Student-centered Learning – The Discussion Continues

Hello School Community,

This was a fun week. It’s homecoming, the campus is decorated, and the kids are fired up for the game tonight and the high school dance tomorrow. That’s a great part of the school experience and it’s so cool to see the kids own it!

I spent the first part of the week at a conference for school leaders put on by the Council for Standards in Educational Excellence (CESA). It was a great opportunity to connect with thinkers and leaders and innovators in Christian education. I will share some deeper insights from the conference at a later time, but here is a little preview: SVCS is in a really good place. Yes, we have financial challenges and so does everyone else. Yes, we have enrollment challenges and so does everyone else. But, unlike so many schools across the country, we are not facing a crisis of identity. We know who we are … or at least who we are supposed to be. But, more on that later. (That was a little hint to all of you that you have to keep reading over the coming weeks!) On to the topic of the day.

Today, I would like to continue the discussion on student-centered learning that we began last week. If you haven’t watched that video, please check it out. Leslie Waggoner (6th Grade) and Jamie Howard (high school) do a great job of describing a student-centered classroom. Click on the link at the bottom of this post to view the video.

Last week, we discussed that a student-centered approach begins with assigning value to students and investing in student relationships. We have to know our students. We have to understand their attitudes, motivations, skill sets, struggles, talents, and goals in order to actually implement a student-centered curriculum. So, today I thought I would expand on this topic by exploring one of the most important characteristics and tragedies of this millennial generation.

I will preface this by saying that many of my observations are anecdotal, based on my own experiences with students. But, there has also been a ton of research done in this area. If you want to know a little more about the struggles facing kids today, check out Chap Clark’s book, Hurt 2.0. Clark is a professor at Fuller Seminary. His research is primarily geared toward understanding the emerging generation. It’s a great read and you might actually learn a few things about your own student. His point is that, until we understand students, we cannot realistically expect to make a difference in their spiritual and academic formation. Plus, if we actually want to fight some of the more damaging narratives of culture, we have to understand the culture that we are fighting. So, let me introduce you to the world of our millennial students.

This generation lives in a world that defines identity based on one’s performance and achievement. In a lot of ways, this is an American characteristic. We are a people that has always stressed the importance of achievement. It’s an American ideal. But this has been intensified by this increasingly global and competitive world. Let me give you a few statistics about one of our local universities that may shock you. Last year, 112,744 incoming freshmen applied to UCLA and only 17.3% were actually accepted. More than 50% of these students earned over 2100 on the SAT and had a 4.0 GPA or better. It is also safe to assume that all of these students had participated in a great array of service projects, sports, clubs, and artistic endeavors. But, here is the stat that is most shocking … 41.7% of admitted freshmen were from out of state and 12% were international. In other words, our kids are competing with hundreds of millions of other students from all over the world every single day. And, we also know that what used to require a high school degree now requires a college degree. What used to require a college degree now requires a masters, etc., etc. So, in order to achieve in an ultra-competitive world, we have to excel. We have to push. We have to do more and be more. Greater success is the only way we set ourselves apart amidst a mass of successful people. And, our kids see it. They feel this pressure. (Check out Doing School by Denise Clark Pope for more on the insane pressure that kids are under these days.)

This manifests itself in so many practical ways. Students will fight for every single point on a homework assignment or test because a 49 out of 50 isn’t perfect. Students will bargain for extra credit when their grade sits at 89.4%, because 89.6% rounds up to an A and … fill in the blank … my parents will be happy, my teacher will be proud of me, I will make the honor role, I will be the valedictorian, etc. Athletes will do anything to become a starter on the team. If this isn’t possible, they will transfer to another school where they can be a starter. Students will fill their calendars with activity after activity, all of which are worthy, but none of which can possibly be fully embraced due to the vast enormity and diversity of their pursuits. This is not to mention the pressure that social media puts on our kids. Much of their free time is spent crafting an ideal social media image because even if their real lives are filled with stress and disappointment, their Snapchat and Instagram stories can never reflect anything other than perfection and success. This is not driven by the desire to seem successful as much as it is driven by the desire to seem as successful as others. My friends have perfect lives, so my life has to be perfect too.

We in the education world, despite any well-intentioned goals of student-centeredness, tend to perpetuate the performance narrative. We reward students for making the honor roll. We make lists of all the colleges attended by our graduates. We hang up newspaper articles in our classrooms that celebrate athletic achievements. Again, this is all well intentioned and it all comes from a pure heart and a desire to love kids. But, the more we validate worldly success with praise and honor, the more the “unsuccessful” feel devalued and marginalized. So, because we love kids, we respond with more honors and more accolades … a trophy and gold star for everyone. But, we still have to make sure that the “great” is separated from the merely “good” because otherwise everyone won’t get their just due. So, we heap more praise on the kids that “really deserve it” and only some praise on the kids that “kind of deserve it.”

At some point, amidst all of the honors and accolades, the young mind starts to draw the unfortunate conclusion that applause is merely a natural recourse of accomplishment and performance. “If I achieve, people will clap for me and if I don’t, I won’t really matter or at least I won’t matter as much as the really successful people.” And, even if a student knows she is loved by God and loved by others, she still sees more love and praise given to the achievers. And, thus, the performance myth persists.

Again, this manifests itself in so many ways. We could expand upon the implications, but I think this story tells it all.

For the last several years I was at a school in Seattle. We had a very well-respected academic program. We pushed AP courses and the college prep track for all of the reasons that every school does. We wanted well-prepared graduates. We wanted to give them a chance to achieve their dreams. And, quite frankly, we wanted to tout the success of our graduates as a marketing tool for prospective families. (Incidentally, I happen to believe that academic rigor is a worthy pursuit in and of itself. God calls us to give our best in everything we do. Whether or not this translates to worldly success is insignificant in the economy of God … but more on that later). Anyway, I had a pretty deep relationship with a graduating senior. She was in my class as a sophomore. She was in my small group on the junior and senior retreats. And she had been a leader on our worship team. She was an incredibly talented musician and artist. She played 11 instruments. She could sing. She could dance. She could act. She was a great student. More than anything, she had a deep and authentic faith in Christ. She went through the normal college preparation and application process and, because of her incredible resume and talent, she was accepted to the renown Berklee College of Music in Boston. About a month before graduation, every senior had to report where they were going to college so we could print the graduation program. Our school, like so many schools, printed college choices in the program and read them out loud as students walked across the graduation stage. Again, this practice was designed with good intentions. We wanted to honor the accomplishments of our kids. But, for this student, our practice had caused incredible angst. She decided more than three months before graduation that she was not going to attend the Berklee College of Music. I remember the day she walked into my office and told me that she was not going to school. She was going to move to try to make it as a singer and she thought college would delay her on that track. She knew the challenges and the percentages, but she and her parents thought this was the right decision for her. She was so excited. She had discovered her purpose and her passion. But her next revelation is what blew me away. She told me that she was going to keep Berklee College of Music listed on her profile because she didn’t want the graduation program to say that she was not going to college.

That breaks my heart because despite the fact that she had found purpose, she cared more about perception. Her mindset had nothing to do with vocation. It had nothing to do with purpose. It had nothing to do with calling. It had everything to do with world’s definition of success. It had everything to do with the performance narrative. What will people think of me if they know I am not going to college? Here was a highly intelligent, super talented, young woman of God and, at least at some level, she had bought into the lie of the millennial generation; you only matter because of your achievements. Your identity is based on your performance.

Now, please hear me. I want students to achieve. I want students to strive for their best. Nothing is more rewarding as an educator than when a student finds passion and pushes toward excellence. But we should be much more concerned about the motivation behind these pursuits than about the achievements themselves. Why do we strive to achieve? Why do we strive for success? If our only goal is to be recognized and honored, then we have missed the most important part of the story.

We need to change the narrative.

We strive for our best because everything we do is an act of worship (Col 3:17). We strive to succeed because the worst thing we can do with our talents is to bury them in the sand (Matt 25). Our performance is never a condition of God’s love. He doesn’t love us because we achieve. He loves us no matter what we do. While we were still sinners he died for us (Romans 5:8). Therefore, our job is to live every single day to its fullest, making the most of every opportunity, not in pursuit of God’s love, but as a reaction to it. He loves us and he has blessed everyone with the abilities and gifts that he chose for us. It is an act of worship to maximize those gifts. We will never achieve anything that will make God love us more. And, if our identity is truly defined in Christ, than the perceptions and judgements of others should not matter.

I am reminded of a verse of one of my favorite hymns; Riches I heed not nor man’s empty praise. Thou my inheritance now and always. In other words, everything I do is for you Lord. I do not seek the approval or the praise of men, because I already have you and that is enough.

Whoa! Talk about a counter-cultural message that our kids need to hear.

But, let’s take it a step deeper because I think there is an even more subversive concept hidden within this truth. As we strive to achieve and as we work diligently, we are so often rewarded with satisfaction, peace, and a sense of accomplishment that nothing can replace. There is spiritual fulfillment found when we work to our mental, physical, and social potential. I think that is what Paul is getting at in Colossians 3:17. He tells us that, in everything we do, we are worshipping God — Paul understood that we don’t just experience God’s presence while we sing on Sunday mornings or study the Bible in small groups. Isn’t there a sense of peace that comes over you after a great workout? Isn’t there a sense of accomplishment after mowing the lawn or painting the house? Isn’t there a feeling of wholeness when you work diligently toward a goal? If we work as if working for God, we will find God in the work. We will realize and experience God’s peace and God’s presence. We work, we strive, we perform, we achieve, for nothing else than the God who is honored by and revealed in our pursuits. That is such a different message than the performance narrative perpetuated by our culture. And, that is my prayer for our community. I pray that SVCS would be a place where students pursue excellence and passion because they know they are talented and loved. I pray that they would not seek the empty praise of college recruiters, awards ceremonies, and graduation programs. I pray that we would strive to achieve for the sake of the striving instead of for the sake of the achievement. I pray that our definition of success would differ from that of our culture. And I pray that we would love these students no matter what, because that’s how God loves us.


Erick Streelman
Head of Schools



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