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.