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The Too Big and the Too Small

I love a good vision statement, but on many days they’re no help.

I’m lucky enough to teach at a terrific Christian school, and I care a great deal about our vision and mission. I find joy and purpose in serving an institution that is aimed at eternal ends. However, around the midway point in the school year, I find that the high-altitude language and goals outlined in vision statements offer little practical help in getting through the overload of the work week. Sure, I say to myself at my busiest moments, I want to develop mature disciples of Jesus Christ, but I desperately need a new lesson plan for Wednesday (and while I’m at it, I’d love for the copying machine to not be jammed right now).

This fundamental tension in Christian education was described powerfully as “the problem of the too big and the too small” by Craig Dykstra in his book Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices:

A major problem that educators face is what I call the problem of the too big and the too small. The problem of the too big is that our purposes as Christian educators are rightly and necessarily large: They have to do, ultimately, with learning a whole way of life and coming to knowledge of and trust in God. These purposes are true, but they are too large, too grand, too big to guide us in direct and concrete ways. Purposes that large are impossible to get your mind around. They are too big to do. The problem of the too small is the opposite one. In our actual work of educating, we do a little of this and a little of that and a little of something else. But too often these pieces do not seem to add up to much. We can’t tell what larger wholes these smaller pieces are parts of. The connections get lost, and we lose any sense of the significance and import of particular educational activities and projects and events. That is the problem of the too small.1

If the problem of the too big involves things that are true and good but too abstract to point us to our next steps, then the problem of the too small looks something like the opposite. It’s that feeling of grabbing a Christian reading or discussion question that is near to hand, but not particularly applicable to the larger ideas you’re working toward. It’s devoting class time on an activity that’s heavy on student engagement but light on content connections or deeper meaning. It’s those dreary weeks spent doing the “same old” out of a sense of fatigue and self-preservation. In those moments, the same vision statement that brought such inspiration during back-to-school workshops can feel like a mountain of “SHOULD” weighing us down. In response, we grasp for pieces of something that we hope will add up to a whole. No doubt we’re working hard, but afterwards we’re left to quietly reckon with the recognition that such efforts fall short of our school’s mission and vision.

“But is our vision statement actually supposed to live out in my classroom every day?” we reason to ourselves. “I mean, even when there’s still three weeks until spring break?”

I grappled constantly with the problem of the too big and the too small during my first years as a Christian educator, and on some occasions I still do. It is, after all, an eternal challenge in our profession. Fortunately, the framework and practices of Teaching for Transformation have been a game changer, equipping me to design learning that aligns the Kingdom purposes of the too big with the practical considerations of the too small.

What does it look like to have a classroom shaped by practices that are concrete enough to sustainably plan and deliver, but big enough to habituate young learners in the life of faith? Within Teaching for Transformation, it often looks like regular reflective work rooted in your Deep Hope & class Storyline. In my history classes, we continually apply these lenses to the material, deepening our understanding of the content as we continue looking for the patterns of God’s story. Additionally, the learning targets that I outline in every lesson always include at least one long-term target aligned with a Throughline like “Justice Seekers” or “Idolatry Discerners”. When our units are built using such targets, then our lessons, practice work, and assessments should necessarily align with those same Christian ways of being. These are just a couple small, everyday design elements that point the way to my school’s vision. Beyond those, there are any number of concrete TfT practices like Storyboards and Formational Learning Experiences that can meaningfully hold the too big and the too small together.

So, the weeks leading up to spring break don’t have to be a long march through the too small, and we needn’t feel that nagging twinge of guilt in the shadow of our school’s vision statement. There are ways of designing learning that align our deepest Christian purposes with practical habits that can fit neatly in that new lesson plan you need for Wednesday. 

In the meantime, good luck with the copying machine.

Footnotes 1. Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices, by Dykstra, Craig., Westminster John Knox Press, 2005. p. 66-67.


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