An Interview with Brett Tipton: If Learning is Fun and Education Stinks – How can we improve the Smell?

Sep 14, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)      Brett, just tell us a bit about yourself and YOUR educational experiences.

My educational experiences are varied. I grew up in Green, Ohio. It is a small suburb with a solid education system. I was a naturally good student and ended up being put in the upper classes–higher reading groups, AP classes, college preparatory classes and the like. I wasn’t aware at that time that the system was dividing students into categories. There was the vocational educational group, the group headed towards college and the average kids in the middle. Now that I look back it’s clear that was happening, so my education was not the average education. I was receiving a higher quality of education.

I did one semester of undergraduate work at The University of Akron before transferring to Cedarville College where I completed my B.A. in Bible Comprehensive. Later, I returned back to The University of Akron and received an M.A. in Communication and Rhetoric. I have done some doctoral studies in Education and Communication Studies at Kent State University. I found doctoral studies unfulfilling. I was bored to tears and the system really didn’t allow me to utilize my creativity. It was a box I didn’t fit in. I have also done some seminary classes at Ashland Theological Seminary, Pensacola Theological Seminary and Liberty University.

I would also consider my time in the Army Reserves as part of my education. I was trained as a 13B cannon crew member. Besides field artillery I also had some training in NBC (Nuclear, Biological and Chemical warfare). Most of that training is not as exciting as it sounds. For the most part it was how to decontaminate equipment, use little kits to detect agents, using personal protective gear and filling out paperwork.  Everything in the military involved paperwork.

2)      Now, most students I know hate tests- multiple choice, fill in the blank, matching column etc, essay. But if we don’t give tests how will we know they are learning what the curriculum says they must learn ? Or develop math, spelling, reading and writing skills?

The way you phrase the question almost answers the question for you. You say students “hate tests”. Is hatred consistent with learning? Watch a child at play or an adult taking up a hobby. They are learning, but they are also having fun–joy, laughter or intense concentration is evident. Negative emotions shut down the brain. I call it the fear response. When fear hits the brain goes into a red alert status. Everything becomes tense and oriented towards survival. Fear is incongruent with learning.

The opposite response I call the cheer response. When the brain is filled with positive emotions it learns far more effectively. Brain research is pretty clear about the connection between emotions and the storing and retrieval of information.

This question itself is based on faulty assumptions. You ask “how will we know they are learning”. That makes the assumption that teachers don’t know their students and have no clue when learning is going on. It’s not a valid assumption–at least if you have well trained teachers. I am not against the occasional use of tests. Tests could be useful as a diagnostic device. For example, say the test shows little Johnny doesn’t understand division, but does understand multiplication, addition and subtract. The current test paradigm would give him his 75% and move on. In such a case the test is an end as opposed to a mean. Instead of giving him a 75%, why not teach him how to divide?

Some schools have gone to a project based style of learning. So, things such as math, spelling, reading and writing are all applied. Instead of a test, students complete projects. These projects are generally not standardized, but individualized as each student works with their teachers. In such cases there is a real-world component that shows knowledge is being learned and skills acquired. When I teach speech, I have students give speeches.

When I teach writing, I have students write. Are these types of hands-on applications any less valid than taking a test? Couldn’t a portfolio of projects be just as valid a measurement of learning as a test? Or, is it even more valid? Apply for a writing position and what will the employer wants? Writing samples! Apply for a position as a photographer and what will the employer want? A portfolio of pictures! Out in the business world people often measure knowledge and skill acquisition without the use of tests. So, they are by no means necessary.

Another faulty assumption in your question has to do with “what the curriculum says they must learn”. Now, is there anything wrong with having a curriculum–some set of standards or list of things you’d expect students to learn? I would say there is nothing wrong with that. The problem comes when the curriculum becomes too rigid. Anymore education is moving more towards centralized control–where decisions on what should be learned are made in some bureaucrat’s office far removed from the actual teaching and learning. In such a case the curriculum becomes a straight jacket. Curriculum needs to be determined at the point of learning–by the teachers, students and for children the parents as well.

3)      Now, I think lectures can be good—but not for 2 and a half hours—Am I correct or incorrect?

Lecture is like garlic. A little bit can be good, but too much just leaves a bad taste in the brain. Two-and-a-half hours would be far too long for a lecture. Learning involves inputting, processing and outputting. First the brain must receive information. This is the input component. Next, the brain must process that information–figure out what it means. Finally the brain needs to create an output–somehow applying the information. Now, what is lecture? Lecture is input oriented. After about 15 or 20 minutes the brain has received as much information as it can process.

After that point one of two things happens–either the brain begins to lose information (like a factory receiving dock that is so full that things need to be cleared before receiving another shipment) or the brain begins to go into processing (daydreaming or doodling in one’s notebook). When one is daydreaming or doodling it is not because they are not learning. It’s the exact opposite. Their brain is naturally wired to learned, which involves input, processing and output. The doodling and daydreaming is the brain’s way to seek some way to process and output information.

4)      I once took a course on Western Civilization—interesting course, but the final exam was about 100 questions…what is wrong with this?

Let’s picture the brain as a factory for a moment. Now, what if I dropped off a pile of wooden planks at the receiving dock of the factory. If I come back at a later date would I expect to see those same planks at the shipping dock? Or, would I expect the factory to take those planks and to have done something useful with it–maybe they made a chair, swing set or piece of art? For the most part with tests what happens is the planks left at the receiving dock are the same one returned by the shipping dock. There is little deep processing and little deep learning occurs. Just as a factory needs to take raw materials and do something new with it, the brain should do the same thing–at least if deep learning is occurring. We can certainly have people memorize facts and that is a type of learning. But, is that deep learning? I would argue it is not deep learning.

Deep learning involves applying information in new or useful ways. Most tests are like playing a game of catch with information as opposed to really churning things through the learning factory.

5)      How can art play a crucial role in the learning process?

In order to answer this question it is necessary to at least loosely define art. I would define art as a creative process–where someone takes information and applies it in new ways. So, art involves the creation of something new. It is the output end of learning or what comes out of the receiving dock of the learning factory. It could involve a story or painting. But, something like teaching or management can also be an art–as one takes theory and applies it in new ways. Humans have the ability to take in information and take that information to the next step. This can be seen through our increases in science and technology. Without this ability we would be similar to animals. Certainly animals can learn, but can they go beyond rote memorization? Can they take the next artistic step of creativity? Art helps to take us past rote learning.


6)      In my office I have Pieter Breughel, Da Vinci and Monet and Manet. What have I gotten from Art Appreciation class?

Just having the art would be similar to just having information. Is it really useful to have those painting on the wall, unless they somehow inspire you, give meaning to your life or help you understand the world around you? If all the Art Appreciation class did was lead you to buy some expensive pieces of pigment on canvas the class was meaningless. If the class helped you to see how that art brings meaning to your life or gives you a greater understanding of the world or others than it was a meaningful class.

7)      Grades, tests and lectures should be replaced with____________________( this is  a Fill in the Blank question )

The problem with grades isn’t that we’re giving someone an evaluation. Being evaluated can be a key component of learning. The problem with our grading system is it’s an external motivation system. We aren’t tapping into people’s internal motivation. Learning is a normal, natural fun process. It is its own reward. Every learner has their own passions and it should be our goal to tap into those passions. The heart is the engine of the mind. Anything we love (or hate) we can’t stop thinking about. When we tap into someone’s passions the brain follows and deep learning can occur. When the motivation is external (some letter or number) we end up having students who aren’t emotionally engaged in the process. Without emotional engagement the brain isn’t fully engaged. So, there might be some surface level learning that occurs, but deep learning (which requires deep mental processing) is often not happening. This bring up the big question, how do I tap into someone’s internal motivation system? There isn’t a single answer to that question. It’s different for each student. It requires a dialogue between teacher and student and a loving relationship. It’s a process of discovery that can’t be standardized and is difficult to measure.

In terms of tests, I’ve already mentioned I’m not against them in certain situations as a diagnostic tool. I don’t think they are the only diagnostic tool and often not even the best, but as a means to an end (as opposed to being the end goal) they might have some use. For the most part I’d like to see tests replaced by hands-on learning. You don’t learn to play piano by taking a test. You play a piano. The same is true with writing, math, finance or whatever other topic is at hand.

In terms of lecture, I don’t think all lecture has to be eliminated. The problem with lecture is that it primarily involves inputting information. Lectures for the most part resemble a monologue–a teacher giving information to students and students in theory absorbing. What is far more effective than monologue is dialogue.

By dialogue, I don’t necessarily mean a discussion. What I mean is that the student processes the information (not mere regurgitation) and creates an output. The instructor must than receive that output (which is an input from the instructor’s end), process it and then create an output–some sort of response or direction to the learning environment. Learning is far more effective when there is that give-and-take dialogue component.

So, why so much focus on monologue styles of teaching? In a monologue style the teacher can cover more information. In dialogue styles of teaching less material is covered. However, what a teacher covers is of little importance. We’ve all been in a class where much was covered and little was learned. What is of great important is how much is learned. Dialogue styles tend to cover less, but in terms of what students retain and are able to apply long-term much more is accomplished.

8)      Forcing students into a standardized curriculum is ______________________( take it from here)

Standardized curriculum are based on a few faulty assumptions. First, it assumes that learning occurs like an assembly line and students are interchangeable cogs in that line. Each student is different. They learn in different ways and require different approaches. Individuality can’t be standardized.

Second, a standardized curriculum disregards the individuality of the teacher. If one is truly gifted as a teacher the best thing to do is to stand back and allow them to teach. Teaching is a wonderfully fulfilling process. It requires a great deal of creativity. It is a beautiful form of artistry that in the hands of a skilled teacher can change lives. When education is standardized it strips the teacher of this creative, inspiring process. You end up with teachers who are just doing the drudgery they are told and going through the motions. I know this brings up the question, well what about those teachers who aren’t gifted at teaching? I can only come up with two answers–retrain them or eliminate them.

9)      Music, art, dance, theatre, drama should be  a) outlawed b) required classes c) just available for students to take when, and with whatever instructor they want.

The question itself is based on certain paradigms that aren’t valid. Outlawing classes? That assumes that education decisions should be made by some sort of centralized controlling body. But, bureaucracy is incongruent with learning. Bureaucracy strips the life out of things and has decisions being made far removed from those affected by those decisions.

Requiring classes assumes certain elements of our current education system. For example, in college each student has a list of required classes. It is some administrative body that is determining what they should learn. The student has no voice in this process and without voice there is a lack of emotional engagement. Students end up taking so many classes that they just survive–with a let’s-just-get-through-this mentality. Do students learn best when decisions about what they learn are imposed upon them? No! But, how do we allow a student’s own internal drives to fuel the process and still ensure they learn what they need to learn? There are no easy answers to that. Are they really learning what they need to learn in our current system? By receiving a B in history, an A in math or a C in speech did they really learn those subjects?

Or, did they just do what they needed to do to attain some numerical evaluation? I would argue that our current system of required courses does little to guarantee students really know those subjects. It just guarantees that material was covered. As I’ve already mentioned there is a huge difference between covering and learning.

So, our current system doesn’t work; but, the question remains how to tap into student’s internal drives while still ensuring they learn certain skills. I have no easy answer to that question. I think it requires changing our entire system–beginning with the way we train teachers. Teachers are trained as a specialist in a given field. There is certainly nothing wrong with having some educational specialist, but I think for the most part we need Renaissance teachers–people who are well versed in a wide range of topics. We also need students and instructors to have long-term relationships in order to guide this process.

Component c of the question almost sounds like artistic pursuits are some sort of flippant pursuit–whatever, whoever, whenever: it’s just an art class. These subjects should be pursued with as much vigor and given the same respect as math, science or writing. As I already mentioned, art at its core is the ability to take information and do something creative with it. Doesn’t that skill also apply to hard sciences–like engineering, chemistry or physics? How will we ever be able to address the complex issues of our society without scientists who are artistic in the way they approach their discipline? So, it’s not an either-or proposition. The hard sciences and the arts really need to work hand in hand.

10)   Certain subjects ARE sequential- one must add then subtract, then divide, then do fractions,decimals, percentages, then algebra and so on. Am I right or wrong? True or False, Correct or Incorrect? Politically Correct or Way off base?

Aren’t all subjects sequential? Even a great leap of science is based on previous knowledge and research. Even artistic pursuits are sequential. I’m a better writer today than I was a year ago–so, there is some sort of sequential learning occurring. In every field a foundation needs to be laid before one becomes a master. In certain subjects (like math) the way that foundation is laid is more linear. I think this gets back to the way we often think in either-or ways. Well, if he likes art and creativity so much then he must be opposed to more linear educational approaches (like learning subtraction before one moves to division). Common sense demands we don’t think of things in terms of these either-or extremes.

11)   What have I neglected to ask?

I suspect the most controversial chapters in my book would deal with the impact of organized religion on education as well as my analysis of military training. I’ll try to give a brief summary. In terms of organized religion, I am a born again Christian. So, I’m certainly not anti-god or anti-church. What I have found as a whole is that organized religion often tends toward monologue styles of learning. In many ways it cuts off a person’s ability to think and they may end up knowing doctrine, but not understanding it or not have the ability to question properly. Christians often lack creativity and critical thinking skills. I don’t think this is true of every church or every churchgoer, but as a whole organized religion has often been detrimental to learning.

In terms of the military, I feel military training is dangerous. The focus is on training people to blindly obey orders. So, we have a large group of highly trained, highly armed individuals who have been conditioned to blindly follow orders. How can that not be dangerous? As a society we should take it upon ourselves to teach our troops to critically analyze situations and disobey immoral orders. In the last few decades how many lives have been lost do to our foreign policy? And, have those loses been to defend what is right or to support the military industrial complex? I’m not a pacifist, but I believe we owe it to our troops to train them to disobey orders that are morally questionable. And, to support them as honorable when they do! This would radically change how our leaders approach war. It would also ensure that our troops only give their lives for moral causes. Don’t we owe them that? Don’t we owe them a degree of protection that they will not give their limbs, life or watch their buddy die unless it is for a righteous cause!

12) Do you have any blogs or websites or twitters or face books?

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