Monday, October 24, 2011

Character Formation and the Gospel

My last blog post touched on the topic of character formation. And ever since I posted it, it’s been bothering me. This is why.

At both Randolph’s private school in New York and the KIPP charter schools, teaching good character is central. It’s no different in public schools in Colorado. In Douglas County, where my wife worked for several years before coming to Front Range Christian, the district claims to teach ethics to all students, such as honesty, integrity and respect. Now, what I’ve observed at many Christian schools is, oddly enough, about the same.

In the Christian school world, there are two terms that are widely thrown around: biblical integration and biblical values. First, “The Bible is integrated into everything we do. It’s not just a class it’s a worldview.” Well, this is valid, if we’re thinking here about Kuyper’s understanding of worldview, as expounded by his disciples, like Francis Schaeffer. However, I rarely find somebody who can really tell me what a biblical worldview looks like in Civics, Spanish, Physics, Phonics, or Physical Education. How does the actual content of what is taught (not just prayer and devotions) change based on your Christian commitment?

But that isn’t what’s been bothering me. It’s the idea of “biblical values.” Christian schools are different than public schools because they teach “biblical values.” My question is this. What just might those biblical values be? After we talk for a while, they usually come down to this: honesty, integrity, respect, and perhaps kindness or love. Nearly the same as the public schools! “Yes, but we can bring God into the equation. We can talk about these values from the Bible. The public schools can’t.” True, but are will still teaching these same values, but now with Bible verses? This begs the question: are they really biblical values, or are they universal values?

As I prepare to teach for one of my colleagues this Wednesday on C.S. Lewis’ view of natural law, it’s become clear to me that these values are available to all people at all times. They’re a part of our consciences, Christian, secularists, Buddhists, and Hindus. C.S. Lewis borrows the Chinese term for it: The Tao. And C.S. Lewis makes a pretty strong case that all people know two things: there’s a moral standard “out there” that we all know about, and we all know we aren’t keeping it.

And so, we’re back to the beginning. How do we teach young people to be good; how do we teach them to be people of character? If we simply teach universal moral laws that we know we can’t keep, the essential effect of this is heaping condemnation on the backs of young people. After all, I, who am an adult working in a Christian school, know that I fail to keep moral standards on a daily basis. The verse from Proverbs has been too much used: “Instruct a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Yes, this is true…generally. However, let’s remember one thing: the book is called Proverbs—it’s filled with proverbial statements on how life generally works. A proverb isn’t a guarantee. And we know that the human heart is a rebellious thing. It wouldn’t be too difficult to find a set of excellent Christian parents who trained their child in the way they should go, and they went the opposite way instead.

My point is this. Most “character formation” in Christian education, from K-12 to higher ed, more resembles the teachings of the Pharisees than the teachings of Christ. The Pharisees were loaded with good morals. They were more moral than all their neighbors. They even tithed everything down to the spices in their cabinet. But Jesus called them white-washed tombs. Although they knew the Bible verses, they didn’t understand the God to whom they were pointing. They took the law and made it into a moral code, impossible to keep. They were essentially using their religious pedigree and upright behavior as evidence that they were just, and the “sinners” were unjust. In short, they taught “morals.”

What then is really unique about the Christian faith? What then is really the basis of the Christian worldview? What then is it that makes a child, or an adult or a senior citizen for that matter, really good? The historic Christian answer is the gospel.

The gospel is the message of the life, death, resurrection and Second Coming of Jesus. It is essentially a message of grace. While men and women were guilty in their transgressions, enslaved to evil, estranged from God, stained with impurity, and under the curse of Sin, God sent his own Son as a gift to die for their sins, taking their place at the cross, cleansing their sin, freeing them from the curse of sin, and winning the eternal victory over Satan and Death. Grace is the fundamental difference between the Christian faith and all other religions and worldviews. And it is the only way men become good.

How can we possibly expect young children or young adults to become good by teaching them good morals (biblical or universal), when we ourselves know that we have failed to live up to our very own standards? The Gospel is the heart of the Christian message. The Gospel is our very reason for being. It is our foundation for understanding God, ourselves and our world.

True character formation only happens when one sees the cross. When a child understands the gospel of grace, he will look not to the expectations of his parents, or even to the tenuous moral law imposed by his community, whether youth group or Christian school. He will be filled with grace for others. Integrity becomes a reality because confession of sins at the foot of the cross of grace is a reality. Honesty can become a reality because we have nothing to hide---all my shame is nailed to the tree. Respect—a distant acknowledgment of another’s rights—fades into the background as he understands that Christ died for the person sitting next to him. Goodness becomes a reality as the imitation of the one who gave his life for me becomes a reaction, a way of being. Self-less service is the outflow of a life informed by grace.

The Gospel – not “biblical values” – must be at the center of any Christian community. This is our only hope in becoming good. For in it we see the goodness of the One who gave his life for ours.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Developing Grit

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine highlighted Riverdale Country School in New York City, and their eccentric headmaster Dominic Randolph. Riverdale is a “TT” (Top-tier) private school, whose tuition begins at $38,000 for prekindergarten, and commonly sends graduates to Harvard, Princeton and Yale. Yet when Randolph came to Riverdale, he immediately did away with AP classes, encouraged teachers to limit the amount of homework they assign, and cut many standardized tests for admissions. According to Randolph,the missing piece to the Riverdale curriculum was character.

His curiosity in character development led him to meet with Martin Seligman, one of the founders of the Positive Psychology movement and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and David Levin, founder of the KIPP network of charter schools, primarily for students in low-income urban areas. Levin had stressed character for years in the KIPP movement: walls are decorated with slogans like “Work Hard,” “Be Nice,” and “There are no shortcuts.” Seligman, on the other hand, had written an 800 page tome on “Character Strengths and Virtues.” Their conversations led to some interesting conclusions.

As Levin monitored the lives of KIPP alumni, he notices something interesting:
“the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class.”
These traits, not IQ tests or grades on math exams, determined their success.

As Levin and Randolph continued to talk, they wondered about how to turn ideas about character into a feasible program. They were referred to Angela Duckworth, a professor at Penn, one of Seligman’s former graduate students She analyzed characteristics that led to outstanding achievement—and very little had to do with IQ.
“People who accomplished great things, she noticed, often combined a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take. She decided she needed to name this quality, and she chose the word ‘grit’.”

Randolph, at the prestigious Riverdale Country School, noticed that although many KIPP graduates had “grit” through challenging circumstances, the kids at Riverdale we often sheltered from failure, and thus from the most important learning opportunities.
“Riverdale parents who, while pushing their children to excel, also inadvertently shield them from the exactly the kind of experience that can lead to character growth. As Fierst [a Riverdale teacher] put it: ‘Our kids don’t put up with a lot of suffering. They don’t have a threshold for it. They’re protected against it quite a bit. And when they do get uncomfortable, we hear from their parents.”

Randolph further explained, “The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure. And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.”

Developing grit through failure – this is the single most important character trait for many successful people, and what must be taught if students will truly make a difference. How is this done? KIPP Infinity developed a “character report card”; Randolph worked with teachers on dual-instruction methods – teaching content alongside of character traits in every lesson. Each school developed a method for developing clearly defined character traits such as “grit.”

Here are my three questions. First, do most schools make any real attempt to teach character, despite district-wide values to teach things like honesty and integrity? By “real attempt” I mean, Is there a scope, sequence and method of evaluation? Second, are schools who are teaching character (Christian schools included) complacent with negative traits (don’t hit, don’t fight)? Are they also teaching positively those rare characteristics, like grit, that lead to truly successful lives? Third, what is the basis of character itself? Is it “what makes me successful?” and if so, why not choose other traits that will ultimately hurt other or at least leave them behind (competition, ambition, etc)? Is perseverance taught actively, or only passively? How about emotional and social intelligence.

Far too often in faith-based schools, character is simply passed on from parents and not intentionally taught in the curriculum. And when it is taught, “grit,” “zest,” or “curiosity” often are pushed behind being simply nice. Or, on the other had, we say we teach "biblical values" but what exactly those values are, and how you instill them in kids, is rather absent.

Perhaps we should develop lessons to instruct students in “grit”, right between math and reading (on in the lessons themselves). Perhaps the ethic we ought to teach in faith-based schools is how to be successful through dealing with failure.

Monday, October 17, 2011


In this blog in the past, I’ve emphasized the need for strategic planning within institutions of education, and beyond. And as I’m concluding a small booklet on strategic planning for Spanish-speaking leaders in Christian ministry, I’m once again convinced of the importance of quality thought before action.

At the conclusion of George Steiner’s Strategic Planning, he cites the Spanish Jesuit Baltasar Gracián, a priest from over three centuries ago. This quote nicely summarizes the necessity of strategic planning for the modern organization:

Think in anticipation, today for tomorrow, and indeed, for many days. The greatest providence is to have forethought for what comes. What is provided for does not happen by chance, nor is the man who is prepared ever beset by emergencies. One must not, therefore, postpone consideration till the need arises. Consideration should go beforehand.

You can, after careful reflection, act to prevent the most calamitous events. The pillow is a silent Sibyl, for to sleep over questions before they reach a climax is far better than lying awake over them afterward. Some act and think later—and they think more of excuses than consequences. Others think neither before nor after. The whole of life should be spent thinking about how to find the right course of action to follow. Thought and forethought give counsel both on living and on achieving success.

Gracián sounds a lot like Henry David Thoreau, who once said, “Men tend to hit what they aim at. Therefore, though you should fail immediately, you had better aim at something high.”

I think I’ll join Thoreau and Gracián, and practice the lost art of aiming before I shoot.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Training or Teaching?

In John Milton Gregory's introduction to The Seven Laws of Teaching, he argues that there are two purposes to education: (1) the development of capacities, and (2) the acquisition of experience. For example, my daughter Lily is still in need of education. She is adorable, but her body is small (and she still can't walk), she can't speak, and she can't shoot a three pointer. She needs to develop capacities. In addition, she knows how much her daddy loves her (how could she not?), but she doesn't know anything about Shakespeare, algebra, engineering or Spanish. She still needs the cumulative experience of others. The development of capacities and the acquisition of experience are the building blocks of education.

Thus, the art of education is two-fold, argues Gregory: “the art of training and the art of teaching.” Training brings a child to full development, whether it be mental, physical, or moral, through the transfer of capacities from a model to a pupil. Teaching, however, is the business of transferring the experience of the race to students, whether that be history, math, science, theology, or philosophy. Yet since “the experience of the race” is obviously beyond any one student to grasp, it the first and most central goal of teaching “to stimulate in the pupil the love of learning, and to form in him habits and ideals of independent study.”

Stephen Krashen, a language acquisition expert at USC, pointed out in a recent lecture the difference between training and teaching. In an effective, yet crass example, he said, “The most clear example of the difference between training and teaching is the difference between marijuana education and marijuana training. The former, many would argue is a necessity. I don't believe many would support the latter.” To educate, Krashen might argue, is more than just training somebody to do a task. It is giving them the knowledge to evaluate situations for themselves and make good decisions.

The Seven Laws of Teaching is precisely about how to pass on the knowledge of the race—the task of teaching. Gregory believed, “Having learned the laws of teaching, the teacher will easily master the philosophy of teaching.” He thought that teaching and training were both necessary – knowledge and capacities are instrumental in the educated person. Teachers should keep both in view as their seek to mature their students. Yet teachers must have more in view than “do this task that I do” (training). Teaching (thinking based on the wisdom of those who've gone before you) must consist of the formation of mental habits which frame a person's decision making skills for the rest of his or her life.

Schools debate this constantly today but only in different language. Many would say that training students for the 21st century world is the core task of education (ie, the P21 movement). Our kids need 21st century skills to compete in this global economy. Yet others would say, No, we need students with a set of core knowledge that is the inheritance of the human race. This is the real thing (ie ED Hirsch's Cultural Literacy and the core knowledge movement). Shall we train them for tasks or shall we give them knowledge for higher thought?

My answer would be: yes. We need both. As I've argued earlier in this blog, the educated person must have both a liberal arts knowledge and be able to navigate people and organizations. They are both central. But I think there is an interesting process by which a select few people become “hyper-competent” (my own term). When thinking about great leaders like John Adams or Mahatma Gandhi, Teddy Roosevelt or Nelson Mandela, each of them had a broad education, and a continuing desire to learn more as their lives progressed. Yet through difficult circumstances and trails, they were also “trained” to lead organizations, armies, and movements. The foundation was broad liberal arts-knowledge, the edifice and roof was training for a task—and the interior was decorated with a love of learning.

Teachers must give knowledge to students with an eye to what kind of habits they are forming in the student. In this dual purpose of education – development of capacities and acquisition of experience – we must begin our discussions of what it means to teach.

John Milton Gregory

The posts on this blog claim a central truth: great schools are the result of great teachers. But what is a great teacher? And, for that matter, what is great teaching?

There have been few more influential and important books on great teaching than John Milton Gregory's The Seven Laws of Teaching. John Milton Gregory was one of the great educational leaders of the 20th century. Born in New York, he was taught in a public school and became a teacher himself at age 17. Three years later he entered Union College in Schenectady, New York to become a lawyer, but upon graduation entered into the Baptist ministry. Yet his passion still was still in education.

In 1852 Gregory became the head of a classical school in Detroit and quickly became active in the State Teacher's Association. His knowledge of educational affairs led to his election in 1858 to the State superintendency of public instruction, for which he was re-elected three times. In 1864 he entered into a new phase of his career and began his effort organizing the University of Illinois. His career primarily consisted in establishing one of the great public universities in America.

Gregory published The Seven Laws of Teaching in 1884. The work has had an enduring impact, especially for teachers now in what's known as “Christian education.” It's succinct style and authoritative prose have been the source of pedagogical wisdom for generations of teachers.

This is the first of a series of blog posts on Gregory's work. Perhaps he can give us insight into what ultimately makes a great teacher...