Category Archives: student outcomes

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

Why PBL? (Project Based Learning)

Over the last ten years, I have advocated in writing and speaking that Christian schools move toward project based learning. Why? Well, you can easily find plenty of rationale on sites like the Buck Institute or Edutopia online, but here are a few reasons reflecting a student perspective:

  1. It is more like real life
  2. It is more fun/engaging
  3. It is coherent and makes more sense
  4. It allows me to use and develop my gifts
  5. It sticks with me longer than memorized learning

I have argued that not only is this type of learning “stickier” but also better reflects our belief as Christian educators that learning should reflect the coherence Christ brings to this world, and it allows students as image-bearers to identify and practice gifts and habits of service. I believe it moves us toward the goal of helping students to flourish (link) in their lives.

One person who has understood and advocated for the value of project based learning for a long time is the retired principal of Toronto District Christian HS, and current Ontario Christian School Adminstrators leader, Ren Siebenga. Ren’s son, Nathan, principal at Hamilton District Christian HS, has implemented PBL there, and is also now co-hosting a summer academy for teachers (see below). I had the opportunity to speak with Nathan about what has been transpiring at his school and he shared the following with me.

What has impressed him most is the change in his students: the ability of kids to understand and articulate the mission of the school and to be deeply engaged in learning. He enthusiastically stated: “The kids’ ability to articulate the mission of the school through the project is life changing, kids can’t be the same. Our level of engagement of kids in their learning is incredible! It is kids running in the door in the morning.” In fact, Nathan noted that HDCH had to institute a late bus last year that ran at 5:30 so that kids could get home after their work sessions!
OCTA-2014-PosterNathan indicated that new teachers don’t have a lot of experience in PBL, and so he instituted a summer “boot camp” for training teachers and then opened it up – the result being that 25 teachers from all over attended. At the end of the week of the PBL training last summer, building principals were invited to come and hear the presentations of learning by the teachers. This helped the principals to provide follow-up support throughout the year.  Nathan expects 50-75 teachers to attend this year and the academy will be offering a second level of training. Co-sponsors of the event are Edifide, OACS, OCSA and CCEF (Canadian Christian Education Foundation). It is exciting to see how these four groups are working together to lead Christian education forward in Ontario, thanks to the vision and teamwork of leaders such as Diane Stronks, Jules DeJager, and Ren Siebenga.

PBL is in its fourth year at HDCH and Siebenga notes that at this point all staff are doing one project and are involved in exhibition of learning. The school-wide exhibition of learning is held every semester for the whole community from 6 – 9 p.m.

PBL is also being advanced across Ontario Christian schools by Diane Stronks, Director of Edifide, and OACS’s new Director of Learning, Justin Cook. Justin has done a great job of leading, recording, and reporting the PBL work that has been done with Ontario teachers in four regional training sessions this past year. You can view his summaries here http://www.oacs.org/author/justinc/ to see the work of the teachers he is spotlighting and the excellent presentation Prezis he has put together.

Ontario Christian schools have a legacy of producing thoughtful, biblically integrated curriculum for Christian schools and now through bold leaders, vision, and teamwork are producing excellent models to lead Christian educational practice into the future. Keep up the great work!

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Shalom and parent teacher conferences

Photo credit: Sean Dreilinger

Photo credit: Sean Dreilinger

During the fall and spring conference time with parents, teachers typically report on the academic progress of students to parents. It should be a time to share celebrations and concerns. Sometimes the student is present or even “leading” the conference. I believe that this time with parents is a critical one as it is one of the few times that there is an intense focus on their mutually shared responsibility – the student. From the school side of the equation, this is a prime time to also communicate the mission of the school to the parents. From the parent side, this is an opportunity to have a significant time to have a conversation with another adult who has worked with their child about their view of the child’s growth.

I have been emphasizing to Christian schools that this precious conference time should be about more than simply academics. Conferences are the best time to discuss the whole child’s progress and, if we are true to our missions, we will take some time to consider the student’s spiritual growth. After all, one of our key distinctives as a school and one of the main reasons parents send their children is so that they will be nurtured in their faith; if we ignore this aspect or give it short shrift, we are missing a great opportunity!

Recently I have been suggesting that we consider the terms wonder, wisdom and work as we consider how to connect our work toward the ultimate outcomes of helping nurture student faith and to move toward shalom. Wolterstorff describes true shalom as harmony with nature, God, man and self. In connecting these words to the K-12 educational experience, I would suggest that wonder is harmony with nature, wisdom is harmony with God, and work is harmony with self and neighbor. I am wondering if this model might work not only for curriculum design, but also for conducting parent teacher conferences. Using this model as a guide for parent teacher conferences our questions/areas of focus with parents might look like this:

  1. Wonder: Is the student understanding and expressing awe about, and delight in, the created order? Do they understand their place in the world as imagebearers? Are they beginning to develop an understanding of beauty, complexity, design, and what excellence looks like?
  2. Wisdom: Is the student understanding and responding to the gospel? Do they understand how the world, including themselves, experiences sin and brokenness? Do they understand the good news through Biblical story, personal story, and teacher modeling. Are they begin to discern good from evil? Are they understanding what it means to embrace and live out their faith? How to live into the grace of Christ and extend it to others?
  3. Work: Is the student understanding who they are and showing a desire to live out the gospel with their neighbor? How have they responded to opportunities and challenges in the classroom to creatively contribute to the learning and life of others? Have they connected personal gratitude for the gospel with external actions? Are they beginning to understand what it means to restore this world to God’s original intentions?

I truly believe that if we used this model for our parent teacher conferences we would have a clearer focus on the distinctives of our school mission, a much more meaningful conversation with parents that goes beyond grades and test scores, and a greater potential impact on the students and parents we are called to serve.

 

 

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Filed under Biblical worldview, early faith, encouraging the heart, parenting, staff development, student outcomes

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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I wonder as I wander

I can’t seem to get my head around it!  No matter how many times I talk to someone around the world and it sounds like they are sitting in the same room with me, I am filled with wonder. When I look at anything in micro and see how color and design pop forward that I previously hadn’t observed, I am amazed. No matter how many times I fly, I am still amazed at how such a large object is able to leave the ground, how quickly it moves me from distant place to distant place, and how infinite the places, spaces, and quantities of people, relationships, and details of life spread out below me as I gaze at large metropolitan areas below. My head starts to hurt when I imagine what God’s job must be like listening to all the people below and then adding in all the others around the world who live beyond the narrow strip of earth I am flying over at that moment.

Sometimes part of our problem in education is that we are too outcome focused – I imagine some of you are surprised to hear me say that! Life is meant to be a journey, and life is full of learning. We are on a journey/quest of learning and wonder – it is how we are wired as image bearers of God – we are wired for questioning and discovery. The role of science in this journey then is not to nail it all down, but to continue to expand our wonder. Robert Sapolsky, a distinguished scientist, reflects this sentiment: “The purpose of science is not to cure us of our sense of mystery and wonder, but to constantly reinvent and reinvigorate it.” Sapolsky captures the sense of wonder and complexity in these words: “. . . an impala sprinting across the Savannah can be reduced to biomechanics, and Bach can be reduced to counterpoint, yet that does not decrease one iota our ability to shiver as we experience impalas leaping or Bach thundering. We can only gain and grow with each discovery that there is structure underlying the most accessible levels of things that fill us with awe.”

Part of the purpose of learning is to gain a greater sense of wonder. Well known physicist/genius Richard Feynman suggests: “The purpose of knowledge is to appreciate wonders even more.” Our process of learning then is not to produce certainty through a command of factual information, but to produce a greater appreciation of wonder, to be increasingly motivated to learn more and more and to engage in the study of complexities yet not understood. In the learning process the student should have questions multiplying rather than being answered – and sometimes this might mean the questioning of things we thought we knew…or had an answer for.

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr suggests that wondering connotes at least three things: 1) standing in disbelief, 2) standing in the question itself, and 3) standing in awe before something. He suggests that it is spiritually healthy to remain open to all three things inside of you as long as you don’t let skepticism and negativity gain the upper hand. To remain in the question keeps us spiritually humble and open to what is possible.

Despite concerns about “science bleaching the world of wonder,” Phillip Ball suggests in his article “Why Science Needs Wonder”  that “science today appreciates that the link between curiosity and wonder should not, and probably cannot, be severed, for true curiosity – as opposed, say, to obsessive pedantry, acquisitiveness or problem-solving – grinds to a halt when deprived of wonder’s fuel.” I believe we simply cannot detach our emotions, our enthusiasm, our fervor, our aesthetic and moral impulses, our sense of awe and wonder – it is our innate response to worship, to bow in humility before a God whose “glory is beyond the heavens, whose ways are past finding out.”

It is the task and the joy of the Christian teacher to balance the two extremes – to not too quickly give religious answers to questions of wonder so that a student’s curiosity for further inquiry is dampened, and on the other hand to not advance the idea that we must be in doubt about everything and that what we do know is simply the result of man’s discovery.

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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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