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.