Review: The Learning Cycle

learning cycle

The Learning CycleMuriel I. Elmer and Duane H. Elmer. Downers Grove: IVP Academiv, 2020.

Summary: The Elmer’s propose a five level process for learning that is not a transfer of information from the teacher to the student but the transformation of the life of the learner.

Most all of us remember cramming for an exam where we learned the information we needed just long enough to take the test. A week, maybe even a day later, it was gone. Part of the problem, according to the authors is that we often consider learning only a cognitive process, engaging our minds. Drawing on recent findings in neuroscience, the authors propose a learning process that engages the mind, the emotions, and our actions.

They propose a five step or level process, all build around the idea of recall, the remembering the information, and building on that:

Level 1: Recall–I Remember the Information. They look at how learning involves short, working, and long-term memory. Critical is getting to long term through rehearsal. One of the tools they talk about is the “memo to self,” a short note on one meaningful idea from a presentation. In this section, they also discuss lectures that transform. A key point is realizing that attention peaks at 10-12 minutes and then declines (a good time a change of pace, such as discussion or an exercise) and then rises again (a good time for summation). They offer a number of ideas for vibrant, memorable lectures and dealing with cognitive overload (like being the last speaker of the day).

Level 2: Recall with Appreciation. The aim here is for the learner to value the information. This introduces the affective aspect of learning, how one feels about the content of the learning. This happens in a setting that is safe, with a teacher that is credible, and where the learning experience is positive and self-affirming.

Level 3: Recall with Speculation. A learner who retains and appreciates the information then takes the step to consider how they will use the information. It involves visualizing how one might use the information in one’s life. This involves connecting new information with past content and thinking about how it may be incorporated in one’s life. It might mean adding, modifying, eliminating or strengthening a behavior.

Barriers to Change. Before moving to changed behavior, it is important to identify barriers and how to overcome them. They discuss the Reasoned Action Approach, which identifies the specific beliefs that control why and when we change our behavior and how convinced we are that the change will be beneficial. They then propose several learning tasks to overcoming barriers: the memo to myself again, role playing, accountability relationships, avoiding dangerous contexts, managing negative thoughts, and depending on Scripture and prayer.

Level 4: Recall with Practice. This is where one begins to change one’s behavior. It is important to recognize that practicing new behaviors may be uncomfortable at first and learning that at worst, we can’t do a new behavior yet. It takes time and repetition, dialogue and discussion in a community. This may be done through simulations, skill-training with practice, and the alternation of practice and debriefing, consolidating what is learned.

Level 5: Recall with Habit. This is moving beyond learning to act out a new behavior well to do that behavior consistently, where learning becomes habit. Habits involve a feedback loop of cues, routines, and rewards that we continue to practice long enough that we don’t give them conscious though. The authors discuss replacing bad habits with good ones and the importance of “keystone habit,” a small change that leads to other habitual changes. The author illustrated this with using the sound of a gecko to cue prayer.

While this learning cycle is useful in many learning settings, the authors, both committed Christians apply this to learning Christlikeness as habit becomes or forms character. They argue that no part of the learning cycle should be neglected if this is to happen:

  • Overemphasis on recall or remembering can incline people toward hypocrisy.
  • Overemphasis on valuing or emotion can incline people toward instability.
  • Overemphasis on barriers or obstacles can incline people toward paralysis.
  • Overemphasis on speculation or transfer can incline people toward inaction.
  • Overemphasis on practice or changing can incline people toward activism.
  • Overemphasis on habit or consistency can incline people toward empty routine.

The authors give us a biblically informed, and scientifically grounded approach to learning that transforms. I appreciate this, because the true aim of all education is the formation and transformation of learners in some way. Even more, the form of education that is Christian discipleship is far more than acquiring biblical knowledge, or even emotional dispositions toward the Christian faith and life. Unless truth transforms our thoughts, affections, and habitual actions toward Christlikeness, discipleship is just a bookshelf full of books, a notebook full of notes and a head full of ideas. The Elmers argue that so much more is possible, and shows the way for those who teach, and those who learn.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: Mathematics for Human Flourishing

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Mathematics for Human FlourishingFrancis Su, with reflections by Christopher Jackson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019.

Summary: An argument for the value of mathematics in all of our lives through meeting our deep desires and cultivating virtues helping us and others to flourish.

I have to admit approaching this book with both fascination, and a bit of trepidation. I was curious for how the author would demonstrate that math fosters human flourishing. And I was afraid that the book would reveal the deficit in my rusty math skills, that it would be a discussion of inside baseball, with me on the outside, as it were.

Francis Su sets us at ease from the earliest pages. He introduces us to a correspondent friend, Christopher Jackson and to Simone Weil. Jackson is in prison for armed robbery, connected with drug addiction, who won’t be released until 2033 at the earliest. Simone Weil was the younger sister of famed number theorist, André Weil. Simone Weil once said “Every being cries out to be read differently.” As it turns out, Jackson runs circles around most of us in his knowledge of advanced subjects in mathematics, and Weil loved mathematics, and more than held her own with her brother’s circle of friends.

Su’s appeal in this book is that we read others, and perhaps ourselves differently when we think of mathematics. For too long, he contends, we have left math to the whiz kids who can solve problems quickly and the eccentrics. For many of us, math is either irrelevant or a memory of shame. He contends we are all mathematicians, and all teachers of math and invites us to read ourselves, others, and the practice of mathematics differently.

His contention is that mathematics fosters human flourishing. We flourish as we develop certain virtues, and our pursuit of virtues is aroused by basic desires or longings. Longings like that of exploration, such as how to explain the gaps in the rings of Saturn. Or the longing for meaning, such as the stories we may use to make sense of the Pythagorean theorem. There is play, particularly as we explore the interesting patterns we find in math, engaging in inductive inquiry, and deductive reasoning to explain what we find. We come up with shortcuts, and try to figure out why they work. We long for beauty, and discover it in the sensory beauty of a fractal, the wondrous beauty of an elegant equation, the insightful beauty of the dualities in math (multiplication and division, sine and cosine), and the transcendent beauty when we realize that math can explain the world. We long for permanence and truth and find these in mathematical ideas that do not change.

Math cultivates virtue as we struggle. Su gives the lie to the whiz kid who comes up with the quick solution. Real creativity in math involves struggle, the failed solutions that lead to a novel way of seeing the problem that yields the solution. Math’s power may be coercive or creative. The creative use of power multiplies math’s power in the lives of others rather than showing oneself to be powerful. Math can be used to include or exclude and may be a source of either justice or injustice. Math can be a source of freedom–particularly if it is coupled with justice and extend welcome to all. When this happens, mathematics creates good communities, not ones that exclude those who don’t “measure up.” Math sees everyone as capable of discovery in math. Suddenly, you have a group of people engaged in joyous discovery.

Above all, Su believes that love is the ultimate virtue in math as in all things. This is not merely the love of math, but the love of people that believes “that you and every person in your life can flourish in mathematics.” One of the beauties of this book is that Su models this in the respectful way he engages Christopher’s questions and desire to learn math. It is evident that he sought Christopher’s advice on the book, and includes in each chapter one of Christopher’s reflections. At the end of the epilogue, an interaction between the author and Christopher, Su mentions that Christopher will share in the book’s royalties.

When you read this book, I suspect you will agree that Francis Su is the math teacher we all wish we had. He reminded me of one high school teacher, Mr. Erickson, who made math fun, and was not above engaging in dialogues with his invisible friend Harvey during class. Su helps us to discover the fun in math by including math puzzles in each chapter. He offers hints or solutions to each in the back, but I was reminded of the math puzzles I used to delight solving in Mr. Erickson’s class, and as a kid. I found myself wanting to find some math books and brush up my math. He got me curious about the mathematical realities I could do well to pay more attention to, like trying to make sense out of the analytics on a website and what the patterns mean, or the correlation between voting percentages and incarceration patterns.

I wonder if others will have this reaction and if in fact that is the author’s intent. Even teachers can lose their “first love” of math, and lose touch with the desires that math aroused in their lives. Might renewal come with remembering, remembering ourselves as we consider the student before us,  allowing that remembering to shape how we teach? Su does us a valuable service in awakening us to the ways we flourish through math, motivating us to share with others the abundance we have discovered, even as Christopher now teaches other inmates the math he has learned, flourishing even more as he does so.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Reengineering the University

Reengineering the UniversityReengineering the University, William F. Massy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016 (expected publication date February 11, 2016).

Summary: Massy develops a data-driven model that allows universities to engage in planning that optimizes both mission and money considerations in institutional planning and budgeting in the changing marketing landscape of twenty-first century higher education.

It seems that practical every discussion I read on higher education is concerned with clarifying the mission of higher education, controlling the rising costs of higher education, or responding to the changing landscape of higher education with online courses, “flipped classrooms” and more.

William F. Massy comes to this with a background in education and business administration and a stint as CFO for Stanford. What he attempts to do in this book is to argue for the “reengineering of the university” through data-driven models that utilize college transaction systems as well as mission prioritizing to arrive at models that maximize mission focus, teaching effectiveness, and financial efficiency. He doesn’t give a prescribed course for institutions but rather models for decision-making based on a university’s determined values.

In chapter 1, he starts with “Understanding the Traditional University” against the backdrop of the changing educational landscape. He argues for the strengths of the traditional model and argues that data-driven analysis can enable university leaders to make decisions that enhance teaching, respond to the changing market, and control costs in the unique non-profit environment in which they operate. Then in chapter 2, Massy surveys what he believes needs to be done: focusing on teaching and learning improvement, doing activity and cost analysis to better understand university costs, and finally develop a comprehensive budget modeling process. Key in all of this is university leadership buy-in.

The succeeding chapters then go into specifics of these three aspects. Chapter 3 focuses on the new scholarship of teaching and what universities can do to focus on teaching improvement. Historically, university teaching is decentralized with each faculty doing pretty much what they know, often without the benefit of teaching and learning scholarship. This focus involves a departmental culture change to evaluating and looking at teaching and learning effectiveness and what activities best accomplish this. Chapter 4 introduces the idea of “activity-based costing” or ABC and outlines a model that looks at both cost and quality of various teaching activities and considers the findings of this data for course design. Chapter 5 then looks at a comprehensive financial planning and budgeting process that takes these inputs into consideration on a university-wide basis.

What is attractive about this model is the commitment to educational quality even while becoming far more rigorous in controlling costs and financial planning. This is not an approach of the bottom line trumping educational considerations but strikes me as a serious attempt to hold educational mission and money in a productive tension. As such, the proposals outlined, and the budgeting tools and processes mentioned in the book text and supplemental appendices can be very helpful for university central administrations, deans, and department chairs. But this also brings me to a critical concern.

This model only works where there is buy-in. It can start at the departmental level rather than the top down, particularly if the department is keenly aware of its competition with other institutions for both students and funding. The author suggests pilot projects in selected departments. Often success breeds interest and that seems to be the strategy most talked about. But university-wide adoption seems to be required for the final of his three emphases. I can see this being more easily possible in smaller, nimbler institutions. At a large, public university, this would seem to involve vigorous leadership, considerable work at consensus-building, and sustained attention. It cannot be the “trend de jour”.

I also would have liked the author to give more attention to the non-academic side of university life and university budgets. The growth of this sector of the university has far out-stripped the academic sector and represents a significant portion of the tuition bill of each student as well. It includes increasingly well-equipped residence halls, recreation facilities, dining facilities, and student centers, and various other “wellness” services deemed important to the modern student, some of which are federally mandated. I am concerned that this book focuses so much on teaching and learning that it leaves the impression that the academic sector of the university is most responsible for the costs students and parents face. Admittedly, enhancing effectiveness and controlling costs here is vital, but where are the proposals for program effectiveness reviews, activity-based costing, and finance controls for the non-academic parts of university life? It seems to me that unless finance and budgeting for universities apply similar processes over the whole picture, they could still subtly undermine the academic mission of universities.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via a pre-publication e-galley through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


Review: Hear, My Son: Teaching & Learning in Proverbs 1-9

Hear, My Son: Teaching & Learning in Proverbs 1-9
Hear, My Son: Teaching & Learning in Proverbs 1-9 by Daniel J. Estes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Proverbs 1 to 9 is an extended address on the value of wisdom from a father or elder teacher to a son or student that introduces the wisdom sayings of the remainder of Proverbs. Daniel J. Estes has taken a novel approach to this literature and written a monograph exploring the philosophy and practice of teaching and learning reflected in this instruction given in these chapters. It is part of the New Studies in Biblical Theology series of monographs.

That may sound like dry, stodgy stuff but what Estes does is outline in a very straightforward fashion what we might learn from these texts about teaching and learning. The book is not an exposition of Proverbs 1 to 9 but rather a study of this discourse through the lens of what it teaches about education.

Here is the outline of the book. After an introduction describing and giving a rationale for this study, Estes looks first at the worldview underlying Proverbs as one seeing the universe as God’s creation, one with a moral order and rationality that reflect the character of God, and thus implying a proper reverence for God by humans and other creatures. He then turns to values for education, of which the top one is wisdom which is understanding how to live well and in accord with God’s order in the world, teachability, righteousness and life. Then follows a consideration of education’s goals: commitment on the part of the learner, growth in character, competence in living, protection from folly and its consequences, prosperity and the knowledge of God.

The next sections turn to the nuts and bolts of education. Proverbs 1-9 describes a threefold curriculum of learning through observation of the world, through instruction in traditional wisdom passed along, and through revealed truth from God. He then turns to the educational process evident in this discourse which includes an address (“hear, my son”), description of the wise and foolish, various forms of commands, incentives, and an invitation to embrace the teaching. This then leads to a consideration of the role of teacher and learner in this process. Because the teacher alternates between expert authority and the role of facilitating wisdom’s embrace, he sees the teacher as functioning as a knowledgeable guide in the learning process. Conversely the learner must receive, respond to, value and assimilate wisdom. Estes then concludes the book by summarizing these chapters and outlining avenues for further exploration as well as by offering few comments on contemporary education.

What I most appreciate about this book is that it articulates an approach to education that integrates faith and rigorous study of the world rather than bracketing these off into separate ventures. In fact, the earliest scientists studied the world as well as theology to understand God’s order. Similarly, tradition, history, literature, and philosophy need not be opposed to either theology or science but all function together as a comprehensive curriculum to teach the fear of God, the order of creation, the cultivation of moral character, competence and common sense in the conduct of life. Competence and character, reason and faith walk together.

In sum, this book is a concise work that gives fresh insight into an aspect of Proverbs–teaching and learning–that has relevance for anyone engaged in the educational enterprise and particularly those who want to think Christianly about how education is done.

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