Posts Tagged ‘christian education’

Principles of Reformed Education: Summary Post

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.

My goal in this part of the series has been to lay out some principles to help you evaluate books, materials, and curricula. For a summary of the big ideas behind it all, see this summary post.

This series within a series — the practical details — began with an explanation of methods. As we move away from theory and into the nitty gritty, we are not going to be able to find Bible verses that bear directly on the questions we have (Are spelling tests inherently evil?). To the extent that we can, I have tried to elucidate biblical principles while acknowledging that we are on less certain ground here.  We must rely more on personal observation, scientific studies, and logical reasoning. And as good reformed people we also acknowledge that our reasoning has been affected by the Fall and that we think is unassailable fact is often tainted by our own experiences, emotions (also tainted by the Fall), and presuppositions.

With that firm foundation, we dove right in.

Before we even get to curricula, we must begin by looking at ourselves, the teachers. I began with a presupposition: that the attitude and expectations of the teacher can do more to facilitate or to undermine learning than almost anything else he does. Therefore we must begin with right expectations and right attitudes. Simply put, the teacher should expect that God will work in the minds of his students. The attitude of the teacher should be one of joy and delight in the things of God because he himself is growing in knowledge and because he believes that they are the things of God and delights in them.

Once you’ve mastered that easy first step, you can begin to consider materials. So we talked about what to teach. I argued for a broad education that encompasses many subject areas [not just the trendy STE(A)M ones] based on the principle that all knowledge comes from God and as He is One so it is ultimately unified. More recently, we tackled another trendy question: Is there a core body of knowledge all people need to learn? With some qualification, my answer to that one is no, there is not (note that we are not talking here about religious knowledge as such but about all those subjects it is still legal to teach in public schools).

After we have considered the what, we must ask how? There are various aspects of this. We began by considering what the materials we use should be like. I argued that they should be interesting but need not be designed to be entertaining. Since the things we place before children in education are the things of God, they should be inherently interesting, We must be wary, on the one hand, of curricula which suck all the inherent joy out of knowledge and, on the other, of curricula which try to dress it up in clown costumes complete with red honky noses thereby sending the message that it needs our dressing up.

I also made the argument that the written word, that is, books, should be the primary tool by which we place such knowledge before our students. There is a place for other media as well, including but not limited to lectures, videos, audio recordings, visual aids (such as maps and charts), fine art, and music. Whichever we are using, we should use discernment in selecting our sources. We need not limit ourselves to Christian “teachers.” On the one hand, all truth is God’s truth and He may choose to reveal it to us through non-Christians. On the other, many who claim to be Christian are either not or are but have bad theology underlying what they are saying which affects their presentation of their subject. Nonetheless, we should expect more truth and better scholarship to come to through Christian sources. Because this is a tricky area, it is important for us to vet our sources and to consider such things as the age of the child we are educating. We also took a bit of a side trip to examine the power of narrative, for good or evil.

Lastly and most recently, we discussed what we do with this material— Do we ask kids to reproduce what they are learning and if so how and why? This includes testing but also more mundane things like worksheets, essays, and narration. Specifics will depend on the setting one is in (home vs. school, small vs. large class) but there are some principles we can seek to adhere to. First and foremost is not to provoke children with unnecessary and/or tedious work. Second is that we need to consider the benefit to the child. I argued for narration as a wonderful tool and discussed some pros and cons of other methods.

For the moment, I think these posts will wrap up the “practical details” portion of this series. I have been promising you that I will go through individual subjects one by one and my intention is to begin that next time.

Until then,

Nebby

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.

Purposes

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

Nebby

 

 

Principles of Reformed Education: Core knowledge?

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.

One of the big questions we have to answer as we seek to build a philosophy of education is what are we to teach? Is there a necessary core of knowledge that every student needs to learn? This is an issue which divides philosophies of education and has practical applications for how we teach and test as well.

On one end of the spectrum is the unschooling movement which says that no, there is no one body of knowledge that every child needs. The child, left alone, will learn what is necessary to him. Even if he shows no interest in some basic subject, it is not to be pushed. On a practical day-to-day basis, an unschooler, though not setting out perhaps to teach basic math skills, will often find himself doing so through every day activities like cooking. Many of the unschoolers I have known have been very diligent, busy parents. They may not set an agenda for what their child should learn but when he asks about dinosaurs, they are all over the library finding every resource they can on the topic.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Great Books movement, aka classical homeschooling including both its Christian and secular varieties. This philosophy of education says that yes, there is a core body of knowledge. It is often defined very much by western culture, relying heavily on Greek and Latin classics as well as more modern works from Shakespeare to Robert Frost. A classical educator is likely to make use of old-school techniques like memorization and traditional testing.

In between these two extremes there are of course other positions. Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education, on which I have blogged extensively, tries to bridge the gap. Miss Mason did believe that there is appropriate fodder for education but also acknowledged that one can never force another to learn and that each pupil is an individual person. This is an approach which takes the horse to water but does not force him to drink. The material is presented but the student must ingest it for himself. Again, this can be seen in the techniques used. Memorization is not prioritized nor are other methods which require the child to reproduce precise bodies of information (worksheets, true or false, multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank). Narration replaces these and allows the child to be more selective in what he or she gets from a given lesson.

It is perhaps easier to understand the differences if one considers how studying a classic book like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would look in each of these philosophies. The unschooler does not require her child to read the book. She might get it from the library and leave it lying around the house (this is called strewing). And certainly if the child were to ask for it, she would obtain it. After the child has read the book, the unschooler might have a casual discussion — “Did you like the book?”– but would not require any sort of report or testing. The Charlotte Mason (CM) homeschooler and the Classical educator would both require the student to read the book. In CM’s approach, the child narrates what he reads, that is, he tells what he has read, deciding for himself what is interesting or worth noting. This may be done orally or in writing. For the classical homeschooler, there would be more concrete ways of integrating the knowledge. These could include such things as reading comprehension questions and worksheets. There would be certain facts that the child would be expected to know — who the author is, for example, or the names of the main characters and some details of setting and plot.

We are going to return next time to how the student reproduces the material and how his learning evaluated. Today I would like to focus on what we are teaching — is there a set body of knowledge? And if so, to what extent should we enforce its learning? I hope the above examples show that this is in some sense a foundational question to answer before we can begin to talk about the hows of education.

Though we are ranging more and more into the realm of general revelation –i.e. topics about which the Scriptures may not have anything specific to say — we should always begin by asking what they do have to say, either overtly or more subtly through the principles we can derive from them.

When it comes to the knowledge of God, His Word makes clear that there is a specific body of knowledge we are to communicate to our children. Not only so we present this knowledge to our children, we fairly drill it into them, keeping it always before them (Deut. 4:9-10; 6:6-7; 11:9). To the extent that the other subjects we teach also reveal the Creator – and I have argued that this is exactly what they do and why we study them – it is reasonable to conclude that they are also, if not required, at least very profitable and valuable for our children. (I have argued previously for a broad education that is not confined merely to the trendy STEM subjects.)

As reformed Christians, we believe that there are absolute standards of truth and beauty. We also believe that all people are sinful and that all their faculties have been tainted by sin. Combining these two facts, we can draw two conclusions: There are ideas which are good and true and profitable and, conversely, there are ideas which are evil, false and dangerous. And, secondly, our children, left on their own, will not always – indeed, will rarely – choose the good ideas and reject the bad. We must, therefore, reject the unschooling end of the spectrum which allows the child to choose entirely what he will learn. We do not believe that the child left on his own will gravitate towards what is good or what he needs.

The flip side of the Bible being the only infallible rule for faith and life (“only” modifies “infallible” in this phrase) is that nothing else is infallible, not Calvin, not your homeschool curriculum. All human culture bears the stamp of our race’s sin. The pagan cultures which form the basis of so much of our western civilization carry with them pagan presuppositions and ideas. We must be especially wary and discerning because the underlying assumptions are often just that – underlying and not overt. We will not realize we are accepting ideas built upon ungodly bases. Which is not to say that we must reject them altogether; I do believe (as I have argued here) that all truth is God’s truth and that it may come to us through non-Christian sources. My argument is not that it is wrong to study the likes of Plutarch but that we must do so with great discernment.

We must be equally wary of “Christian” culture. There is no doubt Christianity has had some profound and real effects on western culture, but much of what passes for Christian culture (including Christian homeschool curricula, of which there is an abundance these days) does not reflect a reformed (which is to say, biblical) understanding of God, creation, and man. [1]

All work can, rightly done, being glory to God. While there is greater responsibility and therefore potentially greater glory (or greater rebuke) for the preacher and pastor (1 Pet. 5:1-4; James 3:1), the Bible teaches us that man is made to work and that all work can bring glory to God. (Gen. 2:15; Prov. 16:3; Eph. 4:28; Col. 3:22-24; 2 Thess. 3:10). If the work of a farmer or a physicist or a poet or an accountant is good and, rightly done, able to bring glory to God, then it follows that the study which gets him there is also good and that God can be glorified in our learning about plants and atoms, literary devices and spreadsheets.

The child is a person and no less capable of bringing glory to God through what he does. In our society, the work of the child is to be educated (and, I would argue, the Bible also depicts childhood as the ideal time for education). Just as his elders can work to the glory of God no matter their profession, so he can learn to the glory of God no matter the area of study (for a little background see this post on the child in the Bible).

Practically speaking, there are skills and ideas which build on one another. It is very hard to be educated in our society if one cannot read (and I have argued that words, and the written word, are vital to how we learn). It is hard to function in our society without basic math skills. Greater knowledge of math is needed to understand certain scientific concepts. There will be rare exceptions of children who are truly not capable of learning even the basics. We must be careful not to view them as less than persons and we must not deprive them of whatever learning they are capable of. For most, however, it is reasonable to require some basic common knowledge which will be needed for further learning.

One caution — just because some learning is foundational does not mean that  the early years must be spent on the basic and only the basics. He is capable of a relationship with his Creator from birth or before so we must nto deprive him of the tools of redemption and sanctification no matter his age.

As we get beyond the basics, I believe it is reasonable to require our children to learn certain things. The subjects we teach are general revelation, that is, they reveal God to us, and, as Creation has One Creator, they work together as a unified system (see this post). We would be neglectful to teach only history and omit any sciences (or, as our society increasingly does, to teach the sciences and neglect the humanities), because we would not be allowing our children to see the big picture of how God works throughout His Creation.

Our goals can affect what we teach. The Bible sets a good precedent for us to teach history as the story of what God has done for us so we often begin children on local history. The history of one’s own state or country teaches that God works in my life. If we then expand to world history, we see that He works throughout the world in the lives of all people. Similarly, in studying the sciences, we learn first that God makes the plants grow and created all the animals unique. But then as we delve deeper, we see also that He is involved in His Creation as levels we can’t even see – in the minutest atoms and in the farthest reaches of space. When we get to higher levels of math, we learn that even the intangible principles behind Creation are orderly and beautiful. Not every child will learn every subject and certainly cannot do so in depth. God and His Creation are so vast that none of us can ever be comprehensive, or even close to it. Nor do we all need to learn exactly the same things. We may start in the same places – with the foundational building blocks of further knowledge, with subjects that are close to home– but, because we are all unique persons, we will expand in different directions. I believe that we bring greater glory to God by doing so. We express our unique personalities, which He has given us, more fully, and we, as a race, are able to learn more of God’s work and therefore give Him greater glory.

Summary

Because this has been a very long post and has covered a lot of ground, I would like to end with a summary of the main points we have seen:

  • What we study, and whether we believe there is a set body of knowledge to study, will affect how we study and measure learning.
  • As reformed Christians, we must reject the view that children will, on their own, gravitate towards what is good and what they need to know.
  • When it comes to “religious” knowledge, the Bible makes clear that there is a fixed body of knowledge that we are to teach our children.
  • In other fields, we must use discernment. Because there are absolute standards of truth and beauty and goodness, there are also things that are bad and false and ugly.
  • All human culture has been affected by the fall and, while truth can come to us through non-Christians, no one culture has a monopoly on such truth.
  • Much of what passes for Christian culture is also not based on biblical ideas and it should also be approached with discernment.
  • As it is possible to glorify God through one’s work, so we may glorify Him through study.
  • There are some basic concepts which are foundational to later learning and should be required of all children (barring severe mental incapacity).
  • As even the youngest children are fully human, it is not a matter of memorization of basic facts for the young while withholding bigger ideas for later years. Even the youngest children deserve to learn ideas which will point them to their Creator.
  • Because we have One Creator, all areas of knowledge have an inherent unity. They all point us to God yet each teaches us something slightly different and new about Him. For these reasons, we should require a fairly broad curriculum.
  • Nonetheless, each person is a unique individual and we must not expect that all will learn the same things. Since learning ultimately points us to an infinite God, there is no end to what can be learned. No one can learn everything and we should not expect everyone to learn the same things.

Nebby

[1] Cornelius Van Til does an excellent job of explaining this in his book  Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974; see my review here).

 

The Holy Spirit in Education (A Podcast Review)

Dear Reader,

I am writing this having just listened to a recent podcast from A Delectable Education. Given the non-written nature of the material, I want to reflect on it while it is fresh in my mind. A Delectable Education, if you are not familiar with it, is a podcast devoted to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education. The episode in question (#140) is entitled “Live from Charlotte Mason Soiree Retreat Q&A” and was released on September 28, 2018.  As its title suggests, this podcast is actually the audio from the Q&A session of a recent retreat. The portion I am interested in comes about 35 minutes into the podcast episode.

The panel of speakers is asked how if, as Charlotte Mason says, the Holy Spirit is the prime mover in education, we can educate our children if they are not yet saved and have not yet been regenerated by the Holy Spirit. There are two answers given: that God is the source of all truth and that He does work in our children’s lives.

I am sorry I am not good at identifying which of the female panelists is speaking when, but one of them provides the first answer (not first in the order they say them; they go back and forth a bit), that all truth comes from God. This does not actually get to the heart of the question but it is a statement I heartily agree with. Art Middlekauff (the only male member of the panel) adds that just because we get a certain truth through say, Euclid, that does not mean all he has said is worth listening to. In other words, God may speak through an unbeliever on one topic or one set of topics but that does not mean all they say is inspired. This is a good reminder to us to use discernment.  In our own culture, we tend to put too much faith in anyone who does anything at all impressive from movie stars to sports heroes. I have read for instance that  Isaac Newton had some really wacky ideas on theology. This does not detract from his scientific theories but neither do his scientific theories lend credence to his theological ideas.

The second point, which is made primarily by Middlekauff, is that the question is flawed because our children are saved. My own church, like his, baptizes infants and considers them part of the body of believers. Middlekauff’s explanation is a good one as far as it goes. It addresses the case of Christian homeschooling parents educating their own kids.

We are left still with the question of other children. Whether at home or in a school context, we may find ourselves teaching children who do not have believing parents. Middlekauff partly addresses this issue. He says something along the lines of (paraphrasing, not an exact quote): even if you do not believe your children are saved, it is still the Holy Spirit that works in them and since your primary concern is presumably that they be saved you should very much desire and rely upon the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

Again, I agree largely with what Middlekauff has to say, but I do have two concerns. I believe that it is the Holy Spirit that is working even if our students are unregenerate. If there is any good to be done in and for them, it is He that does it. Charlotte Mason’s philsophy of education relies upon the student being able to choose the good and I would not say that the unregenerate (children or adults) have any power to do so. I think then that more needs to be said about how this philosophy can work for such children. (I do have my own theories about the purpose of education in the lives of both regenerate and unregenerate children; you can read them here.)

My second concern is that I am just not convinced that this is how Miss Mason herself thought of the issue. I *think* that Middlekauff is saying something very similar to what I have been saying in my current blog series, that the Holy Spirit works in the lives of regenerate covenant children and that if any are outside of the covenant we still educate them while praying and hoping for His work in them too. (I hope I am not misrepresenting his ideas; this is how I took what he had to say. Though we seem to get to the same place, I am not sure our reasoning is the same.)

In contrast, when I read Charlotte Mason’s writings, what I understand her to say is that her education is for all children (she is particularly concerned to include those her society would have deemed uneducable). I do not think she makes a distinction between regenerate and unregeneate children because I do not think that she sees such a difference. She had a very different view (from mine) of what it means to live in a “redeemed world” (her term) and of the general moral and spiritual ability of people apart from the saving work of Christ. (I just did a long post on that here.) The long and the short of it is that her philosophy relies upon the ability of all children to choose the good because she believed that all children were capabale of doing so. She does not address what we do with unregenerate children because she did not believe in them as such. She believed all children had, through Christ’s redemptive work, been given some ability to choose and do good.

So I guess my conclsuion on this episode is that I like a lot of what the panelists had to say. I was surprised, in fact, to find myself agreeing so much with them. I am less convinced that how they explain the situation is how Miss Mason herself saw things. I still think we need a philsophy of education which considers all children — whether from believing parents or not — and which finds its origins in a reformed understanding of human nature and the purpose of life.

Nebby

Principles of Reformed Education: Pick Your Teachers Well

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.

How do we grow in knowledge? How does one learn anything? Depending on the sort of knowledge we have in mind, there can be varying answers. I would not say I know how to scuba dive if I have only read a book on the topic. In all disciplines there are people who go out in the field or go back to primary sources and analyze and develop new theories.

Though some kind sof knowledge require hands-on experience and though there will always be the need for discoverers who return to the sources, none of us starts from scratch. We all get some base of knowledge from those who have come before. And most of the time, for most of us, the bulk of our knowledge comes to us through other people, whether in person or through books and, increasingly, other media. This is as it should be; God created us to be in relationship with one another (Gen. 2:18), and He commands us to pass on our knowledge to the next generation. This is especially true in the family (Deut 6:7) but is not exclusive to the family (Tit. 2:4-5).

Today’s principle is fairly simple: Most human knowledge is communicated from mind to mind therefore we should choose our teachers well. 

God Himself is the source of all wisdom and knowledge (Acts 7:10; Jam. 1:5). Because we, in Adam, were created in His image as spiritual beings (i.e. ones with a spiritual as well as a physical nature), we also are capable of obtaining wisdom and knowledge. Note that I do not say we originate knowledge. All knowledge comes from God. We “discover” it when God reveals it to us.

Though there are no doubt many ways in which we as a race go astray and follow wrong ideas, there is some progression in human knowledge. I am very grateful that we live in an era in which we know about bacteria and viruses. I have a child who is alive today because God allowed a man (Frederick Banting) to discover insulin and its role in controlling blood sugar. Still, we will never know everything there is to know.

There are “Eureka” moments in human history in which God allows one person to dicsover some truth that no human had ever thought before. But these “discoveries” are not built on nothing. The discoverer already has some base of knowledge, some reason to be looking in the corner they are looking in or to be running the experiment they are running. And when they make that great discovery, we do not all have to make it again. The knowledge gets passed on and built on.

As we discussed last time, when we want to convey specific knowledge, we use words, whether oral or written. This use of langauge seems to be inherent in how we are made. We were created by God’s Word and it is how He, who created and knows our natures, communicates with us. When He chooses to communicate specific truths to us (special revelation as opposed to general revelation), He uses words.

And so we use words to communicate with one another. When we think of teaching, we often think of one person standing in front of a class and lecturing and this is certainly a valid method of conveying human knowledge. But the words and ideas that flow from mind to mind can come to us in various media. In our day and age, we can preserve a lecture and share it with others. This has not always been the case. More than anything else the written word has been the means of preserving and transmitting human knowledge. Last time, I made the case for books as the primary tool of learning and for particular kinds of books which we are calling “living books” (see this post).  Today I’d like to focus not so much on the books themselves as on the authors.

As I have argued many times before, God’s knowledge can come to us through non-Christian sources (though we should also expect more truth to come through Christians).  Our “teachers” — live or on paper– will come to us from many walks of life and with many different worldviews. There are no uninterpreted facts. Even in the most mundane, practical subjects, there is some level on which the author’s beliefs will be reflected in what he writes. Because this is so, we must be discerning in who we learn from.

How shall we choose our teachers? It is not simply a matter of Christian versus non-Christian.  There are times when we will have things to learn from non-Christians and there are Christians who will either be factually wrong or who will, despite a profession of faith, have a wrong outlook. When one is young, either chronologically or in one’s faith and knowledge, it is better to keep a narrower circle. There are books I would give to my teen that I would not give to my kindergartner (apart from content considerations of course). The more we know what we believe, the easier it will be to be discerning when we need to evaluate others’ beliefs.

At this stage of my life, I spend a lot of time in the car. I have taken up listening to theological podcasts for entertainment on long drives. While it is occasionally interesting to listen to someone I know is radically different from me, for the most part I pick people who are from the same end of the theological spectrum — i.e. reformed Christians, even other Presbyterians. But even within this realtively narrow corner of the spectrum, I hear things which make me wonder “Is that really true?” But there is one podcast that is done by members of my own (small) denomination including an ordained elder and the president of the seminary.  I’ve never met these men but I know their pedigrees and I know that they have the stamp of approval of a denomination I have already chosen to give allegience too. There might be things they say that I would disagree with but as I listen to them, I am more relaxed because I know that I can have some level of trust in what they say.

My point is this: I have made a broader choice, that I will cast my lot in with a particular church, so when my “teacher” is someone from that body, I can have a certain level of trust. I do not need to vet everything to the same degree I might otherwise. We all make similar choices. We rely on indidivual reputations but we might also look at broader criteria: where a person was educated, what church they belong to, etc. These are not infallible standards but, when well chosen, they are far better than no standards.

When I rely on my church’s seal of approval, I am in some sense accepting their recommendation. We live in a age of reviews. I would caution you to also vet those from whom you get recommendations. Quite often I see people post on homeschool message boards “What curriculum should I use?” If you are going to ask someone for recommendations, make sure they are someone who thinks like you, who has the same goals and standards. Knowing the subject area is a bonus too. Your pastor may be a wonderful, godly man but that doesn’t make him the best person to recommend a grammar curriculum.

To some extent we can develop relationships with particular authors, even those long dead. We become familiar with their thought, and we can develop a trust in them. When you have collected a body of trusted teachers, you do not need to do as much work each time.

While I don’t believe there are any truly secular subjects, there are areas in which I am going to be more careful. I don’t research the religious views of the authors of my children’s math and grammar books, but I am pretty careful of what theology they read and also of what science and history.

Though the primary intent is to give us discernment in religious matters, the Scriptures do offer some criteria for evaluating teachers:

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock;and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” (Acts 20:28-30; ESV)

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.'” (Matt. 7:15-17; ESV)

These two passages give us two kinds of tests — Acts speaks to intellectual content and Matthew to practical outworkings.

In Acts we are told that false teachers draw men away from true doctrine. Good teachers, whether they themselves give glory to God or not, inspire us to praise. God’s general revelation should draw us to him (Rom 1:19-20). A teacher who knows his subject well and truly loves it can often lead us to see God in it even if he himself does not. I think, for example, of biologist E.O. Wilson (see this earlier book review). I do not agree with his belief in godless evolution, but when he speaks of his primary field, entymology, his delight in God’s smallest ceratures shines thorugh and though I am not big fan of insects myself, I grow to appreciate them and their Creator more.

Where Acts speaks to a teacher’s affect on us, Matthew addresses his own life. If I am reading a historian and find out that he was involved in eugenics programs, I am probably going to either drop his book or read it with a lot more discernment. I have blogged at length in the past about evolutuion and creation without coming to a solid conclusion. The one thing that has driven me away from Darwinian evolution in recent years more than anything else is  seeing how Darwin’s ideas played out in theology and philosophy. The consequences of the man’s ideas, in his own life and in those who took his ideas to their extreme conclusions, speak volumes about the ideas themselves (I discussed this a little in this earlier post).

If there is a general principle here it is: Be very careful who you let into your head. The rest are guidelines. There will not be one answer for all people. One may be able to read a book discerningly while another may be bothered by it. To sum up, the guidelines I am proposing are:

  • The abiity to discern grows with age and spiritual maturity. Those who are older, both chronologically and spiritually, will be able to make use of a wider variety of teachers.
  • Know what you believe. The better you are educated in your own worldview, the more you will be able to discern and avoid the fallacies in another’s.
  • Vet sources. Look at where a person was educated and what they believe.
  • Get to know your teachers. You can learn to trust particular sources.
  • Seek recommendations only from those you trust.
  • Look at outcomes in your own life. Does reading this person give you a greater sense of awe or does it pull you away from God and His truth?
  • Look at the outcomes in the teacher’s life and at how his ideas have played out through time.

Nebby

Principles of Reformed Education: Living Books and The Living Word

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.

My goal in this series is to define a reformed Christian theology of education and to give you practical principles which can be used in selecting materials for that education. Thus far, we have spent a good deal of time on the theoretical side of things (see this summary post). On the practical side, we have discussed the need for a broad education and for an approach that is interesting but not entertaining. Today I’d like to talk about one of the most essenatial parts of any education — books.

Words and The Word

Here is one of the most patently obvious statements of the day: Books are combinations of words. So in trying to get at why we use books and what books we should use, we need to begin with words. And, because everything is ultimately theological, we need to begin with the theology of words.

The Bible has quite a lot to say about words. It starts in Genesis 1 — God creates by the power of His Word (Gen. 1:3). We find out later that this Word is God the Son so that we may say that Jesus Christ is the Word of God (John 1:1-3).

Beyond Creation, words in the Bible are quite powerful things. To name something is to have power over it. Thus God names Day and Night (Gen. 1:5), Heaven (v. 8), and Earth and Sea (v. 10). But it is Adam who names the animals and the woman (Gen. 2:19, 23). Later on, when God establishes a relationship with a person and changes their life trajectory in some way, He also changes their name (Gen. 17:5; 32:28; Mk. 3:16).

Words are not inert. A word has power. We have already seen the power of God’s Word in Creation, but even human words have power. Words cannot be taken back. Blessings and curses in particular are powerful things (consider, for instance, the story of Balaam in Num. 22-24).

It is through words that God chose to reveal Himself to us. He makes a deliberate choice not to use images but to speak (Deut. 4:15).  The Bible, God’s written Word, is His complete revelation to us. The things we see of Him in Creation may reveal His character (Rom. 1:20), but it is His written Word which tells us the things we need to know for salvation. It is “the only infallible rule for faith and life.”  And this written Word again has power; it is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12; ESV).

The Power of Words in Education

The primary way our Creator, the One who formed our natures and knows them best, chooses to communicate with us is through words. I have argued that the purpose of education is sanctification, or better put that education is a subset of sanctification. As such it is a work of God. The stuff of education is general revelation. We may learn from what we see and hear and feel, but the information that we gather and pass along to one another is communicated primarily through words. This is not to say that there is no role for pictures and charts and graphs and even music and other media, but in the end when precise communication is needed we fall back on words.

A picture is worth a thousand words. I believe this is a true statement but the connotation it implies — that pictures are therefore superior — is not necessarily true. Movies are usually shorter than the books they adapt. There a number of reasons for this. A movie maker can depict in one image a scene that takes an author pages to describe. He does not need to say what each character looks like or what the scene is because he can convey these details in an instant. In this way images are more efficient.

But images also have their flaws. On one hand, they are too specific. An author may intentionally not tell what a character looks like or what she is wearing. The movie maker has to show the character somehow so he chooses an actress and wardrobes her. In so doing, he makes interpretive decisions that may change our opinions of that character and ultimately may change the story. At the very least,  he makes decisions that the author intentionally left to the audience.

On the other hand, images are often not specific enough. God reveals Himself to us in Creation but when He wants to communicate specific truths He uses words. Pictures are open to interpretation. We can look at the same piece of art and get different messages. This may happen with words as well, but the more we use our words the more clarity we give.

For all of these reasons, I am going to take the completely radical position that words, and particularly books [1], should be the backbone of our approach to education.

“Living” Books

If books are to be the primary means of education, the next question is: Which books?

If you are in homeschool circles, you may have heard the phrase “living books” [2]. Because the term is used in different ways, I am hesitant to jump on the bandwagon and use it as well. Depsite this, I am going to do so because I think it conveys an important truth.

In the verse from Hebrews quoted above, we are told that the Word of God is “living.” In the context of the Bible, to be “living” is to be life-giving. [Recall that Jesus promises the Samaritan woman “living waters” (John 4:10).] The Scriptures are living words in a unique way. Nothing else is on par with them.  Nonetheless, I am arguing that, insofar as education itself is the work of God and is part and parcel of our sanctification, the books we use should be living as well (living with a little “l”).  That is, they should be able, through the work of God the Holy Spirit, to give life.

How do we recognize a living book? There are not going to be hard and fast answers. We cannot go through our local library and make two stacks, living books and non-living books (though there may be some which clearly fall in one category or another). There are guidelines and criteria we can consider, however, among which I would list the following:

  • God tells us what sorts of things we should fill our minds with:

 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil. 4:8; ESV)

Living books should be true and lovely and pure. They should not be false or blasphemous or smutty.

Caveat: There are circumstances when we may want to read things that we know are untrue or have our children read books that we don’t agree with 100%. It is always good to know what the other side thinks and to consider new arguments. But such things should be read a) by those who are more mature and b) with discernment, knowing that all we read may not be true and that we are commanded to test all things.

  • Living books should be interesting. In my previous post, I argued that the education we give should be interesting but not entertaining. Our subject matter, which is the revelation of God, is inherently interesting, but many authors have a knack for making the interesting dull. On the other hand, many books written for children are designed to be overly entertaining in a way that adults think will appeal to children but which does not actually add content or value. Living books are written by people who love their subject and can convey that love. Because they find their subject interesting, they do not need to use gimmicks to sell it.
  • A corollary to the above: The fewer authors, the better. Because we look for books in which a knowledgeable author conveys his love for his subject, books written by committee are unlikely to fit this criteria. This is not to say all living books only have one name on the cover, but as a general principle books with fewer authors are likely to be better.
  • Living books do not need to be written by Christians. We have discussed previously that all truth is God’s truth and, as God uses the efforts of non-Christians, with or without their cooperation, truth may come to us through non-Christian sources. On the other hand, we should expect Christian scholarship to be better because Christians should have a superior understanding of truth (sadly, this is not always the case).
  • We are sinful people and we are not always attracted to what is best for us. This is particularly true if we have been accustomed to a diet of (intellectual) junk food.  Living books may not always be the most attractive books, and we may need to push our children to read something other than Captain Underpants.
  • Living books are worth reading more than once. When we read the Bible (the only capital “L” Living Book), we find ourselves getting new meaning even from familiar passages. Though no other book can approach it, little “l” living books are often enjoyable when read more than once. They may also have layers of meaning so that it is worth our time to revisit them.
  • Corollary to the above: A good test for picture books is whether the adult wants to read them again. If you groan when your child brings you THAT book once again, say no. On the other hand, if it is a joy to read aloud and the words roll off your tongue, it is probably a living book.
  • Living books can come in all genres and reading levels. They do not have to be non-fiction to be educational. They do not have to be written as fiction to be engaging. Prose and poetry, fiction and non-fiction, picture books and tomes can all be living.
  • To some extent, a living book is in the eye of the beholder. Many young boys can spend hours poring over what seem to adults to be very dry encyclopedia-like volumes on reptiles (or bugs or cars). If the child is soaking in knowledge, it is living to him. On the flip side, there may be a book you love but the child may just not connect with it. [But note that this requires discernement– the child may just be lazy and used to junk food (see above).]
  • The ultimate test of a living book is its effect: Does it draw us closer to God or reveal more truth to us?  If it makes you say “Wow, that is so cool,” it is probably a living book. The truth we get doesn’t necessarily have to be profound. It could be a small detail about the lives of ants. It could be a quite depressing yet realistic depiction of human nature from an unbelieving author. It could be a mental picture we get of another time or place we would not otherwise have known about. The size of the truth is not as important as whether it tells us something about God, His creation, or our own natures.

Which brings us to a final point: the power of living books is ultimately not in the books themselves but in God the Holy Spirit who enables us to apprehend the truths in them and to understand them within the context of His greater work. Just as the truths of the one Living Book (there’s that big “L” again) cannot be understood without the working of the Holy Spirit, so the truths found in other living books cannot be rightly understood apart from the work of God in our hearts and minds and a right understanding of the bigger picture of God’s creative and redemptive work.

Nebby

[1] I use the term books somewhat loosely here. Shorter works such as essays and pamphlets would fill the same role. There is value as well in the spoken word, aka lectures and talks, especially in a day and age when we can presreve them and return to them at will. The great value of books, however, is that they are timeless. They allow us to “hear” the words of a great variety of people from all points in human history.

[2] Charlotte Mason’s approach relies heavily on living books but classical educators will also use the term.

Principles of Reformed Education: Interesting but not Entertaining

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.

Having spent the first seven months of the year talking about the theory behind a reformed Christian philosophy of education, I am now attempting to spend the latter part of the year addressing more practical concerns — How are we actually going to do this? What will it look like? What should I be doing with my kids when they wake up this morning?

As I chip away at these posts, I have been debating how to even discuss the topic. I promised you many times that I would begin going through subjects one-by-one and talking about how and why we learn them. Upon further reflection, I think we need to spend time on some general principles.

My goal in all this is not to create a curriculum which can be followed without thought. Educating our children is always going to be a mindful enterprise and a major presupposition of this series is that we should not be just buying someone’s curriculum and using it as is without some serious discernment. Rather than creating something new for you to buy, what I’d like to give you is principles to apply and tools to consider in selecting among the many options that are already out there.

We have already seen a few such principles. We talked about the expectation teachers should have — that God will work in their students to bring redemption and sanctification — and the attitude the teacher should have which should be one of joy and delight in the things of God as he himself grows in knowledge. Last time we said that we need to give a broad education, a principle which is founded in God’s creation of and purpose for the universe.

Today’s principle is this:

Education should be inherently interesting but not entertaining.

I have argued that when we educate we are placing before our students the things of God as revealed in general revelation. It is God’s truth, goodness, and beauty that we are putting before them. These things have their own inherent attractiveness.

As teachers, our job is not to try to soup up the things of God and to make them more fun or entertaining. We could not do so if we tried. Just as loud drums and strobe lights in worship manipulate the emotions of the audience but do not make the worship more pleasing to God so too our efforts to entertain in education are manipulative but not ultimately productive. One of my favorite analogies for education is that of a meal. We place the intellectual food before our children; they have to eat. If we want them to eat squash and they are not initially attracted to it, we can hide it in brownies. We will achieve a short-term goal of getting squash in them, but we do so at the detriment of a long-term goal; they will not learn to like squash or to see its innate goodness and value. So too in education, when we gussy up the things we are teaching, we may get a few facts in our kids, but we are teaching them to love games and crafts and flashy videos. We are not teaching them to love knowledge and truth. In fact, we are sending quite the opposite message — that knowledge is not interesting and that it needs us to make it palatable. We need to beware, then, of curricula which entertain. They are manipulative and they do so at the expense of a genuine love of knowledge.

We can also go too far the other direction, however. It is quite possible to take these things — and remember they are the things of God — and to suck all the joy and interest out of them. I used two analogies above — that of worship and that of a meal — so I will use these again. While we do not need to make our worship flashy to make it more pleasing, we should also be wary of worship which because of its slowness and/or lack of enthusiasm is genuinely hard to listen to. I argued that the teacher’s attitude needs to be one of genuine joy and delight. If we are unenthused or if our books and materials are dry and boring, the child will believe that the things of God are thus. Tedious repetition, boring textbooks which do little more than list facts are the dry fiber bars of education. They may get the necessary nutrients into our kids, but again they do not convey a genuine love of knowledge and truth.

Education is not always going to be a joy for us or our students. Education is sanctification. It is the renewing of our minds. But our minds would not need renewing if they were not fallen and corrupted [1]. While we should always be expecting God to work,  there will be times when we are not seeing progress or when the work seems slow and fruitless. The way through these times is through prayer, repentance, and just continuing to do the things we know we are supposed to be doing.

There is no perfect curriculum. As we evaluate the choices before us for a given subject, we must keep in mind that the things we are teaching are God’s things. They have an inherent attractiveness. We need to be wary on the one hand of resources which try to dress up that godly knowledge too much and thereby send the message that it is not in itself interesting and beautiful. And, on the other hand, we need to beware of resources which strip all the beauty from the things of God. In the middle ground somewhere is the place where God’s revelation is allowed to shine on its own with its inherent attractiveness. This is where we want to be.

Nebby

[1] Would Adam and Eve and their children have needed education if there had been no Fall? As far as I am concerned, the jury is still out on this one. I do not think they had all knowledge (or all the knowledge appropriate for humans) but whether there would have been a gradual learning or whether they would have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge and gotten that knowlegde instantaneoiusly we do not know.  One thing I think we can assume — that knowledge would have been inherently interesting and attractive to them, as it should be to us, if only our sin did not get in the way.

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