code for every hour it would have taken me to do the homework the hard way (with a slide rule), but it was satisfying to finish the code at last and push the button and have the answer come out reliably, even if I was never going to run that particular program again.

I kept on writing code, conning system operators into giving me guest accounts on one system or another and asking what must have been not completely dumb questions, since they took the time to answer me. Programming is fun: it’s the only way for the truly lazy person to get by in the modern world. The software engineer’s motto is “Do it once, do it right, and never do it again”. I programmed my way through grad school for a couple of years, into NASA/JPL, and into the Rand Corporation, working with computers running IBM JCL 360, IBM 3300 HASP, and PDP11 operating systems. Eventually I wound up on a VAX780 running Berkeley UNIX 4.2….the forerunner of Solaris and the UNIX systems that now underly MacIntosh’s OS X systems. I wrote programs in whatever I could get to compile: in Basic, Fortran, PL/1, VICAR, C, C++, and then I discovered databases and learned how to use the MarkIV, QUEL and SQL languages to manipulate massive amounts of data.

In that nearly twenty-five-year period, I never once took a formal programming course. If I wanted to learn a language for a new project, I got an account on the right machine (system administrators are always hungry and easy to persuade after a good meal), tried not to bring it down doing something I didn’t understand (in this I was not always successful, but luckily I was always forgiven), read lots of other people’s code, and asked flattering questions of those whose programming style I most admired. I had three incredible mentors in that time; any good software engineering skills I know are because Jackson, Ed, and Jim took the time to explain things to me, often many times, until I thought they made sense and I could translate the concept into code that I could maintain. All the remaining bad habits I have are my own fault for not listening to something I’m sure one of them told me at some time or another.

On one of the projects I worked on toward the end of this period, we hired a newly-minted college graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in computing science. I was both excited and apprehensive. Here was someone who had actually studied this stuff for real, taken courses, learned how to do it right, passed tests even. I could learn from her — or maybe be replaced by her; I wasn’t sure which was more likely. After all, she had the degree and the professional accreditation that I conspicuously lacked. She joined our project meetings and rattled off proposals to “normalize our databases” and “modularize our code”. When we asked her how we were supposed to revise the code we had, she rattled off rules about entity-relationship diagramming as though it should be obvious to us how to implement the details of her industry-standard proposal.

Somebody finally asked her what programs she’d written, and she admitted that she had done some coding for several classes — exercises of a couple of dozen lines each demonstrating a mastery of a particular technique, but in complete isolation from any other program. She’d never actually had to put it all together to create a complex multiple-function system. She’d never worked with other programmers on a project, or integrated code written by different people with different styles into a single coherent executable program. While she had memorized the textbook and could identify concepts by name, she had never applied anything she’d learned to a real-world program, where the analysis it produced would be used to make decisions that could affect the jobs and lives of real people. Over these discussions, it became clear that she’d studied hard — to pass the test at the end of the course. She had great study skills and good test-taking skills. Her test scores were high, and her grades were correspondingly good. But she had no idea how to begin to analyze a problem that involved any parameters beyond those in her text, or how to formulate an approach that would help her craft a solution suited to a context she hadn’t seen.

To be fair, the problem was not with the student, but with the “educational” system she trusted, one that was (and still is) more focused on turning out workers than thinkers. She wanted a good job, in a well-paying field, and chose software programming because it suited her talents and interests. But what she received by way of “education” was really job training, the presentation of materials targeted toward producing an efficient practitioner of a set of processes with relation to a known set of problems. As job training, it worked well: she knew how to recognize certain situations and give them a name, and she knew how apply a proven solution to the recognized problem efficiently.

As education, in the classic liberal arts sense of producing a clear-thinking individual, it failed miserably. Education is more than training. Yes, education must teach basic concepts, the terms of the field and the steps of the processes: these are the grammar of the topic and fundamental to any further work. Yes, education must teach skills in performing basic tasks efficiently. Certainly, education includes some level of training — but only as one aspect of its proper sphere.

An educational process must do far more than training, otherwise, it merely pays lip service to the rationale that it is “helping students develop their full potential”. This is a worthwhile goal: from a Christian point of view, helping students reach their potential is really helping them recognize, develop, and use their talents to the glory of God. Education should give them the context for the information they learn, and a sense of ethical responsibility for how that information is used. It should hone the students’ use of logical analysis and self-evaluation, so that students can recognize the shortcomings of their own work, without a test or teacher’s feedback. It should give the student self-confidence through experience, so that setbacks and failures to “get it right” the first time become an accepted and expected part of the educational process, not an excuse to opt out. It should encourage creativity, not penalize it for not fitting in one of four answers. It should result in joy in the knowing, that knowledge is worth something in and of itself, and needs no “usefulness” for justification. In this context, a grade becomes a temporary and limited measure of progress on the way to reaching this educated state, nothing more. It is neither the end nor the means to the end.

Unfortunately, the organization of our actual educational system works more like job training than classical liberal arts education. Our standardized tests, which form the backbone of our “educational assessment system”, focus on basic information mastery and limited application skills. They cannot adequately assess a student’s ability to analyze complex situations, to think creatively, or even to recognize fuzzy but often fruitful relationships between ideas in different fields. At their worst, such standardized tests only determine whether the student is able to recognize the name of a concept (without necessarily any comprehension of the concept). At their best, they may push a student to recognize the correct outcome of an appropriate analysis of a situation (and to be fair, most standardized tests do include this aspect). These standard examinations can be excellent measures of effective training, and it is appropriate to use them this way, particularly in establishing basic control of material.

But because they fail to assess creative and insightful approaches to analysis and evaluation, when they are the end in themselves to “education”, these exams effectively discourage methods that do try to develop analysis, perspective, and creativity. Students have limited resources, and they want to put their efforts where they will pay off, so they often ask “will this be on the test?”. Teachers, whose effectiveness is measured by their students’ performance on these exams, teach to the test so their students perform well. The dependence on this kind of testing and evaluation limits our educational system, and prevents it from building on the foundation that this approach does create. We produce students who are proficient test takers, but, like my co-worker, not really well educated.

A recent issue of US News and World Report carried an article on “Surviving the American Makeover”. In it, Rick Newman stated that “The highest earners” in the new American economy “are well educated, but have strong tacit and cognitive skills that are difficult to teach in a classroom: informed intuition, judgment under pressure, the ability to solve problems that don’t have an obvious solution.” (p. 16, USNWR Volume 147, Number 3, March 2010)

Our goal as teachers must be to find ways to help students develop these cognitive skills, informed intuition, and especially judgment under pressure by providing courses that go beyond “basic training” and challenge them to analyze, experiment, create, and above all, try again if they don’t succeed the first time.  We want this not because we want them to be “high earners” (although that isn’t necessarily a bad thing), but because the world needs people who can provide real, ethical solutions for complex problems, who will do the right thing whatever the pay, or the cost. We want to produce students who look at problems that don’t have an obvious solution, and rather than resorting to a standard example that won’t help, pawning off an easy but unethical solution, or giving up in confusion and despair, say “Well, not yet…..”, roll up their sleeves, and go to work, preferably singing.