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.

After reading the letter twice, I did an experiment.

In the lunch room where I was working, often there was a jigsaw puzzle in progress. When people came in for coffee or lunch break, they would sit at the puzzle table and put a few pieces in the half-done puzzle. I came in early and hid the box cover. You guessed it! The workers came in, looked for pieces, and glanced up to check the finished picture on the box cover. When they noticed the box was gone, it quickly led to “Who took the cover? You can’t do a puzzle without the picture of the completed one!” The workers quit on the spot, moving to another table.

So is it with kids who seek to learn without the picture on the box. The best Christian schools help students put the puzzling things of life together by always keeping the picture on the box in front of them: on the walls, signs, displays, teachers’ voices, slogans, mission statement, biblical themes, and more. The best teachers in these schools persistently point students to the brightest, sharpest image on the picture. For example, Covenant College in Georgia has chosen Christ as the center of education. On the big rock at its entrance is “In all things Christ preeminent” (Col. 1:18).

This phrase—and its repetition and detail—reaches into every classroom there. It’s not just a biblical billboard. It’s got life! Suppose the heart of your Christian education is like a big hot air balloon in the middle of your picture on the box. The balloon is so bright, multi-colored, and attracting that it drew you to buy the puzzle. If you were putting the puzzle together, as all good puzzlers know, you would first find the easy, flat pieces and form the frame. Then, what’s next? The big, bright balloon! For many Christian schools, that’s Christ.

I remember seeing two similar large murals in two different schools, both located on the wall of the schools’ student centers. In the center of both murals was a symbol for Christ; all around the center were images for various subjects in the curriculum—all connected to the center. At the bottom of both was “He [Christ] is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). Those murals made a really bright picture on the box.

Here are a few tips for teachers to help students to see the whole picture and where 2 + 2, the Periodic Table, and grammar fit:

  1. In every unit of learning, move up and down the ladder of abstraction, e.g., from “The world belongs to God” to the zygote and zebra; from painting diminishing perspective to “You are made in the image of God.”
  2. Frequently remind students of the puzzle frame, the story of the Bible, the big worldview we espouse: essentially the unity of the drama, in five acts: God made everything good; we humans corrupted ourselves and creation; God gave us his Son so believers could be righteous again; God equipped us to serve him and others by extending his kingdom; Jesus will come again to complete his kingdom, including us.
  3. Connect each part of the picture to students’ lives and to other similar pieces, e.g., “See this orange piece; what other pieces look like that? Where is it likely to fit?”
  4. Have PD days in which teachers help each other with this dilemma: “I simply can’t get kids to see the worth of learning X, and it’s even harder to show them how it fits in our Christian theme/mission/vision.”

Puzzled students makes ineffective education; students educated to know deeply the bright picture on the box, piece by piece, leads to effective Christian education.

– Dan Vander Ark

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