Monday, 31 May 2021

Honesty & Service: What is the relationship between these traits in the Christian classroom?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the role of honesty in encouraging our students towards service and support to one another. In particular, I'm interest in the part it might play in challenging others about behaviour, language and even beliefs.



You may recall that I wrote about "Christian Service" as the third key plank in my pedagogy within my book 'Pedagogy and Education for Life'. I still believe that modelling and encouraging ‘service’ is a critical principle in biblical Christian education. But I particularly want to reflect or ruminate on the place that ‘honesty’ plays in relation to service within a Christian community. Do we give enough much thought to honesty when discussing Christian service? In recent times, I’ve observed again and again, that people of faith seem afraid to offer a contrary view when brothers and sisters say things that they feel are inappropriate to us and perhaps even unbiblical. Do we avoid the awkward conversations? Or simply go quiet when someone says something with which we don’t agree? Perhaps, we simply change the conversation?


I’m sure that we’ve all observed members of the church, staff in schools and or students in classrooms, expressing views that are unbiblical. Unbiblical ideas might be expressed in post-church conversation, within the workplace, or just as a group of friends sharing life and aspects of faith. Within the school, such ideas might be shared in the playground, during informal class activities like group work, or after school chapel. But what do we do when we hear such words? And what do our students do? Do we simply remain silent to keep the peace, or are we courageous enough to speak the truth in love?

In Ephesians 4 Paul teaches how we are to challenge wrong ideas in order to ensure unity and maturity as we live together as a community of believers. In doing so, he urges us to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15a), and to put off “falsehood” and the while as we speak "truthfully" to others (Eph 4:25). Do we seek to do this with our neighbors and Christian friends? Do we encourage our students to do the same? Or, at times is our default to keep quiet, and not challenge wrong and sometimes dangerous ideas. Paul challenges his readers to avoid such passivity, and to speak up, for we are all members of one body (Eph 4:4-6). As such, we must encourage one another and sometimes, even graciously rebuke each other.


I can recall a Christian colleague within a secular university over 30 years ago who had a big impact on my life with some well-chosen honest words. I had been a Christian for just 3 years and was his boss! And yet, after a meeting, in which he and I were the only Christians, he pulled me aside. He said, “Trev, when you said the Vice-chancellor was an idiot in the meeting because of his actions, you weren’t really setting a great example for our colleagues. As Christians, we need to speak the truth at all times, and in particular, we need to be careful how we speak about our boss, and show respect.”


The key illustration here, is not in my words and actions, but in Fred’s honest and wise words which I have never forgotten. His simple response not only strengthened our relationship, but also our combined witness to colleagues. His words set an example for me concerning the need for honesty in Christian community, and I have never forgotten it.  


As teachers, do we sometimes fail to offer wise and honest words to our students at opportune times, words that might encourage them to be different. If we do fail to do this, then we are failing to speak the truth in love as part of our Christian witness and service.


God our Servant King made us to be servants to him, but also to one another. Jesus, of course, is the perfect model of service, having given his life for us (Phil 2:7; Matt 20:25–28). In shepherding and watching over his flock, he was never afraid to speak the truth when it needed to be spoken (1 Pet 5:3).


What might this look like in our classrooms? You might talk to your colleagues about how honest your conversations are with one another, as you serve our God within the school. Do you avoid saying some things for fear that you might upset others? 


Please note, I’m not suggesting that you lecture colleagues about their behavior and lack of godliness, for this could quickly lead to a display of pride and arrogance. Alternatively, we need to ask ourselves, do we often see and hear staff and students saying things that are inappropriate and unhelpful to building communities. Remember, service to one another is a central trait of Christian communities. We need to keep asking ourselves, do I sometimes fail to offer a godly comment when needed with the right motives as Fred did?


As teachers, we need to add ‘honesty’ to community conversations as a key part of our service to one another. This includes both staff and students. If we do grow in our willingness to speak the truth in love, we will collectively continue to become more Christ like. This in turn will strengthen the collective witness of our school communities.

Sunday, 16 May 2021

Children's Books That Will Make You Think, Laugh & Perhaps Even Cry

This is a cross post from my other blog, Literacy, Families and Learning that is written for a wider educational audience. I thought readers of this blog might also enjoy sharing some of these books with children.

As a regular reviewer of children's literature, I'm never quite sure what books will arrive at my place to review. In this post, I review 7 different and surprising books. Christian readers might come up with varied ways to introduce and share each title. The first could lead you in several directions.

1. 'The Rock From The Sky' by Jon Klassen

Jon Klassen has that rare ability to fascinate the youngest of readers, and yet stimulate the mind of the adult with his 'simple' picture books. It's not surprising that 'The Rock From The Sky' (like many of his other works) has been an instant #1 New York Times bestseller! This is another incredible work from the Caldecott Medal winning creator of the hat trilogy and other wonderful books. 

Klassen is a genius of storytelling and art. With just three characters and a rock, he is able to create intrigue, tension, jealousy and fear of the unknown. In a recent video on his website HERE he explains that this book drew much of its inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock he explains understood the difference between shock and suspense. Hitchcock was the master of how to build and use suspense, the unknown, and the unexpected, to engage the reader or viewer. In this 'simple' book Klassen uses the same devices. The story features a mole, a turtle and snake and seeks to take the reader on a journey that slowly builds tension with the reader, and invites us to imagine what might just be coming next.  

Does the young reader have to grapple with an elaborate plot as they experience this book? Not really, but they will experience tension, intrigue, curiosity and a desire to see what will come next. As Turtle greets Mole at a chosen spot the tension begins as Mole feels uneasy about his chosen spot.

"What do you think of my spot?
Actually I have a bad feeling about it.
A bad feeling?

In short, once again Klassen merges visual suspense with wry wit to create a work like no other children's author and illustrator.

2. 'Wombat' by Christopher Cheng & illustrated by Liz Duthie

Far underground, where dirt and tree roots mesh, are tunnels that lead to a burrow, and in this burrow Wombat’s day begins. A story about the life of a wombat, looking at the interesting way these animals build their homes, look after their family and protect themselves from predators. Wombat is a new addition to the Nature Storybooks series from Walker Books, which feature a lyrical narrative and engaging nonfiction combined with stunning artwork to pique the curiosity of young minds

Wombats might seem to be cuddly creatures you could take home, but they tough creatures with sharp teeth that never stop growing, and limbs that can shovel dirt like a mini bulldozer. They can also live for years without drinking water. The book series features a narrative as well as a factual description of life for the wombat.

Follow one of these powerful marsupials through a suspenseful day in Christopher Cheng’s engaging narration, paired with endearing illustrations by Liz Duthie and interspersed with intriguing facts. An endnote provides additional information about wombats for readers curious to learn more.

3. 'Florence & Fox' by Zanni Louise and illustrated by Anna Pignataro

'Florence can't share her toys with Fox today because today is not Sharing Day. In fact, Sharing Day is not for hundreds of days. Fox has never heard of Sharing Day and he has some questions, but luckily Florence has all the answers.'

This is a delightful book that tackles the challenge of every preschool child - as well as parents and teachers - what does it mean to share things? When Fox reaches for the hammer Florence has put down, he is surprised to find out that it isn't 'sharing day' so he can't use it. But the next turned out not to be sharing day either. In fact Florence tells Fox that it isn't for 100 days!

The author and illustrator have a strong friendship that no doubt helps them to have a seamless connection between the words and pictures. Wonderful!

The author Zanni Louise comes from Byron Bay. She has written 16 books for children, including picture books and junior fiction. She has been twice listed in the CBCA Notables.

4. 'The Great Barrier Reef' by Helen Scales & illustrated by Lisa Feng

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the wonders of the world. It has almost 400,000 square kilometers of amazing coral and sea life. It is one of the most complex ecosystems and has global significance. But that's not all!! This wonderful book looks at the science of the world's greatest reef, ships that have floundered here, and the history of human habitation across at least 40,000 years.

This wonderful non-fiction book from Helen Scales and Risk Fend is almost as vibrant and dynamic as the real thing! The artwork illuminate dazzles the reader with the animal inhabitants of the reef and the people who have embraced it as a centerpiece of their cultures. 

This wonderful book in the series from 'Flying Eye Books' will be read and bring joy to readers aged 7-11 years.

5. 'Bootsy Flies at the Robert Eric Big Top Circus' by Richard Unwin & illustrated by Sarah-Leigh Wills

Bootsy is a Cockapoo. That is a Golden Cockapoo, which is a cross between a English Cocker Spaniel and a standard, miniature or Toy Poodle dog. If you didn't know this, don't worry, I didn't either until I came across this delightful book. The book is suited for children aged 3-8 years.

It tells the story of a special circus owner who loves animals and doesn't want them to be caged and forced to perform things that aren't natural for them. But after the clowns have performed and people laugh, the trapeze artists are done, the drummer has played, is there anything else? How can Robert add to his circus a special act? Especially as Prince Charles is coming to a performance with his grandchildren turns up.

It turns out a little Golden Cockapoo just might have some skills that will make the crowds (and the Prince & his grandchildren) cheer. Can something special be added? Read the book to find out just what this little Cockapoo does that brings the crowd to its feet.

This delightful book is from Fun Nature Books new series featuring a lovable Golden Cockapoo. You might also like to read 'Bootsy's Picnic Adventure'. 

6. 'Ernest The Elephant' by Anthony Browne

This delightfully simple story from the legendary Anthony Browne tells the tale of a baby elephant who gets lost in the jungle.  Ernest is a happy and safe baby elephant who walks every day with his mother and the rest of the herd. But he begins to wonder what else might be out there in his world?

His curiosity gets the better of him. He sneaks away from his mother and the herd, and ventures into the jungle. Deeper and deeper he goes and becomes lost. He sees many other animals including a rude gorilla, a weary lion, an impolite hippo and an uncaring crocodile. None of them can or will help him find his way home. Will he ever find the herd? You'll have to read it to find out. 

As usual, the illustrations are brilliant as you'd expect from this Kate Greenaway Medal-winning author-illustrator and former Children's Laureate. It might not bring the belly laughs of some of his other incredible books, but children 1-5 will love hearing it read. As well young and older readers (5-7) will love reading it themselves, and will relate easily to the key themes of the book.

7. 'The Lost Child of Chernobyl' by Helen Bate

This remarkable Graphic Novel might look at first peak like a children's picture book, but you'd be mistaken. This wonderful book is a haunting and challenging fictional retelling of 
the global environmental disaster that occurred in the Ukrainian city of Chernobyl in April 1986. It was to have significance for the whole world.

While it is an imaginary story, with imaginary characters, it is inspired by the real events in Chernobyl and disaster that was a great wake up to the world. It begins:

"One April night, people around Chernobyl felt the earth tremble and shake. 
Looking out of their windows, they saw a strange light in the sky."

But what was the ragged creature in fur of a wolf?

On that fateful day in 1986, animals instinctively ran from the danger, families stopped in fear worried about loved ones working in the power station. And all eventually saw the deadly cloud and wondered, what does this all mean? It was to change everything.

We jump to a time nine years later, and forest wolves bring a ragged and dirty child to a house. The child growls like a wolf. The child has been living with wolves in the forbidden nuclear zone. But who is this lost child of Chernobyl? Will Anna and Klara be able to find the child's family after all this time?

This is a challenging and haunting book that all children aged 9-12 should read. Preferably, they will read it with the ability to talk to parents or a teacher.

Helen Bate is an award-wining author, known previously for her book 'Peter in Peril' and 'Me and Mrs Moon'.

Thursday, 22 April 2021

The Hidden Challenges of School Life

1. School aims and hidden realities


The aims of our schools typically stress that the development of good character in students is central to the purpose of the school. The quotes that follow are taken from school websites. All have as part of their key values the development of "good character and integrity in students". And how do they seek to develop these things? With good "…teaching, example, learning and practice". Schools like parents accept that "good character is not formed automatically; it is developed over time through a sustained process of teaching, example, modelling, learning and practice." Pretty much every school says they offer an educational experience that will develop good character. Most seem to assume that this occurs through intentional development, in order to enable students to take their place in society. But how?


As I argue in my book, this occurs within multiple communities of practice students inhabit. "Education is the whole of life of a community, and the experience of its members learning to live this life, from the standpoint of a specific end goal." This occurs as students interact in everyday life (primarily with other students and teachers). It includes their behaviour and interactions with one another in corridors, on buses, in classrooms, after sporting events, at social events. In fact, just about any situation connected to school life. Of course, much of this is outside the gaze of the teacher, as well as outside their control. It is possible for some students to experience many years of education and be continually, lonely, isolated, misunderstood, and ridiculed; all without teachers having any idea. What’s more, the students’ parents might have no idea either.


In recent decades, our schools have tended to suggest that our youth face opportunities and dangers "unknown to earlier generations". The argument seems to be backed up with comments to the effect that children are "... bombarded with more negative influences through the media and other external sources prevalent in today’s culture than ever before." I want to suggest that such statements, while fine sounding, can at times mask underlying ugliness experienced in previous generations. Many parents and teachers who lived in earlier times had experiences of hidden misogyny, bullying, ridicule, mocking, sexual harassment and so on. As well, like today's youth and children, they experienced it at school, in the home and in the community. Students then and now, have diverse experiences at home, in the community and at school.


As a student at high school I received my share of criticism, hurtful jibes, and physical attacks due to my weight, clothing, parents, family poverty, hair, and more. All occurred in the cut and thrust of daily school life, including school corridors, on buses, in the gym change rooms, on the sporting fields, just about anywhere. Usually, such challenges were outside the gaze of any teacher. And the point I'm slowly getting to? What students value and how they see themselves, is shaped in the messiness of life, whether inside, or outside the school. It has ever been so.


As I've written many times on this blog "Education is the whole of life of a community, and the experience of its members learning to live this life, from the standpoint of a specific end goal." The behaviour of our students in corridors, on buses, after sporting events, at social events, in fact just about anywhere connected to school life, is often invisible to teachers. As a result, it’s quite possible that for some students the school experience is marked by loneliness, isolation, ridicule and misunderstanding. Of course, life can be the reverse for some children who experience all of the above at home. For such students, school can be a wonderful escape and sanctuary from the pain of life in homes and communities where they might have experienced abuse, oppression and mistreatment.

In every school, on every day, there will be children covering up the challenges and horrors of home life. For these students, school is a sanctuary. But for others, school is a lonely place where they have trouble fitting in and where ridicule and bullying are a constant reality.


What is the role of the teacher in combating the hidden 'ugliness' of life for some?


In ‘Pedagogy and Education for Life’ I offer a number of examples of teachers who managed to more than just 'teach'. They in fact, were people who would oversee multiple communities, that collectively make up schools. Some of these 'communities of practice' are visible to the engaged teacher, others are not. But the good teacher is always observing his or her students to monitor the life of the classroom and school. I write about one such teacher in my book who was the ultimate ‘kidwatcher’.


As a teacher of 32 five year olds, Inta was constantly monitoring student well-being, happiness, focus, and participation in the life of the classroom and school. I asked myself as I taught with her, what was foundational to making her such a great teacher. It became obvious to me that it was her purposes and goals for teaching, and her sense of what mattered most for these children. She had a remarkable focus and intent, and higher-level goals that gave direction to her work.



I met another teacher of this kind in a small regional school withing a small country town in Australia. In a school known for its poor academic standards, Ruby's students skewed the scores of the grade level that she taught. When we went to observe her we discovered something interesting. This teacher knew every child not just as learners but as people. It wasn't just their behaviour that informed her, she sought to get to know them by asking after them, watching them, taking opportunities to speak to their family members etc. She was an exciting teacher who sought to engage her classes in every activity. In a school with below average scores on national tests, her students were well above average. As we observed her we went away saying, this teacher is pretty much the most interesting person in each child's life. 

There were at least three key things that marked the actions of these two fine teachers:

1. Both observed students closely and monitored progress in learning. But as they did this, they also tracked personal development and growth. This was not simply to correct and discipline inappropriate behavior, but rather to help each student to grow.

2. They also used a variety of teaching and learning strategies, not primarily as a counter to boredom and to reduce discipline problems through fun activities, but to engage all learners in varied ways that best suited their learning styles.

3. As well, they spoke to and rebuked the students when necessary to direct them toward higher purposes for learning. In doing so, they were also encouraging patience, self-control, love, kindness, and an interest in how God was at work in their lives as well as their fellow students. This constant monitoring of behaviour, supported the twin goals of learning and also the growth spiritually and emotionally of all students. Both teachers were involved in the lives of their children.


I'm sure that there will be some teachers who read this post and will say, "Trevor, I'm not a social worker, I go to school to teach students mathematics. Parents send their kids here to be educated and do well, then get places in great universities. I just don't have time." If you do think like this, I’m very sorry, for you miss the point that education must do more than just grow children intellectually, they should also help them to grow in character. Christian schools should be wonderful places, where we see students grow in knowledge and personal maturity, and where many go on to do great things. Our schools are always a reflection of the world at large, so we will also observe tragedies like suicide, sexual assault, abuse and failure of varied kinds. Nevertheless, our schools must build special communities of learners that support and grow children in every dimension of life. 


The reality in our world is that there is can be an ugly and hidden side to community life in all schools, just as there can be in families, communities and work places. The role of the Christian teacher is to be present in the school not just as a subject specialist, nor the best teacher of Kindergarten, Grade 6 or whatever. Rather, they are to manage and shape communities of practice where the students and the staff grow together in Christian maturity and faith. Only with such commitment will we observe schools where there is less 'hidden ugliness' and more evidence of God working by his Spirit to transform lives for the good.


As James K. A. Smith argues, education is an “holistic endeavor” with a focus on formation of the child. And of course, the elements of our wholeness extend well beyond our skills and capabilities to bodily health, the mind, desires, and imagination. Teachers and their students all vary in characteristics, abilities, strengths and weaknesses, but the sum of all we are, is seen in our unique identities (see Cairney, ‘Pedagogy & Education for Life’, p. 48). 


The most important characteristic of the great teacher is their ability to see beyond the appearance, gestures and at times contrived language and behavior of our students. They do this in order to tap away and open up students to be honest with you as their teacher, so you can support them and help them to grow in character as they live their daily lives.





Monday, 8 March 2021

The Place and Role of 'Play' in Schooling?

My title might seem surprising to some readers. If so, I'm pleased! The title has worked a treat, and hopefully, I've got your attention. But the title isn't just a trick to get you to open the post. I wanted to discuss just how important play is for children and adults. If you look in the index to my book, you won't see a single entry for 'play'. Shame on me! But the place of play is very important at every level off education (preschool to tertiary) and IS reflected in the book. Play is spoken of in varied places, because it is a critical part of learning for adults as well as children. Have you ever heard children and adults saying things such as the following:

"I'm not sure what I'll write, but I want to play with some ideas, and see where they take me."

"I use my scrap book to doodle, sketch and experiment with ideas."

"I need time just to sort out my ideas."

"I'm lacking inspiration today, I need some space to think and ponder."

Every one of these comments can be responded to with the words, then "take some time to play around with your ideas."

One of my academic heroes in life was Donald Murray, who was without a doubt, one of the greatest teachers of writing and could write himself. In fact, Murray was awarded the Pulitzer prize for editorial writing at the age of 29. Murray understood the need for all writers and thinkers to have space and time in which to play with ideas, daydream, experiment, contemplate, and toss ideas around with other writers, learners and friends. He was aware more than most, how important play is to writing and learning. 

"I am never bored. I overhear what is said and not said, delight in irony and contradiction, relish answers without questions and questions without answers, take note of what is and what should be, what was and what may be. I imagine, speculate, make believe, remember, reflect. I am always traitor to the predictable, always welcoming to the unexpected…."

One of my greatest disappointments in life as an aging teacher, is that the place of play, experimentation and messing around with ideas, has almost no place within most of the classrooms and schools I visit. Why? Because our schools are driven by tests, reviews goals and external assessments. 

How sad Friedrich Froebel would be if he could see us now! Froebel was a German educator who created the concept of the ‘kindergarten’, believing that “play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.”

Could I encourage you to return to my framework and think again on the following?

Principle 8 - Do we create opportunities for students to take responsibility for learning?

Principle 9 - Do we foster development of the imagination and creativity?

Principle 10 - Do we encourage risk-taking and problem-solving in all learners?

And while you consider the above, remember also that play does much more than simply help our children to create and learn. 

Educators at your child’s early childhood education and care service might have told you that they use a ‘play based’ approach for children’s learning and development. But as well, play can help our children to grow as people. What do I mean by this? Scott Eberle says it pretty well in the following quote:

"Much of the pleasure we derive from play is social in nature, and play strengthens our social skills. Play propagates itself in our close groups, strengthening old acquaintanceships and rewarding us with new friendships. These bonds shore up our societies with common associations, common experiences, and common purposes. Playing also deliberately rearranges our relationships and so enhances our social wit. At play we learn to read others’ intentions. And by playing we learn to deflect and defuse conflict." 

Could I encourage all of my readers NOT to forget the power and importance of play.


Scott G. Eberle, The Elements of Play: Toward a Philosophy and a Definition of Play, pp 214-233, American Journal of Play, Winter, 2014, pp. 226

Monday, 25 January 2021

Can the Christian School Serve as its Own Apologetic?

Have you ever met a person of faith and been so impressed by them that you say quietly to yourself, "I could never be as good as him or her"? And when you met them, or spent time with them over a longer period, did you quietly distance yourself from them, or did you find yourself being drawn to the person, wanting something of what they seemed to have in their life? I won't share my personal testimony of coming to faith here, but I will say that it wasn't till I was 31 years of age that I came to faith. In large part God used the lives of a number of people who I knew, to challenge me to consider what was central to my life. For a long time, I looked at Christians critically and thought, I can't be like him or her. In time, some people did have an impact on me. And they did this because, in a sense, they were their own "apologetic for Christ". In time, instead of ridiculing and running from them, I found myself being attracted to them and their lives.

In Chapter 2 of my book 'Pedagogy and Education for Life: A Christian Reframing of Teaching, Learning, And Formation', I talk about education being the "whole of life of a community". As Christians and believers in God we are in a sense our own apologetic. The school community likewise can serve this apologetic function. The very lives of Christian students and teachers can be a witness to the things they believe. The foundation of their faith of course, is God and the Savior in whom we trust. So too our faith-based schools and communities can serve as their own apologetic. The Apostle Peter challenged the early church to:

"Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us." 1 Peter 2:12 

He didn't do this because the observation of people of faith is the way God saves us. Nor was he talking about social action. No! Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, our observations of people who live with God at the centre, are part of the way God awakens in us the reality that this life is not all there is. He expects us to place him at the centre of our lives.

This is a serious challenge for faith-based schools, because as I've already written in previous posts, it's easy for our Christian schools to lose sight of the fact that the standing of our students before God is far more important than their standing in academic rankings.

In just two days most Australian children will go back to school. Their families have the choice to send them to government run 'public' free government run education, or private largely faith-based schools if they can afford them. You can be certain that there will be different priorities for all of them. Could I suggest you ask yourself a few key questions as you visit and consider the school website, prospectus and comments made by the principal and staff? What does the school you are considering say are their priorities and unique characteristics?

If you're a pedant like I can be, you might even count the number of times the following things are mentioned:

  • Academic achievements
  • Sporting achievements
  • Cultural activities
  • Teacher quality
  • Discipline
  • Post school achievements of the alumni
  • Quality of the staff
  • Non-academic achievements of the students

Once you've finished considering the above, consider how often the following are mentioned:

  • The faith-based foundations of the school
  • The importance of Christian character development
  • The priority given to growth in faith
  • The support and discipling of students of faith
  • Worship at school
  • Christian activities in the school 

Why have I stressed the above? Because if the school is serving as its own apologetic, it will show! What do I mean by this? Is the school promoting the truth of Christianity, God's sovereign control of his world and our place and purpose within it as his children? The things that are talked about in any school reflect the things that are important to the teachers and students. Try to be less impressed by the quality of the buildings, the sporting facilities and the well-groomed playgrounds. Look instead to the quality and faith of the teachers and the executive and the character of the students you are able to observe who graduated from the school. Is the education offered in the Christian school set within the "whole of life in the school, and is this in turn situated within the child’s life that transcends varied and multiple communities of practice, both real and virtual"? If you visit the school, ask students "what's so good about this school"? The answers they give might offer a different perspective compared to the prospectus or website.

I quote Bernard Meland in my book, who suggests that the ultimate goal of education is not technical information, useful practices, or specific moral values, but a search for a “higher goodness.” Our schools are to provide space for developing our students in other ways that are also reflective, imaginative, and spiritual. The education we offer that truly matters - i.e. growth in character shaped by God - is situated within the child’s complete life which transcends varied and multiple communities of practice, both real and virtual. As you consider the best school for your child think about these things.


Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Principle 20: Do our pedagogical practices demonstrate that discipleship is a priority?

Making disciples?

Principle 20 in my book 'Pedagogy and Education for Life: A Christian Reframing of Teaching, Learning, And Formation' seems relatively straightforward. In full, I ask 'Do our pedagogical practices demonstrate a relationship between education and discipleship?' It should, but in some classrooms, it might seem of limited relevance to the teacher. To hold the latter view would be a grave mistake, for if Christian schools aren’t created to enable the discipling of our students to know God, then we are left with just another school that helps children to learn and be successful in life. If this is the limit of the school vision, why bother? We might as well just make our State schools stronger by rejoining them. The reality is that Christian schools have grown in number in Australia because people of faith want their children to have an educational experience that teaches them that God is of central importance in their lives. Every teacher in a Christian school is called to be a disciple of Christ seeking to guide their students to be disciples also. Our role is not simply to educate our students to take their place in a 'cookie' cutter world of work.

God revealed himself to us through his Son to become his disciples, and in turn, expects us to make disciples (Matt 28:18–20; 2 Tim 2:2). So, the way we structure our classrooms and our activities, should offer and promote opportunities for reflection on our faith and what this means for our lives. A key challenge is for our classrooms and schools to be much more than simply places sustaining fierce individual achievement and competition. The Apostle Paul challenged the church in Rome to have a sacrificial approach to life, and a desire to share our faith and seek to make Christ known.

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” (Rom 12:1-2).

So, what is our priority?

Just as the Apostle Paul challenged the church in Rome to be sacrificial disciples, so too Christian teachers are to do likewise and to urge our students to consider the same path. We need to ask ourselves, are we seeking maturity in our students as God transforms and renews their minds?

Do the things we say, and the priorities we demonstrate, show that we see our true citizenship as in heaven? And do we want them to do likewise? Or is our pedagogy directed towards and devoted to simply promoting the achievements and benefits of this world without regard for the next?

More pointedly, how do we view our position and understanding of the gospel account, in relation to our life in the world, starting with our classroom? Do we see our understanding of the Bible’s key story and related teachings as a means to interpret our experiences as teachers and educators? If this is the case, will our biblical understanding act as a lens primarily for critique, and as a filter to test for heresies? Or do we go further?

How seriously do we seek biblical understanding and apply it to our roles as teachers? Where does our love of God and his word sit in relation to our educational knowledge, the views of parents, national curricula, and so on? Can our knowledge of education be supported and informed by our faith and biblical knowledge? I’m convinced that the answer is yes, and that if this isn’t a priority for Christian teachers, we might just as well move back to the state school system.

 The last word?

While this is the 20th and final Principle that has shape the pedagogy in my book and educational philosophy outlined, I intend to continue to do posts that cut across topics and issues. These will relate much more to classroom case studies and will be more practical in nature. So, don’t check out just yet! There is much more to discuss.

Wednesday, 2 December 2020

How important is narrative in your classroom and school? Principle 19

Part of what separates humanity from other creatures is that God made us to be story tellers. From the beginning story was to hold a special place as part of human existence. Harold Rosen (in ‘Stories and Meanings’) reminds us that much of human existence is dependent on story, for it helps us to move through the seeming chaos of life towards understanding. In fact, some of life’s greatest insights are shared through story. As well, much human wisdom, knowledge and understanding have been passed down through the ages in the form of stories.

Alasdair MacIntyre in his book ‘After Virtue’ goes further and suggests that ‘man (sic) is in his actions and practices, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal’. We frequently think in narrative, pass on our personal history, envision the future and speak of the present predominantly through story. 

But you might ask, am I claiming that God’s story of redemption is evident in literature? In a sense, I am claiming this. Barth saw it this way, and drew on Calvin’s idea that all of creation is the ‘theatre of God’s glory’. Literature he argued, even that written by the non-believers, can be used by God as part of his general revelation to mankind. Tate suggests that Barth’s use of ‘parable’ is appropriate, as secular stories can point to a meaning beyond the basic narrative. Secular parables might be used by God to speak to particular people in specific contexts. I too believe, that just as God uses the preaching of biblical literature to reveal inexplicable meanings at times for the preacher’s audience, so too, secular parables can be used by God to point to the central narrative of God’s redemptive plans for his creation.


Understanding that God can reveal himself through all of creation, including the works of humankind, should free us to embrace secular literature, Indigenous dreamtime stories from varied nations, folk tales and even the anecdotes of life as vehicles for God’s revelation of truth to us. This is not to suggest that all that is written in the name of literature should be freely shared with our children, but it does allow us to avoid the extremes of disengagement with the literature and stories of the world, as well as avoiding total assimilation and acceptance.


I wrote a number of years ago in my book ‘Pathways to Literacy’ that literature is not just about the enjoyment of story. I claimed that it is about life, and one's world. As such, literature and stories do much more than entertain, they can act as:


• mirrors to enable readers to reflect on life problems and circumstances;

• sources of knowledge;

• sources of ideological challenge;

• a means to peer into the past, and the future;

• vehicles to other places;

• a way to reflect on inner struggles;

• an introduction to the realities of life and death; and

  a way to raise and discuss varied social issues.


Pathways to 'life' and understanding

Chapter 7 of my book 'Pedagogy and Education for Life' is devoted to a discussion of ‘Storytelling and Life’, and in it I explore story in detail. I contend that people learn from stories in their varied forms, and frequently share their lives with other students through stories. The Bible is filled with stories and it is a key way in which God communicates with us. God has given us the ability to tell stories and understand them as a key means of his revelation to us. It is through God’s stories that we understand who he is. And as God’s creatures made in his image, the stories we share directly and indirectly in life, can point to or away from God. How do the stories we share at school suggest implied views on the value of humanity, our beliefs, hopes, fears, and knowledge? Is my classroom a place where children tell their stories, and where others listen and gain hope and inspiration to seek God? To what extent are our stories and those we encourage in school life, echoes of the central meta-narrative of the Bible, that is, God’s redemptive plan for his people? For as Tolkien suggested, the gospel of Christ is “the greatest story of them all.”


Trinity College Library Dublin

What I’m suggesting is that literature as a form of narrative offers readers endless possibilities for exploration, imagination, learning and challenge, and it serves a key role in school education, particularly in the elementary school years. This role for literature is much broader and less explicitly connected to biblical truth than traditional Bible stories for children. But nonetheless, stories can point to, and illustrate, God’s salvation narrative and his work in our lives. They can also be used by God as part of his general revelation and common grace to us, both to enrich our imagined and hoped for view of the ‘good life’, and in the process, drawing attention to aspects of the human condition. As a result of this, stories can bring into focus truth, beauty and goodness, as well as human virtues that reflect the grace and providence of God. The eighth chapter of my book (“Imagination and Life”), might be helpful if you’d like to explore these issues some more.


Related references of relevance to this post


Trevor H. Cairney (1990). Other Worlds: The Endless Possibilities of Literature, Portsmouth (NH): Heinemann.

Trevor H. Cairney (1995). Pathways to Literacy, London: Cassell.

Trevor H. Cairney (2018). Pedagogy and Education for Life: A Christian Reframing of Teaching, Learning and Formation, Eugene (OR): Cascade Books.