by Jims | October 1st, 2009
Biblical Thinking: Educating Children God’s Way
James L. Smyrl, Ph.D.
Designing a plan that fulfills the purpose of education is a task that the pastor must carefully investigate. Several challenges arise as one considers the primacy of educating children. This essay does not delve into the area of formal school education, but we can learn much from three primary principles that are considered in choosing a school. Often, when considering schools, parents make choices on one of three principles. First, parents may look at the “product” principle that establishes the goal of training the mind in order for their child to become a candidate for an Ivy League school. Second, parents may look at the “price” principle, where the cost of the education takes primacy over the substance of the education. This choice sometimes occurs when parents desire to remove their child from the “sinful conditions” of the public school’s humanistic teachings and amoral principles. Third, parents may look at the “process” principle in which the process of education is fundamental to their choice. Parents who place primacy on the “process” are most concerned with producing a child that is systematically formed in the image of Christ. It is this purpose of process that serves as the pastor’s guide by which he trains parents to think about the purpose of education.
In 1956 Benjamin Bloom led a group of educational psychologists to develop a classification system of learning levels in order to measure the value of questions used in educational settings. The goal of this project was to divide learning objectives, which were used in public education, into categories that identify behavior from the simplest to the most complex. After an intense survey of questions used in student exams, Bloom discovered that 95% of the test questions required students to think no higher than his lowest classified level of learning. Bloom defined knowledge as the remembering of previously learned material. He included in this level of learning and behavior the goals to: know common terms, know specific facts, know methods and procedures, know basic concepts, and know principles. The basic educational value of the knowledge level is the ability to recall memorized information. Bloom does not diminish this level of education, but prioritizes it as the foundation of all learning.
The biblical foundations of the learning process provide a plan, which enables parents to begin their effort with both the process and outcome in mind. One should underscore the previous use of the word “effort” in formulating a plan for educating one’s child. It is not an easy task to which parents are assigned. Hirsch notes, “Children’s readiness for secondary processes is not a matter of natural development but of prior relevant learning. Learning builds on learning” (Hirsch 223). A child’s ability to learn is both natural and conditioned. Children have a natural ability to learn that enables them to establish some primary foundations of information assessment, but secondary learning such as reading and all the way to cognition must be taught. This process is not natural, but often takes great effort and focused discipline on the part of the student as well as the parent.
Many of the educational plans for training children in the local church never address the fundamental role of the parent in the formation of children. The biblical mandates are clear in delineating the responsibility of forming the child to the parent. One of the most foundational passages on this subject is Deuteronomy 6:6-7 which states, “And these words which I have commanded you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by they way, when you lie down, and when you rise up” (NKJV). Eugene Merrill notes that the idiom “in your heart” makes clear that they were to commit the commandments to memory (Merrill, 167). Merrill states that the heart in Old Testament psychology was “the seat of the intellect or rational side of humankind. To ‘be upon the heart’ is to be in one’s constant, conscious reflection” (167). The process by which the commandments were to be memorized included impressing them upon the children, discussing them in repetition throughout the day, and placing them in prominent places so that they were never far from sight. This process is the first step in educating children. It is the step of disseminating information, but it is not to the exclusion of cognition.
Memorization was not the ultimate goal. As with other verses emphasizing memory, this verse does not compartmentalize memorization, but rather includes it in a cognitive process of understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. Keil and Delitzsch note, “The commandments of God were to be an affair of the heart, and not merely of the memory (324). Immediately following the directive to memorize is the plan in which one is to employ the knowledge acquired. Moses was preparing the children of Israel to occupy Canaan. In Deuteronomy 6:12 he implores them not to forget the Lord who delivered them. In 6:13 he applies the memorized commandments to a future time when the memory would be acted upon as a prohibition against following other gods. In 6:18 he commands that they should do what is right in the sight of the Lord, which could only be known by the memorization of the commandments. The process of memorizing the commandments was not necessarily for immediate implementation, but rather for the purpose of developing a reservoir of knowledge, which would serve as a guide for future decisions.
Psalm 1:2 states, “And in His law he meditates day and night” (NKJV). Meditation is another method of education that the pastor must encourage parents to implement in the home. Referring to the blessed man in Psalm 1, Charles Spurgeon states, “He takes a text and carries it with him all day long (2). There is intentionality of the blessed man to commit the Word of God to memory. Keil and Delitzsch note this meditation is like “a deep, dull sound, as if vibrating between within and without, here signifies the quiet soliloquy of one who is searching and thinking (84). The impression from the psalmist is of one who is memorizing for the purpose of understanding and applying. As with Bloom’s revised taxonomy, the goal of memorization in Scripture was more than just ascertaining information, but rather to establish a reservoir from which future actions would be determined. It is this reservoir of information that serves as the starting point, by which the parent forms a valid philosophy of education.
Two primary guidelines comprise the pastor’s role in training parents to think about and employ the biblical basis for education. First, he must establish the biblical basis of education in the home from the pulpit. This task may be accomplished through a series of sermons that expose the key passages, like those mentioned above, relating to education. Within the sermon series the pastor should provide practical guidelines in order to assist parents in implementing an educational system in the home. The pastor must guard against promoting a style of education such as home-school or Christian school, and concentrate more on the process of education that produces children that are able to assimilate information in a way that they can identify, reason, and implement courses of action. Granted, this assimilation process is difficult if a child is placed in a public school. Wilson, reflecting on the Deuteronomy 6 passage, notes, “All of life is under the authority of God’s revealed Word, and children were to be taught in terms of this comprehensive authority all the time” (94). In order for children to live in such an educational environment, the environment must be saturated with Scripture. This educational process establishes the goal of presenting each child complete in Christ.
Classical components of education, which are necessary for the pastor to articulate from the pulpit, are clearly visible in the polemic of Deuteronomy 6. The components of the trivium include grammar, logic, and rhetoric (Wilson, Callihan, and Jones 27). In the grammar stage, the student learns the facts, thus committing information to memory as noted in Deuteronomy. The logic stage trains the child to examine the relationships that exist between the bits of previously learned information. The logic stage is the process described in Deuteronomy 6 that causes one to assimilate the information in order to reason out a course of action. Once the first two stages are established in the student, although in an elementary manner at first, students learn to express the cognitive process in an articulate, well reasoned fashion. II Timothy 2:2 is a fundamental passage in this guideline of producing students that can properly use rhetorical devices in their discourse.
The second guideline for the pastor’s role in training parents to have a biblical foundation of education is accomplished through the Sunday School class. The adult Sunday School class is a natural environment to create a lab in which parents can see the trivium at work. It may take some time for parents to adjust to a true learning environment, but it will allow them to grasp a strategy for training their children. The leader of the class should choose a passage and teach the facts of the text. Once the parents have a basic concept of the text’s “grammar,” the teacher leads in a “logic” discussion about the text. Several questions could be asked to aid in this process: what situation might one find himself in that the principles of this text need be employed; what in this text contradicts an ethical choice you have had to make; how does this text address a recent political decision; where might you find yourself in need of implementing the mandates of this text. Questions such as these stimulate the reasoning process in which the parent begins to make the connection between the “grammar” and the implementation thereof. The teacher will then ask parents to articulate the mandates of the text as they apply to a specific situation in one’s community. This rhetorical phase completes the trivium. Veith notes, “Every academic discipline requires mastery of the trivium” (12). It is this threefold system of learning that fulfills the mandate of Deuteronomy 6.
Once parents hear the principles from the pulpit and participate in the trivium learning process in the Sunday School lab, they are equipped to implement the strategy in the home. They must first establish the goals for their child’s education (note the principles of education above). If they desire to engage in the process that produces children who are formed in the image of Christ, they have the modeled plan for fulfilling such a desire. In order to build a bridge from their Sunday School lab to their home, two strategies must be employed. First, they must establish a pattern for learning. Much of what is encouraged today in training children is compartmentalized into “family devotion times.” The time for family devotions according to Deuteronomy 6 is all the time. Through the pastor’s sermonic guidance, parents will know that training children is fundamentally about creating a lab environment in the home in which the trivium is constantly in action. This environment will include regular conversations that lead the children to make choices based on their knowledge of Scripture. As the family is in the car, parents may ask questions that cause the children to consider what the Bible says before responding. If crises great or small arise, children must see their parents responding with a clear mandate from Scripture. It is in these stressful times that parents should ask the child to articulate a biblical principle that will aid the family in meeting the challenge.
This lifestyle education does not negate appointing times in which a formal educational setting is implemented. Priolo notes that the environment of biblical training is a constant in his home, but that there are times of specific “family time” when the Bible is the source of correction, instruction, problem solving, and continual training (19). It is in these formal times that the trivium’s effectiveness in our children’s lives is measured. A controlled lab environment is possible during these times, much like that of the parent’s Sunday School lab. Parents can begin by asking their children to quote Scripture verses. Once a manageable verse list is compiled, the parents can move to the logical phase of the trivium. Ask questions such as: what situation might you find yourself in on the playground where verse one would have to be used; when might you need to obey verse two; what would obeying verse three cause you to change in your actions and attitudes today? These questions stimulate the reasoning ability of children, thus allowing them to increase in their logic skills. Finally, as a part of the formal family time, parents may ask their children to explain how each of the verses could be used as a plan for discipline in the home. The children would be asked to respond to specific disciplinary problems and address them with the principles of Scripture.
This pattern of environmental education and formal training is most evident in the teaching style of Jesus. There was always an environment of instruction and implementation of the Word as is seen in Matthew 12:1-8. Jesus also conducted specific times of formal training such as the Sermon on the Mount. This pattern of education can be modeled by the pastor as he always gives an answer that is clearly from the Word of God. It is wise in counseling situations for the pastor to ask himself, “What does the text say about this situation?” so that both in the pulpit and in private conversation the pastor demonstrates the use of the trivium, thus always creating an environment of learning.
Dangers exist when an encouragement to memorize and merely hear the Scripture is not initiated with a polemic in favor of utilizing the information, either immediately or at a later time, as is the example in the Scripture passages noted above. The reason for the revision of Bloom’s original taxonomy (it was too compartmentalized and did not allow for students to employ the cognitive process) serves as a warning to the preacher who boldly preaches the Scripture, but provides no opportunity for his people to employ the cognitive process of understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. The fundamental danger is a perceived spirituality based on knowledge but one that lacks an altered lifestyle resulting from such knowledge. This model will follow into the home if parents are not trained to develop a pattern of education that forms the whole person into the image of Christ. Kenneth MacFarland states, “What is in the well of your heart will show up in the bucket of your speech (49). He is right only if there is intentionality from the pulpit to the living room in developing a system of training that immerses the hearer into the trivium of education.
Bloom, Benjamin S., ed. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. New York: David McKay, 1956.
Hirsch, E. D. The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them. New York: Random, 1996.
Keil, C.F. and F. Delitzsch. Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980.
MacFarland, Kenneth. Eloquence in the Pulpit. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1961.
Merrill, Eugene H. The New American Commentary: Deuteronomy. Nashville: Broadman, 1994.
Priolo, Lou. Teach Them Diligently. Woodruff: Timeless Texts, 2000.
Veith, Gene Edward. Classical Education: Towards the Revival of American Schooling. Capital Research Center, 1997.
Wilson, Douglas, Wesley Callihan, and Douglas Jones. Classical Education: The Home School. Moscow: Canon, 1995.
Wilson, Douglas. Standing on the Promises. Moscow: Canon, 1997.