Thursday, March 31, 2011

Imitating Your Teacher

Jesus shocked his contemporaries with his method of teaching.  He didn’t go on and on giving commentary on the law, as most of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law of his day did (and many “scholars” do today). His method was simple: gather a group of disciples, live with them, teach them the way of the kingdom of God, and most importantly, show them the way with your life.

First, Jesus was clearly a big fan of experiential education. As he traveled from town to town in Judea, his disciples observed him in the most intimate way on a daily basis. The followed him as he taught from mountains and boats. The saw him heal men with leprosy and women with bleeding. The heard him refute the best arguments of the day from the Pharisees. They ate with him as he was get a foot bath from a prostitute with an expensive gift. And they received from him a foot bath of their own on the night he was betrayed. Jesus clearly was an intellectual. He was the smartest man who ever lived. But his character was transferred through high contact over an extended period of time between teacher and student.

Jesus once said, “Students are not above their teacher, but all who are fully trained will be like their teacher.” And similarly, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Learn from me, become like me, follow me.  Interesting. Jesus wanted his disciples to learn both from what he was saying, but also, and more primarily, from his own lifestyle.

When I graduated from seminary and became a pastor, I found that I was rather ill-prepared for many aspects of pastoral ministry. Planning, counseling, pastoral care, leadership – many of these tasks were so different from what I had learned.  I had been a divinity student for three years. I sat in lots of classes, listened to lots of professors speak, and stared at countless PowerPoints. Sure enough, when I graduated, I was well prepared to give classes, talk a lot, and make lots of PowerPoints. I had learned some of the content from seminary. Of course. But I had intimately learned to imitate my teachers without even knowing it.

When Jesus educates us, when he calls us to be his disciples, he calls us into a relationships of teacher/student, master/disciple.   And he does this realizing that we become like the people we surround ourselves with. Even today, when we surround ourselves with people who live like Jesus, it rubs off.  

Because Jesus’ own methodology for teaching is so personal, we should question several practices in our society. One is the rise of online education.  Online courses are certainly convenient, and they make school budgets work.  But one cannot imitate a teacher on the internet. Online blogs and wikis  can be helpful as an addendum to class, but as the class itself, they fill our minds with more data, and in many instances, in an uninteresting fashion.  Listening to lectures online, typing, and commenting on threaded posts will never take the place of humans transferring their own characters into other humans – in person.  Christians have been called to “go and make disciples.” Jesus immortalized the teacher/disciple relationship with the Great Commission. We’d do well to think carefully about how we learn.

The real key to education is this: we become like our teachers. Choose your teachers wisely.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Jesus, the Bible, and Education

As Christians throughout the world observe this season of Lent, I will be refocusing my blog on the life of Jesus. Jesus was a teacher. Christians have always believed he was more than just a teacher, but certainly not less.  He instructed a group of 12 disciples for 3 years before his death and resurrection, and even after his resurrection, he went out of his way to teach and open the eyes of his followers who were bewildered at the turn of events that culminated in Jesus’ crucifixion (Lk. 24:25).  Because Jesus was both Lord and Rabbi, it is worthwhile to examine how Jesus educated his followers. 

When turning to the gospels, the first thing that we must mention is that all of Jesus’ teaching, and really his whole life, was Word-centered. The Bible’s narrative, beginning with the books of the law, and stretching into the prophets and the “writings,” form the background for his entire ministry.  When I  read the New Testament for the first time, it was clear that I was starting in the middle of a story.  For example, in the first chapter of John’s gospel, John the Baptist is asked if he is Elijah or “the Prophet.” Without an understanding of biblical prophecy, this is hard to understand. Also, in Mark’s first chapter, Jesus breaks onto the scene and announces, “the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.” Without the Psalms, this announcement is tough to grasp.  Jesus’ life was a fulfillment of the Word.  He literally lives in the narrative of the Scriptures.

As a boy, Jesus’ was immersed in the Scriptures, as all young Jewish boys would have been.  His father Joseph, a carpenter or possibly a stone-worker, would have taught his son the family trade, and educated his child in the Hebrew Scriptures from the first moments he could speak.   Memorizing entire books of the law would not have been uncommon. And we know that when Jesus was 12, he was debating and discussing interpretation of the law with the best religious scholars of his day.  When he launched his public ministry as an adult, nearly everything he did was either a fulfillment of Scripture or a teaching of Scripture. His reverence for the Hebrew Bible was unparalleled (Matt 5:18), and the gospels are filled with his engaging with the scribes and Pharisees about interpretation of the law (Matt 12:1-13).  He referenced Scripture tacitly in his teachings (Matt 12:39-42), and he quoted it often and with exactitude (Matt 13:11-15).  When he was on the cross, at the darkest point of his life, Scripture was on his tongue (Lk 23:46, Mk. 15:33). And when he rose from the dead, he gave a Bible lesson to his followers on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:27). Jesus’ entire life, ministry, death, and resurrection were filled with Scripture. God’s Word came out of his pores.

Jesus was clearly a teacher of Scripture. To think that he could, in any way, rightly instruct his followers in what we would call today a “secular” fashion, is a contradiction.  Our categories today call religion a personal value that belongs in the home and the church, but not in public discourse, and certainly not in a public school or university.  Although this will have to be a topic for another posting, Jesus clearly did not believe that “religion cannot be known. It’s just a matter of personal opinion.” He centered all that he was on the divine revelation of God that claims not just to be a handbook for living, but instead, as Lesslie Newbigin points out, “universal history.” It reveals God’s eternal purposes for both the people of Israel and all the world’s gentiles.   Because the Bible is the best source on how things really are, it was the core of Jesus’ thought and pedagogy.

Today, the Bible is taught in church, in the family, and in religious schools, but I have never seen anybody teach Scripture on CNN or MSNBC.  And it is certainly not taught as being true in our schools. (Some public schools teach the Bible alongside of other holy books. But such teaching assumes a morally and religiously pluralistic worldview which has its roots in the Enlightenment, not in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures).   But the life accounts of Jesus make one thing abundantly clear: Scripture was the center point of Jesus’ educational program.  If Scripture is not the center point of our own teaching, whether we inhabit public or private schools, Christians must ask where we have gone wrong.

In the United States, movements to hang the ten commandments in city hall or allow students to pray in public school are met with fierce criticism.  Many are deathly afraid of a regress to an imperceptible “dark age” of religiosity in the US.  They say it violates the first amendment (which, to my untrained eye, doesn’t seem to make sense. Compelling religious adherence in a school and openly teaching the Bible’s truths in a school seem to be different animals). Given, those who are teachers in the public sphere will face this difficult battle.  But if we step back from current political battles, and take a look at Jesus’ own life and teachings, we cannot ignore the Scriptures as a part of all student’s courses of study. If God’s purposes for humanity are universal, then God’s word also must be universally taught.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

John Locke's Thoughts Concerning Education

Before the industrial revolution, it was men, not women, who were primarily in charge of the education of young children. In the days before men took off to work in the factory, they often had a trade and a family business conducted out of the house.  Thus, they were often in charge of the formal instruction of their children.  It’s interesting that before the industrial revolution, there are very few books about education written by women. Instead it was men who took up the task of teaching children and planning for their education.  One of these classic books on education, which is nearly totally forgotten in our own day, is John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education.

The book is a masterwork by a first-rate mind on the holistic education of the young. In his letter of dedication he writes, “The well educating of their children is so much the duty and concern of parents, and the welfare and prosperity of the nation so much depends on it, that I would have every one lay it seriously to heart; and after having well examin’d and distinguish’d what fancy, custom, or reason advises in the case, set his helping hand to promote every where that training up of youth, with regard their several conditions, which is the easiest, shortest, and likeliest to produce virtuous, useful, and able men in their distinct callings…”

Although I will often return to Some Thoughts Concerning Education on this blog, let me make a few introductory remarks about the above quotation.  First, education is the job of parents. And it ought to be the “duty and concern” of every parent to consider carefully their children’s education. In our day, however, far too many parents (I’ve seen this in my line of work), don’t think intentionally about their children’s education. They are simply shipped off to the closest public school for kindergarten. But if “all the men we meet with, nine parts of ten are what they are, good or evil, useful or not, by their education,” then this topic ought to occupy a central role for families with children.  Whether they decide on public, private, Christian, or home school, the decision must be done intentionally—and for good reason.

Second, Locke recommends that “every one lay it seriously to heart.”  I know I’m not qualified to comment on the state of education, but in 21st century America, there are not enough scholars and leaders who are really willing to “lay it seriously to heart.” In America, new teachers are, on average, the bottom third of college graduates (in stark contrast to Singapore, whereby only the top third are accepted as new teachers.)  And for some reason, a good many text books on education in our modern world are lengthy treatises on educational psychology.  Very few of the country’s best scholar’s are doing as Locke did – spending diligent energy on examining the roots, methods, and content of education for our modern world.  On university campuses, when it is learned that an individual got his or her doctorate in education, it is often looked upon with disdain as not a truly “academic” doctorate.  It was not always so.

Third, and finally, Locke believes that his task in the book was to find “which is the easiest, shortest, and likeliest [way] to produce virtuous, useful, and able men in their distinct callings…” What a contrast to our state standards today!  First, the purpose is not “college readiness” or higher test scores, but virtue. In postmodern America, most authorities in public education are interested in producing students of character, but are reticent to say which virtues are worth pursuing, if any, and how one might build a curriculum for virtue. And second, competent people who are living out their “calling” is the goal of his volume.  Who talks of calling within public discourse but those “odd religious people”?  Since calling assumes a Caller, Locke’s words become difficult to understand for many secular people in a religiously and morally pluralistic world.

Locke’s volume is clear, comprehensive, and a gem of a guide to the education of the young. Although our scientific understandings would now differ with him on various points, there is much to be learned from pondering this great English philosopher’s words on education.  If you can find it online from some collector, pick it up this week. It won’t disappoint.  

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Waiting for Superman: Tenure, Unions and a Real Superhero

Anybody with even a cursory interest in the 57 million children in America's public school system should see Waiting for Superman.  Davis Guggenheim's documentary on failing American public schools succeeds on many levels. First, it's a helpful overview to how the school system works.  The complexities of federal, state and local power in public schools are made clear, and quirks like the tenure system in K-12 education are brought to light.  Second, it succeeds emotionally.  Following the stories of five families from low income areas, and their struggles to provide a decent education for their aspiring children, had my wife and I at the edge of our seats at the conclusion of the movie. Third, it succeeds as polemic.  The film is obviously biased against teacher's unions and in favor of charter schools and other public school alternatives.  But it is biased with good reason.  And this is the point of this posting: introducing competition, even mild competition, to the school system will reap great benefits for those on the lower quarter of the social totem pole.
Let's start with the tenure system.  Tenure was introduced into the university system to protect professors with politically unpopular opinions from being fired.  It started as a free speech issue.  But the practice has been adopted into the K-12 system.  Teachers who can still walk and breath (walking is optional), after 3 years get tenure.  Although some school districts have quality evaluation processes during this period, for the majority this means that some terrible teachers get secure jobs.  The film showed a scene of the "rubber room" in New York City, where dozens of teachers are paid to sit, read the newspaper, sleep and not teach because they're protected in their job.  This apparently costs $100 million per year.  And yet they can't be fired.  The film also claims that if only the bottom 1/5 of teachers in the US were fired and replaced by only average teachers, our national test scores would reach those of Finland, more than a dozen places higher on international exam scores.  Waiting for Superman shows the struggles that administrators like Geoffry Canada and Michelle Rhee faced when trying to fire bad teachers, but were unable to because of the protection unions had given to tenured teachers.  Rhee comments that tenure helps adults, but hurts the kids.
Second, the film takes a healthy crack at teacher's unions.  As the protectorate of the bad and the good teachers, unions have prevented comprehensive education reform by disallowing poor teachers to be fired without an absurd 24 step process to remove the offending pedagogue.  Through recruiting young unsuspecting teachers, often through heavy handed guilt trips in the first 2 years of a teacher's career (my wife received several of these), many are enrolled into paying dues to the union.  Surely, some unions have had a good purpose.  And there are obviously good teachers in public schools (my wife, my sister, and my mother are good examples). But with state budgets across the country being squeezed, the unions find themselves under fire.  Just look at the battle in Wisconsin.  Times are changing.
Third, the film is quite blatantly pro-charter school.  The film culminates with a dramatic scene of five kids who are desperately hoping to have their numbers drawn to be enrolled in a high-performing charter school.  Knowing that this kid's future is in many ways determined by his or her school choice leaves the movie-goer with a palpable desire to see the child get in.  All but two don't get in, and are forced to go back to their "drop-out factory" schools.  Our hearts sink.
          The rise in charter schools in the past decade, especially prominent movements like KIPP, is notable.  They are introducing competition into the public school system.  They must perform, or they lose their charter, and thus their funding.  This pressure often times produces results.  Even though various studies have shown that many charter schools are no better than their public counterparts, the presence of significant freedom from public regulation in exchange for results has had tremendously positive impacts.  The film highlights many charter schools, like Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Success Academy, that are having superb results in the most difficult socio-economic circumstances.  As I drove home last week, I saw an open house banner at Homestead Elementary, a public school by my house, advertising "Now Enrolling."  Charter schools are clearly having an effect.

So, what's the solution?  How do we get better schools?  The movies suggests, by way of the high performing schools highlighted, that the answer lies in teacher accountability, longer hours, and higher standards.  Longer school hours mean more opportunities for learning, and high standards mean they won't accept some kids shooting for just okay.  But the real key, as I've mentioned earlier in my blog, is great teachers.  School districts and individual schools, whether they be public or private, with systems for rewarding excellent teachers and getting rid of bad teachers are the most important elements in student success.  Administrators would be wise to ignore about half of their current responsibilities and find ways to hold teacher's accountable to the highest standards of student success.
Let me finish with this idea: the title "Waiting for Superman" introduces a hidden issue, one not addressed by the film.  Guggenheim mentions that students are waiting for a superman who will come to save them from their plight.  The film concludes, however, that the superman is really "you" who must take action in education reform in America.  As inspiring as this is, it hits a certain chord with secular minded people trying to "change the world."  Education, it is thought, is the key to bringing about justice, equality, and even a version of "salvation" to the world.  But education can't do it.  Poor children stuck in bad schools are indeed waiting for a Superman; they are waiting for a Savior.  Education has become the quintessential secular moralist's cause of our generation.  It's no coincidence that 10% of Ivy League graduates applied for Teach for America last year.  But education alone cannot bring about the superhero results we hope for.  Only a true Savior can do that.
The lessons of Waiting for Superman ought to be considered by all those making decisions about education in America.  The plight of poor children in under-performing schools, the silliness of the K-12 tenure system, and the counter-productive effect of many teacher's unions ought to cause the people of the Kingdom of God to ask the question, How shall we build a better educational system for tomorrow?  But at the same time, let us not forget that Superman has come, and He gives real, enduring hope to all people, literate and illiterate alike.  May this hope shape an ethic of educational change for the sake of the 57 million children with pencil in hand, ready to take hold of a better life.