I have often been told that, when asked what was special about their VanDamme Academy education, graduates say, “We always understood why we were learning what we were learning.” This important effect has many causes, the most significant among them being that what the students are learning is, in fact, important, and that the teacher always makes a purpose of conveying, implicitly and explicitly, why it is important.
In a discussion of the distinctive VanDamme Academy history program, Andrew Lewis said that the little history that is taught in today’s schools typically addresses five questions: Who? What? When? Where? and How? Mr. Lewis recognizes that the answers to those questions are inadequate without answers to two more: Why? and So what? The story of history must be causal and explanatory, the explanations must be relevant to the students’ lives, and the students must understand the relevance.
It is this principle that defines the first day at VanDamme Academy. In each class, the teacher begins with the questions: What is this subject? and Why do we need to study it? Here is what I glimpsed walking through the school’s halls on that inaugural day:
In Mrs. O’Brien’s grammar classes: She discussed what grammar is (principles concerning the proper use of language), and answered the cliché objection, “We don’t need grammar; we just need to make ourselves understood.” She demonstrated that we cannot consistently make ourselves understood without the rules of grammar, presenting humorous examples from Eats, Shoots, and Leaves and Anguished English of the problems and ambiguities that result from the placement or misplacement of a comma (e.g., “Slow, children ahead,” and, “Slow children ahead.”) or from an amphibolous construction (e.g., “Customers who find the waitress uncivil ought to see the manager.”). She introduced a theme to which she can refer throughout the year: that a mastery of grammar is vitally useful.
In Mr. Travers’ literature classes: He began with a discussion of the personal value of literature. He explained that a great plot presents an extraordinary sequence of events that is purposeful and has an abstract meaning, differentiating it from the story of an ordinary day, which is full of the mundane, accidental, and meaningless. He showed how that abstract meaning can illuminate the world around them, and referred to the inspiration they had drawn from the themes of works they had previously studied (e.g., the virtue of independence in An Enemy of the People.) He showed that great works of literature present people who have been distilled to an essence, that they highlight the nature and consequences of certain traits of character, and discussed how this could help the students in understanding and evaluating qualities in others and in themselves.
Educators often wrestle with the question: How do we motivate the students? Many resort to the carrot and the stick, dangling rewards or threatening consequences. But the technique employed by Mr. Travers, Mrs. O’Brien, and Mr. Lewis, and the way they will make good on their promise to present what is important and show why it is important—that is the essence of motivation, and a defining feature of the VanDamme Academy curriculum.
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