One of the idols in American culture that we must constantly battle is the pre-occupation with measuring worth by whether institutions are growing or not. In our conversations we are immediately impressed by a school’s numerical growth, but do not go on to ask whether the result produced is high quality. Why when we consider education do we put a value on the quantity of students served, but not as much on the quality side? Is it simply because the quantity is easier to count and evaluate than measuring whether we are meeting our mission in qualitative ways?
If Jesus measured his ministry by our numbers standard, he certainly would have felt like a failure – in the end the huge crowds dwindled down to a small band of sleepy disciples who fled or denied him. If Jesus had been about the numbers he certainly could have worked 24/7 – yet he rested in being obedient to his Father. He did not see a quantitative result in his lifetime here on earth. Yet we buy into the North American success model in both our schools and our churches. We so much want to rest in our own hard work and accomplishments – to hear the comment, “Well they must be doing something right over there!”
Since our schools and our churches are so connected, it may be instructive to consider what one observer of church life has to say about the modern definition of success.David Fitch, in his book The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the Mission of the Church from Big Business, Parachurch Organizations, Psychotherapy, Consumer Capitalism and Other Modern Maladies (Baker, 2005), lists several problems with how we define success. He raises several thought provoking questions in a chapter subtitled: “When Going from Ten to a Thousand Members in Five Years is the Sign of a Sick Church” (27-46):
- Do numbers reveal if a church is functioning as the body of Christ?
- What is the size of the actual functioning body?
- Is our focus on numbers rooted in our sacred cows such as the autonomy of the individual and our organizing for economic efficiency? In other words, “How can we best organize to produce the largest amount of decisions (for Christ) and the best quality of services for Christian growth most economically and efficiently to the largest number in this geographical location?”
- Do decisions (for Christ) count where there is no sanctification?
- Is salvation preached as more than “as a personal ticket out of hell but as the entrance into the reality of the lordship of Jesus Christ where God is working to bring about his kingdom?”
- How could we use qualitative measures of community and ministry such as saved marriages, reaching out to the poor, restoration from drugs and alcohol, amounts of giving, inviting in the stranger, etc.?
- Why is it that pastors of large churches are more willing to build bigger building than empower a group of forty to fifty people to plant another living body of Christ?
What can we learn from Fitch’s questions about churches when applied to our schools?
What questions should we be discussing about the decline or growth of Christian schools?
Should we be more concerned about, and put more energy into, planting new Christian schools than growing our current ones?
NCLB in the U.S. has been a mixed blessing – it has forced all schools to pay attention to the learning of all students, yet this focus has led to a more reductive approach to education. By that I mean that dollars and energy have been so focused by schools on getting a passing score that other important aspects of education have been ignored, reduced, or eliminated. Time for awe and wonder, time to reflect and evaluate, time to connect learning to things larger than one’s self and to consider our interconnectedness and interdependence are precious commodities that make up a holistic approach to learning – these times are being reduced in our public schools in the U.S.
By contrast one of the joys and beauty of Christian education is that, the more we focus our schools on offering a distinctively Christian education, the more we have opportunity to share with students and parents a holistic approach to learning. We connect students to a larger reality (God), instruct students how to appropriately respond to God and neighbor, and engage all aspects of the learner (mind, body, emotions, and spirit or head, heart, and hands) toward passion, wonder, joy, creativity, and ultimate truth and meaning in life. Learning has a higher moral purpose – it is directed toward God and neighbor, not self. It is simply not utilitarian – directed toward the student’s long-term economic well being or being a “good citizen.” At the core of Christian education we start from fundamentally different points than public education:
- in acknowledging the difference in the identity of the learner (made in the image of God and therefore having intrinsic worth),
- the difference in the worldview of the teacher,
- the difference in instruction (emphasis on the attainment of wisdom and discernment, not only applied knowledge, but also the integration of all truth),
- and the difference in where and how we deliver instruction and nurture (in the context of a faithful and interdependent community.)
Blessings and encouragement on all the ways you celebrate our unique focus with students!
This is the beginning of examining, what I term, twelve Faith Enhancing Practices. (For an explanation and definition of Faith Enhancing Practices see my post of February 3, 2007 entitled “What’s the difference between teachers?”) If you are interested in seeing all 12 Faith Enhancing Practice modules at once, you can go to the Member Community Center and access them there.
Without a doubt, the most important Faith Enhancing Practice is the practice of teacher modeling and testimony in and out of school. In his book Educating for Life, Nicholas Wolterstorff states: “Authentic Christian teaching is autobiographical teaching.” I doubt that one can be an effective Christian teacher if you are not passionate about your relationship with the Lord. Students quickly can tell you the things about which you regularly express passion. Hence the maxim “Students will not remember all you taught them, but will remember how you taught them.”
In our hiring, interviewing, and training of new teachers we need to discern the worldview of the teacher. As Frank Gabelein states: “The fact is inescapable; the world view of the teacher, in so far as he is effective, gradually conditions the world view of the pupil. No man teaches out of a philosophical vacuum. In one way or another, every teacher expresses the convictions he lives by, whether they be spiritually positive or negative” (The Pattern of God’s Truth: The Integration of Faith and Learning).
Key words when we think of modeling as demonstrated by the authentic Christian teacher include love, forgiveness, congruence, service, and a passion for loving and serving God. Not only will the fruits of the Spirit be demonstrated, but testimony will be given to help connect students to the source of this passion and joy in living.
Note also that I have added the words in and out of the classroom, for the life of an effective Christian teacher also is a 24/7 commitment to demonstrate an authentic and congruent life. A higher standard – yes – for a high calling!
In her book, The Power to Transform: Leadership That Brings Learning and Schooling to Life (Jossey-Bass, 2006), Stephanie Pace Marshall poses the term generative learning communities. She describes generative learning communities as “life and soul affirming” places that “nourish and sustain the conditions necessary for life and deep learning to thrive” (14-15). In her words, generative learning communities:
- Invite, develop, and nurture each child’s multiple learning potentials and natural predispositions for continuous learning – for meaning making, integration, exploration, discovery, invention, creation, and wisdom.
- Reconnect our children to the natural world; their communities; the human family; and the unity, wholeness, interdependence, diversity, novelty, and boundless creativity of life.
- Reengage our children’s rich interior lives – emotion, intuition, imagination, love, experience, and spirit – in learning.
- Nurture the potential of each child to wisely advance the human condition and cocreate our future by developing their capacity to discern meaning from patterns, think systematically, take the long view, and act with moral purpose.
Where can the four aspects of a generative learning community take place better than in a Christian school?
Don’t be shy – here is a perfect place to share- what is a way your school is a distinctively Christian, generative learning community?
It’s exciting to hear how Christian schools throughout the CSI network are working to make distinctively Christian education come alive! Doug Monsma, Curriculum Coordinator at Edmonton Christian School shared the following ideas with me in a conversation around Essential Questions and has kindly allowed further sharing in this blog and the Member Community Center.
Doug writes: Our staff asked us to develop a tool that could be used to develop learning activities/assessment/outcomes in a holistic way. The attached chart Critical Thinking Skills from a Biblical Framework (below) is our first shot at it and staff has been very impressed with how it has focused their work. (For a working PDF copy see the Curriculum area in the CSI Member Community Center.)
We have also spent quite a bit of time looking at student work together. We have tried to identify what students seem capable of related to thinking critically using a Biblical framework. We hosted a Celebration Fair in December where staff shared a portfolio of student work from their grade/subject area (see pictures). We have found this to be an extremely valuable activity to help staff deepen their understanding of distinctive Christian schooling and thought. Here are some comments from the teachers about the value of a staff doing this:
1. We are in this together – I don’t have to do everything! The feeling of a communal responsibility to the task of Christian Education was very affirming.
2. There are great things happening – this affirmed that the work that we are doing and asking staff to do is worthwhile and valuable.
3. We have an amazing group of teachers who are passionate about Christian Education.
4. The freedom to ask the tough questions and the challenge to seek answers.
5. The importance of stepping back from provincial/district standards and being reminded of the true Big Picture of Christian Education.
6. The importance of collaboration.
Doug has also shared a brief description of this project, planning sheets, a visitor response form, table display guidelines, and a helpful chart linking head, heart, and hands with Essential Questions and Critical Thinking Skills from a Biblical Framework diagram. PDF copies of this information can be found in the CSI Member Community Center under the category Curriculum folder entitled Faith Integrated Learning – Essential Questions – Edmonton Christian Photo Album Journey. Doug invites any questions you may have – you can contact him at Doug.Monsma@epsb.ca. Kudos to Doug for sharing and for his teachers working to sharpen their focus on being distinctively Christian in their work with students!
What is it that teachers in Christian schools do in the classroom that is distinctively different than their public school counterpart down the street? In fall 2003, after spending time with our staff focusing on ways of increasing the integration of faith perspective into their discipline areas, I wondered how the rest of what they did with students could be categorized, described, and made transparent to others. How could we reflect as a staff on this “stuff” so that we could become more aware of, and work to continually improve, what our practice is with our students? (I know I am not the first to raise this question, and hope to hear from you how you have articulated it or what book or Christian education philosopher has aided in your thinking about this question.)
Beyond curriculum (integration of faith perspective by discipline) and community (public, communal acts such as chapel, prayer, Bible reading, etc.) we consider the critical realm of the classroom. (See the post below from January 6 – Describing What is Distinctively Christian about Christian Education to see what I mean by curriculum, classroom, and community) How do the methods, strategies, areas of focus and personal witness employed by the teacher and/or the school encourage the faith of a student? I have developed a model that identifies at least 12 Faith Enhancing Practices that I believe are parts of a distinctively Christian classroom. I hope to begin to explain one or two practices each time I post on this blog in upcoming weeks and months. If you would like more information on the Faith Enhancing Practices model and how to use this model for self-reflection with your staff you can access this information in the Member Community Center under the Curriculum area or send me an email.
I would like to bring to your attention some excellent opportunities for teachers and principals to expand understanding of how to integrate faith perspective into particular discipline areas. Last year I had the opportunity to participate in the B.J. Haan conference at Dordt College; the theme of the conference was faith integrated math instruction. Follow the link to Cal Jongsma’s excellent keynote speech. I think that integrating faith perspective into math is one of the most difficult and least understood of all disciplines to integrate for the average teacher – his speech gives an excellent explanation of why we need to integrate and how. Looking ahead to this summer I urge you to consider the summer workshop on integrating faith perspective into math that is being held at the Kuyers Institute at Calvin College.
This year’s B.J. Haan conference will focus on social studies and I know Bob Koole from the Society for Christian Schools of British Columbia will give a great keynote speech on bringing Christian perspectives into social studies. I would also urge you to check out the valuable and sometimes overlooked resources for teaching social studies from a biblical perspective that are available at the Center for Public Justice (U.S.) and Citizens for Public Justice (Canada).