Category Archives: mission development

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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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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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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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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Flourishing – Understanding how God has gifted (students) and called them

Source: Beth Chatto Gardens by antonychammond via Flickr

Source: Beth Chatto Gardens by antonychammond via Flickr

(Eighth in a series that delves deeper into the characteristics of a flourishing student – click here to read the original post on flourishing.)

I had two differing experiences in my educational career that dealt with the aspect of vocation. One was in my 8th grade year when my teacher took some time with each of us to talk about our individual talents and how we might use them in high school and beyond. A second came during a very confusing time of life as a college freshman – seeking direction in the guidance office, I was given a vocational test. The test suggested that I should consider becoming a rabbi; I thought this a curious outcome since I was not Jewish, but an evangelical attending an evangelical college. (Given that I am writing this blog on nurturing student faith, maybe that test was not that far off! :) Needless to say, one experience was helpful, and the other was not particularly so.

I hope that as K-16 institutions, we are now doing a much better job with helping students understand how God has gifted them and also helping to discern God’s call in their lives. But I wish I had more certainty – please write if you feel this is an area of strength in your school – I would love to share what you are doing!

Over the last decade, the recognition in the business world, that we should be working from our strengths rather than spending time trying to build weak areas, is a welcome relief to our previous deficit approach. I am specifically referring to the work done by Clifton and Buckingham and the numerous books written as follow-ups to this groundbreaking work. Using a strengths model, I believe that the time is ripe for us to better equip students through identifying their gifts/talents and having them practice using their gifts/talents in team settings. We have said that we believe all children can learn, so then we can’t continue to teach in the same ways – we need to be helping students know who they are and how God has wired them, thereby optimizing their talents in the classroom. Secondly, we know that cooperative learning is a research proven strategy, but unless we have identified individual gifts/talents, we likely will not effectively put project groups together where talents are maximized.

Last month I shared what Beaver County Christian is doing with having their alumni come in and talk about how their Christian education is impacting their careers. One of the benefits that I like about this project is that it serves to cultivate the missional imagination of the students. Through the stories shared by the alumni, students can begin to imagine how they might be listening for, and living out, God’s call in their lives. As a child I was brought to “missionary union meetings” to hear how missionaries were making an impact on the world out there. Although I didn’t always enjoy going, I usually enjoyed the engaging stories, the cool artifacts, and learning about the world on the other side of the globe. I realize now that my parents were trying to expand my missional imagination!

We are living in a time where we have a greater global awareness through our connectivity, more movement toward a personalized student educational experience, and more understanding how teams function best.  These three aspects may indicate that this is a perfect time of convergence around better equipping our students to flourish through understanding their gifts/talents and how God is calling them. What is working well in this area at your school?

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Are Finnish schools a helpful model for Christian schools?

9780807752579_p0_v1_s260x420It would be worth looking at Finland, if only as an educational model, due to their consistently world leading test scores, but they also demonstrate other desirable qualities as a society that Christian schools seek to emulate. If Christian schools are about producing flourishing students (for starters, search flourishing on this blog!) then we might do well to study the country that sits atop the European Union in terms of producing flourishing adults. If we are interested in happiness and blessings then we should be looking at Finland, among the world leaders in overall happiness of life and prosperity. If we are concerned about developing fine character, then we should study “sisu.” Finnish “sisu” is “a cultural trademark that refers to strength of will, determination, and purposeful action in the face of adversity, coexist(ing) with calmness and tenderness.” (Salhberg, quoting research of Lewis, 2005 and Steinbock, 2010.) Finns also value collaboration over competition, think “small is beautiful,” and rely on straight talk and simple procedures. These are value sets that closely parallel the values of Christian schools. Intrigued? Let’s explore some more paradoxes and lessons as described in Pasi Sahlberg’s excellent book, Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? and discover what lessons might apply to Christian education.

Sahlberg unpacks several paradoxes as he compares Finnish education to North America and the world:

1. Teach less, learn more – Salhberg demonstrates that quantity of instructional time does not equal quality of instruction. While teachers in the US log about 1080 instructional hours and Canadian teachers teach about 900 hours, Finnish teachers teach about 600 hours. He states: “Lower teaching hours provide teacher more opportunities to engage in school improvement, curriculum planning, and personal professional development during their working hours.” Moreover, Finnish children start school at age 7 but lead the world in literacy. Finnish 15 year-olds spend less time on homework than their peers in any other country – rarely more than a half-hour a day. 7% of Finnish students experience anxiety and stress when working on math compared to 52% in Japan and 53% in France.

2. Test less, learn more – according to the PISA database, Sahlberg notes that educational scores in countries that emphasis competition, choice, and test-based accountability have gone down, while in Finland, where the emphasis has been on teacher professionalism, school based curriculum, trust-based educational leadership, and school collaboration through networking, scores have gone up. It is also interesting to note that in Finland students receive a comprehensive evaluation of progress after each semester – this includes not only academic performance, but grades in behavior and engagement as well.

3. More equity through growing diversity – in spite of growing diversity, Finland’s performance has continuously increased and the variance between student achievement performances has decreased.  Almost half of the 16 year olds have had some sort of special education, personalized help, or individual guidance. Salhberg notes that the main principle of Finland’s reform efforts has been to provide educational opportunities for all students. While only 3.4% of children in Finland live in poverty (as compared to 21.7% in the US and 13.6% in Canada) the poverty rate certainly parallels what would be normative in our Christian schools.

4. Teaching as a profession – teaching attracts the best and brightest (only 1 in 10 are accepted into primary school teacher training), even though the salary is only slightly above the national average. Teachers take their work seriously and there are no formal teacher or school evaluation processes in place. Teachers work collaboratively with each other and teacher training institutions, and the teacher education process is research oriented so that graduates have the tools to adapt to a changing world. Teachers are expected to take risks, be creative, and be innovative. These values are reflected in Finland’s spending 4% of GDP in research and development, second highest in the European Union.

5. Do they spend more on education? No and yes – Finland’s spending (5.6% of GDP) compares favorably to other European Union nations (5.7%), the US (7.6%) and Canada (6.1%). Finland’s welfare state model provides all families with an equitable start via early childhood care, voluntary free preschool, comprehensive health services, and preventative measures to identify learning difficulties. Finnish children all get a free and healthy lunch each day regardless of their parent’s socioeconomic status.

I find much to admire in the Finnish system of education. Wherever God’s image-bearers are flourishing to this degree, there is significant evidence of God’s goodness and common grace at work. Equality as a guiding principle excites me – it is a valuing of the inherent worth of each child. I believe that if as schools we pursue equity, we will achieve excellence as a by-product, as demonstrated by Finland’s performance. Emphasizing teacher professionalism, trust, and collaboration are how we can bring the best of each individual and out of our teams – maximizing talents God has given each for both individual and common good.

Sometimes we feel change is not possible in our situations due to federal, provincial or state mandates. While we cannot turn our countries into Finland, there is much we can learn from Finland and much that unintentionally reflects Biblical principles. Let’s emulate and advance the good, right, and true qualities we see in Finnish schools.

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Flourishing: The desire to act morally and ethically across all aspects of life

Source: Beth Chatto Gardens by antonychammond via Flickr

Source: Beth Chatto Gardens by antonychammond via Flickr

(Seventh in a series that delves deeper into the characteristics of a flourishing student – click here to read the original post on flourishing.)

The global/local news landscape offers up to us almost daily examples of moral and ethical failure. As Christians, we may be more disappointed than shocked because we understand the fallen nature of humanity and the fact that we cannot escape brokenness – the line dividing good and evil runs down the center of each of our hearts. Yet our faith, in the power of a risen Christ redeeming humanity and his creation, inspires us to not stay in despair over this brokenness, but to continue to work toward shalom and restoration. We remind ourselves that each human being is made in God’s likeness, and challenge our students to live lives of obedience and faithfulness, to be like Christ.

It is this challenge to students that I want to focus on. In the process of attempting to teach our students the desire to act morally and ethically we are essentially showing them what goodness looks, acts, and smells like – “a more perfect way” – and asking them to internalize and live out that goodness. It is not just about “being good,” and it is not enough to just not disobey.  We need to show them that following Christ is an above and beyond/different way of living and to call them to that “foolishness” Christ asks of us (Matthew 5, I Corinthians 1:21ff).

Many students each day are taught to “be good” in schools around the world, yet only some are given spiritual foundations as to why they should “be good.” Just being “good for goodness sake” or for personal gain as in good grades-good scholarships-good college-good job-good life thinking will only be so effective when push comes to shove in life situations that students will encounter. The tests and trials of life in big and small situations will reveal what they really believe and their actions will reveal their worldview. The latter part of the saying “Time heals wounds and wounds heels” reflects how we so often see careers and reputations undone through moral and ethical failings – research tells us it is hard to end our careers well. Moral and ethical failings are often the result of pride (“It can’t happen to me because I am above it all”) or laziness (“I can cut this corner or treat someone this way and get away with it”) or magical thinking  (“It won’t happen to me or I won’t get caught”). Lack of discipline, lack of courage, and lack of character development all contribute to these failings. If I do not really regard others as image-bearers worthy of my love because of my desire to show Christ’s love, it is more likely that I will not see the need for ethical and moral behavior toward them. My best behavior done through my own power, if not directed toward worship, is more likely to simply increase my pride and self-reliance. If we do not encourage our students to see their behavior as connected or disconnected to foundational spiritual belief, it is not as likely that their lives will translate into obedience, humility, kindness, love, and other fruits of the Spirit.

How can we specifically work toward this outcome of a flourishing student? The aspect of adult modeling moral and ethical behavior looms large.  We create classroom and school cultures where the desire to live morally and ethically can thrive or be discouraged. We must start with our own hearts, motives and worldview – as adults are we demonstrating spiritual obedience simply out of fear of judgment or out of true love for others and a desire to love God and to do the right thing? Bill Hybels’ book: Who You Are When Nobody’s Looking: Choosing Consistency, Resisting Compromise gives us an immediate challenge just from the title and is a great resource to work through with students or your own children.  We need to both share and examine difficulties in this area and encourage good choices by students. It may be helpful with middle and high school students to make use of dilemmas and case studies so that moral and ethical principles can be applied to real life situations. A book such as Rozema and VanderArk’s No Easy Answers – Making Good Decisions in an Anything Goes World or CSI’s Exploring Ethics texts are very helpful tools.

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