Mrs. Zajac Isn’t Coming Back

Mrs. Zajac wasn’t born yesterday. She knows you didn’t do your best work on this paper, Clarence. Don’t you remember Mrs. Zajac saying that if you didn’t do your best, she’d make you do it over? As for you, Claude, [hopefully] you should [n]ever need brain surgery. But Mrs. Zajac hopes that if you do, the doctor won’t open up your head and walk off saying he’s almost done, as you just said when Mrs. Zajac asked you for your penmanship, which, by the way, looks like you did it and ran. Felipe, the reason you have hiccups is, your mouth is always open and the wind rushes in. You’re in fifth grade now. So, Felipe, put a lock on it. Zip it up. Then go get a drink of water. Mrs. Zajac means business, Robert. The sooner you realize she never said everybody in the room has to do the work except for Robert, the sooner you’ll get along with her. And… Clarence. Mrs. Zajac knows you didn’t try. You don’t just hand in junk to Mrs. Zajac. She’s been teaching an awful lot of years. She didn’t fall off the turnip cart yesterday. She told you she was an old-lady teacher.[1]

Mrs. Zajac was only thirty-four years old, but she liked to call herself an “old-lady teacher.” Her hands were always in a flurry of busyness as she accentuated her words in front of the class. When they temporarily stopped and rested on her hips, her hands looked as if they were in holsters. She was a tough teacher, but her students knew she loved them.

She could have been your teacher. She could have been mine. But today, not many children will get a Mrs. Zajac.

I’d like to address one of the impacts constructivism has had on the classroom: the disappearance of teacher-led classrooms. In a sense, the disappearance of the Mrs. Zajacs.

Today, constructivism is the biggest team in the arena of learning theories. In most college education departments, it’s the only team they follow.[2] Because of this, a new generation of teachers who have been shaped in constructivist learning theories have emerged in classrooms all over the country.

Among other things, constructivism as a learning theory holds this to be true: knowledge is constructed by the learner. Because this directly impacts the work of teachers, we shouldn’t be surprised that constructivism—and postmodernism, in general—has made deep in-roads into the classroom.

If knowledge is constructed by the student himself, we need to rethink the role of a teacher. The teacher does not impart knowledge but is rather the facilitator of student learning. The teacher is no longer the Sage on the Stage, but the coach cheering his or her students on. The teacher’s voice is no longer dominant; rather, it is the voice of the children that must be heard. [3] The students are, after all, the creators of their own knowledge.

The postmodern classroom shreds authority. The postmodern classroom is student-led. The postmodern classroom demotes the memorization of facts and exalts student discovery.[4]

Mrs. Zajac didn’t think of herself as a coach, nor a facilitator. She thought of herself as a teacher. She thought of herself as the parent who knows more than the child, but who loves the child and wants to bring the child to maturity. As a teacher, she plotted their course; she did not let them discover their own maturity independently from her guidance and authority. To do otherwise is folly. The word of God is clear on this matter. The Bible teaches parent-led maturation and education.

“For I [God] have told him [Eli] that I will judge his house for ever for the iniquity which he knoweth; because his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not.” 1 Samuel 3:13

“Honour thy father and thy mother.” Exodus 20:12

“My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother.” Proverbs 1:8

“Hear, ye children, the instruction of a father, and attend to know understanding.” Proverbs 4:1

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. Honour thy father and mother; which is the first commandment with promise.” Ephesians 6:1

Herman Bavinck, who spent the later part of his life studying modern educational philosophies, believed we could learn much from the world. Bavinck’s life overlapped that of John Dewey, a father of postmodern education, and as a result, he certainly had much to consider. But even in this, Bavinck claimed that the word—spoken by teacher or written on a page—is primary and the object—things, manipulatives, discovery learning—was secondary. Although he recognized the place of learning by doing, he said there is knowledge that must be accepted upon authority (“because the teacher said”).[5]

This brings me to my last point. Teacher education programs are de-emphasizing the importance of the teacher’s intellectual capacity. What the teacher knows is far less important today. What matters is their ability to facilitate their student’s learning. What matters is their ability to create space in the classroom for student discovery learning. These skills are promoted at the expense of subject knowledge. This is a national tragedy. 

Constructivist learning theory has given birth to practices that have changed the classroom. It is not a benign framework from which we may view student learning. It is based on false principles. It is producing a malnourished fruit. I challenge all lovers of Christian schools to consider the impact postmodern philosophies like constructivism are having on the schools that you cherish.

Do your schools hire teachers that not only love truth, but know it? Do your schools establish a Christ-centered curriculum which intentionally shapes student learning? Do your schools hold the word of God as the supreme standard in principle and in practice? Do your schools value student knowledge? Do your schools insist on student memorization of knowledge? Do your schools demand the authority of the teacher over the student? And, finally, do your schools understand and acknowledge that they are powerful instruments in bringing the child to maturity as a child of God?

If you can answer yes to these questions, then hold dearly to such a school. Cherish this school. You have a school that is becoming rarer every year.

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[1] Kidder, Tracy. Among Schoolchildren. Houghton Mifflin Co., 1989, p. 3.

[2] For reference, probe Grand Valley State University’s Department of Education platform. They boldly proclaim on their website: The College of Education prepares candidates who enhance the individual growth of their students while working to establish policies and practices that promote the principles of democratic education.” A democratic education is a constructivist term which means putting the students’ voice on equal level as the teacher’s. Both curriculum and classroom management are shaped through classroom consensus.

[3] We shouldn’t be surprised when 18-year-old David Hogg and other students of Parkland, Florida were able to raise their voice in protest after the school shooting. Not only did people give them an audience, but the students themselves had the audacity to raise their voice. Indeed, postmodern education has made its mark.

[4] Theory will always generate a practice. Social constructionism also claims practice shapes the theory. This doesn’t mean such a practice is owned by that theory or vice-versa. Example, environmentalism will generate a practice of caring for the earth. It doesn’t mean that environmentalism owns such a practice. One should care for the earth, but not because they are adhering to environmentalist beliefs. And if one does care for the earth, it doesn’t make them an environmentalist.

This is true for educational theories, too. Some classroom practices that flow out of constructivism can be used properly. For example, there are times when it is good for a child to take the lead in their learning, but even in this, the teacher must provide the boundaries for that child. Let’s not attribute this to the merits of constructivism. There are other appropriate educational theories that could be generating such a practice.

[5] Jaarsma, Cornelius. The Educational Philosophy of Herman Bavinck. Eerdmans Publishing, 1935, p. 170–71.

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This post was written by Rick Mingerink, a member of the Byron Center Protestant Reformed Church in Michigan. Rick is also a principal at a Christian school in West Michigan. If you have a question or comment for Rick, please do so in the comment section.

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