Posts Tagged ‘education’

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.

A Broad Education

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.

In the coming weeks we will be going through individual subjects and looking at how we should view and teach them from a reformed Christian perspective. Before we do that, however, I want to make sure that we are understanding the context in which we do these things. While I will be talking about math and grammar and history individually, we are never to view these subjects as free-standing and unrelated disciplines.

This realization affects how we teach. It also affects what we teach. There is a time for specialization. That time is when one has a solid foundation of knowledge (and even then dabbling in other areas is quite useful intellectually). As our immediate concern is the education of children (pre-college) we are not too worried about that. There may be some level of concentration in the final years of high school, but most of what we are talking about is the years when one should be getting a broad, well-rounded education.

Why a broad education? In my recent  post on methodology  I discussed the kinds of evidence we can argue from. The biblical witness is, of course, always paramount, but, on issues to which the biblical text does not speak directly, we have recourse to logical reasoning and common sense on the one hand and observation  and scientific studies on the other. This particular issue is a good way to get our feet wet because arguments can and have been made from a number of starting points.

The trend in recent years has been to combine, or perhaps one should say recombine, various academic disciplines. This is exemplified by a change in acronymns.  Not so very long ago the buzz word of the day was STEM. STEM stands for sceince, technology, engineering and math. It was believed that to get ahead in this world (where getting ahead seems to translate to having the best technological innovations and therfore the best economic position) America needed above all a large number of students well-versed in these STEM subjects. This emphasis on one particular kind of knowledge led to an undervaluing of other subjects and an underfunding of the arts in particular. More recently,  popular opinion has backed away from this viewpoint and turned STEM into STEAM. The extra “A” is for arts as educators realized that the creativity which the arts engender is necessary for us to truly achieve their goals. [1]  Though the change is narrow (one wonders what has happened to history and the social sciences), the transition from STEM to STEAM represents a small concession to the idea that no one kind of learning can stand on its own.

While the STEM/STEAM movement pervades our elementary, middle and high schools, colleges and universities have also made a move towards what might be termed creativity education. In May 2013, Radcliffe Magazine reported on a conference with the title “Breakthroughs: Creativity across Disciplines.” The title of the conference sums it up. The keynote speaker, Richard Holmes, is reported to have said that “creativity, ‘with its criss-crossing patterns of inspiration,’ defies disciplinary borders” [Corydon Ireland, “How revolutionary leaps of insight occur across disciplines—they’re not always sudden,” Radcliffe Magazine (May, 2013)]. In 2014, the New York Times reported on the effort by a small number of colleges (four are listed in the article) to deliberately teach creativity.

“And creative studies offerings, sometimes with a transdisciplinary bent, are new options in business, education, digital media, humanities, arts, science and engineering programs across the country.” [Laura Pappano, “Learning to Think Outside the Box,” The New York Times (Feb. 5, 2014)]

The idea behind creativity education, as behind STEAM, is a very practical one — there are problems to be solved and crossing disciplines seems to allow one to solve them faster and more creatively.

Another buzz word,  “transdisciplinary” [2], implies a deeper philosophical viewpoint:

“Transdisciplinary teaching and learning operates from the belief that there is knowledge, concepts, skills, attitudes and actions that transcend subject area boundaries and forge the curriculum into a coherent transdisciplinary whole that is engaging, relevant, challenging and significant.” (“Transdisciplinary Teaching & Learning,” from Discovery College)

Such a transdisciplinary approach has been termed holistic in that it presents a worldview that seeks to unify all areas of knowledge:

“The transdisciplinary approach of holistic type, that overreaches the disciplinary fragmentation limits with its disadvantages, offers a vision of the world and life, as competent as possible, and has as starting point the human nature with all its complexity and diverse forms of manifestation.” [Daniela Jeder, “Transdisciplinarity — The Advantage of a Holistic Approach to Life,” Procedia: Social and Behavorial Sciences (July 9, 2014)]

The impetus of the STEM/STEAM movement is largely economic with some national pride thrown in. With transdisciplinary studies there is some awareness of a larger meaning. Ideas themselves are transcendent and there is some acknowldgement of a unifying truth behind it all. If, however, we begin with “human nature,” as in the quote from Jeder above, we will never get far or be able to establish a true unified view.

This is an argument Francis Schaeffer made numerous times and in numerous ways. Writing in the late 1960s, Schaeffer said that in humanism, or rationalism, “men and women, beginning absolutely by themselves, having only selves, try rationally to build out from themselves, having only Man as their integration point, to find all knowledge, meaning and value” (Francis Schaeffer, “The God who is There,” from Three Essential Volumes in One. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990). Because these men and women were not able to build a unified view of reality starting with themselves and having no idea of a Creator, they abandoned the effort:

“The philosophers came to the conclusion that they were not going to find a unified rationalistic circle that would contain all thought, and in which they could live.” (Schaeffer, p. 10)

In the 1960s and 70s, Schaeffer documented the abandonment of any effort towards a unified understanding of reality and with it the idea of absolute truth.

Now it seems that there is some movement back towards unification. This is a good trend and as Christians we should applaud it, but we also need to recognize that there can be no true and unified view that begins with man.

When we begin with God, we begin with unity. God is One (Deut. 6:4). It is He that has created all things, and this creation gives them their meaning (Jn. 1:3; Col. 1:16; Heb. 11:3; Rev. 4:11). It is also what gives them unity (Col. 1:17). As they have one Maker and one Sustainer (Heb. 1:3), they have one purpose as well (Rom. 8:28; 1 Cor. 8:6) which is to glorify and reveal their Creator (Ps. 19:1; Rom. 1:20).

We all tend to have subjects we don’t like. For one it is math, for another grammar or science or history. Yet the Bible tells us that all things are made by God and accomplish His purposes. Because they all both originate from and point to the same One, there is an inherent unity. On a practical level, we must learn our addition facts in one moment of the day and our spelling rules in another and our biology in still another. But as we do so we must always keep in mind that these things are part of one system because there is one Creator God.

Nebby

[1] There is no shortage of articles on STEM/STEAM available. One I found helful for explaining the trend and the changes in it is Christine Liao’s “From Interdisciplinary to Transdisciplinary: An Arts-Integrated Approach to STEAM Education.” [Christine Liao (2016) From Interdisciplinary to Transdisciplinary: An Arts-Integrated Approach to STEAM Education, Art Education, 69:6, 44-49, DOI: 10.1080/00043125.2016.1224873]

[2] One may see various similar terms — transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary. While they do have distinct definitions, delving into them is beyond the scope of this post. It is enough for our purposes to note that the trend is towards combining disciplines or at least crossing boundaries between them.

Charlotte Mason, Anglicanism, and You

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.

Charlotte Mason Poetry had recently released in audio-form a series of articles by Benjamin Bernier entitled “Education for the Kingdom” (these articles were originally published on their website in 2017). The five articles in this series form one argument. Bernier, an Anglican minister and homeschooling parent, has done extensive research into the religious basis of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy. This series presents his argument that Charlotte’s philosophy cannot be separated from her Christian religion and that it is a distinctly Christian philosophy of education.

Bernier has clearly done his research. He shows specific authors and their writings that he believes influenced Miss Mason and makes a compelling case for each. I have no quibble with his scholarship and am very grateful to him for the work he has put in and his willingness to share it. Nor do I disagree with his conclusions. All in all this is an article well worth reading for anyone who uses Charlotte’s methods or who is interested in Christian education (and I do think reading is probably a better option than the audio versions as there is a lot here to take in). What I would like to talk about today is not Bernier’s scholarship but what we do with the information he has given us.

Miss Mason sought to develop a disticntly Christian approach to education. What Bernier shows is that that approach is heavily influenced, as it should be, by Miss Mason’s own church, the Church of England.

“In order to properly understand Mason’s philosophy, it is important to grasp the essential socio-religious context of her life and work, whch in this case happens to be the Anglicanism characteristic of the late-Victorian era England.” (Benjamin Bernier, “Education for the Kingdom, Part 1,” from charlottemasonpoetry.org, Feb. 18 2017)

Bernier goes on to argue that as the Anglican Church of the time encompassed a wide range of opinions that the form of Christianity embodied in Miss Mason’s philosophy is one that focuses on essentials, what he calls, following C.S. Lewis, a “mere Christianity.”

Bernier argues that Miss Mason’s goals in education were intrinsically religious. He shows from lesser known early writings that her concern in education was mainly apologetic. Specifically her motivation was to guard to youth of her day against the then very new theories of Darwinism and the Documentary Hypothesis [1] which threatened traditional faith assumptions (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 2, Beginnings,” Feb. 25, 2017). He maintains that she never abandoned the faith-basis of her method though she was forced, as the method became more popular and widely used in different contexts, to downplay the overt religious elements:

” . . . the Christ-centered foundation of Mason’s thought was not diminshed one bit; it simply became less overy and less conspicuous to a general audience when her message was repackaged in the hope of influencing the evolving national system of education as such a crucial stage.” (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 5, Enthroning the King,” March 18, 2017)

Note that Bernier here calls Mason’s philosophy “Christ-centered.” Elsewhere he speaks of the gospel foundation of her work. Mason herself spoke of the gospel principles of education which she derived from a few passages from the Book of Matthew. “As far as I have been able to trace,” Bernier says, “Mason was the first Christian educator to define a connection between these words of Christ [in Matthew’s gospel] and a philosophy of education” (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 2, Beginnings”).

Bernier thus makes three points that we need to consider:

  1. Mason’s philosophy cannot be separated from her Anglicanism which is itself a kind of “mere Christianity.”
  2.  As Mason’s philosophy reached a wider audience, its Christian foundation became more covert to the point that many in the modern CM movement are unaware of it altogether (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 1”).
  3. The biblical foundation for Mason’s philosophy is found primarily in certain words of Jesus from the gospel of Matthew.

Given these points, those of us who use or are considering Mason’s philosophy need to ask ourselves a few questions starting with: Is Mason’s Christianity my Christianity? If you are not Christian, Bernier shows clearly that Mason’s philosophy is not for you as it cannot be separated from its Christian underpinnings. If you are Anglican (as Bernier is) you can probably use Mason’s methods in good conscience. If you are from another Christian tradition, you need to consider what her faith is and if this “mere Christianity” is enough for you. Bernier points out, for instance, that Mason renounced the authority of the pope (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 3, Christ Himself for Himself,” March 4, 2017). If you are a Roman Catholic using this philosophy, it may be that you can ignore her personal views and still use her methods. Or maybe not. But it is an issue that needs thought.

Personally, I am a reformed (read: Calvinistic) Christian. I have certain views of human nature (total depravity) which do not gel with Mason’s approach. I have blogged on this many times now (see this post and this one, for example) so I will not rehash all the arguments but I believe that when Charlotte states her infamous second principle — “[Children] are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and evil” (“CM’s 20 Principles,” from Ambleside Online) — that she means this as a spiritual statement, that this statement is foundational to her philosophy, and that this view is incompatible with reformed Christianity [2].  Mason’s “mere Christianity” is not simply the core essentials that all Christians would agree to but is a kind of Arminianism (though no doubt it is not far from the faith of many evangeicals today). [3]

I also have concerns about the biblical basis of Mason’s philosophy. I do not deny that she derives her approach from the gospels, but I do question her use of these texts exclusively. There are many other passages in the Bible which speak of children and topics related to education, both in the Old and New Testaments (see this post, this one, or this one).  Though I doubt they had red-letter editions of the Bible in Mason’s day, her selection of these passages from Matthew, and only these passages, exalts the words of Jesus there recorded over other parts of God’s holy and inspired Word. And, as I discussed here, I do not even particularly like how she interprets and uses these passages.

“Education for the Kingdom” is well worth reading. Bernier’s scholarship is excellent. It is an article (or series of articles) that demands a response, however. Bernier shows us clearly what the religious basis of Mason’s philosophy of education is. But, if you are using or considering using this philosophy, it is not enough to know what it is, you must also ask if it is compatible with your own beliefs. Are Mason’s foundational ideas your own? And if they are not, is there enough commonality that you can use her methods as written in good conscience?

Nebby

[1] The Documantary Hypothesis is a theory about the origins of the biblical text, specifically the Pentateuch, which posits different authors for different sections and tends to chop the biblical text up into parts.

[2] Bernier quotes Charlotte Mason’s “A Catechism of Education Theory” which says: “‘What is the part of man? To choose good and refuse the evil'” (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 4, Meditation and PNEU Philosophy,” March 11, 2017). Though the immediate topic is education, the discussion is of spiritual food and it is hard to take this as anything but theological statement about man’s ability to choose.

[3] Charlotte Mason’s view of man’s state and abilites seems to be tied to the phrase “redeemed world.” Bernier, quoting Mason, also uses the phrase: “Christ is shown to extend His light and life over every sphere of knowledge and practice in this ‘redeemed world'”  (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 4, Meditation and PNEU Philosophy,” March 11, 2017).  I have discussed Mason’s use of the phrase and its possible meaning in this post.  I do not at this time feel completely confident in my grasp of what Mason means when she speaks of a “redeemed world” but I suspect that there is some odd soteriology underlying it.

Reformed Christian Education: Practical Details

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.

Thus far I have tried to demonstrate that when we educate we place before children the things of God. Our expectation as teachers is that the Holy Spirit will use these things in their lives, for their salvation if they are not (yet) regenerate and for their sanctification, specifically for the transforming of their minds, if they are. Our attitude should be one of joy and delight as we also revel in God’s truth. We should view ourselves as those who, while perhaps a little further along, are also being thus sanctified.  With this under our belts, we are now ready to jump head-long into the practical details of education.

I want in the coming weeks to go through subjects one by one and talk about how and why we teach them. But for today we need to cover some of the boring background stuff. This is another methodology post.

As we move more and more into practical details of education, in some sense we move away from Scripture as well. We can and should look to the Bible to tell us what the nature of the child is, but we are not going to find much there about whether we should use worksheets or how to drill math facts or whether to teach American or world history first. We need to keep in mind the principles we have gleaned from Scripture, but, in matters on which God’s Word is silent, we then turn to the other resources He has given us. Among these I count science and observation, and logic or common sense. By science I mean the science of education and of the human mind including such things as studies that tell us how we learn or how our brains work. Observation is not quite so technical; it is simply the experience we have of our own children or of the child in general. God has given us all some measure of logical reasoning. While acknowledging that our reason has been affected by the Fall and  that we cannot always trust it, we should also make use of this gift in our efforts to discern what to teach and how to teach it. All of these things, of course, if there is any contradiction, must be subservient to the Word of God.  Nor should we hold them too tightly. We need to be willing to change and adapt or just plain admit we were wrong as we get new information.

We also don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Many have come before us and, while there is no one (not even Calvin) who is always right, we should make use of their wisdom. I have reviewed a number of books on education in the course of this study and will continue to pull from them.  On the theological/theoretical side of things two of my favorites are J.G. Vos and Cornelius Van Til. Vos’s book is very short, more of a pamphlet. Van Til has more to say though is main emphasis is not on the education of children but on  higher education.

On the more practical side (though she certainly does not neglect theory), Charlotte Mason has been a major influence on my thinking. I feel this needs some explanation as it may seem I have spent quite a lot of time arguing against Charlotte’s ideas. If it’s not inappropriate to make the comparison — Jesus criticized the Pharisees because they were the sect whose ideas were actually closest to the truth. I keep harping on Charlotte Mason for the same reason — because she is actually the closest to where I want to be. I have not found any other  philosophy of education which fits so well with the Christian worldview and which is so distinctly Christian. Yet her Christianity is not mine (she is Anglican and I am a Reformed and Covenantal Presbyterian) and our very real theological differences make very real differences in our approach to education as well. Nonetheless, we are both Christians and what I am trying to do is what she tried to do — to build a philosophy of education based on my theology — and we will likely end up with a lot of overlap.

A final note before we leave the methodology aside — one of my informing ideas is that truth, God’s truth, can come to use through non-Christian sources.  When we are looking at the science especially but even the more philosophocal arguments, we must not neglect non-Christian sources. They should always be held up to the light of Scripture and taken with a greater degree of reserve but we should also not be surprised to find wisdom in them.

In this light, I’d like to end with a call. I have read some things but there is a lot more out there. If you have favorite books on education or things you think I really should read or consider, please let me know! I am in need of more input.

Nebby

A Teacher’s Attitude

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Read all the posts here.

Last time we looked at the expectation a teacher should have. Today I’d like to examine a very closely related concept — the attitude of the teacher.  My assumption in all this is that the attitude and expectations of the teacher can do more to facilitate or to undermine learning than almost anything else he does.

What we are going when we educate is to bring before students the things of God and specifically His General Revelation. Whether the students are able to receive this material depends upon the work of the Holy Spirit and God’s eternal purpose (all this is explained in more detail in this post). Last time we said that, as the outcome is ultimately dependent upon the work of the Holy Spirit, that the expectation of the teacher should always be that God will work in each child to enable them to receive what is good and beautiful and true.

If expectation is about outcomes, attitude is more about our own day-to-day interactions with the student and the material. What we teach children is God’s revealed truth — whether the subject at hand is math or science or history or art or language, it comes from God and we can learn about His actions and character through it (See this post. My intent is to go through these subjects one by one in the upcoming weeks and to show you how each reveals the Creator. So if you are skeptical, stay tuned.).

The problem is that, in the midst of the daily grind, we often forget that the stuff we are presenting  to our students is all part of a bigger picture, a landscape, if you will, of divine thought and action. Teaching (and learning) math facts and spelling rules and Latin declensions is not always fun for teacher or student. Our students are not going to see the big picture and to exult in the glory of God as revealed in calculus or cloud formations if we cannot do so oursleves.

The antedote to the sense of drudgery which threatens us all is to remember our own place in the scheme of things. Education is the sanctification of the mind. That is something which happens in a special and intense way in childhood but it is not exclusive to children (again see this post for an explanation of the theory behind all this). Though as teachers we have some authority over our students, it is the authority of one who is further along in the process, not one who is outside it. If we are stagnating in the sanctification of our own minds, we are not going to be able to long help those who are growing in their own. All Christians, but perhaps especially teachers, need to be actively feeding their minds the good things of God and seeking His truth, goodness and beauty.

The attitude of the teacher then should be this: We need to revel in God’s truth and beauty as it is revealed to us in the subjects we teach.

Now here’s a big caveat: you can’t fake this attitude. If you don’t believe that what you are presenting to your students are the things of God, then you need to find or recover that perspective. Besides prayer, the best thing you can do to inspire your own sense of awe at what God has done is to study His works. The more we learn, the more we will be in awe of what God has done and the closer we will draw to Him. If you are not making progress, find someone who is. There is nothing more inspiring than someone who loves their work.

Last point of the day — if you have the right attitude, if you see God in what you are teaching, then you won’t need to beat your students over the head with how He is revealed in a particular subject. When a scientist truly sees the Creator in his work, this shines thorugh when he talks about his area of study. He doesn’t need to tell you all the time what God  has to do with physics; he can just talk about his work and you see how he delights in it. Not that it is wrong to ever point out the obvious (“see how God put the right king on the throne at the right time”) but we shouldn’t need to constantly state the obvious. If we love the Creator and we see Him in what we study, our own attitude will reveal itself in many subtle ways; we don’t need to draw attention to it and it may be counter-productive to do so.

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. Of course, we are all going to have off days (and off years), but this is the ideal — to share something we love, because it is from God, with our students.

Nebby

A Teacher’s Expectation

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Read all the posts here.

Last time I laid out for you the theory behind my philosophy of education. Today we begin to move into the specifics of how one teaches. I want to start with something  intangible but which is actually fairly foundational to all we do — the expectations and attitude of the teacher.

As we move into the practical details and away from the pure theory, we are moving away from the clear testimony of the Scriptures and into the realm where we are using the sense God gave us and the wisdom He gives us through General Revelation, which includes both scientific research and personal observation. Today’s comments have to do with matters that are not directly addressed in Scripture. We need instead to rely upon our own discernment. As such, we should not hold to them too tightly but should be willing to revise and correct as God gives is greater wisdom.

Having said which, the underlying belief I am working with today is that the attitude and expectations of the teacher can to more to facilitate or to undermine learning than almost anything else he does. I am basing this largely on my own observation, from seeing the education and discipline of my own children and others. I do not think it is a particularly radical stance to say that a teacher’s mindset affects her students so I hope that you will be willing at least to venture forth with me in what follows . . .

If we will admit that this principle is true and that the teacher’s expectations and attitude affect the student’s learning, we must ask what those expectations and attitude should be.  There are actually two very similar ideas here — that of expectation and that of attitude — so I am going to divide what I have to say into two posts. Today we will focus on the expectation of the teacher.

My thesis for the day is this: A teacher should always expect the most and hope the best. Again this is not going to seem to be a radical opinion. I think it is worth spending a moment on, however, because there are going to be many times when it is hard to do just that.

Last time I argued that when we educate we place before children the General Revelation of God. Whether our efforts bear any fruit depends upon the responsiveness of the child which is turn relies upon the work of the Holy Spirit. In the covenant child or one who has made a profession of faith, the intended goal is his sancitfication, specifically the renewal of his mind. For the unbelieving child this presentation of God’s self-revelation in His Creation is a part of the external call of God.  The ideal outcome is that he will recognize and begin to respond to the things of God.

In education we bring before the child what is good, true, and beautiful, and yet the one who is unregenerate is not able to choose or do good. This sounds on the surface like quite a fruitless exercise. It is as if we are giving children food which they do not have the ability to digest. We can pour as much as we like down their throats but they are unable to get the good of it.  And if it were not for the role of God in all this, that would certainly be the case, not just for the unbeliever but for the believer as well. Ultimately, education is the work of the Holy Spirit . As teachers, we need to see ourselves as His instruments and we need to expect that He will work.

There are going to be times when teaching seems to bear no fruit. We should not be surprised when our students’ hearts are hard and they do not take in the food we present. This is the natural human state and a certain amount of futility is to be expected. Even in the believing child, there is still a sin nature which fights the work we are doing. Nonetheless our expectation must always be that God will work. When we present the gospel to someone, we do so in the hope that they will receive it. Though in education our message is more general, we are nonetheless bringing the things of God to our audience. We should do so in the hope that they will respond positively and in the knowlegde that God can enable them to do so.  I would even go beyond this and say that if God has placed an unregenerate child in the care of a reformed Christian teacher like you that He probably has plans for that child’s life and that there is a good chance He will make His words effective unto salvation and save that child.

I only teach my own covenant children in a homeschool setting and I can testify that there are times when it is a discouraging enterprise. If you have a larger class and have unbelieving children in it or perhaps even teach in the public schools in a setting in which you cannot speak as cleraly as you’d like, I imagine the temptation to despair is even greater. But we must, as always, see with the eyes of faith and know that the seeds we sow may be germinating though we see no little shoots sprouting yet. We sow the seed; it is up to God to bring the harvest, but we must always — with prayer — hope that He will bring that harvest.  This is the expectation of the teacher.

Nebby

 

Reformed Christian Education: Drawing Some Conclusions

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Read all the posts here.

I began this series in January by arguing that we need a distinctively reformed Christian approach to education.   It is now July and we have looked at a number of different issues. I would like to try and draw some of these strands together and to propose some conclusions. Thus far most of what I have said has been on a fairly theoretical level — it is about the why of education more than the day-to-day hows. I can’t promise there won’t be more theory in the future but my goal moving forward is to look more at the practical details and to begin to show how we can implement the theory in real life.

Early on, I tried to show that every philosophy of education makes some assumptions, whether acknowledged or not, about who the child is and why we educate. As such education is a very theological enterprise. If our theology is distinctive — and as reformed people we do tend to be pretty picky about theology — we should expect those distinctives to show up in our philosophy of education.

My goal today is not to say something new but to combine everything in one place so we can see how it all fits together. If you want more depth on any point and/or to see where I got these ideas, click on the links provided (or, again, all the posts in this series can be found here). First we will look at  who we are educating by reviewing the nature of the child. Then we we will look at what we are teaching. Finally we will look at what happens when you bring the two together, what is the desired outcome and how does it come about.

The Nature of the Child

Every philosophy of education makes assumptions about the child, his nature and abilities. We looked at the child in both the Old and New Testaments and saw that:

  • Children are not a separate category of being. That is to say, they are at a most basic level the same sort of creature as adults.
  • All people, including children, consist of physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual aspects. Though the Bible speaks of the mind, heart, soul and strength, it does not divide up a person in such a way that one of these parts can be addressed or can operate in isolation from the others.
  • Children are included in the body of God’s people and are called to obey God’s law.
  • Children are capable both of sin and of faith (through grace, of course).
  • Though they are in all these ways the same as adults, children are nonetheless ignorant and foolish. They are in particular need of education and discipline and the Bible says one’s youth is the best time for these activities.

Anyone who educates assumes that his pupil is in some way incomplete or imperfect. If he were both perfect and complete, there would be no need for education. The child’s lack of certain abilities, what we might call his immaturity, is generally not in dispute. An infant cannot eat steak or talk or walk or write his ABCs or do calculus. There are both physical and intellectual milestones which he has not acheived and cannot acheive in his current state.

One big question any philosophy of education needs to answer is how the child begins to be able to do these things. Will he pick up reading and calculus as naturally as he does walking and talking? Does he need input from adults to master these skills and if so, how much input?

How we answer these questions about the child’s physical and intellectual development is often tied closely to our view of his moral development. Those who view the child as inherently good tend to want to leave him to his own devices on the intellectual plane as well, trusting that he will aquire what is needful to him. This is the approach known as  unschooling.  Radical Unschoolers do not discipline because they trust the child to grow in correct ways on his own, not just physically and intellectually but morally and emotionally as well.

Most professing Christians would not go quite so far. Though all major branches of Christianity have some understanding of man’s fallen nature, how this is interpreted and what it means varies widely (see this post or this one).  The Roman Catholic Church, and many Protestants as well, accept the idea of Original Sin but stop short of the reformed doctrine of Total Depravity. As the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) lays out,  we believe that all the parts of human nature as being affected by sin (WCF IV). To the extent that the mind in particular is affected, this is going to alter how we educate and how successful we can be in education.

To sum up, as we look at who we are educating, we need to see that the child is fully human with all the aspects of a person, mind, soul, heart, and body. On the spiritual place, he is called to obey God’s law, but, like his parents, has a sin nature which makes him incapable of doing so. Nonethless, he also, again like his parents, is capable — by God’s grace alone — of true saving faith. His other aspects are not independent of his spiritual nature or of each other. They too have been affected by the Fall. His body, heart, and mind are not just immature due to his age and abilities but are corrupted.

The Fodder of Education

Before going too far, I want to reiterate a point that I made last time: when I speak of education I am defining it fairly narrowly as an intellectual activity. Because we are all made up of parts, the mind cannot be separated entirely from the other aspects of a person. This is easy to see on a practical level: we cannot easily educate a hungry child or one in the midst of emotional truama. So too education is also closely tied to discipline, but it is not discipline (see this post of biblical discipline). Nonetheless, education, as I am definfing it (and this is largely a matter of definition), is an affair of the mind.

If we want our children’s bodies to grow as they ought, we give them good food and exercise. If we want their minds to grow, we must also nourish and work them. Most of us already have some idea of what we want our children to learn — they must read and write and do at least basic math.  They should have some knowledge of history and science and maybe learn a foreign langauge. When we get into the specifics later this year, I will address each of these subjects and talk about why teach them and how. For now I hope that we can at least all see that there is some body of knowledge that comprises education whatever that may be.

All this stuff we teach, the fodder of education if you will, falls under the heading of Natural or General Revelation.  The Scriptures are God’s Supernatural Revelation to us in that they come not through the laws of Creation which God has ordained but directly from God Himself. They are also termed Special Revelation because they give specific knowledge to man about salvation and redemption. In contrast, God’s Natural or General Revelation comes to us through His Creation and teaches us about God in a more broad way.

Too often, I think, we limit General Revelation. We may take a brief walk in the woods and say some things about beauty and order and then we move on. But there is a lot more to General Revelation than we can get from a quick surface observation. The testimony of scientists, both believers and non-believers, is that the more we delve into the universe and look at how it works, the more wonder we find. Nor is General Revelation limited to the physical universe. God also reveals Himself through events  and through people:

“General revelation does not come to man in the form of direct verbal communications. It consists in an embodiment of the divine thought in the phenomena of nature, in the general constitution of the human mind, and in the facts of experience or history.” Louis Berkhof, Manual of Christian Doctrine [Grand Rapids: Eeerdmans, 1981 (originally published 1933)] pp. 26-27

Of course, believing parents will also teach their children the Scriptures, but the bulk of what we teach falls under the heading of God’s General Revelation. For a glimpse into how many of the traditional school subjects reveal the Creator, see this post.

What Happens in Education

Imagine yourself in front of a class of children. Some are from Christian homes. They are what we call covenant children. By God’s gracious decree, we assume them to be part of His covenant people. They are redeemed and, while still sin lives in them, they are capable of choosing and doing good. Others in your class are not from Christian homes. As yet we see no evidence of salvation in them, though of course we hope and pray that they will be saved. These children are not (yet) capable of choosing and doing good. When you teach a lesson to these children, they hear the same words and read the same books, but what is happening in them is fundamentally different because they are fundamentally different.  While there is one thing we do when we educate, there are two fundamentally different purposes, one for the believing covenant child and one for the (as yet) unsaved child.

Thus far we have looked at who the child is and at what we are teaching him. Now it is time to see what happens when we take the fodder of education and present it to our pupil. In education, we present to the child the things of God, all the truth and beauty and goodness that God has given is in His General Revelation. How this is received, whether it even can be received, will depend upon the character of the recipient and the work of the Holy Spirit.

It is actually a little easier to discern what is happening with the non-believer. Paul tells us in Romans what the purpose of General Revelation is in the life of the non-believer:

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Rom. 1:20-21; ESV)

General Revelation is a revealing of the Creator God. To the extent that men fail to see the Creator behind the creation, it serves to condemn them. Of course, if we are educators, we hope — and pray — that this will not be the case for our students. We desire that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, they will recognize their Creator in the things He has made and done.

Perhaps your student has seen a tree (I hope!) but maybe he has never appreciated the intricate process by which sunlight becomes food for the plant and ultimately for us. When we bring these things before our non-believing students, those outside the covenant community of God, we are playing a part in the process that will ultimately either lead to their salvation or seal their fate.  In theological language, this is the External Call which goes forth to all humanity (see this post). [1]

A covenant child or one who has made a profession of faith is in a bit of a different situation (for my previous discussion of this point, incuding a lot more verse references, see this post).  The base condition of man is to be unable to choose or do good. As discussed above, all aspects of his being are affected and are fallen or corrupted.  But once the Holy Spirit has begun to dwell in a person this is no longer the case. We are still pretty sinful people, but we are no longer ruled by our sin natures. We are in the midst of a process called sanctification which will last throughout this life. Sanctification means that we are gradually being made more holy. The image of God in us is being perfected as we are made more like Christ who is Himself the perfect Image of God (Col. 1:15).

As reformed people, we believe that the Fall affected all aspects of our natures. So too sanctification affects all aspects — body, mind, heart and soul (WCF XIII:II). In education we bring before our believing students the things of God. What happens when God’s people learn and think about what He has made and done? They are transformed (cf. Phil. 4:8-9) —

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12:1-2; ESV)

This renewal of the mind is one piece of sanctification and should be something we desire and actively seek for ourselves and our children.

We are often tempted to concentarte exclusively on the moral aspect of sanctification. We focus on whether we have sinned today and how much and is it any less than yesterday. Fighting specific sins on our lives is essential, but it is not the whole of sanctification. There is a lot to be said also for immersing ourselves in the world God has made not because it will make us better — though it will – but simply because He has made it. As I argued in this post, the pursuit of knowledge and beauty for their own sakes is valuable because all true knowledge and beauty come from and belong to God. Nonetheless, because all the aspects of our beings work together, we should expect that as we actively participate in the sanctification of our minds by feeding them the things of God that we will become better people as well. As I discussed in this post there is an intimate connection between faith and knowledge.

Conclusion and the Most Important Point

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov. 1:7; ESV; cf. Prov. 1:29; 2:5; 9:10)

You can’t go far in the book of Proverbs without seeing that faith and knowledge go hand in hand. True knowledge comes from God (James 1:5). When we educate we bring before people — no matter their age — the things of God. We show them what He has made and how it works and what He has done in history and how He has made us. These are things we should all spend more time contemplating.

What happens when we bring these thinsg before a particular pesrons depends not on us but entirely on the eternal plan of God and the work of the Holy Spirit in that person’s life. Let me say that again because it really is the most important point I can make today: We don’t “teach” anyone anything. We bring to them the things of God and whether they receive those things or not is dependent upon the work of God the Holy Spirit in their lives. If the student before us is not a believer, we hope and pray that they see God in what we show them and that it will be the beginning of faith. If they already have faith, we expect that they will grow in that faith and in their understanding of God as they  contemplate what He has done.

Nebby

[1] A side bar: You may be asking yourself: Why not just present Special Revelation, i.e. the message of the Scriptures, to the unbelieving child? Of course in the end we all need to understand the particulars of the gospel message. If you are teaching unbelieving children in a Christian school or in your home, you should certainly make the Bible part of their shcool day. But you might be teaching in a setting in which you cannot do that (a public or non-Christian school) or it may be that your student is not ready for the meat of the gospel yet. Special Revelation is essential to salvation in a way that General revelation is not, yet General Revelation is one of the ordinary means God uses to prepare hearts for the work of His Spirit.

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