George Ferrar: July 2010

BLANK SLATES OR GROWING GARDENS? Just before our school got off to its first start last year, I was handed resources that I wished I had discovered before. In the battle to launch a school—meeting government regulations, building and furnishing classrooms, raising support, interviewing parents & students, recruiting teachers, outlining courses, developing policies and running innumerable errands—it’s easy for an educator to overlook the real-time activity that will take place in class.

We have curriculum standards to meet and information to dispense. So we often fall back into the familiar lecture pattern of teacher-tell, and students-write-or-repeat, as if students were blank slates. If students stray outside those lines, we draw them back to the blank slate again. My formal education from grade one through two top graduate schools followed this pattern, with rare exceptions.

But some kids in our Children’s Church and Youth Church wanted to explore outside those lines. They have more than enough of that routine in primary school. So I spent more and more time asking them what they knew and who they were. Then I showed Bible videos and verses and asked them what they understood and who they wanted to be. I encouraged them to participate in sharing praises and prayers from their hearts, preaching what they had learned, and practicing what they preached. Since few students were bold enough to do so, I divided them into teams. In teams each student could participate more, interacting with other students to come up with questions and answers.

But new ways can quickly become old routines too. Kids are on a never-ending quest for variety, and it’s not easy to keep up with them. When I have to run off on errands, they often run into trouble. How can we set them on a course that leads to abundant life, and not self-destruction (Mt. 7:13-14)?

LECTURES OR ACTIVE LEARNERS? If they are blank slates, then anyone is free to spray graffiti on them outside church and school—and this does happen. But if they are gardens, as I believe, the wrongs sown in them can be weeded. Will they let you in their gardens? Will they let you pull their cherished—but choking—weeds? Better yet, will they learn how to tend and weed their own gardens? They can, if you offer the Holy Spirit as a guide. “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). They can, if you train them by the Spirit to train themselves. “But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:14).

The real-time activity in the class—not the course outline—is the training. How can students learn to train themselves during the average lecture-based class, in which the teacher does 80% of the talking? For each 50 minute class, that means the students participate for only 10 minutes. With 20 students, that means an average of only 30 seconds of participation per student! But the most outspoken students dominate that time, so the quietest students, who need the most encouragement, are effectively dropped out of the discussion. Why should we wonder, then, that so many lose heart and drop out of school?

This is no way to equip the saints, present or future. Yet for years I found precious few participatory activities—beyond simple crafts—in the wide range of Christian curricula that I consulted. Then last year a Christian friend with a PhD in education introduced me to some weighty works by nonbelievers —too late to digest before the 2009-2010 school year.

COOPERATIVE LEARNING. One was Cooperative Learning by Spencer Kagan (no relation to the Supreme Court nominee). Like every revolutionary idea, cooperative learning is simple. Students help each other during non-lecture time instead of compete for that time. For example, in Think-Pair-Share, students pair off & discuss. That means for every 10 minutes of non-lecture time, each student has an average of 5 minutes of speaking time, instead of 30 seconds. Then each pair can share with another pair in a four-member team. The team can then share with the whole class.

But how can we keep the advanced students from dominating the sharing? One way is Numbered Heads Together. We assign numbers 1 through 4 to each team member. When it’s time for a team to share with the whole class, the teacher calls one number. Each student with that number answers for their team. The team gets recognition points for each good answer. So it’s in the interest of the whole team to make sure each team member can give good answers, in case that member’s number is called. The advanced student learns how to teach, and the slow student gets extra attention.

We want to make sure it’s the right kind of attention. Not “Get with it, dummy!” but “Good try. How about trying this?” A team scorekeeper can give points for positive comments. Some may complain this slows down advanced students. But communicating effectively to slow learners is a skill that advanced students must learn, if they want to advance in their callings. Two-thirds of first jobs are lost due to lack of social skills, not lack of knowledge. Teamwork is essential to success. The top leaders of the church are not those who do their own thing well, but those are “equipping the saints for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up, until we all reach unity” (Eph. 4:12-13).

Team points are not the same as academic scores. Each student is graded on his or her own merits, not the team’s. In the same way, “each one of us will give an account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:12). But team points—and overall class points—can count toward rewards such as after-school games, music, snacks, and celebrations.

Think-Pair-Share and Numbered Heads Together are two of the ninety “structures” that Kagan offers for the classroom, to keep each student active in the learning process. Didn’t Jesus do much the same? While His lectures truly resonated with an awesome authority, He also involved people in various contexts in the personal discovery of His truth.

MAN FOR ALL SEASONS. We find Jesus constantly drawing out individuals with questions and provocative statements (Peter, Philip, Nathanael, Nicodemus, a woman at the well and a crippled man at the pool, in the first five chapters of John). We find Him challenging pairs of disciples to say what they’re looking for, to follow Him, to drink the cup He will drink, and to save people instead of calling fire down on them (Jn. 1:38-39; Mt. 4:18-22; 20:20-23; Lk. 9:54-56). And He sent them out in pairs to save and heal and do the works of His kingdom (Mk. 6:7-13; Lk. 10:1-12).

We find Jesus giving His disciples times to discuss by themselves, then evaluating their conclusions (Mk.8:14-21; 9:33-34; Lk.9:46-48; 22:24-30). We find Him debating His opponents and posing riddles & parables for them to ponder (Mt.21-22). He honored the smallest children, exalted them as kingdom examples, and rebuked His own disciples for hindering them (Lk. 10:21. 18:15-17).

Jesus was a Man for all seasons and situations. Students can experience His way and truth and life in many more ways than a lecture. As Creator of all, He can use nonbelievers to show creative ways to cultivate the gardens of students’ lives. I’m eager to get back to Caye Caulker to work in these gardens, as soon as we have a team. The harvest is great! Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out more laborers!

Yours in Christ, George