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Thursday, 29 November 2018

Do My Classroom and School Encourage Service to One Another? Principle 3

In my previous two posts, I introduced the first two principles within my pedagogical framework, each framed as questions. My third question encourages us to think about the way classroom life encourages our students to serve one another. 

How do your classroom and school demonstrate and encourage service to one another?

Service is not something that can be simply taught as curriculum content. Rather it is a reflection and outcome of the whole of life. An early influence on my thinking in this area was the work of Douglas Barnes. As a young postdoctoral fellow at Indiana University in Bloomington Indiana, I was introduced to the work of the work of this English scholar. Barnes was not a Christian but he wrote a small book that was quite influential. I read it while I was conducting research in schools in Indianapolis in the 1980s.

My research was situated in elementary classrooms, and my focus was the nature of community life. I was particularly interested in the influence of language on learning in the classroom, home and communities. Barnes book 'From Communication to Curriculum' offered a refreshing insight into the relationship of the language of classroom to learning. At the heart of Barnes' thinking was the premise that education is "...embodied in the communicative life of an institution, the talk and gestures by which pupils and teachers exchange meanings even when they quarrel". His thesis was that learning language is not simply a cognitive process, it is acquired in an embodied, whole of life way. We learn language (in fact we learn anything), as we are immersed in a rich web of social relationships.  Likewise, we learn about and acquire human qualities such as 'service' in the context of community.

This may not seem profound in 2018, but for a young academic with a brand-new PhD in cognitive psychology, who had only just 2 years before become a Christian, it resonated deeply with my lived experiences as a teacher, father and researcher. What Barnes' work helped me to grasp was that education must be much more than filling young minds with knowledge, ideas, facts, values or even a specific worldview. Rather, it is as much an embodied experience as an intellectual activity of mind. As such, the whole of life of a community is critical when we try to grapple with what school pedagogy might look like. As James K.A. Smith has put it in his book 'Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation', Christian formation and discipleship are "Educational projects in the most holistic sense: the goal isn't just to equip knowers, but to form doers."

What I have learned in varied educational contexts over the last 30+ years conducting research in classrooms and educational institutions is that while the curriculum we structure, the content we deliver and the activities we plan collectively have an impact on shaping knowledge and learning, there is more! Teaching and learning are not simply dependent on the transfer of content and knowledge into young heads, or the planning of effective teaching and learning activities that transfer knowledge and skills. Rather, teaching, learning and curriculum are embodied activities that impact on our formation as knowers, doers and people. Part of the way learning is embodied is in the rituals and practices of classroom life.

Above: Group work (Wiki Commons)
Hence, as a teacher we can't 'teach' children to serve one another. Being prepared to put the needs of another before one's self runs smack in the face of self-interest. And so, as the teacher and her students live together in the classroom, they commune with one another and 'grow' together as they interact and commune within a particular context or community of practice (a concept I've discussed in previous posts). God made us to learn and 'grow' in knowledge of him as we commune with him.  Likewise, he shapes us within varied communities of practice and life. Gatherings of people influence the way we see the world and how we act. If these gatherings have God at the centre we are formed as we relate to one another under God. These are 'places' where are encouraged to seek the good of the community, not simply self. Within community, we learn to "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt 22:37–40). Such qualities are not learned intellectually, but as we learn and commune together.

As teachers and school leaders we are to act in ways that foster community by encouraging all members to serve one another in word and action. The teacher in God’s service is the primary (but not sole) example to their students. Our students also serve as examples to one another. Service and servanthood should be the mark of all teachers, and are of central importance to any classroom within a Christian school. God the Servant King who took on 'the very nature of a servant' made us to be servants to him, but also to one another. Jesus, of course, is the perfect example of service, having given his life for us (Phil 2:7; Matt 20:25–28).

As teachers, our example is a critical part of what it is to be a Christian teacher, as we demonstrate what service looks like, as well as shepherding and watching over our students. But of course, their example to one another is just as powerful. We become servants as we receive the fruit of servant-hood from others.

In my next post we will consider the fourth principle in my framework: 'Developing a right view of work and effort'.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Building on the Foundations of the Family - Pedagogical Principle 2

As I wrote in my last post, the central concern of the Christian school teacher must be the formation of character in their students. While growing minds and bodies is also important, it is the character of every child that is the central concern of God. As James K.A. Smith argued in a conference that I convened in Sydney in 2012, education is much more than teaching skills or helping children to acquire knowledge, it is more fundamentally an exercise in the formation of the child. And of course, the outcome of such formation is what we would typically describe as 'character'. Martin Buber suggested that "education worthy of its name is essentially education of character" (Martin Buber, 'Between Man and Man'). And of course, character is not 'taught'; rather, it is acquired or developed in community.

The importance of community is a critical element in 'Pedagogy and Education for Life'. In the book I outline a framework that reflects a key foundational proposition in my pedagogy:
“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”
In the final chapter of my book I offer 20 statements that expand on this central definition and act as a framework for education in a Christian organization. I express them in the form of questions. In the last post I considered the first question, "Do I identify that which is valuable in each child?"

In this post I consider the second question.

Do my class and school build on the foundations of the family? 

I spent almost 20 years conducting research on family literacy and learning. This work offered valuable insights into the relationship between the home, school and community, and demonstrated that when schools understand and respect families, that education at school is more effective. One national project that I led for the Australian government, considered the role that parent support and understanding of school pedagogy played in helping children to succeed in literacy learning in the elementary school years. The outcome of the work is described in my book 'Beyond Tokenism: Parents as Partners in Literacy'. While my concern in 'Pedagogy and Education and Life' is the education of the whole child, the findings from my family literacy and learning research, showed that even in relation to school success, a strong open relationship between home and school is vital. This of course is even more clearly needed when we are concerned for the whole child as Christian parents and teachers. This in turn will reflect our faith, and a view of the world shaped by the Scriptures and the gospel-centred narrative that binds the Bible together from beginning to end.      

So why is it important to build on the foundations of the family?

First, it is important to understand families because our students are first and foremost the responsibility of parents under God. While we have the privilege of teaching the children of families, we must understand that our students arrive as people shaped initially by parents. As well, we need to respect the wishes of families for their children. Having said this, it is also important to remember that families are all different and so their parenting strategies will also be different. Also, our parents might not be people of Christian faith. Nevertheless, the school and its teachers need to take responsibility to ensure that parents understand what the school offers and the school's statement of faith that is meant to shape pedagogy and school life.

Second, and more fundamentally, the Bible has much to say about the importance of the family as a critical unit in any society. The Bible teaches that God made us to live in relationship first to him, and second to other people. And the family was the foundation of humanity (Gen 2:15-25), and continues to be the foundation for learning in the early years of life (Deut 6:1-9). Families also have a vital role throughout schooling, and hence the Christian school is to know the families of its students, to support them as they nurture their children, and as God works in their lives. Families are not problems to be managed, but rather partners in education and recipients of God’s grace, sometimes delivered through the school.

Any teacher reading this post will of course realize just how hard it can be at times to deal with parental attitudes and expectations, that do not mirror those of the teacher or the school. In the final chapter of my book I follow the pedagogical framework with a series of case studies that highlight some of the challenges that teachers face in their partnership with parents, who may not share their beliefs. In fact, many of our students do not accept the Christian faith themselves. I stress in the second case study in chapter 9 of my book, that the key challenge for the Christian teacher when teaching the children of non-Christian parents is "... to communicate honestly to parents whether  Christian, or non-Christian." And as well, as the teacher does so, they need to trust God will use her words according to his purposes."