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Wisdom is a Craftsman: Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with

I graduated from Hamilton District Christian High School as a student back in 1991. As was the case for every accredited Ontario, Canada, high school at that time, HDCH divided courses into “advanced” and “general” streams, terms that have now been identified as derogatory. In an attempt to solve that issue and make high school courses more directed, we now have the “university” or “college” courses in high school. Clearly this is better, but it still creates narrow categories about the purpose and direction of learning in our high school courses.

I lament that our high schools have a past that divided “head knowledge” from “working with our hands,” and Biblical wisdom literature seems to reinforce this idea. HDCH, like many other Christian schools, has the key wisdom text as its cornerstone: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” All of our knowledge and understanding of a coherent universe must be rooted in the recognition that all things originate in a loving Creator. 

In Old Testament Wisdom Literature, Craig Bartholomew and Ryan O’Dowd offer powerful insight into the way this loving creator weaves wisdom into the very design of the universe. Wisdom is not a Platonic ideal in abstract, she is a deep craftsmanship woven into God’s design for all things. In their study of Proverbs 8, they state: 

“God has built, or etched, an order into the world, and wisdom, personified as a woman, is the key to discerning it. Wisdom thus offers us the key to interpreting our world: its beginnings, its purpose, its shape and its direction. She can guide us in walking wisely in this life because she knows the places that God carved out for us. Notice, too, her response to all that she sees:

‘When I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, Rejoicing always in his presence.’” (Proverbs 8:30)

I love the way the kindergarten teachers here in Ontario often empower their students in exploring wonder. This embodies HDCH’s cornerstone—the fear of the Lord is a deepening of this sense of wonder and awe in the Creator. Katlyn Graham, JK teacher at London Christian Elementary School, reveals this in a past inquiry: with a sense of wonder, she and her students explore the way God has so beautifully crafted birds—“Where do birds go in the winter?” the students are asking. And that exploration leads to another question: “I wonder where Mexico is?” Other Christian kindergarten classrooms have started “Wonder Walls” where the class can record their questions.

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. Wisdom is craftsmanship, woven into the things we observe as very good, and woven into the things we make from our learning that we also hope are very good. 

TD Christian High School has done this very intentionally. They celebrate the good work of their students in their annual anthology entitled Notice, a compilation of the good work that TD’s students have produced throughout the year. I think these publications are fantastic.

EL Education Chief Academic Officer Ron Berger has been a great contributor to the Deeper Learning movement. He’s also twice been a plenary speaker at Christian Deeper Learning conferences. My introduction and deep admiration of Ron came after reading his first book An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students. (Some of you may know Ron Berger as the man in the “Austin’s Butterfly” video.)

The book is a short, easy read at 150 pages. In his introduction, Ron Berger shares his own dual identity as both a teacher and a carpenter. (Sounds like a divine combination.…) Berger confesses throughout the book how he feels called to both of these professions, but that craftsmanship is the foundation for both of them.

So how does Berger suggest we foster an ethic of quality and craftsmanship? The book is divided into four chapters:

  1. Chapter 1 describes Ron’s dependence on amazing student products when he is asked to speak to other educators. It sets the stage that his whole focus is on empowering students to accomplish incredible things, and that their work inspires him and others.

  2. Chapter 2 begins highlighting his three “toolboxes” of excellence, and this first chapter should resonate with us because I think we also do it well—he states that an ethic of excellence requires a deep sense of community as a class in which everyone is welcomed and pushed to succeed, regardless of their unique gifts and challenges. He rightly names the foundation for any learning community as being social/emotional: every student needs to believe that they belong, that their effort will bring results, and that they can play a significant role in each other’s learning. Excellence is pursued through communal collaborative culture, not individual competition.

  3. Chapter 3 gets more practical; the second toolbox focuses on classroom strategies for developing works of excellence. Berger highlights the importance of meaningful projects that incorporate intentional skills in literacy, research, and the arts. He also shares the importance of inspiring models of good work and opportunities for students to create multiple drafts as they prepare to share their work with a real audience who will value their craftsmanship. One of my favourite resources from EL Education outlines all of these strategies well: Creating High Quality Work: Multiple Levels of Support

  4. Chapter 4 highlights the third toolbox: “Teaching of Excellence.” Berger rightly points out that craftsmanship takes effort, and that the teacher above all models this fact. He names bluntly that teaching is hard work, but that we must feel called to it as our own craft. 

As Christian schools, we understand this sense of calling. If, like me, you also believe that we are called to pursue wisdom of craftsmanship with all of our students—that wisdom lives at the intersection of our heads, our hands, and our hearts and that our students are each uniquely gifted with this capacity for wisdom—then perhaps you might want to find the time in your busy schedules for some optional reading. I think Ron Berger’s book will make the time worthwhile.


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