# The Variables of Learning

By | September 16, 2015

In much the same way that mathematical equations yield specific verifiable quantities, public education's primary measurable product, learning (L), may be determined according to the variables contained in a basic computational formula. Take, for instance the formula for the area of ​​a circle, (A = pi r (squared)).

Pi, or the value 3.1416, is a mathematical constant, which never varies in value, it being the means whereby the correct result of the formula is attained. The ultimate result of the formulaic computation, for the area of ​​any circle, is, consequently, determined by pi's consistent use. If the constant, pi, varies in the slightest degree, the computation will yield an incorrect calculation, regardless of the correctness of the circle's radius, 'r,' the one and only variable in the formula. Similarly, a basic formula for any particular type of learning may be expressed as:
L (learning) = {TQ (teacher quality) x IE (instructional environment) x IA (environmental atmosphere)} (squared) x SP (student preparedness).

In this particular formulaic context, a quantity of quality learning will vary directly according to
1) the instructional quality of the teachers,
2) the mental and behavioral preparedness of the students, and
3) the conduciveness of the environmental atmosphere to learning.

The only independent variable in the learning formula is (IE), the instructional environment. That is, the physical location where the learning occurs, such as in a traditional school classroom, beneath a tree, in a garden, or, perhaps, in a pool parlor. Where the physical environment is located is of no real consequence if an effective environmental learning atmosphere is produced and maintained through quality instruction and optimal student preparedness. As is shown in the formula, the product of the variables within the brackets, squared, will be multiplied by (SP), student preparedness. This, student preparedness, is the one essential value, the veritable constant, which is totally beyond the control of the teacher and the school administration, which can cause the entire formula equation to yield a less than satisfactory product. This is the (pi) of the learning formula. This key formulaic term, expressed in behavioral units, must remain at an optimal level at all times during a teaching episode, for a mutually pleasant learning atmosphere to exist, and for a quantity of academic learning to be conveyed and assimilated by the learner. Effective, or ineffective, parenting, at home, is the only means for measuring the value of this particular variable, that is, unless the state steps-in and assumes the parenting duties consigned by nature to the natural parents, or, by law, to other caregivers.

A city or county public education district may, therefore, hire the highest quality teachers (cum laude graduates in all of the core disciplines who consistently produce the most attractive and innovative lesson plans), build the most elaborate and state-of-the-art classroom and laboratory facilities, and, ultimately, have the most unmotivated students, the majority of whom attend school not desiring to learn, only attending class because they are forced to do so. If this is the case, such a school district will experience a dismally low-level of student learning achievement, and the cause will not lie with the teachers, but with the parents of the students.

When speaking of educational motivation, one of the most common paradigms used comparatively by authorities in the discipline is that of Abraham Lincoln and his voracious thirst for learning. According to his own autobiographical words, Lincoln learned to read and write by the light of a log fire in a log cabin fireplace. His mother began reading the Bible to him when he was three-or-four years of age, and he learned, with her help, to make his alphabetic letters, and to spell, by effectively using the burned ends of sticks as pencils, which he used to write, and solve arithmetic problems, on slate tablets. I suppose that there is no accurate way to fully measure the total effect that his mother had on the great man, but Lincoln, as a young learner, may be considered logically as, either, a gifted prodigy, who would have excelled under any environmental condition, or as a child with an ordinary mind who, through environmental influences and extraordinary tenacity, prevailed as an example of someone dynamically rising to the occasion. Most people tend to believe the latter as more true, and use Lincoln as a working example of successful learning and social mobility. Moreover, there have been other, less publicized, examples of ordinary children who have, through environmental stimulation, achieved academic greatness; and all of these children have had parents, or adult caregivers, who have been instrumental in encouraging and fostering academic motivation to learn.

I struck-up a conversation recently with an Arkansas public middle-school teacher who was visiting Washington, DC for the first time with a group of his Arkansas teaching colleagues. We were on the Metro Blue-line train heading to Franconia-Springfield, and I asked this thirty-something male English teacher what he thought was the greatest learning distraction in his classroom. He replied very bluntly that student discipline, and the role the Arkansas teacher has to serve as a classroom surrogate parent, were the greatest hindrances to productive learning. Surprised that teachers are being paid to provide parenting to wayward students, I asked him how much time, on the average, he expends to the parenting component during a fifty-minute class. He answered that nearly half of his class time is ordinarily spent teaching adolescent students proper behaviors and values ​​that they should be learning at home. I countered with an observation that, by using half of the class time to prepare the students to learn, there was not much time left to learn English. Chuckling, he said he was lucky to present three good English lessons-per-week out of the twenty-five classes he was assigned to teach. He went on to say that the duties of the Arkansas teachers to prepare the students for the standardized state academic skill assessment tests also preempted disciplinary classroom instruction time by more than 40-percent of time left for quality teaching.

In a nutshell, student discipline (civility and mutual respect in the classroom) went out-the-window with the power of the classroom teacher to discipline according to prevailing need, which, of course, included paddling. When the teacher, by law, had to begin referring chronically disobedient students from the classroom to an assistant-principal, for the administration of "affirmative discipline," the students immediately realized the sort of illicit behavior which would get them ostracized from a classroom. And so began the disciplinary revolving door. If a particular teacher's instructional demeanor did not readily appeal to a student, a sudden vulgar epithet, diatribe, or a spit-laden paper-wad thrown hard at a fellow-student or, perhaps, at the teacher would be grounds for instant ejection from the classroom. Instead of the teacher controlling the students' behaviors, the students became adept at controlling the teacher's reactions.

The ineffective application of affirmative discipline accompanying the disempowerment of the classroom teacher began in the early 1970s, when a few permissive parents began objecting to teachers and coaches corporally disciplining their behaviorally recalcitrant sons and daughters. I recall, from my own childhood learning experiences (1958-70) the ubiquitous wooden paddle hanging from the classroom wall, which bluntly told the students at the beginning of the academic year to behave in class and pay attention or, else, suffer the consequences . And ordinarily worked. I saw very few 'licks' administered in the classrooms during the years I was in public school; and during the 1950's and 60's, there was an incredibly high rate of learning in the public schools around the nation, especially in math and science, primarily due to the increased interest in space exploration. Moreover, there were many more social and familial advantages prevalent then, which were concomitant with high achievement by pre-adolescent and adolescent students in the public schools.

From 1945 until around 1970, parents were much more involved in their children's lives, especially their educational pursuits, than from 1970 until the present day. During the decade of the 60's, attention-deficit and hyper-activity were not accepted and formally classified as medical and psychological disorders in children. In most public schools around the nation, a child's inattentiveness and behavioral dysfunctions in class were promptly addressed by the teacher, and then by the parent, at home. At a time when a majority of parents totally supported the disciplinary actions of their children's teachers, and, later, at home, dealt assertively, yet lovingly, with the child's inappropriate classroom demeanor, the dysfunctional issue was usually resolved within a day-or- so. Of course, there were organic medical problems with a few students then, such as fetal-alcohol syndrome, crack babies, etc., as there are now; but the majority of disciplinary problem students merely had, and presently have, correctable attitude problems.

That was when most American parents were integrally involved with their children's educational endeavors, by helping them to properly complete their homework in the evenings and encouraging them on a daily basis to excel in their studies. When these practices ceased to be an above-average occurrence in most American homes, the learning curve plunged dismally. Presently, a greater number of parents want to blame their children's inattentive and aberrantly hyper behavior, displayed at home merely to get the attention they rightfully deserve from their mothers and father, on what is fallaciously regarded today as medical and psychological disorders. Sadly, most American public school parents are presently in a state of denial, deferring accountability for their refusal to be actively involved in their children's education, to the school districts, most saying, "We pay our taxes. You deal with (parent?) our children. "

As a former classroom teacher in the public and private schools, I can speak assuredly that typical inner-urban public school classrooms, especially in school systems such as the Washington, DC Public Schools, are hardly manageable because of the dearth of proper parenting in the homes of the typical students. The reason I say this is that the dismal learning atmospheres in the DC public high schools are hardly comparable to that of the private and parochial high schools within the same area, which work with much lower budgets and resources. Interesting it is that when parents enthusiastically pay-out for tuition, books, uniforms, and incidentals for their children, associated with an academic year at, for example, a Catholic school, they usually are very concerned, and involved in their students' education . Also quite interesting is the fact that, in 98% of the private and parochial schools, discipline is solidly within the purview and discretion of the classroom teacher.

In Northern Virginia's Fairfax County, the current pride of the Fairfax County Schools is Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. More than 2,500 applicants applied for 485 seats in the Thomas Jefferson freshman class. Resultantly, Asian American students got 219, or 45 percent of the total, while white students got 205, or 42 percent. Meanwhile, the incoming freshman class will have 10 Hispanic and nine black students. These low numbers come as the Fairfax County School Board prepares to review TJ's admissions policy. What does this essentially mean according the learning formula? A long story short, Asian students generally have parents who are integrally involved with their children's achievement in the public schools. Most Asian students are focused on learning and high achievement, not merely passing grades. Thomas Jefferson High School, consequently, has a standard classroom learning environment comparable to that of the best private school in the nation, which, with the best teachers, best classroom technology, and best labs produces a substantial quantity of learning. You might say that the average student (possibly female) at Thomas Jefferson is prepared every school-day morning to attend her classes and learn. The main reason that the DC Schools are in such turmoil is, sadly, the absence of that basic level of preparedness essential to all effective learning.

If DC Mayor Adrian Fenty expects Chancellor Michelle Rhee to make a difference in the overall learning output of the DC Public Schools, he should immediately establish a mandate for Rhee to set severe penalties for the parents of DC students who refuse to establish home environments conducive to learning. What would this comprise? In the same manner that parents of recalcitrant juvenile offenders have, in some states, been held financially and criminally liable for the malicious actions of their sons and daughters, parents who do nothing to encourage their children to learn in the classroom should be, either, fined or jailed. Millions of dollars are paid-out every year to finance free public education for every normal school-age youth in the nation. When this teaching effort is intentionally thwarted by uncaring parents, there is a gross waste of money and resources that should be addressed by law. Moreover, when a parent is ethically forced, because of poor learning environment, to remove a child from a public school in order to, either, home school or enroll the student in a private or parochial school, something is drastically wrong with the system, which should be promptly rectified.

What greater natural resource is there than the children of the American republic? And like every other natural resource with which hedonistic American ingenuity has dealt, our children are being regarded as expendable. I would rather call it stupidity than ingenuity, because the average US citizen would do anything to make a profit in dollars and cents. The inane evisceration of North American ecology, the extinction of over 125 species of animal life worldwide, and the tragic destruction of the earth's atmosphere are examples of the careless regard that Americans have demonstrated for precious natural resources. When dealing with the future of our planet, some man or women, now a boy or girl in the public schools, might eventually discover the esoteric key to environmental stability. Nonetheless, the current chaotic state of things is filled with amorphous generalities, of if's and but's flying about in random patterns, signifying absolutely nothing. To sum it up sardonically, James Clavell supposedly quiped, "If if's and but's were beer and nuts, we'd have a hell of a party."