The Many Roads to Christian Deeper Learning: Teaching for Transformation
A version of this article was originally published on the CACE Blog on September 15, 2020.
In this series, we spotlight six particular approaches, or design models, used to implement Christian Deeper Learning. For each, we will ask four questions to school leaders implementing the featured model:
What was the reason you adopted this design model?
How does this model promote Deeper Learning?
How has this model helped you meet your mission as a Christian school?
What impacts have you seen on students, teachers, and community?
Teaching for Transformation
The Teaching for Transformation website summarizes this approach in these words:
Teaching for Transformation (TfT) is a design framework for the creation of authentic, formational learning experiences rooted in a transformational worldview. These learning experiences invite, nurture, and empower teachers and students to play their part in God’s story through their everyday learning. The core practices of TfT are practiced in over 100 schools worldwide to create learning experiences that empower teachers and students to explore their role in the kingdom story.
I had conversations with the following educators engaged with TfT: Darryl DeBoer, Director of Teaching for Transformation at CACE; Gayle Monsma, Executive Director of the Prairie Center for Christian Education; and Wendy Hofman, Head of School, and Jamie Wernet, high school mathematics teacher and TfT school designer, at Lansing Christian School.
Origins of TfT
Have you ever felt the gnawing disconnect between what you were saying and what you were actually doing? The longer you suppress the concern, the more you fear being “found out.”
The origins of TfT grew out of the honest reflection that although we profess to be Christian schools, we aren’t so sure we are honoring that claim in every aspect of our program. As Gayle Monsma, one of the early designers of TfT, confessed, “There was a dissatisfaction as teachers and as school leaders–a kind of holy discontent. We bookended a unit with “God talk,” but were we really integrating faith and learning? What does that actually look like throughout the day, not just in Bible class and chapel?”
That question of integration is at the heart of Teaching for Transformation.
Three Core Practices
TfT begins with the premise that all things in the world belong to God and that, as schools, we want to help students see God’s grand story in every subject they study. Every unit and lesson must be seen as sacred–a divine opportunity for the student to enter into a deeper relationship with their God. This belief leads to TfT’s first Core Practice: Storyline. The fundamental purpose is to connect the learning and the learner to God’s story. The TfT adage “See the Story, Live the Story” is an invitation to teachers and learners to discover their place in God’s epic love story for this world.
The second core practice of TfT is called Throughlines. These emerge as teachers and school leaders reflect on what it actually means to be created in God’s image. For example, in the image of God we are Earth Keepers, Justice Seekers, Idolatry Discerners, Beauty Creators, etc. The ten throughlines describe the habits and practices that both form the learner and imagine what it may look like to play their role in God’s restoration of a broken world.
Like Gayle, Darryl DeBoer thought that he was a good biology teacher when he was in the classroom: engaging, loving, relational. But when he came upon a list of the throughlines, he saw in them an opportunity to go beyond learning about God’s creation to actually participating in God’s story. Christian education could be transformational and not just informational. It could involve the heart (the kardia), not just the head. As Jamie Smith wrote in You Are What You Love, we are more than “brains on a stick.”
Darryl was also influenced by EL Education—by both the integrity of teachers he met in the EL network and by the practices of the EL design. Many of the protocols, instructional practices, and network organization of TfT were inspired by EL.
The third core practice of TfT is Formational Learning Experience (FLEx). Teachers design learning experiences for students that invite them to do “real work that meets a real need for real people.” Students get to practice living the kingdom story. Students need not only to be able to talk about the Throughlines, but to have opportunities to practice them, to “be” them.
FLEx deepens a strong service component already present in many Christian schools by connecting it to the curriculum. When FLEx is done well, students learn required content and skills in the context of doing kingdom work that, as deeper learning defines, “forms the self and shapes the world.”
What was the reason you adopted Teaching for Transformation?
Wendy Hofman had a deep desire to impact spiritual development in every aspect of the school, not just Bible class and chapel. All the teachers would say they prayed with their classes, talked about the Bible, and even went on spiritual retreats. But what about math? Science? The staff read Ron Berger’s book, The Ethic of Excellence, and explored some of the inspiring work being done at EL schools. But Wendy wondered, “How do we do it in a Christian context?”
TfT provided a way: “It wasn’t just a program or a curriculum.” Wendy’s colleague Jamie Wernet said, “Adopting TfT offered teachers a common language and ongoing professional development.” The staff at Lansing Christian understood that student growth would be dependent on teacher growth. The consistent PD offered by TfT has built a strong culture of pursuing best practices and providing opportunities for feedback and improvement. Most of all, it afforded a map that allowed all teachers to move forward together, rather than each one doing their own thing.
How does Teaching for Transformation promote Christian Deeper Learning?
In many ways, TfT is designed on the same principles as Christian Deeper Learning. It provides a framework and a model for what those principles might look like in action. As Darryl put it, “To name God’s story is not enough; teachers and students need to be active in the story while they learn. TfT is a compilation of practices that empower teachers and learners, the people of God’s story, to be active within the story.”
Gayle points to both EL and PBL as models that helped her imagine curriculum design and instructional practices that have expanded her understanding of what Christian Deeper Learning might look like in the everyday life of the school.
Jamie gives the example of how she used the core practices of TfT to transform her unit on exponential and logarithmic models into an amazing deeper learning experience.
How has Teaching for Transformation helped you meet your mission as a Christian school?
According to Darryl, TfT gives legs to a school’s mission statement. The mission statement can’t just live on the wall or a pamphlet: “TfT responds to a school’s mission and vision. The goal of TfT is not to implement TfT; the goal is equipping a school to build for God’s kingdom by living into its mission.”
Wendy adds that many mission statements include something about the servant way, the Character of Christ, and engaging and transforming the world for Jesus. The core practices of TfT engage, nurture, and equip students and teachers to incarnate that vision in the day-to-day life of the school.
What impacts have you seen on students, teachers, and community?
Wendy mentioned the TfT starting point of identifying your deep hope. Teachers have found it challenging but ultimately transformative to articulate what is really most important about what they are teaching. A student’s experience is different if they are in class to learn about biology and get a good grade, or if they are in a class where “My deep hope is that we will desire to become co-creators in the restoration (re-story-ation) of the curious garden we find ourselves in.” The deep hope gives students a purpose and meaning for their learning and reminds teachers of their mission in a Christian school.
Jamie sees reflection as a major part of how TfT has impacted both teachers and students. Reflection supports the development of a growth mindset. Every TfT PD session ends with a “commit to try” where teachers identify one thing they are going to try to implement in their class before the next meeting. Then they share their work–both what went well and what failed. They develop a culture where “we don’t have to get things right the first time, but rather we learn from our failures and support each other as we grow.” To see what other teachers say about TfT, click here.
Christian Deeper Learning strives to engage the community–“Real work for real people that shapes the world.” TfT teachers are always looking for ways to “live the story” by identifying real needs in the community and involving students in finding ways to meet them. Gayle uses this question to reflect on how well her schools meet this goal: if our schools were to close, would people in the community notice? TfT is designed to ensure that the community not only notices but welcomes the school as an active and essential member.
Note: This article is part of a series on different paths to Christian Deeper Learning. You can read the introduction to the series here: The Many Roads to Christian Deeper Learning: An Introduction