Presented to the Association of Christian Teachers and Christian School Regional Educators Convention, Grandview Christian School, Grandview, Missouri — November 2, 2018
Mark Twain once famously said, “I never let schooling interfere with my education.” He also added that, “In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice, then he made the school board.” Twain’s humorous disdain for formal education might invite a chuckle or two, but it also affords an opportunity for educators to assess ourselves, to look in the mirror and consider whether we are being the benefit that we hope we might be or whether we are failing as miserably as those educators of which Twain spoke. Perhaps we are part of the problem. When he said that “nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits,” perhaps those other people to which he was facetiously referring was actually us. It is not enough to be driven to make a difference, we have to use the right tools, and we have to build on the right foundations.
Virginia Union University educator and dean, Matthew Lynch recently presented identified 18 reasons that he believed education in the U.S was failing. His reasons are thoughtworthy:
- Parents are not involved enough.
- Schools are closing left and right.
- Schools are overcrowded.
- Technology comes with its downsides.
- There is a lack of diversity in gifted education.
- School spending is stagnant.
- We are still using the teacher training methods of yesterday.
- There is a lack of teacher education innovation.
- Some students are lost to the school-to-prison pipeline.
- There is a nationwide college gender gap.
- We still do not know how to handle high school dropouts.
- We have not achieved educational equity.
- Technology brings a whole new dimension of cheating.
- We still struggle with making teacher tenure benefit both teacher and students.
- More of our schools need to consider year round schooling.
- We are still wrestling the achievement gap.
- We need to consider how school security measures affect students.
- We need to make assistive technology more available for students with disabilities.1
Lynch identifies some significant obstacles regarding access to education, funding, stakeholder involvement, student support, and teacher prep. His wish list is worthy of reflection and action. Still, it is notably not focused on the primary foundations of what education actually is. While secondary issues like those Lynch mentions are certainly important, I wonder if we as educators are guilty of mis-prioritization. We are attentive to plastering the cracks in the wall, adding a new coat of paint every now and then, replacing the carpet as it wears, and even keeping things well landscaped, but what attention are we paying to the foundation upon which the whole thing stands?
The following satirical essay from one student illustrates how what we prioritize as important in education is even sometimes laughable. It’s a long essay, but it is worth a moment here, as it offers the perspective of a student who sees contemporary secondary education as, less than worthy, and as filled with inexplicable ironies.
High School education is perfect in so many areas that in order to truly comprehend its greatness, one must understand each of the aspects that make it so fantastic. From the grading system to teacher salary and student eagerness to learn, there are a wide range of qualities that make the high school education system the well-oiled-machine that it is.
Even if one doesn’t love teaching it is a very rewarding job because of the salary. As a society we demonstrate that we value good competent teachers as we are willing to pay them well for their work. So even if a teacher doesn’t enjoy spending over six hours a day with generally disrespectful teenagers, he or she can at least be comforted by the fact that he or she has a secure, well paying job.
Teachers are also very lucky as they have very little work that they have to take home or stay after school for. Some jobs occasionally require employees to take work home, or work a little afterwards for overtime pay. But teachers almost never have to stay after school to help students with work or to make up tests. Another big benefit is the lunch break, when teachers can relax without being disturbed by students coming into their classrooms for help. The occasional test or homework assignment that teachers have to grade is pretty much the only thing that they need to take home, and those are very rare. Because they don’t have much, if any, work after school, the teachers are always enthusiastic and ready to teach and this enthusiasm is reflected on to the students.
While teachers do contribute to the invigorating knowledgeable atmosphere in the classrooms, the students are the ones that really make it happen. In all of the classes I have been in or visited, every student is always focused intently on the teacher, absorbing all of the knowledge being taught with a passion that is truly astounding. I constantly am challenging myself to find a student that does not give the teacher his or her undivided attention but to this day; I have yet to find even one student with his or her head down, texting, or even staring off into space. Also, I am amazed at how dedicated the students are, as they come to school so that they can learn every day. I have heard of many instances in which the parents attempt to convince their son or daughter to stay home from school so that the student can sleep in, but the student will insist on going because they have a test that day, or even just because their determination to learn is too strong to be held back.
The only classes that I sometimes am disappointed in are the honors classes. The regular classes, in which the students and teachers stick perfectly to the curriculum and consist entirely of the teacher imparting knowledge to the students, are flawless. But the honors and advanced placement classes, especially social studies, have students raising their hand and giving their opinion or even discussing parts of the topic, not directly in the curriculum. Each time this happens I expect some punishment from the teachers; however they not only allow this unacceptable behavior but even encourage it. But hopefully the correct approach that the other students and teachers are taking will rub off on and change the attitudes of the honors classes.
The grading system in which letters are given to students depending on their score in the class is phenomenal. Probably the best part is the way in which it trains students to remember material only as long as they have to, and then to release it from their brains after the test. This is the best way to learn because students don’t need to remember anything from previous years, as they already received a grade for that year and can now focus on their current year. This cycle of cramming knowledge right before the test and then forgetting it afterwards is by far the best way to learn, because the only thing that matters is their grade, not how much they still remember from the class.
Another one of my favorite parts of the grading system is extra credit, when a teacher offers free points for activities semi-related or unrelated to school. These activities include; bringing tissue boxes in and ensuring that their parents go to back-to-school night or open house night. This has formed into an escape option for students, which is good because they shouldn’t be expected to actually earn their grade. It can be tough actually learning the material and remembering a small portion of it for the final, so teacher also round grades up at the end of the semester. This is great because even with all of the extra credit, some students still aren’t quite there, and they showed that they are committed to learning by bringing in tissue boxes so they deserve an “A.”
I hope I have demonstrated how flawless the high school education system is in this restrictively short essay. The teachers are rewarded handsomely for their work with a well paying secure job but the students are the ones that bring it all together. With their passion for knowledge and ability to learn the required material and forget it completely, they deserve the most acknowledgement. Also, the grading system provides strong encouragement to retain knowledge only until the test so that the students will be able to solely rely on their instincts to survive life after education because they won’t remember anything they were taught in high school.2
While the essay is clever and witty, it is tragic in one sense, as it offers a probably all too common vantage point of could-be-learners who are simply not seeing the value in the processes that play out before them every day. There has to be a better way. There must be greater things yet to come than these. But before we imagine a brighter and more effective future, we must acknowledge that there is a problem and something has got to change.
In identifying one significant contemporary problem, San Diego State Professor of Psychology, Jean Twenge recounts the words of thirteen year-old Athena: “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”3 Twenge observes that
Even when a seismic event—a war, a technological leap, a free concert in the mud—plays an outsize role in shaping a group of young people, no single factor ever defines a generation. Parenting styles continue to change, as do school curricula and culture, and these things matter. But the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.4
Elsewhere Twenge quantifies startling levels of unhappiness and depression among teens, and makes this keen observation:
But what is causing these troubling trends? They lag the beginning of the Great Recession by about 5 years, so cyclical economic factors seem unlikely. The largest change in teens’ lives between 2011 and 2015 was the extremely rapid adoption of the smartphone. And sure enough, teens who spend more time on screens are more likely to have mental health issues. That suggests the advent of the smartphone might be one of the causes behind deteriorating mental health.5
There has always been a sizeable gap between generations, but that gap is accentuated today, as the youngest generation has grown up with an unprecedented rate of change, and an unparalleled dependence on and engagement with technology, to the extreme that other people and even personal independence are no longer priorities. All the information ever known to humanity is at their fingertips, a simple web search away, and yet this generation has no foundation. Educators, be certain of this: you are operating on a totally different planet today than the one that even the youngest generation of educators (millennials) grew up in. In uncertain and changing times, foundations become even more important.
Consider Jesus’ illustration in Matthew 7:24-27.
Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell — and great was its fall.
Observe that the one who built his house upon the sand was not proven to be a fool until the arrival of the rain, the floods, and the winds. For a time his building strategy might have seemed very utilitarian, very practical. Perhaps inexpensive. Maybe a beachfront with a gorgeous view. But the test would come. And when it did, the change was so pronounced from the conditions in which the house was built, that it would have been obvious to anyone observing the storm that building the house on a foundation of sand was a dumb idea. But those conditions weren’t present when the foundation was laid. It wasn’t obvious then. Today presents similar yet unprecedented difficulty for young people. Foundations matter today more than ever. Of course they have always mattered, but the more severe the test, the more apparent the need for a solid foundation.
Even in Christian education the challenges are evident. The areas in Christian higher education where Christian students are expressing great need include depression, suicidal thinking, gender identity confusion, pornography addictions, isolation, and uncertainty. These aren’t extreme or fringe cases. These are the regular people raised in Christian homes, many of whom have been taught in Christian schools.
Twenge prescribes moderating technology use for younger people as a means to resolving the unhappiness and unhealthiness that has become more prominent, and while there is some wisdom in that prescription, fixing the foundation would go quite a bit further in providing a more comprehensive and lasting solution. God’s word provides many examples and case studies that provide guidance, but there are three in particular for our discussion today that can aid us as educators in attending to the foundations of education: Solomon’s Worldview Model, Paul’s Model for Transformative Learning, and Elihu’s Is/Ought Model. If we grasp what these three models provide for us, then we can be better educators capable of meeting our students where they are, and of entrusting them with something that will truly be transformative and lasting.
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1 Matthew Lynch, “18 Reasons the U.S. Education System is Failing,” The Edvocate, April 3, 2017, viewed at https://www.theedadvocate.org/10-reasons-the-u-s-education-system-is-failing/.
2 “Satire Essay on High School Education,” Letterpile.com, February 13, 2017, viewed at https://letterpile.com/humor/High-School-Education-Satire-Essay#.
3 Jean Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, September 2017, viewed at https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/.
5 Jean Twenge, “Making iGen’s Mental Health Issues Disappear” Psychology Today, August 31, 2017, viewed at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/our-changing-culture/201708/making-igens-mental-health-issues-disappear.
Dr. Christopher Cone serves as President of Calvary University, and is the author or general editor of several books including: Integrating Exegesis and Exposition: Biblical Communication for Transformative Learning, Gifted: Understanding the Holy Spirit and Unwrapping Spiritual Gifts, and Dispensationalism Tomorrow and Beyond: A Theological Collection in Honor of Charles C. Ryrie. Dr. Cone previously served in executive and faculty roles at Southern California Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, and in pastoral roles at Tyndale Bible Church and San Diego Fellowship of the Bible.