Performance vs. Thinking

As director of product development at BJU Press, I have the opportunity to talk to many teachers and administrators about their schools. The most frequent concern I hear is the lack of integrated thinking ability on the part of students. What is even more critical to them is that students are not making good discernment judgments. Along with a biblical philosophy, the development of higher-level thinking skills and discernment is what sets us apart as Christian educators. If we sincerely want our students to be lovers of God's ways and to seek to walk with Him, we must examine the problem and how to fix it.

It is my judgment that for the last thirty years in Christian education (and even more intensely the last ten years) the emphasis on learning has been on performance results to the neglect of comprehension. Politicians advocate that the way to hold teachers accountable is to measure performance based on achievement tests. Test scores, grades, speed reading, and many other fact-recall activities that students can demonstrate are the criteria that many educators use to advertise excellence and determine educational goals. We are not going to be able to escape the expectations of parents and the current culture to produce students with strong performance abilities, but we also need to realize that we soon will be held accountable for students' inability to think, make good decisions, solve problems, and adopt Christian values. The question becomes, "How do we get good performance results and at the same time teach discernment, comprehension, and thinking skills?"

The primary ingredient for developing a program that will enhance discernment is scriptural integration. Education is not Christian unless "transformation and renewing of the mind" through the power of the Holy Spirit is evident in the fabric of the curriculum and the teaching and learning practices. All knowledge needs to be presented from God's viewpoint as it contrasts with the world's point of view. This means showing how everything fits His design—math and science, as well as language and history. God is not segmented in His nature. At some point, students will accept or reject God's system as their own. They will ultimately be responsible for the choices they make, but their thinking, which we educators have guided, will determine their choices. We can lead the way by modeling for students how biblical decisions are made. We can challenge their thinking and reasoning, which will form the basis for making clear choices.

Another important learning principle to keep in mind while determining how you will affect thinking skills is that learning is developmental. The child comes to a place in his maturation where he is ready for certain aspects of learning. Yes, you can get performance from children early in their development by pressure and excessive drill, but there will be little that reaches their comprehension level. It is like learning to ride a bicycle. You can put training wheels on the bike and tell the child he is riding, but in reality he is not balancing and coordinating the steering and speed needed to take off on a two-wheeler. In fact, the child gets a false sense of security and eventually has to retrain his mind in order to understand the type of balance needed. In the same way, children can be misled to think that they are reading when they are merely sounding out words through connecting phonics sounds. They are not really reading until they get meaning from the words they are decoding. You may have heard the saying, "Everything I learned, I learned in kindergarten." The principle is that all along the learning path we need to be building the foundation that will be needed to connect future understanding. This is why providing rich experiences, building curiosity, and allowing intriguing discovery to take place are so important to learning success.

Probably the most significant teaching method that affects comprehension development is interaction. Interactive teaching takes place when the teacher implements a system of asking questions that range from the literal, critical, and interpretive to the appreciative level. The goal is not just to seek specific answers to questions but also to develop reasoning that is in line with biblical principles. The most effective type of questioning requires the child to begin with what he knows and to form principles from that knowledge. A skillful teacher creates a relationship in which the student perceives the teacher as someone really interested in what he thinks. This approach promotes inductive reasoning, which is needed to solve problems and make independent decisions. The problem today is that too much teaching revolves around telling students some facts, having them fill in the blanks, and then drilling those facts. When a child experiences the thrill of realizing that he can figure things out, he will become a lifelong learner.

"Then did I eat it; and it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness" (Ezekiel 3:3). Joy in learning is paramount to lifelong education. Joy in learning does not mean that the process should never be a struggle, but there is no reason why learning cannot be joyful and rewarding. Teachers can do much to promote joy in learning. They can make things interesting. My three-year-old grandson was bending down with his face almost touching the ground. I asked him what he was doing. He said, "I'm doing science. Poppie, you have to get close to things or you might miss something." Just the fact that he said he was doing science rather than studying science says he was enjoying it. Teachers can make their classroom display say to children, "Come on in, we are going to have fun learning today." Unit themes, characters, and special interest boxes in the reading can go a long way toward making learning joyful.

Learning activities that engage children in observing, creating, and drawing a conclusion with teacher-directed guidance are an essential ingredient in successful comprehension development. These are the skills that will lodge in a child's mind for solving problems and making life decisions. We must start the process when children are young to develop habits of learning more than facts and information. With these skills, a young person can apply the integration of information.

Discernment Development scale

The chart illustrates a successful approach to developing discernment. At the low end of the scale, we have process-driven learning. When we refer to process, we are talking about the steps to getting right answers to an algorithm in math, being able to label parts of speech, quoting large passages of literature, memorizing phonics rules, or even merely sounding out words. At this level the student is answering literal questions, such as how, what, where, and when. The next level up the scale is purpose-driven. The way we as teachers get to the purpose of what students are learning is to build in critical interactivity. Questions like why and what if will generate purposeful thinking. Christ asked His disciples, "Who do men say that I am?" He was getting at the reasons for serving Him. Discernment is the level on which we ultimately want our students to function. Christ finished His questioning of the disciples with an application question. He asked, "Whom do you say that I am?" Psalm 119:30 says, "I have chosen the way of truth. Thy judgments have I laid before me." The discernment level requires personal commitment.

Principles are formed at the discernment level of understanding. It is where students solve problems, analyze information, and view things from an integrated perspective. It is where learning becomes connected. That level is going to be underdeveloped unless we raise the consciousness of the student with our teaching methods. My passion in my ministry at BJU Press is to develop educational materials that will provide every tool possible to help the teacher do this important job.

 by Jim Davis. Updated October 21, 2015.

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