Saturday, January 23, 2010

Thinking About Primary vs. Secondary Curriculum

Bible teachers can gain important insights from the long history of public education. Education is by definition an inefficient process, because we're humans not machines.

The public schools here in the US were set up as Primary education (usually grades 1-6) and Secondary education (usually grades 7-12). Although things have shifted over the years, the basic idea was this:

Primary education was helping children learn the basics of reading, writing, math, history, science. There are very clear fundamentals we need children to absorb from a teacher and for basic understand and foundational skills.

Secondary education was designed to help young adults build on those basics. There is an increasing measure of analysis and application, more abstract thinking, more dialogue-based learning.

Let me illustrate the difference, to make sure you understand the distinctions.
Consider Math. Primary education begins with the basics of numbers, how they represent real objects, memorizing (yes, memorizing!) multiplication tables, simple addition, subtraction, and division. We cannot introduce abstract math (algebra, trigonometry, calculus) until these fundamentals are in place.

Consider Reading. Primary education begins with the alphabet and phonics. We gradually build vocabulary. We tackle short stories and simple books. We aim for fundamental comprehension. We're not asking young children to read Shakespeare and analyze the metaphors.

The word educate comes to English from Latin. It literally means "to draw out." In a secondary education setting, you can truly work at educating, because there is a fundamental collection of knowledge and skills to work with. You can't really think about educating 6 year olds only be drawing out what they know. Their learning is much more about pouring into them than drawing out of them!

Also, let's take into account how teaching adults is different than teaching children - there are different learning styles, especially with abstract thoughts. Young children simply aren't capable of abstract thinking the way youth and adults are. Every human has a powerful imagination, but how we use that in teaching depends on whether we're teaching young children or adults.

If you're teaching from a Bible story, for example, we encourage young children to use their imagination to understand a Bible story as it is. With youth and adults, we still do that, but we also go beyond and encourage them in think more abstractly about the story - inserting themselves into the story, thinking about contemporary parallels, considering the implications and personal application of that story.

Now let's apply this to teaching the Bible to change lives.

Children and new believers of any age need a foundation of facts and story to operate with - that's primary education in the Christian faith. This may take several years to accomplish! There is a strong tradition of catechism to help order this work and keep it consistent across generations.

We're not satisfied to leave people there. Disciples know the fundamental stories and facts of theology, and how to use them (including how to share them with others). Disciples can apply the Word to everyday life, and help others do so. Thus we need secondary education approaches. This is our ongoing education approach, because we never truly finish this education. God continues to work in us and through us.

There are two pitfalls I have observed in churches. The first pitfall is not having a strong enough view of primary education for children and new believers of any age. The second is to continue to use primary education approaches to teaching youth and adults who already have the fundamentals. A strong secondary education approach creates stronger adult disciples.

As you think about the people God has called you to teach, consider whether you are in a primary education or secondary education situation. Teach accordingly, and you're much more likely to teach to change lives.

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