A student centered learning movement is emerging in North American Christian education – this is a very exciting development! Now you might say, “Hasn’t Christian education always been about viewing students as image-bearers of God and being student centered?” I would contend, however, from my perspective as a recipient, participant, and observer of Christian education for the past 50 years, that our practice has not always reflected our belief that students bear God’s image. In my last blog post I asked the question: “What if ideally we could bring our practice and what we believe closer together?” and went on to say: “The exciting thing is that I believe we are living in just such a time where connections and congruence between our deepest spiritual convictions and our professional practice is increasingly possible!”
What has changed/converged in recent years to produce this change?
- The proliferation of information and knowledge through technological advances has shifted the focus in schools from what content to teach to student engagement and an increased focus on the learning process. Additionally, the most critical conversations we are having, and need to continue to have in the next five years, are around exactly what content and skills are the most important for students to learn during their educational journey. In my work with schools, I have been encouraging schools to identify the “take-aways for life” at the unit level as key building blocks for students’ learning paths. David Perkins, in his new book Future Wise, suggests the terms “life-worthy” and “life-ready” as descriptors and criteria for what we need to focus on with students. The movement from teacher directed to student centered teaching and learning has been and is a momentous change impacting educational practice today.
- Declining enrollment, economic pressures, and hopefully spiritual convictions have encouraged Christian schools to re-examine and strengthen their spiritual distinctiveness and mission measurement. A renewed focus on faith development, intentionality of faith-learning integration in curriculum design, examination of teaching practices that encourage faith development, and implementation of restorative practices and worship vitality in Christian schools are all hopeful indicators of forward progress by schools toward better meeting their missions. I am encouraged by the desire of so many young Christian schools leaders who want their schools to exemplify distinctiveness and spiritual vitality (see A Distinctly Christian Educational Plan).
- There has been an increased emphasis in recent years on developing language to describe the learning journey and the student outcomes that we are seeking in Christian education. The concept of faith development via head, heart, and hands as well as the need for distinctiveness in curriculum, classroom, and community are helpful ways to begin to articulate distinctiveness and to evaluate progress toward mission achievement. There is a widespread acknowledgment of the usefulness of Understanding by Design vocabulary such as Essential Questions, Essential Understandings, and the value of clearly defined and specific student outcomes. The Throughlines language developed by the Prairie Center in Alberta is proving helpful for both curriculum design as well as describing desired student life identities. The ideas of story and narrative capture our imagination and speak to the idea of personal journeys within our shared narrative of the master story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Christian schools are doing a better job than ever before of making study/life connections through service. Our desire in all of this is for schools that encourage the development of flourishing students who experience and exemplify shalom through living in harmony with God, neighbor, creation and self.
- In the last ten years, there have been public/charter schools developing different ways of educating students that are both student centered and successful across socio-economic boundaries. These “break the mold” schools are part of what are being called the Deeper Learning networks and schools. Some names you may recognize in this list are High Tech High, New Tech Network, Carpe Diem, and Expeditionary Learning, just to name a few.
- In the past several years there has been a concerted and well organized effort by Canadian CSI schools to learn more about alternative school models, to make 21st century learning settings a professional development priority, and to develop internal capacity in promising practices such as PBL (project based learning), Teaching for Transformation, and embracing Expeditionary Learning practices such as student engaged assessment/conferences, clear learning targets, and high quality student projects. At the same time, this learning by Canadian Christian educators has been closely examined and tied back to biblical principles that reflect the mission of Christian education.
- In the last several months, there have been opportunities for Christian educational leaders in Canada and the U.S. to connect with Christians from the Expeditionary Learning network at the EL conference this past December and in March a meeting is planned in order to consider further collaboration. CACE is playing a significant role in encouraging the continued development of this network to encourage Christian educators to embrace these new and more congruent approaches to teaching and learning.
- Looking ahead over the next few months, there are several great opportunities for further learning and exploration and I invite your involvement:
- April 13, 20, 27 – Strengthening Christian Schools will be offering an introductory, three session online course called Making Learning Real and Relevant taught by certified Buck Institute trainer and former Holland Christian Schools teacher Kristyn Kamps.
- The week of June 22 – New Covenant Christian School in the Boston, MA area is offering a three day workshop led by Steven & Joanna Levy for teachers in grades K-8. Steven is a national consultant for Expeditionary Learning and Joanna is a principal of New Covenant Christian School – a school using Expeditionary Learning practices. For more information, contact Steven at email@example.com.
- June 29 to July 3 – Surrey Christian School in British Columbia is offering a five day workshop entitled Designing Formational Learning Experiences: An Invitation to a Better Story led by Darryl deBoer, Director of Learning, Surrey Christian School, and Doug Monsma, Director of Learning, Prairie Center for Christian Education. More information can be obtained by contacting the Prairie Center.
- August 24-28 – East Coast – There will be three levels of PBL exploration this year at Hamilton District Christian High in Hamilton, Ontario. Odyssey 101 will focus on PBL Essentials, Odyssey 201 is called Digging Deeper, and Odyssey 301 Deeper Leading is designed for school leaders to be able to discover, explore, and develop a strategic plan around becoming a PBL school. For more information, see www.teacheracademy.ca. To follow on Twitter, go to #pbl north.
- Monday, August 24 to Friday August 28, 2015 – PBL Residency – West Coast – The PBL Residency is an intensive one week course of hands-on, summer session professional development for teachers who want to expand their understanding of Project Based Learning. This workshop will take place at Abbotsford Christian School in Abbotsford, BC. For more info, go to www.pblresidency.com.
In summary, why are these new developments so exciting for Christian education?
Simply put: our deepest spiritual convictions and our best professional practices are increasingly aligning! What a joyful time it can be for serious Christian educators to develop outstanding learning experiences that produce flourishing people who can worship God and enjoy him forever!
If you would like more information, please leave a comment below or get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dan Beerens is an educational consultant, author, international speaker, and educational leader. Before starting DB Consulting in May 2010, he served as Vice President of Learning Services and Director of Instructional Improvement at Christian Schools International. Prior to that, he was the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Holland Christian Schools. Dan has also worked as teacher and principal in urban and suburban public and Christian schools in Wisconsin and Illinois. Dan regularly presents on teacher evaluation and professional growth, curriculum design, school improvement, technology integration, faith integrated learning, and student faith development at regional, national and international conferences. He is the author of Evaluating Teachers for Professional Growth: Creating a Culture of Motivation and Learning published by Corwin Press.