Paradigm, Pedagogy, Practice

By Mark Milliron

The threads woven into the tattered fabric of the educational system were spun first not by educators, but philosophers.  For that reason, the task of understanding what really goes on in schools is best accomplished by taking a view from a greater distance than the classroom. Although public expectations of education might best be summed up as teaching kids the “three R's” of ‘reading,’ ‘riting,’ and ‘rithmetic,’ for educators it is another triad that most clearly defines the business of the schools.  That triad is the “three P's” of paradigm, pedagogy and practice.  For parents, an understanding of the three P's is fundamentally important if educational reform is going to be achieved.  Of course, the first thing we need to do is define our terms.
A paradigm is a conceptual framework that describes the worldview of its adherents Paradigms are based on philosophical premises, and have far-reaching implications for individuals and society.  For the educator, the paradigm is what determines the fundamental principles for how and why he does his job. Pedagogy is a word that refers to the principles of instruction and learning that derive from a particular paradigm.  It is pedagogy that directs what methods of instruction and assessment will be employed in a teacher's classroom. Practice is a more comfortable word to most of us.  It refers to the structuring of the learning environment, the method(s) of instruction employed, and the resource materials utilized.
The paradigm that has dominated the educational community for some seventy-five years is derived from the writings of John Dewey, a socialist and one of the original sponsors of the Humanist Manifesto.  Dewey viewed man as purely biological, a statistical anomaly of cosmic chance that has neither soul nor spirit.  As the framers of “Humanist Manifesto I” put it, “There is no God, and there is no soul, hence there is no need for the props of traditional religion there is no room for fixed natural law, or permanent absolutes.”
As a humanist, Dewey believed that man is the final arbiter of all that is true or right, and that children have an innate goodness that it is the job of teachers to nurture but not direct.  As a socialist, he believed that only collectivist economic policies can provide the framework for man to achieve the heights of culture of which he is capable.  And as an educator, Dewey believed it is the responsibility of the teacher to lay the foundation for a collectivist society, encourage the student to contribute to the humanist utopia he envisioned.
A logical first step in this process was the dismantling of tradition and culture to provide the “intellectual freedom” he felt students would need to create the new world order of his dreams.  Working from this belief system, Dewey developed what came to be called the Progressivist school of educational theory.  The Encyclopedia Britannica has this to say about Dewey's progressivist approach to education: “For Dewey, philosophy and education render service to each other.  The one indicates what social values are desirable; the other seeks to promote them.  Education becomes the laboratory of philosophy.”
This radical humanist platform for education, in which the child was seen as inherently wise and disciplined, was the philosophy upon which Dewey built his progressivist paradigm.  It led to the 'child-centered” pedagogy that is almost universally promoted in faculties of education and subscribed to by state boards of education.  According to the child-centered model, “what mattered was not the learning of subject matter, neatly and logically arranged, but the child's own development.” Thus, academic content was minimized, and student-directed activities were increased.  Because content was seen as secondary to process, curricular outcomes were re-written, with activities that built 'self-concept” and “classroom community” replacing academic standards.  Assessment of performance was made anecdotal and relative, so that the fragile egos of flowering personalities wouldn't be nipped in the bud of their development.  And rather than “imposing” a moral structure on the young minds in their charge, teachers were instructed to allow children to work out their own system of beliefs, untrammeled by religion or cultural values.
The child-centered pedagogy derived from Dewey's progressivist paradigm has had an enormous impact on our children, our families, and our country.  We've already seen how academic standards have been eroded in the last twenty-five years.  The persistent decline in language skills and mathematics scores has led some universities to almost despair of finding qualified candidates for their programs. Mathematics scores of students entering university programs have dropped from an average mark of 75% to 48% in the last twenty-five years.  English 100, a compulsory course for students, now typically has failure rates as high as 60%, as more and more students leave high school without the communicative skills they need to succeed in today's information-oriented world.
But academics aren’t the only part of traditional education that has been sacrificed on the altar of child-centered learning.  Where once teachers were entrusted with the moral education of our children, the child-centered model has made the validation of traditional values a thing of the past.  Moral relativism has been a hallmark of education for years.  Psychologists like Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and William Coulson describe “hierarchies of need” and “situational priorities” that have stripped education of moral absolutes to teach our children that “empowerment,” “self-actualization,” and “lifestyle” should determine right and wrong in the context of each situation they encounter.  This theme is played with increasing fervor when topics like sexuality education and family dynamics are taught.  The highest premium is ascribed to self-esteem, self-concept, self-confidence, and self-motivation.  In keeping with the principles of humanism, morality must only come from within the child, and is dictated by his or her own wishes at the moment.
There is another, more pervasive effect that Dewey's paradigm has birthed in the last forty years.  Abraham Lincoln once said, “The philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.” Certainly, we have seen that to be the case.  As already described, Dewey was a committed socialist who believed that the competitive economics of capitalism would have to be overthrown in order for society to progress.  To that end, he taught that schools must “take an active part in determining the social order of the future as teachers align themselves with the newer forces making for social control of economic forces.” In this regard, Dewey's views were very much like those of Ellen Richards, sometimes called the founder of social work.  Richards wrote, 'The child as a future citizen is an asset of the State, not the property of its parents.' Among the bitter social pills that Dewey prescribed were collectivist central planning, the end of private property rights, and the redistribution of wealth through mandatory government programs.
The reason that all of this is important to our discussion of education is that it demonstrates just how thoroughly the humanist philosophy has permeated our society.  Economic collectivism, moral relativism, and a rejection of concrete standards of achievement are pervasive realities in our government, our public institutions, and even our churches.  The warning of Lincoln has proven chillingly accurate within a scant few decades.  Such is the legacy that Dewey and his disciples bequeathed to our children.  How to confront that legacy, and exchange it for a legacy of hope, is what we must consider next.


The author of Proverbs writes, 'Where there is no revelation, the people are unrestrained.” The same might very well be said of public education today.  The progressivist paradigm that Dewey and his followers introduced to North American schools has held hostage a generation of learners.  The humanist suppositions that frame the progressivist classroom have stifled natural competition, distanced parents and frustrated student achievement.  They have predisposed our children to a socialist bureaucracy that rewards mediocrity and undermines personal effort.  Worst of all, the progressivist paradigm has robbed our children of any legitimate yardstick by which to measure right and wrong, leaving our society adrift and unrestrained in a sea of relativism.
It's imperative that parents and educators adopt a new paradigm for the classroom if real educational reform is going to happen.  The humanist propositions that have hamstrung our children's' development for the last several decades must be abandoned, and a new paradigm constructed in its place.  This paradigm must be built upon solid biblical principles.
Attempts at reform that try to simply shore up the crumbling walls of the progressivist paradigm are doomed to failure, because the foundation is already rotten.  Academic revisionists that propose to cure our ailing schools by tinkering with classroom practices don't understand the hierarchy of education.  Only when the root problem is treated will the symptoms disappear.
That's why the new movement to form 'traditional schools” is only part of the answer to our educational woes.  Adding more tests, greater structure, and better reporting are good ways to address the visible weaknesses in our system, but fail to strike at the heart of the matter.
What then should a paradigm for education include?  A truly principled paradigm should include each of the following points:

       Education should center on the Word of God and curricular content, the acquisition of knowledge, and Christian cultural literacy.

       Parental involvement in the learning process should be actively encouraged, both at home and in the classroom.

       The child's development should be directed according to God's absolute moral values.

       Learning should be based on direct instruction of facts and processes that are presented in a cohesive and sequential way.

       Frequent, graded assessment should form the basis for evaluation of subject mastery and student achievement.

       Schools exist to serve the family and not the state.

       The Christian culture, (based on the Word of God) should form the school - the school should not form the culture.

With these principles as a foundation, a scripture-centered pedagogy can be established, in which the framework for learning is clearly articulated.  The primary attributes of that pedagogy should be academic excellence, moral absolutism and teacher directed learning.  These themes arise inevitably from scriptural principles and naturally follow from the dignity of the child and family that are established in the Bible.
The practice that would follow from a principled paradigm and scriptural pedagogy differs substantially from what happens in many classrooms today.  Rather than student-guided projects, teachers would spend a great deal more time in planning and directing what happens in their own rooms.  Instead of 'continuous progress,' timelines for completing individual assignments and units of work would be communicated and adhered to.  And instead of morally neutral instruction on sexuality and family planning, abstinence education and principled persuasion would be employed to reduce teen promiscuity.  A classroom based on the principled paradigm would include frequent, objective evaluation of progress, and celebrate the successes of students at every level of improvement.
Now if all of this sounds either wistfully far-fetched or prosaically traditional, hold onto your hats.  The truth is, it is neither.
Despite the progressivist paradigm being peddled in most faculties of education and public schools across North America, there continues to be a core of teachers and schools committed to a principled paradigm.  Most of those schools are found in the parochial sector: Roman Catholic or Protestant schools with a strong commitment to a moral framework for staff and students.  These fortresses of principled education give us a good sample of institutions by which to measure our paradigm.
Nearly two decades of 'effective schools research' have shown that there are six main determinants of student performance and parent satisfaction with schools.  These attributes of effective schools include:

       A strong sense of educational commitment and purpose

       High expectations for academics and behavior

       Regular and frequent assessment

       An orderly and pleasant school climate

       Strong emphasis on teacher directed instruction

       Consistent effort by school and home to reach specific academic goals (e.g. reciting the Gettysburg Address or multiplication tables)

Consider these findings from a little book entitled What Works: Research About Teaching and Learning, published by the U.S. Department of Education:

       “The stronger the emphasis on academic courses ... the more students learn.”

       “Successful principals establish policies that create an orderly environment and support effective instruction.”

       “Schools that encourage academic achievement focus on the importance of scholastic success and on maintaining order and discipline.”

       “Frequent and systematic monitoring of students' progress helps students.”

       “Teachers who set and communicate high expectations to all their students obtain greater academic performance ... than teachers who set low expectations.”

       “Parental involvement helps children learn more effectively.”

It is important to mention that each of the above statements is based on not just one, but several comprehensive studies.  The schools surveyed were of all sizes and descriptions, both public and private.  The conclusions are virtually irrefutable: the individual points in the principled paradigm pay valuable dividends for children in school.
There are innumerable reasons for, pursuing the implementation of a principled paradigm in your child's school. Undoubtedly the biggest reason is your child.  His or her personal growth, moral development, and academic achievement are the stakes in this frighteningly serious game of academic roulette.


Few issues strike closer to home than the question of education.  As parents, we want to do everything we can to prepare our children to take their place in an increasingly competitive and secularized world.  The growing list of services subsumed by schools --family planning, work experience programs, values education and personal counseling --make it more important than ever that parents be informed and involved in the education of their children.
Jesus declared in Luke 11:17, “A kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a house divided against itself falls.” There is a warning here for parents: we cannot send our children to schools motivated by a humanist worldview if we expect them to adopt a Christian value system.  We cannot surround them with darkness and expect them to live in the light.  If we do, we divide our children' s house into two irreconcilable parts, and one will surely fall.
The job that lies before us, then, is twofold.  First, we must identify the scriptural principles that should direct our children's education and development.  And second, we must seek to find ways to introduce those principles into our schools.
The question of scriptural principles is profoundly important.  After all, there is no advantage to sending your child to a “Christian” school if it is Christian in name only.  So what are the principles that should direct our children's education?  What signposts should Christian- parents look for in their child's classroom?  Although the Bible has little to say about education in the academic sense, it has a great deal to say about how we raise our children.
The first and most important principle is this: the fundamental responsibility for child rearing resides not with the state, but with the family.  Parents alone are accountable for the moral, spiritual and intellectual development of their children.  They may elect other persons or institutions to assist in that role, but no one can justly usurp this essential and God-given task.
The role of mothers and fathers in educating their children is stressed throughout the scriptures.  The proverbs, psalms and epistles each give witness to the responsibility of parents to teach and train their children in Godly ways.  Proverbs 22:6 is one of the most-often quoted verses about child rearing in the Bible.  It directs parents to “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not turn from it.” The Hebrew term rendered “train up” is derived from the word meaning “to dedicate.” Parents are to dedicate their children to the service of the Lord, and that dedication begins with the earliest education received in the home.  Parents have a biblical and social right to continue to oversee the same process during the school years, as well.
The second principle that the scriptures make clear is this: In all areas of instruction, schools should inspire children to pursue and attain excellence.  Christianity is not a religion of compromise or mediocrity.  It is a religion of excellence, with a tradition of excellence.  As Christians, we are to exemplify excellence in everything wd put our hand to.  With Christ-like humility, we are to seek excellence in behavior (1 Peter 1: 1 2), excellence in our families (Proverbs 31:10-31), excellence in our culture (Genesis 1:28), and excellence in our thoughts (Philippians 4:8).  That same standard of excellence is what parents should strive for in their children's education.  When we as parents accept less than that in the instruction of our children, we not only shortchange our children, we short change the Kingdom.
Deuteronomy 6:5-9 exhorts parents to commit themselves to excellence in the moral education of their children with the words; 'These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.  Impress them on your children.  Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.' The implication of these verses is that children should be surrounded by the absolute moral imperatives of the Scriptures.  Wherever they spend their day, and whomever they are with, children are to be continuously exposed to the excellent and righteous principles of the Law.  That means that a system of education founded on the philosophy of humanism will invariably place our children in exactly the wrong type of environment for their spiritual well being.
This leads us to the third principle of education: the philosophy of the classroom will inevitably affect the philosophy of the child.  Colossians 2:8 warns, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world, rather than on Christ.” The humanist-inspired doctrines our children are exposed to in school are not without validity.  They include a germ of truth, and this is why they are dangerous.  They have the power to captivate because they contain, at least in part, the basic principles of this world.  That captivation of the mind is the first step in the process of religious estrangement that separates our children from their faith.  As the writer of Proverbs says, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so he is.” As children begin to identify with the humanist worldview, their own worldview is gradually, but surely, altered.
A fourth principle of education is that schools have a fundamental responsibility to discipline their students.  Ephesians 6:4 instructs, “ not provoke your children to anger; but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” While it is true that this admonition is addressed to fathers, the more general principle of moral discipline is present throughout the Bible.  Whether or not schools should be granted the authority to use corporal punishment is perhaps an on-going debate, but the fact of their responsibility to employ appropriate consequences to discipline misbehavior is beyond dispute.
The fifth biblical principle relates to the actual nature of our children.  In spite of the progressivist rhetoric that presupposes the sublime innocence of the child, the Scriptures give a very different picture of human nature.  The prophet writes, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and beyond cure,” and the apostle John instructs us, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” The conclusion we must draw is very clear: any system of instruction that is built on the conviction that children are inherently good and capable of either moral or academic leadership is bound for failure.  Goals and standards should be prescribed by the teacher, in consultation with parents, and not by the student.  For while it's undoubtedly true that a child's natural curiosity and joy of learning are great motivators, other aspects of his human nature are equally powerful roadblocks.
Finally, it is unquestionably true that schools exist to serve children and their families.  The humanist notion that education is a tool in the hand of the state is in direct opposition to the Christian worldview.  The Bible makes it clear that the primary unit of culture is the family and that government exists to serve society by meeting the family's needs.  Thus effective schools should provide not only the very best of instruction to their students, but should involve and enable parents as key partners in the learning team.  Schools that either exclude parents from the arena of instruction, or impose a philosophical system contrary to that accepted in the Scriptures, will undermine the very process they exist to perform.