My school district has adopted a new mathematics curriculum that is aligned with the Common Core State Standards, which set forth what a student should have learned by the end of each year in school.
While the mathematics we are expected to teach our students has not changed in the last 200 years, the pedagogical methods and assessment expectations of our classrooms have changed to reflect the new, loftier goals.
This new curriculum places all mathematics students into groups and encourages the groups to “discover” the point of that day’s lesson from carefully crafted lessons in a textbook.
The teacher in this new model is a facilitator, a help in times of trouble or a light in moments of confusion.
The emphasis on collaboration is a reflection and consequence of our more connected and collaborative world.
Our classrooms are beginning to look more and more like the world our students will inhabit in their professional lives, and I believe that is a welcome transition.
Our congregations would do well to see the emphasis on “team” that is demonstrated in the spirit of Common Core as a reminder of our own cooperative call in the Kingdom of God.
As many of my dear friends said in seminary, “There are no lone rangers in Christianity.”
Collaborative learning is a trendy way of saying that we are a part of a community—a body that lives as a larger organism than any one of us does as an individual.
In Scripture, we are likened to branches that draw nourishment from a vine (see John 15:5) and the Body of Christ (see Romans 7:4, 12:4-6; 1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 3:6, 4:12-15; Colossians 3:15).
We are not individuals saved by grace, who are then to work out our salvation in fear and trembling alone on some spiritual island.
Rather, we are welcomed into a great and eternal family by those who have gone along the Way before us.
We are discipled, trained and formed in community with elders in the faith and in relationship with those inside and outside of the church.
At no point are we alone in faith—we have been promised the very presence of Christ until the end (see Matthew 28:20).
The struggle, both in my classroom and in my congregation, is to break the habits we’ve carefully cultivated over the generations of the individual student learning a discreet lesson upon which they will be tested and then moved on to a new topic.
In my mathematics classes, this struggle is against the way I’ve been teaching for years and the way my students have been learning for years.
They have become accustomed to being seated in neat rows and dutifully taking notes while I work examples on a screen or whiteboard.
Now, however, they are being asked to essentially teach themselves with me as a hovering support, a resource to be used, as their collective abilities sometimes demand.
In my congregation, and in others of which I’ve been a part, there is a sense of discipleship as an individual activity between the believer and God that occasionally includes a group exercise.
For example, the practice of group prayer, which is often a very individualized time of “here’s my needs and requests” all lumped together, and group Bible study can be seen as a supplement to the individual’s “quiet time” and intensely private spiritual practices.
These are good and necessary, yet there seems to be a momentum against the participation in one another’s lives to the point where meaningful discipleship can happen in our congregation.
Our culture is certainly partially to blame, but there is also a habit of making self-reliant disciples in our congregations that resists our participation in the discipleship of others.
Perhaps Common Core’s emphasis on learning together can remind us that we need each other to carry out the mission to which we have been called. We need to work cooperatively, collaboratively and compassionately with one another.
Surely we, as the body of Christ, have been stitched together because we cannot function alone, and we cannot learn alone.
Brock Ratcliff is a minister at Madison Chapel in Madison, Mississippi. He also teaches mathematics and computer science at Clinton Alternative School in Clinton, Mississippi. A longer version of this column appeared on his blog, Fides Quaerens Intellectum, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @RevBrock.
Editor’s note: Ratcliff’s previous column reflecting on lessons that the local church can learn from Common Core is available here.