Christian Education and the Bible

by Edward Gish


I suspect that more has been written and said in the last 20 years about the Bible-Education-Children subject than in all of the centuries past. Entwined in all of this discussion is the on-going debate among Christians over conventional classroom versus individualized classroom and what does the Bible say about it.

And still the question remains: What does the Bible ordain with reference to teaching children reading, writing, and arithmetic; is there a superior approach? Some say that what Jesus did was the superior way, and they mean His oral teaching. But if you want to confine the discussion to what Jesus did, you would throw away almost all printed material. Nevertheless, certainly it is a worthy question that deserves an intelligent answer. You judge as to the scriptural rationale of what follows.

First, I will give a very brief description of what I mean by "conventional classroom" and "individualized classroom". You may have your variation of these definitions, but the essentials are here. A conventional classroom is one where the teacher instructs the students from a textbook on the various subjects. Each student hears and reads the same lesson and does the same assignment each day either as given by the teacher or contained in the textbook. An individualized classroom is one where each student has his individual packet, or workbook, for each subject; he studies his given number of pages, answers the questions, and scores his work as he completes each lesson. His classmates may be doing the same lessons in some subjects, slightly different pages, or even be working in another packet. The teacher answers each student's question as he needs assistance.

People, even Christians, have many pulls away from trust in the Lord. God had to get Abram away from his own people before He could use him; David desired to count his men; Gideon was satisfied with 30,000 strong; and today we still want to be surrounded with like-thinking people. People need support groups to diet, to deal with grief, to stop a bad habit, or to teach their children. This entire emotional and spiritual complex permeates the total spectrum of the Christian and secular education processes around us. It can hinder us from pursuing the real goal of our thesis.

If my mental vision can pierce through the fog of the cacophony of opinions about what type of school, whose curriculum, what teacher qualifications, and which classroom scheme is best, maybe we can discuss the real issue. My thesis on Christian education as proposed by the Bible is this: The Bible does not teach what method to use, but it does teach what character to build. While it is true that the eunuch in Acts 8:31 needed guidance (or instruction), we all recognize that this is what teaching is all about; it involves oral, written, and modeled knowledge and wisdom.

I will neither list nor quote all of the scriptures relevant to the thesis, but consider Proverbs. It is a lengthy exposition on how to instill Godly character in a child. Meditate on the Sermon on the Mount. The lesson is the same. Peruse Paul's admonitions, and the results are identical. I challenge you to ponder this biblical character building process as I delineate some of the ramifications of the conventional classroom system and the individualized classroom setting. I have used both of them for 19 years. This experience may qualify me to speak, or it may open me to prejudice. You can decide. However, I caution you about proceeding if you are unable to accept the possibility that both scenarios are equally biblical. For example, how did Jesus teach? Well, obviously He taught using oral instruction individually (Nicodemus), and He taught in a group setting similar to an open classroom (Sermon on the Mount). The Apostle Paul used whatever opportunity he had to talk about the Messiah -- the message was important, but the method was flexible. It is true that both schemes were centered in oral communication. We too need to seize the opportunity as it presents itself if the message of the cross is our passion.


Conventional Classroom

The very name implies that it is the most traditional and proven method, but I really doubt that either conclusion is true. While a teacher in a conventional classroom teaching various subjects was the plan of 100-200 years ago, the size of most of the classes made the teaching process somewhat individualized. But what are the consequences of this learning mechanism?

Pluses:

  1. It gives the teacher ample opportunity to be a role model in public speaking, proper grammar, enunciation, and poise. Every teacher has the responsibility to display Jesus' character to the student (Matt. 10:25).

  2. It teaches the student to positively respond to an authority outside the home. This is very important if the character traits of a Christian worker are to be developed in the student. It is true that an individualized setting does this also, but not with as much emphasis.

  3. The student is forced to cooperate more keenly with others. He may prefer to move slower or faster, but he must learn to work together with, and respond to, other's needs and gifts (2 Cor. 6:1). There are some things the Lord wants us to do together (Matt. 18:20).

  4. It is an efficient use of the teacher's time. Rather than tell each student individually, the teacher can explain the lesson all at one time (Jer. 19:10). This reference in Jeremiah teaches that you must first get their attention if you expect them to listen.

  5. It is less easy for a student to "slip through the cracks for a week." The teacher has the open window to be on top of each student in each subject.

  6. It is true that most college classes are conventional classrooms in structure, but there is also much learning in college that is individualized in that the student must fend for himself.

  7. This may or not be significant, but in the long term, textbooks are cheaper than individual packets.

  8. Visual presentations and field trips are easier to make relevant to all students in a class.

Minuses:

  1. This system has a tendency not to recognize students' vastly different natural learning modes. We all nod our heads and admit that children are different. However, until I taught school, I was not aware of how enormous that difference really is. The Lord has gifted us all with immensely different callings and inner pulls that are compatible with our personalities (Rom. 12). In one way we might even say these diverse motivations are unrelated, except for the fact that they are all from God (Rom. 11:29).

  2. This method stifles creativity, and it can make it easier for a quick learning student to be lazy because he can get an "A" or "B" by only half trying. It does not give enough liberty for a student to do "his thing". There is a time to stifle "his thing," but there is an appropriate time to turn it loose, so this accusation has some validity.

  3. The success of the school is intimately attached to the training, skill, and character of the teacher. For example, expert lesson planning skills are necessary for success. While this is always true to some extent, it is definitely more so with conventional classrooms. This can be good, but most of the time it is a difficulty because Christian schools have a very hard time employing qualified teachers, especially for academics. A teacher of impeccable Christian character will have frustrated algebra students if algebra is not a teacher expertise.

  4. A corollary of the last one is teacher availability. Although good teachers are always difficult to hire, it is more difficult to get an instructor for a conventional classroom unless you have funds available to pay an experienced teacher.

  5. One or two students can retard class progress unless the teacher does extra one-on-one tutoring.


Individualized Setting

My observation is that many people who are very opposed to this system have never used it, and they do not understand how it works. Some of the following comments are more relevant to high school students than to those of lower grades. The majority of high school students that I polled who have learned by this process, like this system.

Pluses:

  1. Children have a greater flexibility in scheduling their work which in turn teaches responsibility. This is especially true of a student who goes on a trip with his parents or a high school student who wants to graduate early. This can be negative, but if controlled, it does give the children an opportunity to be with family more often.

  2. The opportunity to take electives is greatly increased because the student can do consumer math, for example, even if no one else does. This is of particular advantage for a self-motivated student.

  3. Teachers can more easily handle a greater variety of grades and classes since the lesson planning is done and much of the make-work type of functions is performed by the students.

  4. Students are daily faced with setting proper priorities or suffer the consequences. They learn by necessity to learn from reading rather than being "spoon fed". This learning discipline is an advantage for those continuing into college as has been demonstrated by many students of mine.

  5. It is financially easier for a school to get started because less funds are needed initially to buy individual packets than would be needed to buy textbooks.

  6. Summer work is easier for all concerned because the student is accustomed to checking his own homework and setting his goals.

Minuses:

  1. This system does not always properly respond to an unmotivated student. Maybe none of them do, but this one does less so than others.

  2. For students transferring to another school, the courses and their attendant units are sometimes confusing.

  3. The strong teacher image for the student to emulate is lacking.

  4. The discipline of listening to a lecture and taking notes is not easily taught.

  5. Most of the curricula available is not flashy and colorful. For the student needing maximum motivation, this can be a problem. This is especially true if the parents view it as true. While some say there are no color pictures in the Bible, it is also true that in our society, children are programmed to respond to color and to pictures. This is a fact of life.

  6. The brevity of most individual packets (I am familiar with three of them) does not provide enough explanation for many subjects. Also, we must recognize that some students cannot learn properly by just reading.

  7. Especially for high school the student does not have a text to keep and refer to for subjects such as math and science.


Conclusion

There is no perfect system to teach children, and yet any of them can teach the student Christian character and biblical work ethics. The debate among Christians is a distraction of the adversary to distract us from our real purpose -- the salvation of souls. I believe that either approach to teaching is very biblical if it is modified to include the virtues of both. It is imperative that the biblical elements of the written Word, preaching, and making disciples be an integral part of the program. Biblical virtues are not acquired as a function of the two systems, but they are a function of the character of the home and the teacher. Most of the pros and cons I listed have to do with academics and function rather than what the Bible says. I believe that if the teacher in any setting loves children and promotes Christ-like conduct by example, the school conforms to the Bible. This does not mean that the child will only learn to love the Lord, but that he will also learn to be diligent at work, competent in labor, kind in relationships, forgiving in conflict, and gracious in judgment. Such a student honors the Lord -- the real goal of Christian schooling, whatever kind it may be!


Anabaptists uses this article with permission from the author as well as Faith Builders Educational Programs in whose newsletter the article first appeared. Thank you, folks!

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