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.

Children are empty buckets.

The idea is caught in John Locke’s theory about learning in the phrase tabula rasa, meaning the mind at birth is a blank slate, a squeaky-clean white board, on which sensory impressions fall, leading to ideas. Alexander Pope uses the analogy of the mind as a pail, gradually through education filling up with ideas. In the Age of Reason, more than 200 years ago, the goal of learning was a mind filled with ideas, with students learning the skills of reason.

Some CSI schools belong also to a network of classical Christian schools. These schools are thoroughly Christian but organize their learning by seeking to imitate the classical trivium. In brief, these schools in the earliest grades fill their students’ minds with facts: Bible memorizations, numbers, historical facts, etc. Roughly in grades 3–5, students learn the patterns of these facts: e.g., sentences, periods of history, Bible themes, etc. In late elementary school, students learn how to put these patterns in logical form, primarily to persuade in speaking and writing. Classical Latin is taught as early as grade 3, classical logic in late elementary.

Children are gifts to be unwrapped.

This theory of learning starts with the assumption that children are innately pure, loving, creative, filled with insight—a wonderful gift to all of us. It’s caught in Wordsworth’s expression,“The child is the father of the man.” Children know best in their natural innocence and demonstrate joy and freedom, qualities that have faded in adults. “Unwrapped” suggests that, in most educational systems, these gifts are now wrapped up tight in confining schooling that eventually harms the pure gift. In general schooling, Montessori schools best exemplify this theory. These schools provide “space for learning”: children learn to count when they choose to, and each sets his or her own way of learning.

In Christian schools, as one writer describes it, “Students and teachers learn to unwrap their gifts, share each other’s burdens, and seek God’s shalom.” Teachers are guides on the side. Traditional schooling—where history is taught as an endless collections of facts and science is a series of laws to be memorized—harms students. In this view of learning, tests, logical systems, “rote memorization,” grades—all are harmful to the child’s learning.

Children are dirty gems.

This theory follows the overarching theme of the Bible. Again in terse terms, God made human beings “in our image” (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit)—all good. But in Adam’s fall, we all fall: as early as Genesis 6:5, “…every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” God provided a Savior from the effects of sin. He enlisted his saved ones to help build his kingdom. He will come again to make his kingdom complete, including eternal fellowship with him. The image of a dirty gem comes from Edward Taylor’s “Preface.” In “nothing man,” God put into him the “brightest gem” “who did throw down all by sin.” The effect: that now his “brightest diamond” has become as flawed as “any coal pit stone.”

In most Christian schools, this theory of the character of a child has a curriculum that builds on these Bible truths. Teachers teach students who they really are: uniquely gifted to give glory back to God, but acknowledging personal dirt and receiving grace in Christ, in need of schooling (discipline) to scrape off the barnacles of selfishness and to polish the God-given gem to shine glory back to God and on to other people so that they see God better.

These three views of children are in the goals and practices of Christian schools. Which theory about kids echoes most through your school? Do you have another analogy about “the child” that catches your view better than any of these?

“Please, students, hand in your tests now.”

– Dan Vander Ark

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