This blog was adapted from opening remarks at the Powerful Practices: Implementing Deeper Learning in Christian Schools conference, Gainesville, FL, January 11-12, 2018.
“It is nothing but a pious wish and a grossly unwarranted hope that students trained to be passive and non-creative in school will suddenly, upon graduation, actively contribute to the formation of Christian culture.” Nicholas Wolterstorff
And now for some breaking news: I read in the School Library Journal that scientists have recently made a remarkable discovery. They have identified a force, often found in deeper learning classrooms, that makes people think more clearly, understand more deeply, remember more accurately, and love more selflessly. This force has the power to encourage struggling students and to boost high-achieving students to new levels of quality work. It’s called ‘interest’, and the scientists who study it describe it as “being totally engaged, engrossed, or entirely taken up with” a particular subject. They are so engaged they escape the boundaries of self-consciousness and the tyranny of time. “Mr. Levy, do we have to go to lunch? Can we stay in and work during recess?” Music to a teacher’s ear.
I believe at the heart of deeper learning in any school is this kind of student engagement. At Expeditionary Learning (now EL Education) our motto was that we were all ‘crew, not passengers’. David Smith, in his book Teaching and Christian Imagination exhorts us to be ‘pilgrims, not tourists’. Engagement is the spark that kindles deeper learning. Howard Gardner writes, “The most important moment in a child’s education is the crystallizing experience: when the child connects to something that engages curiosity and stimulates further exploration.” I spend a lot of time with teachers planning that experience.
If students are not engaged, not intrinsically motivated, how do we get them to do the work? Basically, we have B.F. Skinner’s toolbox of rewards and punishments. We try to disguise them as grades, pizza parties, prizes, or parent promises of rewards. Or we threaten them with loss of recess, summer school, shame, or grounding at home. Yes, we might be able to manage them to do the work, but management is different than engagement. I’ve seen a lot of classrooms that are very well managed. Students are compliant. They do what the teachers asked, and that’s not bad, of course, but it still is part of a system that relies on external motivation to reach the goal.
God wired us to be propelled by curiosity, driven by an intense need to explore, interact with, and make sense of his creation. Infants and young children are masters of curiosity. Parents don’t complain that their preschoolers lack motivation. Unfortunately, as they grow, their passion for learning frequently seems to shrink. Learning becomes associated with drudgery instead of delight. Although physically, even mentally present, they fail to invest themselves fully in the experience of learning.
When we consider instructional practices, we are thinking not about what the students will study, but rather how we will present the material. I remember in the early days of EL Education we thought we could solve pervasive educational malaise by designing great curriculum – engaging projects that would inspire all kids to want to learn. We spent a lot of time planning but were disappointed when students were not as excited as we were. It turned out not to be the project, but rather the method of delivery. Teachers didn’t know how to present the content other than whole class lectures, individual reading assignments and maybe an occasional video. They might ask kids to work in groups, but those were largely unsuccessful with some kids doing much of the work and others standing by. They may assign projects, which were usually done at home, often with a heavy hand of parent supervision.
What were Jesus’s instructional practices? He told stories. He asked questions. He related spiritual principles to the things people knew in their own experience: shepherds, carpenters, farmers, merchants. He knew his “students” well. He knew which ones to encourage, which ones to challenge, when to explain and when to let them discover. He respected them where they were at. “Let him who has ears…” He didn’t knock them over with the right idea – he let them hear what they were able to hear and continued to shepherd them towards the Truth.
We want to employ instructional practices – protocols for discussion, activities that gradually invite students to discover the concept, the mind or heart of God in creation. Structures that engage all students, not just the four or five who always raise their hands in whole group instruction. Structures that build the skills of collaboration, require complex and creative thinking, and invite craftsmanship in applying the knowledge and skills they master to create works of beauty, that both form the character of the learner and serve a needy world.
We hope you will consider joining us for the fourth annual Deeper Learning in Christian Schools summer institute in Boston, where you will experience a variety of engaging instructional practices and explore how spiritual formation is forged at the intersection of curriculum, instruction, and assessment.
 Paul, A.M. School Library Journal. November, 2013. Retrieved from https://www.slj.com/2013/11/research/the-science-of-interest-the-latest-cognitive-research-can-help-us-engage-students-and-foster-real-learning/