Category Archives: distinctively Christian

Missing the [Question] Mark: Developing the Skill of Curiosity

Thanks to my friend Bryant Russ, Bible teacher at Holland Christian High School, for sharing this blog post. Bryant has started a wonderful blog project called One Hundred Dangeruss Gifts  (love the play on words, Bryant!) He has written posts as gifts to be shared from father to son, and from older men to younger men about what is really important in life. He states: My hope is that by reading these gifts other people will see the value in cultivating a culture of dangerous gift giving, especially from older men to younger men.” Check it out!

 

I once asked a teacher why humans enjoy music. She told me it was because God made us that way.

Needless to say, I was less than enlightened.

After a little bit of digging I discovered that music generates activity in the nucleus accumbens, the region of the brain responsible for releasing chemicals associated with pleasure. Music also wakes up the part of the brain that processes emotion and helps connect experience to meaning, which explains why a well-composed melody can be such a powerfully engaging stimulant. The influence of music has been linked to monumental scientific discoveries, including some of Einstein’s most famous equations, as well as suicides and school shootings, showing just how significant an impact it has on the brain, and consequently, human life.

Because God made us that way.

Asking questions and seeking out answers is one of the most basic human impulses, and is, I believe, directly connected with our being made in God’s image.   In fact, the average child asks approximately 125 questions a day. But do you know how many questions the average adult asks per day? Six.

I can’t help but noticing one of the significant bridges between infancy and adulthood is formal education. Now I am not suggesting that school is solely responsible for the death of curiosity, nor am I aware of any evidence to support this notion, however; I am convinced that schools have not traditionally prioritized the importance of question asking. For understandable reasons, schools are all to often in the business of answer giving, whether students have the corresponding questions or not.

But allow me to ask the question, what might we be missing?

Being a high school Bible teacher, I have discovered that the value of any given class depends almost entirely on my students’ ability to ask questions. It is a fairly common occurrence for my students to be given a biblical passage and 15 minutes or so to read while making a list of questions. The first time we tried the activity they weren’t completely sure what to think. “What kind of questions are we supposed to ask?” one student wondered looking slightly puzzled. “Well, how about the questions you have while reading. Start with those ones,” I responded. It took several rounds of practice, but the more my students developed this stifled skill of question asking, the more prepared they were to engage the biblical drama on a deeper level. Eventually they were able to come up with such ripe questions that I was able to step back and watch as they made some of the same discoveries I was planning to teach anyway. Questions are opportunities for breakthrough, like little maps leading to buried treasure. And I believe this is true for all disciplines.

Though curiosity is often thought of as a trait you either have or you don’t, perhaps it can be better understood and advanced as a skill—something that needs to be encouraged, fostered, and practiced.

How was chess invented? What makes ocean waves? Who decided there are seven days in a week? How far away is the sun? Why is Christmas celebrated on December 25? How does electricity work? Where does your waste go when you flush it down the toilet? These example questions help students reconsider their relationship to the world by attuning young eyes to the mystery of their surroundings, while pulling out from under their feet the rug of assumption, simplicity, and monotony.

Genuine question-asking curiosity is more valuable than a storehouse of knowledge. You could know as much as the Internet, but if there’s no gas in the tank then you’re not going to go anywhere. Curiosity is the fuel of discovery. It’s a spark. It’s a wellspring that never stops bubbling—even when the bell rings. Because the best part is that questions are like potato chips: you can’t have just one. Real questions are always connected to more questions, and more questions, and more questions. I believe chasing these questions is a form of worship. I also believe that a day spent without asking questions is essentially sleepwalking. Part of being an educated Christian in today’s world is having a mind that is fully awake, alive, and eager to engage the world in new ways.

Here are a few questions to get us stared:

What can we do to spark curiosity in our students?

What real questions do you have related to the discipline you teach?

How do we sometimes, though often unintentionally, suffocate curiosity in school?

How can we cultivate an atmosphere of question asking in our schools?

This discussion is well worth our time. There are few things more vitalizing than a school buzzing with the curious questions of invested young people—this is music to my ears.

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Filed under Biblical worldview, classroom, curriculum, distinctively Christian, student assessments, student outcomes

A plea to Christian colleges

Over the past six and a half years that I have been writing this blog my main focus has been to encourage Christian schools to nurture student faith in three very distinctive ways: curriculum, classroom, and community. It’s been gratifying to hear that some of the posts have been a good encouragement to teachers and administrators who are serious about living out the mission of their school with their students. Schools can and should develop sound professional development experiences for their teachers to help them implement the school’s mission through curriculum, classroom, and community. I have been privileged to work with schools in this process.

 Much like students enter a class with varying degrees of academic readiness, I have found that teachers have an equally wide range of readiness to nurture student faith. What I have found in professional development workshops is that, when asked, many teachers have not been trained in how to teach Christianly – not that they are not Christians, but have not received instruction during undergraduate days about how to connect their faith and the mission of the school. This leaves the total responsibility to the school to try to develop this teacher’s understanding…and it is a daunting task.

 For starters in this conversation, we have candidates coming from a wide range of colleges. By their own choices, they may have attended a public college or university. I did, and was aware that when interviewing at Christian schools, I needed to be able to more clearly articulate my faith and how it impacted my teaching than a candidate coming from a trusted Christian college. My present concern is that I am not hearing rousing endorsements in my workshops from teachers about their training to teach Christianly while they attended a Christian college. This is concerning because it indicates that the Christian colleges the teachers attended did not show its teacher education majors how to effectively integrate faith and learning.

 I would argue that whether preparing teachers for Christian or public education teaching, the fact remains that to be true to its Christian mission, Christian colleges should teach all education students how God’s truth is revealed in the educative process. If Christian colleges are requiring a statement of faith in their entry process from students, it is only natural that all students understand how faith is understood and lived out in their discipline area. Having taught and been an administrator in both public and Christian education, I could argue that it might be even more important for Christians working in public education to have a sound worldview and grasp of how to impact kids for Christ – they have to do it more subtly and may have less collegial and administrative support.

In summary, I am pleading that Christian colleges be true to their mission, equipping students to understand and demonstrate, as possible, to those they will be teaching how Christ is Lord over all.  In order to impact others, teachers must begin with a solid understanding of their own of how our world belongs to God, and how in turn we can encourage students to respond back to God and others with love and service.

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Whose responsibility is it?

Education for FlourishingIn their book, Education for Human Flourishing: A Christian Perspective, Spears and Loomis express concerns about the current educational emphasis on the pursuit of knowledge/technical prowess versus the pursuit of truth/virtue in the classroom setting. Are we educating for excellence and flourishing, or primarily to have students possess certain skills and pass high-stakes tests?

As Christian educators we might well agree that our work should transcend state/national standards. We are educating with an eye toward the student’s work/vocation and an understanding that our work is our acceptable sacrifice to God, not simply directed toward success and employment. Historically then, how have we ended up with our current state of education today? The authors believe that the concerns can be summed up in two words – a lack of wisdom and theology:

“Wisdom pursues how knowledge, within a discipline, is coherent, and recognizes how the seemingly discrete pieces of knowledge within a discipline fit together as a unified whole…the study of theology is a unique pursuit of wisdom because it is a study of God – the one who created and makes coherent all the universe.” Quoting Aquinas: “…we should pursue theology because we love God and want to better understand what he has revealed about himself.”

Spears and Loomis point out that the loss of theology as pre-eminent in the Enlightenment Era led to the loss of the connectedness in the disciplines.  This factor in turn led to empirical science being seen as superior to Christian revelation. (Earlier in the book the authors point out that both rationality and revelation are needed in Christian education.) They are concerned that in American education we are increasingly being drawn into a homogenous, technical, information narrowing educational process as contrasted with Jesus’ emphasis on the personal and connected model of teaching people. Given the current information economy, they believe that “schools no longer have the capacity to act as a trustworthy guide in the development of moral dispositions and actions.” If we seek to maximize human flourishing in a holistic manner, there must be space in the educational process for “creativity, complexity, diversity, richness, and multicultural understandings” that lead to human growth and flourishing. Spears and Loomis suggest that much of this responsibility for a high quality information economy falls to the leader of the school.

The authors are particularly critical of their own (departments of education at Christian colleges) in terms of effective leadership, good theoretical work and effective problem solving: “In fact, there have been no significant ideas originating from Christian schools of education for at least several decades…Christian schools of education appear resolved to operate within existing theoretical structures developed by the technical model of the secular academy.” In an earlier chapter, Spears and Loomis suggest that few Christian scholars are cognizant of the present direction of education and may have even lost the capacity to comment on it. At the current time, the authors point to Nicholas Wolterstorff as the only exception to a complete absence of Christians working in the theoretical field of Christian education.

The authors point out that the responsibility doesn’t simply rest there though – it must be shared by practicing educators. These educators need to approach their work “intelligently, integratively, and transforming present informational constraints,” and be “unified in Christ’s passion for human beings and their full and complex development.”

The book provides a helpful section relative to three options for Christian teachers teaching in public schools as articulated by J.E. Schwartz:

  1. Agent for enculturation – teacher views reality as split into sacred/secular, church and state with a high wall of separation, being passively obedient to school authorities, and valuing social stability,
  2. Christian advocate/evangelist – sacred is higher than secular, no split of knowledge and reality, teacher answers to a higher authority, and using school to further knowledge of God and spread a Christian pubic morality,
  3. Golden Rule Truth Seeker – life is integrated with no split of sacred/secular, no direct proselytizing, go where truth leads, honors truth, justice, intellectual honesty, and the quest for truth is ultimately a quest to know God.

The authors believe that the Golden Rule Truth Seeker is the best option for Christians working in public schools – it provides a position to maximize information and overcome the technical framework limitations of public education.

This book is a very helpful critique of the inadequacies of public education today and how Christian education is able to answer the deepest human needs with a holistic education. It rightly challenges those in Christian leadership positions, whether colleges or K-12, administrators or teachers, to understand more clearly the history and implications of the present course of American education. I wish the authors had gone further to present more concrete ways that Christian educators in both K-12 and college could partner together to reach the lofty goal of education for human flourishing. This partnering could include helping Christian educators to better understand how to construct and teach integrated units that get to wisdom and theology with students. The partnership could also articulate how Christians could become “golden rule truth seekers” in their settings. This is where the hard work remains and we desperately need our Christian colleges to begin this process with teachers in training.

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Why should you consider REVEAL?

In the last two month’s posts I have explored the results of the REVEAL pilot that was completed in twenty CSI schools last year. What has been shown is that we can reliably obtain metrics that help us understand how students progress in their faith formation through the high school years, as well as what other forces impact their faith development. The results from the pilot schools have been very positive as reported by them back to the REVEAL leadership. I believe it is now time for Christian schools to get serious about using this type of assessment tool to help them understand to what degree they are meeting their missions.

The mission of the Christian school is sometimes understood as having two aspects – academic achievement and spiritual formation. Although I used to view it this way, I now advocate that our task with students in Christian schools is to help them worship and serve God. Students can do this better if they understand the Wonder of God’s creation, the Wisdom of his Word applied to our world in counter-cultural and prophetic thinking, and the Work that God has equipped them and called them to do. The process of education should help students discover and hone their gifts, with  teachers who show them how to apply the law of love to their fellow man through their studies. Education in Christian schools then is happening in the larger context of learning about God’s Word and world, learning to love God and one’s fellow man, and then offering one’s life to God in service.

What we will miss if we focus primarily on assessment of students’ academic progress is hugely significant. We will miss the heart of our mission – are kids understanding how wonder, wisdom, and work come together in them so that they can become flourishing human beings? I sincerely hope the time is past where we just say we are doing faith formation of students, but have little or no evidence of the effects of our efforts in this regard. REVEAL gives us a tool to have serious conversations in the mission critical area of faith development – with our students, with our teachers, with our parents, and with each other. I urge schools to embrace the use of this tool! Use it as a focusing tool for conversations around the most important outcomes of your school. Use it for accreditation purposes as part of a set of tools to examine your mission accomplishment.

Thanks to Willowcreek and to Terry Schweitzer for their interest and commitment to Christian education and for making this tool available. I encourage you to contact Terry at terry@engagechurches.com or call him at 224-512-1072. He is very willing to discuss why schools found REVEAL helpful and how it might be a helpful tool in your situation.

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What does REVEAL reveal? Part two

Last month we introduced you to the work done by Willowcreek Community Church with Christian high school leaders regarding measuring the spiritual formation progress of high school students. The intent of the survey was to help school leaders better understand whether students were exhibiting spiritual growth and what actions the leaders could take to better help students grow. Their attempt was to reveal the students’ hearts for God and for others. The results of this survey have not only personal implications, but broader implications for schools; this survey might be useful as a benchmarking tool to see if there was student growth in faith formation from year to year.

In May 2013, a 25-30 minute online survey was given at 19 different Christian high schools, with the highest percentage of participants at schools in Michigan, then Wisconsin, Illinois and Washington. Over 4,600 student responses were collected. The summary of the findings and observations are presented below from a REVEAL summary document and my phone conversation with the project leader, Terry Schweitzer.

Finding #1- Students:

  • “Many school leaders assume that the best predictor of spiritual growth is year in school. They presume that juniors and seniors who have attended the school longer would be further along on their spiritual journey than freshmen and sophomores. The survey results debunk this idea, showing that the relationship between year and school and stronger core Christian beliefs, spiritual practices, and virtues is flat.”

  • “Commitment to core Christian beliefs, engagement in spiritual practices, and behaviors that reflect Christian virtues rise at each stage of this continuum (below), showing a strong positive relationship between level of intimacy with Christ and spiritual growth. Additionally, students’ level of ownership of their faith and their spiritual journey increases as they progress into the more mature stages of growth. Drawing on this information, there are ways in which leaders of Christian schools can encourage students in each stage to keep moving forward in their spiritual growth. Different beliefs, practices, and virtues have been shown to catalyze spiritual growth for those in each stage. By encouraging the development of each, leaders of Christian high schools can make a stronger impact on the faith development of their students.”

STAGES - REVEALObservations: We know intuitively that students are at different stages on their faith journey. What are the intentional ways we can deal with the development of beliefs, practices and virtues shown in each movement in the diagram above? Are these faith enhancing practices embedded within our curriculum, classroom, and community in the Christian high school?

Finding #2 – School: “Results indicate that schools can best encourage students’ spiritual growth by helping them to own their faith and engage in spiritual practices. Schools and parents can maximize their effectiveness by working together to this end. Additionally, the results indicate that students’ spiritual growth can be measured using an overall Student Spiritual Vitality Gauge (StVG) score that represents students’ growth in Beliefs, Spiritual Practices, and Faith in Action. The StVG demonstrated both reliability and validity as a measure of growth.”

Equation:SVG

Observations: The Christian high school plays a very large role in student spiritual growth, as demonstrated by an effect size of .26 for parents and .30 for schools. The Spiritual Vitality Gauge (as shown above) could be calculated for individuals, classes, and for schools as a whole.

Finding #3 – Parents: The pattern of the data indicated “the close relationship between parental involvement in family spiritual practices and spiritual growth of high school students. . . these findings challenge Christian ministries to involve parents to a greater extent in programs aimed at children and to invest more in the spiritual growth of parents in order to create a spiritual tailwind that will lead to spiritual growth in children.”

bar graph 1

bar graph 2

Observations: The REVEAL survey results reflect the findings of the 2005 National Study of Youth and Religion Survey as reported in the book Soul Searching – “we get what we are” – meaning that the spiritual beliefs and practices of teens often closely parallels that of their parents. It appears that to foster the growth of teens, we must also involve parents. What is a bit surprising is that among the select group of parents who have made a choice for Christian education there are 35-72% of them who never or almost never engage in prayer, Bible study, and service. This demonstrates what those of us who have sat at parent interview tables have known – parents desire a Christian education for various reasons – some for safety, some for success, and some for shalom.  It appears that with these parents their profession of faith level is higher than their practice level. What are the implications for the Christian high school?

I believe the REVEAL folks have been a tremendous help to Christian schools with this work. They have demonstrated that it is possible to get a measure of spiritual formation of high school students. From this measure schools should be able to be more intentional and focused in their efforts to nurture faith with students.  My recommendation is that schools get involved with gathering this data from students and using the REVEAL tool annually. Schools need to commit to doing it for a period of years so that the results can be used in a benchmarking type of process to answer the question: “Are we impacting student spiritual growth?” and then “Given the results of REVEAL for our school, how might we work with students on their spiritual growth from year to year in order to better meet our mission?” For more information on REVEAL please feel free to contact Terry Schweitzer at Willowcreek Community Church.

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Promising developments to support Christian education

Recently I learned of several encouraging developments within organizations to support and promote the cause of Christian education. I will list ones I am aware of in this article and I invite you to share other resources in the comments section below.

CACE graphicIn November, Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa announced that they had received funding from the Verdoorn Foundation to set up the Center for the Advancement of Christian Education, or CACE for short. The goal of the center is to “help innovate, improve, sustain, and promote Christian education at the primary, secondary, and college/university levels.” In the words of President Erik Hoekstra, the Center will become “an information hub and provider of consulting expertise to Christian schools. The center will serve school boards, school leaders, teacher leaders, parents, and churches as a clearinghouse for Christian education innovation.” The work of the Center will focus in five areas:

  1. School Improvement and Innovation
  2. Pastor/Church Leadership and Development
  3. School Operations and Sustainability
  4. Sociological Research
  5. Political Action and Advocacy

Five to seven Fellows will work in these areas with schools on behalf of the Center, and the Center will be led by Education Department chair Dr. Tim Van Soelen.

cardusCardus, the Hamilton, Ontario think tank, and authors of the Cardus research on Christian schooling, announced the Cardus Religious Schools Initiative in partnership with the University of Notre Dame. Besides seeking to generate new theoretical and empirical tools for understanding religious schools, one of their main goals is to provide timely and informative summaries of existing research on religious schools, with the intention of making research accessible to multiple audiences. I am intrigued by the research evaluations already listed here. The report that may be of particular interest to CSI schools is “What Parents Want,” a recent Fordham Institute report based on a survey of American parents regarding the educational goals and the school characteristics that are most important to them. You can read the CRSI report here. You can also sign up for their education newsletter to receive updates.

a6bb37_5e568272d04c6a4002d08c018e378d6d.jpg_srz_p_175_125_75_22_0.50_1.20_0I would also like to share information about a couple of other groups that are being led by former CSI principals. Harriet Potoka, founding principal of Daystar School in downtown Chicago, is serving as the Executive Director of the Center for Christian Urban Education, a collaborative effort of Trinity Christian College and the Bright Promise Fund. Its purpose is stated as: “The Center provides a professional network for Christians involved in private, public, and Christian schooling in the unique context of urban life in North America.  It serves as a school improvement network, a center for conferences and symposia for urban Christian educators and utilizes the schools of the Bright Promise Fund as lab schools for teacher education and the sharing of best practices.”

Edusource logoThree “retired” CSI administrators provide leadership for about 50 Christian schools within a 70 mile radius of Chattanooga, TN through the work of Edusource Unlimited and the Southeast Center: Don Holwerda is the Executive Director and lead person with the SE Center activities, Larry Kooi is the Director of Operations and Outreach, and Barry Koops is the Director of Christian School Executive Search. They provide training to local schools through workshops and seminars to develop and implement plans to help schools achieve and maintain sustainability. They also seek to strengthen executive functions, develop programs and best practices for sustainability, and serve as a resource for innovation.

I am very encouraged by these ways that Christian education can be nurtured and encouraged! Thanks to those who have the vision of service and of coming alongside  leaders in Christian schools. I am sure I am missing many other good efforts going on out there to support Christian education. Would you please take a moment to share other efforts that I may be missing?

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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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