A version of this article was originally published in the CACE Blog on November 28, 2017.
For the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. 1 Timothy 6:10
If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work but rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea. The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I’ve been asking teachers at conferences and schools where I work if there is a corresponding ‘love’ in schools. Is there something students love that causes them to wander away from the true purpose of learning, the joy God intended us to feel when we find his ‘thoughtprint’, his ‘wisdomprint’ in creation? A ‘love’ that usurps the intrinsic satisfaction of responding well to God’s call, whether it be a simple homework assignment or a complex project? A ‘love’ that corrupts the image-bearing desire to create beauty, seek justice, partner with God in restoring a fallen world?
What motivates students to do their work? What currency rewards their best efforts? The answer is usually the same. Grades! Middle and high school teachers lament the predictable chorus that often follows any assignment they present, especially outside of the textbook margins:
“Are we going to be graded on this?”
“Is it going to be on the test?”
“What do I have to do to get an ‘A’?”
As much as they would like to prevent this obsession with grades, a non-graded assignment is code for “this doesn’t really matter.”
How about the “piercing with many griefs?” Certainly, there is the present grief of finding a “C” or worse at the top of the page. Depending on the student’s mindset, a poor grade could either be an impetus to work harder (growth mindset), or confirmation of a lack of gifting in that area (fixed mindset). I would suggest there is a more serious latter grief, sprouting thorns of self-doubt or false pride later in life when the adult is still doing work, whatever kind, in order to receive a reward. “Once they leave school,” as my friend Ron Berger says, “they will likely never take a test again, but will rather be judged by their character and the quality of their work.”
Even our spiritual growth is foiled by the expectation of being rewarded for our work. I wonder if there is a correlation between working to earn good grades in school and trying to earn God’s favor through works in life? I’m not suggesting we do away with grades, but rather to create a culture that runs on Godly motivation, not peripheral incentives. Grades should enter like grace, not through the front door of external rewards, but through the back door of work done well as worship. If not intrinsically motivated, if not responding to the role God is calling them to in His story, if not curious to learn about the world to discover God in it, or even just the joy of learning something new – fitting another piece into the great puzzle of Creation – then the whole system basically runs on B.F. Skinner’s toolbox of rewards (good grades, awards, parent praise, stickers, pizza parties, etc.) or punishments (bad grades, summer school, parent disapproval, grounding, no video games for a week, etc.).
Rightly used, grades are the natural response to our work, not the stimulus. God knows our motivation. God knows what is on the inside, no matter how good we might look to the world.
Think of service projects. Does it matter to God if a student performs service as a requirement for graduation, to look good on a college application or as a response to the command to love your brothers and sisters, to lay down your lives for one another, to partner with him in restoring a fallen world? Is there the same difference between studying to get a good grade and studying to find joy in understanding our interdependence with God and one another? I’m not saying we shouldn’t have service requirements. God can certainly reach a proud or grumbling heart through encountering the great need of others. I’m just saying if the result of service is not the changed heart of the server, it won’t equip us to play our part in the great adventure of God’s story. As C.S. Lewis says,
We might think that, provided you did the right thing, it did not matter how or why you did it – whether you did it willingly or unwillingly, sulkily or cheerfully, through fear of public opinion or for its own sake. But the truth is that right actions done for the wrong reason do not help to build the internal quality or character called a “virtue”, and it is this quality or character that really matters. C.S.Lewis, Mere Christianity (Book 3, Chapter 2 – The ‘Cardinal Virtues’)
I might paraphrase the quotation at the top of the page from the Little Prince:
“If you want to engage students in the work of the Kingdom, don’t herd them together to memorize doctrine and don’t assign them tasks for a grade, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of adventure in the story of God.”
The school has a role, along with family, church, and ultimately God’s grace, in opening the door to the Great Adventure. The tools we use in school to invite students into this adventure are curriculum, instruction, assessment, spiritual and community formation, and learning spaces. The questions we are asking are:
Curriculum – What should we teach? How does our school mission come alive through our curriculum choices? How do we support students in discovering truth and gaining knowledge through God’s word and His creation?
Instruction – Are the ways we teach reflecting biblical principles? How can we plan learning experiences that honor, engage, and challenge all students? How do we teach knowledge and skills in the context of serving our community and our God?
Assessment – How can we use assessment to help students learn, grow and take responsibility for their own progress? How do we offer a variety of ways for students to show what they can do and to encourage their gifts?
Spiritual and Community Formation – What and how should we celebrate? How do we define our Christian values and move them from the posters on the walls into the minds, hearts, and behaviors of our students? How do we equip the next generation of leaders to think and act biblically?
Learning Spaces – How do we design learning environments that invite students into the story of God? How do we use learning spaces that inspire students and open them to new ways of working and creativity?