When I think of the typical schooling environment, efficiency and order are words that spring to mind. Another word is hurried. Yes, there’s a palpable sense of urgency attached to learning these days. It grows from a fear that if children don’t get an academic head start, they’ll be at a disadvantage throughout their education. What parent or teacher wants to be a party to that?
Recent studies, however, suggest that pressing academics early on actually hinders a child’s development (funny that this Psychology Today article should appear on my facebook feed as I began drafting this post, and this article on mental health came the next day). While we marvel at the success of Finland’s more relaxed approach, American educators use words like rigor and push for earlier compulsory ages or longer school years. It’s the mindset our system was built upon.
But what does God say?
Here’s a little story…
Once upon a time, my older kids were not embracing their personalized lessons like I thought they should. In response, I poured over scripture, looking for proof that God wanted them to do their spelling. I found a lot of references to teaching and instruction, but I was continually frustrated when I followed these leads further. None of them even hinted at schooling, academics, or drilling our children in useful facts and data. Instead, these terms repeatedly pointed to training our children in the ways of the Lord, His character, and His principles.
So, does that mean academics are not important?
On the contrary, God designed us to think (See An Obstacle in Our Way), and a reasonable amount of academic training will only help as we carry out God’s work. However, the particular skills that are needed will vary from person to person. Certainly, Noah had to be capable of building the ark according to God’s exact specifications, and the details of the tabernacle required the assorted skills of many workers.
“Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whom the Lord has put skill and intelligence to know how to do any work in the construction of the sanctuary shall work in accordance with all that the Lord has commanded.” (Exodus 36:1)
Of course, having practical knowledge and abilities means we can serve others effectively and provide for our families as the Lord commands.
But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Timothy 5:8).
Furthermore, God made sure His word was written down for our instruction and reference. We need to be able to read it, learn from it, and communicate His message to others either verbally or through our own writing.
Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. (Revelation 1:3).
Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this. (Revelation 1:19)
Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. (1 Corinthians 10:11-12)
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15:4)
In the Psychology Today article linked above, Dr. Peter Gray makes an important distinction between academic and intellectual abilities. The former refers to categories of information that are often isolated and learned through memorization and drill. The latter has to do with understanding that grows out of inquiry, reasoning, and experience; this is not something that can be taught but develops over time.
So, what does this have to do with the learning environment?
Well, to begin with, mentors can play a major role in providing a variety of learning environments favorable to intellectual growth. Are the surroundings diverse? Is there free access to a variety of materials, as well as enough free time to use them? Of course, mentors should be careful not take a mile for the inch we’re given. “Establishing” an environment doesn’t mean a controlled room where everything is laid out, activities are closely managed, and outcomes are easily predicted.
Really, I consider the best environment to be a real one—a real home where life takes place and where real work has to be done; a real community where different people interact; and real nature where God’s creation can be observed and felt. Unexpected things happen in real places and real problems have to be resolved. Why turn to simulations and hypotheticals when you don’t have to?
Dr. Gray’s article states: The early years, especially, should be spent playing, exploring, and developing the intellectual foundations that will allow children to acquire academic skills relatively easily later on.
Through scripture and prayer, God directed me toward exactly that sort of foundation long before I came across these studies. But, I would add to it that participating in the work of the family and community in the early years is an essential equipping opportunity as well.
Anyway, with this starting point, my daughter has been able to see the need for practical academics for herself, and it’s a motivating force that’s better than any sticker chart! Not only has her mind been challenged along the way, but we’ve also had plenty of time to pursue a relationship with God, feed our souls, care for our bodies, and serve others.
So, does this mean there should be no guided lessons for young children?
No ABC’s or 123’s? No social studies or science?
Again, I would warn against letting the pendulum swing too far in the other direction. God knows exactly what we need when we need it, and He opens the door to “teaching” opportunities even in the loosest environments.
The Role of the Mentor & Parent is an important one, and it’s an art that will have to be practiced. After all, there’s a fine line between enhancing a learning moment and killing it, so a big issue for mentors is one of discernment and restraint.