Thursday, 7 June 2018

Literature, the Bible & Redemption

1. The importance of children's literature

Some readers of this blog might know that I also write a blog called "Literacy, families and learning". I've been doing it for 10 years and it aims to reach a broad audience "to provide practical, timely and sound support and advice for parents, teachers and teachers in training". It isn't written with a specifically Christian audience in mind, but if do you read it, I hope that you will see the influence of my Christian faith and worldview. This might be most evident in some of the posts I have written on Key themes in children's literature.
These posts intersect with my writing for a Christian blog that I also wrote (while the Director of CASE). The posts concerned Christian Writing for Children (here and here).

Above: J.R.R. Tolkien
In one of the posts I drew on the writings of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and referred to Tolkien's view that the central Bible narrative account of God’s redemptive plan and work, is the central narrative that gives shape to all other narratives. I agree with him that in every story, there is a sense in which there is an echo of the biblical narrative.
J.R.R. Tolkien once said (to C.S. Lewis) that “The Christian story is the greatest story of them all. Because it’s the real story. The historical event that fulfills the tales and shows us what they mean.”

Tolkien also suggested to Lewis one night that "... just as a word is an invention about an object or idea, so a story can be an invention about truth."

At the core of the Bible is Salvation History; with a central narrative tracing both the history of Judaism and Christianity, and God’s redemptive plan for his people. In the beginning God created…and it was good. But sin entered the world, man rebelled against him, and so God placed a curse upon his creation that one day would end in judgement. But God always had a plan for such rebellion; a plan of redemption motivated by love. An amazing gift of grace; his own son sent to die and three days later to be raised from the dead to defeat sin and death, and one day, to usher in a new Heaven and a new Earth. This is God's plan that provides a way for his creation to be redeemed and restored.
In my first CASE post on Christian writing for children, I suggested that while there are many legitimate forms of writing for children (I suggested at least five types), I urged Christians to consider writing good fiction for the secular marketplace. One participant in a workshop I ran in 2008 as part of a CASE writers conference, took me at my word. Some years later 
Danielle Terceiro, wrote an interesting first novel for readers aged 12-14 years, 'Project Hot Potato' that tried to do this. While the echoes of the gospel are not strong in the book, it was an interesting attempt. In my presentation at the workshop I was arguing for the redemption of children's literature for the sake of the gospel, and suggested 5 possible responses and she attempted Type 5 where biblical links or parallels are at the thematic level. My aim at the workshop was to encourage Christians to write good publishable narratives for children that had biblical themes at their very foundation, and an absence of bad language, moral failures and sexually promiscuity and so on.
2. The place of God's redemptive plan for creation in literature

But in this post I want to remind readers that much literature is already suitable for parents to use as an extension of the biblical education of their children. While I'm not suggesting that literature can be a replacement for the Bible as the key text for life, what I am suggesting is that the gospel inhabits literature in stories that echo the central redemption narrative of the Bible. 

I suggest in chapter 7 of my new book 'Pedagogy and Education for Life', that to be human is to seek to understand our purpose in life. To live, is "to be immersed within an intertextual cacophony of stories that shape and influence the things we desire. From these stories, we read various representations of the future, and alternative visions of what Aristotle first called 'human flourishing'." In a sense, we are 'persuaded', 'convinced' or, as James Smith suggests, perhaps even 'lured', by these pictures and visions of the future.

Stories are always more than just disconnected and isolated accounts; they typically have a relationship to other larger metanarratives. Christian Smith in 'Moral, Believing Animals' suggested that narratives “seek to convey the significance and meaning of events by situating their interaction with or influence on other events and actions in a single, interrelated account.” 

We are shaped, at least in part, by the stories we absorb, give expression to, and help create. James K. A. Smith suggests this is no simple cognitive process (James Smith, 'Desiring the Kingdom', p.41). Rather, we are embodied creatures who absorb the stories of life and engage in rituals and cultural practices that shape our desires and our vision of the good life. This argument draws on Charles Taylor’s concept of the “social imaginary” in 'Modern Social Imaginaries'. This is discussed briefly in chapter 6 of my book. Taylor argues that societies are given direction by an imagined and hoped-for view of the world. This is not expressed simply in “theoretical terms, but is carried in images, stories and legends.” Humans are not given their major focus and direction simply by reasoning, but also through the imagination.

The stories that are part of our experience thus shape our vision of the good life, give focus to our desires, and direction to our lives. In exploring the relationship between love and community, Oliver O’Donovan reminds us of Augustine’s statement that a community is “a gathered multitude of rational beings united by agreeing to share the things they love.” ('Common Objects of Love', 20–24).  Stanley Hauerwas, in 'The Hauerwas Reader' suggested that in essence, a group of people come to see a common “view of the good,” and are hence capable of common action, cultural practices, and identity.

Classroom life is full of stories in varied forms, hence their importance.

3. So how do we make better use of literature?

In another book of mine 
('Pathways to Literacy', Cairney 1995, p.77-78) which I wrote some time ago for university students and teachers, I suggested that literature can act as:
  • a mirror to enable readers to reflect on life problems and circumstances
  • a source of knowledge
  • a source of ideological challenge
  • a means to peer into the past, and the future
  • a vehicle to other places
  • a means to reflect on inner struggles
  • an introduction to the realities of life and death
  • a vehicle for the raising and discussion of social issues
I'm pushing the above claims one step further in 'Pedagogy and Education for Life'. My point is simple. For many books, there are links or parallels at the thematic level, to the biblical redemption narrative. These stories demonstrate or echo biblical teaching. For example, salvation narratives, stories of redemption and restoration, parallels to biblical narratives or even biblical parables. Other less helpful books distort these biblical themes and require comment and critique. Such stories can be read at one level simply as nice tales, but at another level the key themes that parallel biblical themes can be discussed with children. We see this often in the way some authors treat the Christmas story and manage to write out the major salvation narrative. In many cases, the authors are not Christians, but Christian teaching may have indirectly influenced their writing. Many children's stories offer knowledge of events and life situations, that for the Christian would be seen as:

  • affirming that God is in control of his world and is unfolding his purposes for it;
  • acting as a mirror allowing the reader to reflect on life and their future in the light of biblical teaching;
  • leading us to consider aspects of the human condition (life and death, fear, loneliness, pain, loss, frailty, brokenness etc) that once again relate to biblical wisdom and teaching;
  • pointing to the central redemption narrative of the Bible.
Alternatively, literature can offer perspectives that Christians would see are at odds with biblical teaching and require comment. This type of critical reading of literature 'against the grain', is a vital skill for children to learn, so that as independent readers they will be better able to read books, view movies, listen to songs and read texts of all kinds with a biblical lens. Biblical engagement with literature of this type can begin very early (albeit in modest ways!).

4. An example - Teaching our children about death, human frailty and judgement

The topic of death is not a very popular one for parents. Many parents make the mistake of trying to hide the reality of death from their children, with the result that when their children do encounter it they may have difficulty coping. At this point I should confess to telling my eldest daughter (when she was about 3 years old), that our pet yellow budgerigar ("Mr Hooper") had got out of the cage and flown away. In fact, he had died. As non-Christian parents at the time, my wife and I weren't ready to deal with the topic so we simply lied about the bird's death (sorry Nicole!).

While there is little point in deliberately raising death prematurely for the child before they have the emotional maturity to deal with it, it's hard to artificially put a time frame on when it's a good time to speak of death.
While thankfully few children will have to deal with death and dying at too young an age, some will, and of course we have no way of knowing when,   and if this might be the case. Furthermore, from an early age they will be on the 'edges' of conversations and discussions that will give them their first hints that this life is not permanent for any living creature. An awareness of death may emerge very early with the death of a family member, or more commonly, through the death of an animal (typically a pet like Mr Hooper). However, more often the child's first awareness that all living things will one day die, might be through a book or a film, DVD or television program. As the child grows older, the chance of some first-hand experience of death will increase. By the teenage years a close experience with the death of a friend or loved one will be more common, and might well come in tragic circumstances.

That's where literature (and film of course) can help parents, in particular, to discuss the reality of death with their children. Books that address death can be read with children and by children themselves as a source of insight, comfort and emotional growth. Once again, I stress that this isn't a replacement for the Bible's discussion of death, and the fact that Jesus rescues us from any fear of death. But literature is a complement to our discussion of the Bible's teaching about death. At this point, I also want to stress that I am not deliberately ignoring classic works of Christian fiction that are more allegorical in their approach such as Bunyan's "The Pilgrims Progress", The Chronicles of Narnia written by C.S. Lewis, or R.C. Sproule's, The Prince's Poison Cup. This genre has a different place in our literary traditions that I won't address in this already long post.

Let me offer a few examples of how some books raise the theme of death and dying.

5. Some books that deal with death

a) Traditional fantasy and fairy tales

Fantasy has always been a common first introduction to human frailty and death. Fairy tales from many different cultural traditions have not been afraid of death as a theme. Traditional versions of 'Little Red Riding Hood', 'The Three Pigs', 'Jack and Beanstalk', 'The Gingerbread Man', 'The Little Match Girl' and many other tales, all deal with death in graphic detail. However, today it is common for such tales to be sanitised and death expunged or pushed into the background of the narrative. But traditional fairy tales, myths and legends still offer a rich array of stories that deal with death. In contemporary literature there are also many good examples of books that deal with this important theme.

b) Some books for younger readers (0-6 years of age)

I’ll always love you
, Hans Wilhelm – a delightful picture book that tells of the death of a little boy’s dog called Elfie and the impact of the death on him. This would be appropriate for children aged 3-7 years. There is so much to talk about in this story of devotion and loss. Be warned, children ask the most challenging questions about stories, e.g. "Do dogs go to heaven?"

Granpa by John Burningham - This moving book provides provides an insight into death through simple words and pictures of the relationship between a girl and her grandfather and the impact of his death. Some struggle with the staccato nature of the text (that mirrors the at times disconnected nature of child/adult interaction), but this is a wonderful book! The story shows how their relationship changes over time from the child being dependent on the adult, to Granpa beginning to show the signs of the slow creep from life to death. From dependence to 'independence' but one day when he dies, life goes on.  

Love You Forever, by Robert N. Munsch -- this book tells of the cycle of life as a child grows to be a man and a mother grows to be an old lady; and of course of the relationship between a boy and his mother as they both grow old. Some find it a little unusual, but it is an intriguing treatment of the topic from a well known children's author.

Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs, by Tomie de Paola - Four-year-old Tommy enjoys his relationship with both his grandmother and great-grandmother, but eventually learns to face up to their inevitable death.

c) Primary Readers (7-12 years of age)

Charlotte’s Web
, E.B. White – It’s hard to go past this classic tale of survival, hope, life and death. Even if it has been seen first on DVD it is worth reading with your children. In his masterly tale E.B. White shows through Wilbur (the pig), Fern (the little girl) and Charlotte (the spider) how death is part of life; and yet, how death is not the end. Life goes on.

Number the stars, Lois Lowry – This wonderful book tells of the escape of a Danish Jewish family by boat from the Nazis in World War II. It is a novel that touches on numerous themes such as human cruelty, life, death and survival.

Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes
by Eleanor Coerr - this book is based on the true story of an 11-year-old Japanese girl diagnosed with leukaemia as a consequence of the bombing of Hiroshima. Sadako Sasaki was just 2 when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The author does not hide the horrors of death providing vivid descriptions of her pain, weakness, sadness, and loneliness. The book also shows the impact on a family of the tragic death of a child. For the Christian parent there is also the opportunity to talk about pain, suffering and judgement.

d) Teenagers

Death of a Princess, by Susan Geason - When the Pharaoh's beautiful eleven-year-old daughter, Isis, dies under suspicious circumstances, the beautician becomes the prime suspect! This mystery is set in Ancient Egypt during the reign of the mighty Ramesses II. For the older reader there is a lot to get your teeth into here, particularly the contrast of the stories treatment of death and the Bible's

Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson - This brilliant book won the Newbery Medal in 1978. It is the story of two lonely children who create a magical forest kingdom. Paterson drew inspiration for the novel from the death of a friend of her son, who was struck by lightning at a beach. It is the story of fifth grader Jesse Aarons, who befriends his new neighbour Leslie Burke after losing a race to her at school. This touching story ends in tragedy.

6. Some final comments

What I've tried to show in this post is to try to demonstrate in 'Pedagogy and Education for Life', particularly in chapter 7, 'Storytelling and life'. If 'education is the whole of life of a community and the experience of its members learning to live this life from a specific standpoint or end goal', then we need to understand that every story, every book, offers insight into the greatest story ever told. 

The purpose of the post is not to encourage Christian parents or teachers to put the Bible to one side and present the gospel according to literature. Rather, the purpose is to highlight how literature has much to offer in terms of the discussion of biblical themes as part of narrative encounters in books and even film. Nor am I suggesting that parents and teachers ruin the reading of literature by dissecting books to such an extent that children are not given the opportunity to simply enjoy the narrative themselves. And I'm definitely not saying that we should all become bibliotherapists, although some psychologists use some of the books I've mentioned as part of their clinical work. 

But I do want to stress that literature offers many possibilities for rich discussions with our children that have significance for their developing faith in Christ.

AN UPDATE - Availability of 'Pedagogy, Education and Life: A Christian Reframing of Teaching, Learning, and Formation'

My book is now be widely available throughout the English Speaking world now. Major sites like Amazon have it in all three forms, paperback, hard cover and Kindle version. Let me know if you have availability issues. There shouldn't be problems. The Wipf & Stock model allows for copies to be printed on demand and delivered in very short timeframes (days not weeks).

Visit the Wipf & Stock site HERE if you'd like review copies. Let me know if you have problems.

Friday, 11 May 2018

'Pedagogy and Education for Life' - Publication UPDATE

I just wanted to update followers that my book Pedagogy & Education for Life: A Christian Reframing of Teaching, Learning, and Formation' is in production in paperback, hardback and Kindle editions. It is available through Amazon and all major international online bookshops. There will also be copies available from major bookshops in Australia, USA and the UK. If you would like review copies for journals and other education publications please visit the publishers' site and provide your details HERE. ISBN numbers for each format can be found on the Amazon website.
The paperback ISBN is 1498283616
The book is now available for sale. It is available in paperback ($US25 and $AUD34.27), hardcover ($US45) and Kindle edition ($US9.04 & $AUD11.99).

All three formats are now available.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Democratic Education as Saviour of Schooling? Christian Schooling & Child-Centred Approaches

In Australia, the Federal government has just received the report of a major review of Australian school education. The report titled 'Through Growth to Achievement: Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools' was conducted by a panel of significant Australians and was chaired by Mr David Gonski AC, who is a leading businessman and Chancellor of the University of New South Wales Australia. 

It concludes:
"While Australia has a fine educational heritage, its academic performance has declined since 2000 as measured by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test. In 2000, only a few countries materially ranked higher; in 2015 Australia’s ranking dropped to the middle of the pack. Moreover, Australian student achievement has stagnated in the last decade, measured by the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), and has declined relative to its past performance in PISA."

The first of the report's 23 key recommendations is that Australia's school education should:

Embed a focus on individual student achievement through continuous learning progress in the policies and practices of all schools and systems, with the expectation that each student should achieve at least one year’s growth throughout each year of schooling.

Without wanting to comment too much on the report and its specific findings here, I have been interested in the varied responses to this first recommendation. The recommendation is not that surprising. Why wouldn't we want our children to have their teachers take special note of their individual achievement levels, and to ensure that they are making progress at a minimum of one year's growth for one year of life. My sense, is that this is what teachers would already aspire to do. 

While some teachers might shudder at the prospect that they might need to teach less to the class and ability groups, and more to the specific learning needs of 'each' child, this isn't that spectacular a recommendation. Although, it would be helpful to know how a year of progress will be defined, and how we would measure this, but... I will leave these many questions to one side.

However, the thing that caught my attention was that some people have come out and begun to argue (once again) that an appropriate response to this recommendation, would be to embrace a discussion that has been bubbling along for some time as an appropriate model (see 'Democratic Schooling: teachers leave them kids alone') . In fact, one commentator even suggested that we might revisit one of the classic democratic schools, Summerhill! 

Above: A.S. Neill's school Summerhill
The oldest contemporary example of Democratic Education in action is in fact Summerhill. The school was established in 1921 in Suffolk England and is still in operation today. The British boarding school was founded by A.S. Neill who argued that school should be crafted to match the child, rather than the school shaping them. At Summerhill staff and students can attend school meetings, and make decisions about how it is run and what it teaches (with equal votes). Students decide what subjects they will study and whether they will attend classes at all.

Neill’s model of education (and that of Democratic education) places at its centre democracy as both a goal and a 'method' of instruction, or the foundation of one's pedagogy. It assumes that democratic processes and ideas should be the focus of education, and that self-determination should be a core part of school communities, with its embedded core values of justice, respect and trust. As well, 'Democratic Education' is seen as emancipatory, with the student's opinions and ideas being seen as equal to the teacher's.

As its website indicates, this is a child-centred school in the most extreme form. A.S. Neill suggested:

"I am only just realising the absolute freedom of my scheme of Education. I see that all outside compulsion is wrong, that inner compulsion is the only value. And if Mary or David wants to laze about, lazing about is the one thing necessary for their personalities at the moment. Every moment of a healthy child's life is a working moment. A child has no time to sit down and laze. Lazing is abnormal, it is a recovery, and therefore it is necessary when it exists."

While I'm not suggesting that the Gonski report in any way is suggesting such radical reforms, it does indicate how far the notion of a Christian education - with formation at the core as proposed in my book - is from the most extreme secular views on education and how they would see schools, curriculum, learning and behaviour being shaped.

Notions of Democratic Education have their historic roots in a number of places, but philosophers like John Locke had an influence on the development of such liberal forms of pedagogy. In 1690 in an essay titled Essay Concerning Human Understanding he suggested that "None of the things they are to learn, should ever be made a burden to them, or imposed on them as a task. Whatever is so proposed, presently becomes irksome; the mind takes an aversion to it, though before it were a thing of delight or indifferency."

Locke in effect claimed that the young mind was like a blank slate, or 'tabula rasa' a concept first attributed to Aristotle. Later, Plato was to refer to the mind being like a 'wax tablet'. The child's mind was assumed to be empty and needing to be filled or 'written upon', though Locke seem to accept that we are born with some innate talents. The concept is often linked to debates about 'nature' versus 'nurture' and learning. But essentially, experience, perception and opportunities to learn are all that advocates believe is necessary to develop young minds. Education was to make the 'man' (sic), and good would come from being educated well. Furthermore, humans are seen as generally good and capable of living in the world somewhat independently and able to make sound choices. The idea of 'original sin' and redemption from it had no place in educational thinking, contrary to Christian teaching and its roots in Augustinian teaching.

Needless to say, Locke and others who are at the foundation of progressive humanistic education, assume (to use Locke's words) "that of all the men we meet with, nine parts of ten are what they are, good or evil, useful or not, by their education".

The significance of these somewhat random references to Democratic Education in response to the Gonski Report while ill-informed, indicate just how little debate there is concerning the nature of pedagogy, a word that has been misappropriated for varied purposes. Nor do many educators today seem to place any value on teleological views of educational reforms. Rarely, does anyone seriously ask questions about the merits of such proposals with reference to end goals or purposes other than measurable outcomes on tests. 

Paul Ricoeur, in 'Figuring the Sacred' contended that a fulfilled person takes seriously their teleology—that is, their apparent purpose, directions, and goals in life. Our teleology both reflects and helps shape our hopes and dreams, as we live our lives in all of its fullness.

As we seek to build schools that are genuinely, Christian (or Christ centred), we must be concerned with the whole of life of the community. To quote my definition of education, a school that seeks to develop a Christian pedagogy takes into consideration:

"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."

None of my comments in this post are meant as a criticism of the Gonski report, nor am I suggesting that Christian education should not embrace approaches like discovery learning, creativity, independent learning, open plan classrooms and so on. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Pedagogy, Habit, Formation & Communities

Above: Cover Image from Case Quarterly
As I explain in 'Pedagogy and Education for Life', the roots of education can be traced (in part) to ancient Greece and the work of Socrates and Plato. It is here that we can identify the foundations of educational pedagogy (expressed in the Greek word 'paideia'). Its purpose was to:
"... lead the child as they grow in body, mind, and spirit". This was an exchange between "one who acts and one who is acted upon".
However, some modern advocates for progressive approaches to education, assume that children if given freedom will find their own way in the world. In one limited sense this is true, humans are resilient, and no doubt as unique creatures will develop a particular personality and disposition as they explore and relate to their world.

But as character is reflected in the habits of body, as well as the mind and spirit, it is a word that at its base is the idea of the development and shaping of the whole person.

Martin Buber in his book 'Between Man and Man' suggests that, “Education worthy of its name is essentially education of character.” This is an education that involves the child as a whole, with education and the teacher as the vehicles. Rather than giving children the freedom to simply explore the world on their terms, the teacher in effect is to present a selection of the world to his or her students, with the formation of character as the central purpose. For the Christian teacher, the very foundation of character formation must be an understanding of one's place in the world under God's rule, and with the restorative hope we have in Christ.

While progressive educators stress freedom to make life choices, the Christian teacher needs to understand that their role is to offer a pedagogy that offers opportunities not just for learning, but for the development of good habits focused on an ultimate “good”. As Alasdair MacIntyre suggests in 'After Virtue', character is born in the crucible of daily “practices." And as Aristotle taught, such practices will always have a 'telos'. That is, a purpose or intention.

Notwithstanding the fact that we cannot control our children's lives forever, do parents and teachers really want to leave the development of character in our children to chance? The formation of our children in attitudes, beliefs, values and views of the world begins within the home. But very quickly the circle of influence widens as they encounter many other communities of interest and practice.

In my book 'Pedagogy & Education for Life: A Christian Reframing of Teaching, Learning, and Formation', I look closely at how the formation of our children takes place. The formative years of schooling are characterized by children's participation in varied communities of interest and practice. Some are framed by participation with others within the classroom, but the vast majority are formed in the playground and outside school. This can occur through social media platforms like Facebook and Snapchat, as well as friendship groups of varied kinds. Many such informal communities of practice are based on relational groups (real and virtual) that themselves can be shaped by ideas, values and practices embedded within popular culture, gaming, sport, music, fashion and so on. 

Such subtle and ongoing 'forces' for formation engage our students as they live within the multiple communities that children negotiate and inhabit every day. What place does the Christian faith have for children in the critical teenage years? In thinking about this, James Smith referencing Polanyi's work in 'Personal Knowledge' has suggested that Christian Education needs to be “... nothing less than a re-narration of our identity in Christ . . . a comprehensive project of rehabituation.” Such habit formation, he suggests, is “at the intersection of stories and bodies.” Education isn’t just about the dissemination of information; it is more fundamentally an exercise in the formation of the whole child.

The great challenge for Christian schools is that while it can promote a consistent biblical worldview in its actions, programs and practices, it must remember that it cannot do this in isolation from the world. For the 'boundaries' between the multiple 'worlds' that our children inhabit (both physical and virtual) are always permeable. Any school, and the students within them, always have relationships - some observable and some invisible - with multiple communities beyond these boundaries.
"Schools are complex social and cultural spaces where deep relationships are formed. They are not just physical places. They are social contexts where varied communities of belief and practice develop." (Cairney, Pedagogy & Education for Life, p.24).
What Christian schools require is a pedagogy that is responsive to and interwoven with the daily life of any community. Such a pedagogy seeks to shape classes, schools, and students by the Bible’s central message that ultimately our transformation must be in and through Christ.

Our students have an embodied existence, so we must be concerned with what they live, not just the content of the curriculum, the worldview the teacher holds, the exams they sit, the assignments completed, and so on. It is within the life of the school and varied communities of practice that our students' minds, lives and characters are shaped through action, thoughts, loves, learning, experience and engagement in a complex world.

As such, pedagogy will always be much more than curriculum, teaching methods, worldview and so on; it requires teachers to be concerned with the orchestration and sustaining of classroom learning and life. This orchestration of school life should always be approached with the formation of the child for the glory of God as the priority.

What are the key take-homes from this discussion

Educational formation requires more than:
  • passing on knowledge;
  • teaching Christian values as knowledge;
  • teaching worldview as if it is incremental knowledge; or
  • conforming to a set of school practices.
Instead, while all of the above are important, the Christian teacher need to participate in the lives of their students, orchestrating the life of the school community so that it is characterised by openness, receptiveness, respect, acceptance and a preparedness to listen and respond to the members of these complex communities of practice. Without these features, school will be little more than sites of values contestation, as its teachers seek conformance to worldview and ideas, without deep student personal engagement and with little discussion of a faith that is meant to be transformative.


The book will be on sale in a few weeks!

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Student Formation: Avoiding the Indoctrination Trap

I often hear parents make statements like: "I just want my children to grow up to be the person they want to be." This seems a rather risky approach to parenting. From birth, parents of all faiths and none, are trying to 'shape' or 'form' their children in specific ways. Some may deny this, but it is true.

While this is all within an envelope of love and devotion for most parents, there is a very practical component to parenting. Being a good parent requires you to teach your children many things. It begins early with language and practical skills like sitting unaided, crawling and eventually walking.

All seemingly natural processes. But in reality, parents coax and assist as children take risks and take on new challenges. The popular term for this adult support is 'Scaffolding' (a term from Russian pyschologist Lev Vygotsky). In this way, parents and teachers help children to do things with our assistance that they cannot do alone. The picture opposite of my wife helping our daughter to walk aged about 12 months is an example.

However, as children grow physically and intellectually, there comes a point (or more likely many points) where children challenge the 'authority' of parents to 'help'. "No!" Or, "I do it this way Daddy" should be familiar to any parent. Later, the Tween or teenager will simply think they (or their friends) know better.

How parents deal with growing independence is one of the great challenges and skills of parenting. Children fairly quickly learn that parents have expectations and try to place limits on their behaviour. In response, they begin to test the boundaries, to see what they can get away with. Increasingly, as children enter school and spend more time away from parents, they need to make judgements about how they act, what they believe, and how to judge right and wrong - without you being present! This is a hard time for most Christian parents.

How do we deal with this emerging independence? What's more, how does a teacher deal with this within their classes? What beliefs, values, ideas and teachings do we privilege? There are many responses from parents and teachers that range from a 'hands off' response that allows great freedom for children to work things out themselves, to more extreme forms of indoctrination. Christian schools face this dilemma each day. In fact, even non-Christian schools face this dilemma, even though few recognise it.    

Elmer Thiessen in his book 'Teaching for Commitment' has some helpful comments on the difference between open-mindedness and indoctrination, that are helpful for dealing with the tension between freedom and control by parents and teachers. Thiessen argues that to be open to the ideas of others is a good thing, and that in fact, “open-mindedness is closely related to critical thinking.”

In drawing from the work of Socrates’s famous statement that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” Thiessen suggests that “open-mindedness" is helpful and simply means being open to critical reflection concerning our beliefs as parents, teachers and children, and the beliefs of other people.

Thiessen reminds us that simply presenting Christian truth in an authoritative way “will of necessity discourage critical openness.” However, Thiessen suggests that if "critical openness" is promoted in our schools, then claims of indoctrination have no grounds. Conversely, if schools fail to allow open discussion of alternative views off the world, we may well be shuffling towards a stance of indoctrination.

One of the great dangers in Christian schools, is the temptation to wage a war against cultural practices that are seen as inconsistent with the faith. Faith though is not simply a set of practices, a specific set of values, or even a tightly defined worldview. Rather, our faith reflects “an integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior.” How the life of the school mirrors this is of critical importance.

Kevin Vanhoozer in 'Everyday Theology?', suggests that “every part of life signifies something about the values and beliefs that shape culture. Therefore, every part of culture communicates something about the meaning of the whole.” As teachers, we need to 'read' culture, because as well as offering explicit messages, culture communicates basic orientations to life.

How the school manages and constructs the life of the school community and its interaction with and relationship to other diverse communities and sub-communities, as well as their culture and practices, is critical to student formation. As I have written elsewhere in 'Portraits of Literacy Across Families, Communities & Schools', “to be a teacher or a pupil in any school demands specific ways of using language, behaving, interacting, and adherence to sets of values, attitudes” and beliefs. Linguist James Gee argued in 'Social Linguistics and Literacies', schools engage in “particular” discourses. This concept of course has resonance with Etienne Wenger’s concept of “communities of practice.” Gee describes discourses as “ways of behaving, interacting, valuing, thinking, believing, speaking, and often reading and writing that are accepted as instantiations of particular roles (or “types” of people) by specific groups or people.”

The original foundational aim of Christian education, was always the quest to introduce children to the Christian faith. But the greatest challenge for Christian schools is how they present the message of Christianity. For the teacher, the even greater challenge is how do they penetrate the numerous communities of practice where the views and prejudices of every teenager grows. I will have more to say about this in my next post.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Why Standpoint Matters: Beyond Worldview, Virtues & Values

So why does standpoint matter?

I have already suggested in my definition of pedagogy in earlier posts that one's standpoint matters. My definition of education is as follows:

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. 

Some readers will be saying, "At last he's got to worldview". And yes, I have to some extent, but in my book I try to challenge some inherent problems I have when Christians say things like, "Worldview is the key". Or perhaps, "Christian education needs to challenge young people about the values they hold, or display in their lives". Then  again, others might say "I think we need to train our students in basic Christian virtues". Such arguments assume that each in their own way will help us to define an education that is authentic and which we can call 'Christian'.

While I want to affirm that worldview, values and human virtues are important, and related to what we call might Christian education, none of them are in my view the defining keys to authentic Christian education. I argue throughout my book that it is within varied communities of practice that habits, views, priorities and hopes are defined. In short, what our students come to value most is largely defined by their goals, hopes - and as James Smith argues - loves. It is within these broad categories that we will find the foundation of the standpoint from which they sift and sort their lives. It is here that the priorities, views and yes, even values, of their world are shaped.

Craig Dykstra in his book 'Growing in the Life of Faith' helps us here, as he writes:

"Beneath the level of norms, roles, institutional structures, rituals, stories, and symbols lies the level of our fundamental communal intentions toward one another and the world, which govern how we live in our roles and rituals and by means of which we apprehend the mystery of our existence." 

(Dykstra, Growing in the Life of Faith, 1999)

Our children are immersed in a web of relationships and simultaneously are members of varied communities of practice. These include some that exist at school, which might cut across classes, year levels, interest groups, social and friendship groups. As well, they might be face-to-face, or virtual, being sustained by social media and constant virtual communication. Our students move in and out of these groups on almost minute to minute basis. What teachers observe and the way they engage with their students, offers access only to the veritable tip of the iceberg of the communities of practice that our students inhabit.

Against social a complex social existence, the task of the teacher in trying to influence the 'standpoint' from which our students view the world is a very difficult one. 

What I suggest in 'Pedagogy and Education for Life' is that the key in having any impact on our students world is the extent to which we are:
  • aware of the varied communities of practice our students inhabit;
  • able to have an impact on their views of the world through our teaching, curriculum and pedagogy;
  • attentive to the conversations of our classrooms and the cultural practices evident in their words and actions;
  • engaged and in some way, intersecting with their world.
As Bourdieu taught us, within all communities, over time, all members develop specific habits, dispositions, actions, preferences and beliefs. All of these become embodied in the life of a community like a classroom. 

A challenge

If you are a teacher or parent try to estimate how many networks or relationships your children are engaged in each day. Then ask yourself these questions:

1. In how many would I see myself as a member?
2. In ways, and through what avenues, do members reinforce belonging?
3. Are there specific behaviours that members demonstrate?
4. Are you aware of any views of the world that they might value, demonstrate, reinforce?
5. What are the things that sustain group coherence and purpose?

I will return to this topic in a future post.

Next Post: Formation


Friday, 2 February 2018

The Power of Story

Above: My father told constant stories about life
As an adult, I can never remember being read to as a child. Books were not a big part of our family life. But as I grew older, and particularly when I trained to become a teacher, I began to appreciate the importance of literature in the lives of the young. Later, as an academic, I began to research story and I became a passionate advocate for children's literature. I would often say in talks about children's literature that I hadn't lived in a home rich in literature. But over time, I began to realize that while books were not read to me as a child, and literature had not been prominent in my early life, that story DID play a large part in my childhood. How could this be so?

First, because my home was filled with music, song and my father's personal anecdotes of life in Scotland. My father's stories often focused on family hardship, and later in Australia, the struggles of an immigrant family and a lifetime of battles as a trade union leader against the power of big business. Both my parents were also musicians and entertainers, and my mother and sister were both gifted singers. Music, in a sense, was another form of storytelling that also filled our home. Second, my grandfather, with whom I spent all my school holidays, loved literature, particularly poetry, and was constantly quoting and reciting it. He would also constantly quote the Bible as part of daily life.

Above: A brother is introducing his sister to the power of story
What I was to realize many years later, was that story had indeed been central to my life. Not from books, but as oral stories in varied forms. Story in all of its forms has the power to challenge, to move us emotionally, and to cause us to reflect on life in all its dimensions. It also has the potential to move us to seek hope as we deal with all of life as we experience life's emotions, including love, hate, fear, confidence, chaos, uncertainty, weakness, strength, success, and failure. Story is an important influence on what we come to love and desire, it follows that it is potentially formative for our attitude toward the ultimate object of love—the God of the universe—who the Bible teaches has made us for a future kingdom and an everlasting hope and glory centred on him.

In my book 'Pedagogy and Education for Life', I devote a chapter to storytelling and in it write:

The significance of story for teaching should be obvious. It operates at multiple levels in the life of the school. At one level, students learn about the world through story. But at a deeper level they begin to imagine their own futures, their deepest desires, and the good life which they seek. As well, story is experienced in many forms: written, spoken, sung, viewed, heard, and experienced. In our world, we can be confronted and moved by books, advertising, movies, and music. This of course occurs in the 'everydayness' of life, whether at school, work, home, or in the world at large.

James K. A. Smith in his book 'Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation', argues that we are embodied creatures who absorb the stories of life, and engage in rituals and cultural practices that shape our desires and our vision of the good life. The stories that are part of our experience shape our vision of the good life, give focus to our desires, and direction to our lives.

But we don't just enjoy and absorb stories, we create them and share them as a central part of life. As Alasdair MacIntyre, suggests in his book 'After Virtue' we are storytelling creatures:

Man [sic] is in his actions and practices, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal.

Humans frequently think in narrative, pass on personal histories, envision the future and speak of the present often through story. But there's more! Our stories have a relationship to the stories of other people, and also the central salvation narrative of the Bible. MacIntyre suggests in 'Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry' that 'The story of oneself is embedded in the history of the world, an overall narrative within which all other narratives find their place'. J.R. Tolkien suggested something similar when he challenged C.S. Lewis to consider the Christian faith.

It has become obvious to me over time, that my personal life story has a relationship to all other stories that I have experienced in life. This too is the experience of our children. Teachers need to understand this, for it has significant consequences for the view of the world they are forming each day, and even more important than this, their view of their potential future. For much of the life of school, teachers have little connection to the stories that are shaping the lives of our young people. One of the great challenges that we face is how to address this disconnection between adults and the private narrative worlds of our students.

Being participants in the storied lives that our children live each day, is a major challenge for parents and teachers. In 'Pedagogy and Education for Life' I argue that we need to strive to help our children connect their lives to the Bible's central narrative. That is:

In the beginning, God created . . . and it was good. But sin entered the world, man rebelled against Him, and so God placed a curse upon his creation that one day would end in judgment. But God always had a plan to respond to such rebellion, a plan of redemption motivated by love, an amazing gift and act of grace: sending his own Son to die, and then three days later to be raised from the dead to defeat sin and death, and one day to return to judge the living and the dead. This is how the Bible outlines God's plan to provide a way for his creation to be restored to a rightful relationship with him.

Stories can 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 draw attention to aspects of the human condition.

To be human is to understand our God-given desire to know our purpose in life and to seek fulfillment in the “hoped for,” the ultimate quest of each life. In life, we are immersed within an intertextual cacophony of stories that shape and influence the things we desire. From these stories, we read various representations of the future, and alternative visions of what Aristotle first called 'human flourishing. (Cairney, In press, 'Pedagogy and Education for Life').

Finally, stories can bring into focus truth, beauty, and goodness, as well as human virtues that reflect the grace and providence of God. Teachers need to constantly ask themselves, how do I share and position classroom life in such a way, that ultimately, the stories that our students hear, share and are influenced by, have a connection to the central narrative of the Gospel of Christ?

NEXT Post - Worldview, Virtues and Values

Friday, 12 January 2018

Imagination, Learning & Life

Teachers often speak of the importance of imagination as the foundation of creative activities, but how often do we consider the vital part it plays in wider learning, life and faith? I want to suggest that imagination is central to life, and is used by God as he draws us to himself. It is within communities of interest and practice, that our view of the world, and our place within these multiple communities, are shaped. James Smith has argued, that as we live with other people, our views, aspirations, goals, hopes and identities are influenced and changed. Our imaginations are implicated in much of the activities of life.[1]

The Apostle Paul understood that because of this, our imaginations need to be ‘captured’. As the early church emerged and people from varied backgrounds came together, they brought varied stories from the past and hopes for their futures. In Ephesians 2 we read how Paul challenged this new community of believers to grasp that they were no longer bound by their past, and hence he gave them a vision for their future. He reminded them that because of Christ we are “… no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s and also members of his household” (Eph 2.19). They were to seek transformed lives within a community where there was no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. Jew and Gentile alike, needed to be able to imagine a new future, a new identity and a new world. 

In his letter to the church in Rome (Romans 6:11-13), Paul also reminded his readers that they could experience a new unity and standing before God, not shaped by their past, but by their hoped for future. This required them to seek and know God and embrace membership of God’s kingdom. This was not simply a cerebral assent of the mind, it involved them reimagining their futures.

Above: The Pantheon in Rome
In their helpful book, Veith and Ristuccia[2] suggest that imagination expressed within community is an important way that God transforms us. As we express, test and consider our imaginings with others, we are transformed and so are they. As our students share their lives, and as they imagine their futures, they are influenced and changed. Our imagined, as well as our reasoned discussions of God and his word, rarely do as well in isolation. Journeys towards faith are generally community projects.[3] God redeems our imaginations as well as our minds and wills. Like us, our students flourish in relationship to other people who they not only know, but who they trust.

The teacher must grapple with the reality that in the mainstream activities of classroom life, there may well be little that binds members together; little shared concern, or even common hopes for the future. If our classroom activities fail to engage the imaginations of our students, they will exercise these in pursuing other activities, goals, hopes and dreams.[4]

Maurice Friedman suggests that “ … the true teacher is not one who pours information into student’s head as through a funnel – the old-fashioned ‘disciplined’ approach – or the one who regards all potentialities as already existing within the student and needing to be pumped up – the newer ‘progressive’ approach. It is the one who fosters genuine mutual contact and mutual trust. “[5]

The key to reducing the generational distance between teacher and child, and to establishing classrooms and schools as communities that are transformative and allow ‘space’ for the ‘imagination’, would seem to be a better means to developing understanding of one another.

How is this discussion of dialogue, and relational communities connected to imagination? Imagination is a foundational part of how such communities are formed. Veith and Ristuccia, in their book 'Imagination Redeemed' suggest that "... human imagination is where a vision for life is set, where mind and heart and will converge." 

Imagination is central to how our student minds are engaged, hopes are formed, aspirations are primed, friendships are conceived and supported. As students engage in the life of the school, and the communities of practice that they inhabit, imagination plays a key role in connecting who they are, who they wish to become, and what is critical to their sense of belonging. The role of the imagination in education, pedagogy and 'life' is a key component within my latest book - 'Pedagogy and Education for Life' - that will be released in March/April by Wipf & Stock

NEXT Post - 'The Power of Story'

[1] James K.A. Smith, ‘Educating the Imagination’. Case Quarterly No. 31, 2012, pp9-14.
[2] Gene E. Veith & Matthew P. Ristuccia, Imagination Redeemed, Crossway: Wheaton Illinois, 2015, 135-136.
[3] Ibid., 136.
[4] Trevor Cairney, Pedagogy and Education for Life, Wipf & Stock: Eugene OR, In Press.
[5] Friedman, ‘Introduction’, in Martin Buber, Between Man and Man, Routledge & Kegan Paul: New York, 1947, xvii-xviii.