Four things have become clearer to me in recent years. First, Christian schools must be distinctively different. Second, the engagement of the student in today’s era is paramount for meaningful learning to take place. Third, our goal is the flourishing of each student. Fourth, what we really are about in Christian education is the worship of God. Our essential question for this article is: What are the best ways for us to provide an educational environment that nurtures faith, promotes student flourishing, and focuses on twenty-first-century outcomes? I believe that we need to have a Christ like model in K–12 Christian education that provides a more robust way of making the educational experience connected, coherent, and creative, and to do those things in a context of competence, community, and contribution. We are at an opportune time to move in this direction, and we have some helpful models to use, but to help us approach change from a Christian perspective, let me offer some background thoughts about the words in italics above.
Distinctively Different and Being “Foolish”
I have frequently suggested that Christian schools are distinctively different in three ways from other schools: curriculum, classroom, and community. Community is the easiest for the outside observer to understand. Of course Christian schools have chapels, communal prayer, and Bible reading, and they embrace a Christian ethos in how the school community and the individual classroom communities operate. This same observer might guess that there is a Christian teacher who embodies and teaches a Christian worldview in the classroom. They might even surmise that the teacher engages in certain faith enhancing practices as they go about their craft. However, they might not immediately see how the curriculum that is taught in a Christian school is, in fact, distinctively different. A Christian school curriculum must not only reveal the truth of God, the author of all creation, but must also instruct students in how to worship and how to be “foolish” in the eyes of the world. Paul describes the “foolishness” of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 1. We are to teach our students to choose love over fear, peace over contentment, patience over irritability, kindness over neglect, generosity over selfishness, faithfulness over deceitfulness, gentleness over pride, and self-control over immediate gratification. These ideas will not necessarily help our students get ahead in the world, but they are what we need to be about as members of the kingdom of Christ, who instructed us to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us.
Engagement and Being “Sticky”
I will try not to belabor the point that the educational experiences we provide for students must be engaging, or “sticky,” as I like to describe it. Sticky experiences remain with students and continue to inform them in the future. The stickiest experiences are the ones that connected with the learners and were meaningful to them. Engagement has risen to a higher level of priority for schools today, in part because of what we know about the nature of learners, because of the greater availability and use of technology, and because of the increased number of nontraditional options. To be truthful, the issue of student engagement is a difficult area for us because if we look at it honestly, we might need to make a change to our instruction that likely means more work. Yet let us acknowledge that we also derive the most joy from our teaching when we have hit upon meaningful questions, lessons, strategies, and resources that engage our students deeply!
We are also in a time of reconsideration of what students truly need to know, given both our access to information and the fact that some things seem not to be as important given the scope of our world today. For example, the Common Core State Standards in the U.S. have created a growing focus on writing and reading things besides informational texts, while handwriting, technology courses, and advanced mathematics are on a downward trend. We must be in continual conversation about what is really significant as a learning priority.
We do know that our students crave “stickiness” in meaningful, coherent, and connected experiences. We should be asking students what their best learning experience was from the previous school year and figure out how to do more of those activities! Our students are living in a time when not only is there an instantaneous global awareness of world needs, but more ways to help through a greater and accessible number of individuals, organizations, and networks of people who are working on those needs. How can we help students identify how God has wired them, understand their passion, and help them practice service in meaningful ways?
I suggest that Christian schools help to define their distinctiveness by moving beyond federal, state, or provincial standards to consider and embrace the concept of flourishing. We need to describe in broader terms and accessible language how our educational experience at Christian schools is benefitting our students and our societies. I suggest that the term “flourishing” has the best possibilities, but first a word about our starting point and how it might differ from others. While a general definition of flourishing as suggested by Seligman is the following: positive emotion, engagement, meaning, positive relationships, and accomplishment (PERMA), I prefer the idea expressed by Wolterstorff that flourishing is really about shalom, about living in harmony with God, neighbor, creation, and self. Note how the first definition has an inward focus on the individual, and the second has an outward orientation, with a primary focus on God.
To my knowledge, there has not been an attempt to articulate and apply Wolterstorff’s definition of flourishing to K–12 education. Based on my experience as an educator and as a parent, I have attempted to describe twelve outcomes for a flourishing K–12 student (see sidebar). I am currently attempting to describe the concept and each of the individual outcomes on Christian Schools International’s blog, Nurturing Faith <http: nurturingfaith.wordpress.com>.
If we take the idea seriously that we should be concerned about student flourishing, then the implications of this concept will drive how we put together our instructional plan. What does flourishing look like in the “what and how” of everyday K–12 life in school curriculum?
In a distinctively Christian curriculum, we should be concerned about four areas: wonder, wisdom, compassion, and flourishing. Taking Wolterstorff’s definition of flourishing here is how these areas might tie to our distinctive curriculum emphases:
Shalom / Flourishing (Wolterstorff)
Distinctively Christian Curriculum
Harmony with creation
Harmony with God
Harmony with neighbor
Harmony with self
How should we proceed with putting together a coherent and logical sequence in order to embed the four components and work toward student flourishing? I suggest these practical steps:
- Map out your current curriculum into an electronic format. Many schools in the U.S. are doing this in networked fashion through something like Curriculum Trak (full disclosure: I represent this company), and in Canada through Ontario’s eCurriculum site (www.ecurriculum.ca). These tools allow collaboration, sharing, and learning from the best work of others.
- Identify the student “takeaways” from each unit. These are the most important concepts, the big ideas that you are working toward with your students.
- Embed these takeaways in essential questions. Make sure these questions deal with both your school’s mission and the most important learning standards. These questions should be engaging and written in student-friendly language.
- Assess these questions. Because they deal with the upper part of Bloom’s taxonomy, you will need to develop effective rubrics to score student responses.
- Develop coherent and connected teaching and learning opportunities that involve real-life problems and projects, and engage student passions.
I believe that the language of flourishing best describes what we should be about with students in Christian schools in order to nurture their faith and prepare them to be “foolish” followers of Christ. It is simply time to abandon practices that are out of line with and disconnected from our deepest religious beliefs and desires for students. The ten flourishing outcomes I have described must be supported and advanced by the design, structures, and practices of our schools.
If we want students to have an “owned,” rather than a “cloned” faith, we must:
- Begin with our little ones by turning wonder into worship, and continue to embrace the mystery of the universe throughout the years. Woe to wonder-killing teachers! We must be about ascribing to the Lord the honor due his name and increasing awe and wonder in all we do.
- Ask essential questions that show humility, inquisitiveness, even anger or despair at times—honoring how God has made us as sense-making, curious creatures.
- Point out injustice and study its root causes, all the while teaching children a unified narrative of a good creation broken by sin and a call to God’s people to be restorers.
- Connect the inadequacies of human systems and the need for humankind’s control with examples of the power of God’s Spirit at work in the world.
- Make students carefully unsettled and uneasy in order to better expand their minds and to challenge their hearts to deeper understandings and an authentic faith.
- Help students understand that it is not just about thinking right or about having a defensible worldview, but it is about living right and having a passion for service.
I believe that models of learning such as project-, problem-, and passion-based learning give us better opportunities to have kid’s educational experiences be both “foolish” and “sticky.” What is most appealing to me about these models is that they better align with our school missions around our aspirations for students to influence the world in meaningful and missionally imaginative ways. I am excited to learn about and work with teachers and Christian schools that nurture student faith by providing frameworks that honor each student as image-bearer of Christ, identify and encourage their gifts, and give them practice in authentic, real-life situations to touch a world in need in Christ’s name. We dearly need all of our students to flourish toward worship!
Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? What am I made to do? These are life questions that everyone must face at some point in their existence, and they linger behind all of our curriculum planning and projects. As Christians, we embrace the answer given in the Westminster Confession: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” We were made to worship—every day, every moment, every situation, to bring God pleasure, the kind of joy that parents experience as they delight in their children, to praise him for his awesome creation, his mighty acts, his mercy to us via Christ’s atoning work, and his masterful plan for eternity. We are creatures who are made to praise, so the choice is either toward the brilliance of humankind or the awesomeness of God. All religions and individuals in the world make this choice—to put humankind or God on the throne of their lives. In Christian education, we are not only acknowledging the truth of God’s design in creation, but we are falling to our knees in humility, worship, and praise. I believe we have sometimes defined worship in Christian education too narrowly. It is not just in chapel, singing, prayer or personal piety, but we are modeling moment-by-moment worship and a continuous pointing to God as master of the universe and sovereign over all. It is a continuous shouting out: “He is Lord!” The purpose of Christian education is to better help students worship God—to help them learn how to live in harmony with God, neighbor, creation, and self. And if we do that, they will flourish indeed.
Works Cited and Consulted
- Wolterstorff, Nicholas. “It’s Tied Together by Shalom.” Faith & Leadership. RSS. Duke University. 2 March 2010. Web. 8 December 2012.
- “Proposing a ‘Flourishing Index.’” Nurturing Faith. Christian Schools International. 27 February 2012. Web. 8 December 2012 <http://nurturingfaith.wordpress.com/2012/02/27/proposing-a-flourishing-index/>.
- “Seven C’s for Student flourishing.” Nurturing Faith. Christian Schools International, 26 Mar. 2012. Web. 8 December 2012 <http://nurturingfaith.wordpress.com/2012/03/26/seven-cs-for-student-flourishing/>.
- Seligman, Martin E. P. Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being. New York: Free, 2011. Print.
- Westminster Assembly, Westminster Shorter Catechism. 3rd ed. Publishing City: Publisher, 2011. Print