Follow by Email

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Imagination, Creativity & 'Life': Principle 9

The imagination is not simply a fanciful invention of mind. Imagination is always related to knowledge in one form or another, and reason is never far from our imaginings. I define the imagination as an "intellectual activity of the mind that connects prior and new knowledge and experiences with our grasping after the unknown. It is part of the way we make sense of and respond to our world, but it also allows us to ponder the world beyond."

The use of the human imagination spreads beyond language and literature to include physical and creative actions, strategic thinking, innovation, planning and so on. The varied human outputs of life are at least partly expressed through our imaginations and longings, as we seek God and experience all he intended for us.

Indeed, imagination is part of the way we make sense of and respond to our world, and it also helps us to ponder the world beyond. The application of imagination in all of its God-given fullness, is neither simply constructive, analytical, or logical thinking, nor is it whimsical, ungrounded thinking, disconnected from data, evidence, and the senses. As Bernard Meland(1) suggested, the imagination can be something beyond “constructive understanding”. In fact, the imagination, is implicated and perhaps required in questions or reflections on one’s human destiny. This requires metaphysics and theology as well knowledge. Only at the intersection of these varied resources for thinking and imagining can we grapple with truth and the unknown.

Trevor Hart(2) drawing on the work of Richard Kearney(3), suggests that the imagination is “pervasive [and] a feature of our existence, [and is close] to the heart of our existence.” He argues that it is a critical feature of our humanity, with many connections to the mundane and everyday activities of life. It can involve “expecting, planning, exploring, fearing, hoping, believing, remembering, recognizing, analyzing, empathizing, loving, conjecturing, fantasizing, pretending.” This is in addition to what teachers might see as the more specialized creative activities of life that schools typically embrace. These language, art, literature, music, and invention.

Veith and Ristuccia remind us that human imagination also allows us to “relive the past and anticipate the future.”(3). Our God “made us as imaginative beings and placed us in a world which calls forth from us responses of an imaginative sort if we are to indwell it meaningfully and well . . . Life in all its fullness is from top to bottom, from beginning to end, a highly imaginative affair.”

The imagination is implicated as we seek to understand our world, the things we find hard to grasp, and those ideas that seem beyond our present understanding. This is true of Scientists, craftsmen, writers, builders, and doctors who all imagine futures in which they build on knowledge and know-how, to make, create, mend, and have an impact on the world.

As I explore in chapter 8 of my book 'Pedagogy and Education for Life' (Imagination and Life'), whether we read, listen, view, smell, touch hear, or even experience our world emotionally, imagination is an intellectual activity of the mind that connects prior and new knowledge and experiences. It is part of the way we make sense of our world and respond. Imagination involves much more than simply art, music, drama, dance, writing, and reading. We also imagine to consider possible futures, memories of our past, and our quest to make sense of all sensory inputs, and engage in our world. God also uses our imagination as he reaches out to us, convicts us, inspires us, and reveals the truth of his word, and also his plans for us. It is part of the way God draws us to himself.

Imagination is also evident in and required to read God’s word. In considering the role of poetry in the Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann in 'The Creative Word' challenges us to engage and consider the key role imagination plays in the poetry of the Psalms, Proverbs, and the prophets. He suggests the idiom “breaks and shatters the dominant universe of discourse.” The biblical poet writing impressionistically can draw readers into irony, metaphor, and parables, enabling the reader to maintain some critical distance while seeking meaning.(4) Hence, poetry can reveal meanings that would be beyond our grasp if not arranged just this way.

A. W. Tozer, in his book 'The Pursuit of God'(4), discusses the difference between a scribe and a prophet. He suggests the church needs to hear the “tender voice of the saint who has penetrated the veil and has gazed with inward eye upon the wonder that is God,” rather than simply being told by someone what they had read (the “scribe”). Matthew Ristuccia(5) makes the point that Ezekiel exemplifies the prophet in Tozer’s text, someone who is able to see what the scribe cannot, because unlike the scribe, his imagination has been captured as God reveals truth through the visions. So, while we know God reveals truth through his word by the power of his Spirit, our imaginations are an important way in which this truth is made known to us. Veith and Ristuccia suggest with the aid of the imagination “meaning is made . . . a vision for life is set . . . mind and heart and will converge”(5).

God uses our imaginations as he draws us toward himself. When I hear stories of acts of Christian conversion, I am always stunned at how God can use a verse or two of Scripture to draw us toward himself. And yet, the testimony of the one drawn toward him can seem so different from another reading of the same verse. God’s use of Matthew 11:28–30 to convict me of my sin and to bring me to my knees is in stark contrast to the reading of these same verses by others. Not in its meaning, but in its application, and the way God through his Spirit touched my deepest need and shone a light on my sin. I saw and heard in these words a different application than another might. The simple words became just words for me! God used my imagination to see myself with clarity for the first time. Words, truth and the imagination all played a part as God through his Holy Spirit brought me to my knees.

It is important to issue a final warning about the misuse of the imagination. God’s word warns against the improper use of our imaginations. Scripture of course gives us guidance here. Jeremiah, for example, warns us not to walk “in the imagination of [our] hearts” (Jer 13:10). And, of course, Romans 1:21–23 reminds us that humankind in its endeavors can become darkened. Instead of being wise, we can become fools and exchange the glory of God for images of him made to look like mortals or even birds, animals, and reptiles. This is a case where human imagination is depraved and can lead away from God. Hence the quest of every Christian must be to “take captive every thought” and make them obedient to Christ (2 Cor 10:5).

As well, we must not allow discussions of the role of the imagination to displace the primary revelation of God through his word. While God only seeks to lead us toward truth, our imaginations, as well as our ignorance, can lead us elsewhere. Only when our imaginations are in step with the Spirit of God are we able to plumb the depths of God’s wisdom that he reveals through his word.

Veith and Ristuccia nail home this point by suggesting that human imagination is where meaning is made, where a vision for life is set, where mind and heart and converge. It is simultaneously the most strategic and the most forgotten part of the human soul when it comes to Christian discipleship. As well, they suggest that imagination expressed within community is one of the ways God transforms us. The imagination expressed, tested, and considered with others not only transforms individuals, it changes groups and builds communities. This is a critical understanding for the teacher.

The imagination is a gift from God for life and indeed is part of the way he draws us to himself. Anthony Esolen has a delightful way of expressing the tension between what we know and what we do not know and have yet to discover:

The imagination opens out not principally to what it knows and finds familiar, but to what it does not know, what it finds strange, half hidden, robed with inaccessible light.(6)

To sum up, God made us to be imaginative beings with varied skills that we are to teach to others. Our imaginative natures are used by God in our lives and as part of our worship of and search for him. God’s revelation of himself, including his truth and purposes for us, can involve his use of our imagination (Rev 22:1–21; Eph 1:17–18). As teachers we must ask ourselves do we create classroom and school environments in which the imagination is celebrated and enjoyed as an essential part of the flourishing of human beings as knowing animals? Do we also encourage imaginative interest in learning about God’s world and his purposes, and creative applications of the knowledge and gifts he has given to us? We should!

1. Meland, 'Higher Education and the Human Spirit', 1953.
2. Hart, 'Between the Image and the Word', 2013.
3. Kearney, 'Poetics of Imagining: Modern to Postmodern', 1998.
4. Tozer, 'The Pursuit of God', 1948
5. Veith & Ristuccia, Imagination Redeemed, 2014.
6. Esolen, 'Ten ways to destroy the imagination', 2010.

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Helping students to take responsibility for their learning – Principle 8

In ‘Pedagogy and Education for Life’ I suggest that while teachers must exercise authority over students, and their students in turn must learn to respect the authority of their teachers, self-responsibility should be nurtured. This requires more than simply seeking to instill the right community values, virtues, or even a Christian worldview. The challenge for teachers and parents is how to keep the two seemingly equal and opposite forces of teacher authority and student self-responsibility in healthy tension. In my book, I argue that this requires a pedagogy that gives considerable attention to how “… teachers orchestrate and sustain classroom life… driven by an intent and telos.” The 'telos' of course is an ancient Greek word referring to an ‘end’ or goal. Alisdair MacIntyre in his book ‘After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory’, draws on the work of Aristotle to suggest that “every activity, every inquiry, every practice aims at some good”. Within the school and classroom, there is a purpose in all that we do and each and every event, activity or practice points to an ‘end’.
 
As a principal, teacher or parent, we might well seek to instill Christian values, virtues, and a Christian view of the world in our students. We might even manage to obtain ascent within the controlled world of the classroom or school to some of these things. But, if these are in conflict for our students’ inner purposes, goals, hopes and desires, then little ‘real’ long term change will occur. Unless, of course, God disrupts these internal goals by his Spirit, through the teaching of his word and the influence a Christ-centred community life within our classrooms and schools.

Craig Dykstra offers us a helpful insight into the challenge for every Christian teacher when discussing the work of Thomas Chalmers (a leader of the Free Church of Scotland) in the nineteenth century. Chalmers argued that: 

Beneath the level of norms, roles, institutional structures, rituals, stories, and symbols lies the level of our fundamental communal intentions toward one another and the world, which govern how we live in our roles and rituals and by means of which we apprehend the mystery of our existence.

Above: Thomas Chalmers

Chalmer’s famous sermon “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection” offers some wonderful insights into the human condition. In his sermon he suggested that: 

"Such is the grasping tendency of the human heart, that it must have a something to lay hold of and which, if wrested away without the substitution of another something in its place, would leave a void and a vacancy as painful to the mind, as hunger is to the natural system."

If you wish to change student behavior, and help them to rid themselves of a specific behaviour or sin, you don’t replace it with a vacuum. Nor do you achieve this simply with a religious program, the teaching of a virtue ethic and so on. You replace it with an even stronger passion for something good. The teacher must seek to orchestrate and influence the whole of life of the classroom and school, with the hope that all that is done in structuring this school ‘life’, might impact on the rest of our students’ lives. Such a school and classroom life will be focussed on clear teaching from God’s word centred on Christ.



James Smith has also reminded us in his book ‘Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview andCultural Formation, that our desires are aimed at specific ends or goals, and set the trajectory for our lives. “A vision of the good life captures our hearts and imaginations.”


The Christian teacher’s key role extends well beyond structuring curriculum, and teaching well. It requires him or her to structure and influence the whole life of the classroom, to disrupt entrenched views of life’s purpose, and instead embed a ‘telos’ that shifts our students’ attention away from the values of the world towards a view of humanity's purpose centred on faith in Jesus Christ. This requires us to place at the centre of all we do and say, the Gospel of Christ, and God’s promise of redemption in and through him, to those who believe and accept him as their saviour. I will say much more about the practical implications that such a view of the world has for pedagogy in future posts.




Monday, 25 March 2019

Understanding the Diverse Nature of Learners. Responding to and Celebrating Individual Learning Styles & Difference

I’ve been rather disturbed as a teacher and researcher in recent years, to observe that many of our nation’s educational administrators, some of our leading teacher educators, many parents, and some business leaders and varied professionals, seem to assume that the way to improve educational outcomes is to test our children. Not so! Only teaching and student support of learning will improve educational outcomes. I hope that few Christian schools and their parents fall into this trap, but I suspect that many do. Principle 7 of my pedagogical framework deals with this issue.


Testing our way to mediocrity

I've written in other places about this disturbing phenomenon (see HERE and HERE). Testing and assessment should always have as their goal to inform practice. And in particular, to help teachers and parents to tailor instruction and support to the needs of the child. But somehow, we’ve lost sight of this most fundamental of educational principles and I see schools and teachers doing more testing than teaching. And perhaps worse still, their teaching becomes increasingly directed towards achieving desired grade standards as judged by test administrators, rather than responding to student needs to help them to learn and grow.

The desire to constantly test our children has many detrimental impacts on them as learners. I know a child who when she started school could already read. She reached the end of the year and said to her mother, I didn’t learn anything new this year at school. In her second week in Kindergarten she was excited to be taken to the library and to be allowed to borrow some books. She looked at the picture books and saw few that she hadn’t read before, and others which didn’t capture her interest. She moved to the junior fiction shelves only to be reprimanded by the librarian and told that she couldn’t read those books because they “were too hard for her”. “But Miss”, she pleaded, “I can read these books”. “Go back to the picture books” the librarian replied. She left that day without a book to take home. When she entered her second year at school she again reached year’s end and said quietly to her mother, “This year was just like kindergarten, I haven’t learnt anything new this year either”. “Mummy, when will I get to learn some new things at school?”

In her third year at school she was excited to be in a composite class with children from the grade above her, surely her mother thought, this will be a chance for her to learn new things and be stretched. But alas, the school in its ‘wisdom’ had decided to pair the weakest grade 3 students with the best grade 2 students. Why you might ask? I’m not sure, but it seems to me that it was probably to ensure as narrow a spread of ability as possible so as to make it easier to teach a common program across the composite classroom, or at the very least, to allow the bright grade 2 children to teach themselves. It might also have been to concentrate on the struggling year 3 students to help them pass the tests, while the year 2 students worked alone. I find any of these options depressing for they show little concern for individual differences in our children. Constant system wide testing has pushed many teachers down a path towards teaching to a common grade by grade standard irrespective of children’s abilities.

Curriculum that dumbs down and ignores diversity


The use of curriculum and teaching practices that assume all students are the same, and teaching diverse classes a common program and with identical expectations, couldn’t be further from the way education should occur. God made us different, and this wasn’t by accident. Varying abilities and even learning styles weren’t an unfortunate accident of creation. All of our students will have different strengths, weaknesses, and needs (Rom 12:6). Christian teachers, classrooms, and schools should demonstrate this understanding in word and action. We are to do this by responding to, valuing, respecting and building on our children’s varied needs and gifts. Teaching to the middle, or application of restrictive methods to the point of frustration for some, is not an option that should serve as an appropriate goal or acceptable practice. We are to encourage and help students who are slower to learn, and enrich those students who show specific gifts, and develop those who have learning difficulties. God has made our children to be different, hence we need to educate as much as possible to extend and grow all of our students as learners and people.


Embracing, celebrating and working with difference

Having children of different abilities in our classrooms is an uncomfortable reality for teachers, even when we carefully grade our classes. But rather than seeking to minimize differences, or ignoring them, we need to embrace them and help each and every learner to grow. In the midst of this ‘growing’ we might just see that our children who might perform differently on narrow test regimes (to their detriment), will begin to demonstrate different gifts and abilities. The best reader in grade one might be not so good at maths, and perhaps even hopeless at sport, public speaking and in demonstrating the varied basic human virtues like respect, loyalty, honesty and so on.   

In my book ‘Pedagogy and Education for Life’, I also stress in my 7th statement about Christian pedagogy that as well as accepting difference within our classrooms, we need to identify how unique our children are and seek to develop social harmony amongst them.

In the tradition of shalom1, we are to seek the flourishing of all in our care. Our children come to us each day with varied gifts, lived experiences, ethnicities, abilities, and pasts. On any day, we will have troubled and difficult children in our classrooms. As Jesus neared the crucifixion, he said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). Safety and the assurance of physical needs was not what Jesus was promising. Shalom meant much more than this. While shalom can mean tranquility and peace in our classrooms in the sense of freedom from harm, it also means unity and accord among people.

While true spiritual harmony involves restoration with God, Christian classrooms must be places that demonstrate shalom in the sense of harmony within the community, peace among students, love and service to one another, and a culture of restoration of differences with others.

 

Footnote

1. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Educating for Shalom: Essays on Christian Higher Education. Edited by Clarence W. Joldersma and Gloria Stronks. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.

Monday, 4 February 2019

Developing Humble Learners: Principle 6

In this post, I want to consider principle 6 in my pedagogical framework, 'God made us as creatures who learn', yet another distinctive of a Christian pedagogy that doesn't seem to be linked very often with success in the world. God's plan for us was that we should be 'humble learners'. Now, while humans are not unique as creatures capable of learning, this characteristic is one that only humans seem to possess. In spite of what E.B. White might have suggested in 'Charlotte's Web', the cunning rat, and the plump barnyard pig are not capable of displaying humility. Nor would it necessarily be in their best interests to do so. In fact, humility isn't a trait that is terribly obvious in many people, let alone children. But principle 6 in my pedagogical framework suggests that the Christian teacher should be seeking to 'develop humble learners'.

As a small child I spent many hours with my grandfather, Alexander Linton. I would follow him around as he did business with others, built a holiday house, or as he repaired all manner of things. My mother's father was a very smart man. From 1920s to 1963 he ran his own business, taught himself how to build radios and later televisions, studied accountancy through the London International Correspondence School and was a leader in his community. If anything needed fixing (cars, radios, televisions, appliances etc), or any problem required some wisdom, the locals would find their way to my grandfather's door.

As a child of 8-12 years old I would talk and natter away as he'd do his work. I'd also at times, offer him some advice about the latest problem. In response, one statement he would gently use quite often when I was making my many suggestions was as follows:

"Son, what I know about this topic I could write on the back of a postage stamp. What you know, you could write on the head of a pin."  

In his own unique way, my grandfather was trying to teach me about humility. There are many places that we can go to in the Bible that speak of the need for humility to be part of the character of the Christian. It is of course the opposite of pride and is a trait that reflects an understanding that compared with the God of the universe we are inconsequential. 1 Peter 5:6-7 reminds us that God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble. We are to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (Col 3:12).   Scripture also suggests that many good things flow from the person who demonstrates humility, including:
  • Respect for elders (1 Peter 5:5)
  • Forgiveness (2 Chron 7:14)
  • Favour with God (Prov 3:34)
  • Wisdom (Prov 11:2)
  • Honour (Prov 18:12)
  • God teaching us his way (Psalm 25:9)
In a Christian school where humility is cultivated and encouraged, we will look beyond things such as intellectual or life achievements, to the depth and character of our students. And of course, as we teach our students in classrooms and schools where there is an ongoing effort to seek and encourage humility in our learners, they will be different! And if the gospel of Christ is central to all that we do in our Christian schools, then we will be offering the perfect example of true humility - Jesus himself! Jesus provides the perfect example of true humility (Philippians 2:1-8):

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. 

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 
rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, 
being made in human likeness. 
And being found in appearance as a man, 
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! 
If Christ is at the centre of our school communities, then they will be very special, with a pedagogy that is truly Christian.


For more details, see my new book (available in hard cover, paperback or Kindle):

'Pedagogy and Education for Life: A Christian Reframing of teaching, learning, and formation' (Wipf & Stock, 2018).

Or, if in Australia HERE

Friday, 11 January 2019

Made to be Meaning Makers: Principle 5

In the next 10 posts, I turn my attention to what teachers typically want to talk about first - teaching and learning. But a warning, this blog isn't a 'how to' resource (I've written other books about teaching and learning as well as another practice-based blog). Pedagogy was never meant to be a word that describes what content the teacher will offer on Monday, nor simply how they might do it!

In my book  'Pedagogy and Education for Life: A Christian Reframing of Teaching, Learning, and Formation', I suggest that good pedagogy doesn't start with our choice of curriculum content, nor the adoption of particular teaching methods. Rather, pedagogy is concerned with our purpose for doing the things we do, and how we focus the hearts and minds of our students on ends and goals that are much more important than success at school and test results. 

Much of what I have to say about pedagogy and more basic things such as learning and teaching, are shaped by a concern for 'Why?' Why do we do the things we do as teachers? And of course, 'what' is our ultimate purpose for education? My pedagogical framework reflects my biblical theology of personhood. We are unique among God's creatures for we commune with the God of the Universe. God made us for communion and for learning. About him, but also about the world he has given us and his plans for us.

In my last post, I considered the 4th principle within my framework under the first of three truths that have shaped this book. That is, we are 'Unique Creatures' made by God. In that post, I considered what the Bible teaches about a right view of work. Now, I shift to the second of three theological truths that shape my pedagogy: "God made us as creatures who learn". And of course, this involves lifelong learning. This is a key part of our distinctiveness as humans. In all, ten of the twenty principles in my framework, concern learning.

So, if God did make us to be creatures who learn, what are the implications for us as Christian teachers?  First, our task as teachers is to develop students who are meaning-makers not meaning-regurgitators. We seek to shape students "... who interpret language and knowledge to know 'truth'." Second, the task of the teacher is not to 'deliver' knowledge for young 'sponges' to soak it up. Children are not empty vessels to be filled with our ideas, nor simply passive recipients of our knowledge, wisdom and worldview as teachers. Rather, we are to encourage our students to be well-informed meaning-makers who have a desire to seek and know God. Third, our classrooms and schools are to be shaped as learning communities where ideas are shared and tested against truth. For the truths that shape life, are not simply taught through knowledge transfer, they are taught and understood within communities of practice, as members seek to make sense of the world and their place within it.
 

The Christian classroom is a place where ideas are exchanged, where hard questions are asked, and where wisdom and truth can be shared. This sharing is not just by teachers, it also includes our students. The didactic teaching of content and the absorption of knowledge are not what matters most in the formation of our students. While the quest for knowledge should be at the centre of the Christian classroom, they are to be places where we gain, share, and test biblical knowledge and truth. This must be the transformational heart and focus of our Christian classrooms.

A key characteristic of such classrooms is 'negotiation'. David Fernie, Bronwyn Davies, Paula McMurray, and Rebecca Kantor suggest that classroom life involves students negotiating roles, rights, obligations, norms, and expectations from different standpoints. This of course, is true of life in general. The teacher and students contribute to the context in which they learn, while they also negotiate roles and relationships, and what counts as knowledge, culture, and belief. The application of a Christian pedagogy will hopefully show evidence of different responses, actions, and communications that seek to change behavior and attitudes to the world, as well as forming character. 

However, the life of the school has added complexity due to students’ concurrent membership of many diverse communities, in and outside school. Some are 'real' and others virtual. Our students don't simply engage with embodied communities, many are virtual and invisible to teachers and parents. Life is shared in meaningful ways as students exchange ideas, loves, and desires inside and outside the precincts of the school. As Kevin Vanhoozer reminds us, our everyday world includes “the moral, intellectual, and spiritual atmosphere in which we live.” But while we share a similar context with others at school, “we inhabit it differently.”

As we share common practices, concerns, and desires with others, we might also enter into their cultural worlds as well and begin to take on shared ideas. Our students make, share, and communicate meaning with others and are in part formed by these transactions, as they interact and exchange values and views of the world. Meaning itself is actually being tested in such exchanges, as students share ideas and views and 'negotiate' truth with others! What is right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, false or true and so on, are subject to negotiation, consensus or even disagreement. How our students make sense of the world requires them to reconcile the views of one's teacher and other students alongside those of parents and a myriad of other people outside the school. And of course, the word of God is set against this life complexity and is to be our foundation as Christian teachers.

My final point is this, while as teachers we might seek to shape the way our students see the world, if our students are to come to share such views of the world shaped by God's teaching, it will require them to engage with these ideas. They will need to discuss them with others and assent to them as an act of will, not because they want to please us or their parents, but because they come to see that this reflects the truth of God taught in his word.

1. David Fernie, Bronwyn Davies, Paula McMurray, and Rebecca Kantor,
'Becoming a Person in the Preschool,' Meaning, Learning, and Formation, 67 

2. Kevin Vanhoozer, 'What is Everyday Theology', in Everyday Theology, 19.