“We cannot expect that students will profit from the incongruous messages we send them when we manage for compliance and teach for exploration and risk-taking.”

I recently discovered a paper, “Autonomy and Compliance: The Dilemma Facing Christian Schools,” that challenged me to reconsider some fundamental parts of my practise and thinking. Bill Rusin, a school principal from Australia, underlined that “Christian schools need to be aware of the enormous job that is in front of them as they seek to become places where all aspects of their practice and culture are biblically based, informed and driven.”

Rusin’s comparison of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation reflects his understanding that self-motivation is most desirable and “one of the most thoroughly researched findings in social psychology is that the more you reward someone for doing something, the less interest that person will tend to have in whatever he or she was rewarded to do.”

Busin lists 10 practices that minimize damage to self-motivation:

  1. Avoid the use of ability-focused goals
  2. Minimize the use of numerical marks and normative grades
  3. Don’t cause disjunctions between the maturity of students and the responsibility given to them
  4. Avoid the use of competitive rewards
  5. Avoid token economies
  6. Don’t depend on non-competitive rewards
  7. Take care with cultural celebrations
  8. Use encouragement rather than praise
  9. Monitor parental behaviors which can be detrimental to the educational task
  10. Evaluate assessment and reporting regimes

In other words, think about everything you do because “the relationship between moral autonomy and compliance needs to be constantly assessed so that schools do not encourage either extreme:

  • Children whose sense of moral autonomy dips into self righteous indignation to the detriment of the good of the classroom or;
  • Children who do not question the status quo and become unthinking consumers of adult decisions and cultural norms.”

Rusin’s paper reinforces some of the questions raised in Donovan Graham’s book, Teaching Redemptively: Bringing Grace and Truth into Your Classroom, which encourages teachers of all kinds to think and act “like God in the educational process as well as in the educational content.” Graham challenged me when he underlined the importance of grace even though “we tend to think that if we can keep the law well enough (i.e. live up to certain educational and moral standards), we are doing things the way God wants them done. We simply ignore what may not be happening to students internally.”

Identifying specific strategies to fill classrooms with life transforming grace instead of deadening legalism, will take both the internal work of the Holy Spirit and external community of Christ’s body. It won’t happen automatically. but highlighting the challenge, reflecting on Biblical principles, supporting each other, and depending on His power will move us toward an educational process “that demonstrates living the gospel, not just talking about it” (Graham). Reading Rusin’s paper and Graham’s book will help with the highlighting and reflecting.


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