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!