The Center for the Advancement of Christian Education (CACE), an outreach arm of the education department at Dordt College, had a wonderful opportunity in 2017 to partner with the Prairie Centre for Christian Education (PCCE) to further develop and distribute the teaching and learning framework known to many Christian educators as Teaching for Transformation (TfT). This collaboration began when Doug Monsma, director of learning at PCCE, presented the TfT framework at the CEJ/Andreas Center Conference at Dordt College in 2013. The following are excerpts of an interview, hosted by Dr. Tim Van Soelen, with two primary authors of the TfT story, Doug Monsma and Darryl DeBoer. For the full interview, please visit the CEJ website at www.cejonline.com.
Tim: Let’s begin with introductions and your history with TfT.
Doug: My name is Doug Monsma. I’m one of the original thinkers about TfT, a conversation that goes back about fifteen years. I was serving as the director of curriculum and instruction at Edmonton Christian Schools and became privileged to work with some other educators who wanted to reimagine Christian education. I was later hired as the director of learning at PCCE and tasked with the development and distribution of TfT.
Darryl: My name is Darryl DeBoer. I am a CACE fellow, working with many of the schools in the US that are implementing TfT. I also serve as the director of learning at Surrey Christian School. My history with TfT does not date back as far as Doug’s. Approximately eight years ago, I had a very good teacher sit down in my office, frustrated that she was having a difficult time articulating distinctive Christian education—and not from a lack of passion or desire. She expressed frustration that she was falling short in her learning design. Later that week, I met with other directors of learning, and we were introduced to ten throughlines that educators in PCCE were using to articulate the distinctiveness of Christian education. God’s perfect timing.
Tim: Doug, what was happening at Edmonton Christian that began the TfT movement?
Doug: Our teachers were expressing some of that same frustration. We had a mission statement that spoke of joyful and responsible discipleship. It was hard for us to define this mission. We lacked a common language and felt like we were failing to provide educational experiences that invited students into that mission.
Several of us were given all kinds of freedom to go out and find the best stuff in education to address these frustrations. We researched discipleship concepts, as well as the big ideas in Understanding by Design. Our throughlines (or wholines) came out of this research. We took big ideas like justice and community and imagined how our kids could become Justice Seekers and Community Builders. We started off with three throughlines and invited teachers and kids at every grade level to come up with additional big ideas that we could make into these throughlines. Within a year we had ten! Service learning was the other educational practice that hooked us, and we realized that we were not providing enough opportunities for kids to practice and live these throughlines.
Tim: Darryl, what about TfT captured your imagination?
Darryl: TfT came during a perfect storm for me. I was in a role that required learning experiences consistent with the mission and vision of the school. I had just finished reading Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith, a book in which he paints this deep hope for Christian education while posing questions about how we go about learning. We had the language for this, but we lacked practices to shape the deep hopes of our students. I was discontented with our approaches to the design of learning, convicted that we were teaching compliance versus inviting engagement.
I was also exploring the deeper learning practices of Expeditionary Learning (EL). I was able to visit EL schools where learning clearly demonstrated that students were being shaped with each school’s hopes, mission, and vision. I began to form a deep hope that we could have rich language and the hopes of Christian education combined with deeper learning pedagogy, resulting in a way of being that would invite, nurture, and empower students to play their parts in this story that they are part of.
Tim: Doug, how did people find TfT? What happened when they found it?
Doug: The typical experience would be someone sharing the vision of TfT at a professional conference or meeting. One important thing to understand about TfT is that it is a grassroots movement. TfT is an invitation to be part of a movement. Every time we went to a new school, TfT changed, and that was the beauty of it. Schools saw TfT as a thoughtful process to bring together our stated promises and our lived promises.
Tim: Darryl, we now refer to the movement as TfT 2.0 or TfT 2.5, so how has TfT evolved?
Darryl: Every time we encounter a new school on the TfT journey, our learning deepens and a new contribution is revealed. It is a recognition of next practices. We have been intentional not to pin TfT into a binder, as we would be constantly ripping pages out and inserting new ones. One way it has changed is our articulation of the core practices of TfT, as they address the challenge of equipping a teacher to design learning in an intentional way. The three core practices of storyline, throughlines, and formational learning experiences are practical teacher tools that invite, nurture, and empower students to See the Story and Live the Story. Through Doug’s leadership, the implementation of TfT has evolved significantly.
One-day professional development training, while engaging and enjoyable, was not translating into differences in the classroom. We used to offer weeklong courses. However, for many reasons, when we visited a participant’s classroom six months later, things did not look different. We have since developed an innovative, multiyear approach in which schools commit to a journey of changing practices. It takes time to adopt new ideas and new ways of being, to personalize them enough that teachers are comfortable taking the risks that come with trying new things. This new approach involves multiple days of training throughout the school year. Between the days of training we have what we call Commit-to-Trys. The goal is not to perfect the new ideas but simply to try new ideas and to begin forming new habits. When we come together for the next training, we share artifacts from our Commit-to-Trys with our colleagues, we celebrate, and we receive feedback that strengthens our work.
Smith, James K. A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.
Dr. Timothy Van Soelen serves as the director of CACE and is a professor of education at Dordt College, teaching courses in educational leadership, philosophy of education, and research methods. He has also served as a school administrator and as a middle school math and computer teacher.
Doug Monsma is a TfT CACE fellow. He served as the director of learning at PCCE in Edmonton, Alberta, for six years.
Darryl DeBoer is a TfT CACE fellow and the K–12 director of learning for Surrey Christian School in Surrey, BC. He is also a TfT school designer through PCCE and CACE.