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Educating the Young: Some Thoughts from the Trenches
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By Gerson Moreno-Riano, July 23, 2008 in Uncategorized

Last week was one of the busiest I have experienced in a long time. After almost 14 months of planning, I was able to implement and successfully execute a government camp for high school students (for more details on the camp see www.regent.edu/govcamp). It was a very rewarding experience. 15 high school students attended, some from as far as Maryland and Texas, to study counter-terrorism, national security, leadership, and public service. The camp was filled with multimedia presentations, talks with experts, and field trips to such places as Blackwater Worldwide, Langley AFB, the United States Coast Guard, and several other places. All of the sites we visited were normally off-limits to civilians giving this camp a cloak and dagger feel.

We academics have been educated and trained to address undergraduate, graduate, and well-educated audiences. We employ high level analysis, arguments, and critical reasoning to advance principles and theories that we believe are true and defensible. So imagine trying to apply these techniques with an audience of high school students from public, private, and home school environments. For some of my colleagues, the mere thought of attempting to educate such young students leads to either revulsion or anxiety. After all, aren't such students immature and laden with trivial pursuits? Or, for my more anxious colleagues, just how does one communicate with some of the youngest of millenials who never lived through the tumbling of the Berlin Wall and who were only 7 or 8 years old on 9/11 and who are part of the iPod generation? And, more importantly, how does one reach such an audience, a group that will shape our politics and foreign policy for years to come?

With much courage and perhaps a bit of naivete, I worked with such a group last week. And it was a tremendous experience. These fifteen students were very smart, talented, eager, and well educated. They continually impressed policy and military experts wherever they went. They asked insightful questions, suggested important comments and observations, and were very engaged in all discussions.

Now, the bad news. Over the 14 month period, I asked all presenters to ensure that their talks were lively, engaging, and intellectually stimulating. After all, the audience was composed of high school students who in spite of their mental prowess still needed to be engaged. So imagine my horror when some of the presentations were nothing more than a 1.5 - 2 hour powerpoint presentation with lots of text and professional jargon. It was death by powerpoint! Here we have 15 very bright young people and a number of the presenters could not engage their imagination.

This led me to think of how essential it is that in our task of educating any audience we must engage the mind and the heart- we must engage the whole person. I am more convinced than ever before that the task of educating and passing on some of our most revered principles and traditions cannot solely rely on arguments and logic alone but must also be enhanced and buttressed with pedagogical tools that capture the imagination, feelings, the soul of the students with whom we are working. We cannot divorce the mind from the heart; we cannot compartmentalize human beings as we educate them. We must educate the whole person.

This is why in our task of education we must stand on and advance rock solid principles but we must also learn to be innovative in our methods. We need to learn about and be open to various methods and techniques that do not sacrifice first principles and sound pedagogy but that are relevant, timely, and engaging.

In the weeks ahead, I will delve into some of these issues, techniques, and questions of pedagogy. As we think about educating 21st century students, we must consider how to educate beings that share a common nature but that have been socialized in radically different ways. We must appeal to their nature, capture their mind and heart, and persuade them of the existence of greatness and moral excellence. This is no easy task. But it is one of the most noble.

Tags: Education

3 Comments
Lee Trepanier on Jul 25, 2008 at 4:35 pm

I also have taught high school students in similar summer camps and have found them to poise unique challenges as well as to provide exceptional satisfaction. Besides starting from a lower knowledge base and possessing a naivety in how the world works, high school students arenít aware of their physical limits and occasionally need to be told when to go to bed and other such parenting items. However, they lack the veneer of cynicism and pseudo-sophistication that college students possess. They approach topics with an openness that is refreshing and inherently rewarding and consequently makes it easy to reach them when compared to collegiate students.

When you wrote about the powerpoint presentations being filled with professional jargon, I had to laugh since this also has been similar to my own experience, especially when working with administrators and even some faculty members. If it canít be presented in powerpoint, it doesnít matter appears to be their motto. My guess is that the predominance of powerpoint in todayís presentations, ranging from education to medicine and even law, is the typical American obsession with technology as the panacea for all ills and an insecurity that some people have when talking in front of people. I feel sorry for your students having to endure the powerpoint presentations, but at least they now know what to expect for the rest of their lives.

Gerson Moreno-Riano on Jul 26, 2008 at 9:35 am

The most troubling part of it is that here is a perfect chance for local government officials to persuade students about public service at the local level and they did a great job of persuading them that local government public service is boring. Now, I know that this is not the case. But it showed how important it is to be creative and innovative in teaching.

Carolyn Garris on Aug 5, 2008 at 2:16 pm

This sounds like a great program. You may already know about this, but I thought I'd make you aware just in case. Teaching American History.org runs a program for High Schoolers in Washington D.C. (http://www.congressionalacademy.org/). You may want to talk with them about how to get speakers to engage their audience more.

In general, I think that High Schoolers' abilities are severely underestimated. I think that many of the LASC participants might find teaching them quite delightful -- as you and Professor Trepanier found out. However, the academy offers a much greater degree of academic freedom. Programs such as yours are a great opportunity for outstanding academics to reach out to students before they are attending college. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

about the author

Gerson Moreno-Riano
Gerson Moreno-Riano

Gerson Moreno-Riano has been appointed as Dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies at Regent University.  He is also an associate professor of government at Regent.  He has been at Regent since 2006.

Moreno-Riano's latest publications include the co-authored The Prospect of Internet Democracy (Ashgate, 2009) and the edited volume The World of Marsilius of Padua (Brepols, 2007).  He is currently at work on two commissioned projects: 1) a companion to Marsilius of Padua and 2) organizational evil in the modern era.