Monday, February 8, 2010

Education As Relationship

[Part 2 of a short series on education for the New Covenant Church newsletter]

Part One: Teaching is More than Information Transfer

“No man is an island.” Thus the 17th century English poet/pastor John Donne summed up the human condition. My individual actions ripple effects into the lives of everyone around me for good or ill. The social nature of human beings, one aspect of our imaging God, profoundly affects the task of education. This major concept in the developing NCS experiment in Grace-based education builds on the core truth that humans were created for community, not hyper-individuality.

I guess it’s no surprise that a nation founded by people who left their own countries to start a better life far from everyone they knew would turn out a nation full of individualists. We reward individual effort and accomplishment far more than we value group unity. In public life, group cohesion breaks down as soon as an individual scents the opportunity to exploit some weakness to his advantage. I’ve heard plenty of complaints both in person and in print from folks who think cooperative learning is foolishly new, unfair to their kid’s accomplishments, and wasteful of time and resources.

I’m not saying that individualism is wrong. I give grades to my students for their individual work. Each of us stands before God individually either condemned by our own sin or redeemed by the work of Jesus Christ.

But a hyper-focus on individualism weakens the unity of the Spirit that binds together God’s people. The Covenant is a communal grace.

Within the Trinity, God Himself enjoys perfect unity and community. When He created man in the Garden of Eden and stamped His image upon us, God made us to beings-in-community. God didn’t leave Adam alone for long – soon Eve provided the companionship that God always intended for His creatures.

Yet the Fall affected even the expression of God’s image in man. Sin destroys community. Immediately after eating the fruit, Adam and Eve “felt” the breach in their relationship with the Creator. Isolation has dogged our path ever since.

How does this relate to education?

I submit that effective education must take place within “community”: within a set of nurturing relationships. The nature of education itself, the stamp of the image of God on both teachers and learners, and the pattern we see from Christ Himself all support “relational teaching.”

No teaching relationship in Scripture exists in a vacuum. Parents are to write God’s law upon their children’s hearts through daily, patient, commonplace conversations. Christ mentored His disciples for three years, living among them. Paul instructs experienced men and women to teach the younger, implying that there’s more at stake here than simply passing around a Life Manual. God Himself enters into a personal relationship with His people, individually shepherding His flock toward glory. No one is in this alone.

It is our nature as image-bearers to be social. Teachers and learners exist in a community, and an educational institution must recognize the value, gifts, and abilities that each student and teacher brings to the table. Whether I recognize it or not, my classroom at NCS is a small microcosm of the Body, each member vital to the healthy functioning of the whole. Relationships are at the core.

As a teacher and a Christian, my lessons aim for the deeper levels, down in the heart where students pay allegiance to their real gods. I mentioned Dr. Bill Davis, of the Covenant College philosophy faculty, in my previous article. In his lecture in one of my classes about worldview as it relates to education, he told us that true education takes place not in the intellect, but at the worldview level. As a teacher, I am not so concerned with my students’ ability to conjugate verbs as I am about their core beliefs. Either we educate Christianly, or we create smart pagans. Education cannot take place in a philosophical vacuum. [Facts may be neutral, but humans aren’t.]

“If your teaching does not reach a student’s worldview presuppositions, then the education is essentially ineffective,” Dr Davis said. His next thought hit me between the eyes: “A student will allow only one type of person to effect lasting change in her worldview beliefs: such instruction must come from someone she loves. And students will love those people who truly model Christ’s love for them-- ‘We love, because He first loved us’ (I Jn 4:19).”

A loving, Christlike teacher can affect the deepest regions of a child’s heart and mind, operating as a partner with parents in the Covenantal upbringing of their children. Those deep waters stir slowly and the effects appear years (decades) after the student leaves the classroom.

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