Learning Science is Fun!

Academic Motivation

Many homeschoolers who follow the traditional school schedule are now getting back into the swing of another school year. This often begins to bring difficulties to the surface.

I recently received a note with the subject line: "Unmotivated Children at Home During School." The matter of academic motivation is a problem for many godly families who desire the best for their children. I responded with encouragement to catch a vision for a more scriptural "Discipleship Approach."

Here is what the woman wrote:

I just hung up the phone with a friend of mine. She was "crying" on my shoulder because her daughter, though she is bright, does not give her best for her mom during school. I find this to be the trouble with my 9 year old son as well.

Both children are bright. They show excitement for other things in life. When it comes to school it is like pulling teeth.

I will refer now to just my son as it is easier in typing. I use a curriculum that is a unit study. No boring workbooks, there is good reading material that he enjoys and I try to make it as interesting as possible. I can't spoon feed him due to the fact that I have 3 other children to care for.

I know that this is what I am to be doing. I am to homeschool. I want him to be a godly man when he grows up. But all I see is laziness and slothfulness. I don't harp but that is what I see. Is there any hope for this situation? Please if you have any suggestions, I would greatly appreciate them.

Clearly both you and this other mother are caring parents, and I assume she, like you, desires to see her child please the Lord fully. It is because of this (and possibly some other less appropriate pressures) that you both want your children to demonstrate diligence and achieve excellence in their school work.

It is unquestionably important to conquer "laziness and slothfulness." One of the most important things a parent can do for their child is to teach them diligence and thoroughness. In our daily scripture reading together, our family recently found a gem in scripture that focused our attention once again on this characteristic.

Diligence is a Possession

Proverbs 12:27 says, "The lazy man does not roast what he took in hunting, But diligence is man's precious possession." Notice that diligence is a "possession." And it is a "precious" possession. A child who has acquired diligence will find it a benefit the rest of his life. You and this other mom evidently see that diligence is something we, as parents, are responsible to instill in our children. I think it helps to see this "possession" as an inheritance we are leaving our descendants.

But we can often undermine our own training in diligence by letting the children get away with procrastination and half-hearted efforts. One of the ways we do this is by doing too much for the children. Especially a devoted, servant-hearted mother can easily fall into the trap of picking up after her children, for example, when they should be required to do this for themselves.

Let me throw a different light on the matter, though. The things you want your children to be diligent in the rest of their lives are probably completely different from the tasks you're referring to here. I doubt it is the Lord's design for you to intentionally aim your children to be lifelong scholars.

Teaching Diligence

Some children may have a special calling and gifting from the Lord to pursue academic disciplines as a vocation. But even in such exceptional cases, I suspect teaching diligence in non-scholarly real-life pursuits will more likely instill the character more effectively. I am very doubtful that frustrating yourself and your child regarding artificial academic pursuits (especially at nine years of age) will produce diligence in either academics or in real life.

In my estimation, a nine year old boy is quite old enough to learn to take care of chores and other real work, but most likely a bit immature to be pressed academically. In my years as a teacher and administrator in the government schools (thank God I've been delivered from the compromising pressures of that profession) I saw many little boys who, it seemed to me, would be much better off to be out chopping wood and tending animals instead of sitting at a desk trying to concentrate on abstract academic ideas and skills.

Research indicates that children (especially boys) don't typically acquire the ability to think abstractly until around the age 10-12 years. They can be taught to respond to academic stimuli (forgive the clinical terminology) earlier than that, but the response does not indicate they are actually thinking abstractly.

Paul wrote (1 Cor. 13:11), "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things." One of the mistakes our culture makes is to virtually deny childhood. We need to acknowledge that children are not little adults. I'm not talking about excusing childishness that is actually foolishness, but I am persuaded we must embrace childhood in our children and not prematurely force adult pressures on them.

Attaining Natural Maturity

When did Paul become a man? Like other Jewish boys of the time, he would have celebrated the early form of a Bar-Mitzvah at age 13. Prior to that he was considered a boy, but at age 13 he was told he had become a man. Boys don't have the capacity to think abstractly like men. Like a boy trying to grow a beard, a boy struggling to comprehend abstract ideas and master academic skills can try diligently, but is simply not yet ready. When the natural maturity that comes according to the time the Lord designed, is reached, growing beards and understanding academic ideas will be much easier.

Yet in my profession I saw many young men who had been so pressed academically during childhood that they had developed what seemed to have become a potentially life-long mental block against those very academic skills. Most researchers recognize that a majority of boys labeled "learning disabled" will outgrow their disabilities if they are given a chance. But if they are continually pressured too early, they will develop self-fulfilling prophecies against their ability to learn.

I happen to be one of those boys. I was apparently dyslexic as a child and still read unusually slowly. I didn't learn to read until about 10 years of age despite the efforts of my institutional school teachers. Thankfully, my parents demonstrated patience with me, and I came to believe I could master the skills everyone else seemed to find so easy.

Stealing Childhood from Children

Playing outside with friends

I believe we are not only stealing childhood from children, but pursuing the wrong goals. In my family we purposed to trust the kingdom promise in Jesus' sermon on the mount. He said (Matt. 6:33), "But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you." Is it possible that one of the things that "shall be added to you" when you "seek first the kingdom of God" is academic excellence?

Early on we chose to de-emphasize or at least delay academic pursuits, focusing instead on spiritual disciplines and character issues. We gave our children lots of physical work to do, and spent lots of time reading and memorizing scripture together. Rote memorization is a concrete (as opposed to abstract) mental activity that children seem to be uniquely suited for.

Over time, we came to be exceedingly thankful for our early commitment to delay formal academics. While that is no longer the mind-set approach I recommend, it kept the pressure off of us during the time the Lord began to show us the scriptural approach of discipleship.

The Discipleship Approach

The Discipleship Approach is not so much a matter of delaying formal academics as it is a rejection of the pagan (Greek vs. Hebrew) model of education. The pagan Greek notion of education, that the Prussians (Germans) later developed and spread throughout western society, emphasizes pursuing knowledge for its own sake. The goal is for students to learn what their teachers know. It is based on cognitive input.

The Hebrew Model

In the Hebrew (scriptural) model of education (whether child-training or adult apprenticeship/mentoring) the goal is for the disciple to become what his teacher is. Knowledge is acquired as a by-product, but the goal is to shape the character and inclinations of the disciple. This scriptural Discipleship Approach is relationship-based, where the Greek approach is content-based.

Most of us were educated in the dominant Greek mode, where knowledge is artificially separated and organized into distinct disciplines (subjects) and inculcated via curriculum. Unit-study curricular approaches are moving in the right direction by maintaining inter-relationships between the disciplines, but the orientation is still Greek (pagan) rather than Hebrew (scriptural). The goal is still to acquire knowledge rather than to shape hearts.

The Greek Model

Greek education is dependent on the teacher's knowledge and tools (curriculum). Hebrew education is dependent on the teacher's love for his students. In the relationship-based Discipleship Approach the teacher uses the methodology Jesus used with His students. There is no hint of Jesus conducting classes or giving courses for His disciples.

Bible-based Curriculum

It's not a matter of changing content. It's not just making sure the curriculum is Bible-based. The difference is deeper. The Discipleship paradigm drastically changes the whole methodology. Jesus didn't use scripture as some formal textbook with His students. The closest thing to a Bible study we have recorded during His earthly ministry was a conversation with two disciples after His resurrection.

Jesus didn't use even the Bible as His curriculum. Instead, His life was the curriculum. He said repeatedly (I've counted 18 times), "Follow Me." This real-life relationship is the essence of the Discipleship Approach. Jesus was saying (my paraphrase), "My Father has given Me work to do. I'm going to focus on that rather than on you. But I want you to follow Me and watch what I do. Listen to what I say. Try to enter into the heart of My experience. Gradually you'll become increasingly like Me and be able to help Me with the tasks the Father has called Me to."

Ultimately this Discipleship Approach is the process every true Christian is involved in with the Lord right now. We are learning to "abide" in Him, being "led by the Spirit." But when we get distracted by the tasks, we get our eyes off Jesus and fail. It's only as we keep our hearts in tune with Him that we are able to bear any valid spiritual fruit at all.

Similarly, if we focus our students' attention directly on the skills and knowledge we want them to acquire, that becomes the goal, and they lose the focus on the real issue, their hearts. But if we focus on their heart relationship with the Lord and with us, they learn many skills and lots of knowledge along the way without seeming to even have to expend effort in that process. Interestingly, this also allows them to delight in the things they are learning (motivation) without either being stressed or becoming arrogant.

The Book of Proverbs a Curriculum Manual

Solomon reflected this Hebrew educational paradigm repeatedly in his "curriculum manual," the book of Proverbs. One of the clearest expressions of this is Prov. 23:26. He said, "My son, give me your heart, And let your eyes observe my ways." He was saying (my expanded paraphrase) "Give me your affections. Let me shape your values and tastes--your goals and ambitions. Admire me as your model--your hero. Watch me and the way I respond to the circumstances and relationships of life."

I believe we should call our children's hearts in a similar way. Although we all have a sin nature that is contrary to God's ways, He has placed within our nature certain things that are useful to His purposes. Children naturally start off with a heart for their parents. Solomon noted (Prov 17:6), "the glory of children is their father." This is good and pleasing to God.

Children naturally admire their parents early in life. We all naturally imitate those we admire. As parents we naturally use the admiration of this Discipleship relationship to train our little children in the things they need to learn (counting, jumping skipping, etc.). The Discipleship Approach isn't unnatural but natural according to the way God designed families. It is the Greek approach most of us learned in school that is artificial and contrary to God's creation design.

Implementing the Discipleship Approach

I've shared with many godly parents who see and agree with the theory undergirding the Discipleship Approach, but can't seem to find handles for its implementation. "How do I do it?" they ask. It has been helpful to remind them of the way they taught their children to crawl, walk, and talk. What curriculum did they use? They didn't use a curriculum! They simply loved their children and modeled the things their children would naturally mimic. Every effort was encouraged and the child gradually mastered the skill.

I enjoy helping young homeschool parents with children approaching school age. When they ask for curriculum advice. I facetiously ask, "What curriculum have you used up to now?"

Thinking I'm confused, they answer, "We haven't used curriculum. We haven't started homeschooling our child yet."

With tongue in cheek I'll respond, "So your child doesn't know anything yet?"

"Oh no," they reply. "He knows lots of things. He can count, tie his shoes, recognize letters and shapes, and lots of things."

"Oh!" I continue. "So he has learned these things without curriculum? And you're doing a good job teaching using your current method? Then why change?"

You see, we've all been brain-washed into thinking that once the children reach school age, we must start using formal (artificial) means to teach segmented bits of knowledge and skills, although we all innately already know how to teach according to God's design, more naturally. That's why we are told we need to turn our children over to professionally trained experts. It supposedly takes special training to use these artificial methods.

So how can one implement the Discipleship Approach? You're probably already doing it!! But you only do it when you're not consciously trying to use the Greek approach. Simply include your children in your daily work. Instead of making them the center of your life, make communion with and obedience to the Lord the center of your life. But then make room for the children to constantly "observe my ways."

Command them to "Follow me." Have them diligently (actively/interactively rather than passively) watch you do your work. Soon they will naturally want to help, in time they will take over more and more of your tasks and you will become a team. Instead of emphasizing diligence in abstract academic tasks, teach diligence through real work. If you don't have enough work to keep your children busy, start some enterprise together that will stretch them, while motivating them at the same time.

Setting Appropriate Goals

"But how do I use the Discipleship Approach to teach reading or math?" some ask. The very question reveals the paradigm flaw. The biggest part of the problem is that we still have the mindset that reading or math are the goals. Your children need to learn these things, but you need to model seeking first the kingdom of God or the other pursuits will become idols. The goal is not to teach academic skills, but to please the Lord Jesus in our current lives and let the acquisition of skills be a natural by-product of that process.

Using Real Life to Teach

In your real life do you read and write? I hope so. Sit down and read to your little ones. When you need to get to some other task and stop reading, they will beg, "Please read another chapter." Explain that you need to do some other work, but that if they want to try reading they're welcome to. Before long they'll be asking you how to sound out words. As you encourage them, the motivation from giving one another your hearts to the glory of God will bear the fruit of them imitating the skills you demonstrate.

In your real life do you use math skills? Have your children watch (and help) you balance your checkbook, or measure ingredients, or conduct some small family business enterprise. Have them update the estimate of the total cost of items in your shopping cart as you shop for groceries. They will learn math skills in the process, as you make a place for them in your heart and life.

My six children have never had reading or math lessons. Yet they conduct businesses. Bethany, my adult daughter, published a newsletter for children for several years in her early teens. How did she acquire the necessary skills to accomplish this? We didn't directly teach the skills, but modeled them in our daily lives.

Our children come to love books. Connie and I (and now the older siblings) are always in the middle of reading some godly book to the family. About the time many children are getting burned out on academics, my children love literacy so much they're constantly badgering us to read with them. In the morning we read scripture together. My six year old son wants to take his turn reading although he isn't yet a proficient reader. So we patiently help him sound out the words in his verse. It's happening again. Like his older siblings, he's learning the skills almost despite us.

We regularly sit together as a family and copy scripture. Our goal is for each of us to produce our own hand-written copy of the Bible (see Deut. 17:18-19). The younger children simply follow the model of their older siblings and parents. In the process, we guide them in the acquisition of writing skills incidentally.

Historic Revival in Progress

I believe God has purposes for the homeschool movement that are far beyond what most of us understand. I believe we are part of a historic revival whose impact will only begin to become truly evident in retrospect. One of the aspects of this revival is the promised solution of the last verse of the Old Testament. God promised (Mal. 4:6) to release prophetic ministry that would "turn The hearts of the fathers to the children, And the hearts of the children to their fathers." That is happening in and through the homeschool movement.

But if we're not careful, we resist the heart of the matter. God wants to restore relationships between parents (particularly fathers) and their children. If we cling to the pagan (Greek) model of education, we build resistance between our children's hearts and ours, and turn their hearts toward all kinds of other pursuits rather than encouraging them to "Give me your heart and let your eyes observe my ways."

For further discussion of the Discipleship Approach I recommend the following audio messages:

About the Author

Jonathan Lindvall is Administrator of Christian Pilgrims School, International, a ministry to homeschool families around the world, in Springville, California. He is a former public school teacher and principal, and has an extensive background in education, pastoral ministry, and broadcasting. He is noted as a speaker, writer, and songwriter.

Jonathan presents his family, youth, and New Testament church seminars in the U.S. and internationally. In his seminars and various other convention and workshop appearances he focuses on God's heart for the church, and developing scriptural parenting patterns that help families to implement radically holy lifestyles and train Godly sons and daughters.

Most recently he has focused on promoting homeschooling and New Testament house churches in China, India, and Africa.

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God bless you.

Jonathan Lindvall
Bold Christian Living
PO Box 820
Springville CA 93265
Phone: (559) 539-0500
Fax: (559) 744-1801

...He who has begun a good work in you will complete it... Phil. 1:6

© 2000-2007 Jonathan Lindvall - Reprinted with permission.