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Reformed Education
Celebrating Reformed Education (2)
AC Breen - published in Una Sancta Volume 55, Number 9, 9 March 2008

In three articles we will highlight both the faithful and the professional aspects of equipping God's children. We do so by considering the principles of Reformed schooling and by informing you about the Curriculum Council's endorsement of Reformed Christian Studies in Years 10-12.

In our previous article we listened to Calvin via the speech of dr MB van 't Veer on the principles of Calvin's school establishment. It became abundantly clear to us that God's Word stood in the centre in the school of the Reformation.

1.2 The Word

Sola Scriptura, Scripture only, was one of the mottos of the Great Reformation, wasn't it? Over against the influence of Aristotle and Plato in the Middle Ages, the Reformation preached sola Scriptura, or in the words of Rom 10:8: The Word is near you. You could say that the Reformation emphasized the Word in "the Word is near you" over against Aristotle's influence, and emphasized near you over against Plato's influence.

According to the Greek philosopher Plato (d. 347 BC) the essence of phenomena (the things we observe and experience) lies in another reality, the world of ideas. According to his student Aristotle (d. 322 BC), the phenomena themselves are the reality. Plato's ideas led, in the Middle Ages, to a mysticism which believed in a 'real god' outside this world, one which must be experienced by our divine soul. Aristotle's philosophy led, in the Middle Ages, to a scholasticism which believed in a 'real god' inside this world, one which must be understood with our divine mind.

Medieval mysticism (think of Eckhart, d. 1327) replaced God's Word with the experience of the divine soul, through which man sought rest in God. Medieval scholasticism (think of Thomas Aquinas, d. 1274) replaced God's Word with the use of the divine mind, through which man sought to prove God.

Over against the Platonic idea of an 'out-dwelling actual god' the Reformation preached the in-dwelling God of the Bible. And over against the Aristotelian idea of an 'in-dwelling god of reason' the Reformation preached the indwelling God of the Bible.

It is not reason, Aristotle, that is near us, but the Word. God is transcendent. And it is not the actual world, Plato, that is far away, for the Word is near us. God is immanent.

In line with the Great Reformation we believe in the transcendent God Who is immanent; in the immanent God Who is transcendent. In other words, we believe in the God of the covenant Who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. His name says it all: Immanuel: God is with us; with us is God.

Aristotle's ideas led to the sacramental church view of Roman Catholicism. Plato's ideas led to the Gnostic view of Anabaptism. But the Reformation attacked both with the same weapon: sola Scriptura: The Word is near us.

No wonder that Calvin emphasised knowledge of the Bible, and conduct according to the Bible, in the Reformed school. Doctrine and life based on God's Word.

1.3 Contents

In Teaching for Real (2006) and in Teaching Covenant Children (50 years) (2007) I described Reformed schooling as teacher-guided and learning-focused education. It is concerned with teaching contents and learning outcomes.

Not outcomes-based (OBE)

Teacher-guided, learning-focused Reformed schooling is not OBE: outcomes-based education. OBE is rooted in the conviction that all students have the ability to learn and succeed with high quality outcomes if they are given enough time and instructional support. Instead of transferring academic knowledge, OBE rather wants to instil in children learning attitudes aimed at their social, emotional, and psychological growth in order to perform well in society and in the market place of the future. In practice outcomes-based education means a shift in focus from teaching to learning, from inputs to outputs (outcomes), or from content (what is learned) to process (how learning takes place).

We reject the philosophy behind outcomes-based education, but we don't forget that at the end of the day the most important concern for the teacher should be what each student has learned. Consequently, it often does not make sense to teach the same contents from one grade-related syllabus to all students, at the same time and in the same way, simply because they are all of the same age. Another consequence of the focus on learning outcomes is that assessment of student learning takes place at different levels within the same classroom.

But does the entry of learning outcomes mean the exit of teaching syllabi? Do we agree with the shift from teaching to learning and from content to process? We find both the syllabus-based and the outcomes-based approaches to education one-sided.

A rigid syllabus-based approach goes like this: the teachers of year 5 should teach what is in accordance to the syllabus of year 5. A rigid outcomes-based approach goes like this: the students of year 5 should achieve what is in accordance to their level of understanding. Instead, we say, the 'syllabus-teacher' of year 5 needs more than just the one-year syllabus; she also needs the syllabi of year 4 and 6, for instance. And the 'outcomes-teacher' of year 5 needs more than a set of level outcomes; she also needs also the contents and benchmarks for year 5.

The curriculum of teacher-guided, learning-focused Reformed education is an ordered collection of, at least:
  • meaningful content set out in teachers' syllabi,
  • valid and transparent learning outcomes organized according to developmental levels, and
  • valid, explicit and fair assessment and evaluation criteria.

God's works and Word

Contents. Let's concentrate for a moment on the contents. "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork," shouts Psalm 19 with joy. We know God by His Work. And the Psalm continues: "The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple." (verse 7). Read God's Word and become wise: "the fear of the LORD, that is wisdom." (Job 28:28). The LORD covers the heavens with clouds and prepares rain for the earth. He makes grass to grow and gives the beast its food, yes, to the young ravens that cry (Psalm 147:8-9). But He declares His Word to Jacob, His statutes and His judgments to Israel (verse 19). We can only read the Book of Gods Work adequately through the glasses of His Word.

The Belgic Confession, Article 2, speaks about the universe "which is before our eyes as a most beautiful book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are so many letters". But through sin we have a clouded mind by which we are not able to read that beautiful book. We are so short-sighted! Therefore we need special glasses. To know God to His glory and our salvation we rely on God's holy and divine Word. With the glasses of His Word we understand God's purpose with His World. By His Word we know the Word, Jesus Christ (John 1).

Thus, if God reveals Himself by His Work and Word in Christ to His glory and our salvation, then Christian education should know and appreciate God's Work and Word in Christ. We confess in Article 2 that we know God by two means. First by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe. And that is why teachers, together with their students, study all the learning areas. Second, God makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word. That is why Religious Studies is a daily task. Again, to God's glory and to our salvation.

2. Reformed Christian Studies

2.1 Previous history

Religious Studies. This brings us to our new name for Religious Studies at JCCC's senior high school: Reformed Christian Studies. Next time we will share the reason for this new name and show you why we cannot teach this learning area under the umbrella of the Curriculum Council's Religion and Life course.

Today we leave you with a letter from principal Mr AH Terpstra to his JCCC staff, council and board members on 3rd October 2007.

Dear Friend of the College

Children have a way of pointing you in good directions. Earlier this week I was opening the day with a class that I don't normally take for the opening of the day. They asked whether they could raise some matters to be remembered in prayer. I could not help but be encouraged by the genuineness and seriousness with which they placed before me a cousin who had miscarried her baby, sadness about the loss of a grandparent, birthdays, holidays and hosts of other matters.

That same day I made a trip to Osborne Park; Mr A Breen and I had an appointment with the Coordinator of the Religion and Life course. You see, we would like to submit an application to the Curriculum Council to have our Religious Studies courses in Year 10, 11 and 12 endorsed. If the Curriculum Council would endorse our courses, then the students can use them to contribute toward their Western Australian Certificate of Education (WACE). One of the possible objections the Curriculum Council might have is that the course is too much like one of the courses they already have in place, namely Religion and Life. Hence the visit and the meeting with Mr David Byrne last Thursday.

Mr Breen, by referring to the philosophical basis underpinning our schools, by referring to our respective definitions of religion and by contrasting the rationales for the existing Curriculum Council course and the JCCC course in Religious Studies demonstrated to Mr Byrne that our course in the framework of the Religion and Life course was simply a complete misfit. Likewise their course in our framework wouldn't work either. We were very thankful that Mr Byrne saw matters in the same way as ourselves. He indicated, also by pointing to the different content in the courses, that the Religion and Life umbrella was not large enough to accommodate what we wanted achieve in our courses, and he agreed to defend that matter to the Council.

Mr Byrne also gave a number of other suggestions with respect to us improving our application, which we gratefully received. He did indicate that he could not guarantee the outcome of the application. He cautioned that the Council would be very careful with respect to this matter, not wanting to create precedents which later they might regret.

In the next few weeks we will make our final submission; it has to be in by 12th October. It will first be considered by the review panel and if it passes that hurdle, then it will go through to the meeting of the Curriculum Council which is set for 5th December.

You will appreciate that we are hoping for a favourable outcome. There is much more at stake in this than simply the ability for students to use their Religious Studies courses toward their WACE. This is an issue of recognition at the highest educational level in this state of courses that are run by the College. It's about our place as a Christian College in the educational landscape of this state. It's about the opportunity to publicly hold up the name and the reputation of our LORD, and so to be a light in this world.

But the outcome is not guaranteed.

It brings me back to the children; they acknowledged and expressed, as we opened the day, the need for prayer and the need for special prayer in special situations. So, I'm taking a leaf out of their book. I am asking for your prayer. Pray that the Review Committee will support our application when they get together after 12th October and pray that the Council too, in its meeting of 5th December, will see fit to endorse those courses which are very dear to us.

If you feel so inclined, please pass this email on to other friends and supporters of the college.

Thank you for your support in this.

With Christian greetings


to be continued

  • AC Breen, Teaching for Real. Armadale 2006.
  • ----, Teaching Covenant Children (50 years). Armadale 2007.

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