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').
 

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