What is beautiful work? How do we encourage beautiful work from our students? These are some of the questions that Christian Deeper Learning seeks to answer. Christian Deeper Learning is an invitation for students to discover their gifts, develop skills, and move toward restoration.
Beautiful Work and Christian Deeper Learning
Students are formed by the work they do and the routines they follow. As students engage in thirteen years of beautiful work—work known by the qualities of complexity, craftmanship, authenticity, and purpose; work that relies on a team for successful completion; work that improves not just the learner’s life, but the lives of others as well—participants experience glimpses of what it means to live as beautiful workers. They are becoming beautiful workers who live inspiring lives that honour their role as co-authors in God’s story.
Deeper Learning in Christian schools invites students into work on a meaningful task. In the younger years, a good teacher has the privilege and significant responsibility of having a ‘hero status’ in the eyes of the learner. As students age, some of this ‘hero status’ wears off. As teachers face the reality that their status as celebrities will not be enough to entice students to work, they have a choice.
Teachers can use management tactics like penalties, grades, percentages, threats, and candy to cajole students to complete the work that the teacher wants. This can work for a time. However, while fear motivates students toward task completion, learning in a state of fear is unproductive in the long term and disrespectful of an individual’s identity as an image bearer.
Christian Deeper Learning imagines the pursuit of a different learning story, a story that is challenging yet life-giving. Often the best, most fulfilling work is also the most demanding. From the beginning God gives humanity, both collectively and individually, a role to play. When learners engage with a meaningful task, schoolwork turns from being about competition and a dumpster project1 into work that has impact. As schools support learners in active participation in the role God gives them, they are invited into a demanding rigorous learning experience that also deepens their relationship with God and with others.
Why Beautiful Work?
One of the many compelling competing stories of our age is that work is a means to an end—a means to graduation, a means to retirement, so that then the good times can begin. This is a story that has been institutionalized in the education sector. Many traditional educational practices invite students to prioritize self and find their identity in individual achievement. Rather than inviting learners into playing a role in God’s story and world, many educational practices teach students to be gods of their own curated reality.
Christian Deeper Learning invites students outside of their curated individualism into work that is oriented outside of self. Rooted in an identity of God’s image bearer, learners are invited to engage in tasks that help them further develop their own identity through interaction with and service of others. Christian Deeper Learning is an invitation to restoration. Through practices which promote identity development, mastery of content and skills, creativity and imagination, and learning in the support of others, students are invited into God’s story at both a personal and institutional level.
How Can We Encourage Beautiful Work?
Practices which promote the mastery of content and skills2 are essential if learners are engaged in restoration. However, if our practices attempt to promote complexity, craftmanship, authenticity and purpose3 while also encouraging students to compete with the rest of the learners in class, the dominant story of individualism will overshadow our focus on restoration.
As schools assist students in focusing on collective and individual growth over individual achievement, we foster practices which minimize self-promotion and maximize our collective responsibility for communal flourishing. As we emphasize competency development over content acquisition, a student’s social responsibility work and reflection will focus on the need to support others in their learning.
Practices which promote identity development are foundational to restoration. A learner can only share the talents God has entrusted to them if they have done the work of exploration and discovery of both God and self. Just as teachers teach out of who they are,4 learners can only work toward restoration with humility and openness if they have also looked inside themselves to explore their strengths and weaknesses. It is crucial for learners to reflect on how God might be using their weakness and struggle to develop deeper reliance on Him and deeper empathy for the marginalized.
By supporting students to see their struggles as another person’s opportunity to shine and serve, small groups, morning meetings, peer tutoring, and CREW5 can foster interdependence, giving students a glimpse of a deeper sense of God’s design for human flourishing.
In a rapidly changing world, emphasis on the competency of thinking is paramount. Creative, critical, and reflective thinking are pillars to lifelong learning, survival as adults, and flourishing as Christians. For image-bearers of a creative God, creativity and imagination, two areas of development that God showcases again and again in creation, are key elements of Christian Deeper Learning.
As school leaders work with their staff in developing a place-based approach to Christian Deeper Learning, leaders should see an invitation into the role of prophet, painting a vision for learning in a new way. Old Testament scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann asserts “The prophet engages in futuring fantasy. The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The imagination must come before the implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing.”6 As prophets, school leaders should consistently share frameworks, practices, and stories of a renewed learning vision. A renewed vision in 2021, for example, places our pandemic reality as a launch point for future improvements in our ability to help students understand that God’s way is a way of interdependence, not individualism and self-reliance.
Creating Opportunities for Beautiful Work
Stephen Covey challenged people to begin with the end in mind7; Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe made this concept practical for educators with a three-stage model of Understanding by Design (UBD)8. Many teachers engage with UBD at the unit planning level. Christian Deeper Learning, however, invites educators and educational leaders to use the elements of UBD to start planning by first envisioning the worthwhile task that is represented in the Big Idea they are professionally obligated to engage with in the provincial curriculum.
When a summative task gives students purpose and direction that extends beyond personal development (e.g. sharing someone else’s story, advocating for the marginalized, creating inclusive processes and policies, planning hospitality events, designing an app for a local park, adopting a local not-for-profit, naturalizing the school property, challenging city policy that does not align with creation care) students are engaged in Beautiful Work.
- A phrase passed on to me by Brian Doornenbol: an assignment, which when complete, is recycled, as it has no perceived lasting value.
- Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019).
- “Dimensions of Learning in OACS Schools,” Edvance Christian Schools Association, written on October 5, 2015, https://www.edvance.ca/articles-archive/dimensions-of-learning-in-oacs-schools.
- Parker J. Palmer, Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life – 20th Anniversary Edition. (San Francisco: JOSSEY-BASS, 2017).
- “Purposes of CREW,” EL Education, eleducation.org/resources/purposes-of-crew.
- Walter Brueggemann, Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1978).
- Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Free Press, 2004).
- Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design: 2nd Expanded Edition (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005).