Thursday, 29 March 2018

Student Formation: Avoiding the Indoctrination Trap

I often hear parents make statements like: "I just want my children to grow up to be the person they want to be." This seems a rather risky approach to parenting. From birth, parents of all faiths and none, are trying to 'shape' or 'form' their children in specific ways. Some may deny this, but it is true.

While this is all within an envelope of love and devotion for most parents, there is a very practical component to parenting. Being a good parent requires you to teach your children many things. It begins early with language and practical skills like sitting unaided, crawling and eventually walking.

All seemingly natural processes. But in reality, parents coax and assist as children take risks and take on new challenges. The popular term for this adult support is 'Scaffolding' (a term from Russian pyschologist Lev Vygotsky). In this way, parents and teachers help children to do things with our assistance that they cannot do alone. The picture opposite of my wife helping our daughter to walk aged about 12 months is an example.

However, as children grow physically and intellectually, there comes a point (or more likely many points) where children challenge the 'authority' of parents to 'help'. "No!" Or, "I do it this way Daddy" should be familiar to any parent. Later, the Tween or teenager will simply think they (or their friends) know better.

How parents deal with growing independence is one of the great challenges and skills of parenting. Children fairly quickly learn that parents have expectations and try to place limits on their behaviour. In response, they begin to test the boundaries, to see what they can get away with. Increasingly, as children enter school and spend more time away from parents, they need to make judgements about how they act, what they believe, and how to judge right and wrong - without you being present! This is a hard time for most Christian parents.

How do we deal with this emerging independence? What's more, how does a teacher deal with this within their classes? What beliefs, values, ideas and teachings do we privilege? There are many responses from parents and teachers that range from a 'hands off' response that allows great freedom for children to work things out themselves, to more extreme forms of indoctrination. Christian schools face this dilemma each day. In fact, even non-Christian schools face this dilemma, even though few recognise it.    

Elmer Thiessen in his book 'Teaching for Commitment' has some helpful comments on the difference between open-mindedness and indoctrination, that are helpful for dealing with the tension between freedom and control by parents and teachers. Thiessen argues that to be open to the ideas of others is a good thing, and that in fact, “open-mindedness is closely related to critical thinking.”

In drawing from the work of Socrates’s famous statement that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” Thiessen suggests that “open-mindedness" is helpful and simply means being open to critical reflection concerning our beliefs as parents, teachers and children, and the beliefs of other people.

Thiessen reminds us that simply presenting Christian truth in an authoritative way “will of necessity discourage critical openness.” However, Thiessen suggests that if "critical openness" is promoted in our schools, then claims of indoctrination have no grounds.10 Conversely, if schools fail to allow open discussion of alternative views off the world, we may well be shuffling towards a stance of indoctrination.

One of the great dangers in Christian schools, is the temptation to wage a war against cultural practices that are seen as inconsistent with the faith. Faith though is not simply a set of practices, a specific set of values, or even a tightly defined worldview. Rather, our faith reflects “an integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior.” How the life of the school mirrors this is of critical importance.

Kevin Vanhoozer in 'What is Everyday Theology?,' suggests that “every part of life signifies something about the values and beliefs that shape culture. Therefore, every part of culture communicates something about the meaning of the whole.” As teachers, we need to 'read' culture, because as well as offering explicit messages, culture communicates basic orientations to life.

How the school manages and constructs the life of the school community and its interaction with and relationship to other diverse communities and sub-communities, as well as their culture and practices, is critical to student formation. As I have written elsewhere in 'Portraits of Literacy Across Families, Communities & Schools', “to be a teacher or a pupil in any school demands specific ways of using language, behaving, interacting, and adherence to sets of values, attitudes” and beliefs. Linguist James Gee argued in 'Social Linguistics and Literacies', schools engage in “particular” discourses. This concept of course has resonance with Etienne Wenger’s concept of “communities of practice.” Gee describes discourses as “ways of behaving, interacting, valuing, thinking, believing, speaking, and often reading and writing that are accepted as instantiations of particular roles (or “types” of people) by specific groups or people.”


The original foundational aim of Christian education, was always the quest to introduce children to the Christian faith. But the greatest challenge for Christian schools is how they present the message of Christianity. For the teacher, the even greater challenge is how do they penetrate the numerous communities of practice where the views and prejudices of every teenager grows. I will have more to say about this in my next post.


Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Why Standpoint Matters: Beyond Worldview, Virtues & Values

So why does standpoint matter?

I have already suggested in my definition of pedagogy in earlier posts that one's standpoint matters. My definition of education is as follows:

Education is the whole of life of a community, and the experience of its members learning to live this life, from the standpoint of a specific end goal. 

Some readers will be saying, "At last he's got to worldview". And yes, I have to some extent, but in my book I try to challenge some inherent problems I have when Christians say things like, "Worldview is the key". Or perhaps, "Christian education needs to challenge young people about the values they hold, or display in their lives". Then  again, others might say "I think we need to train our students in basic Christian virtues". Such arguments assume that each in their own way will help us to define an education that is authentic and which we can call 'Christian'.


While I want to affirm that worldview, values and human virtues are important, and related to what we call might Christian education, none of them are in my view the defining keys to authentic Christian education. I argue throughout my book that it is within varied communities of practice that habits, views, priorities and hopes are defined. In short, what our students come to value most is largely defined by their goals, hopes - and as James Smith argues - loves. It is within these broad categories that we will find the foundation of the standpoint from which they sift and sort their lives. It is here that the priorities, views and yes, even values, of their world are shaped.

Craig Dykstra in his book 'Growing in the Life of Faith' helps us here, as he writes:

"Beneath the level of norms, roles, institutional structures, rituals, stories, and symbols lies the level of our fundamental communal intentions toward one another and the world, which govern how we live in our roles and rituals and by means of which we apprehend the mystery of our existence." 

(Dykstra, Growing in the Life of Faith, 1999)

Our children are immersed in a web of relationships and simultaneously are members of varied communities of practice. These include some that exist at school, which might cut across classes, year levels, interest groups, social and friendship groups. As well, they might be face-to-face, or virtual, being sustained by social media and constant virtual communication. Our students move in and out of these groups on almost minute to minute basis. What teachers observe and the way they engage with their students, offers access only to the veritable tip of the iceberg of the communities of practice that our students inhabit.

Against social a complex social existence, the task of the teacher in trying to influence the 'standpoint' from which our students view the world is a very difficult one. 

What I suggest in 'Pedagogy and Education for Life' is that the key in having any impact on our students world is the extent to which we are:
  • aware of the varied communities of practice our students inhabit;
  • able to have an impact on their views of the world through our teaching, curriculum and pedagogy;
  • attentive to the conversations of our classrooms and the cultural practices evident in their words and actions;
  • engaged and in some way, intersecting with their world.
As Bourdieu taught us, within all communities, over time, all members develop specific habits, dispositions, actions, preferences and beliefs. All of these become embodied in the life of a community like a classroom. 

A challenge

If you are a teacher or parent try to estimate how many networks or relationships your children are engaged in each day. Then ask yourself these questions:

1. In how many would I see myself as a member?
2. In ways, and through what avenues, do members reinforce belonging?
3. Are there specific behaviours that members demonstrate?
4. Are you aware of any views of the world that they might value, demonstrate, reinforce?
5. What are the things that sustain group coherence and purpose?

I will return to this topic in a future post.

Next Post: Formation

   




Friday, 2 February 2018

The Power of Story

Above: My father told constant stories about life
As an adult, I can never remember being read to as a child. Books were not a big part of our family life. But as I grew older, and particularly when I trained to become a teacher, I began to appreciate the importance of literature in the lives of the young. Later, as an academic, I began to research story and I became a passionate advocate for children's literature. I would often say in talks about children's literature that I hadn't lived in a home rich in literature. But over time, I began to realize that while books were not read to me as a child, and literature had not been prominent in my early life, that story DID play a large part in my childhood. How could this be so?

First, because my home was filled with music, song and my father's personal anecdotes of life in Scotland. My father's stories often focused on family hardship, and later in Australia, the struggles of an immigrant family and a lifetime of battles as a trade union leader against the power of big business. Both my parents were also musicians and entertainers, and my mother and sister were both gifted singers. Music, in a sense, was another form of storytelling that also filled our home. Second, my grandfather, with whom I spent all my school holidays, loved literature, particularly poetry, and was constantly quoting and reciting it. He would also constantly quote the Bible as part of daily life.

Above: A brother is introducing his sister to the power of story
What I was to realize many years later, was that story had indeed been central to my life. Not from books, but as oral stories in varied forms. Story in all of its forms has the power to challenge, to move us emotionally, and to cause us to reflect on life in all its dimensions. It also has the potential to move us to seek hope as we deal with all of life as we experience life's emotions, including love, hate, fear, confidence, chaos, uncertainty, weakness, strength, success, and failure. Story is an important influence on what we come to love and desire, it follows that it is potentially formative for our attitude toward the ultimate object of love—the God of the universe—who the Bible teaches has made us for a future kingdom and an everlasting hope and glory centred on him.

In my book 'Pedagogy and Education for Life', I devote a chapter to storytelling and in it write:

The significance of story for teaching should be obvious. It operates at multiple levels in the life of the school. At one level, students learn about the world through story. But at a deeper level they begin to imagine their own futures, their deepest desires, and the good life which they seek. As well, story is experienced in many forms: written, spoken, sung, viewed, heard, and experienced. In our world, we can be confronted and moved by books, advertising, movies, and music. This of course occurs in the 'everydayness' of life, whether at school, work, home, or in the world at large.

James K. A. Smith in his book 'Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation', argues that we are embodied creatures who absorb the stories of life, and engage in rituals and cultural practices that shape our desires and our vision of the good life. The stories that are part of our experience shape our vision of the good life, give focus to our desires, and direction to our lives.

But we don't just enjoy and absorb stories, we create them and share them as a central part of life. As Alasdair MacIntyre, suggests in his book 'After Virtue' we are storytelling creatures:

Man [sic] is in his actions and practices, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal.

Humans frequently think in narrative, pass on personal histories, envision the future and speak of the present often through story. But there's more! Our stories have a relationship to the stories of other people, and also the central salvation narrative of the Bible. MacIntyre suggests in 'Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry' that 'The story of oneself is embedded in the history of the world, an overall narrative within which all other narratives find their place'. J.R. Tolkien suggested something similar when he challenged C.S. Lewis to consider the Christian faith.

It has become obvious to me over time, that my personal life story has a relationship to all other stories that I have experienced in life. This too is the experience of our children. Teachers need to understand this, for it has significant consequences for the view of the world they are forming each day, and even more important than this, their view of their potential future. For much of the life of school, teachers have little connection to the stories that are shaping the lives of our young people. One of the great challenges that we face is how to address this disconnection between adults and the private narrative worlds of our students.

Being participants in the storied lives that our children live each day, is a major challenge for parents and teachers. In 'Pedagogy and Education for Life' I argue that we need to strive to help our children connect their lives to the Bible's central narrative. That is:

In the beginning, God created . . . and it was good. But sin entered the world, man rebelled against Him, and so God placed a curse upon his creation that one day would end in judgment. But God always had a plan to respond to such rebellion, a plan of redemption motivated by love, an amazing gift and act of grace: sending his own Son to die, and then three days later to be raised from the dead to defeat sin and death, and one day to return to judge the living and the dead. This is how the Bible outlines God's plan to provide a way for his creation to be restored to a rightful relationship with him.

Stories can 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 draw attention to aspects of the human condition.


To be human is to understand our God-given desire to know our purpose in life and to seek fulfillment in the “hoped for,” the ultimate quest of each life. In life, we are immersed within an intertextual cacophony of stories that shape and influence the things we desire. From these stories, we read various representations of the future, and alternative visions of what Aristotle first called 'human flourishing. (Cairney, In press, 'Pedagogy and Education for Life').

Finally, stories can bring into focus truth, beauty, and goodness, as well as human virtues that reflect the grace and providence of God. Teachers need to constantly ask themselves, how do I share and position classroom life in such a way, that ultimately, the stories that our students hear, share and are influenced by, have a connection to the central narrative of the Gospel of Christ?

NEXT Post - Worldview, Virtues and Values

Friday, 12 January 2018

Imagination, Learning & Life

Teachers often speak of the importance of imagination as the foundation of creative activities, but how often do we consider the vital part it plays in wider learning, life and faith? I want to suggest that imagination is central to life, and is used by God as he draws us to himself. It is within communities of interest and practice, that our view of the world, and our place within these multiple communities, are shaped. James Smith has argued, that as we live with other people, our views, aspirations, goals, hopes and identities are influenced and changed. Our imaginations are implicated in much of the activities of life.[1]

The Apostle Paul understood that because of this, our imaginations need to be ‘captured’. As the early church emerged and people from varied backgrounds came together, they brought varied stories from the past and hopes for their futures. In Ephesians 2 we read how Paul challenged this new community of believers to grasp that they were no longer bound by their past, and hence he gave them a vision for their future. He reminded them that because of Christ we are “… no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s and also members of his household” (Eph 2.19). They were to seek transformed lives within a community where there was no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. Jew and Gentile alike, needed to be able to imagine a new future, a new identity and a new world. 

In his letter to the church in Rome (Romans 6:11-13), Paul also reminded his readers that they could experience a new unity and standing before God, not shaped by their past, but by their hoped for future. This required them to seek and know God and embrace membership of God’s kingdom. This was not simply a cerebral assent of the mind, it involved them reimagining their futures.

Above: The Pantheon in Rome
In their helpful book, Veith and Ristuccia[2] suggest that imagination expressed within community is an important way that God transforms us. As we express, test and consider our imaginings with others, we are transformed and so are they. As our students share their lives, and as they imagine their futures, they are influenced and changed. Our imagined, as well as our reasoned discussions of God and his word, rarely do as well in isolation. Journeys towards faith are generally community projects.[3] God redeems our imaginations as well as our minds and wills. Like us, our students flourish in relationship to other people who they not only know, but who they trust.

The teacher must grapple with the reality that in the mainstream activities of classroom life, there may well be little that binds members together; little shared concern, or even common hopes for the future. If our classroom activities fail to engage the imaginations of our students, they will exercise these in pursuing other activities, goals, hopes and dreams.[4]

Maurice Friedman suggests that “ … the true teacher is not one who pours information into student’s head as through a funnel – the old-fashioned ‘disciplined’ approach – or the one who regards all potentialities as already existing within the student and needing to be pumped up – the newer ‘progressive’ approach. It is the one who fosters genuine mutual contact and mutual trust. “[5]

The key to reducing the generational distance between teacher and child, and to establishing classrooms and schools as communities that are transformative and allow ‘space’ for the ‘imagination’, would seem to be a better means to developing understanding of one another.

How is this discussion of dialogue, and relational communities connected to imagination? Imagination is a foundational part of how such communities are formed. Veith and Ristuccia, in their book 'Imagination Redeemed' suggest that "... human imagination is where a vision for life is set, where mind and heart and will converge." 

Imagination is central to how our student minds are engaged, hopes are formed, aspirations are primed, friendships are conceived and supported. As students engage in the life of the school, and the communities of practice that they inhabit, imagination plays a key role in connecting who they are, who they wish to become, and what is critical to their sense of belonging. The role of the imagination in education, pedagogy and 'life' is a key component within my latest book - 'Pedagogy and Education for Life' - that will be released in March/April by Wipf & Stock

NEXT Post - 'The Power of Story'



[1] James K.A. Smith, ‘Educating the Imagination’. Case Quarterly No. 31, 2012, pp9-14.
[2] Gene E. Veith & Matthew P. Ristuccia, Imagination Redeemed, Crossway: Wheaton Illinois, 2015, 135-136.
[3] Ibid., 136.
[4] Trevor Cairney, Pedagogy and Education for Life, Wipf & Stock: Eugene OR, In Press.
[5] Friedman, ‘Introduction’, in Martin Buber, Between Man and Man, Routledge & Kegan Paul: New York, 1947, xvii-xviii.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Learning Occurs Within Communities NOT Just Classrooms

For decades, we've talked about classroom as communities, but often this has been rather superficial. Many who speak of community are concerned with little more than an understanding that every class is a rich social context where relationships are vital to the life of an exciting classroom environment. But when I speak of learning occurring within communities, I am speaking of rich and varied communities of practice.

In 'Pedagogy and Education for Life' I argue that in the day-to-day life of the classroom and school, children learn more than curriculum content. Indeed, they learn about "... life and faith, beauty, loneliness, rejection, truth, humiliation, love, companionship, hate, sadness and so on".

Good education requires more than just sound curriculum, appropriate teaching methods, and classroom and school discipline. So too, it also requires more than chapel services and a Christian Studies program. At its foundation, a concern for community, requires a pedagogy that is different, and which is informed by our faith.

My belief is that if we focus our energy simply on curriculum as content or even practice, we do little to create a distinctive education leading to student formation. For it is a teacher’s pedagogy, more than their curriculum or methods, that will have an influence on the formation of our students. And these terms are not synonymous.

In 'Pedagogy and Education for Life', I argue that pedagogy is concerned with the way we shape the life of the classroom and school. The life of the classroom is always shaped by the teacher with the participation of all others. Our Pedagogy is central to this, and in a sense cuts across and interacts with the ‘how’ (teaching, including method) and ‘what’ (curriculum) of education. Educational pedagogy is the collective shaping of the habits, beliefs, knowledge, dispositions, actions and words of classroom or school members, that will incline individuals and the institution towards the telos or end purpose and goal of education.

Alasdair McIntyre in his book 'After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory' reminds us that the focus of transformative education, should always reflect our end goals. He stresses that the 'means' of education should follow the 'telos', that is, the 'good' or aimed for goal or purpose of schooling. Indeed, he argues that:

"every activity, every enquiry, every practice aims at some good".

I argue in my book that pedagogy is the embodiment of what we believe good research and our biblical understanding of personhood and God’s ultimate purposes for us in Christ, would suggest we should do. At times the orchestration of classroom and school life will be dominated by curriculum in the form of method, content, assessment and so on. But always, the habits, beliefs, knowledge, dispositions, actions and words of its members will incline them towards the end goal of education that we are seeking. And of course, an authentically Christian education needs to show a central concern for children seeking and being able to imagine, desire and embrace the Kingdom of God.


A school has relationships to multiple communities beyond its boundaries. For just as a class is not completely separate from the school, so too, the school can never be completely separate from the wider community. But I will say more about this in a later post.

Building effective Christian school communities requires an understanding that and school consists of a patchwork of related and overlapping ‘communities’. They are essentially communities of belief and practice. Understanding this is foundational to the creation of authentic Christian education and pedagogy.

Bernard Meland suggests that the ultimate goal of education is not technical information, useful practices, nor specific moral values, but a search for a “higher goodness.” God made us with an inner desire to seek the one who made us.

As Ecclesiastes 3:11 reminds us: "He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end."

How do we create classroom communities of practice where we will witness the awakening of 'eternity' in the students we teach each day at school? This is major purpose of my book.


NEXT Post:  'Imagination and Community Life'

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Is there such a thing as Christian Pedagogy?

In my soon to be released book - 'Pedagogy and Education for Life' (Wipf & Stock) - I explore what a 'Christian' pedagogy might look like. One of my key arguments is that any education claiming to be Christian should be shaped by biblical wisdom and understanding. Christian pedagogy isn't simply a specific methodology, a defined worldview, or unique curriculum content and methods assessed through varied 'Christian' lenses. Instead, I offer a simple definition of what Christian education might be:

Education is the whole of life of a community, and the experience of its members learning to live this life, from the standpoint of a specific end goal.

A central premise of the definition and the book, is that Education is about the “whole of life” of a community, not simply curriculum or method. The students and teachers who are the central participants in any school need to “learn to live this life” together from a particular standpoint. As such, at the very foundation of any Christian pedagogy is not ‘what we should teach?’ or ‘how we should teach it?’, but ‘why we teach?’


The Bible teaches that our lives are to be centered on knowing and honoring God in the here and now, with an eye on the future as we await Christ’s return and the coming of the kingdom of God. Our true and ultimate home is not on Earth. Indeed, we are called to live out our lives as “foreigners” or “aliens and strangers” (1 Pet 1:17b; 2:9–12). We live between two worlds: the current one, and the next to come. This can be a confusing place for children!

If education is the whole of life of a community, and the experience of its members learning to live this life, from the standpoint of a specific end goal, then we have more to consider than curriculum and methods.

 
Avoiding Ends-based Education

One of my common observations of schools (religious and otherwise), is that they offer an education focused on the ends, rather than the means of education. But I argue that ends and means must always be seen in relation to the ultimate problems of life, problems that concern the nature and destiny of humankind. This should lead to a pedagogy that reflects an understanding that God made us in his image as creative, problem-solving beings, to seek him and live in relationship to him and one another. While doing this, God also called us to love, serve, and work with a knowledge of his risen Son in order to bring God glory. Education is a process of cultivation and formation. Put another way, the task of the teacher is the nurturing and transformation of habits of body and mind that enable children to fulfill God’s purposes for their lives centered in Christ.

My book should be out in March or April, but in the meantime, I intend to write a number of posts that will prepare my readers for the arguments that will be outlined in detail in the book.

In future posts I will discuss some of the many topics that I cover. Not all will be as separate posts, but all will be at least introduced:
  • The role of the imagination in education
  • Forming & connecting communities that matter in education 
  • Why the 'whole of life' of any community is what matters
  • Children's worlds: A myriad of competing 'Communities of Practice'
  • Making belief, desires and views of the world are observable and discussible in supportive contexts
  • The place of 'formation' NOT indoctrination: What might it look like?
  • Helping students to engage with their world
  • Helping our students to navigate the world
  • Why does 'standpoint' matter?
  • Understanding why God made us as creative beings
  • The power of story
  • The place of truth and the One who is the author of truth
  • Wholeness, and why it matters
  • A pedagogy that intersects and connects other different worlds
  • Where do values, worldview and virtues fit in?
  • A concern for meaning, understanding, truth & critical thinking
  • Classroom life & the teacher's role within it
  • Storytelling and Life
  • Imagination & Life
  • A framework for Classroom & School Life
 I look forward to engaging with you in future posts.

NEXT Post: 'Learning Occurs Within Communities Not Just Schools'