Four critical considerations for school improvement

School improvement is an ongoing task and should never be completed. In their quest to improve, schools should give consideration to critical questions.  I have tried to simplify the improvement process into four questions/steps and four alliterative concepts: Clarity, Consistency, Collaboration, and Constituents. The relationship of the questions, concepts, possible tools, and processes is shown in the table below:

school imp 4 things graphic

The first three concepts are listed in a logical order of implementation. Until we have clarity we cannot have surety of consistency. Until we have consistency we will not have the most effective form of collaboration – around student work.  While one could argue that this whole process is caring about constituents, I would like to suggest that our caring in the fourth step is much more specific and intentional – we are seeking to get honest feedback about the question of meeting our overall goals for each learner.

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I wonder as I wander

I can’t seem to get my head around it!  No matter how many times I talk to someone around the world and it sounds like they are sitting in the same room with me, I am filled with wonder. When I look at anything in micro and see how color and design pop forward that I previously hadn’t observed, I am amazed. No matter how many times I fly, I am still amazed at how such a large object is able to leave the ground, how quickly it moves me from distant place to distant place, and how infinite the places, spaces, and quantities of people, relationships, and details of life spread out below me as I gaze at large metropolitan areas below. My head starts to hurt when I imagine what God’s job must be like listening to all the people below and then adding in all the others around the world who live beyond the narrow strip of earth I am flying over at that moment.

Sometimes part of our problem in education is that we are too outcome focused – I imagine some of you are surprised to hear me say that! Life is meant to be a journey, and life is full of learning. We are on a journey/quest of learning and wonder – it is how we are wired as image bearers of God – we are wired for questioning and discovery. The role of science in this journey then is not to nail it all down, but to continue to expand our wonder. Robert Sapolsky, a distinguished scientist, reflects this sentiment: “The purpose of science is not to cure us of our sense of mystery and wonder, but to constantly reinvent and reinvigorate it.” Sapolsky captures the sense of wonder and complexity in these words: “. . . an impala sprinting across the Savannah can be reduced to biomechanics, and Bach can be reduced to counterpoint, yet that does not decrease one iota our ability to shiver as we experience impalas leaping or Bach thundering. We can only gain and grow with each discovery that there is structure underlying the most accessible levels of things that fill us with awe.”

Part of the purpose of learning is to gain a greater sense of wonder. Well known physicist/genius Richard Feynman suggests: “The purpose of knowledge is to appreciate wonders even more.” Our process of learning then is not to produce certainty through a command of factual information, but to produce a greater appreciation of wonder, to be increasingly motivated to learn more and more and to engage in the study of complexities yet not understood. In the learning process the student should have questions multiplying rather than being answered – and sometimes this might mean the questioning of things we thought we knew…or had an answer for.

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr suggests that wondering connotes at least three things: 1) standing in disbelief, 2) standing in the question itself, and 3) standing in awe before something. He suggests that it is spiritually healthy to remain open to all three things inside of you as long as you don’t let skepticism and negativity gain the upper hand. To remain in the question keeps us spiritually humble and open to what is possible.

Despite concerns about “science bleaching the world of wonder,” Phillip Ball suggests in his article “Why Science Needs Wonder”  that “science today appreciates that the link between curiosity and wonder should not, and probably cannot, be severed, for true curiosity – as opposed, say, to obsessive pedantry, acquisitiveness or problem-solving – grinds to a halt when deprived of wonder’s fuel.” I believe we simply cannot detach our emotions, our enthusiasm, our fervor, our aesthetic and moral impulses, our sense of awe and wonder – it is our innate response to worship, to bow in humility before a God whose “glory is beyond the heavens, whose ways are past finding out.”

It is the task and the joy of the Christian teacher to balance the two extremes – to not too quickly give religious answers to questions of wonder so that a student’s curiosity for further inquiry is dampened, and on the other hand to not advance the idea that we must be in doubt about everything and that what we do know is simply the result of man’s discovery.

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What does REVEAL reveal?

For many years in Christian education, we lacked some basic data about the essence of what we were doing, i.e. the distinctive mission of our schools. In recent years we have had the assistance of two organizations to whom we owe a debt of gratitude in helping us think more deeply about our missions.

The Cardus Education Survey helped answer the question: “Is Christian education meeting its mission – is it achieving what it set out to do?” This research study was the largest and most comprehensive study ever done on the topic. The study leaders surveyed former graduates of Christian school and attempted to measure three specific outcomes: spiritual formation, cultural engagement, and academic preparation. For more background on this topic see previous posts on this blog – see here and here and here/here.

Recently the Willowcreek Association conducted some significant research work with Christian high schools that sought to understand if students were growing spiritually and what actions could be undertaken to encourage student faith development. They called this effort REVEAL (revealing whether or not one’s heart is for God) – building off from earlier adult spiritual development research by the same name. Willowcreek began this effort by conducting an April 2011 pilot with three Christian schools in Western Michigan. They gained about 1,400 student responses via a 25-30 minute online survey.

From this pilot they reported four key building blocks to consider for the next phase, which was completed in the 2012-2013 school year with a broader sample of schools:

1. Spiritual continuum – just as in their adult research, students demonstrated a spiritual continuum of intimacy in their relationship with Christ and love for others. REVEAL found that, in their experience, this continuum is highly predictive of spiritual growth. The diagram below explains the continuum:

Willowcreek Spiritual Continum Profile

2.  Stages of student identity development – diffusion, foreclosure, moratorium and achievement – allowed the researchers to understand to what degree a student was personally owning their religious commitment.

3.  School and parent impact model and Spiritual Vitality Gauge – these tools assisted in reporting the impact of the school and the parents on a student’s spiritual growth, leading to an overall individual Spiritual Vitality score that represents student growth in beliefs, practices, and faith into action.

Equation:SVG

4. Parent contribution to their children’s spiritual development – was there a relationship between adult spiritual growth and that of their children? What kinds of things that parents did contributed to their child’s faith formation?

In May 2013 the research survey was expanded to 19 different Christian high schools representing six states and two countries. Over 4,600 student responses were analyzed – you will have to wait and come back next month to discover their findings!

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A few things that caught my eye

Best way to take lecture notes – can you imagine everyone in the hall using this technology? :)

Here’s a RSA Animate style video explaining Common Core State Standards:

For over 180 videos of lesson ideas for teaching Common Core, check out this resource.

Still struggling to “get” Twitter? Are you a “Lurker”, “Participant” or “Author”? Here is a good intro video that explains the stages.

If you have tried Twitter and gone away from it, maybe this video from a University of Alaska professor will be helpful.

I love helpful visual diagrams! Katie Ritter has put together three very helpful ones. The one below that she calls Backwards EdTech Tool Flow Chart starts with the question “What do you want students to do?” and then moves to a guiding question. Depending on the answer you can move to a link to an appropriate web tool for them to use. Click here to access the chart. The other two tools that she created for her teachers at her school are also in PDF’s with clickable links. You can access them here.

Ritter chart

Excellent interview/article: Coming Out in the CRC: YALT’s Interview with Ryan Struyk – for those of you reading this and wondering about the abbreviations – the CRC stands for the Christian Reformed Church – the founding denomination of many schools in CSI (Christian Schools International) and YALT stands for the Young Adult Leadership Task Force.

Image of God – self perception vs. perception by others – does this get at why it is hard for us to accept grace and see ourselves as God sees us – as lovable and redeemed? Dove put together this video that has become the most watched online video ad ever according to this source.

Is this why glass ceilings persist and women are still paid less than men for the same work? Sheryl Sandburg, COO of Facebook, talks about if a businesswoman can be competent and nice in their work.

Here is a link to a commercial demonstrating the double standard that exists, as well as references to the full study done at Harvard.

The influence of grandparents on faith development –   interesting research results from USC sociologist Vern Bengston.

Great perspective piece on what Christmas is all about – A Christmas Apology, and the Seeds of Hope from Rachel Held Evans.

Write your own caption for this pic below from Paul Shirky which he calls School vs. Life! In any case, it speaks to the significance of our task as educators – helping kids make sense out the mess and at the same time connecting things back together in beautiful ways – blessings on your new calendar year ahead!

School vs. life -  paul shircliff @shirky17

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Bringing shalom to our teaching

Source: Beth Chatto Gardens by antonychammond via Flickr

Source: Beth Chatto Gardens by antonychammond via Flickr

When I returned to Christian education in 1993 as a building principal, I was faced with the challenge of articulating the distinctiveness of a Christian education to present and potential parents. To that point, as a student in K-12 schools and as a teacher in two Christian school settings, I had not really thought a great deal about how Christian education was different. I had simply experienced it. I was aware of differences having gone to a public university and having served in public education for seven of my twelve years to that point, but had limited mental models to work from for further work.

My first exercise was to think of as many areas of difference in the experiences I had, to analyze what type of category it might fit into, and then to synthesize the differences into categories of distinctiveness. What I arrived at is the concepts of curriculum, classroom, and community to describe how Christian schools should be distinctive. These concepts appear in the tagline for this blog and I wrote about them in one of the first posts.

One of the reasons I felt we needed to have language around these concepts is to provide a way to discuss and further improve what we were doing in Christian education. Without such language we could basically talk in circles for days and not know where to begin or how to consider in focused ways what we are really talking about, let alone look for ways to improve distinctiveness.

Over the past year I have written in this blog about the idea of flourishing as our desired outcome for Christian school students. I have explored ten possible aspects of flourishing in a series of blog posts. We can work toward these aspects with students in the areas of curriculum, classroom, and community in a Christian school.  While the areas of how to nurture student faith in classroom and community are clearer, I believe that our greater challenge is to consider how we nurture faith and flourishing in the area of curriculum.

I would like to suggest that if we go back to Wolterstorff’s definition of flourishing as a person being in harmony with nature, God, self, and neighbor we can also then use those categories to consider how we might develop Truth revealing curriculum units. I suggest the following correlation of the aspects of flourishing with possible curricular emphases.

Flourishing is accomplished in a curricular emphasis through:

Harmony with nature – I suggest the word “Wonder” to capture this aspect. Here we are helping the student to understand the “ABC’s” of God’s great creation:  A- Awe, B – Beauty, C – Complexity, D – Design, E – Excellence, and so forth.  As we consider the Wonder of nature, we are driven to our knees in worship of the Creator. True wisdom begins in wonder as we creatures consider our Creator and his marvelous creation – “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

Harmony with God – I suggest the word “Wisdom.” In this area we consider our purpose for being, what is wrong with the world, and how it has been made right through Jesus’ work. We help students to know the Truth so that in “your light we may see light” and knowing the truth they may discern what is true, lovely, good, and right. We cultivate the discomfort that believers feel as they are in, but not of the world. We encourage students to raise prophetic voices against the brokenness of sin and alienation from God that is present in culture and society.

Harmony with self and man – I suggest the word “Work.” There are two aspects to this word – first of all we must educate in ways that help students identify whose they are, who they are, and what passions/gifts they have been given. Our learning processes must allow students to naturally unfold their “wiring” and help them discover their life call. Secondly, in the area of work we must help them understand that they are part of Christ’s work of the restoration of creation/mankind. Our learning experiences must serve to develop compassion for mankind at both the local and global level. “Work” then involves students understanding their passion to respond with compassion.

I hope these can be helpful terms as we work toward encouraging flourishing students and developing distinctive curricular units. In Christian schools we are able to begin our teaching and learning experiences with worship of the Creator; lead kids toward harmony with nature, God, self, and man; and end with the student’s desire to “offer their life as a living sacrifice.”

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Essential Questions – engaging and mission oriented

I have been working on Essential Questions with Christian schools for a number of years now. Asking questions is a gracious way to invite people into a conversation. Jesus used questions in many different ways, but in each it was a way to cause those being asked to move to a higher plane of reflection, engagement, and dialogue. Jesus’ questions remain with us today and still challenge us: “Who do you say that I am?” Questions show respect for the others in conversation whereas statements tend to shut down further dialogue. Questions demonstrate that the asker is still open to further learning and demonstrates an attitude of humility.

Our best essential questions are shared questions that both the teacher and the student find worth pondering. “What is the difference between needs and wants?” is a question we all should be asking ourselves frequently and at each stage of life. Both teacher and student find a question like that worth their time as opposed to questions that are leading and guiding – questions that tell the learner that I as the teacher of course know the answer and I am just waiting for you to catch up and figure it out.  Sometimes I wonder why, with so many good questions out there, we spend so much of our time in the teaching profession telling students facts – the level of retention does not justify the kinds of time choices we make when we could have kids pondering things that are more essential and more fruitful for deep discussion of life issues.

When teachers are in the process of creating and identifying Essential Questions I am sometimes asked if there are “Christian” essential questions and non-Christian essential questions. Let’s start by acknowledging God’s authorship, sovereignty and his truth that is evident in all things whether it is acknowledged or not. All creation speaks to God’s design, beauty, and truth. Truly, the learning journey reveals God’s truth whether the teacher acknowledges or points to God or not in the process. In a Christian school a teacher has the freedom to point to God’s truth directly and to encourage students to seek to apply a Biblical perspective. In our question above of wants and needs, I can go up to a certain point in a public school and encourage living a stewardly life on the basis of being a good human being and sharing the planet, but I cannot root that in a spiritual belief system. In a Christian school I can encourage students to discover what the Bible says about wants and needs and to help them consider how the choices I make reflect good stewardship, the kind of compassion Jesus modeled, or how to think prophetically about societal issues in the light of Micah 6:8.

Let me give a few more examples. I recently purchased an excellent resource called The Essential Questions Handbook, published by Scholastic. The book is laid out by Big Ideas in the four core areas of ELA, math, science, and social studies and covers grades 4-8. So in social studies, the first big idea is Community. One of the Enduring Understandings caught my eye: “Within a community, we encounter and should respect alternative viewpoints and values.” In both public and Christian schools, we can encourage kids to demonstrate respect and seek to understand alternative viewpoints. In a Christian school we should also be encouraging kids to be gracious because they are interacting with fellow image-bearers, and equipping them with some wisdom as to how and when best to share the truth claims of the Gospel with others in their community. In Math the Big Idea of patterns results in an Essential Understanding of “Order exists in the universe.” In Christian schools we go beyond and ask who is responsible for this order, and what does this pattern reveal to us about God’s character. In Science the Big Idea of Endangered Species may result in an Essential Understanding of “Human activities can have positive and negative effects on the environment” leading us to wonder with students how to value various human activities. How as Christians do we determine whether human need or species survival are the final determining factor? What are the boundaries that need discussion around humans being the crown of creation and having dominion over creation versus stewardship and creation care?

It seems to me that there are many fruitful Essential Understandings and Essential Questions out there that reveal God’s truth. What is different is how a Christian teacher views that concept/question, whether they lead students to understand God’s truth in deeper ways, and ultimately help them to see God’s wonder, wisdom, and sense their own personal call of work in God’s world.

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Some sweet tweets for Thanksgiving feasting!

Go ahead – eat till you are full and come back for leftovers at a later time! I have enjoyed the stimulation of Twitter and have benefited greatly from the wisdom of many others. The things that others have learned from, and then shared with me, spontaneously encourage my own learning on a daily basis. I share some of the feast below and if you like a particular Tweet source, sign up to follow them!

Wisdom!

C. S. Lewis ‏@CSLewisU

Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.

walter kirn ‏@walterkirn

I just finished reading the Internet today. It took a while but I can now report that there’s not much there.

Leonard Sweet ‏@lensweet

I’m all for celebrating war heroes but also want to celebrate peace heroes? Doesn’t peace demand equal if not greater heroism than war?

Pasi Sahlberg ‏@pasi_sahlberg

In the U.S. question is how much education increases private earnings. In Finland we ask how much lack of education will cost to the nation.

Robert Sommers, PhD ‏@RDSommers

I’ve met teachers that use Scantron tests that don’t like state assessments with multiple choice questions. Hmmmm.

Tim Keller Wisdom ‏@DailyKeller

“There’s never been a sinful heart that’s said I’ve had enough success, enough love, enough approval, or enough comfort.”

Rob Jacobs ‏@RobJacobs_

Leaders must convince people that status quo is extremely dangerous for any organization.

Leonard Sweet ‏@lensweet

For some, most important thing is “What’s your salary” or “Your religion?” For Jesus, most important thing about life is “Whom do you love?”

Leonard Sweet ‏@lensweet

When asked what’s due emperor, Jesus tells what’s due God. Money bears image of its owner: state. YOU belong to God. YOU bear logo of Logos.

Tim Keller Wisdom ‏@DailyKeller

“Every advancement in science, human learning, and work of art is also God opening his book of creation and revealing his truth to us.”

Karen Duke ‏@krnduke

A word may be all it takes to set somebody’s heart on fire or break it in two. F. Buechner

Marc Prensky ‏@marcprensky

If every teacher asked every kid “What are you passionate about?” & recorded & used the answers, our education would improve overnight.

Mike Morrell ‏@zoecarnate

“Talent is not in short supply. Passion is.”

Marc Prensky ‏@marcprensky

Technology provides tools (nouns) to do things (verbs). FOCUS ON THE VERBS & use the most up-to-date nouns you can.

Miroslav Volf ‏@MiroslavVolf

The first act of God (ad extra) was not resistance, but creation; the first word of God was not negation, but affirmation.

Tim Keller Wisdom ‏@DailyKeller

“Accepted in Christ, we now run the race ‘for the joy that is set before us’ rather than ‘for fear that comes behind us’.”

Leonard Sweet ‏@lensweet

Do you bear the “Maker’s Mark?” One “mark” of the Maker–do people become better, or feel inches taller, when they are in your presence?

Wonder!!

Shazam for insects – an app that identifies insects by their call!

25 incredible camouflaged insects 

World’s largest archive of wildlife sounds and videos 

Inspiration!!!

Sometimes the “Tough Teen” is Quietly Writing Stories

From the Center for Faith & Work – Humanizing Work: Xu Bing and the Phoenix

Landfill Harmonic- The World Sends Us Garbage… We Send Back Music

So, if you have digested all this in one sitting, move away from the screen and take a good long walk outside! Happy Thanksgiving! @DanBeerens

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