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  • What Are Study Skills?

    In The Potter's School we teach courses that are as rich in academic scholarship as they are in biblical worldview. We understand that God *is* Truth, and so all study of truth-seeking knowledge in any and all subjects is really a study of Him, and should be pursued in reverent excellence.

    However, we have also found that striving for excellence in the classroom is not a universal value in Christian education or homeschooling. This is a departure from the traditional Reformation view, where Christians held excellence in Labor -- including school -- in high regard for many centuries until relatively recently. In observing and working with students and their "study skills" for over a decade, we have identified several factors behind the current departure from pursuing excellence in school subjects, all of which directly impact the motivation, process, and practice of studying. Our observations have also informed our understanding of what "study skills" really are, and given us some experience in how to encourage pursuit of godly excellence in this generation of students.


    Students in this generation struggle with their identity perhaps more than in any prior generation. Misunderstandings from both outside and inside the Church contribute to the idea that a person has to "make" his own identity through his experiences, or even that he has to "narrate" it through his various personal and social media interactions. Even inside the Church, we have lost much of what it means that our identity (who we really are, including our value and purpose) is designed and declared by God, and renewed in Christ.

    In this identity confusion, students tend toward one of two extremes in their studies. One is to see school subjects, and particularly grades, as "worldly," and to devalue them as less important or as something that shouldn't matter. This extreme realizes correctly that Johnny's identity and worth is not found in his grades, but in response it throws out the biblical notion of striving for excellence in all things as unto the Lord, leaving Johnny relatively disconnected from his God-designed calling to pour himself out to redeem some portion of the fallen Creation back to godly excellence.

    We parents feed this extreme by blaming external factors (teachers, curriculum, technology, etc.) for why Johnny doesn't learn difficult subjects; by generating various labels for why Johnny won't concentrate on a particular subject (even though he can watch a movie, play a game, or interact on social media for hours); by deciding that if God wanted Johnny to strive for excellence in certain subjects better He would have made them come easier to Johnny; or even by just declaring that "we focus on character instead of grades in our schooling," thinking that excellence in character can somehow be developed apart from striving for excellence in our Labor. What is needed is not concessions or compromises, but to help Johnny find his identity (esteem, purpose) in Christ, and help him make his Labor a worshipful expression of that God-given identity.

    The other extreme we see is students who put everything into getting "A's" in school, anxiously seeking each one and devastated if they don't receive it. These students crave the approval (parental, teacher, peer) of the "A," because they believe it is at least somewhat a basis for their identity and worth. They may not intellectually think that their salvation is based on their works, but they still tend to believe in their hearts that their worth and value -- and how pleased we (God, parents, others) are with them -- is based mainly on how they perform. Sometimes we use the term "perfectionist" for these students, when what we really mean is that they have a foundational misunderstanding of the perfected completion of the Cross.

    This second extreme paradoxically thinks that Johnny's identity and worth is somewhat found in his performance, so it gets predictably stuck trying to help Johnny be OK with the possibility of less than perfect performance, again leaving Johnny relatively disconnected from his God-designed calling to pour himself out to redeem some portion of the fallen Creation back to godly excellence. When we parents can't convince Johnny of something that we are also not sure of ourselves, we often try to manage Johnny's perpetual anxiety by taking him out of the hard classes and activities, where he might not get an "A" or might upset himself trying. However, rather than restoring Johnny's esteem, this parental management mainly serves to tempt Johnny to believe that he now has no chance for full approval because he cannot handle things that are "too hard." To untangle this confused knot, what is needed is not to shield Johnny from challenges, but to help Johnny find his identity (esteem, purpose) in Christ, and help him make his Labor a worshipful expression of that God-given identity.

    To avoid both extremes, and the convoluted variations in between, it is imperative that our students learn that their identity (who they really are, including their value and purpose) is designed and declared by God and made new in Christ, and their worthiness (approval, esteem) comes from the righteousness and completion of Christ's work on the Cross -- and from nothing else. Then they need to learn to Labor in excellence in all things as part of their worship relationship with God (not to gain favor from God), and to rejoice in the outcomes He brings as fruit of that Labor. This is the foundational motivation of a biblical approach to Labor and "Study Skills."


    This generation of students multi-tasks better than any that has come before. They are growing up learning to process and manage more data streams than we parents ever did, or even can at this point. However, studies still show that memory and learning are less efficient and effective in a multi-tasking environment. We in TPS have found by much observation that the typical student's study "hour" is effectively about 30 minutes or less of focus on the actual task at hand. The rest of the time is spent managing his environment (music, media, etc.), social networking (facebook, chat, etc.), getting interrupted by constant activities of the home (a risk of home education), and engaging in other first-world distractions.

    Just as "multi-tasking" is a skill that is learned and developed, so is the skill of "focusing" one that is learned and developed. In TPS we have found that students can with practice over time learn to turn a 30 minute study hour into a 50+ minute study hour, take a short break, and then repeat the process. As our students get into late high school beyond, they should be able to work or study all day this way. However, this requires addressing their Labor in general, and studying in particular, as an activity that is spiritual as well as intellectual and physical. The ninefold fruit of the Spirit are the foundational motivation for Labor, as well as the state of heart and mind in which we should approach Labor and receive its trials and blessings. The heart motivated by love (worship, service, sacrifice) and filled with peace is also the heart that exercises self-control in focusing diligently on each subject for 50-ish minutes out of an hour, and is also the heart that rejoices in the results of that devoted studying (whatever grades it may yield) as God's glorious outcome.


    With the right motivation and focus, the traditional "skills" of studying can be developed powerfully and effectively. Without that foundation, they are basically just forced behaviors that never even become effective practices, let alone ingrained habits. For example...

    Studying Literature is hard analytical work that should seek Truth even when it is tangled with error, and shouldn't settle for shallow disregard for views that don't match our own. Without this Labor, our "analysis" becomes merely disrespectful misunderstanding of what someone else said (which describes much of today's "Christian" analysis of secular literature and philosophy).

    Studying Math is hard creative inductive work defining the problem and devising potential solutions, then rigorous deductive work weighing possible solutions and proving that a chosen solution will stand in all pertinent conditions. Without this Labor, "math" is reduced to applying predefined formulas to predefined problem types (which is the limitation of most U.S. math programs -- particularly those for home school -- and why the U.S. is in the bottom third of developed countries in math education).

    Writing well is hard work. It requires us to have something analytically and creatively insightful to say. It involves basic grammar skills, advanced writing techniques and styles, and then refinement and polish. Without this Labor, our writing becomes mechanically adequate strings of words that ultimately say little important or persuasive to anyone (which describes how most students write as they enter college these days).

    Studying Science or History is a hard process of identifying assumptions and their basis (and bias), assessing possible interpretations (theories) as weighted options rather than conclusive truths, and realizing that human understanding in these disciplines often seems certain for hundreds of years only to be overturned by the next great discovery (something that the Church loses sight of as we counter flawed secular certainty in history and science with flawed certainty of our own).

    Where from here?

    The Potter's School is seeking to build excellent "study skills" in this generation of students. Realizing that the problem starts with a mistaken basis for identity, builds through processes that largely ignore the fruit of the Spirit, and manifests in lack of effective general and specific study habits, TPS is working holistically on all three "levels" of the issue. In our classes we actively mentor the students to help them find their identity (esteem, purpose) in Christ, Labor in excellence in all things as part of their worship relationship with God, and rejoice in the outcomes He brings as fruit of that Labor.

    More specifically, we also offer a Study Skills course that teaches students the motivation, process, and skills for holistically effective studying. We encourage every student who is taking other TPS courses, particularly our excellent (and challenging) core courses, to take our Study Skills class as early as he can, to help build effective study habits on a solid biblical foundation. We also encourage students taking the class to discuss the principles with their families, to help strengthen each family's culture of excellence in Labor as a reflection of their worship relationship with God.

    (c) 2012 The Potter's School and Jeff Gilbert. May not be posted, distributed or otherwise used without permission.
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