Identifying “take-aways for life:” using Essential Questions to nurture faith

If one accepts the idea that our main focus in Christian education needs to be nurturing student faith in the educational context, then it is vitally important that we engage students with questions that 1) cause students to stop dead in their tracks with intrigue, and 2) cause the students to deal with a Biblical perspective on issues of life. This is easier said than done! How can we develop such questions?

If I want to drive to a destination, I put into my Google Maps the destination I am hoping to arrive at – beginning with the end in mind. So, we first must ask the question: What kind of students do we seek to produce? My answer to this question is: “A flourishing student!”  and that is why I have been trying to spell out what that means in the series of blog posts that I have been writing in this space on the idea of a flourishing student (list of blog post dates).

If we accept Wolterstorff’s definition of flourishing as being in harmony with God, neighbor, creation, and self then we can begin to see how we must shape the questions we ask in our curriculum and what conceptual qualities they must possess. Our curriculum outcomes must deal with God, neighbor, creation, and self. The things we are trying to do in our teaching relate to one of these four areas. I see the connections as follows:

Curriculum flourishing connections copy

  • Creation and wonder – this is where we begin as learners and we should never lose it! We wonder about the micro and macro aspects of creation and the magnificent design behind it all. To whom should we give the praise and glory? We continue to wonder about creation’s mysteries that we learn have not been unlocked and are intrigued by the wonder and beauty of creation as we seek to live in harmony with it and learn how to use it well. Example questions in science class: Why are trees important to God’s creation? How does the structure of a DNA molecule exemplify order and creation?
  • God/Christ and knowledge and wisdom – all knowledge and truth exists because Christ brought it into existence and continues to hold it together. This is why we marvel at gravity and 2+2=4 and how our bodies work. So our essential questions can be pretty straightforward and need not be simply “God questions” that are painfully superficial, but should include a discussion of a God-centered starting point and a worship ending point. In non-Christian schools, knowledge is presented as if it can stand on its own, or praise is ascribed to man without any reference to a Divine Creator – this is a huge difference. We need to ask our students to apply knowledge in areas of study toward questions of discernment as informed by Biblical perspectives. Example question in math class: Do you think there is such a thing as ‘chance’?  Why or why not? Example question in social studies: Is capitalism in America successful?  Why or why not?
  • Neighbor and compassion – a Christian school should motivate students toward a desire to serve and make a difference in the world. It should produce true empathy as students understand people and situations in the world, and should inspire a compassionate response out of love for other people God has created. The student understands that each person is loved and cherished by God, having been made in his image. The student understands then that life is not just about themselves, but that they have a global responsibility to respond to the needs of our world. There may not be easy answers to questions that juxtapose two competing interests and Christians may disagree about the best ways to respond. Example question in social studies: As a Christian, what is the difference between needs and wants? Example question in English: Does having a shared experience make a person better able to provide true comfort?
  • Self and image-bearing/gifts – how can one be in harmony with one’s self? Harmony with one’s self might mean acceptance of how God has created you – your physical, mental, emotional, spiritual self and an ever increasing understanding through the years of how he has gifted you, wired you, and what makes you “tick.” It also means that you take seriously care of your body as a temple of the Holy Spirit: you eat well, sleep well, exercise well, develop positive habits, virtues, and a generous and gracious spirit. As you grow in Christ, you more and more are able to let the light of Christ shine through you, and to truly bring joy and hope into the world, into the lives of others. Example question in music: Why do we respond to God with music? Example question in art: How can art be used to redeem culture?

This model may help us in our thinking about producing effective “take-away” Essential Questions. As we engage students with questions and help them construct good questions, we may find these categories helpful as a way to balance areas of focus within a classroom setting.

Dan Beerens is a K-12 educational consultant and international speaker specializing in curriculum mapping and design, school improvement, teacher supervision and evaluation, and staff development. He is the author of “Evaluating Teachers for Professional Growth: Creating a Culture of Motivation and Learning” published by Corwin Press.

Posted in Biblical worldview, curriculum, discernment, distinctively Christian, image of God, student outcomes
One comment on “Identifying “take-aways for life:” using Essential Questions to nurture faith
  1. Shirley VanBaak Martinus says:

    I’m trying to think where I saw a musing on this topic…. the 12 blog? It emphasized the importance of coming up with essential questions WITH the students, as the lesson progressed. The questions did not always turn out to be what the teacher thought they would, while planning the lesson ahead of time. Which made a lot of sense to me, especially remembering the very difficult time we teachers had when trying to come up with essential questions. I mean, outside of the fact that most teachers I knew, excellent as they were, did not think abstractly and analytically enough to be able to think of essential questions on their own…. a good job for CSI people from specific curriculum areas (or you?) to handle… or maybe with a group of truly able people meeting in the summer, to list some examples for various disciplines and units and lessons. I remember Bill being particularly adept at this, and used questions for each of his history units, years and years ago already, long before the concept of “essential questions” ever came up… he had a question for every single unit of his secular history book, turning every study into a faith exercise. Wonder if he still has those somewhere…. Or maybe we need to be sharing questions that students come up with in our classes? Where is the contact point for all these Christian school teachers to share these things? I wonder whether HC is still using that web-based curriculum-writing program… that was a full-time job in itself and severely detracted from actual teaching. I wish people skilled in those areas would share their knowledge and thoughts — the way you do! — so others can concentrate more on the teaching and nurturing aspects of the Art of teaching. Not all are equally gifted at this “meta-teaching” and that should be recognized, rather than required of every person in the field. Requiring the same degree abstraction from everyone diminishes other gifts and abilities God has given to various people….

    OK, that’s what happens when your post comes in while I’m still waking up and finishing my morning coffee… don’t even dare re-read this before sending 😉 Blessings!

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