Learn to Discern

It’s an old joke. The teacher asks, “Do you think ignorance and apathy are big problems?” The grumpy student response is: “I don’t know and I don’t care.” In our current culture, many young people are morally adrift and uncritical. It’s not “This is true; that is false.” It’s “Whatever.”

What are Christian schools to do in that cultural landscape?

In Souls in Transition, Christian Smith’s study of American teenagers and young adults, the author notes that “the vast majority” believes that, in making moral decisions, “you merely pay attention to your inner self, and it comes fairly naturally.” One says, “I have kind of a gut feeling with some things, so overall, it’s pretty easy to trust my own instincts” (p.47). Christian schools need to teach children at all levels what the Bible calls discernment: thinking clearly and choosing wisely with a sharpened conscience that is rooted in God’s Word. It’s a skill that is as important as reading, writing, and arithmetic.

rusty-tools-300x200The need is great. For some Christian school students, the saw that separates the good from the guck, the beautiful from the tawdry, and the truth from falsehood is dull. We are sending our students out in the battle for truth with rusty weapons. A Bible teacher in a Christian high school gave a moral choice survey from a newspaper to 100 of his students. He discovered that only a few would “renounce their faith” for even $50K, but nearly half said they would cheat or steal, if no one were looking, for as little as $5. The teacher decided he needed to help sharpen consciences, to help them learn to discern.

Go to the web and put in your browser discernment or discretion in the Bible. You will find “The wise in heart are called discerning” (Proverbs 16:21) and “preserve sound judgment and discernment” (Proverbs 3:21). Paul prays for the Philippians that their love and “depth of insight” would help them “discern what is best” (Philippians 1:9-10). The writer of Hebrews says Christians need “solid food” that will help followers “distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:12).

How can teachers teach discernment?

  1. Open the Bible early. What does God have to say about dirty language? Any help in Scripture about what to do if a classmate is being bullied? Response to a stranger? Clothes? Money? Caring for things as diverse as dogs, swamps, my brother and sister, rivers?
  2. Use questions more. With almost everything you study—articles, experiments, paintings, problems, photos—ask students questions. If an answer is general, ask in the gentlest of tones, “What do you mean by that?” or “How did you come to that conclusion?” Ask students their opinions and ask them to defend them. Have students ask questions. The more you ask, the more the kids think and discern the truth.
  3. Use cases. Cases are real dilemmas within events that happen, from as recent as recess (conflicts on the playground) and as old as whether a certain war was right or wrong. Write up real cases, starting with the decision that had to be made, then write a narrative of the conflict, both sides, and then have the students debate the right decision. Don’t tell kids the result until the discussion is finished.
  4. Look at language. Help students examine what words mean. Make distinctions. What’s the difference in meaning between private and alone? How do math teachers and most other people define parameter? What do slang words really mean: is awesome the same as cool? How is profanity different from vulgarity?
  5. Assign journals often. And read what they write. Insist that your students be analytical and critical. As a teacher, react to their thinking. It’s your chance to shape each student’s thinking. Teach them to see what is underneath the appearances. Get them, mentally and spiritually, to dive deep.

Christian schools help God’s children to learn to discern. The tersest marching order in the Word is this: “Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22).

Once again, principals, bring this issue to your faculty. Encourage each of them to describe to their colleagues a lesson that helped their students to discern and choose. Also, have your board members read this and “Awe-full Teachers” and then each set a value of 1-10 (10 is high) for the place these two skills of awe and discernment should have in your school’s curriculum.

– Dan VanderArk, curriculum director, Northpointe Christian, Grand Rapids, MI

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