Helping students to think about how they learn and to assess themselves is the Ferlazzo’s big goal. “We want students to be able to see it in their self-interest to be thinking about their thinking when we’re not around, when they’re not even going to get graded on their meta-cognition and awareness,” he said. If students can do that, they will not only be more motivated, but they will have a deeper skill to take with them beyond the classroom.
When you hear your own students explaining their education in a way that proves “they really get it,” down to the real core of what it means to educate Christianly and in grace, it’s hard not to cry right on the spot. 🙂
Have hardly been prouder than during this speech at the NCS graduation last week. The valedictorian is still studying overseas in Taiwan for his senior year, so he recorded his speech. [Maybe all valedictory speeches should be recorded on foreign soil? There’s something cool about this!]
David nails it — a “grace-based” education digs deep. Really deep.
As a Christian educator, I spend a lot of time thinking about how teaching and Christianity go together. I’ve mentioned before an excellent little book by Al Wolters, Creation Regained, which sums up the basics of how a Reformed worldview affects one’s understanding of Creation and our purpose in it. If you aren’t sure how the Creation, the Fall, and the Gospel fit into everything we humans do on this planet, get a copy of Wolters’s book and chew through those 100 pages.
Likewise, if you’ve spent any time around a New Covenant School faculty member, you have probably heard us use the term “grace-based education” as an attempt to describe what we’re doing at NCS. Applying theology to the task of education leads us to apply the principles of redemptive grace in daily classroom living. It’s a work in progress. Check out the book Teaching Redemptively by Donovan Graham if you’re curious.
The Nature of Education
I’m normally not a big fan of using linguistics to defend a philosophical point, but even the word “education” itself serves as a witness to the communal nature of the task. From the Latin “e + ducere” – “to lead out” – we get our primary label for the work of leading children (mostly) from a state of ignorance and immaturity toward a greater understanding of the world around them and acquiring wisdom. Education demands both a learner and a teacher or model. Self-guided exploration may be very “educational” in one sense, but even a massive dose of it does not equal a balanced education.
If education were nothing more than transferring information from one brain to another, I could solve America’s education woes using Wikipedia articles and free nationwide wi-fi. If raw knowledge were enough to prepare a human being for life in God’s world, why all this emphasis in Scripture on attaining wisdom? Education that stops at knowledge-transfer merely prepares intelligent sinners for a life of rebellion. Like every other human activity, education carries heavy moral and religious overtones.
In fact, I’d like to argue that education (seen holistically as “preparation for living,” not merely gathering information that any 17-year-old can find using her iPhone and an Internet connection) is a subset of discipleship. If every activity of a human being is, in a sense, religious – either directed toward helping God’s Kingdom or rebelling against it – then education is all about worship and worldview.
In Part 1, I suggested that the creation mandate is the foundation of Christian education. Since God created humans to govern and develop creation, education is a normative structure that prepares humans for that responsibility. The creation mandate therefore implies the command to educate. In Part 2, I suggest that the doctrine of vocation, which is rooted in the creation mandate, also implies in the command to educate.
The Creation Mandate Implies the Command to Educate Through the Doctrine of Vocation
The creation mandate supports the doctrine of vocation: that God has given us a divinely ordained “calling” and responsibility to apply the creation mandate each within our own sphere of influence using the gifts and abilities that God has given us. The doctrine implies that our vocations fit into God’s plan for the development of civilization and turns just another day at work into a worshipful, God-glorifying experience (Veith, 62). The reformers saw that, inasmuch as education prepares students for their divine vocations in this world, the creation mandate authorizes and supports that education (Veith, 20).
Vocation is the means by which God uses people to normally govern and care for his creation. God chooses to work through human beings (creatio tertia) who in their different capacities and according to their varying talents serve each other. We ask God for our daily bread, and he answers that prayer through the normal providence of farmers, bakers, and meal-preparers.
“We might today add the truck drivers…factory workers…warehousemen, the wholesale
distributers, the stock boys, the lady at the checkout counter … bankers, futures investors,
advertisers, lawyers, agricultural scientists, mechanical engineers,” etc. (Veith, 13)
We pray for healing and God calls “doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and lab technicians” (Veith, 14). We pray for protection and God provides governments, armies, and police officers. We long for beauty and inspiration and God provides artists and writers. We need to travel and God provides “autoworkers, mechanics, road crews, and airline employees” (Veith, 14). We aspire to cleanliness through “garbage collectors, plumbers, sanitation workers, and even undocumented aliens who clean our hotel rooms” (Veith, 15). And in support of all these vocations, God gives us teachers. Common labor becomes worship when we not only understand its sacredness, but embrace it and consecrate our labors to God’s glory. Education is a means to prepare people for glorifying God in their vocations.
Veith, Jr., Gene Edward (2002). God at work: your Christian vocation in all life. Wheaton IL: Crossway Books.
The Creation Mandate is the foundation of Christian education. Also known as the Cultural or Dominion Mandate, it implies both the command to educate and the scope of the command.
What is the Creation Mandate?
According to Wolters, the creation account describes three levels of the creation: 1) Creatio ex nihilo: God created the world out of nothing, 2) Creatio secunda: God created Laws of nature that govern the development of our physical reality. In this way God governs his creation immediately, or directly. 3) Creatio tertia: God governs his creation mediately, or indirectly, through the involvement of human responsibility (Wolters, p. 36). Under this third facet of the creation account falls what we know as as the Creation Mandate (Genesis 1:26-31; Psalm 8:3-9). From it we deduce that God created man to be the governor and developer of the creation:
“Just as a human sovereign does certain things himself, but gives orders to his subordinates for other things, so with God himself. He put the planets in their orbits, makes the seasons come and go at the proper time, makes seeds grow and animals reproduce, but entrusts to mankind the tasks of making tools, doing justice, producing art, and pursuing scholarship. In other words, God’s rule of law is immediate in the nonhuman realm but mediate in culture and society. In the human realm men and women become coworkers with God; as creatures made in God’s image, they too have a kind of lordship over the earth, are God’s viceroys in creation” (p. 14).
How does the Creation Mandate Imply the Command to Educate?
The Creation Mandate implies the command to educate by establishing that education is a part of the structure of creation. The Creation Mandate is “societal and cultural in nature,” i.e., having to do with the substance of civilization (Wolters, p. 36). Just as laws of physics govern the physical realm, certain immaterial expectations govern the created structures of civilization. These expectations are known as “norms.” Scientists adduce nature’s material laws by the scientific method. God’s created norms for society and culture are determined through means such as general revelation, the conscience, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit (Graham, pp. 24-28). The most obvious of these immaterial norms are applied in the creation structures of government, science and medicine, leisure and entertainment, art and literature, among others. These normative structures form the building blocks of maturing civilizations. That education is also a normative structure seems self-evident: “Education, therefore, is fundamental to humanity’s task of developing and conserving this created order” (Van Dyk, n.d.). Without a means for preparing humanity to apply God’s norms within these structures of the created order, the task of the Creation Mandate cannot be accomplished.
Some might argue that the process of identifying creational structures and norms is subjective and debatable. Conceding this should “lead us to humility and dependence on God in trying to do our cultural work” (Graham, p. 26). But we should not assume we are left without strong guidance for discerning creation’s normative structures. A careful, biblically informed study of the development of civilization should reveal the broad outlines of God’s creational structures. God’s Word, the Holy Spirit, and wisdom can reveal the norms by which they are to be directed. “The fundamental knowability of the creation order is the basis of all human understanding, both in science and in every day life” (Wolters, pp. 28-29).
Graham, D. L. (2003). Teaching redemptively: Bringing grace and truth into your classroom. Colorado Springs: Purposeful Publications.
Van Dyk, J. (n.d.). “Chapter II: Context.” Notes distributed in the class Foundations for Curriculum Development. Covenant College, 2002.
Wolters, A. (1985). Creation regained: Biblical basics for a reformational worldview. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans.
Christian Schools should be places that teach, model, and apply the grace of the Gospel. They should not be places that reinforce legalism. But a grace-based education raises questions and concerns. For instance, how do we know when to discipline and when to have grace? What kind of discipline should we use? How does grace create an orderly environment? How does grace produce change in the lives of children? A grace-based classroom sounds great, but how do we keep everything from devolving into chaos?
The purpose of this entry is to begin the process of clearing up these confusions. I say “begin the process” because it is a complex subject that will take much time and consideration to develop, and because Christian education is behind the theological curve. Recent years have seen a resurgence of the Gospel of Grace within broader Christianity, but it has yet to make its way into Christian education. The modern Christian education movement has not valued the Gospel as it should throughout its short, 40 year history. Schools have been places that have valued primness and properness, respect and order, sharpness and diligence, rules and regulations. They have prided themselves on their differences from the public schools, have sold themselves as better environments, and have panicked upon seeing public-school problems seeping in (“This school is not like it used to be!”). Parents have brought their children to Christian schools to escape the problems of other schools, believing them to be environmentally different. After all, Christian Schools do not put up with that kind of behavior, do they? Christian Schools have all sorts of rules against all sorts of behaviors and enforce them with all the authority that their religion supposedly allows. They treasure order, obedience and good grades (“We either expel or do not enroll students who misbehave or cannot achieve good grades.”). They treasure matching uniforms, quiet hallways, diligent, attentive, respectful students, and good families. Disciplinary conversations are full of language about obeying God, parents and, in loco parentis, teachers too.
Many Christian schools have taught the Gospel from the beginning. And yet a chasm often exists between what is taught and what is modeled and applied. They preach the grace of the Gospel but model the life of the Law. In their zeal to be different from the public schools, they have not yet learned how the Gospel should impact schools, classrooms, and student’s lives.
Admittedly, a grace-based system is likely to be messier than what many are comfortable with, but this does not mean that schools must entirely leave off order, expectations, and discipline. Everyone understands that education cannot happen in chaotic environments. Some measure of order must be in place. Grace does not mean that we do not hold students accountable to expectations. However, it does mean that we should never leave students holding the bag of our expectations all alone. Just as the message of the Law is never complete apart from the Gospel, the message of educational expectations is never complete apart from the sanctifying message of the Gospel. And while schools hold students accountable, educators must be willing to release their grasp upon what they treasure most (e.g., order and achievement) in order to instill in students what God values most.
So to begin our considerations, I would like to propose three ideas that will help us balance grace and discipline in a Christian school. They will not answer all our questions but will move us toward a theological and philosophical framework that allows us to merge together the ideas of an orderly and grace-based educational environment:
• Expectations are necessary because they give grace meaning.
• God’s means of sanctifying believers should never be truncated by leaving students with expectations alone.
• As educators, we must be willing to let go of what we have treasured most in order to grab hold of what God values most.