Christian Education: Values or Content?
Tucked away in one of my educational psychology books is a Peanuts cartoon clipped from a newspaper years ago. It is a cartoon of Peppermint Patty, that endearing character who represents a teacher’s worst nightmare: the unmotivated student.
In the cartoon, Peppermint Patty addresses the teacher primly, saying, “You know what Oscar Wilde said, Ma’am? He said, ‘Nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” And then she adds, “Nothing personal Ma’am . . . carry on.”
That sentiment is shared by the educator and therapist, Carl Rogers, who stated his belief that, in effect, no one can teach anybody anything.(1) Can that really be true? If so, then why do we expend so much energy, anxiety, and resources in our teaching-learning enterprises? Do we just “carry on” despite truth?
Carl Rogers decried the meaningless learning experiences that passes for “education.” He called for an experiential learning approach that empowered the learner, rather than accommodated the teacher. Rogers identified the elements of experiential learning:
- It has a quality of personal involvement
- It is self-initiated by the student
- It is pervasive in that it makes a difference in the behavior, attitudes and personality of the learner
- It is evaluated by the learner (not the teacher)
- Its essence is meaning.(2)
When it comes right down to it, Christian education has more to do with passing on values than with passing on content information. As such, perhaps we should be more concerned about how our students feel about injustice, or how they make value judgments, or what they identify as good, or how they demonstrate love, or how they ascribe worth to themselves as children of God than with how many facts they know, how much information they can retain, or how well they recite core knowledge.
But we also realize that values are passed on, in part, through content. Stories of faith, personal stories and the lessons we choose to teach, all pass along values and beliefs. Values are not fostered in a vacuum, and they must be grounded in a critical engagement with foundational beliefs of self, God, the world, right and wrong, good and bad. Even children struggle to articulate the merits of what is “fair” and why.
It may be hard for us to admit, but philosophy, theology, and sound Bible interpretation is exactly what our learners need to help them learn about how to live. What philosophers and wise people have tried to teach us throughout history is that how you live your life and what you do in life all flow out of your capacity to understand life and self—–and understanding life and self is what philosophy and theology are all about.
So does that mean we should teach our children philosophy and theology? Darn right it does! Children are natural epistemologists. Children are in a wonderful stage in life during which they are not burdened by operational assumptions about how things work, why things are, or how things ought to be. Unlike adults, who have great difficulty un-learning things, a child’s world is one of constant learning and discovery. Good discoverers know how to ask good questions (something most adult learners are reluctant to do, have you noticed?).
This means that our children and youth (and some adults) are able to handle theology. Anytime a three year old asks “Why?” or a teen asks “Why me?” they are asking a theological question. The pity is that we’re all too quick to give them a mundane answer on the assumption that they can’t handle philosophical or theological struggles. They can, and will, if we give them the chance!
Authentic Christian teaching is one that helps children, youth, and adults learn how to ask the right and better questions, not one that gives them all the answers. A healthy Christian education creates philosophers and theologians, not human depositories of knowledge and facts.
When it comes to passing on values in Christian education, how you teach is as important as what you teach. In fact, how you teach may in effect become what you are teaching! Mouthing words of love while giving evidence of prejudice teaches not the love, but the lack of it. Here are some suggestions for encouraging values in your teaching-learning experiences:
- List the attitudes and values you wish to encourage
- Provide learning experiences that will lead to the development of the attitudes and values you want to foster
- Make use of object lessons— when illustrative incidents occur in the course of events, take advantage of them
- Apply learning theory—associate pleasant and positive experiences with the types of behaviors and values you want to encourage
- Set a good example. Keep in mind the importance of identification and imitation of healthy values
- Keep your personal prejudices under control
- Remember that the teachers who have the greatest impact “are likely to be persons whose own value-commitments are firm and openly expressed, and who are outgoing and warm in their personal relations with students.” (3)
What are those Christian values worth passing on and demonstrating to your learners? You’ll have to work out your own set of values based on your call to teach and on your own goals for teaching, but here are some to consider:
- Love of learning the Bible
- Commitment to regular participation in Christian education (Sunday School, Bible studies, special studies, support groups, etc.)
- Providing a good example of commitment (being on time, participating, intentional affirmation)
- Quality of work and product
- Teaching for results
- Teaching for obedience to the Word of God
- Genuine love, affection, and respect for learners and fellow teachers
- Respect for the facilities and other’s space
- Good stewardship of personal gifts and resources.
Think of how you go about teaching in your role as a Christian teachers. Are you passing on the values in your teaching that you want your learners to catch?
(1)Carl Rogers, Freedom to Learn (Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company, 1969.), pp. 152-153.
(2)Ibid, p. 5.
(3)Robert F. Biehler, Psychology Applied to Teaching, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1971), p. 299.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.
His books on education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).