Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Principle 20: Do our pedagogical practices demonstrate that discipleship is a priority?

Making disciples?

Principle 20 in my book 'Pedagogy and Education for Life: A Christian Reframing of Teaching, Learning, And Formation' seems relatively straightforward. In full, I ask 'Do our pedagogical practices demonstrate a relationship between education and discipleship?' It should, but in some classrooms, it might seem of limited relevance to the teacher. To hold the latter view would be a grave mistake, for if Christian schools aren’t created to enable the discipling of our students to know God, then we are left with just another school that helps children to learn and be successful in life. If this is the limit of the school vision, why bother? We might as well just make our State schools stronger by rejoining them. The reality is that Christian schools have grown in number in Australia because people of faith want their children to have an educational experience that teaches them that God is of central importance in their lives. Every teacher in a Christian school is called to be a disciple of Christ seeking to guide their students to be disciples also. Our role is not simply to educate our students to take their place in a 'cookie' cutter world of work.

God revealed himself to us through his Son to become his disciples, and in turn, expects us to make disciples (Matt 28:18–20; 2 Tim 2:2). So, the way we structure our classrooms and our activities, should offer and promote opportunities for reflection on our faith and what this means for our lives. A key challenge is for our classrooms and schools to be much more than simply places sustaining fierce individual achievement and competition. The Apostle Paul challenged the church in Rome to have a sacrificial approach to life, and a desire to share our faith and seek to make Christ known.

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” (Rom 12:1-2).

So, what is our priority?

Just as the Apostle Paul challenged the church in Rome to be sacrificial disciples, so too Christian teachers are to do likewise and to urge our students to consider the same path. We need to ask ourselves, are we seeking maturity in our students as God transforms and renews their minds?

Do the things we say, and the priorities we demonstrate, show that we see our true citizenship as in heaven? And do we want them to do likewise? Or is our pedagogy directed towards and devoted to simply promoting the achievements and benefits of this world without regard for the next?

More pointedly, how do we view our position and understanding of the gospel account, in relation to our life in the world, starting with our classroom? Do we see our understanding of the Bible’s key story and related teachings as a means to interpret our experiences as teachers and educators? If this is the case, will our biblical understanding act as a lens primarily for critique, and as a filter to test for heresies? Or do we go further?

How seriously do we seek biblical understanding and apply it to our roles as teachers? Where does our love of God and his word sit in relation to our educational knowledge, the views of parents, national curricula, and so on? Can our knowledge of education be supported and informed by our faith and biblical knowledge? I’m convinced that the answer is yes, and that if this isn’t a priority for Christian teachers, we might just as well move back to the state school system.

 The last word?

While this is the 20th and final Principle that has shape the pedagogy in my book and educational philosophy outlined, I intend to continue to do posts that cut across topics and issues. These will relate much more to classroom case studies and will be more practical in nature. So, don’t check out just yet! There is much more to discuss.

Wednesday, 2 December 2020

How important is narrative in your classroom and school? Principle 19

Part of what separates humanity from other creatures is that God made us to be story tellers. From the beginning story was to hold a special place as part of human existence. Harold Rosen (in ‘Stories and Meanings’) reminds us that much of human existence is dependent on story, for it helps us to move through the seeming chaos of life towards understanding. In fact, some of life’s greatest insights are shared through story. As well, much human wisdom, knowledge and understanding have been passed down through the ages in the form of stories.

Alasdair MacIntyre in his book ‘After Virtue’ goes further and suggests that ‘man (sic) is in his actions and practices, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal’. We frequently think in narrative, pass on our personal history, envision the future and speak of the present predominantly through story. 

But you might ask, am I claiming that God’s story of redemption is evident in literature? In a sense, I am claiming this. Barth saw it this way, and drew on Calvin’s idea that all of creation is the ‘theatre of God’s glory’. Literature he argued, even that written by the non-believers, can be used by God as part of his general revelation to mankind. Tate suggests that Barth’s use of ‘parable’ is appropriate, as secular stories can point to a meaning beyond the basic narrative. Secular parables might be used by God to speak to particular people in specific contexts. I too believe, that just as God uses the preaching of biblical literature to reveal inexplicable meanings at times for the preacher’s audience, so too, secular parables can be used by God to point to the central narrative of God’s redemptive plans for his creation.


Understanding that God can reveal himself through all of creation, including the works of humankind, should free us to embrace secular literature, Indigenous dreamtime stories from varied nations, folk tales and even the anecdotes of life as vehicles for God’s revelation of truth to us. This is not to suggest that all that is written in the name of literature should be freely shared with our children, but it does allow us to avoid the extremes of disengagement with the literature and stories of the world, as well as avoiding total assimilation and acceptance.


I wrote a number of years ago in my book ‘Pathways to Literacy’ that literature is not just about the enjoyment of story. I claimed that it is about life, and one's world. As such, literature and stories do much more than entertain, they can act as:


• mirrors to enable readers to reflect on life problems and circumstances;

• sources of knowledge;

• sources of ideological challenge;

• a means to peer into the past, and the future;

• vehicles to other places;

• a way to reflect on inner struggles;

• an introduction to the realities of life and death; and

  a way to raise and discuss varied social issues.


Pathways to 'life' and understanding

Chapter 7 of my book 'Pedagogy and Education for Life' is devoted to a discussion of ‘Storytelling and Life’, and in it I explore story in detail. I contend that people learn from stories in their varied forms, and frequently share their lives with other students through stories. The Bible is filled with stories and it is a key way in which God communicates with us. God has given us the ability to tell stories and understand them as a key means of his revelation to us. It is through God’s stories that we understand who he is. And as God’s creatures made in his image, the stories we share directly and indirectly in life, can point to or away from God. How do the stories we share at school suggest implied views on the value of humanity, our beliefs, hopes, fears, and knowledge? Is my classroom a place where children tell their stories, and where others listen and gain hope and inspiration to seek God? To what extent are our stories and those we encourage in school life, echoes of the central meta-narrative of the Bible, that is, God’s redemptive plan for his people? For as Tolkien suggested, the gospel of Christ is “the greatest story of them all.”


Trinity College Library Dublin

What I’m suggesting is that literature as a form of narrative offers readers endless possibilities for exploration, imagination, learning and challenge, and it serves a key role in school education, particularly in the elementary school years. This role for literature is much broader and less explicitly connected to biblical truth than traditional Bible stories for children. But nonetheless, stories can point to, and illustrate, God’s salvation narrative and his work in our lives. They can also be used by God as part of his general revelation and common grace to us, both to enrich our imagined and hoped for view of the ‘good life’, and in the process, drawing attention to aspects of the human condition. As a result of this, stories can bring into focus truth, beauty and goodness, as well as human virtues that reflect the grace and providence of God. The eighth chapter of my book (“Imagination and Life”), might be helpful if you’d like to explore these issues some more.


Related references of relevance to this post


Trevor H. Cairney (1990). Other Worlds: The Endless Possibilities of Literature, Portsmouth (NH): Heinemann.

Trevor H. Cairney (1995). Pathways to Literacy, London: Cassell.

Trevor H. Cairney (2018). Pedagogy and Education for Life: A Christian Reframing of Teaching, Learning and Formation, Eugene (OR): Cascade Books.   


Sunday, 1 November 2020

Principle 18: How much is learning in my classroom related to the world beyond?

The 18th Principle in my pedagogical framework flows very much from the discussion in the 6th chapter of my book devoted to ‘Classroom Life’. One of my recurring observations of education in schools during my career as a teacher, teacher educator, school leader, and researcher, has been the frequent discontinuity between the life of the School and that of the world. Hang on, I hear you saying, isn’t this what we want?! Well yes, but at the end of the day, we seek students so transformed by the Word of God, that as they live in the wider world, it will be obvious to all that they are different in all the contexts and roles they will fill in life. We don’t want students who only display faith at school, we want transformed lives for our students. I have much to say about education as formation in 'Pedagogy and Education for Life' within Chapter 2 titled ‘Education as Formation in Communities’. The chapter is framed by a quote from the work of Douglas Barnes who addresses some of the ideas I explore in my book:

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.”



In the 1990s when I began to consider, evaluate and apply my previous research and writing in secular schools in the context of Christian education, I was surprised to see that in many religious schools there was a tendency to ‘build walls’ around the school. Metaphorical walls, but nevertheless, significant artificial barriers meant to shut the world out while children were shaped within. In a sense, when schools go down this path, they spend much of their time critiquing and opposing the practices, values and worldviews experienced outside the students’ school. The problem with a strong emphasis on this approach, particularly with older elementary and secondary students, is that students begin to learn that they can mouth the right answers and tell us what we want to hear, without any personal inner transformation and commitment.


Such an approach can often be observed in schools that embrace Worldview approaches to religious education. Many will say in response to my comments, “but why wouldn’t any parent not want the school to shield their children from philosophies and practices that aren’t consistent with the family faith”. True, we would want to do this, but life and child development is not that simple. It is difficult to separate our children from the world and its philosophies, practices and worldviews. We need to ask ourselves, will isolation and instruction in a form of worldview favoured by a school, ensure inner Christian formation and equip them for later independent living. While we can teach children a faith position and how to respond to questions posed by the world, only God can truly transform the hearts and minds of our children. Romans 12:2 speaks of the need for our hearts and minds be transformed; this includes our children.


Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”


The role of the Christian teacher is not simply to teach the Bible and rebut the views of the world, they must create open environments in which students can express doubts and challenges within the varied communities of practice that make up their life, so that they can test them against the Word of God. The Christian teacher must nurture, inspire, transform, and influence the children God places in our schools for ‘the good’. The chief task of the teacher is to:


“… create contexts for education that assist children’s formation as learners, mature humans, communicators, people who work, and people who can cope in community as knowers, lovers, and desirers of God. As James Smith states, the key task of education is the formation of our loves and desires that, in turn govern and generate action (both individual and collective).” (‘Pedagogy & Education for Life’, p.13.)


The challenge for us as Christian educators and teachers is not simply to seek Christian distinctiveness in our school by shaping curriculum to incorporate and reflect specific values, worldview, virtues, and so on. While such concerns and practices are legitimate in Christian education, transformative education needs to be shaped by end goals not simply based on continuous downloads of knowledge, worldviews and Christian values. For our ‘means’ surely follow from our telos, that is “the good” or aimed-for end, or goal of schooling. The teaching of community values, virtues, and alternative worldviews have little impact if in conflict with one’s goals. That is, if they do not represent the telos. They must be in harmony if education is to be transformative. Communities of practice that permit students to be open and even vulnerable are critical.



God has created for us a world with unparalleled complexity, co-dependence, integration, and diversity. And yet all people are our neighbors (Luke 10:29–37). This understanding should shape our response to the world. In our Christian schools, I would encourage teachers to ask questions such as the following of each other. Do we offer opportunities for learning that place great value on seeing knowledge, our world, and our place within God’s world, in an integrated way under God’s sovereign rule? Do we promote our students’ understanding of their role as global citizens, and an understanding that God has plans for the future of his world?


My hope is teachers can challenge and support the emergence of our students’ views of the world, undergirded by an emerging, growing or existing faith. Such a focus is necessary in the broad educational contexts that I find of interest. As a result, I am not convinced that by “naturalizing Christian practices” as Dykstra and Bass suggest, it will lead to the changes we hope for in the ‘hearts’ of our children. I don’t accept that Christian practices are “unique” and that teaching them should be our focal strategy. Love is not unique to Christians, although we might suggest that Jesus is the epitome of love, having sacrificed himself for us.


The central approach I explore in ‘Pedagogy and Education for Life is not where Dykstra and Bass end up. That is, seeking as teachers to identify and replicate Christian practices within life. Instead, my focus is on how Christian teachers and schools can help students to see, respond to, and navigate all of the practices of life (Christian and non-Christian), with a telos that is shaped by and directed toward the kingdom of God. We need to remember that many of the students in Christians schools are not in fact Christians at all, so they are on a journey toward an understanding of how Christians might respond in specific situations. 


David Smith and James Smith make a significant contribution to our understanding of these issues by seeking to clarify what we might mean by Christian practices. I agree with their view that teaching ‘Christian ideas’ - regardless of whether by this we mean virtues, values, or even worldview theory - is not the primary solution to the transformation of our children. If ideas become the focus of our pedagogy, then the prospect of Christian habits reflecting Biblical understanding, and faith constituting a second nature, rather than simply compliant practices, will not be realized.


In contrast to the approaches advocated by some of the writers I explore in my book, I suggest that teachers need to be as concerned with the ‘invisible’ things in school communities and children’s wider worlds, not just the more ‘visible practices’ and liturgies. Two writers whose work can help shape such a pedagogy are Charles Taylor and Lev Vygotsky. I discuss these ideas in full chapters 6 and 7 of my book.


Charles Taylor’s notion of the “social imaginary” has the potential to widen our focus and offer a lens that can assist us to make sense of how children are formed in school contexts. Taylor argues that to understand culture we need to stop assuming only ideas move people. This is also a strong message in the work of James Smith. Taylor suggests that beneath the surface of the cognitive and intellectual arguments of a group or institution, we have human imagination at work which helps the individual to engage with stories, myths, images, iconic hopes and dreams, and connect them with our own present and past experiences, as we imagine the world as we would like it to be. Taylor suggests all groups and individuals are motivated by a “social imaginary.” This helps them imagine the context of their lives and their place within its present and future. I discuss Taylor’s work more fully in chapter 8 of my book, when I consider imagination and creativity.


One final point is worth making. In Chapter 5 of my book I discuss the work of Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky’s work helps to explain why the relationship between teacher and learner (and I would add learner and learner) is so important. We must remember that classroom life is not just about the things we do or say to one another. There is a dialectical relationship between teaching and learning. Vygotsky labels this concept obuchenie. This isn’t easily translated, as it means both teaching and learning as a unified process. Obuchenie requires both the teacher and the student to adapt to one another. While the teacher has a position of authority and usually greater knowledge and world experience, this does not prevent both from listening to and learning from one another.


Above: Group work in action


Vygotsky was suggesting a shift toward a different context for learning, one in which the relationship between teacher and student is changed. This also requires a shift of pedagogical focus. In short, from simply transmitting knowledge or practices for students to replicate, to:


“… the creation of classrooms where students have the opportunity to see connection between the varied communities of practice they navigate each day as part of normal life.”


Such classrooms are places where teachers “guide, nudge, respond, question, listen, observe, urge, teach, and reveal truth in ways students can connect to their lived experiences” (see p.100 of my book). If you would like to explore these ideas more fully I would suggest that you spend time in Chapter Six of my book.

Tuesday, 29 September 2020

The Place of Justice in Schools - Principle 17

The 17th principle in my Framework for Christian Pedagogy in 'Education and Pedagogy for Life' is critical for all faith-based schools. A key question all schools and teachers should ask: "Is justice sought and modelled within your class and school community life?"



As I write in my book, God is just! What's more, his justice is an expression of his holiness. In the book of Micah in the Old Testament, God brings charges against his people for their failure to obey his word leading to wickedness and rebellion. God had acted justly with them and had repeatedly shown mercy, and yet they had failed to show justice and mercy in their lives.


He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God
(Micah 6:8).


Because our God, acts justly and shows mercy, we too must seek and demonstrate justice and mercy in the world (Mic 6:8). Is this demonstrated in the way justice is delivered within our schools? Or are we inconsistent in how punishment is distributed and rewards given? Does the curriculum and the attitude we display show a concern for a limited part of our world beyond? Do you we favouritism in life and teaching? For example, are we shocked and saddened when a famous celebrity dies, and barely notice when thousands die in distant nations from disease or violence?


Classrooms must be places turned towards the world and yet aware of the inequities and injustices within it. Our pedagogy must demonstrate a sense of justice and a broad concern for other people. But even if we as teachers might have compassionate hearts and a strong sense of justice, how do we develop these qualities in our students? And how do we encourage our students to demonstrate this to one another and also the stranger?


An important question for any teacher, and in fact, any school is, how do we show a love of and desire to seek justice? And as a follow up, how do we encourage empathy and respect for others? There is no doubt that what we teach, including our attitudes to and engagement with the world, will have an influence on our students. How are we preparing our students to love their neighbors? “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)?


I attended school as a student from 1956 to 1969! Many forms of the punishment used then would still be recognisable in 2020. Children are still kept in, lines are still written, forgotten homework is sometimes done at lunchtime, privileges are still withdrawn for bad behavior, and so on. But the varied forms of physical punishment that I experienced at school, would not be seen today. As a primary school child, I was caned many times. In fact, by Grade 4 I’d been caned about 40 times (yes, I was badly behaved). This was usually 1 or 2 cuts of the cane across outstretched hands, often in front of my classmates. However, most attempts at punishment failed to change my behavior. But of course, justice isn’t simply about punishment.



When I grew up and became a teacher, I had to learn very quickly that the ability to exercise discipline and shape behavior in my classroom, was a very important part of what it meant to be an effective teacher. I started teaching as a 19-year-old! True. And thanks to some good teaching by my College lecturers, I had a strong sense instilled in me of the requirement to set standards, to ensure that they were met, to reward those who attained these standards, and to moderate the behavior of those who didn’t.


One of the first lessons during my training was that discipline needs to be distributed with consistency and in proportion to the matter that requires the discipline. But there was little talk about the administration of discipline, simply that once I had decided on the need for punishment, it was important to do it and apply it fairly and consistently. But why was I disciplining children? What was my ultimate purpose in moderating specific behavior? And how did I arrive at my decisions? What influenced my decisions concerning the extent and nature of the discipline? And what were the standards against which the need for punishment was determined? Wojciech Sadurski has some wisdom to share in response to my questions.


Our God is just, and his justice is an expression of his holiness. Hence, God expects his people to seek justice in the world and demonstrate it (Mic 6:8). Is this seen in the way justice is delivered within the school community and through the curriculum? Do the curriculum and the attitude of teachers show a concern for the world? (Wojciech Sadurski in ‘Giving Desert Its Due: Social Justice and Legal Theory’ 1985).


As I write in my book, classrooms must be places turned towards the world and aware of the inequities and injustices within it. How do we demonstrate kindness to others and actively promote compassionate hearts in our students? Do we encourage empathy and respect for others? Do we demonstrate and ‘teach’ justice, forgiveness and mercy?


The first step in answering many of the questions I have posed is to reflect together as professional colleagues on current practices in your classroom and school. In my book (pp 159-160), I share a case study on ‘Justice and Forgiveness’ that deals with these questions. Could I suggest that as first step in assessing current practices that staff might find it helpful to read and discuss the case study together as colleagues.

Saturday, 22 August 2020

Principle 16 - Does my classroom model and promote self-sacrifice and generosity? 

1. How serious are we about self-sacrifice and generosity?

How important are the human qualities of self-sacrifice and generosity to us as Christian educators? Truthfully! How often would we say to another Christian “You need to be more sacrificial.” Or, “you know, I think you could be more generous towards other people.” In fact, as teachers, how often might we have a quiet word to a student we see acting selfishly? Now, I’m not suggesting that we run around to our students, friends and family saying this regularly, but as educators we do need to have a close look at the messages our schools give out about self-sacrifice and generosity. Let’s all agree that we’re not going to start a new compulsory unit of study called “Self-sacrifice and Generosity – 101”. But how important are these special qualities to us as Christian teachers in any educational context? How are they modelled in schools? Do we demonstrate that they are valued, and recognized? 

If you teach in an independent school, perhaps look at the student leadership. Are they the people who are most likely to be known for their servanthood, self-sacrifice and generosity? As well, how significant are the awards ‘Dux of Self-sacrifice’ or ‘School Blue for Servant-hood’ on school Speech Day? While this is said tongue in cheek, there is a serious point to my comment. Count the sporting prizes handed out at your graduation or speech nights, as well as the academic prizes. I’ll lower the bar a little, how many citizenship prizes were there? Check these against the sporting prizes. You might counter my comments by saying, “but we don’t want to promote such acts of self-sacrifice and generosity lest that breeds pride.” But of course, the same could be said of academic and sporting achievements. I’m talking about balance, priorities, and focus here, for this will reflect in some way the things that are most important to our schools.

It would be interesting to be able to ask all of my readers what has been your hardest lesson to learn, and alternatively the easiest? Where would ridding ourselves of a tendency towards self-promotion, self-protection and self-fulfillment come in the list? The world seems to scream the message, "talk yourself up!" How many times have I heard “If you don’t promote your gifts who will?” Or, “you’re doing too much, slow down, drop one or two of your church activities, do something for yourself for a change.” Whether it’s television advertising, Facebook posts, television talk shows, university graduation addresses, school promotional material, or prize giving ceremonies at schools and universities, the messaging is often in the opposite direction to self sacrifice.

2. What is our primary purpose?

As I write in my book ‘Pedagogy and Education for Life’, I believe that God’s ultimate purposes for us are that we know him, love him, serve him, and bring glory to him. Indeed Romans 12:1-2 commends us that in view of “the mercies of God” we are to present our 

“… bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” 

Some might respond by saying “hang on Trevor our students are just kids, give them a break, most adults we know (and their teachers) struggle to live such lives of sacrifice.” While this is true, my point goes to the heart of what we prioritize, what things shape the very ethos of our schools. In fact, how ‘Christian’ are our schools, and what are the signs, practices and priorities that demonstrate that they are?

We need to be careful as teachers and school leaders to ensure that our words and our actions as teachers and school communities demonstrate where our hope rests in life? Do we encourage our children to imitate Jesus in service, self-sacrifice, and generosity towards others? Is this the basis of community in the Christian school?

3. Aligning our School Practices with the Bible's Teaching

In the education world, competition seems to be expected, and is a key means to promote effort. Seeking to do well and to succeed is not wrong, but if it becomes an unhealthy obsession, where our students need to win and succeed at any cost, we know their efforts are wrongly motivated. To do well is good, but to do so simply to be better than others is not. How we encourage our students to have a right attitude toward success at school and to seek God’s glory, not our own, is an important matter for all teachers. As I say in chapter 9 of my book:

Our students need to be encouraged to support other students who need help, to be humble when they do better than others, and to be generous in how they contribute to group projects and non-individual assignments and activities. Whether participating in academic, sporting, cultural, or community service activities, we should encourage our students to support the work and efforts of others, not just their own (p. 153).

Above: Students volunteering and caring for others (Wiki Commons)

Finally, as Christian teachers, we must always look to Christ as the example to whom we need to focus our attention. We are in a sense servants seeking to encourage servanthood in our students. Our schools need to demonstrate this with actions, not simply words on a school website.  

“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:45

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Principle 15 - Demonstrate forgiveness and seek repentance in students as hearts are trained.

Forgiveness and repentance are central themes within the Bible from Genesis to Exodus, and are just two of the human qualities that should characterize the life of a Christian, and also mark the Christian school and classroom out as different. As such, the willingness of students to repent of wrong actions and behavior, as well as the preparedness of others to forgive them, are two key ways in which students are shaped and godly character developed.


One of my favourite quotes from German Philosopher Martin Buber comes from 'Between Man and Man', where he suggests that "Education worthy of its name is essentially education of character." And of course, the pedagogy that is essential for the development of ‘true’ character, is one that is grounded in an understanding of God's purposes for us as his unique creatures. The Bible teaches us that as we are made “… in His own image” (Genesis 1:27), our character is meant to reflect God's nature, and be shaped as we relate to him and also to others. God made us for communion.

If you revisit my framework for Christian pedagogy, you will see that my twenty principles are framed by three key biblical truths. Each of these speak of the nature implanted in us by our God. It is this nature that separates us from all other creatures. God made us as creatures who are:


Made to learn, and

Made for communion.

My fourteen previous principles have reflected the first two aspects of our character that reflect the nature of our God. We now turn to consider what education might look like once we have given serious thought to this third aspect of character. We were made by God for communion. So, the last six principles in my pedagogical framework, are all concerned with how students and staff in schools and classrooms, demonstrate rich communion with one another shaped by our faith, trust in, and communion with God.

Principle 15 is a first principle for shaping a pedagogy that reflects God's character and his teaching. It is also one that is foundational for the building of the rich fellowship and community discussed above. We are to create classrooms where as teachers we:

"Demonstrate forgiveness and seek repentance in students as hearts are trained.”

As well, we seek to create classrooms where students demonstrate that they too can be repentant and also forgive others. This principle should be a critical part of life within Christian schools. Our classrooms are to be places where forgiveness is readily offered and repentance is demonstrated. For the Bible teaches that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23), and one day will face judgment (Matt 12:36; John16:8; 2 Cor 5:10). Hence, schools should be places where forgiveness and repentance are part of daily life. So, we need to ask ourselves as teachers, how do we articulate and demonstrate these key aspects of the character of believers, who know they fall short of the expectations of God? Are our classrooms places that demonstrate students and their teachers understand that all are in need of forgiveness and redemption?

But how do we demonstrate such aspects of character? In my book - ‘Pedagogy and Education forLife’ - I include a number of case studies that help teachers and students to discuss just how school and class communities can be places that demonstrate such biblical qualities. Some of life’s greatest lessons occur in the midst of disappointments and failure. School communities centred on a biblical understanding of personhood, will deal with disappointment, failure, and distress in a different way. How well teachers deal with such failures in their students is critical, for every event of this kind is an opportunity for student learning and growth. Teachers are to set strong examples as people who can model how broken relationships can be restored, forgiveness offered and restitution made. An important part of the teacher’s role, requires a willingness to train and encourage students to forgive one another.

In my next post, I will deal with Principle 16 ‘Does my classroom model and promote self-sacrifice and generosity?’ 

Thursday, 2 July 2020

Principle 14 - Is your classroom a place where just punishment and discipline are part of school life?

When I created this blog, I set out to write posts on all 20 of the principles that shape the pedagogy central to my book 'Pedagogy and Education for Life'. I stressed that the very start of good Christian pedagogy requires the teacher to mirror the person of Christ, in order to make good and wise choices as they nurture and teach the children in their care. I included a framework within the book organized under three major headings, all reflecting the theology that informed the book, as well as offering a biblical theology of personhood.


These three headings are broad biblical truths, and give shape to my framework: “God is Creator,” “God’s creatures are meant to be learners,” and “God made us for communion.” Principle 14 is the last of ten that relate to the central truth that God created us to learn with others. We are to spend time with other people, as fellow learners who thrive in communities centred on knowledge of, and faith in God. If this is the case in your classroom and school, then the community will be different. This extends to every aspect of pedagogy and life in the school, including discipline.


As a teacher, you will need to make different (though hopefully consistent) decisions for each child in your care. It may require you to respond in different ways, and offer different forms of support and even discipline, every day. It is important to stress again, that pedagogy isn't a set of one size fits all methods, techniques or procedures. The search for the perfect pedagogy will have a fruitless search, for the day-to-day working out of our pedagogy will vary from teacher to teacher and class to class.


But—and this is an important “but”—we should strive to teach in ways that are true to the way God has created us and his purposes for doing so. We must constantly acknowledge our nature as learners and creatures made in the image of God, and that the essence of community is shaped by the gospel of Christ.


The great challenge for teachers and leaders in Christian schools is to consider what should be distinctive about our education and schooling. This of course extends to the way we administer discipline. Proverbs 13:24 teaches that he who loves the child “is diligent to discipline him,” but such punishment is to be just and not in anger and for revenge. Do we understand that unjust and unexplained punishment, punishment that breaks the spirit or is in anger and frustration, is wrong? Do we see punishment and discipline as a means that “yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb 12:11)? And through discipline, do we also show our love and concern?


Any kind of physical punishment is banned in most Western countries; hence discipline is inevitably related to detention, spoken comments, the withdrawal of privileges, and the involvement of parents. However, while some will see limited options for punishment, sound teaching requires management of classroom life in such a way that punishment is rarely needed. The key to effective discipline and the lack of need for it, is pedagogy that leads to exciting classrooms that engage and motivate learners. If our students are motivated and encouraged to contribute positively to community life, and are engaged in the activities of the classroom and school, discipline usually becomes less necessary. Having said this, if punishment is required, it must be administered fairly, consistently, and justly, otherwise the teacher will have lost the battle to create a learning environment where all students are engaged and motivated and see their schooling as having life purposes that matter. The example of Chanda in chapter 2 of my book is an illustration of how one disagreeable, unmotivated, belligerent, noisy and disruptive student was redirected in my classroom, simply by taking the time to get to know her, understand her personal life situation, and open a doorway into her life through my interest in her underground music and poetry.


It is worth stressing that if the teacher finds themselves needing to discipline all or some of their students regularly and excessively, then they have a significant pedagogical problem. Why? Because clearly students are disengaged and alienated from the teacher, the purposes of education in the class and school. Furthermore, it is highly likely that the teacher does not know their students. In particular, they do not know their hopes and dreams, interests and desires, motivations and hopes for life. Knowing and loving our students is the starting point for effective discipline and pedagogy.  



Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Principle 13 - How do we evaluate the ends towards which our pedagogy is directed?


The greatest challenge we face in seeking to create authentic Christian education is to keep ‘higher’ purposes at the centre of education. Ideally, parents, teachers and students should have a degree of shared understanding and agreement about the purposes for learning. Sadly, many parents and even teachers of faith, can have very narrow goals for school learning. Far too often goals seem to value material success and the attainment of power and influence in the world as paramount. More rarely do we observe the telos of learning based on a desire for a specific type of character, and evidence of virtues or faith in God rather than self. Ancient moral philosophers like Aristotle and Plato argued that the ability to make moral judgements was connected to some accountability for one's actions, not just what is best for the individual. The purpose of education in today's schools is often seen primarily as success in material or worldly terms, and choices are often focussed on what will be best for me! Will you get into the best course, at the right university? In turn, will this give you the best chance of employment that will deliver the right lifestyle? Thankfully, some parents, teachers and school principals still sense that education should offer more than just worldly success.

In 'Pedagogy and Education for Life' I argue for a radical change in direction and emphasis in schooling. The model of schooling that dominates most nations is one based on individual success, primarily centred on exams, that in their own way shape what constitutes curriculum. If we are to broaden our understanding of the signposts of educational success for our schools, we must continue to evaluate the attitudes and priorities we hold. These inevitably tend to shape what we do, and the emphasis we give to specific practices and signposts of success. Are the things we do in our schools pointing our children toward the ‘good’? Or are we distracted primarily by the values of the world? What shapes our view of the future, and how are we shaping our children and students’ views of their hoped-for futures?

However, parents like teachers, can lose sight of the fact that life isn't simply shaped by success at school and whether students get the exam marks for entrance into the 'right' course, in the 'right' university. Sadly, it is far too easy to become captured by worldly success, school rankings, state test results and so on. One of the greatest conduits to developing conceptions of schooling in such narrow terms, is an over-emphasis on externally moderated exams. To be fair, schools also value other non-academic activities, and celebrate success in sport, the arts and civic achievements. But at the end of the day, far too often school success seems to be measured based on individual achievement rather than team effort and good outcomes of a community of learners.

We need a radical change in direction and emphasis in schooling. The model of schooling that dominates most nations is one based on individual success, primarily centred on exams, that in their own way shape what constitutes curriculum. If we are to broaden our understanding of the signposts of educational success for our schools, we must continue to evaluate the attitudes and priorities we hold. These inevitably tend to shape what we do, and the emphasis we give to specific practices and signposts of success. Are the things we do in our schools pointing our children toward the ‘good’? Or are we distracted primarily by the values of the world? What shapes our view of the future, and how are we shaping our children and students’ views of their hoped-for futures?

Six Key Questions Every Principal, Teacher and Parent Should Ask?

The following questions might serve as a helpful way to discuss these issues with colleagues.

Do we have a right balance in our projected purpose and vision for our students, classes and the school? 

What are our goals for teaching and learning, and how do we assess individual and group achievement? How does the education we offer shape character, confidence, a sense of self-worth, and a hope for the future?

What do the stories we tell about our schools, their aims, and the things we celebrate say about us and that school in terms of priorities?  

How do we inspire and direct our students? Are the stories we tell our students and children designed to reinforce a view of the world that is dependent on individual success, personal effort and a self-obsessed attitude to life, that reflects a quest for status, security and status?

What posture do we adopt toward success and the way we define it?

How do we as parents and teachers deal with failure? What might we teach them about the way failure can shape character, open up other possibilities, redirect our motivations for the ‘good’? Is failure only ever seen as bad, or do we accept that from failure can emerge new learning, character building and potentially new opportunities and directions?

What are the expectations we project to parents?

As teachers, what do we signal to parents about the things that matter in the way we recognize achievements at school? I’m tempted to ask all schools to list the things that the school collectively celebrates and acknowledges? Perhaps, simply examine school newsletters, websites, school brochures and promotional videos and so on. What are the things that are applauded most at school assemblies and in speeches from the Principal? How often do we share stories of ‘self-sacrifice, and triumph in adversity? Do we speak of how failures can be turned into success and so on? What do we acknowledge and celebrate most as a school? Who is acknowledged beyond the sporting heroes and the highest achievers on internal and external exams?

If we are in leadership and appoint staff, how do we assess their view of the purpose of schooling and its end goal?

A number of years ago, I took the time to analyse the websites of a number independent schools. I was rather shocked at what they said about themselves. Schools might take the time to assess print material, websites and promotional videos to see if it is easy to see what the telos is for the school.

How easy is it to discern the way the school celebrates ‘character’?

It is helpful in speaking of ‘character’ to reflect on the work of Alasdair McIntyre who in ‘After Virtue’ explores character at some length. In defining and discussing ‘character’, Macintyre fuses role and personality. What characters are seen, admired and held up as worth emulating as “moral representatives of their culture”. And of course, characters to be admired “express bodies of moral belief in their actions”. What are the characters we admire most in our schools? Who or what type of person are the “objects of regard”.

Summing Up

One of my major themes within my book is that our faith-based schools have lost connection with the ultimate purposes for which they were created. In the process, we may well have formed good schools that stand proudly against secular schools with no faith basis and different views of the world. However, many schools have lost connection to the ‘ends’ for which they were first created. What will make our schools outstanding ‘Christian Schools’, rather than just excellent schools producing good academic outcomes? It is not simply how well our teachers are able to impart knowledge of the curriculum. No, it will be based on a specific ‘teleology’ informed by our faith and the purposes for life and existence that God’s word teaches in Scripture. As schools, teachers and parents, we must assess and evaluate our students and our schools based on more than exams and other forms of worldly measures of success. It is far too easy to drift into shallow measures of success. For example, the number of doctors and lawyers produced, major academic achievements, the number of sporting heroes, public figures of note, people of high net worth and so on. Instead, we need to evaluate the ends toward which our pedagogy is directed shaped and informed by the Scriptures.


One of my favourite quotes from John Piper in his book 'Desiring God' reflects his biblical understanding of what God desires most for us, and it isn't simply worldly success.

“God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him”

That is, we will find true happiness and contentment in life when we seek God, honour God and desire him above all other things.  I will finish with another of my favourite quotes from Piper.

“It is about the greatness of God, not the significance of man. God made man small and the universe big to say something about himself” (John Piper,  'Don't Waste Your Life').

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Could Dr Seuss Help Us to Deal With the Corona Virus?

This is a post for families coping with Covid-19. It's a repost from my Literacy blog 'Literacy, Families and Learning'

I've always found that children's literature offers great human wisdom and insights for many situations in life. As the world has struggled with the Covid-19, I think we've observed some of the best and worst of human behaviour. There have been numerous stories of human sacrifice from medical staff and age carers treating others at great personal risk and cost, airline staff transporting patients home from foreign countries, generous people sharing food, shelter and belongings with unemployed workers. As well, families separated in different countries with little prospect of getting home, have been given help from varied countries and agencies to journey back to loved ones. These are all examples of human cooperation and generosity. Where does children's literature come in? Children's literature can teach, challenge, inform, and offer emotional support while shining a light on the human condition and how we relate to one another.

In times of crisis, human traits like generosity, sacrificial care and a willingness to forgo self-interest, might just help us to overlook our differences and difficulties together. Yet, there is a darker side to humanity in times of trouble. Selfishness can also be shown by some. There is no place for stubborn self-interest in a crisis; whether it's hoarding food and essential goods (while others have little), or something as simple as stubbornly refusing to keep social distance when asked to by authorities. Young backpackers having parties in parks and on beaches, a man leaves enforced isolation to visit his girlfriend, unnecessary travel is undertaken, putting others at risk and potentially spreading the virus, and so on.

If you've experienced or observed such selfishness, why not share a bit of Dr Seuss wisdom with your children. This might just help them to understand why we all need to do different things in these difficult times, like stepping aside to allow social distance on walking trails or pathways. Or perhaps, not riding your scooter or bike down the centre of a path, and instead, keeping your distance in the interest of others. Dr Seuss has always had a way of embedding social commentary within funny stories. 'The Zax' is a little story that might just help to open up such conversations with our children.

'The Zax' is a wonderful story within the Dr Seuss collection titled 'The Sneetches and Other Stories'. While the other three stories in the volume are also excellent and have much to teach us about human behaviour, 'The Zax' shines a light on the futile nature of stubborn self-centredness. And of course, this has been seen in abundance around the world as interests of varied kind have often got in the way of quick responses to Covid-19.

The story begins with two unusual creatures walking on a straight path towards one another with great purpose.

One day, making tracks
In the prairie of Prax,
Came a North-Going Zax
And a South-going Zax.

Trouble was, they were in a direct line for a collision.

And it happened that both of them came to a place
Where they bumped. There they stood.
Foot to foot. Face to face.

"Look here, now!" the North-Going Zax said. "I say!
You are blocking my path. You are right in my way.
I'm a North-Going Zax and I always go north.
Get out of the way, now, and let me go forth!"

And so, it continues:

"Who's in whose way?" snapped the South-Going Zax.
I always go south, making south-going tracks.
So you're in MY way! And I ask you to move...

How might this story all end? Well, it seems that the rest of the world moved on while they remained fixed in their stubbornness.

Of course the world didn't stand still. The world grew..
In a couple of years, the new highway came through
And they built it right over those stubborn Zax
And left them there, standing un-budged in their tracks.

Thankfully, the crisis we find ourselves into today around the world has also led to acts of great generosity, kindness and sacrifice. I pray that we might see more of these positive virtues as we support one another in the midst of this global challenge.

I would love to hear your thoughts on other children's books (for all ages) that might be helpful to share with our children right now, as they try to deal with a frightening time while at the same time growing as people.

Here's another lovely example of how a Dr Seuss classic story has been used for social commentary at this challenging time.  Kristi Bothur published this lovely example on YouTube just a few weeks ago. "How the Virus Stole Easter". If you loved 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas' you'll enjoy this video based on the Dr Seuss classic picture book that offers a reflection on Covid-19 and reinforces the need for 'hope' and prayer.