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.

God’s Word certainly presents the truth that all need knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.

It starts with parents, “Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching” (Proverbs 1:8). Proverbs makes no exceptions about who can learn, but does emphasize that effort is necessary: “My son, if you accept my words…store up my commands…turn your ear to wisdom…call out for insight…then wisdom will enter your heart…” (2:1–10).

That all can learn doesn’t mean everybody learns the same way.

Many Christian schools base their educational mission to honor everyone’s gifts on 1 Corinthians 12, especially that God’s Spirit provides “different kinds of gifts…and service,” but all from “the same Lord…and for the common good” (v. 4–7). Peter sums it up: “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10).

Here are a few means to get all students to learn:

  1. Spread students out. All students need liberal arts. Even though this term refers primarily to college education, every student needs to learn a little bit of everything in order to free him/her from self-absorption. This broadening education includes art and music for the student who only likes math; it means PE for the one who only likes literature. It means learning about New Zealand and Myanmar even when one’s hometown is the limit of horizons.
  2. Use multiple methods. Some students learn best by using their hands, some by hearing a logical lecture, some by images that color a concept, and some by analogy, e.g., a Down syndrome boy often quoted to me the familiar comparison of the three persons in the Trinity to three kinds of water.
  3. Concentrate teaching and testing. Too much of both is minutiae without a theme. All students, but especially students who struggle to find the key concepts on their own, need basic strings that hold the necessary facts together. Announce the strings before the unit, repeat them, and test for them. If it helps, consider what you hope students will remember about this unit when they are 30. Anyone can achieve that.
  4. Push students to experiment. How does a teacher know the talents of each student? By offering all of them a variety of experiments, problems to be worked out, choices for students to show what they have learned. I remember asking students to analyze Macbeth by writing an essay, but Anne asked if she could act out a key scene instead. It was an awesome performance; she had the lead in two plays in college.
  5. Play. The paradox about all games, all play, all satisfying activity is that we only really enjoy play if there are built-in boundaries for players to overcome. How long would people play tennis if there were no nets or lines, or play a piano where every key made the same sound? Working hard to overcome barriers is really satisfying. Everyone can learn through play.
  6. Sew in God’s Word. Every student mirrors God in some ways and reflects his glory back to him. All students, perhaps harder for the academically gifted than those academically challenged, need to, and can, learn that God is real, that the world is his, that he expects all of his children to honor him by loving and serving him in everything. Good teachers weave this bright thread into everything for every student.

– Dan Vander Ark

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