Bible-shaped Teaching, by Dr John Shortt, is essentially a book about stories and metaphors. Using stories from his own life, the author invites readers to consider the profound question of how the Bible shapes our lives and work as teachers. The Bible is God’s Big Story, the metanarrative of our Christian belief, and it’s a story that we each interpret through the filters of cultural viewpoint and personal experience.
Rather than using traditional metaphors to describe the Bible (as lamp, satnav, map, rule book, foundation or spectacles through which to view the world), John suggests that we could see the Bible as an ecosystem within which we live, move and have our being. The beauty of this metaphor rests in its allowing for the different environments by which we are each shaped to remain inter-related within the bigger narrative.
The education provision of every society is fashioned by a metanarrative. In the case of contemporary Britain, that dominant narrative is consumerism; the metaphor of the assembly line process communicates the underlying purpose. Each of our students has a personal story which overlaps with ours, but while the education system is connecting them to a secular, consumerist metanarrative, ours is connecting us to God’s story. We therefore use very different (Biblical) metaphors to show how we think of ourselves – we talk about being shepherds or gardeners.
But is it enough just to see ourselves in this way? Or should the Bible take us further, into the very content of what we teach? The author suggests that being nice is not enough because our Christian virtues should impact on what we teach, not just on how we behave. We shouldn’t just study the Bible for ourselves; we should locate our teaching firmly within the bigger picture of God’s story (a Christian worldview), opening windows for our students onto God’s world and our connection with it. It’s not just about showing love and humility in the way we act; it’s also about how we work through the Biblical principles of justice, fairness, hospitality and humility in our subject content.
To assist with the thinking on this, one chapter is devoted to considering Biblical teaching models, not just of Christ as a model storyteller, but also of Christ the Torah Teacher (providing rooted identity), Christ the Prophet Teacher (shaking up thinking by questioning and challenging) and Christ the Wisdom Teacher (how to live in the world and with one another).
For me, the greatest strength of this book, pervaded by graciousness and humility, is its subtext. The author doesn’t just write about hospitality – he practices it in the way he invites the reader to join him on his journey. He doesn’t just write about Biblical models – he demonstrates Torah teaching by rooting his book in his Christian identity. He exemplifies Prophet teaching by questioning and challenging, and the book is imbued with the Wisdom teaching of how to live in the world and how to respect the stories’ of others whilst showing how our stories connect with God’s Big Story revealed in the Bible.
In one of several endorsements, Professor Trevor Cooling writes that Bible-shaped Teaching ‘offers a deeply Christian, deeply spiritual and deeply personal reflection’. It is an inspirational book for anyone who wants to be faithful not just to their vocation as a teacher but also to their vocation as a Christian.
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, [email protected] or by visiting www.grovebooks.co.uk