What's in a Curriculum?

With all the pressures faced by Christian schools, too few grapple with the question of what a Christian school is all about. My local school has recently adopted the state’s educational guidelines as its own, is this good? What are some of the principles that can guide our development of curriculum?

What should a Christian school curriculum address? Though this is a generic question, a detailed answer cannot be generic because children are unique. Not only in gifting, but in calling. It is the role of parents and to a lesser degree teachers to discern with the child where they are headed and to help them get there. In classroom schools, the board, administration, teachers, and parent body all have input into the curriculum, but parents must choose the school setting with the appropriate curriculum for their child. Two caveats to this: 1) no one knows exactly where they or their child is headed (though as the child develops, the scope seems to narrow), and 2) in classroom settings (co-ops or Christian schools), curricula are less malleable to the individuality of the child.

With this said, I can only write with broad generalizations and will target areas of curricular focus rather than details of a curricula. As a beginning point (and homeschoolers are good at this), I believe it is necessary for Christian parents to “recapture” the education of their child. This means stepping back from traditional, popular, or faddish educational concepts to evaluate them in the light of reason and scripture. God doesn’t give us a precise curriculum, but He does give us principles and priorities to incorporate into a curriculum.

Here are some of my thoughts:
  • From Duet. 11:16-21, it is apparent that parents are ultimately responsible for their children’s education (though I believe some of teaching itself can be delegated as in a classroom setting). But most importantly, I believe the emphasis of this scripture is on time, scope, and relationship. To preserve the wisdom of God in the land and for the good of the child, things of God must be interwoven into the fabric of life.

  • Time: education in the wisdom and ways of God must not be haphazard or compartmentalized - ie. no part of it can be viewed as merely “secular” or irrelevant to Christian thought. If some things “appear” more secular, we must challenge one another to seek God for His heart and mind on the subject. Perhaps one of the greatest failures of many modern Christians has been to assume that Christian character, perspective, and knowledge can be satisfactorily nurtured apart from the education day. Surely, children may come to love God apart from the school day, but the course of our culture over the past century and a half shows that we are failing to preserve the ways of God within our culture, which is the focus of the above passage! Without the priority of time, the concerns of faith will not become the priorities of the child, and in turn, will die out in the culture. This is not to say children won’t love God, they just won’t develop as broad an understanding of God’s principles for healthy individual and social life - leaving the culture to degenerate under the perspective of mere human wisdom.
  • Scope: a Christian education is holistic. From an eternal Biblical (and reasonable) perspective, childhood education cannot be merely “academic”. Though we have grown to associate education with the “3 Rs”, these are merely a part of a curricular framework aimed at responsibly nurturing a child toward Christian adulthood. For example, reading, the first R, should not only address the knowledge and skills of reading, but it should consciously address the child’s character, their identity as valuable and loved participants in our literary world, the discerning of valuable vs. worthless writing, and an appreciation to God as the one who created us with the ability to read, write, create with words, learn from others, and communicate meaningfully over time and space. Reading “class” should help children to love God, appreciate His gift, equip them with greater skills to know God and love their neighbor, and give them a vision of God’s purpose for reading. Other curricular “classes” should be similarly broad.
  • Relationship: a Christian education cannot be conducted apart from committed relationships between teachers, students, and families! Why? Because the message of the gospel is one of relationship. Surely, we can teach our children knowledge, skills, theology in “non-relational” settings (and God can speak through these things), but He primarily builds His relationship with individuals through their relationships with parents and other members of the Body of Christ. God was incarnate - took on flesh and blood - so that we could see Him, feel His touch, receive His smile, and understand His pain filled expressions of love. He remains incarnate through his very imperfect Church. Few children conceive of God’s personal love apart from the love of others who bear His name. A “Christian education” that doesn’t reflect God’s love (whether in home or classroom settings) is more frequently counter the goals of faith rather than a support of them. While a few may grow to love God within relationally shallow settings, and a few others will dismiss Christianity as hypocritical, most will learn that Christianity is merely a set of moral and intellectual traditions that supplement their other life choices. Perhaps relationships are the biggest curricular challenge of classroom schools; it is difficult for teachers to meaningfully get to know their many students - let alone embrace the individualized concerns of parents. However, I believe if God is behind classroom schools, He has answers to the challenges they face.

Stepping back to get a broader perspective, we must face the reality that no school can teach everything. Therefore, each home and school must prioritize what they believe is most valuable for their children to learn. It seems obvious that reading, writing, math, science, history, and the arts must all be addressed as holistic opportunities, but I believe Christian schools must make greater efforts to individualize curricular opportunities for their diverse children both within classes (to meet the varying abilities of children) and between classes to meet the diverse gifts and callings of children. My 12 year old came home from school a few days ago and asked if he could “drop” a few courses at school so that he could resume piano lessons and pursue computer technology at a more advanced level than his school provides. I’m thinking, “Why not? This would improve his education.” Hopefully, his Christian school will be of the same mind.

Much is left unsaid, such as whether “classical” or “contemporary” education is more valuable, or whether classes should be practical or philosophic. However, rather than addressing these kind of particulars, I believe we need to return to the individuality of our children and the holistic nature of education. Both classical and contemporary education must have a goal of learning from the past and nurturing the whole child to maturity without neglecting cultural wisdom or contemporary realities. And though some children are most gifted in practical areas, every child needs an education that helps them grow according to their abilities to understand the ideas and values behind every practical undertaking and to have the skills to fulfill their role in those undertakings.

In closing, I would like to emphasize two concerns that I believe are too often neglected in the educational realm. One: Christian schools often neglect to illuminate the goodness of God that can be revealed by looking through the prism of each subject area. Two: Christians have generally minimized or lost a vision for the broader culture. Surely, Christians fight for particular laws or political perspectives, but few grasp the broader importance of our cultural commission to “disciple nations”. Yes, we disciple nations by winning individuals to Christ, but secondly, we shape every aspect of culture to reflect the goodness of God (which is a philosophically complicated endeavor within a pluralistic society). Cultural discipleship is important for two primary reasons - to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. God is illuminated to the world through cultures connected to His name; before reading the Bible or meeting a Christian, many frame their image of the Christian God by looking at what they assume to be a Christian culture. We love our selves and our neighbor when we humbly and reasonably shape our culture according to God’s wisdom in the arts, the economic realm, the government, education, the media, etc. Thus, when we merely prepare our children to be “good moral Christians” and to get a good job, we overlook much of the two greatest commandments.

After over a century of secular education, it is difficult to re-conceptualize a good “Christian curriculum.” Homeschoolers are attempting to do it on an individual level where the road is uncharted. However, it is more difficult for Christian schools that daily stand alongside and compete with a “free” secular education model. I pray that the body of Christ will “recapture” education and work
together out of a love for God and one another!
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