Competition is an inherited part of our education system. Much of what we do in the Christian classrooms inadvertently includes competitive structures that actually serve to inhibit a scriptural understanding of community in general, and good learning in particular. In this paper, competition will be shown to be destructive to both learning and the creation of Christian community. As such, it will be argued that competition is dehumanizing in nature, especially in regards to its application in education.
It's been a while since I last posted, and that's because I've been busy writing an academic paper for a course I've been taking. The paper is an interesting, and I think important, one that addresses an underlying issue in schools. I'll provide the abstract for you here and then you can read the entire article by following the link underneath.
In my work with two simultaneous schools it has become abundantly clear to me that there is no one-size-fits-all governance structure for all communities. Over the past decade, many schools have decided to review their traditional governance models for a number of different reasons including changing family demographics, decreasing/increasing student populations, differing board member philosophies, changes to leadership personnel, etc. I think the assumption is made wrongly sometimes that there is a model out there that can be replicated and emulated successfully in all schools. In my experience, it is essential when designing a governance structure for that structure to reflect the values, goals, and ambitions of the organization that it will be serving. Here I have personified governance because it’s almost as if these models need to become living and breathing organisms able to adapt to their surroundings and live within the culture that they inhabit. They must become creations of their community.
The following are some tips to help guide your work in reviewing a governance model:
Reviewing the school’s governance structure can be an exciting time for a community. It’s a great opportunity to celebrate what aspects are working really well but also a perfect occasion to remedy those areas that aren't working as efficiently as they could. There is hesitancy in some communities to change a governance structure that doesn't appear to be broken. My thought is that sometimes you don’t know what’s broken until you try something new.
Different Models reflect Different Schools, Times, and Leaders.
Christian education has long meant different things to different groups of people. Christian education has meant many different things to me during my life time as well. Whenever I've gone for job interviews one of the questions that I dread having asked is regarding my philosophy of Christian education. It’s not that I can’t answer it; it’s that I have too many answers to give. I've described it as a unique view of the child – regarding each child as an image-bearer of God drastically changes how we teach that child and the purpose of teaching him or her. I've thought about it as primarily a curriculum and program matter – all of our programming should reflect and inspire an understanding of God active in His creation. I've regarded it as a distinct form of community, the traditional reformed understanding of which is a covenantal and communal responsibility for training children in the Lord. I could go on.
Eugene Peterson has a volume entitled “Eat this Book” and it has inspired me to rethink each of my models. The title of his book refers to the revelation of John in Revelations 10:9-10 where an angel of the Lord hands him a scroll and says “Take it and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, but in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey.” Peterson explains that this is an adequate metaphor for how we should be reading the Bible; we must ingest it in its entirety. He says “It takes the whole Bible to read any part of the Bible. Every sentence is embedded in story and can no more be understood accurately or fully apart from the story than any one of our sentences spoken throughout the course of the day can be understood apart from our relationships and culture and the various ways in which we speak to our children and parents, our friends and enemies, our employers and employees – and our God.”
We have a tendency to take the pieces of scripture that we like, or the ones that are easily understood, and apply them to our lives. If what we believe is that scripture is inspired by God, then we need to take every word seriously. I’m not saying that every word needs to be taken literally, or that every part of the Bible is written in the same literary genre. What I am saying is that if the Bible is the inspired word of God, then the whole Bible is important and worthy of deep thought, study, and most importantly application.
In this light, my various understandings or explanations of Christian education all hold merit. Individually, though, they all come up short. Each one explains something of an understanding of a Bible-based schooling model, but if the whole story of scripture is not reflected in this understanding then it continues to fall short. The challenge for Christian education and Christian educators is to ensure that how we regard each child, how we design curriculum, how we manifest the Body of Christ in community, etc., reflect an understanding of God’s work in Creation founded in a reading of scripture that “enters our souls as food enters our stomachs, spreads through our blood, and becomes holiness, and love, and wisdom” (4).
The Bible is not just a book that we study, nor is it a source of verses which can be dismembered and used sparingly where appropriate. The Bible is the story of God, meant to be eaten and assimilated into “the tissues of our lives” (20).
Peterson, Eugene H.. Eat this book: a conversation in the art of spiritual reading. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2006.
It was a warm spring day and I was sitting on a deck by myself at 11:00 in the morning on a school day. No, I wasn’t playing hooky. Rather, I had been escorted to the back porch where I was waiting for coffee and cookies and the opportunity to make an ‘ask’. I had invited myself over to the house of grandparents of some children at the school I was serving, they had no idea what I was going to be asking from them. An hour later as I drove away down the gravel driveway and back towards the school, $2,000 had been secured for the new school band program.
This is not an altogether unusual situation in my experience. As the COO of a small school I have found that increasingly it is within my domain to recruit the necessary funds used to maintain operations and build new programs. This also necessitates building and maintaining good relationships with financial supporters. The latter I find comes naturally to me, the former not so much. Let me explain how this evolved over time for me.
First, I found myself becoming more intimately involved in the annual fund drive. It progressed from proofreading fund drive letters, to designing fund drive letters, to recruiting and training canvassers, to designing a fund drive handbook, to becoming Fund Drive Coordinator. It became clear to me in time that to effectively sustain a good fund drive, it must have elements of a good marketing campaign: consistency and sustained effort over time. The most consistent aspect of a non-profit organization is generally its hired leadership. Boards and volunteers change and for consistency to accrue, the COO must take this part of the school operations seriously.
Secondly, I found myself more often needing to find funds to fund new programs. In small schools, seemingly small amounts like $2,000 can represent 20% of the annual Educational Supplies budget and Boards can be hesitant to add to an already very tight budget with ‘gratuitous’ new initiatives like Classroom Hatcheries or an instrumental band program.
Third, I realized very quickly that to accomplish both of the above meant that I needed to spend significant time building relationships with supporters. This for me meant ensuring that these supporters were being well communicated with, and that face-time was secured where it was presented. Grandparents’ Day became an opportunity to really get to know supporters - a day where I ensured that all details were well organized and delegated so that I could spend all my time talking with people, shaking hands, and bringing them an extra bowl of soup or cup of coffee. Let me give you a few pieces of advice that I’ve picked up along the way.
My advice to COO’s of small schools in regards to fostering supporter relationships and raising funds:
I also suggest the following book for those interested in a more in depth treatment of fundraising from a Christian perspective:
Jeavons, Thomas, and Rebekah Burch Basinger. Growing givers' hearts: treating fundraising as ministry. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.
I've been thinking a lot about inspiration recently. I haven't written here in over a month, which is a long time for me. I haven't been inspired, and I'm not sure why. During this uninspired time, I came across a couple of videos that piqued my interest as they relate to inspiration. The first is a presentation on introversion by Susan Cain. The second is a talk given by Steven Johnson on the collective nature of good ideas. What is particularly interesting to me in these discussions is the apparent paradox they present - Cain suggests that "solitude is a crucial ingredient often to creativity" while Johnson claims that "chance favours the connected mind".
Where do you get your inspiration? Do you find it in deep conversation and idea-swap with others, or do you find it in the moments of solitude and independent reflection? Quite honestly I can see truth in both of these assertions. Some of my best thinking has happened and could only have happened, during intense conversation and argument with others. Some of my best thinking has happened, and could only have happened, in the quiet introspective moments.
It seems from these two talks that we need to choose one or the other. Johnson takes the side of collectivity. Ideas, he claims, are generated "from other people, from people we've learned from, from people we run into in the coffee shop, and we stitch them together into new forms and we create something new. That's really where innovation happens. And that means that we have to change some of our models of what innovation and deep thinking really looks like". He's suggesting that new ideas come only through their being stitched together with other people. I don't think this can be argued. I don't think that we really have any of our own thoughts that haven't been constructed socially somehow, but that's a different paper. The question is whether or not the 'stitching' needs to happen collectively or not.
Susan Cain seems to think that collectivity is not necessary. In fact, she laments that "even in subjects like math and creative writing, which you think would depend on solo flights of thought, kids are now expected to act as committee members. And for the kids who prefer to go off by themselves or just to work alone, those kids are seen as outliers often or, worse, as problem cases." Her problem, it appears, arises as a response to arguments like Johnson's. In a way, though, aren't we generating ideas collectively when we read books? Does not the author become the interlocutor?
I tend to agree with Cain when she concedes that "we need to be teaching kids to work together, for sure, but we also need to be teaching them how to work on their own. This is especially important for extroverted children too. They need to work on their own because that is where deep thought comes from in part." In recent years, I think we have put too much emphasis on group work. As educators, we all know that some students do not blossom in group situations. Although I know that they need to have opportunity to develop those skills, I think that for those students who prefer independent work, we should provide opportunity for them to work with ideas quietly and introspectively.
Perhaps too we all tend to favour either introspective idea generation or collective moments of brainstorm to our own detriment. I can certainly see in my own life how I gravitate towards one more than the other. If there is truth to be found in both Cain's and Johnson's assertions, then it will certainly be in our own best interest to push ourselves into both areas more heartily.
To me, one of the greatest challenges of the Christian walk is how to engage culture in a distinctly Christian manner. How do we resolve the tension captured in the adage that we are to be ‘in the world but not of it’? What is a Christian response to, for example, films not cast explicitly from a Christian worldview - the same question for music, literature, art, etc. Some would use the term ‘secular’ to describe the above, but I long ago discarded the use of this term because I believe it unnecessarily dichotomizes those things that are apparently ‘sacred’, from those that are apparently ‘profane’. Let me explain what I mean using a few thoughts derived from Pastor John Van Sloten’s book “The Day Metallica came to Church: Searching for the Everywhere God in Everything”.
Although the title is perhaps crafted for shock value, it springs out of a pastor’s struggle with how to honestly engage his congregation in the struggle surrounding how to approach culture. He coins a brilliant phrase to aid in describing his approach; Co-Illumination. Basically, Co-Illumination claims that truth is illuminated by a reciprocal interplay between God’s revelation through Creation, and God’s revelation through Scripture. Van Sloten explains that when he preaches he holds “two books in (his) hands: the book of Scripture and the book of creation and culture”, and that he tries to “show how both books “co-illuminate” each other”, that the “two voices interacting with each other magnify God’s truth.” This sheds light on how we can resolve the aforementioned tension. It means that Scripture informs our understanding of all cultural things, and inversely that Creation informs our understanding of Scripture. He goes on to affirm with John Calvin, the Reformed theologian, that all truth is God’s truth. Consider the implications of that statement: all truth is God’s truth.
I think often of how this understanding is foundational to Christian education, and I think that this is why I get excited about the gift that Christian education has to offer our faith communities. If we understand that Creation and Scripture are Co-Illumining it means that we can find Truth in a lot more than just the supposedly ‘sacred’ things of life. Instead, we can find Truth in ‘secular’ movies, books, music, and art. All Truth, according to Van Sloten, includes “biblical truth, mathematically formulaic truth, aesthetically beautiful truth, athletically inspired truth, naturally scenic truth, psychologically wise truth….” You get the picture.
The converse to the above argument is also true; we will gain an understanding that there are certain aspects of culture that simply are out of line with God’s good created order when we allow the Co-Illumining of Creation and Scripture. This is a good thing because we need to be able to discern the holy from the abominable, and decide whether we need to remove our footwear or put on a pair of rubber boots.
Sloten, John. The day Metallica came to church: searching for the everywhere God in everything. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Square Inch, 2010.
Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a conference, with many of my colleagues across Southern Ontario, where one of the keynote speakers was Simon Sinek of "Start with Why" fame. His was an inspiring address primarily centred on the physiology of incentives and performance. One aspect of his speech struck me because I had just been reading Ariely's "The Upside of Irrationality", most specifically his chapter entitled Paying More for Less: Why Big Bonuses Don't Always Work". First, let me discuss Sinek's argument briefly. Sinek spoke about the body's chemical responses to stimuli. In particular he spoke about the differing and paradoxical effects of cortisol and oxytocin. He explained that cortisol is the hormone produced in excessive amounts during stressful situations. Oxytocin, on the other hand, is called the Love Hormone and is responsible for feelings of trust, empathy, arousal, etc. Cortisol's positive aspect is that it produces what we call the Fight or Flight Syndrome which causes the body to produce readiness needed to flee dangerous situations. However, the body's response is the same during stressful situations where actual physical fight or flight is not needed. It also, apparently, inhibits oxytocin production which in turn limits the body's ability to trust, empathize, and love.
Enter Ariely. Through a variety of lab experiments, Ariely makes the conclusion that "using money to motivate people can be a double-edged sword. For tasks that require cognitive ability low to moderate performance-based incentives can help. But when the incentive level is very high, it can command too much attention and thereby distract the person's mind with thoughts about the reward. This can create stress and ultimately reduce the level of performance."
The two explanations seem to be correlated. If promises of high performance based incentives cause stress, then logic would tell us that cortisol release would permeate these situations. High cortisol levels inhibit oxytocin and make us less able to trust others and empathize with them. High stress also inhibits our ability to perform well. In a nutshell, the argument could be made that high performance based incentives kill performance and poison positive workplace climates.
I wonder what this conclusion means for our classrooms. I wonder if our grading schematics and evaluation methods could be construed as high performance based incentives and could inadvertently be killing student performance and poisoning classroom atmosphere. This is not a profound conclusion for those of us who have thought seriously about our student evaluation methods. However, I think that the arguments presented by these two authors may provide new evidence for those of us who have concern about the demotivating aspects of traditional methods of evaluations. Of course, there is a big difference (perhaps) between monetary incentive and the grade motivators that we dole out. However, I wonder if the two are more alike for than we think considering the high stakes of achieving good grades in our society.
Ariely, Dan. The upside of irrationality: the unexpected benefits of defying logic at work and at home. New York: Harper, 2010.
Sinek, Simon. Start with why: how great leaders inspire everyone to take action. New York: Portfolio, 2009.
Recently I presented a couple of addresses composed of three pieces. The first was a meditation on the Biblical story of Esther. I based this retelling on John Ortberg's speech called "A Leader's Greatest Fear". Although it's about 45 minutes long, it is well worth a watch or a listen - it is very inciteful. The point that John Ortberg makes well is that of Shadow Mission. A Shadow Mission, he explains, is any mission that distracts us from our true and God-given mission. He illustrates this by taking characters from the book of Esther and showing how they gave in to, or denied their Shadow Mission. King Xerxes, he points out, was consumed by wealth and power; Haman by prestige and praise. Esther, on the other hand, denied her Shadow Mission - her ability to live the good life, a life of security - in favour of taking up her mission to free the Jewish people from the bounty on their collective heads. All this even though, as Mordechai says in Esther 4:14: "if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise form another place, but you and your father's family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?"
The second piece that I drew on was based on Peter Block's "The Answer to How is Yes". I spoke about how asking How? prior to Why? can paralyze us into thinking that the answer is somewhere 'out there' and not among us. It is important that we define what we value before we decide how we're going to get there.
Third, I presented a few highlights (and perhaps lowlights) from the Canadian Cardus Study. My point in doing this was to ask the question 'what is it that we value'. Implicit in this question is the belief that the results of the Cardus Study don't show us what the value of the Christian is, they either affirm or negate our value claims about Christian education. If they affirm, fantastic. If they don't, what do we do with the results?
I've shared my presentation below for information purposes. It was a good presentation and though-provoking, both for myself and for those that I serve.
If you're anything like me, you grew up with a conception (or misconception) of what exactly creates talent. Much of my early belief about talent centred on the idea that there were specific individuals who were granted a God-given gift in a specialized act. Evidence of this belief manifested itself especially well in athletes like Michael Jordan, Donovan Bailey, and my own personal favourite Tiger Woods. These athletes all supposedly had this certain je ne sais quoi that other normal people just did not have.
I remember hearing a sermon when I was in university where the minister spoke about the futility of trying to hone gifts outside of our God-given talents. What I most remember, though, was the opposition that this ignited in the non-Christian acquaintance that I spoke with about the sermon. She couldn't believe someone would question the supposed fact that, as humans, we can do anything we put our mind to. During my university years, I was given one other piece of evidence that would concretize the 'God-given' talent theory. It was in Kenisiology 101 where I first heard of fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscles; some people, it turns out, would never be Olympian 100m champions no matter how hard they tried.
Two books recently piqued my interest about talent. One is a management manual, the other a sort of talent-myth exposé. In Buckingham's "First, Break all the Rules", the author argues that for employees to be successful in the workplace, and ultimately for managers to succeed, it must be recognized that there are roles that fit an employees 'filter' and those that don't. He defines talent as "a recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behaviour that can be productively applied". When it comes to excellence, he claims that "the key to excellent performance is finding the match between your talents and your role", and further that "excellence is impossible without talent". Here he seems to be echoing my early belief that there are innate talents, or at least innate 'filters' that provoke us to certain actions over others. Because they are innately interesting and enjoyable for us to act on, we will flourish by honing them.
Syed, in "Bounce" chooses a different argument. He claims that it is ultimately nurture and not nature that causes certain individuals to succeed in specific acts where others do not. Coining the "Myth of Meritocracy", he states that "practically every man or woman who triumphs against the odds is, on closer inspection, a beneficiary of unusual circumstances", and that "it is practice, not talent that ultimately matters". What makes Syed's argument so convincing is story after story about how exceptional people became just that. In all cases, these exceptional people had received innumerable circumstances to practice and hone a certain skill which the majority of people would never have had. Those who have read Gladwell's "Outliers" will be familiar with a similar argument in the 10,000 hours rule of practice.
It seems to me that both arguments have merit. However, I know from having numerous conversations with many different people over the last few months, that this is a very contentious issue. And rightly so - we all have a view of how we came to be who we are with what talents we believe we have, and a view of how other people have come to be who they are with the talents they exhibit. The issue to me lies in the fact that our philosophical stance here will effect how we treat other people. For example, in a classroom our belief about talent and how students develop talent will effect how we view the student and what pedagogical instruments we employ. Similarly as leaders, the stance that we take about talent will affect how we help (or don't help) our employees and colleagues develop.
My belief hasn't changed that God has created us uniquely and gifts us uniquely. What has changed for me is my understanding of whether or not these gifts are static. Perhaps, depending on the opportunities our parents gave, the methods our teachers have used to teach, and the manner in which our employer regards us all have significant bearing on our formation. Perhaps very different talents may have blossomed through different manifestations of the above scenarios. Really, it's a hypothetical question. However, how we as teachers and leaders serve directly effects those who we serve.
Buckingham, Marcus, and Curt Coffman.First, break all the rules: what the world's greatest managers do differently. New York, NY.: Simon & Schuster, 1999.
Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: the story of success. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2008.
Syed, Matthew. Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success. New York: Harper, 2010.
In an earlier post, I wrote about Peter Block's "The Answer to How is Yes". Towards the end of the book, he presents a picture of the leader as a Social Architect, which I think is worth an exploration here. His leadership metaphor is one that I resonate with as I've done some writing about the philosophy of intersubjectivity and its role in the development of leaders. You can find a copy of a paper I wrote on this topic here if you're even remotely interested.
Before Block outlines his framework for the Social Architect leader, he juxtaposes his idea with the archetype of the leader as either an Engineer, an Economist, or an Artist. It should be prefaced that Block doesn't claim these to be archetypes independent of each other or that all leadership styles fit within these categories. Rather, he will eventually argue that in the Social Architect archetype the ideal leader is one where each of the following are integrated. The first three archetypes:
After giving a sketch of the first three, Block provides a snapshot of an archetype that he thinks integrates all three; the Architect. The Architect, he says, "cares as much about the beauty of things as their more practical properties and how to make them work". (165) This archetype is appropriate, he says, because the Architect must embody the roles of the Engineer, Economist, and Artist to be effective in his/her work. However, because the Architect's role is not primarily in working with people, he suggests that the archetype be taken one step further which results in the Social Architect.
The role of the Social Architect is "to design and bring into being organizations that serve both the marketplace and the soul of the people who work within them" (171) Personally, I love the Social Architect metaphor because of the distinction that the leader has a dual role - both marketplace and employees. While I think perhaps that both are essentially the same in that leaders serve people no matter whether they are customers or employees, I think that the idea that both matter is often missed in books about leadership. Many leadership and management books in recent years tend to focus on the climate and culture that the leader must build within an organization with the implicit assumption that when such a climate or culture is created, customers will follow. Or, books on marketing tend to deal primarily with customer service while ignoring the impact of employee-employer relations in fostering a good customer relations schema.
Block's point comes back to his original assertion that the context is more important than the content - or more accurately, that the context must come before the content. He says in this regard that "the social architect's task is to provide a context for the organization's purpose or strategy, and then engage others in a way that embodies those values in people's hearts." (175) Although he is talking in this passage about creating 'space for what matters', I think that this encapsulates the enormous task of the leader: to engage in, and provide opportunities for meaning-making, instead of defining the meaning. The danger that each of us in leadership positions faces is to take the easy-in-the-short-term road and mandate policies and procedures that define the vision and mission. A colleague recently gave me the advice that I should "make the decision that will be easier in the long run". Of course, this means that it will be harder in the immediate. What Block is suggesting in his Social Architect framework will not be easier today, but I believe that the principles presented will help to foster a workplace that honours people, which is ultimately the task of employers and leaders in all varieties of organizations.
Block, Peter. The answer to how is yes: acting on what matters. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2002.
I am an educator and a