Many of us have just returned from the 2nd annual Deeper Learning Conference at Legacy Christian Academy in Frisco, TX. I was one of over 200 people attending from Canada, the Dominican Republic, Australia, as well as the United States. We were especially inspired by a keynote address by Ron Berger from EL Education and a presentation by students from Surrey Christian School on a biodiversity project they completed in service of a local park. It is one thing to talk about the principles of deeper learning, but the stories of student work from Ron and the Surrey students themselves left no one wondering what this “movement” was about.
We organizers received a lot of positive feedback from participants as well as some very thoughtful critique. The most common request was more explanation of how Teaching for Transformation (TfT), EL Education (EL), and Project-Based Learning (PBL) all fit together with this idea of “deeper learning.” One particularly discerning comment reminded us that “deeper learning” is an educationally recognized term, and that if we were going to define it in a different way, we should be more explicit about our definition.
When the idea for this network was conceived at a meeting at New Covenant School following an EL conference in Boston in 2014, we considered a variety of names (e.g. EngagED, InspirED, Deepest Learning, Flourishing Education, Wholistic Christian Education). But in our desire to invite like-minded Christian educators to the table, we used the term “deeper learning” as a placeholder for the kind of curriculum and instruction we wanted to promote in Christian education. We assumed that at some point we would agree on our own name, but the more we used “deeper learning,” the harder it was to change. Thus, we do have the challenge of redefining what is meant by “deeper learning” in a distinctly Christian framework. Our most comprehensive attempt to date is Deeper Learning in Christian Schools: Playing Our Part in God’s Story. But even that document does not provide a crosswalk between the educationally recognized term and our unique application.
In a previous blog (Deeper Learning in Christian Schools), I wrote about how the Hewlett Packard Foundation coined the term “Deeper Learning” and described the “set of competencies students would need to compete globally and to become engaged citizens at home in the 21st century.” HPF’s first four, often called the 4 Cs, are content, collaboration, critical (and creative) thinking, and communication. Two others have to do with the attitude of the learner: positive/growth mindset and independent learning (becoming leaders of their own learning). We don’t share the same telos as HPF–we are not concerned with global competition, and we care much more about engaged citizenship in the eternal Kingdom of God than being at home in the 21st century. But it might be fruitful to explore the criteria of the educationally recognized term “deeper learning” in a Christian context. These qualities are obviously important for getting a good job and being a good citizen, but how might they inform our journey to become more faithful followers of Jesus?
Content: Knowing about the world and its history–natural and social–is important. Studying the natural world equips us to be faithful stewards of God’s creation and to know God better through it. The study of history humbles us with the recognition of all that came before and fills us with gratitude for so many who paved the way. But the challenge here is meaning. The really important content we need to master is the Bible–not just memorizing verses (which can be important) but understanding the major arcs and themes of God’s story. This comprehension needs to go beyond our heads but also inscribed on the heart, rooted in the imagination. God’s word is the reference point that will help students distill meaning from our ever-expanding knowledge base and the often bewildering experiences in their own lives and the events of our times.
Collaboration: The challenge here is “who is our neighbor?” Collaboration is not just about being nice and working well together, but specifically, how do we work with people of different faiths? How do we expand our circle of whom we call our neighbors? How do we grow in awareness of “the other” and become less consumed with our own default state of mind and heart? How can we become the kind of leaders whose purpose is to draw forth the best from everyone on the team?
Critical and creative thinking: The challenge here is fear. We are afraid that if we don’t teach our children the right “biblical worldview,” they will be captured by the secular world. Can we trust our kids to be critical thinkers? Creative thinkers? To make their own decisions about how to follow Jesus? I was at a school recently that was using a “Christian” textbook in order to ensure the students would develop a “Christian worldview” (Is there just one?). The administration asked me to model a reading lesson in a 7th-grade classroom. Their textbook read, “Alexander the Great, the conqueror . . . came ‘from the west on the face of the whole earth . . .’ (Dan.8.5) in fulfillment of biblical prophecy.” I don’t dispute this possible interpretation, but I do object to it being stated as a fact, in a textbook. This text was filled with such attempts to portray a “biblical worldview.” I’m surely stepping on some sacred toes here, but I think presenting history from a particular bias (even the bias of our own interpretation of scripture), without being transparent, sets our students up for doubt and mistrust when they engage with God and the world in their own search for truth. For me, this version has much more integrity: “Some people think Alexander’s conquering journey was a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. What do you think? What evidence supports that interpretation? Are there any other possible interpretations?”
Communication: We usually think of communication as how we share our experience, ideas, and understanding of the Gospel with others. But the other half of communication is listening. That’s our challenge here. How do we open our minds and hearts enough to really understand the “other,” the “alien,” the “stranger?” How do we break free from our own agenda to find the “life that was the light of all mankind” (John 1:4) in our neighbor? What can we do to bless the people God loves? How do we communicate the love we have received and wish to pass along? What words? Pictures? Actions?
Growth mindset: We trust that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). Yet, we recognize our partnership with God in becoming what God made us to be. We don’t just sit back and wait for God to shape us in the likeness of Christ. As Richard Rohr suggests, “We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” Practicing spiritual disciplines, immersing ourselves in God’s word, protecting time for Sabbath are all part of preparing our souls to be God’s poiema (Ephesians 2:10). What does Jesus mean when he says, “[W]ith God all things are possible” (Mt: 19:26)? How do we keep that hope alive in the midst of the doubting voices screaming in our ears?
Leaders of our own learning: The educational reference to this criterion is often called “metacognition”–thinking about our own thinking processes. The challenge for us in Christian schools is going beyond metacognition to “metanoia,” or repentance. It’s about inviting the Holy Spirit to examine our motives, often hidden from our own cognition. It’s about examining our own biases–racial, social, ethnic, economic, etc. We need to educate ourselves about people who are different from us, both in the Church and outside it. We need to take responsibility for bringing our narrow, culturally bound perspectives (even our own biblical interpretations) and the motivations for our “works” before the Lord to be examined and purified, so that we might see the world and ourselves more through the eyes of Jesus.
These are some of questions and challenges that Christian schools might be thinking about together in pursuit of “deeper learning.” We need each other on this journey.
If you are interested in what deeper learning in Christian education looks like, sounds like, feels like–in curriculum, instruction, assessment and spiritual formation, join my wife and me for our fifth annual Deeper Learning in Christian Schools Institute outside Boston, June 23-28, 2019.
After 28 years teaching in classrooms K-12, Steven Levy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is now an educational consultant, working independently and with EL Education. He guides teachers in designing service-based curriculum, engaging instructional practices, student owned assessments, and character development. He was recognized as the Massachusetts State Teacher of the Year (1993), and honored by the Disney American Teacher Awards as the national Outstanding General Elementary Teacher (1995). Mr. Levy was the recipient of the Joe Oakey Award for his national impact on project-based learning, and received the John F. Kennedy Prize for the teaching of history. Mr. Levy and his fourth grade students were designated “Conservation Heroes” by the National Park Service for their study of the effects of a local bike path on the environment and the community. Mr. Levy has written various articles for educational journals, and his book, Starting From Scratch (Heinemann, 1996), details some of the projects and students he has worked with in his elementary classrooms.