Category Archives: student assessments

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

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.


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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Filed under early faith, mission development, mission measurement, resources, student assessments, student outcomes

Are you moving far enough? (The inadequacy of standards)

There has been a lot of talk in the school world this year about “moving to the Common Core” (don’t tune out dear Canadian readers – this will apply to you too!) and what that might mean. I see this movement as a good thing overall – at best it gives us in the States a sounder set of standards and common language. At the least, it gets schools who have been not focused on curriculum renewal back to a focus on what should be happening in their core business – teaching and learning.

And yet, I wonder if the “movement” will result in anything more productive for any school? Don’t get me wrong – I am all for aligning to a common set of standards, but my concern is that we simply stop there after alignment.  After all, meeting a standard, while admirable, is only reaching a certain level of competence. That has been my point in the recent flourishing conversation that I have raised in this blog. Translating the idea of standards to real life may be helpful in making my point.

If I am an employee of a company/school/institution, there are certain standards and expectations. They are laid out in a job description. The standards may be formal and informal, written or unwritten. If I meet the standards it can be said that I am doing my job – but these standards likely don’t speak to all aspects of who I can be in the position and what I can bring to my employer. They don’t spell out levels of creativity, of caring, of passion, as I go about my work and interact with others and carry out my work. These aspects are the “value add” pieces that I might bring to my work – that go beyond an expected standard. These aspects are the way that we bring joy into our work and life, and what we enjoy and appreciate about others.

Standards are not enough for any school, let alone a Christian school.  We can’t just stop at kids meeting standards and expect that that is good enough. Our job is to get them to the goal of flourishing. In the Christian school context that includes connecting head, heart, and hands. It includes helping them to see God’s design in creation and understand his passionate desire for relationship with them. It also means teaching students how to act on his desire to make all things new in creation and relationships, wherever he calls them to work someday.

Dear Reader – It is time to say goodbye for the summer! This is the last post on the blog for this school year – we will now take a break for the summer months – and let you catch up on reading all those posts you missed this year. :) Thanks for reading Nurturing Faith this year – see you in September!


Filed under change, classroom, distinctively Christian, mission development, student assessments, student outcomes

Proposing a “Flourishing Index”

Source: Beth Chatto Gardens by antonychammond via Flickr

I have been thinking about the student outcomes of Christian school graduates recently. Certainly we measure academic achievement.  But if we are “equipping minds” and “nurturing hearts” so that our students can be world transformers, it seems to me that we over-measure the first, do not measure the second aspect (faith nurture) well, and may really want to consider a third aspect to help us describe how academics and faith development come together in our desired student outcomes.

I believe that nurturing faith, in and through the educational process, is the distinctive characteristic of why Christian schools exist. Yet there is resistance when I bring up the idea of some measurement of whether a child’s faith was nurtured or not. What is ironic to me is that our parents are judging this all the time.  We ourselves also have a strong sense of how well our educator colleagues nurture, and certainly our students have a strong sense of how different teachers nurture their faith, yet we rarely ask for their feedback. We need to discuss this aspect more – it is such a critical part of our missions – but that is not the purpose of this post today.

Given how education is changing, we are in a process of “re-valuing,” and it seems appropriate to consider the following as we think about what we wish to measure: 1) new information has recently emerged about the significance of student engagement in learning, 2) an alarming number of our students become more disengaged in learning as they go up the grades, 3) research has shown that divergent thinking decreases from kindergarten forward, 4) a Gallup Poll from last summer indicated that only 1/3 of all U.S. students could be described as “hopeful, engaged, and thriving.” As Christian educators, we seek to 1) show our students the connectedness of this world through Christ,  2) demonstrate to them the importance of a lifelong learning passion, and 3) help them recognize and use their gifts and talents in a vocation that God calls them to in the world.

I propose that an additional set of indicators focus around the concept of student flourishing and be called the “Flourishing Index.” Below are some initial aspects that might considered criteria or demonstration of what it means to flourish:

•   passion for learning

•   desire to serve and make a difference

•   ability to see connections

•   blooming where planted

•   thinking divergently and creatively about problems/solutions

•   ability to demonstrate empathy for others

•   desire to act morally and ethically across all aspects of life

•   understanding of how God has gifted and called them

•   demonstration of effective life habits and spiritual disciplines

•   determination to bring joy and hope into the lives of others

What else would you add to the “Flourishing Index”? At the end of the day and at the end of 12 plus years of education aren’t these the kinds of outcomes we are really hoping for?


Filed under distinctively Christian, mission measurement, student assessments, student outcomes

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.


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

Learning for coherence and living

One of the most powerful things we can have students do in a Christian school is to ask them to think deeply about how their faith connects with their life and the real world. It is also one of the most authentic and integrative experiences. I am encouraged by the number of schools who have developed culminating projects and require them as part of  either /both the 8th and 12th grade years.

I previously wrote about culminating experiences in this blog back in December 2007. I believe that culminating experiences are one of the best practices to enhance and encourage faith development and that is why I list it as one of my 12 Faith Enhancing Practices. For those of you who may be interested in developing culminating experiences, let me share a source for more details in setting up this kind of assignment.

Teachers and administrators at the Christian Academy of Japan have been developing and refining their process and have posted their information on their website.  They call this assignment “Senior Comprehensives” and list four assessment components of the work:

1.     Research portfolio

2.     Writing portfolio

3.     Hands on project

4.     Oral presentation

Examples of each of the elements are on the site, including video examples of student presentations. A timeline of expectations and assessment rubrics are also shown.

I encourage all schools to have these kind of learning experiences in place for students. They are engaging, demanding, and rewarding for students and teachers. Culminating experiences are the kind of teaching and learning that we need to do more of in order to effectively prepare our students and meet our missions.

If your school does this kind of experience, would you please consider sharing a link to your information in the comments below so that we can better learn from each other?

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What does good articulation of faith integrated learning look like? (Faith and learning in curriculum, part 3)

We can talk about Christian education all day, but unless we teach in distinctively Christian ways, we might as well close our doors!  My work with schools involves helping them bridge the gap from philosophy/mission to classroom teaching practice and it usually is the area of greatest need in all Christian schools. I would like to share with you some very specific examples of teaching that, I believe, make a real difference in shaping the minds, hearts, and hands of students. I have been given permission by two excellent teachers, Mark Kauk and Janie VanDyke, from Unity Christian High School in Orange City, Iowa to share the ways they integrate faith and learning in their classrooms. They exemplify the kind of teachers I described in Part 1 of this series.  I am grateful to both of them for allowing their work to be shared in this post and I am hopeful that these examples may also be an inspiration to you!

Mark uses questions to focus on four key concepts associated with the aspect of Creation in his high school science units. He states that these questions “really force students to think and get at ideas about God’s world that they never have really thought about much.”

Here are his belief statements and questions in a unit on waves/sound/light that link general revelation and a Biblical perspective:

Creation. God created everything through the Word.  That Word is Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who is the perfect image of the Creator.

Summarize the main thought of each passage:

Genesis 1:1-3

Colossians 1:15-17

John 1:1-4

Hebrews 1:2-3a

Hebrews 11:3

Purpose In Creation. God created everything with purpose and meaning, ultimately to bring glory to himself.

List five examples from the study of waves, light, and sound.  Describe their purposeful function.

Class Discussion:  Why are waves, light, and sound important in a world that functions with God created purpose?

Patterns in Creation.  We see evidence of design, order, and patterns in all that God created.

Explain five observable examples of the design, order, and patterns found in the study of waves, light, and sound.

Class Discussion:  How do these examples of waves, light, and sound show  evidence of the wisdom of a grand design?

Providence in Creation.  God sustains and upholds his creation by his Word.

List and explain any natural laws that describe the behavior of waves, light, and sound.  Include any mathematical descriptions.

What are some of the miracles in the OT and NT of the Bible which are reminders of God’s sustaining power in the physical creation?  Must be specific to waves, light, and sound.

Potential in Creation.  God created the universe with the potential for man to investigate and develop through scientific study and technological development.

Research the historical timeline for the discovery of the  parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Include our understanding of at least 7 different categories of waves.

List ten technological developments associated with the electromagnetic spectrum.

Class Discussion:  How have these developments contributed to the benefit or demise of man’s created purpose to glorify God?

Mark mentions that the big picture concepts of Purpose, Pattern, Providence, and Potential work equally well in other units of science that he teaches to assist faith learning integration. In the process I believe he is teaching students a “habit of mind” to consider all four of these aspects as they look at creation. Additionally, and of perhaps even more lasting importance, he has given them a framework for future thinking, so that they can identify Biblical thinking related to conceptual understandings.

Janie VanDyke uses what I would call faith-enhancing practices such as faith stories and reflective writing in her English class to encourage faith development in students.  In an assignment for the online Distinctive class that I teach, Mark listed these ways that Janie integrates faith and learning in her class. (Janie was kind enough to allow sharing of these examples – thank you!)

In Freshman English Janie uses the stories, “Things We Couldn’t Say” by Diet Eman with James Schaap and “The Hiding Place” by Corrie Ten Boom to teach about faith stories. These people lived out their faith in the context of challenging circumstances. One of the themes she discusses is sacrifice, of how people help others even when they are very different from themselves. She also shares her own faith story. The strategies she uses for this unit are reading the books, discussion in class, writing an assignment of their own story, and also journaling. The journaling is interesting because she will ask them to write about various personal things such as a struggle they may have had or a circumstance where their faith affected their actions.

Another project she does is a genealogy research project where each student researches aspects of their ancestors. The faith of many generations is seen and the faithfulness of God is demonstrated. The strategies include discussion, sharing, and assignments involving writing, composing a poem about themselves, creating a dictionary of terms about common phrases used at home, doing an essay, and conducting an interview of a grandparent.

In Communications class, where students give speeches, they first read a book by Quentin Schultze, a professor at Calvin College, who has written a book on public speaking. In it he emphasizes the idea of being a servant speaker, not an ego speaker. One of his chapters also deals with the fruits of the spirit in public speaking. Her strategy is to have students read this and then discuss it before students even begin composing speeches.

In a senior literature class she has the students read “Night” by Elie Wiesel, about a Holocaust experience. She then assigns a paper on injustice where students must write about some global or national injustice. She also uses information from a former student who is a lawyer and has become involved with International Justice Mission.

Resources: She has collected her ideas and curriculum content over the years from books she reads, people she knows, other teachers, articles she has read, and her own interests. One example is how she read an essay once of Lewis Smedes called “How I Found God at Calvin College” and she took that idea and now has students write an essay on where they have found God.

I think these are some helpful ideas and specific examples of how master teachers who are passionate about their faith are revealing truth, unfolding creation, and integrating faith and learning in their classrooms. Any ideas you would like to share?

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