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The Invitation to Learn

This article was originally published in the CACE Blog on October 2, 2019.

I’ve worked with many teachers designing deeper learning projects that invite students to do “real work for real people.” One challenge we always encounter is linking the service component of the project to the standards and skills that need to be taught. We have done a lot of work transforming service projects into service learning. Lynn Swaner and Roger Erdvig’s book Bring it to Life is a terrific resource in this regard.

But the challenge I want to address here is the invitation, the call to service. It is what moves engagement from external rewards to internal motivation: a small move with enormous implications for the Kingdom. It makes all the difference in the world from God’s perspective (as I imagine it) whether we do the work for our own personal gain or to participate in shaping an “earth as it is in heaven.” So how can we introduce the journey in a way that inspires wonder and activates our God-given desire to know him and the world he made?

Howard Gardner calls this invitation the crystallizing experience: “The most important moment in a child’s education is the crystallizing experience: when the child connects to something that engages curiosity and stimulates further exploration.” As I work with teachers, we spend a lot of time planning the crystallizing experience.

If the invitation doesn’t inspire wonder, engagement, and a desire to explore, then how do you get kids to actually do the work? If they are not intrinsically motivated by their identity in God’s story, in playing the role God is writing for them, what is the motivation? If we are honest, it is B.F. Skinner’s toolbox of rewards (grades, prizes, money, recognition, promise of future personal gain) and punishments (detention, summer school, grounding, withheld privileges), however well disguised.

The following are questions that might lead to a compelling invitation.

What is amazing about the concept or the topic? What important characteristics about it have we come to take for granted?

Until I myself recognize the significance of the concept (the genius of the topic, what makes it unique, what makes it important, what it reveals about the Creator’s creativity), I won’t be able to communicate to my students that this concept matters. What could be more spectacular than the oxygen and carbon dioxide interdependence of people and trees? Or the creativity given to humankind, made in God’s image? Can you imagine a number system without zero? What an incredible invention! Invite students to try multiplication with Roman numerals in order to truly appreciate the genius of zero. Or consider a simple pulley. I have to appreciate how amazing it is to pull down to make something go up. I have to feel the wonder of it all myself before I can invite my students to be amazed themselves.

How have children experienced the topic in their own lives already?

In some cases, students have already had an experience of a concept, but have not yet named it. The kindergarten child experiences subtraction when she loses a mitten. The eighth grader experiences the greenhouse effect when she gets into a car on a sunny summer day after being in the mall for three hours. The high school kicker on the football team has experienced parabola as he judges a kick for height and distance. If I can connect a new concept to an experience they have already had, I am sure to get an “Aha!”

Sometimes I have to create an opportunity for them to experience something before I introduce the concept. Maybe they have a collection of some kind: cards, coins, stamps (do they even know what stamps are anymore?). Why are some of these items worth more than others? Supply and demand. Students better understand new concepts if they can connect them to their own experiences.

What connection does this concept have to others? Is there a principle in the specific that leads to something universal?

Sometimes the crystallizing experience happens in making connections to other concepts. For example, my students really got excited about making inferences when they connected formulating a hypothesis in a science experiment to making predictions in a novel to estimating an amount in mathematics. I can imagine an outcome even if I don’t know for sure, while practicing humility in recognizing I may be wrong. The value of a concept is enhanced when it implies something universal, across disciplines. God’s world is amazingly integrated and interdependent; when we discover even trivial connections, we touch the hem of God’s majesty. We also can think about truth across disciplines. This idea opens the door to provocative discussions about how truth might be understood and represented differently by a mathematician, a scientist (even between a physicist and biologist), a historian and a poet. And how all, of course, can reflect a facet of God’s Truth.

Can I lead students to discover the topic for themselves rather than just tell them what they are going to study?

Students feel authenticity and ownership when the curriculum seems to organically unfold as they come together in Christian community to explore God’s world. Even if we have a curriculum prepared for them, the invitation needs to be gradually revealed, like a set of Russian dolls. Each layer reveals new information and invites further exploration. One aha leads to another. One of the best structures for creating this gradual unraveling is the Building Background Knowledge workshop, or BBK.

We try to find situations that inspire students to further exploration. For example, our 4th grade state science curriculum requires that we teach rocks and minerals. My district provided an expensive rock and mineral kit. But when I opened the kit, it was a complete mess. Empty bags with rock and mineral names, pennies, little jars of vinegar, nails, pieces of glass, and all kinds of rocks strewn at the bottom. At first, I thought this kit was useless. Then I realized: this was the perfect kit! I gave it to the students as is, explained how expensive it was and invited them to put the kit back together so that another class might use it. They had to learn what all the items were for, and how to test the rocks to get them back in the right bags. The fourth-grade class next to mine used the same kit. They learned about rocks and minerals because it was going to be on the test. My students learned it in order to restore a broken world (playing their role in God’s Story). They would never suspect that the reason we study rocks and minerals is because the state requires it.

Is there a great question, issue or challenge that could introduce the topic?

Here is where guiding questions can be used as a crystallizing experience to engage students. They can be used for single lessons and for complex projects. Reading an article together about how a television transformed an Eskimo village created great debate in my class and engaged students to explore the relationship between technological progress and the quality of human life. Does technological progress enhance the quality of life? Here are some other questions that invite students to explore: (Thanks, Dan Beerens, for the last 2 examples.)

  1. Nutrition: Are you what you eat?

  2. Physical Science: Is the earth gaining or losing weight?

  3. Bill of Rights: When do the rights of the community outweigh the rights of the individual?

  4. Social Studies: As a Christian, how do you determine the difference between wants and needs?

  5. Math: How does our society misuse math on personal and societal levels?

Before you begin your next project, unit, even class, spend some time in wonder. Allow God to show you something amazing about the content you are about to teach. Then teach it like the Kingdom is depending on it!


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