Difference Makers

Dan BeerensThe CACE RoundtableLeave a Comment

Difference Making

This time of year I usually offer some recommendations for your summer reading. But this year, I hesitate. For starters, I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t feel like reading one professional book this summer. Most of you are tired and weary. To have survived this year is an accomplishment that you should either celebrate and/or forget like a bad dream. I have the highest respect for all teachers and administrators who were able to persevere, educate, and love the kids and families they served.

So instead of a list, here is my single book suggestion that both affirms who we aspire to be as educators and shares a vision with examples of how educational change can occur. Tom Vander Ark and Emily Liebtag’s short book Difference Making at the Heart of Learning: Students, Schools, and Communities Alive With Possibility seeks to answer the question: “What if learning experiences were focused on making a difference in the world?”

The best Christian schools have always sought to turn out Difference Makers–students who honor God by investing in the flourishing of neighbors (near and far) and taking good care of the natural world. This call is embedded in our faith/core beliefs and often reflected in our missions. However, the difference we often strive for most is our own advancement–personal fulfillment, academic or athletic success, impressive facilities, institutional legacy, etc. Prioritizing ourselves and our own institutions comes so naturally and can insidiously take over. We must do the hard work of re-examination to see if our education is truly holding up to what it means for us to be fully Christ-like.

The models of learning proposed in this Difference Making are based on evidence that bears out principles of biblical wisdom. For example, Vander Ark and Liebtag cite a Character Lab study: “We increase individual motivation and ultimately performance by placing students in a position to give, rather than receive, help. If we want to motivate kids, we should give them opportunities to help others” (Eskreis-Winkler, Milkman, Gromet, & Duckworth, 2019, quoted in Vander Ark and Liebtag, Kindle Location No. 1,092).

I appreciate how the authors lay out their argument by first discussing the current realities and opportunities in today’s global society and why difference making matters. In their words, “we’re all in this together.” They recognize the interrelatedness of all life and that what one does impacts so many others. Given the research that “young people are more likely to choose a job based on how it enables them to contribute to something larger than themselves” (p. 20), educational experiences are most meaningful when students connect purpose and meaning to the work. Not only is difference-making student work more motivating, it is now easier to do with current electronic tools. Such work can have a significant impact not only on a local community, but also for national and global audiences.

Vander Ark and Liebtag contend that leadership and problem solving are critical priorities if we are to teach students to be effective difference makers. Leadership in a student involves self-understanding, the capacity to act on the world, and the motivation to activate global goals with cultural competence. Problem solving involves an entrepreneurial mindset, collaboration with others, and a design thinking process. At the heart of righteous leadership, there is a commitment to equity: recognizing the dignity of each person and an active effort to dismantle systems that deter the flourishing of each person. As Christian educators, we can resonate with these values.

As a one-time college dropout, I resonate with the authors’ point that purpose powers contribution and the three elements that undergird this concept: identity, agency, and purpose. When I found out more about myself (identity) and as I gained experience, I became more confident in what I could do (agency) and felt like I was able to make a positive difference in the world (purpose). Alignment of these elements, along with opportunity, motivated me in my career. If these are the critical building blocks to help students, why not engage students in educational work that helps them discover a calling and make a contribution?

I have suggested that our curriculum needs to be about Wonder—Wisdom—Work. Work involves two aspects: understanding one’s own self and what engages us deeply (our calling). Work also involves finding the places we can live out that call in service to the world. Yes, I know—for those already engaged in Christian Deeper Learning, this is basically another way of saying “People of God’s Story engaged in real work that forms self and shapes the world.” So, isn’t every Christian school doing some form of Deeper Learning? And if you are, how can you deepen and strengthen that work? This book can help with the “why” and the “how” and the “where it is happening” aspects.

While you may understand why you need to move in this direction, the how might still be a challenge. Many Christian schools need the structure of an established model of Deeper Learning, so last year we ran a series of models in the CACE blog. A strategic plan of action and expert PD can really help you move into Christian Deeper Learning. And by the way, we will explore those models more and visit some exciting Deeper Learning schools in San Diego next March just before Converge—join us!

In the third part of Difference Making at the Heart of Learning (and actually throughout the book), the authors give many examples of schools, programs, interventions, and models. According to his website, Tom Vander Ark alone has personally visited over 2,500 high schools, making him a trusted source on the innovation that is happening in the U.S. context at the moment. Whatever the scope of change you would like to see at your school, this book is a gold mine of relevant examples and specific details, as well as schools to contact and/or visit.

Christian schools have indeed been “difference makers”: we even have evidence to back that claim.  (Check out the work of Cardus.) Yet, I continue to wonder what might be possible if we muster the courage to take further steps that more deeply engage students, more strongly impact our communities, and more diligently help students find their purpose? Are student learning experiences planned not just for the benefit of our students but to make a difference in the world?

Many of the best educators I know in Christian education have pondered these questions, and I wish to close today with a tribute to one of them. Gloria Stronks was one of those educators whose lifetime of work made a difference and impacted Christian education around the world. Based out of Calvin College and the Calvin Center for Scholarship, she and others began in the 70s and 80s to reimagine Christian education, with one result being the Chicago conferences, another the seminal book A Vision With a Task: Christian Schooling for Responsive Discipleship. She worked with schools around the world, particularly in India. In 2015 she co-authored a book with her daughter Julia entitled, Teaching to Justice, Citizenship, and Civic Virtue: The Character of a High School Through the Eyes of Faith. This book is a grand vision at a day-to-day level of an imagined Christian high school that is making a difference in the lives of students (with a ripple effect on the world). If you are interested, I wrote more about it here; it is a book well worth reading, especially given the issues of the day. The authors paint a picture of how we can nurture student flourishing that is difference making.

So, I guess I couldn’t keep myself to just one recommendation—sorry! But, whether you read one or both of these books, I pray you may be truly refreshed during these summer months so that you can continue to be difference makers in the lives of students and nudge them to do the same.


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