What issues loom largest along the horizon of problems confronting Christian education today? To answer this question, I have polled 53 nationally-known specialists in the field, and have asked them to list and comment on one or two issues which deserve serious consideration and resolution during the 1960’s. Issues which the respondents consider most critical cluster about the following subjects:
1. Vitalization and application of the Christian message in the daily lives of those who have accepted Christ as Saviour.
2. Selection of curriculum content that creates greatest behavioral effect at specific developmental and age levels.
3. Recruitment of able, basically-qualified teachers.
4. In-service growth of teachers in both instructional competence and spiritual discernment.
The first two subjects relate to students; the third and fourth, to teachers. The first, second, and fourth subjects deal with learning; the third, with recruitment of teachers. All of them concern the characteristics and development of human beings. Perhaps we should expect Christian educators to prefer subjects that affect people rather than intellectual concepts and teaching materials. People, after all, are the most difficult, conflictive, and complex creatures in the Christian educator’s environment.
The four subjects may be appreciated all the more when they are seen as belonging to a larger constellation of subjects from which critical issues may be formulated. In the summer of 1959, 200 religious educators and social science consultants identified 16 major subjects for research in religious education (Herman E. Wornom, Editor, Highlights of Recommendations for Research, New York, The Religious Education Association, 1959, passim). Some of the subjects were almost identical with those which I have listed above. Others had to do, for instance, with the relation of religion and culture, the family’s influence on religion, the nature and influence of church and synagogue as educational institutions, the mass media, and materials used in religious education. It appears that the respondents to my questions identified those subjects which lie at the very center of the educational process. Methods, materials, and philosophical concepts are necessary and helpful, but the key question is, “What do we know about the persons with whom we must work?”
KNOWING THE STUDENTS
With special reference to knowing students, the respondents identified these issues:
1. How can we make certain that scriptural content gets into the nervous systems of students so that their daily behavior is favorably affected?
2. What can we do to teach Christian ethics more effectively?
3. What can we do to integrate all subject matter and, in fact, the entire program of Christian education with a world view centered in God through Christ?
4. How can we “capture the correct psychological moments” for mastery of certain scriptural and biblically-related content?
5. What difference do age and developmental level make with respect to the content we attempt to teach?
6. How can we treat students on a more individualized basis according to their developmental levels, degrees of skepticism, and other appropriate criteria?
7. What are the “spiritual characteristics” of children at various ages?
With reference to knowing teachers, the respondents asked:
1. What can we do to provide teachers who are well trained and competent and, at the same time, committed Christians?
2. How can we get adults in our churches to assume the true responsibilities of Christian laymen?
3. What kinds of persons should be invited to become Christian teachers?
4. How can we prepare teachers to use the materials and methods available today for more effective teaching of the Bible?
5. What should be the church’s program for recruiting and training Christian education leaders?
6. How can we get a sound philosophy of Christian education (two words: Christian, education) operating?
7. How can the local church train laymen to teach for results in the lives of students?
AGE AND CONTENT
Resolution of issues like these can proceed from two major sources: basic understanding, derived from the Scriptures, about the nature of human beings and about man’s relationship to man; and learnings from the secular world about the growth, development, potential, and education of persons of various age levels. Inasmuch as I cannot deal in this article with all the issues already mentioned, I shall highlight two of them. My first selection, referring to students, is, “What difference do age and developmental level make with respect to the content we attempt to teach?”
To deal with this issue, one should review some of the better-known facts about learning. Learning involves doing, reacting, experiencing. Every learner has a goal or purpose. Learning is motivated, as it proceeds, by its incompleteness, and the learner persists if he sees the objectives of the learning as being worth while. Both the process and the results of learning differ for individual students. Specifically, students differ in their readiness to learn given content, but there are now some rough norms of readiness which are based primarily on the developmental characteristics and needs of the learners themselves. Learning includes so much more than rote memorization of facts; for instance, it involves value clarification, attitude formation and change, structuring of generalizations, development of deep meanings, acquisition of skills, implanting of new appreciations. In the total complex of the learning act, learners take unto themselves those learnings they are able, willing, and ready to accept.
THE DEVELOPMENTAL LEVEL
Consideration of the preceding paragraph suggests that learning should be attuned to the developmental level at which we find the student. Concomitants of the student’s developmental level are factors like his age, his native capacity, and his readiness to learn the subject matter we specify. Consider Herbert, a 16-year-old, eleventh-grade boy in a Sunday School class at Branchville Evangelical Church. What sort of creature is Herbert likely to be? He’s probably restless. Yes, he’s begun to notice girls—in fact, he’s been watching them surreptitiously for several years. He’d like to know more about boy-girl relationships. He clings to his peer group, even when adults oppose what his group stands for. He probably respects deeply both his parents and his Sunday School teacher. In an emergency, of course, he’d turn toward the value system to which his parents adhere. Herbert’s eye is on the future. Mainly, he thinks about his occupation in the years to come, because he believes the right occupation can provide him with what he really wants in this world: marriage, prestige, happiness. Beneath all of his long, long thoughts about himself and his career, Herbert wonders what life is about: “What sort of person is God? How can I please him? What do I owe him for his goodness to me?”
This, in part, is where Herbert stands in human development. We can find out much more about him, but if we know even this much, we have several clues to the subject matter we should try to teach him. Some of these clues are as follows:
1. Herbert respects people who have been successful, and the Bible is literally filled with illustrations of successful people. He is ready to learn why they have been successful.
2. He is ready to receive help from adults, as well as from his friends, in resolving some of the deeper issues of life: why he is here, and what his own life can mean to others, including his Creator. He’s ready to discuss his future, and to listen as other persons talk about the purposes of human existence.
3. Herbert can comprehend many lessons from the New Testament. When he hears what St. Paul says about family relationships, he’s interested in exploring its full meaning.
4. “How does God guide a fellow’s destiny?” Herbert asks. He wants to know what happened to Jonah, to Samson, to Peter, to Paul. Comparative biographies of the heroes of the Scriptures help him see what divine Providence can mean as it appears in Romans 8:28.
5. Herbert is learning in so many ways. One can almost see his attitudes change, his appreciations broaden, and his meanings deepen. Herbert’s time of life is an exciting one, to be dulled only by drab teachers who don’t know Herbert and consequently don’t know what to teach him.
Because both Herbert and the Bible are fascinating, they should be brought together. Herbert is ready to understand selected portions of Scripture that would have been meaningless to him two years ago. While he and the other boys in his class differ in many ways, they have certain common needs and interests. If we know these needs and interests, and also the Book we teach, we can turn even the instructionally poorest lesson material into exciting content.
RECRUITING GOOD TEACHERS
The second issue which I have chosen to discuss concerns selection of maximally effective teachers. Christian educators, like educators generally, need reliable bases for recruiting the best teachers they can find. Cues to teacher effectiveness have begun only recently to appear in the research. Though these cues are merely suggestions of fuller understandings to come, they should prove especially interesting to persons in the field of Christian Education:
1. What a teacher is, what he stands for and believes in, is very significant to his general effectiveness.
2. The effective teacher likes other people and tends to think well of them. He is outdoing, self-initiating, and ambitious (David G. Ryans, Characteristics of Teachers, Washington, D. C., American Council on Education, 1960).
3. The effective teacher sets high standards for himself, but in his relationship with his students, he seeks to be helpful rather than unduly exacting. He is amenable to desirable change in the organization in which he serves, and in the methods he uses in his work (information taken from unpublished data gathered recently by the following researchers: Washburne at Brooklyn College, Coolan and Dipboye at Syracuse University, and Doll and Macdonald at New York University).
4. Finally, the effective teacher rates above average in general intelligence, insight into educational problems, and understanding of learners and their needs.
SIGNS OF INEFFECTIVENESS
The significance of these characteristics soon becomes evident when one sees a person who lacks them. Consider Lucy Smathers, who taught Herbert in Sunday School when he was an eighth-grader. Lucy has never cared much for people, and doesn’t mind saying so. She is withdrawn, lackadaisical, and unambitious. Her manner seems to say, “I couldn’t care less.” Lucy is the Sunday School superintendent’s special problem: often tardy, regularly late in sending the offering and the attendance records to the office, and apparently insensitive to the little interest her students manifest in learning. Though she demands much of her students, she makes little effort to improve herself and her practices. Lucy seems to be below average in mental ability, and she has little understanding of the educational process or of the students whom she is expected to teach.
With this antithesis as a background, the reader should note that desirable teacher characteristics may be found among many persons in the secular world. However, when the characteristics I have listed are discovered in genuine Christians, they are reinforced by inner resources which only the Christian can comprehend. Hence, a Christian educator should ask concerning a prospective teacher: “What is her spiritual standing and stature?” and “How does she rate with respect to other characteristics which appear to make her an effective teacher?” Given a teacher of sterling personal worth in both of these respects, the specialist in Christian education can then proceed to help the teacher grow in service.
I believe it is no accident that Christian educators think first of the human resources—both students and teachers—with whom they work. Precious souls are at the core of their enterprise. For this reason, most of the issues concerning curriculum, methods, materials, and personal roles are likely to be resolved with direct reference to human beings, who have within themselves varied spiritual needs and varied potentialities for learning.
Samuel M. Shoemaker is the author of a number of popular books and the gifted Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. He is known for his effective leadership of laymen and his deeply spiritual approach to all vital issues.
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