Distinctively Christian Learning

What might it mean for teaching and learning to be distinctively Christian? Drawing on insights derived from the What If Learning programme, Trevor and Margaret Cooling pose this question, using both discussion of the issues and practical classroom examples to explore some answers.

Professional approaches to pedagogy cannot be neutral – teaching and learning are shaped by the hidden curriculum of the school which in turn is formed by the culture in which its pupils exist. Using the analogy of a dinner party, the authors liken the outward expression of the school ethos to the ambience created for guests, the menu to the curriculum, and the crockery the container in which it is presented. So why then, they ask, do teachers persistently serve the curriculum in saucepans rather than crockery?

The book then argues the case for a distinctively Christian pedagogy, one which pervades every subject in the curriculum and which focuses the learners’ attention on a Christian vision of what it means to be human. It’s about nurturing Christian values in pupils, not just talking about them. It’s about integrating those values so that their practice shapes character as teachers and learners work together in a relational community. When the practice of those values is second nature, they become virtues. This is a pertinent discussion at a time when character education is so high on the DfE agenda.

What If Learning sees the school as a signpost community to a way of being that accords with God’s design for humanity; a signpost to life lived in all its fullness which also allows members of that community to explore their own understanding. There are three steps that support teachers to make the many small changes needed to organise learning to facilitate this.

Seeing Anew is the point at which a teacher re-imagines what he or she is teaching – the example given is seeing language learning as a means of offering hospitality, rather than as a preparation for tourism. Choosing Engagement involves the intentional choice of learning activities which will open the eyes of pupils to this new way of seeing – in the case of language teaching, the use of conversation to build a relationship rather than perform a transaction. Finally Reshaping Practice, where the habits of the classroom are brought into line with the new way of seeing.

Copious examples from a range of teachers are used to explain and amplify the thinking, from both primary and secondary practitioners. Each example is presented as a case study, then analysed in detail so that the reader can see what is going on, what difference is made to learning and what the next steps might be. An explanation of the Christian thinking behind the lesson is also offered.

What If Learning sums up the Christian faith under the headings of faith, hope and love; virtues which are affirmed across all Christian traditions. Each case study relates back to one or more of these three virtues, but the point is well made that contextual factors could equally well influence the focus – it’s suggested that a school influenced by a local gang culture might focus on reinterpreting loyalty and respect from a Christian perspective.

As an introduction to the possibilities of What If Learning this is an essential text for all Christian teachers to read. It’s not just for those teaching in church schools – because of its focus on virtues, it is a way of being that can inform the thinking of any teacher who wants their pupils to experience wholeness as people. It’s about being distinctively Christian, not uniquely Christian. It’s about being a signpost to life in all its fullness just as God intended. And, as the author hopes, it’s also about encountering less saucepans at the dinner party of learning.

Grove Books 978 1 85174 863 1 28pp softback £3.95 Available post free on 01223 464748, sales@grovesbooks.co.uk or by visiting www.grovebooks.co.uk



weighing pigs

If you want to evaluate received wisdom or scrutinise your personal assumptions about our current system of assessment, then Adrian Brown’s book Reassessing the Culture of Assessment: Weighing Pigs Does Not Make Them Heavier is for you. It won’t give you answers. It won’t present a pre-packaged, neatly ordered assessment protocol complete with Christian perspective to slot comfortably into your thinking. What it will do is present a lucid analysis of current practice, encouraging you to question whether such a paradigm is consistent with a Christian worldview and is in the best interests of the unique individuals whom we teach, each one made in the image of God.

The strength of the Grove titles is their limited length; each book totals no more than 10,000 words. As a result, ideas come thick and fast, with arguments posited but not developed. It’s left to the reader to think each idea through for themselves, so in that sense for a very small book it packs a very big punch.

The text is structured in 5 chapters with an additional brief conclusion. After setting out his stall in the Introduction (you may have thought that Torchwood is sci-fi, but think again!) the author takes you through the current culture of measurement which relies solely on standard linear notions of progress by which to define success.

This is followed by an analysis of the blame game which results from such a narrowed view, and the common fallacies on which our current system is built – ATs and ALIS among them. The final chapter, Strengthening the Things That Remain, explores ‘a number of things that might feature in education marked by perennial insights from the Christian worldview’.

This is a balanced book. It deftly avoids the risk of dystopia by encouraging us to find ways to redress the balance through a thoughtful analysis of what we do, and why and how we do it. As a reader you are left with a significant conflict to resolve. An obsession with making judgments of your teaching and your pupils’ learning using a narrowed definition of success has become a cultural imperative. For Christian teachers there is also a moral imperative — to support each student to maximise not just their earning potential but also their potential as a whole, rounded person.

If you wonder how, as a Christian teacher, you can have any impact in a secular context in which you may often feel marginalised, read this book and engage in the debate. We are called to be ‘salt and light’ in our world, (Matthew 5:13—16). Seeing beyond the ‘one-size-fits-all’ paradigm and helping to develop the God-given character of your pupils because God loves them is doing just that.

Grove Books  978-1-85174-790-0  28pp softback  £3.95  Available post free on 01223 464748, sales@grovesbooks.co.uk or by visiting www.grovebooks.co.uk


The TES article ’20 ways teachers know they’re nearly at the end of the summer term’ this week sparked off a series of tweets on the topic. There’s nothing quite like looking forward to some down time in the sun, only to realise as the rain starts to fall on day one that the best of the summer has somehow passed you by.

Exams, controlled assessments, marking and planning are all done for another year. That display that you really meant to do won’t be needed for another few weeks (and anyway, only the hideous colours of backing paper were left by the time you got to the cupboard) so it’s time to stop and recharge your batteries.

Because schools are communities of people, we are constantly working in relationship with each other. Some of those relationships this year will have been positive – some quite the opposite. There’s that wretched person who never puts resources back where they belong, so you have to spend precious time hunting for them in her cupboard. There’s the teacher who waits until everyone’s gone home before harvesting other people’s planning to save having any ideas of their own … the colleague who inflates progress data … the school leader who’s always on the parents’ side leaving you feeling vulnerable and unsupported. It’s all part of working in community.

If we’re willing to learn about ourselves from the frustrations as well as the positives, then we grow as people. Writing to the church in Rome, the apostle Paul reminds us that perseverance develops strength of character, and character produces hope. The ancient prophet Malachi writes about those who honour God as being ‘special treasure’ (Malachi 3:17). The process of shaping us into gemstones is often painful as we try to work in relationship with others in community. It certainly requires perseverance and strength of character.

The other day I read an amazing piece by devotional writer Lyn Gitchel. Reflecting on Isaiah 62:3 ‘You will be a crown of splendour in the Lord’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God’, she wondered why God is holding the crown: after all, crowns are either worn, or locked away in a royal stronghold. This is what she wrote:

‘So precious are we to [God] that He holds the crown in His hand where He can always look upon it and see His masterpiece … so precious has each of us become to Him that He does not set us on His head where He cannot see us, or leave us in His treasury of crown jewels. He takes us in His hand to gaze continually on us with joy and with pride’.

So as you reflect on the year just gone and as you recharge your physical, emotional and spiritual batteries over the next few weeks, remember that you are God’s special treasure. He holds you constantly in His hand because He is proud of the person you are becoming.

I hope you all have a blessed and peaceful summer break. I’ll be back with the next blog on Friday 4 September.