Monday, 27 August 2018

What Matters When We Teach? What is our purpose?

In Australia, we have a number of system wide tests. These are designed to assess in objective ways what children know and don't know, as well as what they can do and not do. Standardized tests that are designed to assess, monitor system wide student achievement, areas of strength and weakness, and in some cases, guidance in relation to curriculum content. But ..., and the teachers reading this knew there would be a 'but', these tests are rarely used in accordance with their purpose, and they have unintended consequences. We have just finished administering what is known as NAPLAN that is administered to students in grades 3, 5, 7 & 9. NAPLAN tests "... the sorts of skills that are essential for every child to progress through school and life, such as reading, writing, spelling and numeracy." The assessments are undertaken nationwide, every year, in the second full week in May, and by August we are castigating our schools and teachers for failing to teach well enough to the test (see HERE). Since their inception, the tests have gone from a means to provide advice to teachers and systems about the areas of curriculum where students need additional help. However, it is clear now that teachers have (not surprisingly) increasingly taught to the test. That is, shaped their curriculum and methods based on their expectations of what might be in the test. My question? Is this the best we can do? Is this the highest purpose that we can have for education?
I entered teaching in the 1970s as an unlikely member of the profession. I was an escapee from engineering, after having a lifelong desire to become a mechanical engineer. Hence, I was a somewhat ‘accidental’ teacher.  And yet, within months of entering a classroom I was captured by the desire to know why some of my students were able to read and write, while others were struggling. I began doing my own ‘action research’, devising new methods and testing ideas to try to unlock the capacity of some of my students to do things which seemed to be basic and foundational. For me there was a direct link between what I observed in my classroom each day and my students' performance. This made an incredible difference and children who couldn't read, began to read, while those who didn't read well in this working class and culturally diverse community, began to read. I chose methods that were appropriate for them, and the only tests that mattered were those that helped me to monitor their progress and help them to grow as learners.

But while my purposes were more directly connected to the success of the current epidemic of system-wide testing and schools 'teaching to the test', my purposes were still quite utilitarian. I had been thinking a great deal about ‘what’ and ‘how’ I would teach, but I had thought little about the question ‘why’? Clearly, the answer to 'why' was obviously so that they could learn and grown in ability. So my ultimate purpose for teaching my students for them to do well at school. Is this the full extent to our purposes in education? Well, probably not. I was wanting them to do well so that they might do well at school and one day gain jobs etc. But was this it? Or, was I also concerned for the growth of their character, rather than just their minds? I'm sure that I did have concerns for my students to be happy, to succeed in life, to grow up gain jobs, have families and (in this community) stay out of trouble. But how much did I think about my role in this? Did I see that I had a role in their growth in character? Was their well-being simply seen as an associated outcome, or did I understand that I had a key role to play?

In those early years, I thought little about the ultimate purpose of my teaching and the education of my classes. As a young Atheist, I had no real framework for the choices that I made other than what might work, and what led to success. I sensed that there needed to be a higher purpose for what I was doing each day, but this wasn't the main game. The goals I set for my teaching did not go much beyond the need for the personal success of my students, and perhaps a driving sense of the seeming injustice that some were so ill-prepared for their futures.   

But over time, as I grew in character and maturity myself, I began to grasp that education is more than the sum total of the curriculum, methods, teaching strategies and the measurement of educational success. I also began to realize that my purpose wasn't simply to train or teach children to reproduce skills, knowledge and tasks. I began to understand that a narrow kit bag of methods, and a commitment to testing and revision, was not a fool-proof way to ensure universal success and well-being. My book ‘Pedagogy and Education for Life: A Christian Reframing of Teaching, Learning, and Formation’ represents a distillation of my many years as a teacher and researcher, and how after coming to faith in my early 30s, many questions arose in relation to teaching and pedagogy. I slowly grasped that education is much more than content, methods and curriculum. 

Authentic education must always have an articulated purpose or end goal in mind. I realized that I needed to develop a pedagogy that did not consist simply of knowledge of good practice and appropriate curriculum content. As this was going on my life, as a young teacher and (by then) a researcher in my 30s I came to faith as a Christian. This significant life event not only changed me as a person, it changed me as a teacher. Under the influence of varied secular and Christian educators, I slowly realized that children learn in relationship to others, and that these relationships and the practices they engaged in day by day, are always embedded within shared communities, consisting of people who hold many understandings, beliefs and practices. The definition that has shaped the pedagogy within my book reflects the end point of my personal life journey as a teacher.
“Education is the whole life of a community, and the experience of its members learning to live this life, from the standpoint of a specific goal”
A key facilitator of my growing understanding of pedagogy, was the realization that the teacher is but one member of a classroom. True, they have authority and knowledge that their students might not possess, but as we teach young people, we must realize that they are not our learning captives. We cannot lock them in a room and program their minds for life. Rather, they need to navigate a world of endless meanings, and knowledge beyond our mind’s capacity for consumption. And I realized that this takes place embedded within numerous and varied physical and virtual daily practices and events. My children arrived each day as travellers and citizens of many communities, and I was largely at the centre of just one of them. Hence, my influence was at best minor in relation to their character and formation as people. For they were interacting in and outside school with numerous friendship groups, indeed communities of practice. Wenger & Lave describe communities of practice as “...groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” A fundamental question for me as a teacher is what impact do I have on my students' participation in such communities, and how effective might that make me in shaping their character? For formation occurs in relationship to others.
As Arthur Holmes reminds us, from ancient times we have been aware that we learn with others. The Greek rhetorical tradition of Socrates, which influenced Holmes’ work, recognized that we learn best with others. In ancient Greece, this was very much a case of young boys sitting at the feet of a learned teacher. Nonetheless, foundational to this approach was an understanding that the young are formed as they tussle with ideas and knowledge in dialogue with others. Not surprisingly, Augustine’s Confessions were founded on the understanding that such learning ultimately has a greater foundation in God. As Holmes reminds us:
“… every good (one) experiences, and all truth (one) learns come ultimately from God and are occasions for praise. God is the being by whom all things are true that are true, and all things are good that are good.” (Arthur Holmes, ‘Building the Christian Academy’).
A central claim in my book is that while there are varied almost limitless methods that we can use as teachers, pedagogy must be central. And people of faith need to understand pedagogy must always must be driven by a central purpose or goal, as the Greeks expressed it telos. As a Christian, I turn to the Bible for this central purpose. Christian education is to be kingdom focused, and in turn, must communicate the intended end goal of education. This will be a telos that is centered on the kingdom of God, not simply earthly success and achievement. And of course, there is a relationship between our priorities shaped by the gospel, our faith in Christ, how we live out and speak of this faith, and our actions (Phil 1:27; Jas 2:14-26). Hence, the things we teach and the way we do it cannot be separated from the life of the school community, nor for that matter, communities outside the school. Our pedagogical practices will lead to the creation of a classroom life, that has the potential to ‘speak’ to our students about what is important in the world of the classroom, and consequently, what matters most.

For the above reasons, I see formation as central to the model of pedagogy advocated in my book. This is a pedagogy that reflects and is interwoven into the daily life of any community; a pedagogy that will see classes, schools and students transformed. The Bible’s central message is centred on our transformation in and through Christ. We are what we live, not just what content is learned, the worldview the teacher holds, success on the exams sat, assignments completed, and so on. It is within the life of the community that character is shaped. In effect, pedagogy as I am defining it, is a term that attempts to encompass the essence of how teachers orchestrate and sustain classroom learning and life, and this of course it is driven by an intent and telos.

It must be pedagogy that determines our focus, and enables us to place our mark on children in ways that truly differentiate faith-based schools from secular schools. In a sense, pedagogy is the ‘what’, the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of teaching, all rolled together. But it is worth noting, that while we have freedom to change the ‘what’ and ‘how’, the ultimate ‘why’ should not change, for it is shaped by our higher purpose. If ‘Christian Education’ is to be authentic, then all that we do, say, sanction and plan, should be centered on the end goal of seeing young people growing as people who one day will be a part of the family of God.

In my book, I outline a 20-point framework that I believe is the distillation of the type of pedagogy that I believe is essential in faith-based institutions. I provide examples and a series of case studies to illustrate how elements of the framework will shape pedagogy. This framework is the basis of the pedagogy that I have used to challenge teachers to reflect on their practices and the telos that is central to their teaching. 

The Framework

The framework below is structured under three major headings, which reflect the theology that has informed the whole book, as well as the biblical theology of person hood. Three broad biblical truths give shape to the framework: ‘God is Creator’; ‘God’s creatures are meant to be learners’; and, ‘God made us for communion’. Under each key truth I list a number of key components of my pedagogy. 

In my next post, I will begin to provide some examples of how I believe that the framework can be used for staff professional development.

Each point of course is explained in detail in the book with examples and case studies.

a) God made us as unique creatures

Identify that which is valuable in each child.
Build on the foundations of the family.
Demonstrate and encourage service.
Develop a right view of work and effort.

b) God made us as creatures who learn

Develop meaning-makers who interpret language and knowledge to know ‘truth’.
Develop humble learners.
Understand the diverse nature of learners, and identify and respond to individual
Create opportunities for students to take responsibility for learning.
Foster the development of imagination and creativity.
Encourage creative risk-taking and problem solving.
Utilize varied methods to facilitate learning in diverse learners.
Act as “kidwatchers” observing and monitoring student learning and well-being.
Evaluate the ends towards which our pedagogy is directed.
Make our classrooms places where just punishment and discipline are evident.

c) God made us for communion

Demonstrate forgiveness and seek repentance in students as hearts are trained.
Model and promote self-sacrifice and generosity.
Seek and model justice within class and school community life.
Ensure learning in the classroom is related to the world beyond.
Promote the importance of ‘story’ in your classroom and school.
Implement pedagogical practices that demonstrate a relationship between education
and discipleship.