The contents of this article build on the excellent work of EL Education’s Dimensions of Student Achievement and were first published by the OACS (Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools) on October 5, 2015.
This article is the first of three parts. Part I defines the three dimensions of learning within the context of the Biblical story, Part II will name specific core practices and data cycles that support the development of these dimensions with educators and students, and Part III will describe the dimensions in action through a case study telling the story of one specific elementary school: Halton Hills Christian School.
Part I: Three Dimensions Defined
Finding our Story in the Biblical Narrative
Why are we in Christian schools so concerned with “story”? Richard Kearney explains the relationship between story and identity:
When someone asks you who you are, you tell a story. That is, you recount your present condition in light of past memories and future anticipations. You interpret where you are now in terms of where you have come from and where you are going to. And so doing you give a sense of yourself as a narrative identity that perdures and coheres over a lifetime.1
So, we instinctively organize our daily experience into what we believe from the past and hope for the future. As Kearney says, our identity is a narrative identity.
We also recognize that our personal narratives find deeper purpose and meaning within larger sacred stories. We profess belief in a Creator who chooses to reveal himself to us through the grand narrative of Scripture. As Bartholomew and Goheen state,
Are we left with our own personal stories to make sense of our lives? Or is there a true story that is bigger than … us, through which we can understand the world and find meaning for our lives? Are our personal stories—apart or together—parts of a more comprehensive story? … We believe N.T. Wright is correct in saying that the Bible offers a story that is the true story of the whole world. Therefore, faith in Jesus should be the means through which a Christian seeks to understand all of life and the whole of history. 2
There are many key motifs in the Biblical narrative that our Christian schools explore together—image-bearing, covenant, culture, shalom, antithesis, sin, Kingdom, redemption and restoration. We do this through our regular devotional lives in the staffrooms and classrooms of our school communities. We do this through our ongoing professional learning in the school and at events like the annual Edvance Educator’s convention. The power of narrative is that it continues to shape us in new ways as our own local stories also unfold. This is Christ’s prayer for us in John 17: to know God and be known by him—to be fully alive.
How do we invite students into the depth and beauty of the Biblical narrative and this way of knowing as loving? We recognize that the primary method of understanding this narrative is not only through learning content but primarily through experience. Educators design experiences for learners that are then woven into their personal narratives. Our school communities intentionally participate in what we profess to be “the true story of the whole world,” and that compels us to also participate in creation care and culture-making, not in little Christian enclaves, but in humble dialogue and courageous partnerships with a multitude of experts and organizations in our wider communities. These partnerships and dialogues can be woven into the experiences we design for and with our students.
As we deepen our ability to design those experiences, we focus on three dimensions of learning for educators and students in our ongoing apprenticeship with Jesus Christ in what it means to be image-bearers.
1. Culture and Character
An intentional focus on culture and the shared habits of character that will create that culture is crucial for all schools. Both students and adults play a significant role in developing a relational culture in the school community. Doug Blomberg expresses relationality this way:
Truth is a network of relationships; any one person, thing or event stands at the intersection of a vast number of these. Ultimately, truth is the relationality that is God‘s covenant community, held at the centre by the cosmic Christ. Not reason but love is at the heart of Creation. All God’s creatures are made in relationships of service with one another. It is an interdependent creation in which meaning lies not in things in and of themselves but in their connections with one another.3
Our image-bearing of the Creator implies relationality: we are inter-dependent in our relationship to creation, to each other, and to God as Father, Son, and Spirit. Edvance schools believe that a Spirit-filled community will reveal the fruit of the Spirit as outlined in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
A culture that embodies these characteristics is determined not only through writing a good discipline policy or outlining a school’s habits of a graduate. As we engage in learning experiences, we actively reflect on our thoughts and emotions within those experiences, deepening our understanding of ourselves and others. Social-emotional learning is woven into the daily practices that foster healthy relationships: active listening to understand, speaking with courage and honesty, and collaborative protocols that outline how we treat each other in community. These practices are embodied in both student and professional learning.
2. Mastery of Knowledge & Skills
Our image-bearing of the Creator implies responsibility and privilege in stewarding what has been made and discovered. We inherit knowledge and skills from the ongoing story of creation and humanity and, in turn, discern how to use that knowledge and skills in service to God and his ongoing kingdom. There can be a sense of joyful play and delight in what we are discovering in our learning. Although we often approach knowledge in specific disciplines—math, language, arts and sciences—we also recognize that knowledge is inter-connected. We want to explore how meaning is inter-disciplinary. All things cohere and are reconciled through Christ, Paul says to the Colossians in the beginning of his letter.
While pursuing knowledge, we want to foster life-long habits that support skill development, the discipline required for any apprentice to become adept in skills. In this sense, play and delight in discovery lead to habits and mastery through practice. Practice in skills is encouraged through a growth mindset and takes many forms. Skills are cognitive (such as analysing, computing, reflecting), physical (such as through using tools, technology, or body movement) and social-emotional (such as collaborating, sharing, empathizing). Like knowledge, these skills are also inter-connected.
Finally, for all students to be supported in the mastery of knowledge and skills, we are committed to pedagogical approaches that support diverse learners. We want inclusive classrooms, practices, and structures that help us to support a diversity of students. Diverse learners help each other develop diverse understandings and skills.
3. Beautiful Work
Full of mystery and wonder, the Biblical narrative moves us through a grand story from garden to city, and our image-bearing of the Creator implies that we are also creators; our learning empowers us to participate in making beautiful things. We learn about God’s world not just for our own gain, but to pursue shalom—the flourishing of all things in creation. Often, the commitment to culture and character and the mastery of knowledge and skills find their realization in the beautiful work that we pursue together. Play and work are not opposites in this regard. There is a beautiful seriousness in both that reflects Christian wisdom.
Proverbs 8 indicates that Wisdom is craftsmanship, woven into the things we observe as so beautiful. As we explore how God has woven wisdom into the things he has made, we also respond by weaving our best sense of wisdom into the things we make too. Often, cultural artifacts will act as powerful models for us to consider in our own work—a bridge, a novel, a presentation, a topographical map, a math solution, a meal—the qualities of these artifacts can invite us to ponder what skills are needed to create something well, and to ponder how our artifacts might play a part in God’s unfolding drama of shalom. Building from Expeditionary Learning and the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s “Attributes of High Quality Student Work”, we believe beautiful work will exhibit the qualities of complexity, craftsmanship, authenticity, and purpose. As a means of both encouraging and celebrating our desire for these qualities, beautiful student work should be shared with others who can appreciate it and be blessed by it.
Visualizing the Three Dimensions of Learning in the Biblical Narrative
The following visual attempts to capture the interplay of the three dimensions of student learning. From within the context of the grand story of God’s creation, learning moments are constantly occurring and can be intentionally designed in our schools. Students, teachers, and others outside of the school work together to deepen our experience in the three dimensions of learning and to deepen our participation of God’s desire for all of creation to flourish.
Teachers lead students to complete real work that meets real needs for real people. They do so by examining actual models or exemplars of beautiful work. Students build knowledge and skills and character as they also design beautiful work that then contributes back to the larger narrative of God’s story. Students, teachers, school leaders, parents, and wider community members are all active members within the pursuit of learning, and all community members’ voices and actions will play key roles in the learning of other community members.
Three Dimensions of Learning graphic by Sean Purcell.
This school case study is an excerpt from the following source: Beerens, D., Cook, J., & Wiens, K. (2019). From Machine to Human. In L. E. Swaner, D. Beerens, E. Ellefsen, Eds, Mindshift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education (pp. 27-40). Colorado Springs: Association of Christian Schools International.