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'.

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