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Formation by Design

A Christian educator has two missions. One: disciple-making—helping our students grow into their full identity as God has created them. And two, academic—growing students’ skills and knowledge in specific disciplines. The former will show itself in the hearts and life of the student. The latter will show itself, ultimately, necessarily, in the form of grades on a transcript.

The tension between these two can often lead teachers to feel like they are torn in two directions—the academic mission seems indifferent at best to Christian discipleship. At times, it seems downright counterproductive: Grading student work, giving tests, and leading students through the process of being ‘graded,’ having cumulative GPAs that open (or close) doors. Grades form students’ self-perception, their attitude toward learning, the content, and the skills they are developing. At best, for many educators, this becomes the context for discipleship, a sort of ‘consider it pure joy, brothers and sisters, when you face trials of many kinds of opportunity. Is that the best role academics can play in academic discipleship?

The good news: we can do better! At Waterloo School, as we have sought to develop an academic program that has ‘formation by design,’ it has led us to experiment with and develop a new approach to academic production, feedback, and assessment. What we are discovering is that the tension between the two is largely the result of the fact that the common modes of academic feedback and assessment were designed not for formation but for management and administration. With thought and care, we can develop new ways of assessing—new ways that lead to new vocabularies, new rituals, new workflows, and new conversations. Grading periods, progress reports, and even the categories of feedback and assessment can support student growth, not just ‘capture’ their achievement.

We dreamed of a school where students would casually talk about their growth and goals as much as they often talk, instead about grades, the stress of tests, and homework load. Four years into the life of the school, I have heard just those casual conversations taking place.

I look forward to sharing in March with the Christian Deeper Learning community in Vancouver what we are learning and workshop together further redesigns of the academic assessment process to support discipleship, formation, and growth.


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