Teaching, Theology

It’s All Fun and Games Until…

The apostle Paul, in Romans 7, describes a condition of spiritual angst that is very familiar to most religious people. “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Later, in the same chapter, Paul summarizes his battle with sin; “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”  Paul’s description of the struggle is so real – and so relatable – that many who read this leave the passage with the impression that “Paul understands exactly what I am going through.” And, to be certain, Paul does understand. But Paul is not finished with his point…

In the very next verse, Paul states, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” and gets to the point where in chapter 8:1, Paul states “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (some manuscripts add “who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit”). Paul is describing a kind of liberation from the law of sin, and instead he is free to live in the Spirit of life and freedom.

Oscar Ramos and I have been interested in how this dynamic illustrates a shift, in Paul, from the what Dweck describes as the “performance” or “fixed” mindset, and liberated to the “growth” mindset. Paul is no longer concerned with measuring up in order to experience the love of God, as he has learned “that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

What if vocation, like leadership or teaching, were informed by this soteriological shift? I’ll stipulate that Paul’s transformation in understanding the salvation of God is primary. But what would it mean to embody this theology in pedagogy?

As I mentioned a few posts ago, several of my colleagues and I presented at the CCCU Doctoral Education Forum on this issue, and found ourselves wrestling with some of the practical implications. I’m still working out (and will post more this fall) a pedagogy of sanctification; but I am being confronted with some significant challenges on the pragmatic side.

  1. Students/Followers expect to be evaluated. Weimer (2013) made this point very well. The genetic default of education is that students will perform, and educators will evaluate. I’ve experienced the same phenomenon on the leadership side as well; employees expect to be valued for their performance. In instances where I have invited adult learners to evaluate their own work, the primary reaction I’ve encountered (beyond, “Wow, this is hard!”) has been, “Isn’t that YOUR job?” I once asked my department to engage in an exercise of self-evaluation for the annual job performance evaluation; one of my employees responded, “What should I put here?” If a teacher/leader is going to move toward a different model of evaluation, a significant portion of the resistance may well come from the student/follower.
  2. Positive reinforcement comes in lots of flavors. One of Dweck’s (2008) primary theses is that different forms of positive reinforcement can have different outcomes. Praising a student for “getting it right” has the tendency to reinforce performance and result in an ontology of performance. This is a vastly different outcome than an ontology of learning. Students who are positively reinforced for learning may hear messages like “You didn’t quit,” or “You’re doing the difficult work of discovery.”  I recently had a heart-to-heart with a student struggling to get through her dissertation proposal. In full exasperation, she cried, “I’m just so tired of failing.” My first inclination was to try and reinforce that she wasn’t failing. It took me some time to find the growth-mindset reinforcement; “You’re trying to articulate a question no one has asked yet. You’re discovering.”
  3. Students/Followers may perceive mixed messages. When Paul describes the “Spirit of life,” he is fully aware that some may hear that there is no longer a need to strive for moral/spiritual correctness. Paul’s conversation in Romans with the interlocutor anticipates confusion. Just this spring, a student complained of his final grade in my course. He had failed most of the assignments, but he interpreted the fact that I was still meeting with him and making suggestions as evidence that he was going to ultimately pass the course.  When it became clear that we had different expectations, he asked “why did you encourage me to do this work of I was failing anyway?” It would be easy to roll one’s eyes at a doctoral student complaining this way; however, I think he has a justifiable question in light of his 20-something years of academic experience that preceded this moment. Teachers don’t help students who are going to fail anyways. This leads me to a fourth and important discovery…
  4. Some “performers” have had a lot of reinforcement. One of my colleagues, Kathy Yeager, made this point in our initial thoughts about feedback and the doctrine of salvation. Many doc students did fairly well in high school, college, and even graduate school. They have grown accustomed to having their performance measured, and experienced a lot of success in that paradigm. They learned to anticipate what questions would be asked on an exam, and how best to recollect the information to return it back to the prof. They learned how to write papers that said next-to-nothing with mechanical clarity. And so, when they reach their doctoral work, they are being confronted with a new paradigm. They were always the “smartest” fish in the pond; but as the pond has gotten smaller, and the definition of “smart” has shifted, they’ve discovered they don’t know how to swim.

My point in this post is to be explicit and authentic about the challenges related to new paradigms of academic feedback. It will be one thing to say, “Here’s a way we can connect faith and learning.” The realities of that connection may result in paradigmatic shifts that represent pain and suffering for the learner and the teacher.


Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

1 thought on “It’s All Fun and Games Until…”

  1. If the first one truly a problem – we do have a responsibility to guide, right? I’m not sure if we can do that without feedback/evaluation. (For the record – I have noticed the same issue with attempting to give more “voice and choice” to students. I do think you’re right that it’s embedded in our ed genes.)


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