Principles of Reformed Education: Synthesizing Ideas

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

I have been out of communication for a while and I apologize if anyone was actually seeking me out looking for posts. In the future I think I need to plan ahead for December to be a wash.

When last I blogged, we were talking about some practical principles for reformed Christian education, specifically what our students should learn and what kinds of  materials they should use (here and here). Today I’d like to talk about what we do with that information.

When discussing whether there is a set body of knowledge all children should learn, I made the case that what we believe about curriculum is reflected in what we require children to produce. For example, unschoolers, who do not believe that there is a set body of knowledge that all should know, would be less apt to require testing. On the other hand, if, with classical education, we believe there is a fixed body of knowledge, then we are more likely to require students to reproduce that material in some form.


There are, broadly speaking, two purposes when we ask students to reproduce material: we can do so for their sake or for our own.

It is not necessarily wrong or bad to ask students to reproduce material for our (the teacher’s sake). There are settings in which this will be much more necessary — when there is a large class, when the teacher is not the parent and must report to either the parent or to the administration. A homeschooling parent may have to report to others as well (depending on things like state laws) or may want to generate hard numbers for transcripts and the like. And while they are more likely to know what the child knows, they may also find that there are certain subjects in which they could use a little more objective evaluation. Testing (of various sorts; I use the term quite loosely for now) can reveal holes and gaps. We may at times get a sense that something is not quite clicking but need to explore to find out where work needs to be done.

Which brings us to the second purpose — reproducing what is learned can benefit the student.  This is often missed in our society, but is, as I have argued, education is for the child, for his sanctification, then we must be careful that what we do is truly beneficial to him. I don’t generally like proof-texting things with single verses but Ephesians 6:4 comes to mind in this context:

“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph. 6:4; ESV)

We must be very careful that the things we are requiring are not wearying to our students. I was actually one of those public school kids who really didn’t mind standardized testing and even enjoyed it a little (there is something about filling in forms that still appeals to me), but rumor has it that what kids are required to do these days has been quite stressful and time-consuming and benefits the child little if at all.

Methods: Narration

I am hard-pressed to think of ways a standardized fill-in-the-bubble test benefits a child or furthers his learning. On the other hand, I do firmly believe that we do not truly know until we can convey that knowledge to others. Narration, oral and written (a la Charlotte Mason), has been a mainstay of our homeschool. Simply put, almost every time my kids read something (or I read it aloud to them) they have to retell what they have read. There are variations on this; words are primary but one can also retell  at times through  drawing or other means. This is not about me grading what they have told or even requiring certain facts to be included but about them synthesizing and cementing their own knowledge. Because narration requires both these things — one must put together the ideas floating in one’s own mind and by so doing lays further claim on that knowledge.

As we get into these practical details, there is not necessarily going to be biblical evidence that one way is the correct way and another is not. In defense of narration, I would like to offer two arguments, one from observation and one from the Scriptures —

Narration is what children do naturally. Little kids tell you what happened in their day and they retell stories they have heard and liked over and over. They also act out stories they have heard which is a wonderful way for small children to “narrate.” When we require narration, we are not asking children to do something foreign to them but encouraging them to do what comes naturally to them anyway.  I am enough of a Calvinist not to argue that natural=good but I do think there is some evidence from our natures here to clue us in to what works best for children (and bigger people).

The Scriptures also give us some hint that retelling is beneficial, and even good. Retelling is pretty much what the Scriptures do, and it is also what the people in the Bible do. When at Passover, the child asks why we do this or that, the father is to tell him all that God has done for His people. In fact, this is how people in Old Testament times expressed their appreciation — they didn’t say thank you; they told others what had been done for them. That’s almost entirely what the Psalms are — God’s people telling what He has done for them. And remember that what we are learning is God’s truth, His general revelation (again see this post). We should want to tell others about it.

Other Methods

Standardized tests (especially the ones with those bubbles) require certain bodies of knowledge; narration allows the student to tell what he learned. In between there are a number of other approaches. I don’t think there are necessarily black-and-white standards here but I do think we can set forth some principles. To expedite things a little (as this post is getting long), I am going to go to a bullet-point format:

  • If, as I have argued, there is not one body of knowledge all people need to know, then we should encourage methods (such as narration) that allow the student to tell what he knows. We can both read the same passage and get different things from it. Your child may not get what you got but that doesn’t mean what he gets is wrong.
  • But there is absolute truth. I have one child who tends to narrate things that are just plain wrong. We should always insist on truth.
  • While I do not believe we all need to learn the same things, there are some basics which are the foundations of further learning (think the three Rs). Math in particular lends itself well to more standardized forms of evaluation.
  • But remember the rule not to provoke. One long division problem done correctly is better than a full page if it brings your child to tears.
  • I am wary of true/false, multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank questions. These sorts of questions ask for specific pieces of information that the adult prioritizes. In the long run, you may want your child to remember Christopher Columbus’ name but just because he forgets it on a worksheet does not mean he doesn’t know lots of other cool facts about Columbus’ journey. These sorts of questions prioritoze facts over concepts. They also often make the child who remembers them overly proud and  the child who doesn’t feel bad about himself though there may be much he has learned. Again, they test knowledge of facts but don’t directly benefit the child.
  • Essay and short answer type questions encourage children to integrate knowledge. Used rightly, they can take retelling to the next step by requiring deeper thought and analysis. I would be wary of using them at too young an age. If your child doesn’t seem able to compare two characters or analyze the author’s motives, they might just not be ready for that yet.
  • I am also wary of projects and unit studies and the like. There is a fine line here. There are certain kinds of material which are best told through pictures and diagrams (the sciences often lend themselves to this). And perhaps if your child builds that Viking ship model he will better remember what their boat looked like. But a lot of this sort of thing becomes either busywork or entertainment. Busywork wastes everyone’s time. Entertainment (as I have argued here) actually undermines how truly interesting God’s creation should be for us.

Above all, we need to keep our ends in mind as we consider our means. Ask yourself, Is this (test, assignment, worksheet) benefiting the child? Is it allowing him to integrate the knowledge he has been ingesting? Is aiding in the transformation of his mind?

Until next time




5 responses to this post.

  1. […] « Principles of Reformed Education: Synthesizing Ideas […]


  2. […] am inspired but I am still teaching long division to cranky eight-year-olds. A couple of thoughts: I argued recently that when educating we must be careful not to provoke children. Math is a field in which it is very […]


  3. […] we put children in contact with the best minds. When we ask them to narrate this material (see this post for a little on that), then they do do the work of discovery and make it their […]


  4. […] wary of provoking them unnecessarily with tedious exercises which are for our benefit, not theirs. (Synthesizing Ideas; Motivation (link coming […]


  5. […] the same thing. Choose methods which encourage individuality. [3] Narration is a great choice (see Synthesizing Ideas and Three Ideas about Narration) because it asks students to tell what they […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s