Monthly Archives: January 2012

Christian or secular textbooks?

textbooks - from timuiuc via Flickr

From time to time I get the question – should we use “Christian” or secular textbooks? I am careful how I answer because there may be a presumed “right” answer by the questioner. Frankly, I have potential issues with both approaches – let me explain further.

I start from the premise that all truth is God’s truth and that we see his truth, design, beauty, goodness, and handiwork in all created things. That said, a text (whether Christian or secular) reveals God’s truth, but in the case of a secular textbook may not point to it explicitly. There is no such thing as sacred and secular truth – all things cohere in Christ – truth is truth whether we acknowledge the source or not. 2+2=4 is what it is, however the difference is whether I point to man as having discovered it or whether this is a fact about how God has put together the universe. The best scientific findings, for example, simply point to the truth that God has embedded in creation. Science will continue to reveal God’s truth, whether it is acknowledged by man as having its origin in God or not. The condition of the human heart as we study it in literature and social studies, the reason for actions and decisions, etc. simply reveals the brokenness of man and his need for a Savior.

A key component, of course, is the teacher who is using the text. I could use a secular text in ways that point kids to God’s truth and also use that opportunity to discuss/critique a non-Christian view that is espoused and commonly held in the world’s thinking. Of course I could do the same with a Christian text. It would depend though on whether the Christian text thoughtfully examined and taught all viewpoints on a subject or was more of a “propaganda” tool. Unfortunately, there are poor quality Christian texts that fall into that category.

Another issue to consider with either scenario is whether you have teachers who are equipped to teach thoughtfully – they may not know how to teach a Christian worldview. They may then just use a poor, “propagandistic” Christian text or use a “secular” text and not be able to lead students in a thoughtful critique in either situation. In either scenario, the desire is that the teacher is well equipped theologically and philosophically to reveal and guide students into God’s truth. If the teacher is well equipped, the secular text may do a more complete job of revealing the secular bias that can then be thoughtfully critiqued through an avenue such as a thoughtful, faith-learning integrated essential question with a follow up assessment asking students to show thoughtful reflection.

Whether we use a “Christian” text or a secular text, two things are paramount to keep in mind:

First we must hire and train teachers who are passionate about their faith and are eager to learn more about how to help kids wrestle with the issues of life. We want teachers to thoughtfully and prayerfully share their own Christian perspective related to the subject matter. This perspective will be demonstrated within their curriculum by the kinds of unit/essential/driving questions that they ask of students and what kinds of things they ask students on assessments. If there is no written evidence of this in in curriculum maps or student assessments, one can rightfully question what worldview is being advanced.

Second, schools are sometimes careless about designing and constructing a quality curriculum that links mission and content and getting it in written form. It is not helpful to invest in teacher and curriculum development if what is developed is not recorded for later use. The assets of a school community, in terms of well developed learning experiences for students, may be walking out the door as experienced and gifted veteran teachers leave an institution without articulating what and how they taught. New teachers need these foundations to stand on and build from as they learn how to interpret the school mission through quality curriculum that demonstrates God’s timeless truth.

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Filed under Biblical worldview, curriculum, distinctively Christian, mission development, resources, student assessments, student outcomes

If only we could focus better!

“Simplicity, clarity, and priority would be a dream scenario for our school!” a teacher told me. “How can we start to get there?” asked another. I could tell from the passion in their voices that they had been deeply frustrated by years of initiatives, lack of clarity, and failed improvement efforts. They almost didn’t dare believe that simplicity, clarity, and priority were possible, but were still willing to strive for those elusive goals.

Simplicity, clarity, and priority are addressed in chapter one of Mike Schmoker’s new book, Focus: Elevating the Essentials To Radically Improve Student Learning, and I think that through this book he has put an elbow into the sore spot of the backs of most North America educators – “it hurts so good that I know I need to do something about it!” His premise simply is that we have not taken the time to identify what we really need to be doing in terms of what we teach and how we teach. How can we gain clarity if we have not truly identified a “guaranteed and viable” curriculum? How do we set priority when looking at hundreds of standards in a content area? Why do we ignore things that are proven to work, such as the development and implementation of common assessments?

In the first chapters, Schmoker accurately describes educator frustrations and examines what we teach and how we teach. He makes an argument for simplification and focus on reading, writing, and authentic literacy skills. In the succeeding chapters he goes subject by subject and boldly suggests, according to research, what we should be emphasizing in each of the subject areas. This is not a “back to the basics” book, but a valuable book that identifies best practice that is advantageous in any instructional setting.

If you only could choose one book to read and discuss with your staff this year, this one would be a worthy choice. There is a lot of practical stuff in this book to push up against and have lively and productive discussion around. Schmoker has moved the discussion off the dime – I recommend you give it a read.

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Filed under change, classroom, curriculum, leadership, resources

Tough Question #3: Collaboration – a Christian responsibility?

Source: troglodyteking via Flickr

Something that has troubled me in recent years is the degree to which Christian schools collaborate and work together for the greater good. I have become increasingly concerned as the recent North American recession has brought a few things to greater light. Declining enrollment and budget shortfalls (due in some part to the troubled economy) should be encouraging us to work together even more for a common vision of Christian education.  I am deeply saddened when I’ve learned that some schools would rather maintain identity and pride of place than do what is best for families and students, and ultimately, the kingdom. Sometimes this is a parent problem and sometimes a board/administration problem.

A friend was recently telling me about how, due to low numbers, he was unable to offer a particular athletic program. His solution was to check with two other local Christian schools so see if his students could join with their team. The other two schools were fine with students coming over and joining their teams. When my friend offered these options to the parents, some parents were angry and said that their children would never join the other Christian school teams. One can only speculate – did old athletic rivalry mean that much to the parents that they would rather deny their children an opportunity, as opposed to letting them play for that rival Christian school? Aren’t we supposed to be on the same team? The same parents would not have a problem with their children playing on city recreation teams or “traveling” teams, but wouldn’t join another Christian school team! I was incredulous, but my friend insisted he was not making this up.

Perhaps even more dramatic examples occur when schools lose enrollment over a number of years, yet refuse to have their students join with another larger Christian school nearby. They cut programs and opportunities for students, try to sell parents on the personal, small school aspect, but largely end up offering an inferior education and ask enormous sacrifices of their teachers and administrators – low pay, little or no professional development, and heavy workloads. This is not excellence – these schools are bleeding to death, yet refuse to collaborate or close doors.

We are dealing with issues of pride and a lack of stewardship in these situations. Don’t get me wrong; small schools can be vibrant and wonderful places. But if pride of place and identity gets in the way of what is best for kids and the nurturence of their faith,  I believe we are better stewards if we seek to share our resources for the common good rather than prop up something that is not excellent. If we can’t offer our best, it is time to look in the mirror, acknowledge it isn’t working, swallow our pride, and join forces with others to better advance the kingdom.

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Filed under board governance, change, leadership, stewardship