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.