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Avoiding Pitfalls in Answering the 4 Essential Questions of Learning-Focused Collaboration

In an earlier post – “Framing the 4 Questions of Learning-focused Collaboration” – I attempted to situate the Questions squarely in a Biblical frame.  As I continue to think about how we can use these questions to fulfill our mission and visions as Christian schools, I am particularly concerned about avoiding pitfalls that could lead to a reductionistic (and nonbiblical) approach to answering these questions.


The 4 Questions are very helpful in focusing the messy work of schooling on our central task – student learning. We do need to define what it is that we want students to learn, think through convincing and credible evidence of what and how well students are learning, and plan effective and engaging ways to help all students learn. This is our work.


So what could lead to a reductionistic approach? What pitfalls should we plan to avoid? One pitfall is to under emphasize the ‘we’ in these questions. While individual educators can apply these questions to their units or lessons, it takes collaborative effort of the whole professional learning community to make sure that the learners’ journey through school is one that will lead them to the kind of lives for which we want to equip them. How can we work together effectively as a community of educators to ensure that each student experiences an essential curriculum?


Another pitfall is to focus on achievement versus learning. While there is a subtle difference between the two, it is possible for students to achieve – to reach or attain – a goal without having learned much new or come to understand more deeply. Prior learning and skill might enable them to demonstrate understanding of learning targets without having added any new learning or understanding. We can avoid this pitfall if we focus on growth. How can we help all students grow in their understanding of important skills and concepts? This requires that we find out what learners already know and can do and that we continuously monitor their growth and help them to do the same.


Perhaps the worst pitfall is to reduce the answers to the 4 Questions to academic learning. This is clearly not our intention as Christian educators, but the tendency is built into the questions particularly as used in various sectors. Question 1 is a curriculum question. Question 2 focuses on assessment and Question 3 and 4 lead us to crafting learning plans and adjustment thereof. Curriculum, assessment, and learning plans – this is what we do, but how do we avoid giving primarily academic, thus reductionistic, answers to the questions? How do we avoid the ‘brains on tripods’ approach?


Perhaps the most effective corrective is anchoring our work with these questions in the larger biblical STORY of which we are a part. Answering the questions biblically requires knowing the STORY, locating where we are in the STORY, and reflecting on our role in that STORY.4Qspitfalls


Answering Question 1 is rooted in understanding God’s agenda for His world and for us, his people. What do we need to know, understand, and be able to do to fit into God’s agenda? What kind of people are we called to be and what does it take to become that kind of people? The answer to this question is an act of imagination because we are not given scripts to live by nor can we give our students scripts for their lives. We do know that we are called to partner with God in his agenda of restoration, reconciliation and transformation. Knowing that, our answers to Question 1 will certainly address important ‘standards’ but will include so much more.


Our role in the biblical STORY involves giving witness to God’s kingdom that was inaugurated by Jesus but is not yet fully realized. Others should be able to witness God’s work in the world by the way we live our lives. How do we give learners the opportunity to be witnesses of God’s agenda and how can we witness their growth in this regard? Building on the STORY-formed answers to Question 1, Question 2 is really a question of witness. How can we give learners the opportunity to give witness to their learning and growth and how can we prepare ourselves to witness that growth? Yes, learners need to give witness to their growth in the acquisition of important content and skills, but the answer to Question 2 becomes much richer and weightier in the context of the STORY and our part in it.


Living out our role in God’s STORY requires passionate engagement. If we are not fully engaged in understanding and becoming the kind people God calls us to be, we are not committed to His agenda nor will we effectively further it. In fact, we may get in the way of God’s agenda. Without engagement, we go through the motions making learning/growth dry, disconnected and routine. In the context of the STORY, which requires passionate engagement, Question 3 expands exponentially beyond the question of how we can craft engaging and effective ways for learners to meet learning targets. The Question becomes how we can craft an engaging and effective journey for learners to be and become the kind of people they are called to be. Will we plan engaging and effective ways for learners to master important content and skills? Yes. But there is so much more at stake in a biblical answer to Question 3.


Living out our role in the biblical STORY is not an individualistic endeavor. God addresses himself to a people. Together we are to grow into the people he calls us to be. Together we are to witness to and further God’s agenda for his world. Together we are to encourage, redirect, support, and equip each other as we navigate the messy, sometimes confusing journey to becoming the people we are called to be. We don’t have the same gifts, the same understanding, the same resolve. Yet, the STORY binds us to each other as we are bound to God. Question 4 is really about being bound to each other, teacher to student and student to student, so every one grows and thrives. Will we teachers adjust and intervene to help learners learn important concepts and skills? Yes. But in the context of the STORY, the answer to Question 4 means so much more.

elaine brouwer, Alta Vista




By What Standards? (Tim Visser, Shoreline Christian School)

David Coleman, President of the College Board, has announced that the class of 2016 will see some changes to their Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).  While I believe the SAT is long overdue for some changes, I find it interesting that the SAT will join the American College Testing (ACT) in aligning themselves with the Common Core Standards.  I guess I should not be surprised since Mr. Coleman was one of primary designers of the Common Core.  Like it or not, this move makes the Common Core something worthy of our attention.


By way of some background information, we need to remember that education standards are the responsibility of each state.  Fifty states plus the District of Columbia means fifty one different discussions on what defines competency within a grade or discipline.  During the 1990s, education moved to a more discussions on standards.  By 2009, the Common Core was born out of state governors and their education specialists recognizing that the discussion on standards could be strengthened if they worked together–a noble idea that had the potential of elevating the impact of education on our nation’s children.


It should be no surprise that the discussions on the Common Core were derailed.  California and Texas control the textbook market, but they operate on opposite ends of the political spectrum.  Implementation proved more of a challenge with fifty-one ways of funding education, fifty-one teacher groups involved in the mix, and fifty-one governors flexing their political muscle.  On top of this, we have the College Board and ACT acting as the gatekeepers to college admissions.  Their  tests and their standards for Advanced Placement (AP) Tests were used to determine who was getting into what college and with how many credits.  Growing dissatisfaction with the tests being accurate predictors of success began to surface a few years ago.  Over eight hundred colleges are no longer requiring the SAT or ACT as part of their admissions process.  Colleges are also expressing concerns as to how poorly students with AP credits were prepared for college level courses.  Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school in the Northeast, announced it would no longer accept AP courses for credit.  The children in our own state are the latest casualties when the state and federal government could not agree on standards of accountability.  As a result, the state loses 40 million dollars in federal support.  Do we really need more reasons why education in the United States is in trouble?


Shoreline Christian School stays above this fracas by staying true to our Mission Statement:

Shoreline Christian School works in partnership with Christian families and their church to challenge students in preschool through high school: 

To celebrate that all of creation belongs to God

To respond to God by developing their unique gifts and abilities 

To live as dynamic and transforming influences for the glory of God


We are in a partnership that is focused on the child.  Our role4Q2 is to defined by four questions:


  • What do we want students to learn?

With so much confusion over what standards to use, this question gets to the heart of the matter.  At our school, we pull from a myriad of resources, the skills of our teachers, and the expectations of our community.  Our curriculum maps are linked to Christian schools across the nation so that we can compare and contrast.  We have access to the college admission offices, to the Common Core, to the SAT, to the ACT, to the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), and to national organizations that represent the disciplines we teach.  No single text book publisher or imposed state standards will dictate what our students will learn.


  • How will we know what and how well students are learning?

    Again, no single source offers a completed picture.  Assessment of student learning needs to be both process (formative) and completion (summative) oriented.  Portfolios, test quizzes, papers, projects, presentations, and the list goes on.  We offer access to SAT, ACT, PSAT, PLAN, and ITBS.  When the data is collected, we listen to the students to validate the accuracy of the data we collected.  Finally, we ask the graduates and parents tell us their stories about how well the students are learning.


  • How do we engage students in relevant learning?

    We need to ask ourselves constantly, why do we need them to learn this stuff?  Where does this learning fit in a plan?  If it is just the next page in the textbook, we are not doing our jobs.  The answer must be reflected in our curriculum maps.  The learning must have purpose and compliment the overall plan for learning.  When it is all said and done, I take a graduate out for lunch and ask the same question.


  • How will we respond when some students learn quickly or don’t learn well?

    The size of our school, the dedication of the staff, and the support of our parents allows us to make adjustments.  Curriculum is only a plan and plans have to change to reflect the standards they seek to attain.  We learn what works, and we adjust to replicate the results.  When learning does not happen the way we plan, we adjust according to what we learn.  The best teachers at SCS are the best learners.  The more we learn about what works and what doesn’t work, the better we can work with our impact our student learners.


Watson Groen/Shoreline Christian has stayed above the confusion and stayed focused on the learner created in the image of God.  Elements like the Common Core and the alphabet soup of tests are akin to the lenses that help sharpen the discussion, but the lenses do not define the image.   For sixty-plus years, this focus has been tested and proven by the graduates and the stories they tell of how they were equipped “To live as a dynamic and transforming influence for the glory of God.”


Tim Visser, Principal of Shoreline Christian School

Framing the 4 Questions of Learner-centered Collaboration: cultivating “gardens of delight”

Alasdair MacIntyre said “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”[1] The spirituality/faith/beliefs that grow out of the story or stories we inhabit precede and inform our rationality and our practices. “Practices are essentially belief-shaped, and beliefs are essentially practice-shaping.”[2]  Elliot Eisner states that education is “a political undertaking because it reveals in its practice a conception of human nature, a view of the human mind, an image of what the young can become, and a vision that can guide us as we try to invent the future.”[3]  As Christians we have a particular way of making sense of the world and our place in it. Consequently, the way we answer the 4 questions of Learner-Centered Collaboration must be shaped by what we believe – about the nature of human beings, the nature of the world we study, the kinds of lives we are called to live [the nature of the good life], and, therefore, our convictions about the purpose of schooling. In short, we need to strive for faith-informed answers to the four questions.4Q2

Our answers to the questions and the practices that follow from them must ultimately be about shaping lives not just meeting standards or achieving learning targets. We need to keep the larger vision in mind – an act of imagination. Consider this example by Etienne Wenger:

Two stonecutters . . . are asked what they are doing. One responds: “I am cutting this stone in a perfectly square shape.” The other responds: “I am building a cathedral.” Both answers are correct and meaningful, but they reflect different relations to the world. The difference between these answers does not imply that one is a better stonecutter than the other, as far as holding the chisel is concerned. At the level of engagement, they may well be doing the exact same thing. But it does suggest that their experience of what they are doing and their sense of self in doing it are rather different. This difference is a function of imagination. As a result, they may be learning very different things from the same activity.[4]

Implicit in the 4 questions is a question of justice. We want all students to have access to a quality course of study. We want all students to have the opportunity to demonstrate their learning in a manner that truly reveals learning. We want all students to have access to teaching and learning activities that are meaningful, engaging, and effective. And we want all students to have the opportunity to relearn or to go deeper. Its all about justice – for us, justice biblically defined.

Biblical justice works toward God’s intention for his creation – shalom – a broad vision of human flourishing in which humans live in right relationship with God, others, themselves, and the rest of creation. We are created in the image of God to keep and serve his creation. Because of this, we together with the rest of creation are of great worth. Biblical justice requires that we be attentive to the worth of the other and to all the ways in which the other can be wronged. Nicholas Wolterstorff reminds us that “Teachers stand before the students as authority figures with power at their disposal; that makes it easy for them to wrong the students.”[5]   Our answers to the 4 questions should define what ‘right relationships’ look like in our learning spaces (with each other and with that which we study) and be attentive to the ‘fine texture of injustice’ that might invade and distort them.

John Amos Comenius, a Moravian bishop writing in the 17th century, helps us take an important step further. He said that to treat any individual injuriously, or to deny them the benefits of education, is to “commit an injury not only against those who share the same nature as ourselves, but against God himself.”[6]  His normative image of learning spaces and individuals is of “gardens of delight.” Youth must be taught from the beginning , he urges, “that we are born not for ourselves alone, but for God and for our neighbour, that is to say the human race.”[7]  The end of education, he says should be that “the entire world should be a garden of delight for God, for people, and for things.”[8]

What a delightful vision and framework for addressing the 4 questions of learner-centered collaboration.

[1] Alasdair C. MacIntrye, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), p.216.

[2] David Smith, “Recruiting Students’ Imaginations,” in Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith & Learning, ed. David I. Smith and James K.A. Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), p. 213.

[3] Elliot W. Eisner, “Back to the Whole” in Educational Leadership, 63:1 (September 2005) p. 18.

[4] Etienne Wenger, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) p.176.

[5] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Teaching Justly for Justice” in Spirituality, Justice and Pedagogy, eds David I Smith, John Shortt, & John Sullivan, (Nottingham, UK: The Stapelford Centre, 2006), p. 33.

[6] John Amos Comenius as quoted by David I. Smith in Spirituality, Justice and Pedagogy, eds David I Smith, John Shortt, & John Sullivan, (Nottingham, UK: The Stapelford Centre, 2006), p. 8.

[7] John Amos Comenius as quoted by David I. Smith in Spirituality, Justice and Pedagogy, eds David I Smith, John Shortt, & John Sullivan, (Nottingham, UK: The Stapelford Centre, 2006), p. 9.

[8] John Amos Comenius as quoted by David I. Smith in Spirituality, Justice and Pedagogy, eds David I Smith, John Shortt, & John Sullivan, (Nottingham, UK: The Stapelford Centre, 2006), p. 9.

elaine brouwer

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