For all the credence given to the fact that teachers impact student learning, research has yet to pinpoint the exact nature of this supposed causal connection. The veracity of this crucial connection is affirmed both biblically and intuitively but not prescriptively or empirically. After an extensive review of the literature, in this article William F. Cox proposes a biblically based paradigm rooted in human relationship qualities rather than instructional techniques per se to guide instructional practices. Mr. Cox is Professor of Education at Regent University.

A pivotal underlying assumption about the practice of and therefore research on effective teaching is that there is a causal connection between antecedent teacher behavior and subsequent student learning.1 Clearly, certain aspects of teaching and schooling are demonstratively linked to academic achievement,2 but experts are hardly in agreement regarding what it is about teacher behavior that “causes” student learning. Two different perspectives on the specific relationship between teacher behavior and student outcomes characterize the teacher impact conversation. One perspective claims that we have the knowledge regarding how to train teachers for high student outcomes.3 The other perspective claims that the research support for teacher impact is inconclusive.4

The contemporary shift away from a prescriptive approach for training teachers toward a paradigm of open decision making gives credence to the latter perspective. However, until the long-standing yet questionable underlying assumptions are reconsidered, it can hardly be expected that the paradigm shift will be fruitful. This article confirms the inconclusive nature of teacher impact research findings, proposes a literature-based replacement set of assumptions, and builds upon biblically compatible understandings to construct a relationship-focused paradigm for understanding teacher impact.

The search for a clear understanding of the causal connectedness between teacher and student behavior that started as early as 18295 has generally not been fruitful. For instance, part of the summary of American Educational Research Association’s 2005 landmark study on teacher education reads as follows:

As every chapter in this volume makes clear, however, there has been relatively little teacher preparation research that examines the impact of teacher preparation components, pathways, or pedagogies on pupils’ learning…. The panel was particularly interested in the contributions of teachers’ learning and practice to pupils’ learning and in the complex relationships among these three. Unfortunately, we found little research that attempted to make these links, or that explored the impact of curriculum and pedagogy on learning and practice.6

Even so, the move to hold teachers accountable for academic outcomes continues to gain momentum. One such accountability approach of long standing – reconstitution – holds individual teachers responsible for individual student and even school-wide achievement scores.7 The 2001 and 2010 reauthorizations of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Act, No Child Left Behind,8 endorsed the reconstitution practice even though the findings regarding effectiveness of reconstitution are both rare and inconclusive.9 While it can reasonably be said that causality operates in education, an understanding of how is not forthcoming.

The problematic nature of teacher impact research is illustrated by the following analogy to the medical profession. Medical prescriptions are typically backed by research necessary to validate their safety and efficacy, and patient recovery expectations are couched within the parameters set by the research findings. If the patient does not respond favorably to the prescribed interventions, the profession knows it cannot conscionably hold the doctor at fault where verified professional standards were followed.

Analogously, before the education profession even dare ascribe teacher responsibility for contingent student outcomes, a corpus of validated educational prescriptions must first be in place. Until then, the field of education is unprepared to launch into similar high accountability because the link between teacher practice and student learning is inadequately understood.10

More specifically, with the known existence of at least twenty-two types of both learner variables and learner outcomes, and at least sixteen types of instructional treatments,11 it is not unreasonable to expect the profession to have some fairly specific recommendations regarding teacher impact. Yet even after many years of targeted educational research, little is known from which teachers can confidently develop successful educational prescriptions. However, this lack of research-based prescriptions has not at all tempered the expectation that teachers know how to impact student academic behavior positively. Here we have high stakes teacher and administrator accountability in the general absence of verified, prescriptive teaching practices.

Inadequate Educational Foundation

While the education profession makes decisions about the dynamics of teacher causality, a number of professionals and professional organizations claim that there is a lack of theoretical and research-based clarity on the matter. Speaking to the general nature of educational processes, Frank Murray argues from his literature survey that theories of education “are inconclusive on most vital points”12 such that “no educational practices, however true and time-honored, can be derived uniquely from them.”13 Accordingly, he cautions the student of teaching “to adopt a skeptical view towards the claims of educational theorists and researchers because, while much is truly known, the discipline of education still is in its earliest period of development.”14 As an example of the infancy stage of teacher impact or what is also called process-outcome research, few concepts in education go beyond, Murray says, merely describing actions of teachers and pupils to the deeper level of describing how they inter-relate causally.

Likewise, Murray contends that the education profession lacks “an encompassing, systematic, and authoritative body of scholarly knowledge about teaching as well as about the education of teachers.”15 Robert Floden and Marco Meniketti’s findings regarding the difficulty of “measuring what impact a teacher’s education has on a pupils’ achievement”16 echo a similar theme. Additionally, Bonnie Grossen contends that educational theory and research are generally unable to distinguish fads from effective innovations.17 Sharon Feiman-Meser and Janine Remillard claim, “we do not have well developed theories of learning to teach”18 and the ideas about learning how to teach “also lack compelling empirical support.”19

Other professionals similarly decry the impracticality and/or limited usefulness of teacher effectiveness research. Mona Wineburg, of the Association of State Colleges and Universities, cites serious methodological problems and a lack of standardization as two of the greatest hurdles to productive research on teacher impact.20 E. D. Hirsch, author of the book Cultural Literacy and developer of the Core Knowledge Curriculum, maintains that:

The only truly general principle that seems to emerge from process-outcome research on pedagogy is that focused and guided instruction is far more effective than naturalistic, discovering, learn-at-your-own-pace instruction. But within the context of focused and guided instruction, almost anything goes, and what works best with one group of students may not work best with another group with similar backgrounds in the very same building.21

Even the practice of paying teachers for boosting student performance is critically flawed, say Wellford Wilms and Richard Chapleau: “[H]istory shows that any pay-for-performance gains are mostly illusions…”22

Educational organizations report similar conclusions about teacher effectiveness research. The respected American Education Research Association in its 1992 Encyclopedia of Educational Research concluded that teacher effectiveness research “does not yield a blueprint for successful instruction”23 because among other things, “arguments and practical theories are often framed in narrow and unproductive ways.”24 Without more specific and systematic research inquiry and results, “classroom intervention is unlikely to lead to important permanent changes”25 in student learning.

Those writing for The Teacher Educator’s Handbook reached similar conclusions about teacher effectiveness research. Handbook writer Robert Donmoyer admits that the knowledge base for teaching teachers is unable to convert knowledge about teaching into predictable student outcomes.26 Consequently, “there is a general distrust of systems and standard operating procedures as solutions to educational problems.”27

In what could be a summary to the above, writings commissioned by the National Academy of Educator’s Commission on the Improvement of Education Research decry the fact that “research on effective teaching [has] not produced convincing theoretical formulations, consistent and compelling findings for the new ideas, or convincing support for courses of action.”28 Tragically, in the 13 years following their 1992 report, the American Educational Research Association Panel on Research and Teacher Education still finds, for instance, that research which directly addresses the conditions under which desirable pupil “outcomes are likely to occur is relatively small and inconclusive.”29 The panel further reported that while this research is often “characterized as ‘impact’ research, it is largely correlational.”30

Evolving Research Paradigm

Acknowledging the general inability to link student achievement “to consistent school policies, characteristics or behaviors of teachers, curricula, teaching methods, or special programs,”31 more recent teacher effectiveness studies point “toward a fluid, continuous inquiry into how to make education better on a day-to-day basis.”32 The assumption that teachers are fully equipped when provided with knowledge of theories, textbooks, curriculum packages, and teaching procedures, has not borne fruit after all these years.33 “The intent has now shifted from specifying a priori educational prescriptions to instead envisioning schools as learning communities for faculties as well as students.”34

In this regard, research on educational effectiveness is moving in the direction of creating a learning culture for both teacher and student as opposed to implementing prescriptive teaching techniques. School improvement plans are viewed as “hypotheses to be tested, rather than as a panacea that once in place solves the problem.”35 Based on her extensive review, teacher education expert Linda Darling-Hammond concludes that all else being equal, high academic achievement results when schools create “personalized instruction units in which teachers plan and work together around shared groups of students.”36 Also, broader provision for teacher decision-making is recommended rather than attempting to match instructional techniques to corresponding student outcomes.37

The evolving paradigm shift described above was literally traveled some time ago by distinguished educational researcher Lee Cronbach. From urging the profession in 1957 to search for cause-and-effect relationships, he shifted in the 1980s to saying that “the entire cause-and-effect way of thinking that undergirds… social engineering… is an inappropriate way to characterize social phenomenon.”38 His position was thus: “Human action is constructed, not caused.”39

The paradigm shifts are still evolving. The alternate paradigm shift proposed in this article aligns quite nicely with Cronbach’s assumption about the constructive nature of human learning. The validity of assumptions about the nature of human learning is, in fact, key to developing accurate understandings about the teaching-learning dynamic.40 Accordingly, the next section examines several assumptions about human nature that are sometimes accepted without essential verification.

Prevailing Assumptions

A bottom-line assumption of teacher/educational accountability is that, as we read in the school reconstitution account, “all children can learn.”41 The statement that children can learn is about a future probability of a dependency or contingency nature. In other words, to say that they “can” learn is to also say that they may not learn. Thus, the implied dependency is that all children can learn if educators will teach them.

This is the crux of the reconstitution debate. How people view reconstitution—whether they think dismissing a faculty is a legitimate response to chronically low student achievement or the unjustified scapegoating of teachers—depends on how much control they think a school and its teachers have over student learning.42

The position promoted in this article is that learning is not necessarily dependent on anything external to the learner, other than, of course, the fact that an environment must be present. As heretical as this notion may sound to educators and particularly to teacher educators, it is validated both by logic and empirical research.

First, validation comes from what is known as the learning paradox,43 which was articulated as early as Socrates.44 That is, logic tells us that a person cannot learn anything without first knowing something. However learning is posited to occur, there must be an a priori ability prior to “initial” learning to enable that learning. From this perspective, the statement that “all children can learn” is counter to the nature of the learning paradox. The alternate assumption of this article – that children have an inborn ability that inexorably impels them to learn such that they cannot not learn – implies the need for a different explanatory paradigm.

A second point both confirms and extends the first point. Medical research45 amply demonstrates that children perceive and learn while still in the womb. For example, they learn music and can identify familiar voices even before being born. Relevant to our concern about “all children can learn,” children are learning from a time before any formal instruction occurs, or even before they are told that they must learn, or are taught how to learn by others. Thus the foundational assumption is not that children can learn, but that they do so automatically and continually.

This second point suggests that the motivation to learn is conceivably as natural as the motivation to walk and talk. Plainly it is not the case, for instance, that parents explicitly teach their children that verbalizations must have particular vowel-consonant combinations within meaningful subject-verb patterns, or that a verbalized question has a different intonation than does a declarative sentence. These things are learned without intentional, systematic instruction.

These assumptions and corresponding evidences that children are inherently motivated to learn harmonize well with urgings to abandon the mechanistic cause-effect paradigm that for so long has guided teacher impact research. Most assuredly teachers guide the learning process and make it more efficient,46 but from a technique perspective, teachers are not at all an absolute necessity for learning to occur. Interestingly, while teachers do not literally cause learning, they are able to deter learning.47 Thus, from the understanding that people are born already learning and desirous of learning, the more central issue relates to the question of “What facilitates and what inhibits internally initiated learning?” rather than “What externally literally causes it?”

Primacy of Instructional Techniques

Based on the prevailing assumption that teacher-driven instructional techniques are crucial to student learning, it is reasonable to ask “Why”? Two observations regarding school reconstitution have particular significance for this matter. First, teachers, who were assumedly effective initially (particularly by virtue of being licensed/certified), were essentially ineffective against the dysfunctional school culture. Second, effectiveness improved when there was a shared vision (as occurred among the newly hired teachers). In actuality, the second observation is the obverse of the first. That is, climate seems to have a more powerful effect on learning than do specific teaching techniques that heretofore were thought, without sufficient verification, to be most impactful. Apparently, an essential foundation of academic success lies in first establishing a culture of trustful relationships.48

From these inferences surrounding reconstitution, the central issue regarding learning seems to relate more to atmosphere, ethos, or ambiance49 than to instructional techniques per se. But it is not at all an atmosphere of surface appearances. Quite the contrary, it is an atmosphere that is directly related to the learner’s innate nature. For example, it is reasonably said that children often operate from the axiom, “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.”50 In short, personal relationships that nurture and edify seem to allow the natural motivation to learn blossom forth. In this way, instructional guidance, to be most effective, must occur within an environmental milieu of personal affirmation that is not contingent upon academic performance. Personal attention and affirmation were in fact the explanation as to why employees improved their work performance in the classic Hawthorne studies51 even when environmental conditions were experimentally deteriorated. Barbara Thayer-Bacon calls this human phenomenon “relational epistemology.”52 This orientation enables students to trust willingly and safely and thus to align to both the content to be learned and to the one delivering the instruction. Conversely, a relationship that is perceived as negative, that frustrates, or that is threatening to a learner’s innate needs will result in inefficient learning and even resistance to the teacher. Research relating to the concepts “affective filter”53 and “attachment filter”54 supports this line of thinking about affect influencing interpersonal connectivity and learning receptivity.

Parker Palmer’s analysis of the dynamics of the teaching-learning process gives credence to the role of ethos or atmosphere.55 To know truth, he says, means to be vulnerable to it, and to teachers who deliver that truth. Similarly, Charles Glenn makes a strong case from his review of the literature that school ethos or climate has a pervasive effect on student behavior and academic attainments.56 Schools guided by EdVisions, the Flippen Group, and by Yale University professor James Comer document the learning benefit of positive relationship environments.57 Programs that focused on social-emotional development also positively impacted academic performance.58 And after fifteen years of research on more than 50,000 students and teachers, Theo Wubbels, Jack Levy, and Mieke Brekelmans concluded that “The Effective Teacher” is characterized by possession of skills that are specifically of an interpersonal nature.59

In a similar way, the prevalent characteristics of good teachers and good schools, as revealed in teacher effectiveness60 and school effectiveness research,61 have little to do with prescriptive teaching techniques per se but more often with leadership and human relationship issues. Certainly, this focus on the importance of relationship does not discount the value of teacher competence but casts it within the larger human milieu.62

A Biblical Perspective on Teacher Impact

From a biblical perspective, there is reason to believe in a teacher-student causal connection. The high degree of causal influence that the act of teaching can have on learner outcomes is a regular theme in both the Old and New Testaments.63 For instance, God commands the teaching of specific content for specific learner outcomes,64 certain individuals are evidently gifted and/or called by God to teach for specific outcomes,65 and there are both temporal66 and eternal consequences67 for believing in certain prescribed biblical content. Additionally, the Bible tells us that God provides for those who appropriately respond to His teachings,68 that Jesus is to be emulated as the Master Teacher,69 and the Holy Spirit serves as the indwelling teacher.70 It comes as no surprise then that the content of numerous books that have been written to aid Christian teachers is founded on the biblical affirmation of teacher causality.71

Given the Bible’s emphasis on teaching and learning (even if not a textbook on the subject), it is not unreasonable to expect that it would give some guidance regarding how to teach effectively. Various scripture verses reveal that individuals respond differentially to different environmental influences.72 Proverbs 22:6 suggests that there is an optimal match between learner propensities (that is, “the way the child should go”) and particular educational approaches (that is, raise up the child consistent with those propensities). Ephesians 6:4 (KJV) gives some understanding regarding instructional prescriptions by differentiating the two treatments of “nurture” and “admonition” (Strong’s #3890 and #3559, respectively)73 according to two respective children’s age groups signified by these terms.74 Additionally, the implied message of this verse is that as children are raised according to the way God designed, they will not be frustrated. Overall though, the Bible gives minimal details regarding the nature or composition of teacher-directed educational prescriptions.

What the Bible does emphasize, in abundance, is the positive impact on learning of the internal dispositions of both teacher and the learner. The essence of good teaching seems to be rooted in the teachable attitude of learners (see, for example, Deuteronomy 6:3,13; Joshua 4:24; Psalm 78:8-11; Proverbs 5:11-14; Ephesians 6:1-3; 2 Timothy 2:15-24) and the trustworthiness of educational mentors (for example, in Deuteronomy 6; Joshua 4:6.7; Psalm 78:7; Proverbs 6; Ephesians 6:4; 2 Timothy 1:11-14, 2:24-26). Could it be that the biblical “prescription” for effective instruction is the contextual outworking of good human relationship skills in both the teacher and the student as embodied in the Second Greatest Commandment (Matthew 22:39)? James Smith75 suggests that educating in a Christian/biblical way involves forming the heart. Similarly, Tedd Tripp suggests that since biblically the heart is the wellspring of life,76 the key to successful parenting and educating is about “shepherding the heart.”77

As evidenced thus far, there are substantial empirical and biblical reasons to justify shifting to a love- or edification-based relational paradigm to help explain the phenomenon of teacher impact. The proposed alternate interpretation in this article of the nature of teacher impact comports well with the convergence of a number of fields of study documenting the pervasive effect of interpersonal dynamics which fit the paradigm shift that Todd Hall calls the “relational revolution.”78

Proposed Biblically Based Paradigm

Two biblically based foundational truths hold promise for helping to re-conceptualize the matter of teacher impact. These foundations address two central qualities of humans that stand opposed to each other in each individual’s psyche. Known by various names, we will call these two qualities or dimensions “imago Dei” and “imago Satanae.” These Latin terms stand for, respectively, the image of God79 and in a figurative or symbolic sense, the nature or image of Satan (see Matthew 16:23; John 8:44; 1 John 3:10; Strong’s Greek # 1228), both of which are part of human nature. They, in effect, provide some answers to questions, respectively, of what facilitates and what inhibits learning.

Imago Dei

Imago Dei is the manifestation of being made in God’s image.80 It is a reflection, albeit partially and imperfectly, of the nature of God.81 It is the inborn potential to live true to this objective standard, thereby reflecting the image of God resident in humanity. Imago Dei encompasses positive attributes like dominion, competence, excellence, sociability, justice, compassion, truth, impartiality, righteousness, perfectibility, and love. Humanists speak of it as the self-actualization of personal intimacy and the inherent capacity or drive for normality. Abraham Maslow addresses the concept by way of what he calls B-love, meaning love for another person, or unselfish love.82

To be created in the image of God also means to have an inborn motivation to attain to, in a healthy sense, all that is edifying and good in Him. For instance, it is not so much that young children self-consciously ponder and then strategically decide to learn how to talk. Instead the desire to talk is a naturally occurring motivation that likely only needs a model to stimulate it into action. In fact, some child study experts83 posit that children learn language because of the imago Dei–based desire to make sense of human intentions and interactions. While a current mantra in education is that “all children can learn,”84 initial language learning defies this conditional “can learn” view. Children, regardless of the difficulty of the native language, learn it at about the same age level even in the absence of specific instructional techniques (other than perhaps relationship-motivated reinforcement and repetition). Examples such as these all point to the same conclusion. Namely, that humans are innately motivated to attain to the destiny and full potential inherent to being made in God’s image.85

The human motivation toward full potentiality implies a number of truths relevant to an educational setting. For one, both the desire and the actual act of learning are not primarily dependent on the skills of a teacher. As already discussed, learning occurs naturally starting at pre-birth. Teachers may make the learning process more efficient and more focused but they likely are not the root cause of it. Many imago Dei qualities are latent, requiring environmental and particularly educational influences to draw them out. This comports well with the Latin meaning of the word education (“educo”), which means to draw out. In line with literature on the Kingdom of God, “when we obey the laws of the Kingdom, we obey the laws of our own beings.”86

A second implication is that humans will naturally desire to interact with the environment and particularly the human environment. This may even be the prime characteristic of being made in the image of the Triune God. The dire accounts of solitary confinement, sensory deprivation experiments, and maternal deprivation studies leave little doubt as to the veracity of this statement. From this perspective, students will inherently desire to submit to teachers and to experiences that will enhance their attainment of imago Dei in the fullest sense of the word.

From the information above, it is reasonable to expect that learning will proceed naturally and optimally if not hampered. Yet that other dimension – imago Satanae – must be factored into what at this point makes humans less than purely good.

Imago Satanae

Imago Satanae describes in a figurative or symbolical sense what the Bible calls the sin nature (Galatians 5:13-21 NIV), the flesh (Galatians 5:13-20 KJV), or the “old man” (Ephesians 4:22; Colossians 3:9 KJV). Essentially it is pride or inordinate self-esteem. It is in many ways as negative in nature as imago Dei is positive. In fact, it can be conceived as the absence or opposite of the nature of God. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, imago Satanae is imago Dei’s chief antagonist.87 It is the exaltation of self over others and the desire to be independent of another’s authority. The imago Satanae causes one to be enamored with self, to demand one’s own way, and to want to be one’s own god. It is, in fact, the core of sinful behavior according to the Bible.88 Maslow calls it D-love for deficiency love or selfish love.89 Even if any particular expression of selfish behavior is successfully extinguished from the child’s behavioral repertoire, the basic tendency is still likely to be present.90

The implications of the above description regarding humanity’s prideful nature relate to personal educability as follows. To one degree or another, the learner will be less than appropriately vulnerable to either the teacher and/or the instructional content/setting when circumstances call for surrender of personal preferences91 in the act of coming into conformity with the educational setting.

Without going into detail, what can be said prescriptively about this internal factor is clearly described in the Bible. Simply said, the antidote to the effects of the sin nature calls for instruction in righteousness,92 discipline,93 self-control,94 Holy Spirit ministry,95 and love.96 Consistent with the proposed paradigm, these antidotes function best when based in edifying relationships rather than legalistic compulsions.

Another major dimension of imago Satanae relates to external matters such as the impact injustices have on the person. Namely, even when a person properly moves in the direction of imago Dei fulfillment, the vagaries of life will in one way or another present obstacles to that goal. This conflict, whether real or imagined, will, at one time or another, be less than neutrally received because, at least in part, of the person’s imago Satanae nature. Invariably, the offended person will experience emotions such as anger, frustration, retaliation, defensiveness, and even bitterness (see Ephesians 6:4). When offenses are internalized they predispose present and future reactions of the offended person to be counter to the imago Dei in one way or another.97 These reactions may appear in different forms such as outwardly directed aggressions or as inwardly directed passivities. Further, especially when emotionally impacted, the internal re-play of injurious events diminishes maximum attention to the educational task even over an appreciable time period. Offended people sometimes even build a wall of protection to prevent ever again being vulnerable to such treatment. In all of the above ways, the natural drive toward imago Dei fulfillment is stymied.

Reviewing briefly, if the only dimension operative in an educational setting was that of imago Dei, teachers and other role models would have the very pleasant task of leading eager, maximally learning students along a relatively unencumbered path to educational and personal success. But because imago Satanae functions as imago Dei’s antagonist, teachers have a far more problematic role in guiding students toward success. Either overtly or covertly, students will exhibit diminished involvement regarding teaching-learning activities in comparison to an imago Dei–inspired life relatively free of debilitating internal and external forces.

To make matters worse, teachers’ attributions for students’ diminished performances are typically cognitively oriented. Subsequent teacher interventions thus emphasize techniques thought to enhance and/or restore cognitive activity. As seen thus far, excepting problems like organic brain dysfunction, difficulties in both learning and subsequent performance may just be due to an emotional or attitudinal rather than cognitive root cause.98 To the extent this is true, cognitively focused instructional techniques do not generally address the real problem.

In sum, humans, by virtue of being created in God’s image, are, on the one hand, naturally motivated toward imago Dei fulfillment. In the educational venue, this means that children are motivated to learn, to receive instruction, and to be personally, socially, and academically competent. On the other hand, the contrasting dimension of imago Satanae motivates students toward resisting imago Dei motivations in favor of self-centeredness. Conflicting interactions between teacher and student additionally strengthen self-promoting and self-protective imago Satanae strategies. And subjectively oriented learner histories predispose similar dynamics into the future. Furthermore, teachers are similarly impacted since they too are positively and negatively dual-natured. This brings us to the effect of the main quality of imago Dei: that is, love, as related to teacher behavior.

Implications for Biblically Based Instructional “Prescriptions”

The implications for understanding the teacher impact phenomenon are actually very simple – so simple, in fact, that humanity’s inherently imperfect search for godly wisdom may even prevent such wisdom from being seen for what it truly is.99 Here is where the paradigm shift is most needed. Evidence from a number of sources tells us that love is the most powerful moral force in the universe (see John 3:16; 1 Peter 4:8). In fact, the Bible indicates that love is the most crucial element in all human interactions, which of course include the teacher-learner dynamic. The beginning verses in 1 Corinthians 13 indicate that a person can have all knowledge of the universe (surely an important quality of an excellent teacher) and even when combined with the faith to move mountains (surely an important quality of an excellent Christian teacher), without love, it is all inconsequential in God’s eyes.

As it turns out, love is apparently the most basic of all human needs.100 Ashley Montagu reports,

As I see the evidence, love received by the infant is not only the best stimulus to its development but the best stimulus to the development of its own potentialities for loving others. I see all the evidence supporting this conclusion and no evidence whatsoever which in any way render it doubtful.101

By virtue of addressing both the physical and the non-physical dimensions of humanity, love provides the basis for educational and in fact all human relationship “prescriptions.”102

Research on boarding institutions for infants uniformly shows that the presence or absence of an emotional bond of love between the infant and an adult significantly impacts the child’s physical growth and development.103 This need for love is so strong that if institutionalized infants are not picked up and mothered several times each day, they will die. When deprived of positive nurturing in any substantial way, infants characteristically demonstrate stunted physical growth and have higher than normal morbidity as well as mortality rates. With diminished love, infants suffer in terms of social relations, intelligence, and memory.104 Social, sexual, and non-verbal abilities are all adversely affected by maternal deprivation.105 There is also a documented relationship between the incidence of psychopathic behavior and inadequate childhood nurturance.106

The lack of love throughout a person’s life and particularly in the formative years proportionally affects the two dimensions of imago Dei and imago Satanae. Imago Dei fulfillment is diminished and negative, prideful reactions increase whenever optimal love is not experienced. To emphasize the point, death occurred to institutionalized infants not because of harsh treatment or malnutrition but because of a lack of love. The impact of this phenomenon on the teaching-learning event is seen in findings of lessened vulnerability to the teacher and the instructional content, inattentiveness to learning tasks and teacher directives, inability to concentrate, negative self-concept, failure expectations, a demand for personal rights, preoccupation with non-school matters, a protective and even defensive reaction to the teacher, and the sacrifice of learning and physical comfort for the greater need of attention and affirmation. Adrian Vander Veer concludes from extensive studies, “maternal rejection may be seen as the ‘causative factor in almost every type and every individual case of neurosis or behavior problem in children.’”107 Conversely, the presence of maternal love is foundational to healthy personal development.108

Obviously, all of the above attitudinal and behavioral imago Satanae manifestations will impact learning and the learning event in a negative direction. Thus, the teacher is well advised to lay all instructional efforts in a foundation of love (thereby enhancing imago Dei and diminishing imago Satanae). This is the ethos or atmosphere in which all schooling should reside. Palmer refers to this atmosphere as a “community of faithful relationships.”109 It is in this atmosphere of loving relationships that academic performance has demonstratively improved for students “at all grade levels and in both mathematics and social studies.”110 As one nationally celebrated teacher explained, the reason for her successful teaching against all odds was that “each child needed to feel loved and wanted.”111 Could it even be that, in the grand scheme of things, the healthy edification of the learner is the foundational role of the teacher?

Empirical Support

Research evidence abounds in support of the proposed foundations. David Popenoe112 documents the deleterious effects on children of the willful (such as purposeful abandonment) as distinguished from the circumstantial absence of a father’s love (such as in accidental death). Laurence Steinberg contends that attitudinal factors, and not intellectual ability, are at the root of the achievement problems in this country.113 In a number of the cinematic dramatizations of real-life successes in teaching impoverished children (such as “Stand and Deliver” and “Dangerous Minds”), the key ingredient in all such accounts was sound discipline and high expectations via personal relationships founded in affirmational love. Representatively, Marva Collins attributes her phenomenal teaching success to the following truism: “The one thing all children finally wanted was the chance to be accepted for themselves, to feel some self-worth. Once they felt it, children became addicted to learning, and they had the desire to learn forever.”114 Noddings cites similar findings from a number of different studies to argue persuasively that method cannot substitute for positive human relationships.115 Moreover, the Chicago Annenberg Research Project credits positive relationships between students and teachers to “increases in math and learning on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.”116

Beyond research, perhaps the most realistic and convincing albeit non-scientific evidence are student comments about favorite teachers. On the one hand, alumni who comment favorably about former teachers speak primarily to interpersonal dynamics rather than formal instructional techniques. On the other hand, teachers invariably agree that the most pressing problem in schools is not the students’ inability to learn. Instead it is in one way or another the students’ attitudes regarding past and present interpersonal dynamics.117 This evidence points to something gone awry in education regarding the basic nature of humans and the educational models that represent them.

Conclusion

Teacher impact/effectiveness and therefore educational accountability expectations are highly problematic and minimally verified. In fact, they typically bypass the key question regarding the nature of teacher causality by holding teachers directly accountable, by fiat and unsupported theories, for student achievement. Teacher effectiveness research has historically compounded the problem by making technique pre-eminent over, if not blatantly divorced from, the biblically supported, highly important matter of edifying personal relationships. Even as the accountability paradigm shifts to constructivistic decision-making, this emerging trial-and-error paradigm is as misguided as its cause-effect predecessor and will likewise also come up short if not guided by realistic understandings of human nature. In fact, it is not that the recent trend of increased liberality of teacher decision-making is necessarily wrong; it all the more calls for clarity of understanding regarding human nature.

The foundations proposed herein hold teachers dear to student learning through their enablement of the natural drive to imago Dei and the diminution of its antagonist, imago Satanae. The invariable deprivation in students of optimal love through living, for instance, in a less than perfect world, the inherent human tendency toward self-centeredness, and the magnification of perceived injustices by prideful tendencies predictably set students (and teachers) in a low receptive and/or manipulative learning mode. Teacher behavior rooted both in a loving relationship with students and a high priority for imago Dei edification constitutes a prescription of restoration.118

Obviously, many details need to be resolved as teacher instructional efforts are reframed within the paradigm of love and edifying relationships. For one, a better understanding of the impact of attitudes and emotions on learning needs to be developed. How negative response predispositions can be recognized and ameliorated for better learning also needs deeper understanding. Where a student’s need for love is significantly dysfunctional to the learning process, a temporary moratorium on learning may even have to occur. Perhaps there is some reliable way to match learner deficits to differentiated teacher behaviors along a taxonomy of “recovery” stages to keep education from becoming a misguided therapeutic endeavor.119 Perhaps most important, the proposed model fosters creative articulation of restorative teacher behaviors that shape hearts and purify the imago Dei gold in students.120

What was intended and hopefully attained in this article is an initial re-conceptualization of teacher impact within age-old understandings of the basic nature of humankind. The inadequacy of existing models to explain teacher “caused” learning, which eventuates in the lack of a corpus of validated instructional prescriptions, argues for a fair hearing regarding the proposed foundations for a more ennobling approach to education. As demonstrated, a beginning knowledge base exists from which to refine this new paradigm. All told, these foundations have potential for impacting educational practice and educational research from a biblical perspective.121

Cite this article
William F. Cox, Jr., “Inconclusive Teacher Impact Research: A Biblical Interpretation”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:3 , 213-231

Footnotes

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  121. The author thanks Jason Baker, Nancy Hameloth, Kimberly Tharp, Evie Tindall, and Lesley Witt for helpful suggestions on the manuscript.

William F. Cox, Jr.

Regent University
William Fox is a Professor of Education at Regent University.