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Teaching for Transformation – See the Story, live the Story

The hand of the Grade Four student jetted up in response to the question. “No bells,” he declared, “No bells!” The teacher was talking with her students about how the Teaching for Transformation (TfT) program had impacted them.

Teaching for Transformation – See the Story, live the Story

A Grade Four "Green Team" manages the recycling program at Edmonton Northeast Christian School as they learn to be Earth Keepers.

Biblical Throughlines

•  God Worshipper
•  Idolatry Discerner
•  Earth Keeper
•  Beauty Creator
•  Justice Seeker
•  Creation Enjoyer
•  Servant Worker
•  Community Builder
•  Image Reflector
•  Order Discoverer

Find a livelink to more detail on each Throughline at goo.gl/QSjvu5.

“We are story-formed people. Our lives are first shaped by narrative, not by information. We don’t learn how to live the Christian life by memorizing facts, rules, precepts, morals, imports, exports, governments, and drains. . . . We begin to see our lives as part of a pattern within the larger story of redemption. We long to live a life worthy of that story” (Sarah Arthur in “Distinguishing Dragons: The Importance of Story in Faith Formation,” from Shaped by God, Robert J. Keeley).

The hand of the Grade Four student jetted up in response to the question. “No bells,” he declared, “No bells!” The teacher was talking with her students about how the Teaching for Transformation (TfT) program had impacted them. 

“No bells,” the student repeated. The three teachers looked at one another, confused, and then asked the student to share what he meant. He explained that there used to be a need for bells because there were classes for Math, Social Studies, Science, and other subjects, but now all of their subjects were about learning God’s story and their place in it. The subjects, the student explained, had become the tool to learn about God and his story. “We don’t need bells anymore because it’s all about God’s Story!” he concluded.

“No bells!” What deep revelation from a 10-year-old! This student is beginning to develop a way of seeing and living in the world that is consistent with Abraham Kuyper’s declaration that “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” All things thinking!

“All things belong to God! That is the biblical truth that must gently whisper and boldly resound in every part, every thread of our Christian school’s curriculum” (TfT Guidebook).

TfT believes that every unit and every learning experience will tell a story. The TfT program tries, using the story discovered in each unit of study, to create a powerful and compelling image of God’s story, to help each student to imagine his or her place in God’s story, and provide ample opportunity to practice “living” in the story. There is a high level of intentionality in the TfT program, through carefully chosen Core Practices and unique design tools, with the goal that each student will begin to create a personal “storyline” and articulate how they see themselves living in God’s epic drama. What a compelling story to be invited into!

The Teaching for Transformation Program, as developed by the Prairie Centre for Christian Education (PCCE), provides a framework for the development of authentic and integral Christian learning experiences that are grounded in a transformational worldview with a focus on seeing and living God’s story. The TfT program’s design practices and tools are being used by over 50 schools worldwide (Canada, United States, Africa and Central America) to develop powerful Christian school learning experiences.

While the TfT program contains many unique core design practices and tools, the following Core Practice is often identified as being a favourite of teachers and students.

 Formational Learning Experiences
“It is nothing but a pious wish and a grossly unwarranted hope that students trained to be passive and non-creative in school will suddenly, upon graduation, actively contribute to the formation of Christian culture” (Nicholas Wolterstorff).

Wolterstorff suggests, strongly, that students must be given the opportunity to do God’s work NOW – to be active and creative working in God’s story. Meaningful work creates a sense of purpose in their lives, and draws students more powerfully to God’s story. As the name suggests, Formational Learning Exper-iences are designed to form the students’ hearts and actions as well as their minds, equipping students to become people who live and breathe God’s story. Research and experience suggest that formational learning best emerges from experiences that get at our gut and touch our heart. James K. Smith writes in Desiring the Kingdom that “Education is not primarily . . . concerned with providing information, rather, education most fundamentally is a matter of formation, a task of shaping and creating a certain kind of people. These people are distinct because of what they love and desire – the kingdom of God.”

TfT teachers design formative learning experiences using the following two TfT design practices.

Biblical Throughlines
“The primary goal of Christian education is the formation of a peculiar people – a people who desire the kingdom of God and thus undertake their life’s expression of that desire” (James K. Smith).

What a complex challenge to imagine what it is to be a “peculiar” person in God’s story! TfT has identified 10 Biblical Throughlines to help us to imagine who we are as peculiar people. When we invite students to “actively contribute to the formation of Christian culture,” we need to challenge them to develop Kingdom-building characteristics. These Biblical characteristics help us all, teachers and students, to understand what our roles are, what our calling is. These Throughline characteristics weave through the Bible, and describe a calling to “be,” not simply to “do.” And what does God call us to “be?” He calls us to be Servant Workers, Justice Seekers, Earth Keepers, Community Builders. He calls us to be Creation Enjoyers, Idolatry Discerners, Order Discoverers, Beauty Creators. And in all of these he calls us to be God Worshippers and Image Reflectors.

Teachers use Throughlines to connect each unit’s learning outcomes to God’s story, as a type of “thematic Velcro,” carefully choosing, together with the students, one or two Throughlines they want to learn about as they explore the topic. This process shifts the learning focus away from “what” the student needs to know, to “who” the student is called to be. Interestingly, TfT teachers often find that the students absorb the “stuff” of the unit better because they have a meaningful context for the learning.

FLEx Activities
Students must be given the opportunity to do God’s work – real work that is authentic and connected, for a real audience that addresses a real need. It is through the regular practice of living in God’s story that students gain a passion for being “peculiar” people. Meaningful work creates a sense of purpose in their lives, and draws them more powerfully to God’s story.

So what does this look like in a classroom? Let’s take a peek at a unit called Waste in the World. The class has chosen to explore the Throughlines “Earth Keeper” and “Idolatry Discerner,” identifying key questions to explore for each of these that will guide their learning. As “Earth Keepers” they will ponder: Is all trash waste? Will our waste trash the world? Does God take out the garbage? As “Idolatry Discerners” they question: Why so much garbage? What story does our trash tell?

The class then explores the possibility for a FLEx by asking “How will we practice being Earth Keepers and Idolatry Discerners in this unit?” They identify that the state-prescribed learning outcomes on “packaging” practices will offer exciting opportunities for them to “FLEx” their Earth Keeping and Idolatry Discerning muscles! The students engage in very practical and hands-on learning activities – reading labels, measuring and weighing different types of packaging to compare and infer the relative advantages from both a consumer and environmental perspective. The students then turn their attention to a FLEx activity, where they will have the opportunity to create habits of “Earth Keeping” and “Idolatry Discerning.”

Students “FLEx” by using their newly acquired “packaging knowledge” to carry out a Packaging Audit for two households, including writing up an audit report for each, making recommendations for improvements, including education around the “Earth Keeper” and “Idolatry Discerner” Throughlines. As “Earth Keepers,” each student will write two letters – one to a company with good packaging practices, offering congratulations and encouragement to keep improving, and another to a company with poor packaging practices, offering suggestions and encouragement to improve.

Finally, students reflect on their FLEx experiences to gain a deeper understanding of their role in God’s story, answering questions like “Because of my FLEx experience, I am, . . .” “How can you continue your involvement with the issue of waste?” and “Has the experience affected your understanding of how God calls you to live? How?”

In his book Educating for Life: Reflections on Christian Teaching and Learning, Wolterstorff came to the conclusion that “the comprehensive goal of Christian education was not just a certain way of thinking but a certain way of being in the world, that its goal was not just to induct the student into a Christian understanding of the world but to lead the student in a Christian way of being in the world.” The challenge that the Teaching for Transformation model sets out for us is this: We need to direct our attention to the development of Formational Learning Experiences that emerge from a Story-based curriculum that will ensure that students are challenged to hear and accept God’s invitation AND to be equipped to play their role in God’s epic plan for our world. That’s what TfT is all about. “No more bells!”

About the Author
Teaching for Transformation – See the Story, live the Story

Doug Monsma

Doug Monsma is the Director of Learning at the Prairie Centre for Christian Education, located at The Kings University College in Edmonton, where he is responsible for the development and implementation of the Teaching for Transformation project. Prior to this, Doug served in many roles during a 25-year career at Edmonton Christian Schools. The common thread in all of these roles is a passionate desire to create learning experiences that are rich in Story, and that invite student to See The Story and to Live The Story. If you would like further information about the TfT program please contact Doug Monsma at dmonsma@pcce.ca.