Jesus is the ultimate transformational Teacher. In His earthly ministry He sought to change the hearts and minds of His students. Not only did He seek to impart knowledge and lifelong learning, but His goal was for His students to live in a meaningful relationship with the Father. What can we learn from the best Teacher who ever lived, and how can this be applied to our Bible classrooms?
Ellen White wrote that “the teaching of the Bible should have our freshest thought, our best methods, and our most earnest effort” (Education, p. 186). She also wrote: “Our thoughts on education take too narrow a view. There is need of a broader scope, a higher aim…. Higher than the highest human thought can reach is God’s ideal for His children” (p. 13).
In 2008 the Australian Union Conference (AUC) and the New Zealand Pacific Union Conference (NZPUC) Education Departments asked their teachers to consider what God’s ideals might be for His children in the Bible classroom. The following adjectives were some of the most common ideas shared amongst teachers:
With this in mind, AUC and NZPUC combined their efforts to develop a new Bible curriculum for kindergarten through grade 10. At that stage, most teachers were either using the South Pacific Division Bible curriculum that had been developed in the mid-1980s or were creating their own materials to meet the needs of their students. The large percentage of non-SDAs in our Adventist schools “down under” (up to 95%) also meant that it was time to reassess the needs of our changing clientele and consider how we could witness and share Jesus with our students and their families in a significant way.
One of our first decisions was that the Bible itself should be the textbook in Bible class. Knowing that “the subject of Christ’s teaching and preaching was the word of God” and that Christ “taught that the word of God was to be understood by all. He pointed to the Scriptures as of unquestionable authority, and we should do the same” (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 21) confirmed this decision. The Bible can reach to the depths of the human soul (Hebrews 4:12); it can draw us to the heart of the God of the universe and show us how to live a life of meaning with Him. Why should it not be our textbook for Bible class—and life?
And so, eight years ago, a small team of writers from Australia and New Zealand, including Lanelle Cobbin, Georgie Winzenreid, Sarita Butler, and Jenny Patterson (elementary); and Nina Atcheson and Lanelle Cobbin (secondary) began working on developing new teaching units for the Adventist Encounter Curriculum (Bible) for Kindergarten through Grade 10. Dr. Daryl Murdoch, director of Adventist Schools Australia, oversaw the project. As it was written, this curriculum was released in stages. Since its initial development in 2008, Encounter has been used in more than 100 schools in Australia and New Zealand and has been well received by both teachers and students.
Two years ago the North American Division (NAD) decided to pilot both the elementary and secondary Encounter curriculum in its territory. Resounding success made way for the curriculum to be Americanized, and pilot teacher feedback was incorporated as plans were made to adopt this curriculum across the division.
As Encounter was developed, and as we considered the many other Bible curricula on the market, one thing became clear. Most Bible curricula were focused solely on delivering content. Yet as Ellen G. White aptly said, “A mere knowledge of the truth will never save” (Spalding and Magan Collection, p. 3).
As we reflected on Jesus’ teaching, we realized He had a special focus on process (how He taught), such as relating visible examples, like the sower in the field nearby, to lifelong truths for transformational learning. What if the process (how we teach and how the brain learns) was considered with as much intention as the content (the truths of the Bible)? What does transformational teaching and learning really look like? What if our goal was really a response to the Great Commission to “go, make disciples” of our students—to call and equip active disciples who know Jesus intimately and who share their faith boldly?
Discipleship has become a trendy word in the Christian world, yet the Great Commission is something that we, as an Adventist Church, take very seriously. We believe we’re called to finish the work; to spread the gospel and the three angels’ messages to the ends of the earth and make disciples. Why not start with our own children?
To bring these dreams to life, Lanelle Cobbin’s Transformational Planning Framework was adopted as a rigorous pedagogical tool (the “how”), and topics (the “what”) were carefully selected to create a learning journey of both knowledge and faith, head and heart.
The Transformational Planning Framework is a pedagogical planning tool that can be used in all subject areas but is particularly pertinent in the Bible classroom. It seeks to engage students in every step of the learning process and encourages students to own their learning. Walter Webber from Mile High Academy, Colorado, reflects, “As an educator, I have gone to several conferences on differentiated instruction—how to reach all students and their different learning styles. It’s the hot term in teaching, and in my own classroom I have seen positive results from using differentiated techniques. The new Bible curriculum has many of these techniques already built into the lesson plans. It shows [that] as Adventist educators we can be on the cutting edge of education.”
The eight learning phases in the framework are purposeful as teachers journey alongside students in their walk with God, as they learn and “worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).*
The first learning phase, Learner Bait, acts to “hook” students into the forthcoming topic and identifies a key theme. While this learning phase is often short, it often includes some kind of interactive, relational activity or engaging story that seeks to make our students “hunger and thirst after righteousness” (Matt. 5:6).
Jon Weigley from Upper Columbia Academy, Washington State, reports that the Encounter activities are both enjoyable and challenging for his students, which keeps them engaged. “When the student is doing the active learning (as Encounter has formatted a good portion of the lesson plans), they get so much more out of the class,” Weigley said.
Learning Context, the second learning phase, seeks to ensure that the students can see how the forthcoming topic fits in the big-picture story of the Great Controversy. This phase also identifies what students already know and draws out questions they may have. It gives students the reasons as to why the content is relevant and should be studied.
Brandi Mills from College Heights Christian School, Canada, shares, “I am absolutely loving this program! It has really helped me ask questions that I didn’t even know my students wanted to talk about. . . . The videos especially have been incredible. The Signature Response video in the first unit is one that really impacted many of my students in their understanding of how to explain how God is the Creator and yet is not visibly seen.”
Animated Learning follows, where the teacher shares the “story” of biblical passages that form the foundation of the unit. Meta-narrative is a powerful vehicle for meaningful learning, and in the same way that Jesus “told them many things in parables” (Matt. 13:3), teachers seek to share the truths of the timeless biblical stories with students, who may see a story they have heard many times before through new lenses.
Teacher Andon Boyce from Crawford Adventist Academy, Canada, reflects on the engagement of his Year 9 students: “I marvel at the fact that students are asking to keep copies of the book Messiah so they can read it for themselves.… I’ve never experienced this before! The students are given a taste for God and are hungering for more!”
The next phase, Engaged Learning, is where the students respond to the “story” of God and the messages of the Bible. Higher-order thinking strategies that incorporate the various intelligences are harnessed in this phase so that students own the learning process as they delve deeply into the Bible. This phase seeks to make our students “thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thought” (Education, p. 17). It also unleashes inquiry, brain-based learning. “Jesus desired to awaken inquiry. He sought to arouse the careless, and impress truth upon the heart” (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 6).
The first topic students explore in Grade 9 looks at God’s existence. Students look at faith in the lives of biblical characters such as Abraham and Job, and one of their assignments is to create a voice recording of Job 36:24-37:24 and illustrate the concepts with images that correspond to the biblical message about God. Students are then encouraged to share their videos in chapel, on their school website, or in the school’s newsletter as a testimony for God’s existence.
James Johnson from East Pasco Adventist Academy in Florida shares: “Our students, simply through carefully reading aloud the material, selecting visuals, and hearing themselves during the presentation at worship, found Job to be more real to them. In my opinion, the Encounter Curriculum has done more to help them grasp the reality and greatness of God than any curriculum the Adventist Church has produced to date. I find myself learning and growing with them, as opposed to just teaching them.”
The teacher then moves into Heart Learning, a worship time with the students in response to what has been explored in the previous phases. In all the rush and noise of life, teaching our students to “be still, and know that [He is] God” (Ps. 46:10) can be challenging.
“Our first work is with the heart.… The mere knowledge of truth is not enough. We may possess this, but the tenor of our thoughts may not be changed. The heart must be converted and sanctified” (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 84). Yet “man cannot transform himself by the exercise of his will” (p. 83), and in the same way, a teacher cannot transform his students by his own will. The Holy Spirit must be present, working on each child’s heart. Yet if the teacher prepares the soil, pulls out weeds, and moves away rocks, working together with the Master Teacher, the soil is made ready for the Holy Spirit to work.
In these worship times, reflecting on Scripture, song, story, or media helps students to know and worship God in a meaningful way. Ben Kreiter from Forest Lake Academy, Florida, shares, “I love Heart Learning, because kind of like Sabbath, it’s a reminder for me as a teacher that hard work and learning is great, but it’s important to stop and take time in class to worship the Savior and [recognize] all that He has done in our lives. If we fill up our students’ minds, but not their hearts, we have accomplished very little.”
Students have an opportunity to really respond to God in Soul Learning. Personal reflection on the messages that have been explored in the Bible through journaling, along with group discussions and other activities, helps to personalize their faith. Here the roots of application can begin to grow through students’ articulating their learning and responses to God. “Those who would teach the word are to make it their own by a personal experience” (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 25).
Lori Anderson Holm from Loma Linda Academy, California, shares, “Just yesterday my students were saying how much they enjoy this curriculum. One student said he feels at peace entering the classroom—no panic that he forgot to do something. He knows God will be the focus, and this gives him a chance to deepen that relationship and not get lost in ‘busy work’ but focus on who God is and why He matters in his life.”
In Life Learning the teacher invites students to consider how their learning will encourage them to live their lives differently today. At some point, faithful following involves intentionally choosing to obey. Here students are given opportunities to serve and share their faith in their communities. Life Learning combats the problem described by Ellen White: “There are very many who claim to serve God, but who have no experimental knowledge of Him” (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 31). Mission is a focus of each topic.
Deborah Parrish from Columbia Adventist Academy in Battle Ground, Washington, shares, “The Encounter curriculum is structured in such a way that students are taken on a spiritual journey through each topic. It is so much more than gathering information about Jesus—it is taking that information to the next level of ‘What does it matter in my life at this very moment?’ and ‘What can I do with it?’”
The final phase is Kaizen Learning, which is a Japanese concept that speaks of honoring tiny, seemingly insignificant, never-ending improvements. Honoring our students’ incremental steps in their learning is a powerful retention tool, and it associates joy, delight, and fun with godly things. This short phase exists to celebrate learning discoveries, amazing insights about God, or a student’s commitment to God through baptism.
In The Reality of God unit, students collaboratively decide how they can celebrate God. D’Mariae Banks from Las Vegas Junior Academy in Nevada describes how this activity affected the entire school: “The Encounter curriculum has been an incredible tool to connect my students to the Bible and to encourage spiritual growth. The Reality of God unit challenged them to personally investigate where they stand with God. As part of the Kaizen Learning phase, my class decided to throw a party to celebrate God and His existence. We decorated and purchased a special cake. Many of our younger-grade students could not believe that we were actually throwing a party for God; they were convinced that it was really for someone’s birthday. In all, this party made the reality of God that much more tangible.”
The Impact of Encounter
The impact of the Encounter curriculum extends beyond the Bible classroom and into other subject areas. Noeline Timothy, a part-time elementary teacher in Waitakere, New Zealand, says that Encounter has inspired her to integrate God into many of the subjects she teaches. The results, in Noeline’s estimation, are exciting. “The Bible now underpins so much of what I do. I love to see God coming through in so many ways. I love that my students are coming to know Him, His character, and His grace while learning new skills. It’s completely changed the way I teach.”
Arne Nielsen, director of secondary education at the NAD, is enthusiastic about the progress of the Grade 9 Encounter rollout. “It’s been wonderful seeing the Holy Spirit move upon the hearts and minds of our education leaders this year.… We now have Bible classes [that] students are excited about and look forward to attending. This curriculum is meeting the spiritual needs of this generation of students and is providing a framework for how a 21st-century Adventist school should operate.”
According to Nielsen, the NAD is exploring the feasibility of making Encounter available in digital format and is looking into options for homeschoolers. Nielsen also sees potential for using the curriculum in other world divisions.
Each of these testimonies shows how God continues to work in our midst when we surrender our efforts to Him. They show how God, the ultimate transformational Teacher, can empower teachers to show that “love, the basis of creation and of redemption, is the basis of true education” (Education, p. 15).
Many enthusiastic and talented academy teachers across the NAD have started using the Adventist Encounter curriculum this year in their classrooms. Yet while “we have a part to act, we must have the power of divinity to unite with us, or our efforts will be in vain” (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 71). As the Master Teacher has guided the development of this curriculum, He will equip our humble teachers each day. Please pray for the Holy Spirit to fall like rain onto the hearts of our students, who will be transformed into His likeness and will be instrumental in taking the final message to the ends of the world.
*Bible quotations are from the NKJV.