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.