“… [T]he reason why we focus on biblical worldview integration is because our students need to be able to apply God’s word to every aspect of their life. […] They need to have the right skills as they leave our school, as they graduate and go on to do what God calls them to do for his kingdom, to be able to think and process through that. New stuff is gonna come at them that we couldn’t have prepared them for, but we need to give them the right skills and tools to be able to process what is yet unknown.” – Dean Ridder

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. Listen to the full podcast episode here or using the player below.

Michael Arnold: Dean Ridder joins The Teacher’s Lounge today to talk to us about faith learning. I can’t wait to explore Dean’s practices and philosophy for biblical integration and spiritual formation, and also to highlight a free resource that Dean has made available through his school, Isaac Newton Christian Academy, where he’s currently the Head of School there in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Dean has also been a middle school teacher, an assistant principal, a principal in schools in Chicago and other suburban areas throughout the state of Illinois before moving to the Hawkeye state and joining Isaac Newton Christian Academy.

He has a Master’s in Educational Leadership from Purdue University and is currently pursuing his doctorate in Educational Administration. He also serves on several boards related to Christian education, including ACSI’s commission for accreditation. And he’s been married to his wife Jolene for 28 years, and all three of their children have attended Christian schools. So it’s safe to say that you know a thing or two about the distinctives of faith-based education. Wouldn’t you say so, Dean? Welcome to The Teachers’ Lounge today.

Dean Ridder: Thank you for having me. Yes, Christian education is in my blood. I’ve attended Christian schools from pre-K all the way through to the completion of my undergraduate degree, and I deeply love Christian education.

Michael Arnold: Oh, so you’re a product of Christian education, too.

Dean Ridder: I am. I went to Lansing Christian school in Lansing, Illinois, Illiana Christian High School in Lansing, Illinois, and then Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois.

Michael Arnold: Okay, that’s great. That’s something you and I have in common. I say that I’m the product of Christian education, which makes me one of its strongest advocates. I know some of the weaknesses firsthand, and I also know some of the joys and benefits and want to see it become better.

Biblical integration at Isaac Newton Christian Academy

Michael Arnold: And I think of all of the aspects of Christian education, I think the thing, and you can correct me on this if you’re wrong, but one of the areas that you lean into is faith learning or biblical integration, sometimes called values infusion or biblical worldview training, or discipleship training, lots of terms out there, but it’s all kind of the same idea. What term do you prefer, and why is that something that you’ve focused on in your career?

Dean Ridder: So, I guess the term that you’ll hear most at our school is “biblical worldview integration,” but actually, it’s not the term that I prefer. I actually prefer the term “permeation” over “integration” because I think that word speaks better about what we’re trying to do. Integration; the problem that I have with that word is that it implies that we’re putting the Bible into things, but that’s not a realistic picture of what’s actually happening, because the biblical truth is already there.

And so we don’t have to work to put it in there. It’s already there and we have to uncover it. But what I hope that we’ve done at our school is created a culture where the Bible has permeated every aspect of our instruction.

Michael Arnold: Yeah, and I want to unpack that. I almost, I’m exercising some discipline now because I want to jump to those deliverables, those takeaways, the practical side, but I’m going to save that for the last. The standards that your school has developed, which I think a lot of schools have found to be helpful.

We’re going to get to that eventually, but let’s start with, let’s start with uh, Isaac Newton Christian Academy.

Isaac Newton Christian Academy’s mission

Michael Arnold: Tell us about your school. How do you describe your school to those who are interested, and hopefully this time of year you have a lot of people checking out your school. How do you describe what Isaac Newton Christian Academy is all about?

Dean Ridder: Well, we like to define our school by our mission. Our mission is original to the school. Our school was founded back in 1989 and the mission of the school was chosen back then. And I think it really accurately describes who we are. We are about the development of Christ-like character and academic excellence in our students. So it’s a two-pronged mission. We spend equal time working on both aspects of that mission. It really is an important document in our school.

I remember working on my master’s thesis and I had to take a class about mission statements and how they were integrated in schools. And part of my assignment was to call up school leaders and ask them how they use their mission statement. And it was, I guess, humorous to me now, but I was hard-pressed to find an administrator that knew their school’s mission statement. Some schools didn’t have one at all. Some principals said, well, I’ll have to go look in the filing cabinet for it.

I hope that I’m leading a school where the mission is known by everyone.

It’s part of our board and staff development. It’s an important part of the process when we speak to prospective families. Our mission helps us to know what we get to say yes to, but it also helps us know what kinds of things we should be saying no to. And there’s lots of great things that a Christian school can do, but if it doesn’t connect with us developing Christ-like character and academic excellence in our students, then I think our responsibility is to leave that for other organizations to do so that we can be true to our mission.

Michael Arnold: Yeah. Now I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years in Christian education. I’m sure you have too. One trend that I’ve noticed is that schools are more aware of their missions. At least being able to quote it. We include it as a subject or the signature line now on our emails, we post it on the wall and so forth. And yet, what does that second prong look like? How do we unpack that?

Training teachers in biblical integration at Isaac Newton Christian Academy

Michael Arnold: I think that’s the other trend we’ve seen in Christian education, where – and maybe your experience has been different – even teachers who are Christian and even come from Christian colleges and universities don’t feel as equipped today to practice faith learning, biblical integration, biblical worldview training, as maybe they one time did. Have you seen that as well?

Dean Ridder: Yes, we have. When we hire teachers now, we expect that they do not have the preparation to teach at the level that we expect them to at our school. And so we’ve had to develop our own training on how to do that. When we launched this training, it was a three-year-long process. It’s not for the faint of heart.

And we hired professionals to help us with that. We partnered with Dr. Christian Overman, who’s in the Bellevue, Washington area. He’s just a really well-known expert in biblical worldview and its integration. And so he became our coach. He helped us for those three years with nearly daily communication with our school. It was intense, but our teachers took classes that were taught by Dr. Overman. They had to read a lot of books. They had to write papers. Teachers love to assign papers – they do not like to write papers.

And then we had tools that we developed at our school to help with the development of a biblical worldview integration. And so these were really practical tools. They have interesting names like “Truth and Baloney Detector,” “Awesome Activator,” the “Daddy Plan,” different things like that. So we taught teachers how to use them. We gave them real classroom experience using those tools. And then they became part of our curriculum mapping. So when our teachers pull up their curriculum maps, those tools and their usage of them are built right into their curriculum maps.

Michael Arnold: So those biblical worldview standards, which we’ll get to in a second, are just one element of a broader plan that you developed with Dr. Christian Overman?

Dean Ridder: Yeah.

Expected student outcomes at Issac Newton Christian Academy

Dean Ridder: So at our school, we realized that we were doing a great job of addressing the academic excellence part of our mission. We have lots of ways to measure that. But we knew that we weren’t really doing all that much to address our effectiveness in the developing of Christ-like character, that part of our mission.

And we also weren’t very good at using information to improve the quality of helping our students to be more like Jesus. So like other schools, we also have expected student outcomes. Some schools call these like a portrait of a graduate, but in our expected student outcomes – we call them ESOs for short – we define what a student who goes all the way through our program will act like, or know, or even the kind of person that they will be. And so when these were created at our school, they were informed by our mission. If we’re successful in meeting our mission, our ESOs would further define what that student looks like, but we also wanted those ESOs to have a spiritual component to them. We weren’t, we’re not just developing students intellectually, socially, and emotionally. We also want them to be spiritually developed. So we incorporated things like we want our students to understand and commit to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We want them to know and understand and apply God’s word in their daily life. We want them to personally respond, to carry out the Great Commission in a way that’s culturally sensitive. These are simple statements, but ensuring that students meet those outcomes is a lot of work. And it requires a lot of preparation, years of preparation.

Michael Arnold: Yeah, absolutely. Those are deep statements. Those are not easily obtained in the heart and mind of a student – maybe the mind, but not always the heart. And so those are pretty deep and powerful.

Teacher training for biblical integration at Isaac Newton Christian Academy

Michael Arnold: And so I love the fact that you have this training program. That’s not something that I was aware of. I just wonder, how transferable is that? I know you’ve done some work with other schools to encourage them in their process. Is that something that’s transferable?

Dean Ridder: Yes, and no. I mean, I don’t think a three-year program is transferable, and I’m not sure that the schools necessarily have the resources or the time to develop that. Now this kind of hints at a problem that we’ve had since that three-year training program: we have new teachers that we brought on board since we finished that program. That program has changed the life of our school. And it is an expectation of how courses are taught at our school, but teachers that come into that program and aren’t necessarily well-trained in how to do this, what do we do about them?

So we worked with Dr. Overman then to create a six-month kind of, we compressed all that material down into a six-month unit. It’s a digital course that our teachers take. They know upon their hiring that they’re going to do that in their first year of teaching at our school, regardless of their years of experience and regardless of their preparation. Every teacher that starts working at our school has to take that six-month course in their first six months of working here at the school.

The reason for that is because we need to get as quick of an on-ramp onto our school as possible. So we need for them to learn how we do this, and be up to speed and be doing it as quickly as they can.

So we worked with Dr. Overman to develop that course. It involves a digital textbook, it involves video lessons. It involves a workbook that they complete, but it also is an introduction to those six tools that we developed as part of that three-year process. So that’s why it takes six months. They spend one month on each of those tools.

Michael Arnold: Okay. And the expectation is that they would incorporate that into their teaching as well during that month?

Dean Ridder: Right. And they are required to use those tools during that month and then give demonstrations of how they used it.

Michael Arnold: Nice.

Biblical integration goal at Isaac Newton Christian Academy

Dean Ridder: Now here’s, here’s the part where other schools might find the challenge. Our challenge to our teachers is that the word of God is integrated in every subject, in every classroom, every day. That’s a big ask. And it’s a goal. It’s not necessarily exactly what happens, but it is our goal. And our teachers have heard me say that so many times that they could recite that for you from memory: “In every classroom, in every subject, every day.” That’s our goal. That’s how we get to the permeation that we’re looking for.

Michael Arnold: Yeah. And I’m sure you’re not asking for, because, and we’ll talk about the biblical worldview component of this. You’re not asking for a proof text every single day, bible verses every single day. You’re talking about biblical worldview permeation. But that’s also more than just Christian-based textbooks, right? This is separate; you’re targeting the teacher and their teaching style and their delivery. Apart from any – I don’t even know how many faith-based textbooks you’ve adopted as a school, but apart from that – this is a separate expectation.

Fertile soil tests

Dean Ridder: Right. So we have what we call fertile soil tests at our school. That’s part of our spiritual formation assessment. Before we could ever ask students spiritual formation questions to assess where they were at, we needed to evaluate our school. And through that process, we developed seven fertile soil tests, and I can name them for you, but each one of them could probably be their own podcast episode.

The first one is attention to biblical worldview integration. The second one is biblical meta-narrative and how that’s treated at our school. This is talking about the Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration, or the “ought, is, can, and will” of the biblical meta-narrative. The third part is what we call head, heart, and hands, or knowledge, character, and conduct. Fourth fertile soil test that we use is our attention to absolute Truth and how that’s addressed in our classrooms. The fifth one is that we address a sacred/secular divide in our instruction. The sixth one is that we are working very hard to have interactive, engaging Bible lessons. And then the last one is what attention do we spend on school-wide spiritual activities? So biblical worldview integration is just one of those seven elements that we’re working on.

Michael Arnold: Okay. And there is a lot to unpack there, and I just heard you offer to join me again on a future, so I might have to take you up on that.

About Isaac Newton Christian Academy: triangle partnership

Michael Arnold: I’m curious; your school, Isaac Newton, is it a church-based school, or is it an independent school?

Dean Ridder: It’s an independent school. It is what some people call a covenant or a discipleship model school. The reality is though that it is 2022. And that model is not as pure in 2022 as it used to be. But we do have a statement of faith that we require at least one parent in the family to be in agreement with.

But the result of that is that we have at least one parent that’s made a commitment to Jesus Christ. That doesn’t necessarily speak of the students’ commitment to Jesus Christ, but it also doesn’t address the maturity and spiritual growth that a family might be at. And so we’re serving families that are on all different paths.

The result is that we partner with 50 different churches in our community, but we don’t belong to any particular one church. The bylaws of our school actually protect that non-denominational nature of our school. And our board of directors, no more than two of them can actually attend the same church, to try to protect the school from going in the particular direction of one particular church.

Michael Arnold: Yeah, that’s interesting. I think there are a lot of benefits to that approach, you know, as for the longevity of the school, making the school accessible to a variety of church backgrounds, but that also would feed into how you do faith formation and biblical instruction, because you need to be sensitive to the denominational distinctives, which I think would drive you more to core doctrine, right?

Dean Ridder: Right. It isn’t simple, but right, core doctrine is where it’s at. And that’s what our statement of faith is. We believe that our statement of faith encompasses the core beliefs that any true follower of Jesus could agree to. It does not get into doctrinal specifics. Now our faculty also needs to be trained on what to do when those doctrinal distinctives do come up in the classroom, and they do.

But our response to that is we direct students back to their parents and to their church. So we view ourselves in a triangle partnership. We’re one corner of that partnership, but we’re partnering with the family that represents the child. And we’re also partnering with their church. Our belief is that if you put the child in the center of this triangle, where all three of those main organizations in their life are working together to point that child in the same direction, which is towards Jesus, that eliminates a lot of confusion in their life.

So we’re very mindful of the relationship that we have with the family, but we’re also mindful of the relationship that we have with their church. And so when doctrinal distinctives come up, we don’t want to cause more confusion in the life of that child. And so we direct them back to their parents and to their church for those doctrinal distinctives.

But it feels a little bit like what heaven’s going to be like. We don’t spend any time arguing about doctrine here, which you’d think might be the case, but we really don’t. We love Jesus and that’s enough.

Michael Arnold: Yeah. And it allows you to set aside some of what people would call a distraction, you know, to focus on the main thing. But at the same time, we do hear from schools who take a very similar model to yours, you know, an independent school partnering with the family and the church. They kind of talk about this three legged stool with the school being one of those and the family, the church being the other two legs, but those other two legs, the church and the family in our culture today are becoming weaker and weaker. And it seems like Christian schools have had to step in more when it comes to faith training than perhaps at any time in the past.

Dean Ridder: Right. We feel that our responsibility as a Christian school in that triangle partnership is that we have to be as intentional as possible. I think the days of just kind of winging spiritual formation are over.

We don’t have that luxury to just wing it. We have to be intentional. We have to know what we’re doing, and we have to study and research it, and we enjoy that process here. And it’s something that I’m personally passionate about.

Dean Ridder’s faith journey through relationship with teachers

Dean Ridder: I think one of the benefits that I had of a Christian education is that, when I got to be 18 years old, I knew that I had a bunch of moral information in my head, religious information. And I knew that when an error came towards me, that I reacted internally really quickly. But I began to wonder, how do I know that what I just heard is wrong? And I began to think of my mind as a moral warehouse, stacked full of shelving units that were full of things that were on those shelves. And I kind of equated it – that’s how I was interpreting what was coming at me. I didn’t have the term biblical worldview to define that yet, but I knew that there were things that were already inside me that were helping me to process what was coming at me.

And it was actually through that process of recognizing all that, that I eventually gave my life to Jesus when I was 18 years old. I had not done that yet. I was a good kid and I loved to please all those Christian school teachers and pastors and youth group leaders, and I loved to please them, but it wasn’t real until I actually recognized Jesus through my intellect. That’s how I came to know Jesus, was through my intellect.

Michael Arnold: So 18, that’s towards the end of high school, or maybe even post high school for you?

Dean Ridder: It was my senior year in high school. Two things happened. At my church, I was required to take a catechism class that traditionally was always taught by the senior pastor. And I just thought that was going to be completely irrelevant to my life. What is a set of predetermined questions and answers going to do for me? And how is that going to help me to grow? So I went into that very skeptical. At the same time, I went to a Christian high school and I had to take a senior year Bible class taught by a teacher that taught my parents at that same school. This was not going to be relevant to me. And I went into that class internally kicking and screaming. How can a guy who buttons his cardigan sweater wrong every day be relevant to my – but he made, both of those men, made the word of God come to life for me.

My Bible teacher took me aside – he was a man of insight – he took me aside and he said, “I know that you please, I know that you do what you’re supposed to, but I don’t know that you know Jesus.” And so he said, “I need you to do something for me. I want you to buy a Bible, a study Bible.” He picked out which one he wanted me to buy. It cost $60. And he said, “I do not want you to ask your parents for this money. I want you to work for it, earn it yourself, and go buy a Bible.” Well, he played into the fact that he knew I was a pleaser, and I knew what to do to please him was to earn $60 and buy that Bible. So I did. And I brought it to him, and I said, I bought the Bible you told me to buy. And he said, now I want you to read it. And he turned me to the book of Romans and he said, I want you to read through this book.

That’s the process that I began to go through, to recognize what was going on in my mind. And, that’s how I gave my life to Jesus. So I’m so grateful to those two men who I thought were irrelevant to me, but they changed my life.

Michael Arnold: They cared for you, they had relationships with you. And I like to point out that that’s the difference between the textbook and a teacher: the teachers foster those relationships. They’re messy sometimes, but they foster those relationships and that’s the core of discipleship, anyway – it’s relationships. That’s powerful. Thanks for sharing this story.

Advice for schools beginning the process of biblical worldview permeation

Michael Arnold: So now you’re on the other side of this. You’re leading the school, you’ve served on accreditation teams regionally and on the board for ACSI, the accreditation commission for ACSI, if I got that right. What would you tell schools – maybe you have told schools – in regards to faith learning, biblical integration, biblical worldview permeation. What do you encourage them to do in this area?

Dean Ridder: So I encourage schools to ask lots of questions at the beginning of this process. Ask questions like, what are your expectations of your teachers as they teach their lessons? Do you expect that connections are being made into biblical truth in every subject, in every grade level? If so, what is the expectation for how often that’s happening? A school needs to be sure that every teacher understands the term “worldview,” what it is.

We had to go through a definition process at our school so that everybody knew exactly what we were talking about. We define a worldview at our school simply as a system of beliefs that answer the big questions of life. And it’s worth saying that everyone has a worldview. We can’t escape living this life without having a worldview. Not everyone has a biblical worldview, but everyone has a system of beliefs that they use to answer the big questions of life. But our goal is to help students understand that the Bible does have the answers to all of the big questions of life.

Why focus on biblical worldview?

Michael Arnold: So why did you focus on biblical worldview as opposed to, and they’re not mutually exclusive, but as opposed to apologetics or discipleship or even a small group approach, why did you focus on biblical worldview?

Dean Ridder: Well, we don’t exclude those things that you just mentioned. For us, they just fit into a different one of those seven fertile soil tests. But the reason why we focus on biblical worldview integration is because our students need to be able to apply God’s word to every aspect of their life. And they’re going to need to be able to do it beyond what we can present here. They need to have the right skills as they leave our school as they graduate and go on to do what God calls them to do for his kingdom, to be able to think and process through that. New stuff is gonna come at them that we couldn’t have prepared them for, but we need to give them the right skills and tools to be able to process what is yet unknown.

Michael Arnold: Some have suggested that biblical worldview is a great place to meet students because even if we want to bring students to faith, we first of all have to bring them to Truth, right? And that is biblical worldview. Here’s the truth of how the world works. And if you can, you know, ascribe to this on a mental level, then hopefully we can bring your heart along at some point as well.

The five categories for the big questions about life

Dean Ridder: So when we look at the big questions that everyone has about life, we’ve divided those questions into five different categories, and that’s become the system that we use to deliver a biblical worldview integration, a biblical worldview at our school. Those five categories for us are: God – everybody has questions about God. And these are questions like, is there a God? And if so, what is that God like? The second category is Creation. What is the story of everything that is here and how did it get here? The third category is Humanity. What do we understand about people? What are people really like? Are people inherently good? Are they inherently evil? What happens to people when they die? Lots of questions like that. The fourth category for us is Moral Order. What is right and what is wrong, and who decides? And then the last category is questions about Purpose. What is this all about anyway, and what are we supposed to be doing while we’re here on this earth?

And so, I mean, I’ve given you some of those questions, but of course there’s lots and lots of questions.

But for us, we just found that they can really be divided into five different categories. And we looked at maybe expanding that to six or seven categories using Reality as a category, what’s real. But we felt like some of those other things are encompassed in the other five.

Michael Arnold: Yeah. That’s interesting. And those come out in those standards that you developed as well to align your curriculum.

Isaac Newton Christian Academy biblical worldview standards using the five categories

Michael Arnold: Tell us a little bit, just a brief summary or overview, of what those standards are like and how you use them.

Dean Ridder: Yeah. So as we recognize the importance of developing a biblical worldview in our students we realized that we needed to help bring consistency into our classrooms. And so we began to think about implementing biblical worldview benchmarks, just like we do in math, science, and English language arts.

So we actually put a committee of people on it. Dr. Overman that I mentioned was very helpful in this process, very helpful. We also made sure that we had pastors on that committee that represented some of the different churches in those 50 churches that we serve, just to make sure that as we develop these biblical worldview benchmarks, they did not have too much of a doctrinal leaning in one way or another. And so we purposely chose pastors that went to different churches, that had different doctrinal beliefs, to help protect that. And so together we agreed upon about 125 different benchmarks. And we divided those into those five categories: God, Creation, Humanity, Moral Order, and Purpose.

Michael Arnold: They’re not graded, though, like content standards would be – third grade math and fifth grade math. All of your teachers are referencing these same a hundred and what’d you say, 125 or so?

Dean Ridder: Yeah, we counted 125. Now we did make one distinction. For our early education program, we formed another committee that took those benchmarks and created an early education version of it.

The thought behind that was, we wanted to ensure that these ideas and wording were at an appropriate shelf of accessibility for our youngest students. And so in the early education version, we eliminated some of the benchmarks if they weren’t developmentally appropriate, but mostly we just changed the wording and the vocabulary of the benchmarks to make sure that they were more appropriate for those students. Those statements tend to be a little more simple.

Michael Arnold: Concrete as opposed to abstract, I’m sure. Very interesting. So about 125 standards – all of your teachers are expected to pull these into their unit plans. Even their daily lesson plans, it sounds like?

Dean Ridder: Right. So we started with, how do we make these accessible to the teachers? So we published them in a lot of different ways, but one of them was a big blue poster that we had made, divided into five columns for those five categories, with all those benchmarks listed underneath the appropriate category. It’s a big blue poster and we had the teachers, asked them to put it up in their classrooms somewhere towards the front of the room, somewhere where they spend a lot of time instructing, so that it was easily accessible.

We also created versions for students so that they could keep it in their desk or keep it in a folder. But then we decided we also needed to have them even more accessible. So we had them coded, like other standards and benchmarks, and had them integrated into our curriculum maps. And so now teachers have really easy access to these biblical worldview benchmarks as they plan their units of instruction and their daily lesson plans. So it really helped to ensure that they were regularly used.

Michael Arnold: Yeah. So you make it part of the culture by keeping it in front of everybody all the time. That’s a great approach.

Implementing biblical worldview standards

Michael Arnold: Early on – it sounds like you had your teachers involved in the process from the beginning, but what were some of the struggles or the challenges that you had to overcome to implement these, to help your teachers embrace these?

Dean Ridder: Well, it is a new way of thinking for teachers, and, you know, teachers that teach at Christian schools, especially veteran teachers that have been doing it for a long time, didn’t really like, necessarily, the idea that they had to change.

We all don’t like change. But when we know that we can do it better, it’s worth changing. And change, it’s a mindset of growth, right? We can do things better.

And we had some lead teachers that we knew would be on board with it, kind of lead the way and help encourage other teachers in the good work that was going on. And so they would share stories of how the use of these benchmarks was making a difference in their classrooms. And it became contagious as teachers began to hear the excitement that some teachers had for what was happening in their classroom.

Evidence of the efficacy of biblical worldview standards

Dean Ridder: Now here’s an interesting thing. When we initially did this and made this change after this three-year-long process, we did not publish it to our families. We did not tell them that we were trying something new, that we were doing a little bit of an experiment to help grow this area of our school. We didn’t talk about it. We were just going to quietly do it and see how it went. And then we would be able to go back to our families. But a very interesting thing happened.

Our families started coming to us and saying, What’s going on? Things are different, but in a really great way. Our child is coming home and talking about spiritual concepts in a way that we’ve never known them to do before. What’s causing this change? What’s going on that’s different? And as we started to get more and more questions like that, we realized, we need to start telling people what we are doing, because it is interesting, and families are interested in what’s happening.

So then we were able to kind of launch a big communication to show them what we were doing.

Michael Arnold: Wow. And what a great way, I love the stories like that, where parents come and say, We’re noticing something at home. Thank you – but what is it? You know, that is so great.

Example of how biblical worldview permeation is implemented in the classroom

Dean Ridder: So, can I give you an example of what this looks like in a classroom? Because if I were listening to this podcast, I would want to say like, what is this, what does this all mean? What does it look like? So let me give you a real example.

In a fifth grade classroom, so these students are 10 and 11 years old. One of my joys in my job as being the Head of School here is that I get to observe the instruction that’s taking place, as part of the evaluation process, but just to get to enjoy what our teachers are doing. So I was sitting in the back of this fifth grade classroom. It was science class, and it was the first day of a unit on the respiratory system that was being taught in this fifth-grade science classroom. So the teacher was trying to connect to prior knowledge, to just see what the students knew about the respiratory system. But she was also trying to find out how they could incorporate a biblical worldview into what they were going to be learning.

And so she just asked a simple question. “What do you think we’re going to learn about God as we study the respiratory system?”

Now I need to kind of step aside here. One of the important parts of the training that we gave our teachers is how to ask really good questions that bring about biblical thought. And so I was celebrating in the back of the room. The teacher did exactly what we hoped they would do. They asked a good question and then left it for the students to apply the answers, instead of just feeding them the information, but to ask good questions so that students can come up with a biblical truth on their own.

So she asked, “What do you think we’re going to learn about God as we study the respiratory system?” And one student raised their hand and said, “Well, we’re going to learn that God is the creator of everything, and the respiratory system is something. So we’re going to learn that God is the creator of the respiratory system.”

And I was celebrating in the back of the room. What a great logical connection that that student has made: if A is true, and B is true, then I can know that C is a fact in all of this. So I was, you know, celebrating the application of logic.

But then another student, like really excitedly raised their hand. Ooh ooh ooh! And so the teacher called on him and he said, “You know what that means for us? That means that God’s not a far-away God, but he’s a close-to-us God, because He cares about my breathing and I don’t even think about it.”

And I’m sitting there thinking, wait, how old is that student? 10, 11 years old? That’s a great connection.

Well, then she went on to ask them, you know, the categories that we use are God, Creation, Humanity, Moral Order, and Purpose. She got to the Humanity part. And so she said, what do you think we’re going to learn about our humanity as we study the respiratory system? And a student raised their hand and just said, “Well, sin has affected everything. And so as we study the respiratory system, we’re going to see evidence of sin because it’s everywhere.”

And so then another student raised their hand and said, “Yeah, things like bronchitis and emphysema and lung cancer. That’s not the way God intended it to be, but we’re going to see that in the respiratory system, because sin has affected the respiratory system.”

So you can see that that doesn’t happen overnight, right? That’s not just one teacher that caused that to happen in the minds of our students. That’s a system. That’s third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade, all working together and helping to point those students and helping them to think through things, connecting to biblical truth.

Michael Arnold: Yeah. I think that’s also a great example of what biblical permeation can look like, as opposed to biblical integration, which a lot of us get tripped up on because it’s like, I don’t have time to add more, you know; I’ve got so much to cover. How do I add more? But what that story demonstrated for me is, through good pedagogical practices, where we’re permeating that with biblical truth, we can lead our students into deeper logic and reasoning and connections to prior learning.

I’m sure you have countless examples of changes in instruction, not just, you know, spiritual outcomes, which I’d be glad to hear more about as well, but also pedagogical practices that have been updated and changed because we’re focusing on the main thing, biblical truth. That’s awesome. Thanks for sharing that.

Dean Ridder: You’re welcome.

Michael Arnold: So the other side of that though, you shared stories from families.

What about stories about students who, you know, much like your story and, you know, you had to go buy a Bible, and the teacher saw you and called you out, so to speak. Do you have stories similar to that in your school, where students seem to have, you know, achieved those outcomes that you set for your school?

Collaborative spiritual formation practices through professional learning communities

Dean Ridder: Yeah. So we have professional learning communities in our school. I know that’s a common practice in education nowadays, but we use our professional learning communities to also address spiritual formation topics. It’s not just an academic endeavor. It’s also a spiritual formation endeavor. And so our teachers are meeting in their PLCs, and they’re also talking about spiritual things.

And we feed them spiritual questions. Our teachers just completed an eight-week course on spiritual formation and assessment. And so we’re having these wonderful discussions about real examples that happened this school year in our school. And our teachers are providing those examples, and we’re talking about them and saying, what is an approach to helping that student grow? How are we discipling a student in these very specific situations?

And, it’s been really, really fun to hear these very specific examples, to hear what teachers have reacted in the, in the moment, how they were ready to handle that situation, but then to hear from their peers about, what else could we have done? What is another approach that could have been done here? And so they’re sharpening each other’s iron and it’s really fun to watch.

And we use real examples from our school. We don’t attach names to them, but a teacher will say, “this happened in my classroom,” and “this student came to school on this particular day, having this have happened at home just prior to they got here.” And how do you expect a student to pay attention when that happened at home, just before they got here. And then the teacher shares what they did, and other teachers you know, support that, but give other suggestions of what they could have done. And everybody’s getting better because of it.

You said it exactly right. That discipleship is about relationships. The problem with this kind of spiritual formation is that it can’t be scripted. I mean, we’ve gone through a lot of trouble to go through all the detail of putting things down on paper and having processes in place, and you do have to have that, don’t get me wrong. It’s absolutely necessary. But our teachers need to be mature disciples of Jesus, mature followers in their faith, so that they’re ready to be able to handle these things as they come up in the moment.

Michael Arnold: Yeah. And that goes back to the whole idea of, you know, we’re not just going to throw a document at a teacher, we’re going to equip them to know what this looks like to use it.

And I can’t help but realize that, you know, most faith-based school teachers are not at the school because of the money, you know, or because of the perks that come with the job. Well, maybe there are some perks; the perks that they’re after are changed lives, right? And so when you celebrate those things, when you have a process to help deliver those things, when you have a process for equipping your teachers to do those things, they have to feel fulfilled and empowered to meet their calling, right? To meet their mission, to fulfill the great commission.

Dean Ridder: Right. And in the day and age when we are talking all the time about teacher shortages, I have a bunch of teachers that work at this school that can’t imagine going somewhere else because they’ve grown to love the culture of our school, and can’t imagine doing it somewhere else where that’s not commonplace.

Michael Arnold: Yeah, yeah. Wow.

Theology of work in the biblical worldview standards

Michael Arnold: I want to ask another question about the standards themselves. Dr. Christian Overman, his work, I think he focuses a lot on the theology of work. Is that right?

Dean Ridder: He does. You’ll see those reflected in the benchmarks for our school and the coding that we use for benchmarks, those are labeled with a TW, to emphasize that they are theology of work practices. Let me talk just briefly about where that comes from.

We believe that God has placed a call on the students that are enrolled at our school. We believe that God is going to use these students in some mighty way to advance his kingdom. And we hope that that happens right here in Cedar Rapids, and so we want to prepare them for that. But the likelihood is that God is going to call them to advance his kingdom somewhere in the world, so they need to be ready for all kinds of opportunities. But we want to make sure that our students don’t think that the only way that they can serve God is by going into just full-time Christian ministry. We believe that God is going to use them in full-time lawyering, and full-time accounting, full-time fill-in-the-blank, any position. And so our challenge to our students is that we need to view our work as an ability to please or glorify God, or to grieve him.

So I can do my job as a Head of School of a Christian school in a way that grieves God. So just because I’m doing ministry work doesn’t mean that it pleases God, the same way a person who’s serving God as an attorney can do that job in a way that glorifies God or grieves God. And so we want them to be able to rightly understand how they can glorify God in whatever work he calls them to do and to broaden the definition of what Christian ministry means.

Michael Arnold: Yeah. That’s so powerful, especially in a culture, even a faith-based culture, who tends to view work as the curse, right?

Dean Ridder: Right. The work is actually worship. When we study the concept of work in the Bible, God is working before sin ever happened. He planted a garden. He was working. So, work can’t be the result of sin. The pain of the labor of work is the result of sin, but not the work itself. God has created us and he’s made our bodies to do work. And so we glorify him in how we view work and how we use our work to glorify him.

Michael Arnold: And I can’t think of a better impetus for college and career readiness, those buzz words that we throw around, than, Hey, God created work and it’s good. So let’s seek to glorify God in our work rather than grieve him. How do we prepare you for that? That is a powerful dynamic in my mind.

Reach out to access the biblical worldview standards!

Michael Arnold: Well we are honored to be able to share these standards, just a small portion of all the work that you’re doing around them, but we’re happy to offer them to schools through Curriculum Trak. Schools can certainly reach out to support. We’re glad to help them get these standards into their Bible program and talk about how they can use them in other areas, how they can run reports to make sure that teachers are diversified in their efforts, they are not just picking the low-hanging fruit, talk about the same thing all the time. Those are the things we like to do, but I’m sure schools will have questions for you as well. So are you open to that? What’s the nature of some of your work? I’m sure you have all kinds of free time by the sounds of it.

Dean Ridder: Well, here’s a novel concept that has been developed here at Isaac Newton Christian Academy. Our board of directors recognizes that we don’t just serve the students that are enrolled in our school, but we desire to serve the greater Christian school movement. And so my board of directors has tithed my time to Christian education. So I am paid by my school to support Christian education in other contexts, so that Christian education can be strong and effective and powerful. And so that’s one of the reasons why I’m able to serve on these different boards that I do to serve Christian education in different ways.

We have a great team here at this school and it runs pretty good whether I’m in the building or not. And so it’s an opportunity that we have, and a unique position to be able to help other schools. And we enjoy doing that.

Michael Arnold: That’s awesome. And I think that coincides well with what we are seeing our mission to be as Curriculum Trak. Yes, we have a software tool, and we talked a little bit about it today and how it can be helpful, but ultimately we want to promote faith-based education around the globe and connect educators to others who have figured some things out. And so thank you for sharing your wisdom and insight into this.

It’s been a personal honor for me to have this conversation. I mentioned earlier, I don’t think we’ve ever talked before in person; we’ve talked through email and even support tickets from time to time in the Curriculum Trak software, but this is our first real conversation. I hope it’s not our last. But I’ve been honored to have this conversation with you and found it to be encouraging and affirming, and even emotional at parts, hearing your story and how students have been able to benefit from your efforts. So thanks for sharing that with us today.

Dean Ridder: You’re very welcome. It’s our pleasure.

Dean Ridder serves as the Head of School of Isaac Newton Christian Academy in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Dean began his career in Christian education as a middle school teacher in suburban Chicago. Following ten years of teaching, he left the classroom to serve as a Christian school administrator. He served as an assistant principal in suburban Chicago, and as a principal in central Illinois before accepting his current position in Iowa. He earned a Bachelor’s degree from Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, IL and a Master’s degree in Education Leadership from Purdue University. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in education administration. Dean also serves on several boards related to Christian education, including ACSI’s Commission for Accreditation and the Iowa Association of Christian Schools. He serves as the Iowa Representative on ACSI’s Divisional Council. Dean has been married to his wife, Jolene, for 28 years, and has three children, all of whom attended Christian schools.
Michael Arnold: As an educator, curriculum director, and the product of faith-based education myself, I make the success of every school we serve my personal mission. There’s nothing better for me than witnessing curriculum breakthroughs and instructional victories. I appreciate the opportunity to be part of that journey.