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.