Re-imagining Christian Schools: Immigrants and Natives (Part 1)

Michael ChenInnovation

At a recent education conference, I was struck by a distinction made by John Couch, the head of Apple’s educational arm. He referred to the millennials as digital natives and those of us who are generations above the age of 30 as digital immigrants. To his point, he talked about how we needed to reimagine schoolings with the fast-changing technological environment in mind so that we could best prepare the next generation of students. Meanwhile, my mind drifted to the drastic divide between the natives and immigrants.

Growing up as an immigrant kid, I experienced first hand the challenge of navigating an environment and culture that were not of my own.

  • I did not know that I needed to give a firm hand shake during my college interview as a way to give a good impression.
  • I did not know why I kept getting into trouble for not giving the teachers the due respect by not looking into their eyes when they talked to me.
  • I did not know that there were other career and vocational options beyond the ones that were described by my immigrant parents or other immigrant peers.
  • I did not know that there was a whole world out there that I could explore or that there were a whole host of ways to think about the world or life beyond in this new land of opportunity and beyond what I knew.

The gap between the realities of a native and the immigrant me was just too big for my imagination to bridge.

In a similar way, those of us who are above the age of forty face a great chasm between us, the digital immigrants, and the digital natives. And yet, we are the ones making decisions that aim to prepare the young generation for their future. Setting our pride aside, we must ask ourselves, “how in a world do we know how to prepare this young generation for their future?” This question is in light of the fact that no place in human history have we experienced such technological advances and cultural changes as rapidly as ever before. We have to admit that it is possible that many of our assumptions about how we know what we know (epistemology) and how humans behave and develop (anthropology) are dubious and should be put to question.

Moreover, for those of us who are educators, we have to hold the tension between the tried and true of what works, and what new teaching and learning should be like for the world that we may not fully comprehend. This is a difficult tension to hold because we like to teach the way we were taught, and yet that may not be the best for our students as they face a future that we, as digital immigrants, could hardly imagine.

Whatever your opinion might be of John Dewey, an influential and progressive educational philosopher in the 20th century, we should heed his insights from these words: “if we teach today as we were taught yesterday, we rob our students their future.” These words are particularly relevant in today’s fast-changing digital environment. We must prepare our students, not for our past, but for their future that is unknown to us.

So, what are some features in today’s world that make teaching the digital natives so challenging?

Grant Lichtman, an educational thought leader, describes that our educational paradigm, a remnant of the industrial age, focuses on being scalable, controlled, predictable, measurable, contained, and repeatable. As we think about all aspects of our schools, ranging from teaching in the classroom to curriculum development to homework policies to extracurricular activities, I think we can all find ways to apply the aforementioned characteristics to our schools.

In contrast, Lichtman asserts that the new schooling paradigm should focus on these characteristics:

dynamic, adaptive , permeable, self-correcting, creative, and systemic.

Without fully explicating these adjectives, the point of these descriptors is that the current ecosystem and technological context in which we think about education are both a treacherous wilderness and a land filled with milk and honey. It is fraught with challenges and ripe with opportunity equally. The next question is, how do we get through this? Do we need to wander through the wilderness for 40 years before crossing the Jordan River into the promised land like the biblical Israelites?

In graduate school, I learned that at the foundation of any great idea is a thoughtful theoretical framework from which we develop innovative ideas in order to advance human thinking and doing. In the same way, I suggest that we must start with a foundational question when reimagining schooling so that it may be able to grow and develop along with the pace of our fast changing information age. And this question is:

How do we know what we know?

The answer to this question about the nature of knowledge should shape the design and architecture of a 21st century school.

So, what is your theory about knowledge (epistemology)? Is it consistent with the design of your school (organizational theory)? Can your theory about knowledge adequately respond to the dynamic movement and development of society and world (anthropology and sociology)?

In the next article, I will suggest the application of the epistemological work of Esther Meek to the way we re-imagine Christian schools.


  • Michael Chen

    Dr. Michael Chen has been an educator for over 20 years in the San Francisco and Boston areas with experiences in urban education, international education, school leadership, cultural formation, and organizational development. His school leadership experience includes serving as the superintendent at a PK-12 school in CA, dean of faculty at a diverse school in Boston, and the founding director of Trinity Institute for Leadership and Social Justice, an integrative service learning and leadership development program for high school youth in Boston. Currently, he serves as the head of school at Pacific Bay Christian School. For his doctoral work, Michael developed a system-theory of resilience to further understand human development in the context of war-affected widows in Nepal. In addition, he also provided consultative services to schools and organizations in South Korea, Nepal, and India in areas of leadership, monitoring and evaluation, and also managed a tuition-free school for widows and disadvantaged women in Kathmandu, Nepal. He served on the boards of Hope Initiatives in Nepal and Christian Coalition for Educational Innovation in the US. He was a recipient of 2012 US Presidential Scholar Teacher Recognition Award and has published several online articles and a book chapter on student leadership development. Lastly, he did his undergraduate studies in Physics and American Literature at UC Berkeley, masters work in international educational development, and doctorate in educational policy and leadership at Boston University.