Author Archives: Dan VanderArk

Life at 35

Back in my teaching days, I asked high school students in a writing course to write down the ideal age of life (12? 21? 35? 65?). Students had to present reasons for their choice. Most chose an age older than they were at the time. A solid minority chose an age they had already passed. Why? Hardly any decisions to make; no chores; plenty of playtime

Over time that led me to consider not the ideal age of life but the age at which most adults have settled in to their worldview, to commitments in relationships, and to handling stuff: money, property, environment. That age seemed to be 35. In today’s culture, with more than one sociologist claiming that young adults are unsure of jobs, relationships, church, residence, etc., often as late as 30, maybe the settling in comes a bit past 35.
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My, How You’ve Grown!

Even we older folk remember our childhood days when Grandma or an aunt, having not seen us for six months, said this with wide eyes and a smile. We liked it, sort of, because we all wanted to be taller. On the other hand, sometimes we heard a parent, even a teacher, out of frustration, say, “Grow up!’ or “When are you going to grow up?” That growth had nothing to do with our bodies; it meant that we were not as mature in character or behavior as the critic thought we should be.

In the adult world, maybe particularly in schools, the word for teacher, leader, or board member growth is “professional development,” which means, finally, “adults getting better at their jobs”; they’re growing up, even 60-year-olds, even really smart 20-year-olds. It’s hard for some of us to think we have more to learn to grow up more in our school roles. I remember a mentor in teaching, already in his 50s, telling me that he had always worried that he would get to be 40, rest in the rut of the usual, and grow no further.
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Teaching as a Subversive or Conserving Activity

Back in 1968, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner published a book called Teaching as a Subversive Activity. It shook schooling to its roots; in some ways it advocated chopping off the roots. Remember its location in history. The late 1960s and early 1970s in North America were a hippie heyday: Woodstock, “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” “Let it all hang out, “Have it your way,” and burn the flag.

This book blasted traditional education: lectures killed the human spirit; storing up facts was trivial; logical thinking was deadening; students’ being inactive in seats dulled minds; teachers were teaching what one could see in the rear-view mirror and not preparing students for the future…which is where they would live! The writers compared schools to prisons and factories.
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Survey Says: What Good Are Christian Schools?

“Is your Christian school influential in the lives of your graduates?”
“Sure.”
“How do you know?”
“I met one of our graduates the other day in a store and asked her whether she liked our Christian school. She said it really prepared her for college.”

Would that answer from one person be enough to persuade you? How does a school measure the influence of its education beyond graduation? If you were to survey graduates, when would be the best time to get the most accurate assessment? Five years out? A decade? What questions would you ask: achievement in college? Naming key points of a Christian worldview taught at your school? Generosity of time or money? Church participation? Something else?
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The Picture on the Box

Decades ago, while meandering through a magazine, I stopped at a letter to the editor, entitled something like “Jigsaw Puzzle Education.” The writer was troubled at the state of education, claiming that teachers were not connecting one fact or idea to another. His analogy went something like this: teachers ask students to learn that 2 + 2 = 4, but without any reference to the broader context of life.

He said that this way of teaching is similar to asking students to connect two pieces of a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle without ever seeing the picture on the box. Two facts may connect, but for the students, it has little meaning beyond that. The writer said it would be frustrating for students, seeing no sense in learning the tidbit connection without seeing how it fits in the whole picture.
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Can Everyone Learn?

“My son will not amount to anything.” Decades ago, when a student’s father said that in anger during our parent-teacher conference, I cringed. He saw it and pulled back, “I guess he will find a job someplace, but school is not for him.” Since then, I’ve wondered many times whether some kids lack the brain power to learn anything beyond the repetition of a task. Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, says they can: “I think anyone can learn anything under the right circumstances.”

For Christian schools, this debatable issue has appeared in several places. Some Christian high schools still market themselves as college prep schools, clearly communicating that they make little accommodation for students who may not be interested college prep subjects. More and more, Christian schools have access to programs in the community that train students for trades, with these students, in effect, having dual enrollment in two schools. Many have special education programs that help students with learning differences, including students who learn only elemental parts of various subjects.
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Myopia and Trifocals

I see quite well, actually. From a distance, that is. Computer screens, books, the print on my pill bottles? Not so well. I use reading glasses, cheap ones, with multiple pairs at every landing point of my day. I have an eyeball distortion, called presbyopia, a Greek word meaning “old eye.” (Presbyterian means “rule by elders.”) For most people, this aging of the lens begins in one’s 40s. Reading glasses correct the problem, with higher magnification necessary as one ages.

In school leadership, boards and administrators often have vision diseases that prevent them from seeing God and the world rightly. When administrators wear the correctives lenses of the Bible, they can lead teachers to supply these glasses for students and help them overcome a major vision defect: myopia. This myopia, left uncorrected, blinds people from seeing God’s vision for his people. When school leaders themselves have this disease, they can lead followers on a path that may look satisfying but is loaded with potholes and ditches of quicksand.
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Life Imitates Heart

The 30-second ad showed a dad washing his car while his young son imitated him: soaping when the dad soaped, spraying when the dad sprayed, drying when the dad dried. Then dad sat down and leaned again a tire; so did the son. The dad pulled out a cigarette and lit it; the son took one and put it in his mouth. End of ad.

I recall this ad every time I think about the gap (sometime a chasm) between my preaching and practice in a Christian high school. Sponsored by the Mormon Church, the ad depicted how imitation is a powerful tool for learning, both for good and for ill. These days we use the term “follower” as a negative, e.g., “He’s just a follower,” like a student who follows the leader of a social group into trouble. Ralph Waldo Emerson, an America writer who celebrated “self,” said, “Imitation is suicide.” Likewise, Samuel Johnson claimed, “No man was ever great by imitation.” In education, imitation is in a recession; what’s taken its place is innovation, originality, and creativity. For the proponents, imitation is lazy, restricting, and deadening.
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Who Is This Child?

A quiz for leaders: multiple choice. Which one of these comparisons best captures your view of all children? A child is

  1. An empty bucket that needs to be filled with the water of knowledge.
  2. A cocoon wrapped in layers of blankets from which will emerge a butterfly.
  3. A diamond in the rough, flawed by sin and polished by grace and God’s hand to shine.
  4. A sheep that needs fences and shepherds to live well.
  5. A bulb that will become a beautiful flower if not stifled by “correction.”

“Some of the above” may be an option. However, almost all Christian schools, primarily through their leaders, develop programs (curricula) that emphasize one of these models more than others. In my experience (reading, watching, listening), most schools tend toward one of the following three notions about children.
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Nehemiah Now

What a “capital campaign” that was! Nehemiah was under house arrest in a land far from Judah. We know he was a close servant to King Artaxerxes there. A small group of his fellow citizens from the homeland sent him a message that the wall of protection for the capital city was “broken down.” He felt the call to help repair it, to lead the capital campaign. There’s a lot to learn about leadership in how he went about it. What would you or I do today to emulate his leadership?
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