Friday, September 07, 2007

The latest issue of Educational Leadership revealed some findings on recent brain research. They write, "One of the most important findings is that emotion is a driving force behind learning. If we don't see emotional relevance in what we experience, we often don't allow that information to sink in."

I think the whole of scripture affirms this as well as evidence from personal experience. When we are commanded to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, it is a statement that strongly implies those aspects of ourselves are interrelated. Can one fully love God with one's heart without fully loving him with one's mind? Or with one's mind without one' heart?

The greatest learning experiences I have had have been when it has been coupled with a real sense of meaning - an emotional response that tells me that this particular item of knowledge has real importance - that I would be less of a person for not knowing it and a greater person for having learned it. And this is true not just of so-called "sacred" things, but also the "mundane" - the life of a peasant in the Middle Ages; the physical forces present in the motion of bodies; how certain letters combined to form cluster sounds; how art can more forcefully present ideas. etc.

These kind of topics only have value to our students if the students have a sense of the importance of the knowledge. Too often we use cold utilitarianism to motivate them: "You're going to need to know this for the test"; "If you want to get into a good college, you better learn this"; "You need to get prepared for the next grade level". I think students see right through this pretty quickly and utilitiarian motivational tactics are, in my opinion, one of the leading causes of demotivation among American students.

Rather, when students are taught, encouraged, modeled, engaged with ideas that have real meaning and purpose (and really, don't all ideas have meaning and purpose?), their emotions kick in and learning takes off. All great Christian schol teachers have a way of demonstrating to their students how the content leads them to greater thoughts, greater actions, and greater lives. A old professor of mine used the term "high-heartedness" - a sense of nobility to our learning that would motivate even the most stubborn of students. If we can do this, even the mundane becomes sacred.

Friday, April 27, 2007

We have now had a few weeks to gain some perspective on the shootings at Virginia Tech. During that time my thoughts, like many others I’m sure, have run the gamut and changed many times. As I try to sort through them here is what I have come to:

  • Are we to take Proverbs 22:6 (Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.) as an absolute, unconditional promise? I ask this because reports from the media give strong indications that Cho came from a family of believers who spent a lot of time praying for and agonizing over him, even before the shootings. Because his life ended in the most unthinkable way, are we to assume that he was not trained properly by his parents? How are we to explain the number of our students that have had great, godly parents, only to see the student become rebellious. While we can hold out hope that they will turn back, is the Proverbs passage a guarantee that they will? Cho didn’t. If we hold to the passage as an absolute promise that every child who was trained correctly will turn out well, I think we can do more harm than good because they don’t always turn out well. And I really think that leaves parents unnecessarily open to judgmentalism and guilt. Rather than an absolute promise, perhaps this passage is merely providing guidance on child rearing. The literary use of proverbs typically isn’t seen as absolute. (“An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” can both be true but non-absolute, right?) I think in our school we need to be very careful about making judgments on parents and casting aspersions on them because of how their children turn out, even in the long run. It is God who chooses to make out of the same lump of clay both pots for noble purposes and pots for ignoble purposes.

  • The power of words came forcefully to my mind. Cho was clearly a person who had suffered verbal abuse from peers and those words took a terrible toll on him. I say this not to exonerate him, but to highlight the potency of the spoken word. God spoke the universe and life itself into existence. He takes it away in the same manner. As people made in God’s image, it would seem that human words have the same type of power, different only in degree but not in kind. As teachers who speak and use words every day as the tools of our trade, this has significant ramifications. We have the ability to extend life to our students, or to restrict it. Not in the ultimate sense - of course, that is God’s prerogative alone - but certainly in the temporal sense.

  • The brutal results of a lack of forgiveness, jealousy, and narcissism were laid out for all to see. Is it any wonder why scripture commands us to forgive, and to be content, and to think of others ahead of ourselves? We were not made to hold the rage that comes from doing otherwise. The command to forgive is for our own good as much as for the good of others. Cho’s unwillingness to abide by that command destroyed him and 32 others. People cannot live with impunity in a way contrary to the order God has established without suffering repercussions, even brutal ones. What a juxtaposition between Cho and the young lady who twice placed a stone remembrance out for him on the school lawn and urged her fellow students to forgive.

    Just thinking. What are your thoughts?

Thursday, March 01, 2007

I recently read this little essay by T.M Moore and thought about how important it was in teaching worldview to teach the beauty of Christianity. That is so easy to miss in our classrooms as we think about all the other content we have to get through. But it is the beauty of Christianity that draws so many people to it.

Jesus taught His followers to believe that they could change the world, that something in their lifestyle and the message they proclaimed would wield power to turn the world on its head, so to speak. Indeed, the first Christians did precisely that (Acts 17:1-9), as they challenged, sapped, and, finally, overthrew the false worldview of Roman emperor worship and brought to light the Kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

How were they able to achieve such a revolution of worldviews? A second-century apology for the Christian movement, written by one Aristeides, and probably of Syrian origin, gives us some insight:

[The Christians] have the commandments of the Lord Jesus Christ himself engraven on their hearts, and these they observe. The commit neither adultery nor fornication; nor do they bear false witness, they do not deny a deposit, nor covet other men’s goods: they honour father and mother, and love their neighbours: they give right judgment; and they do not worship idols in the form of man. They do not unto other that which they would not have done unto themselves. The comfort such as wrong them, and make friends of them: they labour to do good to their enemies. They walk in all humility and kindness, and falsehood is not found among them, and they love one another. They despise not the widow, and grieve not the orphan. He that hath distributeth liberally to him that hath not. If they see a stranger, they bring him under their roof, and rejoice over him, as it were their own brother. And if there is among them a man that is poor and needy, and they have not an abundance of necessaries, they fast two or three days that they may supply the need with their necessary food. They keep Christ’s commandments faithfully, living righteous and holy lives, as the Lord commanded them, giving thanks every morning and every hour, for meat and drink and every blessing. And because they acknowledge the goodness of God towards them, lo! on account of them there flows forth the beauty that is in the world.

Did you catch that last line? “On account of them there flows forth the beauty that is in the world.” How was the Roman world – a world of gruesome and violent games, rampant sensuality, and the ugliness of slavery, exposure of children, decaying cities, and urban poverty, how was such an empire flooded with the beauty of the Lord? By the daily obedience and ordinary faithfulness of multiplied thousands of the followers of Christ.

In the divine economy influence flows from indwelling. Where the Lord is – where people are growing in His mind and character, nurturing relationships of selfless love, and serving by the humblest, everyday means – there beauty will flow to anoint and transform all that is ugly and dying with the newness of goodness, truth, and life.

Influence flows from indwelling. The more we grow in the Lord the greater will be the power for transformation that flows from us into all the relationships, roles, and responsibilities of our everyday lives. We will change the world one grain of salt, one photon of light, one gram of leaven at a time.

Back in 1974 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn mused on what it would take for the Soviet megalith to come crashing down and his beloved mother Russia to be restored to freedom and beauty. A violent revolution? A fresh, well-oiled, potent political movement? Economic pressure from the West? What Solzhenitsyn prescribed is more like what really happened in the candlelight revolution of 1989. He wrote, in an essay entitled, “As Breathing and Consciousness Return,” that all that was needed for the restoration of mother Russia was for each faithful Russian “to take a moral step within his own power.”

Small steps, taken in concert with millions of Christ-minded brothers and sisters, quickly amount to tsunami proportions of influence.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Last night in our Advisory Team meeting, we spent time discussing Tozer’s statement in The Knowledge of the Holy, “So, were every man on earth to become atheist, it would not affect God in any way. He is what He is in Himself without regard to any other. To believe in Him adds nothing to His perfections; to doubt Him takes nothing away.”

What a statement. The implications of it are profound, expansive and nuanced. I don’t think we could ever fully understand such an idea so I wonder how many of us truly believe it?

I know I can affirm it mentally and yet live in a very different way. I sometimes get trapped into thinking I must persuade my students of a particular idea about God in order to legitimize God (or more likely, me). As if he becomes weaker or I become less of a teacher if a group of 16 year-olds don’t think something about him. All this attitude does is lead to frustration on my part, resentment on the students’ part, and likely a wonderment on God’s part, as in “What was Troy thinking?”

If we were to fully commit to the idea that what we or our student believe about him adds nothing and takes nothing away from him because he is completely sufficient and independent of us, we would revolutionize our classrooms. The teachers and students would have a level of freedom that would change the dynamic in our school. We would be free to explore those dark and hidden, yet very real, questions and issues that we so often fear students have (as if we’ve never had them ourselves). We would no longer view ourselves as teachers who must get our students to agree with us, but as teachers who allows students to freely explore and think about big questions, given them biblical guidance along the way, but recognizing that God will work in the student’s heart however he wishes, regardless of what we do. That is the kind of environment in which I believe the deepest learning in all disciplines would take place.

By the way, if you have never read Knowledge of the Holy, you are missing out. My pastor in college wrote to about 50 of the top Christian leaders (Stott, Sproul, people like that) for a book he was writing and asked them to list the books that have had the most influence on them. Knowledge of the Holy was by far the most frequently mentioned. It’s a life-changing book.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A good discussion after school yesterday on the book, Punished by Rewards. I’m really enjoying these discussions as I learn a lot by hearing other people’s ideas and having them force me to sharpen my own. The great thing about the discussions we have is that not everybody agrees with each other or the author. That’s what a faculty ought to be doing, I believe!

For those who wanted to be there and missed it (or maybe even those who had no plans to be there in the first place), here is a brief summary of what was discussed. I’ll try to be as fair as possible in my summary, but it is my blog, after all. If you don’t like it, post a response! J

Here are the some of the issues that came up:

Authority – Kohn’s position on authority was quite clear – adults ought not to impinge on the autonomy of a child. Setting aside the practical impossibilities of that (it is impossible for anyone to be completely autonomous, even if he tried) there were concerns that this was blatantly unbiblical. God seems to ordain a hierarchy of authority and expects us to submit to it. How, though, is that authority to relate the individuals below? In other words, how much autonomy should be granted to an individual by a rightful authority?

Assessment – Do grades motivate students to do better work? Our anecdotal comments were mixed. AP English students seemed to think the idea would free them from an unnecessary burden that had little to do with the quality of work they would produce. Even if they were convinced eliminated traditional grades would work, though, teachers still wrestled with how to implement such a policy given the current system which assumes grades will exist (parent expectations, college admissions, scholarships, etc.)

God and Rewards – A lot of time was spent on what we thought was a critical point – is God a rewarder by nature? How we answer this question really determines much of how a Christian ought to think about the whole book. A number of scripture passages were shared in which scripture itself describes God as a reward giver for those who seek him, those who are merciful, those who are peacemakers, and many, many others.
A counterpoint was made, however, that these might be different kinds of rewards than what Kohn is talking about. Kohn seems to criticize rewards that are superfluous to the child’s action (i.e., do your chores without complaining and you will get a sticker); whereas God’s rewards seem to be directly related to the action. In other words, if you plant corn in the spring and then reap a harvest, the harvest is the “reward”, or natural outworking, of the hard work. Similarly, when God rewards righteousness, it is with things that come as a result of righteousness, namely expanded fellowship with him.
The discussion, due to time constraints, dealt very little with the actual research Kohn submits, which I think is formidable and we would be remiss in not considering. He gives mountains of evidence that providing extrinsic rewards results in the long run in lower motivation, productivity, creativity and other valuable traits. It is easy to dismiss this research as “secular,” and I am sure there is counter research available (there always is), but I’m not convinced that we can easily ignore what Kohn offers.

Our next discussion will be in early spring and again at the end of the year so keep an eye out for those. The two books we are looking at doing are Silence, by Shusaku Endo and When I Don’t Desire God, by John Piper. Silence is a powerful novel (for those who like stories!) about the persecution of Christians in shogun Japan. The title of the book becomes unsettling as you read it. Endo, a Christian, is one of the most lauded authors in Japan. The book is not directly related to Christian education but a great book that should be read. Piper’s book, on the other hand, has things that speak directly to the milieu we work in every day.

I’ll get dates and signups to everyone shortly.

Friday, January 05, 2007

I suspect the first 18 pages (chapter 1) of Punished by Rewards either resonated with you and had you saying, “Yes, Yes,” or irritated you so much you put the book down and labeled Kohn a naïve idealist. Perhaps there is some middle ground there but this is a book that can evoke strong opinions both ways. I look forward to the discussion our book group will have on Monday, January 29 at 3:45 in the HS library.

Listed below are the names of those who have signed up to join us in the discussion. If your name is not listed, you may still join us, but you will need to get a copy of the book on your own. I know the public libraries have copies.

Also, here are some questions to think about based on the first chapter, just to get your thoughts rolling. Feel free to post a response also. Posts encourage other people to post and exchanging ideas is always a good thing!

  • Is behaviorism a philosophy that is compatible with Christianity?

  • What implications does Skinner’s statement on p.6 that people were different from other species only in the degree of their sophistication have?

  • Is recognizing the concept of a “self” vital for Christianity and Christian schooling?

  • Kohn distinguishes between causes and reasons on p. 9. Do you agree with this distinction?

  • On p. 10 Kohn writes, “Behind the practice of presenting a colorful dinosaur sticker to a first grader who stays silent on command is a theory that embodies distinct assumptions about the nature of knowledge, the possibility of choice, and what it means to be a human being.” What kind of assumptions is Kohn presuming? And what is your reaction to this statement?

  • What is your reaction to Kohn’s correlation on p.14 between behavioralism and and Jesus’ statement in Luke 14?

  • Finally, what would you say to Kohn after his statement on p.16 that real instruction takes patience and courage while rewards are simply the easy way out?

Group Participants

Troy McIntosh
Bill Williams
Leslie Hejduk
Adam Heath
Tim Adams
David Stoll
Kristen Yaiko
Mike O’Neill
Judy Bechtel
Lyndsey Chan
Sandy Cupp
Gretchen Swift
Tanya Cordial
Jason Crary
Linda Hall
Judy McElroy
Laura Beres
Sharon Dumit
Toni Turoff
Beth Heisey
Tom Anglea
Buzz Inboden

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

In the book, My Fundamentalist Education, one of the author’s main complaints against Christianity was that it was intellectually deficient, in practice, if not in actuality. In Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller says he once had the same objection. But how he overcame that is one of the best examples of biblical integration I have seen in a piece of literature. Here is what he writes, and notice how he takes a biblical understanding of reality and applies it to his topic. It is well worth the read.

I couldn’t give myself to Christianity because it was a religion for the intellectually naïve. In order to believe Christianity, you either had to reduce enormous theological absurdities into children’s stories or ignore them. The entire thing seemed very difficult for the intellect to embrace. . .

Help came from the most unlikely of sources. I was taking a literature course in college in which we were studying the elements of story: setting, conflict, climax, and resolution.

The odd thought occurred to me while I was studying that we didn’t know where the elements of story came from. I mean, we might have a guy’s name who thought of them, but we don’t know why they exist. I started wondering why the heart and mind responded to this specific formula when it came to telling stories. So I broke it down. Setting: that was easy; every story has a setting. My setting is America, on earth. I understand setting because I experience setting. I am sitting in a room, in a house, I have other characters living in this house with me, that sort of thing. The reason my heart understood setting was because I experienced setting.

But then there was conflict. Every good story has conflict in it. Some conflict is internal, some is external, but if you want to write a novel that sells, you have to have conflict. We understand conflict because we experience conflict, right? But where does conflict come from? Why do we experience conflict in our lives? This helped me a great deal in accepting the idea of original sin and the birth of conflict. The rebellion against God explained why humans experience conflict in their lives, and nobody knows of any explanation other than this. This last point is crucial. I felt like I was having an epiphany. Without the Christian explanation of original sin, the seemingly silly story about Adam and Eve and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, there was no explanation of conflict. At all. Now some people process the account of original sin in the book of Genesis as metaphor, as symbolism for something else that happened; but whether you take it metaphorically or literally, this serves as an adequate explanation of the human struggle that every person experiences: loneliness, crying yourself to sleep at night, addiction, pride, war, and self-addiction. The heart responds to conflict within a story, I began to think, because there is some great conflict in the universe with which we are interacting, even if it is only in the subconscious. If we are not experiencing some sort of conflict in our lives, our hearts would have no response to conflict in books or film. The idea of conflict, of having tension, suspense, or an enemy, would make no sense to us. But these things do make sense. We understand these elements because we experience them. As much as I did not want to admit it, Christian spirituality explained why.

And then the element of the story known as climax. Every good story has a climax. Climax is where a point of decision determines the end of the story. Now this was starting to scare me a little bit. If the human heart uses the tools of reality to create elements of story, and the human heart responds to climax in the structure of story, this means that climax, or point of decision, could very well be something that exists in the universe. What I mean here is that there is a decision the human heart needs to make. The elements of story began to parallel my understanding of Christian spirituality. Christianity offered a decision, a climax. It also offered a good and bad resolution. In part, our decisions were instrumental to the way our story turned out.

Now this was spooky because for thousands of years big-haired preachers have talked about the idea that we need to make a decision, to reject or to follow Christ. They would offer these ideas as a sort of magical solution to the dilemma of life. I had always hated hearing about it because it seemed so entirely unfashionable a thing to believe, but it did explain things. Maybe these unfashionable ideas were pointing at something mystical and true. And, perhaps, I was judging the idea, not by its merit, but by the fashionable or unfashionable delivery of the message. (Miller, Blue Like Jazz, pp. 31-33)

Thanks to the book discussion group last night for a lot of insightful comments and banter. A lot of issues came out of it and we didn’t have time to get into some of them even though they were worth pursuing. Here are a few that I thought might warrant some more feedback from all of you. Please feel free to post comments here and further the discussion.

  • Given the fact that Rosen’s dad and step mom were aloof from her spiritual upbringing, what does that say about the families in our school with similar conditions? Can we expect those students to grow spiritually? How do we overcome the hurdle that it presents?

  • One of the comments (Buzz?) was that Rosen, like others, are looking to follow something bigger than themselves. In Rosen’s case, it was the wonder of science. Which leads to the question, are we presenting a full enough picture of God to our students? What might we need to undertake in order to assure that we do?

  • The idea of certainty came up a lot. Rosen makes many comments about how her education was delivered with a definite air of certainty on most subjects. What issues, as Christian school educators, should we take a position of certainty on? What are the implications of doing or not doing that? Why was this such a big issue for Rosen?