A version of this article was originally published on the CACE Blog on November 5, 2020.
We hope that you enjoyed our series, The Many Roads to Christian Deeper Learning. We are inspired by the variety of partnerships Christian schools have developed to support their mission. Though we featured six approaches, we are aware that additional models are used by faith-based schools to engage students in kingdom life. We also recognize that some Christian schools have created their own road to deeper learning, and we invite them to step forward and share their stories as well.
As we reflected on the six roads to Christian Deeper Learning (CDL), we identified some common signposts visible in each model, essential features of the journey into deeper learning. These qualities suggest why schools using these approaches were effective in catalyzing and sustaining significant, positive change.
1. Recognition and Repentance: We are not all that we claim to be
The journey on all of the roads begins with an honest confession, recognizing the gap between who we say we are and our actual practice. We are reminded that the first work of the Holy Spirit was to “convict the world of its sin” (John 16:8). Before a school can bring about any change, the community needs to be convicted, not so much of sin, but of the disparity between their declared purpose and their observed outcomes.
How can a school change when they don’t know what they don’t know–when they think they are doing “just fine, thank you”? In some schools, the staff, the board, and the parents all report high satisfaction, but students are “ritually compliant,” not truly engaged in the process of learning: they are passive recipients and have agreed to “play the game” until they can escape to work or college. The search for deeper learning begins with a dissatisfaction with the status quo. It is often activated by seeing other schools that inspire imagination and provoke the conviction that things on the home front aren’t “just fine” after all. (This comparison is not unlike when we see Jesus, our older brother, and realize we are not all we were created to be. We are inspired to be more like him.)
2. Structures: Incarnating our intentions
All of the roads to CDL provide structures that move the school values and ideals from good Christian propositions to embodied practice. Christian schools can have an inspiring Christ-centered vision, but the issue isn’t so much what the mission statement says: what matters is how it gets from the posters on the wall into the hearts and minds of the school community. What does it actually look like, sound like, feel like when the school’s vision incarnates into the body of its day-to-day practices?
We see God’s true mission for us when we look at Jesus. We see a school’s true mission in its curriculum, pedagogy, and assessments. Sometimes school leaders have all the right ideas about what they want to do, but they lack the structures to implement them. Not that there is only one right way, not even one Christian way. But the designs our CDL schools have adopted all provide structures for shared decision making, supervisory and growth-encouraging practices, accountability, school improvement processes, and attention to cultural/spiritual formation of students and staff. They provide templates for curriculum design, protocols for student engagement, and assessment practices that encourage and equip students to take responsibility for their own learning. These common structures build whole-school consistency and support ongoing conversations about what matters most.
3. Common Language: Deep concepts shared through experience and symbols
Teachers in our schools come from different backgrounds, cultures, and preparation experiences. They likely have different interpretations of common words we use in schools (e.g. curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, culture) and what it looks like to apply them in their classrooms. Common language is the foundation of communication. Effective communication is critical to the efficient functioning of any organization. It builds a sense of identity and belonging.
One of the benefits of the designs we highlighted is a common language to describe essential principles and practices. Teachers come to know these words and concepts through experience together in professional development. These experiences are distilled into a kind of shorthand–key words that become symbols for deep concepts everyone in the community understands. Consistency increases the longer we live in to these concepts. For example, in EL schools, everyone knows what you mean by crew. It stands for a whole set of principles and practices that the community shares. In Teaching for Transformation, teachers talk about Deep Hope and Storyline. In REACH schools, they all know what BRIE refers to, as well as the 4 M’s. Common language, along with common practices, creates a whole school culture, and when shared with parents, even a whole community culture.
4. Network: Learning from and with others on the journey
It is easy to feel alone when trying to make significant change. Discouragement can easily set in. We may feel like Elijah fighting King Ahab and the priests of Baal: we are all alone trying to do what is right and good while many forces oppose us. Each of the designs we explored invites a school into a network of members using the same language and practices. The organization sponsors conferences, creates resource banks, and provides other opportunities to learn from one another, to share successes and challenges. The network gives teachers a sense of belonging to a movement greater than just their own school.
Our Christian schools may use the language and practices of a particular design, but they share a higher common purpose, rooted in God’s Story, towards the end of every student finding their role within it. This higher common purpose is why we have been gathering Christian schools and educators at our annual Christian Deeper Learning (CDL) conference. We need to hear from each other, learn from each other, and encourage each other. Whatever model we are implementing, none of us have all the answers. We can find comfort, encouragement, challenge, and growth in the thoughts and ideas of fellow travelers.
5. Commitment Over Time: Ongoing, sustained professional learning
Meaningful change at any school takes time and commitment. Each of the designs we highlighted offers ongoing professional development. TfT schools know from the beginning that they are making at least a three-year commitment. EL expects that it will take four years for a school to be accredited. Educational leadership research tells us that it typically takes 5-7 years to change a culture and see results! Focus is critical. Leadership is critical. Successful leaders possess a combination of vision and practical support. They anticipate resistance to change, but with kindness and grace communicate that “this is the path we are on, and we will help you to be successful on it.”
We conclude this series praying that you may have both will and wisdom as you consider moving toward or leading your school forward into Deeper Learning. May you have the will to start, to take heart, to be courageous, and to make and carry out a long-term commitment for what is best for students. May you also have wisdom to make wise plans, connect to wise people, to consider best timing, readjust as needed, and to seek God’s wisdom on this journey!