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.
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