jasonbwatson

September 19, 2014

(Re)Defining Education

I do not like to “attack” fellow laborers in the field of Christian education. We get enough attacks from outside of Christian ed; no need to go after each other. At the same time, though, there is a need to identify and confront error when it exists, whether in Christian education, within the church or anywhere else within the realm of Christendom. Much to my dismay, yesterday I read an article in a Christian education publication that requires such confrontation. Adding to my dismay is the fact that this article was written by the dean of the School of Education at one of the leading Christian universities in the United States, which causes me no small amount of concern about what the education majors at this university are being taught.

The article begins with the question, “What should Christian education look like in the twenty-first century?” The author then states that in order to answer this question it is necessary to “consider how the twenty-first century child learns.” As part of his answer to that, he writes, “Watch a middle childhood student multitask by playing a video game, texting a friend on her phone, video chatting on her computer, and working on her homework.” The implication is that she is doing all of these things at the same time. And right there, not even a paragraph into the article, my hackles are raised. There is no reason for a “middle childhood student” to have the technology available to be doing all of these things at once. She certainly does not need all of this technology of her own. (Frankly, I do not even know what “middle childhood” means, because I do not think it is a term I have ever heard before. Since the article also references elementary students and young adolescents, I am assuming “middle childhood” must encompass ages 10-12 or so). Thus, the initial concern with this individual’s recommendations is that we are granting the notion of children having almost free reign over various and sundry digital devices, and that is a notion I think we should be challenging, not granting.

The writer goes on to state this: “These twenty-first century learners are comfortable with instant communication with anyone anywhere in the world; quick access to vast, accurate (or not) information; and the immediate ability to produce creative multisensory projects with only access to the Internet. These students interact with content and each other in a different way than students did just a decade ago” (emphasis his). Again, though, I challenge the notion that because students are comfortable with this that we therefore should educate them this way. Just because students are comfortable with something–anything–does not mean it should be incorporated into a classroom setting. Students are no doubt comfortable wearing shorts and t-shirts, lounging on their sofa and munching on snacks while they do all the various things described in the paragraph above. By no means does that mean that we should allow them to behave that way in classrooms.

Notice, as well, in the above quote, the repeated use of words that refer to instant gratification–“instant communication,” “quick access” and “immediate ability.” We live in a world that is all about doing things faster, so it is no surprise that students are used to this pace. Frankly, that is all the more reason why we should avoid automatically engaging them that way in classrooms. The attention span of many students today is shorter than this sentence. That is a problem, not an opportunity. That means teaching styles that do not conform to their “give it to me now” preferences will take them some getting used to, may even make them uncomfortable. That’s good. It is not good because I think being mean to students is fun. Rather, it is good because learning necessarily entails becoming uncomfortable. Unless I become uncomfortable with the fact that there are things I do not know there will be absolutely zero motivation for me strive to know them. While being able to learn in familiar and comfortable methods can be a valuable part of education, learning how to learn in new and unfamiliar ways is also an important part of education. I am well aware of the fact that technology is moving and developing at breakneck speed. Though students find it hard to believe when I tell them this, can remember television commercials when I was in elementary school that had the tag line “Computers are coming your way!” I can remember the first computer we ever had in a classroom and I can remember when my elementary school got a computer lab. This was big news–literally. A reporter and camera from a local news affiliate showed up to record the story! So things have changed, and are changing, and that is not going to change. But classroom instruction does need to mirror or follow every technological advancement–certainly not in toto.

On this point the author of the article I am critiquing and I clearly disagree. He writes, “It is essential to synch today’s classroom with the twenty-first century student’s way of learning.” This is simply not true. Neither is it necessarily wise. Yes, the use of technology is an important component of teaching, and teachers should take advantage of the many things that technology can enable them to do that truly enhance their instruction, but that should be one tool in their toolbox. Oddly enough, the author states as much when he writes, “A teacher’s toolbox of instructional models, methods, and strategies should contain a plethora of ways to engage students in the academic content to motivate them to learn.” That is odd for this reason–synching classrooms with the student’s way of learning is contradictory to using a plethora of ways to engage students. The implication of the first statement, and indeed of much of the article, is that classrooms need to adapt to students’ preferred and comfortable styles period.

Another erroneous premise of the article is that the utilization of all of the bells, whistles and wonders of the latest technology is necessary for effective learning. The author writes, “The educator must purposefully plan to create multiple memories for each concept. This current understanding of how the brain works best aligns with a nontraditional, student-centered approach to teaching, which is compatible for the twenty-first century learner.” Unless I am missing something or misunderstanding something, these coupling is absurd. Yes, the multiple memory idea is valid. However, it can be utilized in addition to a traditional approach; it does not have to be used instead of it. Furthermore, the implication is that traditional instruction does not (cannot?) create multiple memory pathways, and that implication is simply false; it is entirely possible to create multiple memories without utilizing technology.

While there are several additional points I could make here, I am endeavoring to keep my critique of the article shorter than the article itself, so let me jump to this statement made close to the article’s conclusion. “Unfortunately, too many Christian school classrooms are based on the traditional model of instruction in which the teacher is the giver of all information, forcing the learner to be passive and absorb factual-based information.” I would challenge both the use of the word “all” in that sentence and the idea that learners are necessarily passive in traditional instruction. Neither is automatically true.

This author states that utilizing individualized instructional models that conform to students’ interests will “increase the probability that the student will become successful.” Frankly, I disagree. I think what it will do is increase the probability that the student will become self-centered and unprepared for the realities of life. Are we really serving students, or adequately preparing them for “the real world,” by making everything focused on them? By tailoring, or allowing them to tailor, everything to their own likes, styles and preferences? I would answer with a hearty no. That the dean of the school of education of one of America’s leading evangelical universities thinks yes–and thus, no doubt, ensures that education students at his university are taught yes–does not bode well for the future of Christian education. This is not a defining of twenty-first century education, it is a redefining of education for the twenty-first century.

June 20, 2014

“The fragrance of spiritual devoutness”

George Müller died in 1898. Arthur Pierson died in 1911. Pierson wrote a biography of Müller, entitled George Müller of Bristol, an excellent book. In the book he shared a concern about the education of children of Christian parents. More than one hundred years later that concern has proven to be incredibly prescient. Here is what Pierson wrote…

Many Christian parents have made the fatal mistake of entrusting their children’s education to those whose gifts were wholly intellectual and not spiritual, and who have misled the young pupils entrusted in their care into an irreligious or infidel life, or, at best, a career of mere intellectualism and worldly ambition. In not a few instances, all the influences of a pious home have been counteracted by the atmosphere of a school which, if not godless, has been without the fragrance of spiritual devoutness and consecration which is indispensable to the true training of impressionable children during the plastic years when character is forming for eternity.

Solomon write, in Ecclesiastes 1:9, “there is nothing new under the sun.” That is certainly true in this instance. Pierson could easily have written that rebuke yesterday and it would have been just as accurate, if not more so, as when he wrote it.

It is not my intention here to attack Christian parents who send their children to public schools, but it is my intention to offer a word of caution. It is my hope that perhaps those parents will take time to reflect on the decisions they have made regarding the education of their children and perhaps prompt them to reconsider.

I know that there are some very good public schools in the United States, schools that are safe, staffed by competent and even caring individuals and that provide students with a top-notch academic education. There are certainly public schools with fantastic facilities. Despite those perks, there are real problems with even the very best public schools. It simply is not possible for an educational setting to be morally neutral or for any teacher to teach in a morally neutral fashion. Every person (and therefore every teacher) has a worldview. Every public school has rules which prevent the inclusion of some things and require the inclusion of others. Often those things which are excluded are the very things Christian parents should desire for their children while those things which are included are the very things Christian parents would likely desire that their students not be exposed to or influenced by.

Quite simply, there is not–and in the current climate of the United States cannot be–a public school that contains “the fragrance of spiritual devoutness and consecration which is indispensable to the true training of impressionable children during the plastic years when character is forming for eternity.” Parents need to carefully and prayerfully consider the atmosphere and environment in which they are placing their children. Between kindergarten and high school graduation a student will spend some fifteen thousand hours in school. That’s nearly two full years of life if the child were in school 24/7.

The character of children is being formed for eternity and in many instances that character is firmly established by the time the child leaves home. What influences are shaping the character of your child?

May 28, 2013

Jesus Matters All the Time

In a recent article in Tabletalk, a monthly periodical with articles and Bible studies from Ligonier Ministries, R.C. Sproul, Jr. wrote an article entitled “In the School of Christ.” The article begins with this paragraph:

It is not hard to complain about the government’s schools. The government, at least during every election cycle, seems less than satisfied with its own product, ever promising us that it will improve. Atheists complain about prayers before football games. Christians complain about the teaching of sexual (im)morality. Everyone complains about graduation rates and test scores.

When it comes to government schools, Mr. Sproul is right; there is plenty to complain about, and the complaints come from all sides. And any efforts at improvement are met with new obstacles. Michelle Rhee faced overwhelming opposition when she tried to clean up the mess that was Washington, D.C. public schools. No Child Left Behind, a joint effort of the unlikely-combo of Ted Kennedy and George W. Bush did seemingly little to accomplish the goals it established for improving the education (read, test scores) of American school children, and the newest version, Race to the Top, is not any better. Now Common Core State Standards have been almost unanimously adopted in the U.S. to establish clearer expectations of what students in schools should be learning, and when, and these are encountering opposition and obstacles of their own–some perhaps legitimate, others seemingly concocted from thin air by Glenn Beck and others.

Private schools tend to fare better than public ones in the test scores and graduation rate areas. The school where I serve, for example, had a 100% graduation rate this year, and last year, and our high school students’ mean scale scores exceeded the national norm group in every subject area in our standardized testing this year.

However, that does not automatically mean that our school is successful. It does in a graduation rate and standardized test conversation, but that is not the sole reason why our school exists. Our school exists to invest in the entire student, body, mind and soul–spiritual, physical, intellectual, communal and emotional (SPICE). Sproul writes later in his article that children “are not products to be manufactured but lives to be nurtured.” Referencing the Shema, Sproul says, “Moses is talking about an immersive educational experience–we are to talk about the things of God with our children always and everywhere. The things of God are to be the very warp and woof of our daily conversation.” Sproul is specifically challenging parents to be instructing their children about God all the time. And that is what sets our school apart from government schools. The students at our school–and at many Christian schools–are receiving excellent academic instruction, but are also receiving intentional and intensive spiritual instruction, being taught about God in Bible class, yes, but also in science and history, in physical education and music, at the lunch table and after school. Effective Christian education destroys any boundaries that exist between the five SPICE areas outlined above.

Sproul continues,

Most of us are the products of schools that taught us to divide our lives, to separate what we think about Jesus and what we think about our work, to separate what we think about our work and what we think about our play. We give time to Jesus on Sundays, perhaps on Wednesday nights, and, if we are peculiarly pious, every day during our quiet times. These all may be terribly good things, but not if they are hermetically sealed. We dare not believe that Jesus matters only during these times while He is beside the point the rest of our days.

That is exactly right, and that is exactly what sets truly Christian education–whether it takes place in a Christian school or in a homeschool–apart from education at government schools or even most private schools: Christian education does not believe that Jesus matters only during specific times set aside for Bible study and worship, but that Jesus matters all the time.

May 2, 2013

Brainwashing Kids?

On Tuesday, April 30 Answers in Genesis posted an article entitled “Intolerant Atheists Viciously Attack Christian School.” In the article, written by AiG founder and president Ken Ham and Mark Looy, it is revealed that a fourth grade student who attends Blue Ridge Christian Academy in South Carolina recently wanted an AiG video in her science class and took a quiz on the video. The student received a 100% on the quiz, but apparently both her father and a family friend were quite angry when they learned that she was learning a biblical understanding of creation in general and dinosaurs specifically. The friend took a picture of the two-sided quiz and posted it on Reddit, and it then made its way through the atheists blogosphere. Then Snopes got a hold of the story and decided to investigate, since the original posts did not name the school where the quiz was given. Amazing, isn’t it, how incensed people can get over an 18-question elementary school science quiz when the questions on the test stem from a biblical worldview.

Snopes investigative efforts eventually led to an e-mail from the father of the student whose quiz was posted, in which he stated the following: “I didn’t know that this was being taught to her until we heard a radio commercial together about the Discover the Dinosaurs exhibit was coming to the TD Convention Center [in Greenville, South Carolina]. … The test showed up a day later to my disgust. It’s a great school for Reading, Writing and Math. She is ahead of most of her peers and also is taking Latin there. But I now know to be vigilant for the rest of the year about her science teachings. She will not be attending the school next year….”

It is difficult to countenance someone saying that they were completely surprised that this was being taught, given that the web site of Blue Ridge Christian Academy includes the school’s Statement of Beliefs, which begins with this: “We believe the Bible to be inspired; the only infallible, authoritative, inerrant Word of God (2 Timothy 3:15-16; 2 Peter 1:21).” Furthermore, if you make another click or two with your mouse you will find that BRCA’s web site also includes information about its curriculum. The Lower School Curriculum page states that Christian Schools International (CSI) materials are used for science classes, and states this: “Science lessons are creation-based, student-centered and hands-on.” Take a few more clicks with your mouse and make a few keystrokes and literally within less than 15 seconds I find the information on CSI’s web site regarding their science curriculum: “Christian Schools International’s 2nd edition science curriculum, revised in 2011, leads students to see God’s hand in the world around them. The materials will enrich their knowledge of creation, affirm their faith in the creator, and empower them to be good stewards of creation.” I am sure that BRCA requires parents of its students to sign an agreement acknowledging an understanding of the school’s Statement of Beliefs and an understanding that students in the school will be taught accordingly. Furthermore, it is a bit absurd for the father of this student to say that he had no idea this was being taught when his daughter has been at the school for who-knows-how-long already and when it is easily discernible within a few minutes on the computer.

Another blog site, entitled the Friendly Atheist, had this to say about the quiz in question: “…even if it’s legal, no school should be brainwashing kids like this in the name of science, and the father and the Reddit submitter have a duty to name the school when the time comes so we can expose them.” When I read that I was not sure whether to laugh or cry. This person is accusing BRCA in particular, along with Answers in Genesis, and anyone who holds to a biblical view of creation in general, of “brainwashing kids…in the name of science”! Isn’t that exactly what public schools are doing all across the country, teaching children that the earth is the result of a big bang and that life evolved over millions of years from some kind of ooze eventually becoming a monkey eventually becoming a man? Aren’t evolutionists the ones brainwashing kids in the name of science, touting the theory of evolution as scientific fact even though there is no scientific evidence to support the theory? And isn’t it ironic that in any other field of academic inquiry most intellectuals and academics and yes, liberals, claim to love the idea of exposing students to as many theories, opinions, arguments and just plain speculations as possible, but when it comes to science the creationist position must be shut out?

If you look around a little bit online you will find that the atheist, evolutionist and anti-Christian community is aghast that such stuff would be taught in a Christian school. The AiG article includes this reaction from the BRCA administrator: “The school administrator informed us she knew that the school would be involved in a spiritual battle after the quiz went public, but she was not expecting such ferocity. She told us she was shocked at the level of hate that the atheists poured down upon her, the teacher, and the school in general.”

I for one hope that BRCA will continue to stand strong for the truth of God’s Word in the face of this criticism, and that it will accept the hate being sent its direction as a high honor, a sign that the school is doing what God has called it to do. After all, Jesus Himself said that the world will hate His followers because it hated Him first (John 15:18).

I must echo Mr. Ham and Mr. Looy, who included this statement in their article: “More than ever, God’s people need to be standing up publicly and unashamedly for the authority of His Word.” Amen!

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