Tuesday, 26 May 2020

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



Aristotle

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.

Well...
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.

Monday, 30 March 2020

‘Doing’ School at Home During the Covid-19 Virus - Some practical help


While this topic isn't from my book 'Pedagogy and Education for Life', it's such a critical issue right now that I thought I'd provide a link to one of my other blogs on which I've just posted some practical help for parents teaching their children at home.

Around the world right now there are many families trying to manage life at home during the Covid-19 Pandemic. While every family's situation and each nation, is dealing with this problem in different ways, all face similar challenges in relation to their children's education. As a trained teacher, author of varied learning activities for parents, and devoted father and grandfather I've tested these ideas and many more. But due to the Corona Virus many parents across the world have found themselves acting as teachers at home. This is a nightmare for some, but it can be rewarding and even fun!  In this first post in a practical series I deal with the most basic questions first:

  • How can I as a parent who isn't a trained teacher make this work?
  • What if my child gets through all of the school work in a couple of hours?
  • How can I make some of the work fun and engaging?
  • How do I juggle my paid work if I'm working at home as a parent at the same time?

I follow this with some basic rules

#1 Do establish some basic rules 

#2 Do complete the work that your children's teachers are setting - but don't assume that it has to be done first

#3 Do program in physical activities outside (weather permitting).

#4 If you are able establish a place within your home or apartment where school activities take place.

# 5 Do provide time for marking work (if that is the task of the parent not teachers) and give good feedback and praise.

# 6 Do be consistent! Discipline for the teacher always breaks down when they are inconsistent towards children in the class (or group). 

# 7 Do build into the day planned 'Tension Breakers'. 'Tension breakers' (i.e. things to stop chaos when the wheels are falling off the family, or a child is having a meltdown!) are used when everyone seems to have had enough.

Want to know more? Visit my blog 'Literacy, Families and Learning' and look out for future posts.


Monday, 2 March 2020

The need to be ‘kidwatchers’ - Principle 12

As I discuss in my book ‘Pedagogy and Education for Life’, if we are to influence the life of our classrooms, we need to be engaged with our students and consciously monitor the day-to-day classroom life. But as well as classroom life, we need to be aware of each student’s life outside the classroom, for invariably this has an impact on life within school. My 12th Principle from my Christian Pedagogical Framework is framed by the question “how aware am I of the life activities and behavior of my students outside the classroom?” This starts with the playground, but also extends to the home and community life of our students across their many external communities of practice. This might seem a ‘bridge too far’, but if our students are demonstrating inappropriate, ‘interesting’ or unusual behavior in other contexts, how might this inform our understanding of them within school. 

Essentially, teachers need to be sensitive to any signs that their life at home, or in varied wider contexts outside school, might create additional challenges or opportunities. The latter is just as important, life and learning might just be much more exciting and rewarding in the wider world than in the school or classroom. The example of Chanda in Chapter 2 of my book illustrates this perfectly. A student who wouldn’t write at school was a prolific writer of music at home.

Understanding the student world outside school
How can we as teachers have any idea what occurs outside the school for our students? This can be positive and negative. At times in our schools there are children who at home or in the wider world, might face abuse, poverty, fear and disadvantage. How can we tell such things? Understanding and discerning the needs of our children involves observation and attention to the whole of life of our students as much as we are able. Might some students come to school hungry? If a child arrives at school in an untidy state, what might this tell us? Or if they seem to lack basic resources for school should we be concerned? Is their homework done, and so on? What is our relationship like with their parents? Do we know them at all? Do we have any idea how supportive or otherwise their families might be?


In a more positive frame, what passions and interests do our students have outside school? Are there areas of life outside school that demonstrate unusual gifts, special abilities, perhaps just different and more positive behavior? How can we build on what we know about our children to encourage them and form them? Do we listen to and observe them as they arrive and leave, play and chat with friends in informal moments? What insights might we gain in the diverse and multiple communities of practice they inhabit?

Using 'Open' Questions
One basic and practical way to learn more about our students is to ask open questions that invite response and offer a window into their ‘hearts’ and minds. This will generally be done one-to-one or in small groups. This type of close observation has been referred to by some as ‘kidwatching’ which I refer to in chapter 9 of my book. An American colleague of mine coined the phrase over 30 years ago. She discusses the practice in full in her book ‘Kidwatching: Documenting Children’s Literacy Development’. As the name suggests, the technique was designed to provide “…a framework for engaging in systematic, yet very personalized, data collection”.  While she coined the phrase for a narrower application to literacy, I have developed a much broader application in relation to each child’s participation in school and community life. How might we use such a technique in our schools? And what can we learn from using it?

 For example, do we demonstrate a desire to come to a greater understanding of why our students do or don’t engage in activities within the classroom and school? My basic contention is that only by listening, observing and asking the right questions, will we understand our students more fully, and be able to assess their well-being and journeys towards faith. I’m constantly surprised by how little teachers know about their students. Or, in some cases, how they often offer inappropriate activities for their children, or fail to identify when children are unwell, unhappy, under stress, withdrawn, and so on. I saw this as a parent when observing other parents, but also constantly as a teacher. At times teachers fail to see telling signs that students are withdrawn and distant, stressed, frustrated or sad. This might be due to issues beyond the classroom, or perhaps an inability to cope within the school.

Two real life examples
Let me share two real examples from my teaching. I have changed the names and some details to ensure that there is no chance of identifying individuals. The first was a 3rd grade boy (I’ll call him Ralph) who I taught in a city school. He came to school tired, late, untidy and smelling of cigarette smoke every day. He was withdrawn, always late in finishing work at school, he rarely completed homework, and he struggled to make friends. After some weeks and endless frustrations, I was to find out from varied professional sources that the child lived in a two-room shed, that his father was an alcoholic, chain smoker and occasional drug user. Life was chaotic at home, sleep was difficult and study or homework at the dining room table (the only space to work), impossible due to communal use, as well as the scattering of empty bottles and full ashtrays.

The second student was an attractive and precocious girl in Grade 5, who had no end of friends at school. But she struggled to complete schoolwork due to her tendency to be easily distracted from any work activity. This behavior continued for all of one term. She was referred to our school counsellor. After a number of sessions, she discovered that the student’s mother had left their family home during the school holidays and had not been seen or heard of for 3 months. With her father working five days per week and shift work at times overnight, and her older brother at university, she was frequently left alone. 

Understanding the lives of both children was essential for understanding my challenges with both in the classroom. Kidwatching involves paying close attention to the behavior of our students, and being prepared to look more deeply for telltale signs of disrupted lives outside the classroom. And perhaps ask that one more question that could elicit a personal response.        

Attentiveness to student life - 'Kidwatching'
In chapter 6 of my book I suggest that we need an attentiveness to the student life of the
classroom to create opportunities to observe their actions, emotions, hopes, fears,
frustrations and joys. At its most basic level, “kidwatching” requires teachers to use their eyes to observe student lives, and their ears to listen to what students do and don’t say. Not in order to pry, judge, or to indoctrinate, but to understand them. We need to demonstrate a desire to come to a greater understanding of why our students do or do not engage in activities within the classroom and school. In the case of Chanda, who I discuss in chapter 2 of my book, what I did was not startling. First, I acted on her noncompliance with the writing curriculum when I observed it. Second, I asked some questions. Finally, I took the time to observe her more closely, and I made an effort to know her better. This deliberate activity enabled me to learn about her avid writing at home and to build upon and use this knowledge to make a difference to her as a student.

The view of pedagogy outlined in my book defines learning as socially constituted within communities of practice, not simply classrooms and schools. Learning takes place within the life of many communities in which students and teachers participate. As teachers, we are doing much more than imparting knowledge and skills, we are also forming young lives as we engage with them in a rich life of apprenticeship, mentoring and discipleship. To quote Chapter 6 (p.86) of my book:

Christian pedagogy, will lead to an education that points towards Kingdom goals in the moment-to-moment life of the classroom. It is not simply the delivery of doctrine and teaching in chapel, Scripture classes and Bible studies, nor is it simply the reinforcement of a specific worldview. Pedagogy will always reflect the attitudes of the teacher, the purposes that drive classroom activities, discipline and praise, rewards and punishment, as well as the words spoken and the knowledge shared. This is an education that is implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, centered on God’s purposes for his creatures, not simply the pursuit of the goals of the world.
                                                                                              
To embrace such a view of pedagogy and to implement it in our classrooms, requires deep knowledge of our students. This is where ‘Kidwatching’ comes in.

Monday, 6 January 2020

Understanding & Responding to the Diverse Nature of Learners - Principle 11


One of the most depressing things that I observe in schools is the tendency to adopt a core and common curriculum taught using a limited set of teaching methods. Even more depressing is the fact that this approach takes no account of varied learning styles, nor does it consider the individual needs, interests and abilities of the children in the classroom.


The use of curriculum and teaching practices that assume all students are the same, and teaching diverse classes a common program with identical expectations, couldn’t be further from what Christian education should be. God made us as unique and diverse creatures, and this wasn’t by accident. Varying abilities and even learning styles weren’t an unfortunate accident of creation.

All students will have different strengths, weaknesses, and needs. Romans 12:3-18 is the place in Scripture we go to when we think of different spiritual gifts. But just as God has given his people varied spiritual gifts, he has also created us with different abilities, strengths, interests, skills, personalities and so on. The diversity evident in any classroom is extraordinary and needs to be accepted and addressed. This will be demonstrated by using varied methods, techniques and strategies for the varied abilities and gifts we will see represented in our classrooms.

"4 For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully." (Romans 12:3-8)

 Christian teachers, classrooms, and schools should at least grasp and demonstrate these basic understandings in word and action. We are to do this by responding to, valuing, respecting and building on our children’s varied abilities, skills, 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. We must also develop those who have learning difficulties. God has made our children to be different, hence we need to educate, extend and grow all of our students as learners and people.

Recognising pedagogically that we understand diversity and difference

God delights in us as learners and has given us the ability to learn in varied ways. Learning can occur in formal and informal ways within the family (Deut 6:1–9) and likewise the school. We should use varied methods to accommodate the differences that we observe in our students. The Bible offers many examples of the diverse ways that humans learn, as well as clear and practical examples of how great teachers work. The actions of teachers across the Old and New Testaments demonstrate the varied activities used. These include planning diverse activities that respond to our observations and experiences, a strategy that Jesus used often (e.g. Luke 13:18–21). In other places in Scripture we see how narrative and parables were used to teach (Ezek 17; Luke 8:4–8). On other occasions learning was framed using allegories and metaphor to help learners grasp profound truths (Isa 5:1–7; Ezek 16). Good teachers in the Bible also offered and used first-hand experience to reinforce key learning (Luke 9:1–8; 10:1–20). Learning of course throughout the ages has often occurred within the general activities of life, as discussion and questioning were used by parents and teachers to help children and adults grasp new ideas and concepts (e.g. Luke 24:13–25). The Bible also has many examples of signs and symbolic acts being utilised to bring home significant truths (1 Kgs 11:29–39; Isa 20:1–6).  

In many ways, the above diverse approaches are similar to what the educator would call experience based learning. And of course, direct expository teaching through the spoken and written word is common and needed as well. Do we exercise our freedom to use sound and varied methods that equip our students for the whole of life? This diverse array of models for learning from the Scriptures should encourage us to think broadly about the possibilities for shaping teaching and learning in our classrooms.

In summing up, let me say that experienced teachers know almost intuitively, that just as there are many different and unique learners in every classroom, there are many methods we can use in teaching that match the different types of learners. As I stress often in my book ‘Pedagogy and Education for Life’, and already quite specifically in the 7th Principle, we must never assume that all students are the same. God made us as individuals. No two of us are exactly the same and all have a part to play in God's world (1 Cor 12:27) as well as in any classroom. God also gave each of us different gifts to be used. The Apostle Peter reminds us that each of us “should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” (1 Pet 4:10).

Teachers have a great responsibility to use diverse pedagogy to assist learning and teaching. This is to reflect student diversity, and to encourage the diverse gifts and abilities that we see in our students. With such diversity within our students, it should be obvious that diverse methods are needed to help our students to learn and grow into independent and mature learners.