Dimensions of Learning in OACS Schools | Edvance Christian Schools Association
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Dimensions of Learning in OACS Schools

Written on October 5th, 2015

In our appreciation of and learning with Expeditionary Learning, the OACS has identified three key dimensions of learning that we’re highlighting as the foundation of how we support students to discover their gifts and purpose in a beautiful and mysterious world, full of immense joy and massive challenges. These are the three dimensions I’m referring to:

  • Mastery of Knowledge and Skills
  • Culture and Character
  • Beautiful Work

The three dimensions of learning are also highlighted as learning strands at the upcoming convention, and we’ve collaborated with Edifide in writing them. I want to share our description of them here too, and then expand on each of them in subsequent blog posts that describe school-wide and classroom specific core practices that support students in their experience of each dimension.

I’ll start by highlighting the role of approaching the Bible as an over-arching story of the universe, in which each of us finds our place and purpose in God’s ever-unfolding kingdom, full of grace and joy but also struggle and doubt at times. After establishing how we find our story in the Biblical narrative, I’ll move on to describe each of the three dimensions of learning and root them in our identity as image-bearers in God’s grand story.

All of this can also be read and downloaded in pdf form here if you’d rather access it that way.


Why are we in Christian schools so concerned with “story”? Richard Kearney explains the relationship between story and identity:

When someone asks you who you are, you tell a story. That is, you recount your present condition in light of past memories and future anticipations. You interpret where you are now in terms of where you have come from and where you are going to. And so doing you give a sense of yourself as a narrative identity that perdures and coheres over a lifetime (Kearney, On Stories, 2002).

So, we instinctively organize our daily experience into what we believe from the past and hope for the future. As Kearney says, our identity is a narrative identity.

We also recognize that our personal narratives find deeper purpose and meaning within larger sacred stories as well. We profess belief in a Creator who chooses to reveal himself to us through the grand narrative of Scripture. As Bartholomew and Goheen state,

Are we left with our own personal stories to make sense of our lives? Or is there a true story that is bigger than … us, through which we can understand the world and find meaning for our lives? Are our personal stories—apart or together—parts of a more comprehensive story? … We believe N.T. Wright is correct in saying that the Bible offers a story that is the true story of the whole world. Therefore, faith in Jesus should be the means through which a Christian seeks to understand all of life and the whole of history (Bartholomew & Goheen, The Drama of Scripture, 2004).

So, our school communities intentionally participate in what we profess to be “the true story of the whole world.” And together we continue to explore with our students how God calls us to live in that story “for such a time as this” just as Esther was encouraged to do.

There are many key motifs in the Biblical narrative that our Christian schools explore together—image-bearing, covenant, culture, shalom, antithesis, sin, Kingdom, redemption and restoration—in partnership with thinkers like Nicholas Wolterstorff, Al Wolters, Mike Goheen, James K.A. Smith, and Andy Crouch, only to name a few. We do this through our regular devotional lives in the staff rooms and classrooms of our school communities. We do this through our ongoing professional learning in the school and at events like the annual Edifide Educator’s convention. This work can never be completed! The power of narrative is that it continues to shape us in new ways as our own local stories also unfold.

How do we invite students into the depth and beauty of the Biblical narrative? We recognize that the primary method of understanding this narrative is not only through learning content but primarily through experience. Educators design experiences for learners that are then woven into their personal narratives. As we deepen our ability to design those experiences, we focus on these three dimensions of learning for educators and students in our ongoing apprenticeship with Jesus Christ in what it means to be image-bearers.


Our image-bearing of the Creator implies responsibility and privilege in stewarding what has been made and discovered. We inherit knowledge and skills from the ongoing story of creation and humanity and in turn discern how to use that knowledge and skills in service to God and his ongoing kingdom. There can be a sense of joyful play and delight in what we are discovering in our learning. Although we often approach knowledge in specific disciplines—math, language, arts and sciences—we also recognize that knowledge is inter-connected. We want to explore how meaning is inter-disciplinary.

While pursuing knowledge, we want to foster life-long habits that support skill development, the discipline required for any apprentice to become adept in skills. In this sense, play and delight in discovery lead to habits and mastery through practice. Practice in skills is encouraged through a growth mindset and takes many forms. Skills are cognitive (such as analysing, computing, reflecting), physical (such as through using tools, technology, or body movement) and social-emotional (such as collaborating, sharing, empathizing). Like knowledge, these skills are also inter-connected.

Finally, for all students to be supported in the mastery of knowledge and skills, we are committed to pedagogical approaches that support diverse learners. We want inclusive classrooms, practices, and structures that help us to support a diversity of students. Diverse learners help each other develop diverse understandings and skills.


An intentional focus on culture and the shared habits of character that will create that culture is crucial for all schools. The mastery of knowledge and skills cannot be separated from the character of learners. Both students and adults play a significant role in developing a relational culture in the school community. Doug Blomberg expresses relationality this way:

Truth is a network of relationships; any one person, thing or event stands at the intersection of a vast number of these. Ultimately, truth is the relationality that is God‘s covenant community, held at the centre by the cosmic Christ. Not reason but love is at the heart of Creation. (Blomberg, “Whose Spirituality? Which Rationality? A Narrational Locus for Learning”, JECB, 2009)

Our image-bearing of the Creator implies relationality: we are inter-dependent in our relationship to creation, to each other, and to God as Father, Son, and Spirit. OACS schools believe that a Spirit-filled community will reveal the fruit of the Spirit as outlined in Galatians 5:22-23— love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

A culture that embodies these characteristics is determined not only through writing a good discipline policy or outlining a school’s habits of a graduate. As we engage in learning experiences, we actively reflect on our thoughts and emotions within those experiences, deepening our understanding of ourselves and others. Social-emotional learning is woven into the daily practices that foster healthy relationships: active listening to understand, speaking with courage and honesty, and collaborative protocols that outline how we treat each other in community. These practices are embodied in both student and professional learning.


Full of mystery and wonder, the Biblical narrative moves us through a grand story from garden to city, and our image-bearing of the Creator implies that we are also creators; our learning empowers us to participate in making beautiful things. We learn about God’s world not just for our own gain, but to pursue shalom—the flourishing of all things in creation. Often, the commitment to culture and character and the mastery of knowledge and skills find their realization in the beautiful work that we pursue together. Play and work are not opposites in this regard. There is a beautiful seriousness in both that reflects Christian wisdom.

Proverbs 8 indicates that Wisdom is craftsmanship, woven into the things we observe as so beautiful. As we explore how God has woven wisdom into the things he has made, we also respond by weaving our best sense of wisdom into the things we make too. Often, cultural artifacts will act as powerful models for us to consider in our own work—a bridge, a novel, a presentation, a topographical map, a math solution, a meal—the qualities of these artifacts can invite us to ponder what skills are needed to create something well, and to ponder how our artifacts might play a part in God’s unfolding drama of shalom. Building from Expeditionary Learning and the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s “Attributes of High Quality Student Work”, we believe beautiful work will exhibit the qualities of complexity, craftsmanship, and authenticity. As a means of both encouraging and celebrating our desire for these qualities, beautiful student work should be shared with others who can appreciate it and be blessed by it. Beautiful work is “real work, that meets a real need, for a real audience.”


The following draft visual (click to enlarge) attempts to capture the interplay of the dimensions of student learning in the context of our Biblical identity. From within the context of the grand story of God’s creation—the river that flows from garden to city—learning moments are constantly occurring and can be intentionally designed in our schools. The question mark signpost in the river begs us to ask us about our context: what impact does a specific time and place have on the learning moments we provide for students? As a learner encounters a benchmark or model and an authentic purpose for the learning that prompts engagement and desire to learn, the learning community works to deepen knowledge and skills, taking time to practice with formative assessment and multiple drafts. As that mastery is developed, students actively think about both the culture and character that is ideal in which to develop their knowledge and skills. What are they learning about God, themselves, and others through the learning? To the best that they’re able, students and teachers collaborate to produce beautiful work, the culmination of the learning experience, and that work is then shared with an audience who can benefit from receiving that work.Beautiful work becomes a future benchmark or model to inspire another learning moment. In this visualized experience, we use the rich metaphor of pottery from the Biblical narrative. Like apprentice potters, we work to create something meaningful, and we ourselves are also formed in the process. Of course, in our schools, the focus could also be math, literacy, science, socials, or some inter-disciplinary combination of a number of these disciplines. The OACS is excited to support you in your pursuit of learning. Don’t hesitate to connect with me at any time to discuss your learning vision. And look for future blogs to make each of these dimension more specific with core practices and data to support our implementation of them.OACS dimensions of learning v2