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!

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