Thursday, June 14, 2012

Changing Education Paradigms

I had the great pleasure of getting to hear Leonard Sweet speak at a missions conference I went to a couple months ago.  During one of the sessions, he showed this video clip:

I watched it again soon after getting home, and it was very thought provoking.  But I needed to let it filter down a bit before I could really grasp it.  There are some very deep thoughts here.

I was buzzing around the internet tonight, and I thought about it and decided to find it and post it on Facebook.  I then found the following, which is the long version -- a little over fifty minutes -- but very well worth the time and very deep.  Take the time to watch it, because what I have to say next is based on it.

I think it would be good for the Church to take a look at this.  We currently run Sunday schools based on this very industrialized concept.  Sunday school was started by a man who wanted to educate the children in Great Britain who were working in factories.  They used the Bible to learn to read and other subjects.  A great and noble cause.  However, we're no longer in that society, and the principles I think no longer apply.

Our children come in, are divided up "by date of manufacture" (I love that analogy), and are sent to learn all about Jesus.  A great and noble thing.  But it's just like school.  Now, when I was a child, the last thing I wanted on Sunday was more of what I got all week.  Further, my learning style was different from all the other kids -- partly because I was homeschooled, and partly because of my personality -- and I rarely got anything out of it.

Shouldn't the Church be leading the way in how to educate our children about matters of faith?  Shouldn't we be the ones who are implementing new ways of thinking?  Shouldn't we be emphasizing the arts and giving a healthy dose of the mystical?  Sure, math and science are important, and we could perhaps be doing a better job teaching that, but let's leave that to Monday through Friday.  We have children who are being drawn away by technology and a constant barrage of stimulation, and they don't want to sit and listen to someone tell the same old story with a flannel graph.

How can we take the story, make it indigenous, and make it come alive?  How can we engage children in such a way that they become alive, fully awake?  How can we help them become enamored with the story, and fascinated by how their place in it?  For that matter, how can we help adults and youth do the same?

How can we help children grow their abilities for divergent thinking?

I can see that last question being shot down in some parts of the Church.  "It isn't up to us to question it.  We have to accept the plain meaning of Scripture."


As I see it, God created us to be creators.  To have a part to play.  To have a story to tell.  To become part of an even larger story.  And it seems to me that divergent thinking -- the ability to see many answers to problems, instead of the accepted norm -- is an important part of this.  It doesn't mean that all answers are the same, or that all answers will work.  But if we don't know anything better, we think our way is the best way.

Agriculture.  It wasn't too long ago when farmers thought the best way to grow crops was to plow the ground with an implement pulled by oxen, which was little more than a sharpened stick.  They then flung the seed out, not really being intentional about where it went, and then hoped it would grow.  Much like some churches are with their efforts at "evangelism".

Several hundred years later, things hadn't changed much.  We were now plowing with an implement that was tipped in iron, but it still barely scratched the surface, and it plowed one furrow at a time.  And planting hadn't progressed much, either.

Compare that to now, when farmers plow many furrows at once with a tractor.  The seeds are planted exactly the right distance apart in perfect lines by implements.  And we can now irrigate our crops, so if we don't have enough rain we still get a harvest.

The point is that the man in Jesus' story thought the answer was to do it the way he'd always done it.  It didn't occur to him that there might be a better way to prepare his ground, plant his seeds, and help them grow.  He was attached to his own way of doing things, and that's the way it was.  I think the Church is in much the same boat.

Now, I want to be quick to point out that I'm not arguing for plurality or for relative truth.  What I am arguing for is the fact that we most definitely have not arrived, that we still have much ground to cover, and we need all the help we can get.  Less than five hundred years ago we were convinced the earth was flat and at the center of the universe.  The Church took a very strong stance in this debate, arguing for the status quo and burning several divergent thinkers at the stake.  But look now -- we've recognized that the earth is round, and that it's but a tiny speck revolving around a tiny sun way out on one of the outer arms of a smallish galaxy, which is itself revolving around something much larger and much further away.  What if we're hanging on to something else, some other "truth", that we refuse to think differently on, but which is patently false?  In other words, my point isn't that truth is relative, but that we don't know the absolute truth yet, so we need to be about the business of finding it.

I think the Church can and should lead the way in finding a way out of our education dilemma.  I almost called it a crisis, and I think if something doesn't happen soon it will become one.  I think we need to find a way to educate children, particularly boys, without having to drug them to get them to focus on boring stuff.  I pick on boys because they seem to be the ones who are getting drugged the most.  Boys tend to be more active than most girls, and they tend to pay less attention in the classroom.  Yes, there are exceptions, but that seems to be the general rule.

I also think that it cannot be a top-down thing.  It must begin with individual congregations who dare to do different.  It must begin with us throwing out things we're doing now because we've always done it that way, and keeping things that we're doing because it makes a measurable change in people's lives.  Warm, fuzzy childhood memories are a terrible reason for doing things such as VBS and Sunday school.  Sister Bertha's insistence that we do this or that because she's always been in charge of it is a terrible reason to do whatever it is she's wanting us to do.

And for small churches, if we're having to "import" children for our VBS or other special events, perhaps we're missing the mark.  If we're doing the same rote curriculum that all the other churches nearby are doing, perhaps we're missing the mark.  If we're working ourselves to death but seeing no real results, perhaps we're missing the mark.

We definitely should welcome all children who want to take part in what we do.  I'm not saying that we don't invite the wider community to take part in our children's ministries.  But consider a certain congregation in rural west Alabama, and one that is not unusual in this respect: At the time when I was there, the only children were occasional visits by someone's grandchildren, and those never seemed overly enthusiastic to be there.  Perhaps that VBS should be dropped in favor of something else, something closer to what the community actually needs instead of what is perceived.    Perhaps if VBS is held, it should be done in a way that fully engages the children rather than feeding them sugar and then trying to entertain them with painting popsicle stick crosses.  Teach them to sing, teach them to tell a story with words and drama, teach them that God is big and mysterious and full of surprises.

I'm sure Sir Robinson wasn't thinking of the Church when he was giving his speech.  But that doesn't mean the Church can't take these new ideas and run with them.  If we're going to be relevant at all in the coming decades, we're going to have to stop trying to live in the past and begin leading into the future.  And I believe our children will be important in that.  Shouldn't we do a better job of preparing them?

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