Friday, June 11, 2004

Focus on the Family Hates Good Sex

Or I could call it Good Sex: As Featured by Focus on the Family.

I'm having a little dustup with a group called Focus on the Family about Good Sex, a learning design I wrote with my friend, Kara Powell at Fuller Youth Institute. Their critical review covered quite a bit of ground that I'll post later on the www, along with the relevant pages from the book. For now, I'll just take a lift from the concluding section, which was titled 'Lack of True Teaching.'

But first, a little context.

A century ago John D. Rockefeller founded the General Education Board to reform education, especially in the American South. “We will organize children and teach them in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way,” the Board promised. To their credit, they pledged to operate “without distinction of race, sex or creed.” “In our dreams,” they said, not so much to their credit as far as I’m concerned; “people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands.” Our molding hands…

OK, can I just say, YIKES! Am the only one who thinks docility is not an asset in learning?

Half a century ago, the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, edited by Benjamin Bloom and a host of others, was devised as "a tool to classify the ways individuals are to act, think, or feel as the result of some unit of instruction."

OK, again: YIKES! I don’t think evaluating a student’s performance on whether she acts, thinks or feels according to plan is a particularly useful or reliable measure of learning. I’m not saying teachers shouldn’t engage students purposefully, I’m just saying My gosh! I’m not sure I trust teachers who believe they know how students are to act, think, or feel as the result of a unit of instruction. In fact, I’m pretty sure I don’t.

You probably know what a taxonomy is but just in case you forgot, a taxonomy is a classification of things (doesn’t matter what) into some sort of order. In biology, taxonomies are useful for sorting the beasties by type. So when we observe something soaring in the sky, the taxonomy of animals tells us it’s not a pig because we know pigs don’t fly. Major League Baseball employs taxonomies to sort players and teams from best to worst in categories that couldn’t possibly matter to any balanced person; things like:

“You know, Buzz, Oscar Campos has more base-on-balls versus left-handed pitchers than any Western Division player since Virgil ‘Walker’ Troy batted third for Milwaukee.”

“That’s right Scooter; and, of course you mean the Braves of Milwaukee, not the Milwaukee Brewers, who were not yet a twinkle in their daddy’s eye when Virgil Troy earned the nickname, ‘Walker.’”

My personal taxonomies include a class of friends who actually know and care whether Milwaukee was ever a Western Division club and who will bust my chops if I get it wrong. I can only say the people in that class prove my point about balanced persons.

The Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, on the other hand, suggests six categories of learning, beginning with simple knowledge and peaking with complex evaluation.

1. knowledge (e.g. remembering lists, definitions, facts and directions)
2. comprehension (e.g. interpreting what a list, fact or direction means)
3. application (e.g. using a list or fact to solve a problem)
4. analysis (e.g. finding patterns between lists, definitions or directions)
5. synthesis (e.g. making a list of lists, translating a definition in different words)
6. evaluation (e.g. judging whether a list was worth remembering in the first place).

Truth be told, when it comes to delivering "a tool to classify the ways individuals are to act, think, or feel as the result of some unit of instruction," I’m not convinced Bloom’s Taxonomy delivers, except maybe on the bottom end. If all that’s required is reporting back to the teacher what she said about who, what, when, where and why then, as long as the lesson was clear and correct, there’s not a lot of range in the actions, thoughts and emotions that are appropriate outcomes for that instruction. At that level of learning a thing is what it is and isn’t what it isn’t and that’s that.

But farther along in Bloom’s Taxonomy lots of personal factors come into play that make predicting outcomes difficult and in some matters impossible.

On one hand, there’s no explaining my friend Bob, who is fairly reliable in every way but one. Bob, you see—and understand I’m not saying he’s a bad person—but Bob does math at home, at night, on his own time, with no application in mind; for fun. He’s not a teacher and, other than indirectly in his work as a programmer, nobody pays Bob to solve math problems. Bob is as good an example as I know of what we call a mathematician. I feel safe in saying nobody taught him through a unit of instruction to think, behave and feel like a mathematician. That came from inside; it’s one of the things Bob is.

For the record, past a point of basic competence, Bob did not push his daughters to pursue his passion for math. Mathematician is not one of the things either of them is.

So that’s Bob. On the other hand are any number of friends in commerce to whom, apparently, it is irrelevant that one of every four working Americans is employed in a business owned by a woman (Tom Peters, Re-Imagine!, DK, 2003, page 174). Those businesses, more than ten million of them, provide more jobs in the U.S. than Fortune 500 companies provide on the whole planet. …Re-read that and let it sink in for a moment just how much economic power that represents, just how big a market I’m talking about for women who own their own companies. But, honestly, by the way most businesses run you’d think the only thing women bring to the table is dinner.

Now, having delivered that little instructional unit, I confess I have no idea how you’re likely to behave, think or feel. I can conceive of a great range of possibilities from seeing green in the form of an underserved market to seeing red at this brazen example of cultural decline to feeling blue because you are not one of those business owners or in the pink because you are. I could go on but I only have these four crayons so I'm pretty much out of ideas.

People think what they think, feel what they feel, learn what they learn and behave as they behave. And the farther up the learning ladder we go the more possible it is that even people who reach the same conclusion may reach it by different routes.

I have a friend whose responsibilities included training members of a national religious organization in how to communicate about their faith to others. For decades he labored under the unexamined assumption that people who put their trust in God all do so for the same reason (which, oddly enough, happened to be the reason he put his faith in God). In a grand display of one old dog learning new tricks, my friend did an anecdotal study of reasons for belief—by which I mean he started asking believers all over the globe what it was that convinced them to believe. After a few weeks he had a taxonomy of nine different reasons for believing. I suppose it goes without saying but I’m being paid by the word here so, what the heck: Finding eight more reasons to believe caused my friend’s mission to absolutely blow up! For all my white readers, blowing up is a good thing in this context. It means my friend was able to help people learn to talk compellingly about their faith instead of his.

If you’re a person of faith who’s read the alarming reports of college-bound kids forgetting to pack their beliefs when they head off to school, this may be very important to you. If a child grows up not believing for the reasons his family or church give him, then of course he’ll forget to pack those beliefs when he moves out of the house; if he doesn’t expect to use it, why take it? If, on the other hand, if he believes for a reason that’s persuasive to him, he won’t have to carry that his belief as baggage; he’ll be wearing it.

Now, about that fracas with Focus.

Here's the concluding section from the review (which, by the way has not, as far as I know, been published).

Lack of True Teaching

Webster defines a curriculum as “a fixed series of studies required for…qualification in a field of study." Good Sex does not fit that definition: It neither teaches nor instructs. Directive teaching clearly states facts; it differentiates between right and wrong. Although directive lessons include thought-provoking questions and encourage teachers and students to reflect on issues, they are merely tools used to complement all of the other program components.

Non-directive teaching is based on individual autonomy: "Let's discuss the issue so that you can decide what's right for you?' Good Sex is non-directive teaching.

Young students need facts about sexual issues. They need to know that the Bible is very clear on most human sexuality issues They need to see examples demonstrating the benefits of obeying God in our sexual behavior, Good Sex fails to fulfill those needs. Authors Jim Hancock and Kara Powell should have spent less time watching MTV reruns and studying Hugh Hefner and given more time and energy to researching the issues they included in their curriculum. Reading Good Sex will leave youth leaders and students confused and frustrated. Focus on the family cannot recommend the Good Sex curriculum to churches, parents, or youth groups. This is not a recommended Christian sexuality curriculum.

In a letter to our publisher, the manager of Focus on the Family’s Abstinence Department wrote, “I am offended for Christian families and youth who will be exposed to this nondirective and, I believe, non-Christian curriculum.” And “there is clearly no expression of right and wrong in the content…”

If you’re old enough, picture Jack Benny, right hand lightly touching his cheek, right elbow cupped in his left hand, in a display of mock indignation: “Well!” he's saying. If you don’t remember Jack Benny, try a young Steve Martin in that great white suit of his; knees together, feet spread, upper arms hugging his sides and forearms wildly askew; bellowing, “Well EXCUSE ME!” My attitude about this huffy critique of Good Sex falls somewhere in that range—someplace between mock indignation and mock outrage. Because, really, do they actually think the best way (and apparently the only way) to teach kids about sexual choices is to work the lowest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy?

I don’t. I think the elementary levels of learning are insufficient for teaching adolescents about sex. For children, sure—children are not yet equipped to make complex judgements—but sexually maturing adolescents require a more thorough engagement of mind and heart than simply taking our word for it. Since Good Sex is a biblically informed curriculum, that means asking students to address the biblical text directly rather than on the basis of hearsay. Somehow I don’t think, “Because my teacher said it’s in the Bible” is a very resilient argument should an adolescent ever encounter a serious challenge to her beliefs about sexuality. Not that that would ever happen…but it could.

The day after I saw the letter and review from Focus on the Family, my friend Jay directed me to a very different review by Tim Stafford in Christianity Today (June 2004, Vol. 48, No. 6, Page 36):

Hancock and Powell's Good Sex aims to bring the church into this struggle. It offers a packet of materials for youth groups—a leader's guide, a student journal, and a video of discussion starters. The material would enable a novice volunteer to lead a meeting, but Good Sex really aims at veteran youth leaders who want to cobble together their own approach from a variety of resources.

Hancock and Powell explain that they aim for a process, not a confrontation. In seven lessons they cover a lot of biblical ground. The Bible studies are bracketed by open-ended discussion, in which kids think for themselves and speak freely. The intent is to create a church context in which sexuality gets explored thoughtfully and biblically, and kids reach their own conclusions.

E.B. White is supposed to have said something like, “Who we think our audience is, is how we write” (this is one of those unsubstantiated quotations I usually avoid but this sounds like something he might and perhaps even should have said and I'm going with it). I have the distinct impression that a lot—maybe most—adults think kids are not merely young but a bit dumb. This is why they talk and write down to them; why they pander and then preach instead of inviting youngsters to stretch and grow. I’m here to tell you, if kids don’t get respect from their teachers, they will turn to—and learn from—those who give respect.

And that, for now, is that.

UPDATE | 07 July 2008: Kara Powell and I have delivered a thorough update and revision of Good Sex, including a new DVD. Street Date: January, 2009.