Chapter 4: Questions, Science,
Our Problem, and A General Overview of the Three Elements
Bishops Teaching Children
A Practical Method
By Which Roman Catholic Bishops
Can Personally Direct
The Religious Education
Of the Children of Their Dioceses
Cambridge, Massachusetts USA
Written in the Year of the Great Jubilee
There is a crosswalk across a busy street near my home. Although by state law even Boston-area drivers are supposed to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks, they usually don't. Some drivers even yell at you for disrupting the flow of traffic as they sail past. Hardly anyone stops. Literally, housewives with their children buckled up in the back seat do not stop for eighty-five year old ladies trying to get home from daily Mass.
It is an unexpected kindness when someone actually stops. Then - of course - it is not unheard of for drivers in the opposite direction of traffic not to stop even though they see you standing in the middle of the crosswalk, so you are left stranded in the middle of the street, cars whizzing by a foot from you on one side, cars beginning to line up and honk behind the driver who stopped on the other side.
One block from this crosswalk there is a traffic light, with a button pedestrians can push. Within one second of pushing the button, the traffic light turns yellow, and then red. When you push that button, a miracle occurs. Every single car in both directions slows down and stops, and will not move again until the light turns green.
Young men, old men, wise men, fools - none of them stop for actual people in the middle of the street, but they all stop for a red light. All I have to do is push that little button, and I can literally command every car in both directions to stop and wait for me to cross the street.
Yet the moral of the tale is not how uncaring, insensitive, or foolish people are - far from it. Instead, observe how difficult it is for people to be caring, etc., when they have to a) gather themselves fully even though there is no looming threat to themselves, b) re-evaluate their course based on a drastic change in conditions, including assessing the additional danger to themselves (will the guy behind me stop if I stop? - this is not a given), and c) make an untypical decision.
Then observe how 'caring,' 'sensitive,' - indeed, slavishly obedient to my merest whim - those same people are when I push that little button.
When people drive, they just drive. That's what everybody does. Create a traffic situation that only works if people do something untypical, and don't be surprised if it ends up not working. Expecting people to take the square root of the universe every second they drive, or expecting them to do anything at all but just drive, is turning yourself, not those people, into an uncaring, insensitive fool.
Why will drivers stop at a red light? Why will the average American driver stop at a red light in the middle of the night, even though he can see there is absolutely no traffic in either direction?
The answer, plain and simple, is that it's just a good habit. The very same unwillingness to do anything more than the typical thing, the very same inability to gather oneself and freshly evaluate each and every passing moment, the exact characteristics of drivers that make crossing at my crosswalk so hazardous, are the very reasons it is so safe for me to cross the exact same street at a red light a block away.
I could, I suppose, spend the rest of my life handing out pamphlets, writing books, and conducting workshops in 'driver awareness,' hoping that, through my ceaseless efforts, someday, Boston-area drivers will stop for pedestrians in crosswalks. I might even feel very self-satisfied and heroic for making such valiant efforts.
Or I could spend the forty seconds it takes to walk down the street and push that little button.
So, the first part of Our Problem is that we have a totally unrealistic vision of daily life. A part of us (me too) somehow expects daily life to occur as the result of decidedly non-daily, even heroic, acts. When I'm a pedestrian, I am actually offended when a driver just drives and 'thinks' of little or nothing, in spite of the fact that, when I'm behind the wheel, I spend nearly all my time doing exactly the same thing.
In actuality, of course, for better and for worse, everyone's daily life is largely conducted out of banal, thoughtless, trivial - daily - motivations. Although we are sporadically capable of loftier concerns, these decidedly unheroic impulses are the ones that more or less safely get us all through the average day.
The Bishops Teaching Children method encourages people to find banal, thoughtless, trivial, self-centered - daily - reasons to help all the children in a diocese learn as much as possible about the faith the local church professes in union with the whole Catholic Church. The Bishops Teaching Children method has a better chance of succeeding because only its goal is grand. Everything else about it is unbelievably mundane, even coarse.
Actually, of course, that is a very Catholic approach. We are all created good. However, that in no way means that we are good because we are each 'really' an eternally-radiant pool of enlightened awareness.
The practical fact is, if, out of unthinking obeisance to a too-exalted and in the end unCatholic vision of daily life and who we are on a daily basis, we rely on people possessing complex, sophisticated, lofty motives, and doing extraordinary, even heroic things, in order for all the children of the local church to learn as much as possible about their faith, then we are not going to get the job done.
On the other hand, if we spend a lot less time thinking about how heroic and wonderful we are, and how grand and glorious our project is, and instead walk down one block and push the silly little button that, for entirely trivial and decidedly inglorious reasons, accomplishes our goal, then we are going to get the job done. It's as simple as that.
So, part one of Our Problem is us in general. Say the word 'education,' or - God forbid - 'religious education,' and we instantly get romantic, either romantically optimistic or romantically enraged, when instead all we should be doing is cunningly looking for the most effective and safest way to cross the street.
Understanding the second part of Our Problem, the problem of 'expertise,' is a little more difficult. The story of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweiss begins the journey. 1*
In Europe around 1844, it was a very bad thing to give birth in a hospital, but if you were poor, or had obstetrical complications, you might have no choice. At the time, up to 30 percent of mothers giving birth in a hospital died, the vast majority of puerperal fever. Though speculations about the causes of puerperal fever were advanced by some, by and large continental physicians had reconciled themselves to the idea that the disease was unpreventable.
Distinguished professors of medicine at the top European medical schools - the leading centers of medicine at the time - considered maternal mortality rates of up to 30 percent to be 'normal.'
Dr. Semmelweiss was a young assistant in the obstetrics clinic in Vienna. He noted that the rate of puerperal fever in the ward in which midwives were taught was two or even three times less than the ward staffed by medical students, though the wards were otherwise identical.
In the 1840's, the entire idea of antisepsis was unknown. Doctors wore no disposable latex gloves, nor did they even diligently wash their hands before or after examining patients - alive or dead. Upon observing that medical students were performing autopsies on women who had died of puerperal fever, and then immediately giving vaginal examinations to expectant mothers, Semmelweiss had a hunch (nothing more - the germ theory was unknown) that the medical students were somehow bringing the disease to the uninfected mothers from the infected ones. He ordered the medical students to wash their hands in a solution of chlorinated lime before each examination. By 1848, the mortality rate in the ward dropped from 18.27 to 1.27 percent.
Although Semmelweiss reported his results, his chief failed to understand their significance and was critical of his procedures, nor did his recommendations receive general acceptance. By 1850, Semmelweiss had left Vienna, and he spent the next six years at the St. Rochus Hospital in Pest.
Although he repeatedly published his results and even wrote open letters to the leading physicians of the day, Semmelweiss had little or no impact on obstetrical practice except in his native Hungary. The reaction of the medical experts of the day was almost uniformly adverse: "nonsense" was one of the adjectives used in the scholarly medical press.
Semmelweiss clearly understood the dire implications for women of these rejections, and this, along with the continual strain of controversy, undermined his spirit. He suffered a breakdown, and died in a mental hospital in 1865.
To understand the moral of this tale, it is necessary first to understand that modern obstetrical practice is also not uniformly based on the best available evidence.
The moral of the tale is that human beings possess no infallible mechanism for recognizing truth, even when it is staring them in the face, and no automatic means of conforming to it. Every obstetrician in 1979 knew Semmelweiss's story - it is taught to medical students. Semmelweiss is now regarded as one of medicine's, and obstetrics', heroes. Yet Dr. Cochrane gave the entire profession of obstetrics the "wooden spoon award" for failing to evaluate its practices using the best-available current methods.
There is no romantic or cynical twist to this tale. Of course, modern obstetrics, and medicine in general, are in remarkably good order, by and large both scientifically aware and rationally coherent, far more so than many other fields, and certainly far more so than the other classic professions. The 'evidence-based' practice Dr. Cochrane advocated in 1979 is increasingly part of current obstetrics and medicine.
The moral of the tale is that there are always limits to any field's ability to be aware and coherent, we don't know what those limits are in advance, and we may not notice those limitations - at great cost to others - even when they stare us in the face. The tale, in short, is not about obstetrics, but about ourselves.
'Expertise' is a moving target, and 'experts' can get so seriously lost - an entire field can get so seriously lost - that the field actively resists truth, causing serious harm. Moreover, this can happen at any time, without our knowledge, without our consent.
As outlined in E.D. Hirsch, Jr.'s scientifically acute and profound book, The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them, [Doubleday 1996] current American educational theory and practice is profoundly anti-scientific, with devastating consequences not only for educational excellence but also for educational fairness, as the least-advantaged children in society suffer the most harm from what are considered by the American educational 'experts' to be 'best practice.'
Readers willing to undertake heroic measures, such as a trip to the library or a visit to the Amazon.com book site, and who read Mr. Hirsch's book (which was vetted by several working scientists in the relevant fields), will also discover that most of the assumptions of the American Catholic religious education establishment appear to have no particular Catholic foundation.
Instead, they appear to be lifted whole-cloth from the American 'progressivist' educational movement discussed in Mr. Hirsch's book, a movement that currently super-dominates American schools of education. For instance, concepts common in Catholic religious education parlance, such as 'age-appropriate,' 'developmental,' 'thematic,' 'authentic,' are straight borrowings from progressivist terminology.
For the moment, an example not in Mr. Hirsch's book must suffice to demonstrate educational progressivism's resolute refusal of even the most well-established science, and is atypical only in that a large number of working scientists were so appalled that they wrote a letter to complain.
In 1995, the Department of Education of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts circulated a draft Curriculum Content Chapter on Language Arts, entitled "Constructing and Conveying Meaning," which set out a theory of how language works. Obviously, an erroneous theory of how language works will lead to erroneous pedagogies of language and reading, with potentially devastating consequences to the schooling of large numbers of children.
Forty Massachusetts linguists and psycholinguists (researchers who study how language works) at institutions including Harvard, MIT, and Brandeis, wrote a letter to the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education about that draft. Here is one sentence from that letter:
Yet it would be a serious mistake to imagine that the draft document cited no 'research' to buttress its wholly erroneous theory.
In fact, there was in 1995, and continues to be, an entire cottage industry within American education, whose participants are distinguished professors of education and others at great universities, which performs 'research' that 'validates' the scientifically-preposterous theory outlined in the Massachusetts draft document.
Indeed, independent of the Draft Curriculum Content Chapter, to this day, the theory of language proposed there remains the implicit theoretical basis of a good amount of the teaching of reading in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In other words, when forty scientific researchers in the field bearing directly on the issue, who are citizens of the very state involved, gather together and testify unequivocally that such a theory of language is contradicted by "most of the major scientific results of more than 100 years of linguistics and psycholinguistics," even their testimony can be judged irrelevant by educational experts and teachers, even in their own state.
More extraordinary even than the fact that 'educators' may simply ignore any testimony, however weighty, which contradicts their own methods and theories, is the fact that they can ignore it; that is, they can get away with ignoring it. After all, if pressed, educators can simply cite ongoing 'research' that continues to prove the efficacy of their own methods.
This is only an example, but the reader is asked to imagine piles of such 'research,' on every conceivable topic related to schooling, being performed and cited by hundreds of American educational 'experts,' textbook writers, curriculum developers, administrators, and teachers, every day.
In sum, the reader must imagine the present situation as it actually is. American educational 'experts' are not only ignorant of, or actively dismiss, entire bodies of consensus scientific findings developed by the joint efforts of hundreds of working scientists over decades. They actually perform 'research' not accepted by working scientists, which they then cite to justify their educational theories.
This 'research' is also regularly cited by Catholic religious education 'experts,' and explicit progressivist terminology is regularly used by many of them. To take one example, the teacher's edition of a 1997 Benziger religious education series states: "Share the Joy is organized into a series of age-appropriate, developmental, and self-contained thematic sessions." 3* The reader should recall that 'age-appropriate,' 'developmental,' and 'thematic' are all special progressivist terms.
Another example of conventional progressivist assumptions being adopted whole-cloth by Catholic religious educators is the disdain for or downplaying of the role that specific content can or should play in religious education. This idea in fact has utterly no explicitly Catholic or even 'religious' foundation - it is simply one of the founding assumptions of educational progressivism, an educational philosophy that has never once been shown to work:
In addition, religious educators may be especially receptive to progressivist rhetoric, which for eighty years has been claiming the superiority of teaching 'the whole child,' teaching 'the child, not a curriculum,' preparing students 'for life,' de-emphasizing, even ridiculing, the teaching of specific content, and seeing education as a 'holistic' 'process.'
Indeed, so thoroughly may typical Catholic religious educators have incorporated the assumptions of educational progressivism that even the proposal that religious education is a mediative, humble, and strictly delimited enterprise may be seen by them as an attempt to destroy the very basis of religious education.
It may now be as 'obvious' to Catholic religious educators as it is to the most convinced secular educational progressivists that 'forcing' children into artificial and tedious 'intellectual' pursuits of no inherent 'life value' causes children to lose interest in their studies, and in any event is an undue emphasis on 'book-learning,' which is of only limited, even marginal, importance in the first place.
Again, absolutely none of these ideas has any particular Catholic foundation, and all of them simply are direct transfers of progressivist terminology and ideas into Catholic religious education.
Thus, even aside from the profound sacramental, moral, and theological antagonisms between the Bishops Teaching Children method and current Catholic religious education outlined in Chapter 2, on a practical level, American educational theory in general, and Catholic religious education theory specifically, appears to have developed its dominant assumptions and methods directly into the teeth of the best available current science, and, as all educational progressivism does, it maintains the dominance of those assumptions and methods simply by ignoring, or if necessary ridiculing, any intellectual or scientific challenge.
So, that is Our Problem. Part one: We prefer to think of ourselves as sailing through daily life thoughtfully, acting out of the loftiest motives - but in fact, virtually the exact opposite is true, and good religious education must take advantage of how we really are, rather than build on our pretensions.
Part two: Just as American educational progressivists have in general, Catholic religious education 'experts' have failed us in the worst way, and have designed a kind of Thoughtworld in which any serious challenge to their ideas is, perhaps quite literally, inconceivable. That is certainly serious, and it does put them down a peg, but after all, at least no one is being killed, and it does not make them any better or worse than the average driver in Boston.
Nor are we any better - Our Problem is that we all 'think' like a Boston driver much of the time, and probably always will. It is amazing that some drivers actually stop for pedestrians in crosswalks. It is amazing that we are occasionally better than 'normal.' Nonetheless, we all have our little routines, the things we pay attention to, and the things we ignore, and by and large, we stick with them. After all, doing that has gotten us this far. Our Problem is not a particular educational ideology or a particular religious education bureaucracy, but our severely limited, and also fallen, human nature.
As noted in Chapter 3, many ordinary American Catholics seem to be relatively satisfied with current religious education. Also, if we believe what we read in local diocesan papers, Catholic schools are better than ever. Religious education bureaucrats are top-notch and hard-working, and bishops exercise their responsibility as chief teacher through their 'wonderful' support of those bureaucrats and that bureaucracy.
Most of the people in charge of American Catholic religious education (including bishops) seem to think that they are doing a good job, and they might be deeply offended by suggestions that the actual outcomes of religious education are not being well-monitored and, in any case, that religious education can even theoretically have only a minor actual connection to 'values education' and 'building the church.' Indeed, to those directly involved in Catholic religious education, such a suggestion might be so flabbergasting and offensive as to be literally unthinkable, simply beyond the pale of civilized discourse.
Even less thinkable might be the suggestion that the working principles of current religious education are at least practically, and perhaps even theologically, antagonistic to the sacramental reality of the local church and the apostolic authority of the local ordinary.
This is how people are. This is how life actually works. It is difficult to do even a little more than the customary thing. It is not automatic that we choose or even recognize a better idea, even when we have it handed to us on a silver platter.
'Experts' do not fail us because they are experts, but because they are men.
If a bishop of a diocese happens to be among what is probably a small minority of bishops who are not actually happy with current religious education in their dioceses, and if he happens to agree with the points made previously in Chapter 2 about the sacramental and moral foundations of the Bishops Teaching Children method, then he and his diocese now have a practical decision to make.
A bishop in such a mental condition could, I suppose, spend the rest of his life handing out pamphlets, writing books, and conducting workshops in 'religious education awareness,' hoping that, through his ceaseless efforts, someday, a religious education bureaucracy may emerge that better matches his goals. He might even feel very self-satisfied and heroic for making such valiant efforts.
Or he can walk a block to push the little button which, for no exalted, lofty, or even very good reason, will make the entire current system of religious education in his diocese slow down, stop, and allow him to personally lead the children of his diocese safely across the street.
Here is how the Bishops Teaching Children method - Questions, Science, Competition - does that.
Bishops' Questions, answered by all students yearly, determine the extent of the children's current knowledge of the faith, Science evaluates what methods best helped students answer the Questions, and who used those methods, and Competition monetarily rewards the better methods, and monetarily punishes the inferior ones.
Then you re-set the bar to get an upward spiral. Now, whatever standard the established-'better' methods can reliably achieve becomes the minimum standard. Fall below that, and you start losing your shirt. Do even better than 'better,' and big goodies flow your way - until a competitor finds a way to improve even further.
One of the ways the Bishops Teaching Children method is very different from current American efforts at school 'reform' is its thoroughgoing emphasis on rewarding and punishing adults, rather than children.
The Bishops Teaching Children approach says that if children a) show up, and b) do what you tell them, then they have completely fulfilled their responsibilities as students. If they do those two things, and they still don't learn, that's your fault, not theirs, and it will be you who suffer the consequences.
A number of states have defined educational 'standards' of varying kinds and quality. However, these reward no one directly and specifically, and may punish children directly and specifically - for example, by not allowing them to graduate if they don't pass an exit exam - but they punish adults (if this happens at all) only very indirectly.
Yet what gives states any confidence that their standards can actually be achieved? The 'standards' are really just combinations of (romantic) macho toughness and romantic, unfounded hopes.
An important point regarding 'standards,' or alternatively, high-stakes tests, is that you had better know in advance that the standards can be met, and the tests passed.
If you insist on high-stakes tests that few students can pass, even when they have shown up and done what teachers told them to do, then people will cheat, or insist that the tests be eliminated entirely, or demand that the tests be turned into jokes that no one is really expected to take seriously.
Instead, the Bishops Teaching Children method defines the minimum standard as what can reliably be achieved by the best current methods, and encourages higher standards to emerge as business competitors figure out how to achieve them. Thus the Bishops Teaching Children method creates a climate in which standards can indeed be raised over time, and yet remain continuously achievable with proper student effort.
Current American proposals for reform also do not assiduously reward or punish, or even account for, the content of the curriculum, or the methods used to teach it, although this is the crux of the matter. A school district's performance, or student performance, instead becomes the false focus, leading to quite logical complaints from both students and teachers that measured poor performance was the result of the persons giving or receiving instruction, rather than the relative quality of the curriculum or the method employed to teach it.
Especially given the super-dominance of educational theorizing in the United States that is wholly unresponsive to actual outcomes (and in this category we can obviously include the theorizing of Catholic religious educators), the only way that circular or otherwise ineffective educational theories will lose, will be if they really lose - if people lose money or their jobs when they carry them out. Even a religious education professor or publisher knows how to count the money in his pocket.
Further, without direct competition of methods, there is no direct impetus for methods to improve over time, maintain the new standard of excellence, and build on it. 'Competition' as some abstract nice thing does not improve schooling.
Teaching a judiciously chosen grade-by-grade sequence of specific content improves schooling. Improving the methods of teaching some such content-rich and sequenced curriculum also improves schooling. Since, in the Bishops Teaching Children approach, bishops' Questions already in effect define specific content, that leaves methods. Abstract or generalized 'competition' will not improve schooling, but requiring methods to compete to teach the same solid content will.
Indeed, it is morally objectionable to have schools rather than methods compete, because a competition of schools creates a very inefficient and uncompetitive market.
An efficient market approximates the state of perfect competition, in which all buyers have free and fair access to all sellers.
On the other hand, the less access buyers have to all available sellers, the less efficient and competitive a market becomes. Unfortunately, an extreme version of this situation is exactly what is created if we try to make schools rather than methods compete.
Suppose there are 100,000 schools in the United States (actually, there are many more than that). An efficient market in schools could only be created if buyers had free and fair access to nearly all of them.
To the contrary, because of the iron laws of geography, each 'buyer' (each family) has free and fair access to only two or three of the 100,000 'sellers' (the schools).
This is about as inefficient and inherently uncompetitive a market as can be imagined!
On the other hand, methods don't have to stay in one physical location. They can move rapidly, all around the country. In fact, they can move right to your neighborhood school. A competition in methods has a much better chance of creating an efficient market in which all buyers have access to all sellers.
Since few things besides a strong curriculum and improved methods improve schooling in any case, it seems better to let families go to the school that is most convenient, and let the methods compete in a real market. That way, all families in all neighborhoods can reap the benefit of methods that a) have proved themselves against all comers and b) are continually pressured by a true competitive market to improve even further.
This, of course, is also why letting schools compete instead of methods is morally objectionable. First of all, when schools compete, the focus of the competition is too diffuse. When schools compete, 'competition' is not focused on one of the only things that actually improves schooling, but may easily diffusely focus on many things that are irrelevant to improvement or are even counterproductive.
For instance, although many Japanese elementary schools lack cafeterias, computer rooms, gymnasiums, and even libraries, and are located in buildings that can strike researchers as resembling American school buildings from the 1940's, and although Japanese elementary schools teach 35-50 students per class in schools of 2000 or so pupils, and yearly teacher turnover averages 15-30 percent, Japanese students do extremely well on international comparisons of scholastic achievement. 5*
Japanese students on average are being better educated than American students, under physical and administrative conditions that would be actively illegal in most school districts in the United States. Home background does not explain the large differences in scholastic achievement, as socioeconomically-matched groups of Japanese and American students display large differences in knowledge, favoring the Japanese students. On the other hand, both the Japanese curriculum, and how Japanese teachers teach, markedly differ from an American standard (including an American parochial school standard). 6*
Clearly many things that Americans consider essential and even a Japanese principal might find 'nice' are just not the critical factors in good schooling.
When schools compete, however, they could easily compete on the basis of such factors, and only marginally or not at all on curriculum and methods, which appear to be the crucial factors in scholastic improvement.
In addition, because, by the iron laws of geography, competition between schools creates a very inefficient and therefore very inequitable market, many families and children do not reap the benefits of whatever improvements do occur here and there.
Thus, the practical result of making schools compete can only be weak, diffuse improvement, unevenly allocated. When an alternative exists, these results are morally objectionable.
In contrast to all current tactics, the Bishops Teaching Children approach focuses its attention exclusively on a Competition among methods of instruction all 'wanting' to teach all students exactly the same thing: how to correctly answer bishops' Questions. Anything that Science determines measurably improves student learning, as measured by how well students answered bishops' Questions, is a better method of instruction.
It should therefore be noted that bishops' Questions are one of the elements of the Bishops Teaching Children method. There can be no Science that evaluates which methods are better, unless all those methods are trying to teach the same thing, and there can be no real Competition without that Science. All three elements together form an entirely new substance, which does not exist if any of its three constituting elements are missing.
Competition between methods is locked tight to Scientific evaluation of those methods, which is locked tight to the methods' universal and sole focus on bishops' Questions. The radical interdependence of Questions, Science, and Competition is another very important concept that current reform efforts miss.
One effect of explicit attention to the essential interdependence of the three elements of the Bishops Teaching Children method is that terms such as 'good teacher' can take on a precise meaning. According to the Bishops Teaching Children approach, a 'good teacher' has only one definition: someone who delivers the curriculum set by the local ordinary using the objectively established best methods. There are no additional 'private' or bureaucratic or 'expert' definitions of 'good teacher,' and even objective criteria unrelated to actual student learning are relegated to the background.
This also means that, as better methods are developed and proved, the definition of 'good teacher' also changes. When a diocese implements the Bishops Teaching Children method, a 'good teacher' abandons old practices in favor of new ones, as soon as (but not before) objective evidence warrants it.
In keeping with the overall crudity of the Bishops Teaching Children method and its utter refusal to dignify the role of 'teacher' beyond that due any other service to persons, these 'good teachers' abandon their old practices if warranted, because they know they will lose their jobs if they don't.
In actuality, the Bishops Teaching Children method is even more crude in its educational philosophy. It has no opinion about which teaching approach will turn out to be superior to rivals, joins no debate regarding 'progressive' or 'traditional' or any other pedagogy, and is totally incurious about why a particular method happens to work better than its competitors. All it cares about is funneling more money to the methods which - for whatever reason - help the children best learn exactly what the local ordinary wishes them to learn.
If wearing a clown suit, standing on your head, and teaching children about their faith while drinking a glass of water is more effective at teaching exactly what the bishop wants taught than any rival method, then the Bishops Teaching Children method is all for it, and never cares a whit why it works.
Caring about why it works is for people who want to make a profit from that knowledge.
Now, that's crude.
This brings up a very important point. The Bishops Teaching Children method's complete lack of curiosity about educational methods of course also means that, when a local ordinary uses the Bishops Teaching Children approach to religious education, he does not need to know a single thing about educational methods, either. He does not even have to be the least bit curious about them. He can be just as blankly incurious about educational theories and methods as the Bishops Teaching Children method itself.
The local ordinary never once need have an opinion on, or even wonder about, pedagogies, instructional materials, theories of cognition and learning, etc. All he needs to know is what he is sacramentally competent to know and to 'hand on' - the faith of the whole Catholic Church. All he needs to do is present the children with bishops' Questions and make sure the money reliably flows toward methods that do the best job of preparing the children to answer them.
The Bishops Teaching Children method really, actually allows the local ordinary to directly and personally exercise his sacramental and moral responsibility as chief teacher of the diocese - and it doesn't at all require that he turn himself into an educational 'expert.'
If he uses the Bishops Teaching Children method, educational 'expertise' is only necessary for people who want to figure out how to deliver to the children of his diocese the ability to answer his Questions.
There are certain advantages to the thoroughgoing crudity of the Bishops Teaching Children method, and this appears to be one of them.
In order to encourage stiff Competition based entirely on the better and better teaching of what the local ordinary wants taught, carefully selected Scientific samples of up to five percent per year of religious education in the diocese will use experimental methods proposed by business competitors.
This is a way to engineer in a bit of wild entrepreneurship, while maintaining responsibility to all students. A big educational publisher, or even a very small entrepreneur with a great new idea, can get his idea tested in the real world by rigorous Science. If the new idea is good enough, measurable improvement will be evident even in a relatively small sample, and money will soon begin to flow toward the company, let the chips fall where they may. If dramatic improvements in student knowledge have the side effect that a big publisher goes broke and a tiny company makes a killing, well, that's business.
At the same time, any individual religious education program will have to undertake an 'experimental' program at most a few times in twenty years, while all students in the diocese receive the benefit of instructional methods that are rigorously and continuously tested by Science, do not survive unless they are superior to rivals, and continue to be challenged by other methods in a vigorous and ongoing Competition of ideas.
As stated above, the outline of Ignaz Semmelweiss's story can not be eradicated from human history. There is no ready-made and always available 'technique' that will infallibly tell us when our present habits of thought and action need to be kept, or to be changed.
Moreover, our human condition is not only finite, but also fallen. However, we can occasionally mitigate some of the effects of both our limitations and our sinfulness, and the Bishops Teaching Children method does that.
What would maternal mortality rates have looked like in Vienna and Prague if monies had flowed to obstetric hospitals and clinics with low maternal mortality rates, and away from those with high rates? To repeat, even a professor knows how to count the money in his own pocket. Ignaz Semmelweiss, discredited physician and doomed prophet, might well have become Ignaz Semmelweiss, esteemed physician and successful entrepreneur, doing well by doing good - and would we have complained?
By engineering entrepreneurship into a system resolutely focused on teaching exactly what the local ordinary wants taught, the Bishops Teaching Children method will mitigate at least some of the more egregious current abuses of 'expertise,' though of course, nothing will ever eliminate them entirely, if only because there is no instant or automatic way of seeing a habit as an 'abuse.'
Endnote 9 of Chapter 2 pointed out that Competition only improves things if what is 'wanted' is specific enough. In the United States, what is 'wanted' regarding schooling is still usually a grab-bag of half-stated, vague, unmeasurable, contradictory, or unachievable ideas.
Even worse, in the United States, a 'competitive' climate focused on unspecific and contradictory 'wants' has actually allowed a kind of educational Gresham's Law, in which very nice-sounding but vague, unmeasurable, and ineffective progressivist agendas are allowed to trump humbler and more specific goals. (Gresham's Law states that "bad money drives out good.") After all, all else being equal, who wouldn't prefer to 'prepare students for life,' 'build the Church,' and create 'a value-centered Catholic experience'?
Since adhering to nice-sounding progressivist agendas has never been shown to work as well as rival pedagogies, this ironically creates a kind of competitive pressure toward a downward educational spiral, as schools feel a need to introduce progressivist rhetoric and methods in order to stay attractive to parents, and professionally 'current.'
However, the above analysis of the 'Standards' movement shows that even the presence of clear and specific goals is not enough for competitive improvement, and further, that the proclamation of 'Standards' risks eventual vigorous opposition or total indifference from nearly everyone, if many students can not meet the standards, even when they try.
Competition of methods to teach a single curriculum, the key to improvements, have to be locked to a graduated system of rewards and punishments, and the bar raised for students only after competitive improvements in methods make that warranted.
Knowing this, the Bishops Teaching Children method locks the entire religious education system in a diocese, especially including all methods, into 'wanting' to answer the bishops' yearly Questions, and locks the local ordinary into 'wanting' something specific enough - improved ability to answer his Questions - to make improvement through vigorous Competition among methods achievable.
Next, what was also said in Endnote 9 of Chapter 2 should be reiterated here. Religious education has no connection whatever either to 'catechesis' or to 'moral development,' except by the sacramental activity of the Lord himself through the Holy Spirit.
First of all, the Eucharist makes the Church, [CCC 1396] not religious education. The Bishops Teaching Children method asks bishops to please take that seriously, and provides a way for them to do so. Second, not only is morality largely caught, not taught, but also, the Bishops Teaching Children method only works if religious education is as humble as dirt. (To say it again, this is not to excuse even a single unkind or inhumane practice in schooling, but rather to stress that all social institutions share equally, but also, only mediatively, in the task of moral development).
Bad behavior should be discouraged, and good behavior encouraged, as vigorously during religious education as at football practice or in the home, and information about what is right and what is wrong is mildly - but only mildly - helpful to the actual practice of virtue, but any romantic or otherwise grand pretensions about the project of religious education is a straight waste. Such pretensions always impede the ability to make adults accountable for the outcomes of schooling, and in addition always impede the ability of children to learn.
According to the Bishops Teaching Children method, religious education, humble as dirt, focuses solely on intellectual knowledge of the faith.
The second aspect of the Bishops Teaching Children method's refusal to be grand is that it refuses to be grand about what intellectual knowledge really is. Which is to say, while it blissfully avoids any theorizing about educational methods, it is nonetheless explicitly anti-progressivist regarding bishops' Questions. That is, for the Bishops Teaching Children method to exist, all bishops' Questions must have their basis in specific content, and in particular, in the specific content of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The technical nature of bishops' Questions and how they can be developed is matter for the next chapter, but here it should be emphasized that it is a progressivist myth, with no basis in science, that a generic or abstract 'understanding' exists and can be taught. Inevitably, intellectual understanding is bound up with specific content. No other kind of intellectual understanding is possible for human beings.
It is impossible, for example, to teach students a generic, abstract skill of how to find the main point of a paragraph, for the simple reason that no generic, abstract paragraph has ever been written, or could even be written. Paragraphs - and the truths of the faith - are always about specific matter, and that fact, it turns out, can never be ignored, if teachers want to be successful.
It is of course not true that advanced thinking is impeded by 'too much' study of specific content. Educational progressivists nearly always put the word 'facts' with the word 'mere.' Actually, the term 'mere facts' in itself is unobjectionable, since it correctly implies that knowledge of facts with no knowledge of the relationships between them is not advanced understanding.
The problem arises, not because progressivists understand facts as a necessary but not sufficient cause of deep understanding, but rather because they understand specific content as largely irrelevant to, or even as actively impairing, deep understanding, or, as progressivists sometimes term it, 'higher-order thinking skills.'
They then criticize the learning of specific content with derisive terms such as 'rote learning,' to emphasize that such learning should be dispensed with quickly, so that 'deeper,' more interesting, more 'holistic,' more 'authentic,' and more relevant instruction can commence.
To the contrary, without specific facts, 'advanced' thinking is simply uninformed opinion. Moreover, specific content is not like jam on toast, nice if it suits your taste but dispensable. It is more like the flour in the bread, an essential ingredient from the beginning.
Similarly, bishops' Questions that are not consciously grounded in specific content will not elicit deeper thinking, but only encourage vagueness. Indeed, one of the fundamental and crucial differences between expert and novice thinking is that experts have command of a broad range of facts relevant to the particular case.
More discussion than this risks boring the choir or further antagonizing the invincibly ignorant, and so is fruitless. However, an example of a relatively simple and a more advanced Question will be given here, so that it can be seen that Questions founded in the specific content of the Catechism can probe both 'mere facts' and more advanced understanding.
One of the sacraments is
Thus, when bishops write Questions, every single distractor they write will have the amazing characteristic of being definitely wrong, or even formal heresy. Thus, every single Question bishops write is an opportunity for the local ordinary not only to directly probe the understanding of all the children in the diocese, but also to directly defend, protect, and guide it.
This above all distinguishes the Bishops Teaching Children method from, for example, memorizing the Baltimore Catechism. The focus is entirely on answering bishops' Questions. Therefore, students must not only know what the answer is; they must also know what the answer is not. They must recognize that the distractors are distractors - incorrect, perhaps even formally heretical, responses. Questions automatically encourage teaching methods and materials that develop students' ability to see relationships and make distinctions, even when, as in the first sample Question, all a student must do is tell the difference between a sacrament and a sacramental.
Also, when they write Questions, bishops can certainly explicitly use them to defend and protect against heresies or misunderstandings common to the culture or the diocese. If an ordinary is aware that, because of cultural or other circumstances, a particular distractor might appear especially 'plausible,' he can certainly use it in a Question, and watch as Competition helps him reduce its intellectual plausibility with the children of his diocese over time.
Further, if a local ordinary decides to release his yearly Questions publicly after the students have answered them, explaining why the distractors were incorrect, he has an additional opportunity to directly teach all the children in his diocese. (Unfortunately this laudable strategy ultimately creates a huge amount of extra work for bishops - a detail that will be explained in the next chapter - and thus might have to be passed up as a practical matter).
Moreover, since Competition will be based directly on bishops' Questions, a local ordinary not only can keep careful track of the orthodoxy of student learning, he can virtually be guaranteed that continual efforts to improve the orthodoxy of student learning will be made by business competitors.
Given enough information, careful Science will even be able to let a bishop know if orthodoxy is being subverted in some way, and who is subverting it. It is likely that his willing partners in this ferreting-out will be educational publishers, who stand to lose financially if their programs are successfully subverted.
By using the elements of the Bishops Teaching Children method, a bishop is in direct control of and has direct responsibility for both the content and the orthodoxy of what Roman Catholic children in his diocese actually learn. In effect, by asking Questions, monitoring with Science, and rewarding or punishing the methods of schooling through Competition, a bishop eliminates the middleman, and personally prompts the creation of effective curriculums and texts for religious education. The Competitive process itself, and not any one person or expert, in effect creates the curriculums, texts, and methods the bishop thinks are best.
Almost as a mere side effect, the entire American Catholic religious education bureaucracy, both religious educators and theologians, is completely circumvented. There may be little or no need for its assistance, since Competition among religious education publishers will soon begin to drive the instruction and training of catechists and the development of educational materials, in which the current bureaucracy has no demonstrable technical expertise to begin with.
Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any role left for that bureaucracy to play. In the first place, the Bishops Teaching Children method focuses all religious education on answering bishops' Questions. By doing so, it allows the local ordinary to directly exercise his sacramental and apostolic character and moral responsibility as chief teacher. Since his teaching can now in effect be conveyed to all students directly, there is no need for others to 'interpret' it for him.
When it seemed completely impossible for the local ordinary to exercise his teaching role directly, the idea of the bishop as chief teacher could, practically speaking, only be given lip service even by the most loyal. As a result there was plenty of room for religious educators and theologians to assume the office of teacher or even to reserve it to themselves, 'assisting' their ordinary in a manner they themselves would define.
The lack of practical opportunity for the local ordinary to be the chief teacher also allowed, perhaps even in practice supported, arguments that a particular kind of expertise, whether technical or theological, was the necessary and sufficient cause of Catholic religious education, instead of a particular sacramental character possessed ex opere operato by the local church in union with the whole Catholic Church, and a particular sacramental and apostolic character possessed ex opere operato by a bishop alone as the chief teacher of the local church.
What 'technical' objections to the procedures of the Bishops Teaching Children method could be raised, the solution of which would require the continued ministrations of the present religious education bureaucracy?
The Bishops Teaching Children method focuses all instruction in the diocese on answering bishops' Questions, based on the specific content of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. 'Technical' arguments that specific content is not fundamental to intellectual understanding, or that elegant and probing multiple-choice tests can not be devised to measure that understanding, are progressivist, not scientific, exercises, 7* and, even if true, do not justify a bureaucracy's continued existence.
'Religious' arguments that intellectual understanding is not the sole purpose of religious education are, as this chapter has shown, not 'religious' but progressivist, and therefore also scientifically naive and in practice harmful to learning. Again, even if the claim were true, it would not justify a bureaucracy's continued existence. That existence would be justified only if the bureaucracy could establish that a) 'moral development' or 'a caring attitude,' or whatever goal beyond intellectual understanding it wanted to define is the name of a 'subject' that can be taught in a 'religion' class, and b) objectively it can teach such a 'subject' better than any and all competitors.
A claim that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is not a sound basis for bishops' Questions is refuted by the Catechism itself, as is a claim that a religious education expert or a theologian is better qualified than the local ordinary to 'hand on' the faith of the apostles.
Further, as was adverted to above and as will be explained further in the next chapter, the writing of 'good' Questions requires very little technical expertise in question-construction.
Constructing 'good' multiple-choice questions is largely a matter of writing many, many questions, and seeing which ones work. Even very experienced question writers expect many surprises. Questions thought clear may turn out to be obscure to test-takers; ones thought discriminating will instead be answered correctly (or incorrectly) by nearly all. In short, writing 'good' questions is largely a process of writing many questions, and then trial-and-error.
What is really required of question writers is that they know their subject and are willing to keep writing questions until trial-and-error identifies enough 'good' ones. These requirements the local ordinary can readily fulfill.
Thus, the local ordinary alone is sacramentally competent to direct the Bishops Teaching Children method, he possesses the practical competence necessary to direct it, and the Bishops Teaching Children method appears to be a technically and sacramentally sound method of exercising his apostolic authority and moral responsibility as chief teacher. Further, it appears that a bishop does not require either technical or theological assistance from the present religious education bureaucracy in order to use the methods and structure of the Bishops Teaching Children method.
Of course, there would be no particular role for the current religious education bureaucracy as the originator or promulgator of religious education methods and materials either, since religious education monies would now flow only toward objectively measurable effectiveness at answering bishops' Questions, and no longer toward 'credentials,' 'experience,' or toward curriculums or methods those with such credentials and experience would prefer. Members of the current religious education bureaucracy would at best simply become individual competitors in a now level playing field. If they succeeded in such a climate, it would be solely because they happened to be the entrepreneurs best at doing exactly what the local ordinary desired.
Further, by using the elements of the Bishops Teaching Children method, a bishop and his diocese would cause the death of all vague, unsubstantiated religious education 'expertise,' and encourage genuine, measurable expertise to emerge regarding religious education in the diocese. Moreover, such expertise would emerge within a Competitive framework in which improvements always serve as the new minimum standard for further Competition.
In a nutshell, that is the Bishops Teaching Children method -
Questions, Science, and Competition - and why it will work. It
works because it has three elements - just many enough to work,
not too many to keep track of. It works because it is crude. It
works because it is crudely and entirely focused on bishops'
Questions and nothing else. It works because it turns crudeness
into a subtle system of feedbacks, rewards, and punishments. It
works by turning our daily vices into daily virtues. It gives
everyone solidly coarse, trivial, unromantic, daily reasons to
teach all the children of the diocese as much as possible about
exactly what their bishop wishes them to learn.
1. "Semmelweiss, Ignaz Philipp." Britannica(R) CD 99 Multimedia Edition (c) 1994-1999. Encyclopedia Brittanica, Inc.
2. Dower CM, Miller JE, O'Neil EH and the Taskforce on Midwifery. Charting a Course for the 21st Century: the Future of Midwifery. Pew Health Professions Commission and the UCSF Center for the Health Professions. April 1999. p. 36, sidebar, "Cochrane Library."
3. Bitney J, et. al. Benziger parish catechetical program: Share the Joy (gr. 3, Catechist's Edition). Mission Hills, California: Benziger. 1997. p. 7.
4. Hirsch ED Jr. The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them. New York: Doubleday. 1996. p. 216. Emphasis original.
5. Stevenson HW, Stigler JW. The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing And What We Can Learn From Japanese And Chinese Education. New York: Summit Books. 1992.
6. Stevenson HW, Stigler JW. The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing And What We Can Learn From Japanese And Chinese Education. New York: Summit Books. 1992.
7. Regarding standardized multiple-choice testing, interested readers may consult chapter 6, "Test Evasion," of Mr. Hirsch's book, referenced in Endnote 4, above.
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