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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

What Your Congregation Can Learn from Common Core: Part 2 - Collaboration

My school district has adopted a new mathematics curriculum that is “aligned” with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). While the mathematics we expect to teach our students has not changed in the last 200 years, the pedagogical methods and assessment expectations of our classrooms have changed to reflect the new, more lofty goals of the CCSS.

This new curriculum places all mathematics students into groups (usually 4 students per group) and encourages the groups to “discover” the point of that day’s lesson from carefully crafted lessons in a textbook. The teacher in this new model is a facilitator, a help in times of trouble or a light in moments of confusion. Although some parents have voiced concerns about how their children will be tested and evaluated, I am personally pleased with how the classes have gone.

This idea of learning-through-groups is not necessarily germane to the CCSS, but it is not too much of an imaginative leap to understand why groups work well in our attempts to fulfill our new educational objectives. The editors of my own textbooks thoroughly demonstrate that “cooperative learning help[s] students learn better,” that it works well for students of all ability types, and that cooperative learning is “valued in business.”[1]

The CCSS are, ostensibly, a framework upon which more successful 21st century learners can be cultivated. The emphasis on collaboration is a reflection and consequence of our more connected and collaborative world. Our classrooms are beginning to look more and more like the world our students will inhabit in their professional lives, and I believe that is a welcome transition.

Our congregations would do well to see the emphasis on “team” that is demonstrated in the spirit of the CCSS as a reminder of our own cooperative call in the Kingdom of God. As many of my dear friends said in seminary, “there are no lone rangers in Christianity.”

Collaborative learning is a pedagogically trendy way of saying that we are a part of a community; a body that lives as a larger organism than any one of us does as an individual. In Scripture we are likened to branches that draw nourishment from a Vine[2] and the Body of Christ.[3] We are not individuals saved by grace who are then to work out our salvation in fear and trembling alone on some spiritual island. Rather, we are welcomed into a great and eternal family by those who have gone along the Way before us. We are discipled, trained, and formed in community with elders in the faith and in relationship with those inside and outside of the Church. At no point are we alone in faith – we have been promised the very presence of Christ until the end.[4]

The struggle, both in my classroom and in my congregation, is to break the habits we’ve carefully cultivated over the generations of the individual student learning a discreet lesson upon which they will be tested and then moved on to a new topic. In my mathematics classes this struggle is against the way I’ve been teaching for years and the way my students have been learning for years. They have become accustomed to being seated in neat rows and dutifully taking notes while I work examples on a screen or whiteboard. Now, however, they are being asked to essentially teach themselves with me as a hovering support, a resource to be used as their collective abilities sometimes demand.

In my congregation (and in others I’ve been a part of), there is a sense of discipleship as an individual activity between the believer and God that occasionally includes a group exercise. The practice of group prayer (which is often a very individualized time of “here’s my needs and requests” all lumped together) and group Bible study can be seen as a supplement to the individual’s “quiet time” and intensely private spiritual practices. These are good and necessary, yet there seems to be a momentum against the participation in one another’s lives to the point where meaningful discipleship can happen in our congregation. Our culture is certainly partially to blame, but there is also a habit of making self-reliant disciples in our congregations that resists our participation in the discipleship of others.

Perhaps the CCSS can remind us that we need each other to do this thing to which we have been called. We need to work cooperatively, collaboratively, and compassionately with one another. Surely we are the body, stitched together because we cannot function alone, and we cannot learn alone.

[1] Carter, G., Jones, M. G., Rua, M. (2003). “Effects of partner's ability on the achievement and conceptual organization of high-achieving fifth-grade students.” Science Education 87 (1): 94- 111; Cavalier, J. C., Klein, J. D., Cavalier, F. J. (1995). “Effects of cooperative learning on performance, attitude, and group behaviors in a technical team environment.” ETR&D 43 (3): 61-71; Cheng, R.W., Sam, S., Chan, J. C., (2008), “When high achievers and low achievers work in the same group: The roles of group heterogeneity and processes in project-based learning.” British Journal of Educational Psychology, 78 (2), 205-221; Chi, M. T. H., DeLeeuw, N., Chiu, M. H., Lanancher, C. (1994). “Eliciting self- explanations improves understanding.” Cognitive Science 18 (3): 439-477. Cohen, P. A., Kulik, J. A., Kulik, C. L. C. (1982). “Educational outcomes of tutoring – a meta- analysis of findings.” American Educational Research Journal 19 (2): 237-248; Crouch, C. H., Mazur, E. (2001). “Peer Instruction: Ten years of experience and results.” American Journal of Physics 69 (9): 970-977; Davidson, N., Kroll, D. L. (1991). “An overview of research on cooperative learning related to mathematics.” Journal for Research in Mathematics Education 22 (5): 362-365; Dees, R. L. (1991). “The role of cooperative learning in increasing problem-solving ability in a college remedial course.” Journal for Research in Mathematics Education 22 (5): 409-421; Dineen, J. P., Clark, H. B., Risley, T. R. (1977). “Peer tutoring among elementary students – educational benefits to tutor.” Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 10 (2): 231-238; Enghag, M. Gustafsson, P., Jonsson, G. (2007). “From everyday life experiences to physics understanding occurring in small group work with context rich problems during introductory physics work at university.” Research in Science Education 37 (4): 449-467; Fuchs, L. S., Fuchs, D., Yazdian, L., Powell, S. R. (2002). “Enhancing first-grade children's mathematical development with Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies.” School Psychology Review 31 (4): 569-583; Gillies, R. M. (2000). “The maintenance of cooperative and helping behaviours in cooperative groups.” British Journal of Educational Psychology 70 (1): 97-111; Gillies, R. M. (2004). “The effects of cooperative learning on junior high school students during small group learning.” Learning and Instruction 14 (2): 197-213; Nembhard, D., Yip, K., Shtub, A. (2009). “Comparing competitive and cooperative strategies for learning project management.” Journal of Engineering Education 98 (2): 181-192;

[2] John 15:5.
[3] Romans 7:4, 12:4-6; 1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 3:6, 4:12-15; Colossians 3:15.
[4] Matthew 28:20.

Friday, August 22, 2014

What Your Congregation Can Learn from Common Core - Part 1 of 3: Frameworks

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have received a lot of press in the last year, most of it negative.[1] There has been a strong campaign to combat the misinformation about what exactly the standards are and how they will affect local school districts.[2] However, there persists an attitude of resistance and defiance among many who want to do away with “Obamacore.”[3]

The CCSS is not an invasion by the federal government into our children’s classrooms. Rather, the Standards are a set of ideas that are designed to guide 21st century learners and educators as they integrate technology, cross-discipline content, and enhanced reading and writing skills.

I am a public school mathematics teacher, so I generally concentrate on the eight Mathematics Standards[4]:

1.     Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them
2.     Reason abstractly and quantitatively
3.     Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others
4.     Model with mathematics
5.     Use appropriate tools strategically
6.     Attend to precision
7.     Look for and make use of structure
8.     Look for express regularity in repeated reasoning

A framework (which is the word that best describes the CCSS) is different from a curriculum. A curriculum is what is taught in a classroom and includes things like a textbook, a PowerPoint show, a homework assignment, a test, and especially the knowledge and personality of the teacher in that classroom. A framework is just that – a frame within and upon which the curriculum is developed.

The CCSS are a framework in that they do not proscribe lessons, activities, or other elements of a lesson that would be found in a curriculum. The Standards provide (rather lofty) goals at which the curriculum at a specific school and in a specific classroom should aim. It is still (and always will be) the task of the teacher to evaluate students and to determine what is best to promote their achievement and success.

What can a local congregation learn from the very visible Common Core State Standards? There are many things that translate from the pedagogical realm to the Church, but in this era of CCSS, I think it is appropriate to see that frameworks can be a helpful way to understand how our local congregations function.

First, we are a part of something bigger than just our congregation, and that’s a good thing. I have become convinced that my Baptist peers and I have, in many ways, neglected the history of Christ’s Church beyond our own provincial histories. I understand the Landmarkism[5] was a valid (although incorrect) attempt to reconcile our Reformation-era identities with the history of the Church, but today we remain ignorant or dismissive of the work of the Spirit in the world that has led us to this time and place.

With that caveat in mind, our congregations are a part of the great work of reconciliation of all things in Christ.[6] We are, whether we differ theologically or on issues of polity, in the same boat as those Christians around the world who listen for the Spirit’s voice. My congregation, small as it may be, must learn to see itself as a part of the great work of Christianity in the world. We do, certainly, have a responsibility to stand firmly upon those beliefs derived from Scripture that are in accord with the foundational Baptist convictions. We should, though, see ourselves as a part of a framework, a broad and universal call from God to repentance and reconciliation through Jesus Christ.

More specifically, seeing our congregation as a part of a larger framework within which we work out our salvation[7] may lead us to see the entirety of our congregational activities as a part of that framework. I have been convinced for many years that the entirety of the local church’s life should reflect the overall purpose and goals of that congregation. While this doesn’t necessarily imply that every Sunday School class follows the same lessons, it does drive me to see our educational and worship activities as related. They are related by their focus on fulfilling the Great Commission, that is, we teach and explore Scripture for the purpose of forming disciples just as we worship in joyful response to the Spirit’s forming us into disciples.

Thinking of the Great Commission as an over-arching framework for the life of the congregation allows us to rest in our participation with the global Church as well as to emphasize those things that make us unique. This is the great example of the CCSS for our local congregations. No federal agent is writing curriculum for my classroom just as no ecclesial authority proscribes interpretation or schedule of events in a Baptist church. Rather, the Great Commission is a lofty goal for us to live into. The Lord was not specific in how we were to make disciples, or how we were to teach them to obey his commands. The actual work of formation is up to us.

Test Friday.

[6] Colossians 1:19-22.
[7] Philippians 2:12.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Long, Hot Summer and a Long Hiatus

I've not posted anything other than sermons in some time. I recently completed my Culminating Project to earn a Doctorate of Ministry from Baylor University. The long hours of research and writing drained me of the desire or ability to write in this forum for much of the summer. Last Friday I was pleased to graduate with that degree. Now I hope to have more time and mental energy to compose and post more regularly on this blog.

I hope that my absence has not cost me too many readers!

For those wishing to read a draft (not the finished version) of Chapter 2 of my Project, please see my previous posts on "My Work on Catechesis as Discipleship."