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What matters? . . . What matters! Three Foundations of Christian Deeper Learning

A school’s true mission is its lived mission.

As educational institutions, who in their very names identify themselves as Christian, conversations about formation, spirituality, and deeper learning practices can very quickly mirror similar conversations that are being had at church and in homes about what is important. It is not a stretch to imagine being drawn into conversations with colleagues and parents who suggest that it is chapel, prayer, and Bible class that make the school a ‘Christian’ school. While significant parts of a school experience, chapels, prayers, and Bible classes are not what makes schools inherently Christian.

Deeper Learning invites Christian educators and students to view themselves differently in the learning process. It invites schools to view practices and people holistically, and, therefore, more in line with the gospel. It is the aim of each element of the learning experience that invites schools into a faithful way of being. Deeper learning practices invite learners into a world larger than themselves, as they explore and develop their sense of image-bearing, they can develop gifts and abilities that prepare them for their role in God’s story. It is the daily, weekly, and monthly Deeper Learning practices at school which show what truly matters to the staff at the school.

What Matters? What Matters! This is about me. A school can claim an outward Deeper Learning vision and yet promote learning motivated by shallow self-interest. When engaged in practices that pit student against student while celebrating individual achievement over communal responsibility, students are being formed into a self-centered way of being. When learning stays within the walls, focused on content acquisition or competency development as an end, students are being formed into selfish beings who are being formed, sometimes without their knowledge, into seeing learning first and foremost as a tool for self-promotion, self-sufficiency, and independent accomplishment at the expense of the other.I am not my own. The Heidelberg Catechism reminds students and staff about their place in the world:  Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death? A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. The gospel story is a story of interdependence. To live into the gospel story as an educational institution is to encourage learners to embrace the message that the main purpose of learning is to become better equipped to help others. Schools are invited to ask themselves, “Do our daily practices and pedagogy invite students and staff into loving God and others more?” I am on my own. As students develop, it is natural to expect more from them. It is the development of a level of independent decision-making that allows them to flourish in their community. When we engage in predominantly punitive discipline or hold students accountable for inconsistent attendance without hearing their story, students are formed to live into a story of the educational system as a game to be played. When structures are not in place to ensure that students form relationships with the adults in the building, there is a disconnect between word and action. When mistakes and insufficient evidence of learning are met with silence and/or a poor grade without multiple iterations to show mastery, students are learning that they cannot trust the adults in the building to support them in their time of need. When this is combined with structures such as one teacher teaching over 100 different students each semester, making true relationship almost impossible, students learn that the very systems in the school show them that they are, indeed, on their own. I am for you! Every student needs to have at least one adult that shows in words and action that they are on the student’s team. Being able to smile is part of God’s designed order in the world. Relationships start with time for eye contact and a smile. When adults take the time to get to know each student using an opening circle, individual and small group connection time, and meeting and naming each student every day as they enter the classroom, relationships and belonging begin to develop. For students to truly believe that they are being cared for and therefore equipped to see that they can care for others, they need to be known well enough that they are comfortable asking the hard questions knowing that space will be provided to pursue deeper understanding of these hard questions. A place that is for you is a place where mistakes are truly opportunities to learn, where risk and mistakes actually lead to second, third, and fourth opportunities for mastery. When students feel that the learning process is oriented around learning and students, rather than teachers, the very system will form them to know that a Christian community is there for them. I am going to get a good job. When middle-level teachers are being pressured by secondary teachers to prepare students for secondary so that the secondary teachers can prepare students for university, the very culture of school promotes student formation reinforcing the idea that the goal of school is not learning, but financial security. When career education is about job opportunities rather than vocation, service, and development of skill, students are formed to see learning as a means to support consumerism and materialism. When practices focus on personal achievement with no expectation of responsibility to the other learners, the story students are living in is one of personal wealth and achievement not connected to the impact on the other neighbour both near and far. This formation precipitates the mentality that makes it okay to buy clothes or coffee from companies that do not promote healthy work environments but are out of view and therefore can be taken advantage of without guilt. I am an agent of redemption in the world. Being agents of redemption takes practice; it does not come naturally in this broken world. Repeated opportunities to see the small decisions in life as acts of redemption, healing, and worship set up the learner to be formed in a way that acknowledges their role in God’s redemptive work. Behaviour support becomes about noticing the impact of personal decisions on those around you. Systems are put in place to help students understand that mastery of skills or understanding comes with a responsibility and expectation to support others toward mastery. Personal achievement is downplayed, placing the focus on growth and development and the pursuit of personal best in character, learning, and supporting the flourishing of others. As educators make structural and pedagogical choices out of the redemptive call on their own lives, the student formation experience invites a deeper commitment to care, interdependence, and communal flourishing.

As learners and as Christians, we choose a life that is oriented beyond our present reality. We work in a constant state of “now and not yet.” As schools intentionally move toward their espoused mission with their structures and their daily practices, they can know that they are moving toward what truly matters. Community stories of genuine engagement with the mission emerge, and as they are celebrated collectively, inertia begins to point toward the mission rather than away from it. No organization drifts to mission actualization. This process is ongoing, will include missteps, and will be always just out of our grasp. May humility guide successes and missteps as the school walk faithfully toward the mission that guides them.

Photo by Mary Taylor from Pexels

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