Missional teaching Archives – Christians in Education

feature-672x372-8545314 September 16, 2016 Admin10

This blog was first published in October 2015, but following yet another call, this time from Edward Timpson, for mindfulness training to become compulsory in schools, it seems timely to publish it again.

Improved behaviour? Improved GCSE results? A drop in the re-offending rate of former prisoners? It sounds like a good idea, whatever the strategy is to achieve it. Following a yearlong enquiry into its efficacy, MPs this week were introduced to mindfulness, which, it is claimed, can deliver all of the above – the great panacea for the human condition. A call to roll out mindfulness, or secular meditation, across the public sector is expected to come soon – not to nurture the growth of children and young people, but to raise standards and improve productivity. It’s the same message as the one underpinning character education – fix people, fix the economy.

So what is it? The tradition of mindfulness is rooted in Buddhism and stretches back over 2400 years. It’s about learning to control your breathing, your thoughts and your feelings – a form of cognitive therapy. It’s about directing focused attention to experiences as they happen in order to understand oneself and one’s responses. Some psychologists suggest that it is a technique which should not be consumed blindly or even that it can exacerbate negative feelings, including panic and depression.

The originator of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, makes a big claim about its effectiveness, saying that those using it ‘will be addressing some of the most pressing problems of society at their very root – at the level of the human heart and mind.’ He certainly identifies the crux of the issue – the most pressing problems of society are, indeed, caused by the human heart and mind, but by what the Bible calls sin, and the problem of sin can’t be solved by secular meditation. As the prophet Jeremiah pointed out: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure’ (Jeremiah 17:9 NIV). Only God has the cure, through the forgiveness of our sin.

So if mindfulness is about changing the human heart, can Christians engage in it? No, because we cannot transform our own hearts and minds. Christian meditation is different from all other forms of meditation because it involves focusing our minds outward on God rather than inward on ourselves. There are three components to Christian meditation; it is grounded in the Bible, it responds to the love of God and it leads to worship of God.

The Bible tells us to ‘Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it’ (Joshua 1:8). So rather than focus on personal thoughts, feelings and experiences, we focus on God’s word, allowing God’s love to fill our thoughts as we worship Him.

The key to our behaviour becoming more like Christ’s isn’t to be found in mindfulness. It’s to be found in allowing our minds to be transformed so that we see our behaviour and interpret our experiences not from a personal perspective, but from a God-perspective. We don’t ask how we might speak or act, we ask what God would have us say and how God would have us act. As the apostle Paul wrote: ‘let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect’ (Romans 12:2 NLT).

While there’s no doubt that relaxation and the ability to identify feelings and their impact on our relationships are essential life skills, secular meditation is not the way to develop them. Humanity is not the protagonist in God’s story – God is. That’s why Paul urges us to: ‘Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honourable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise’ (Philippians 4:8).

In contrast, mindfulness is nothing more, and nothing less, than the ultimate selfie of the soul.

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This week has seen vitriolic exchanges almost unique in the life of the British people. As feelings ran high, words like liar, fascist, racist and Nazi were thrown around with uncharacteristic hatred. And now it’s all over, what, I wonder, have our children and young people taken from the angry rhetoric?

The answer may well be fear. Not in the sense of Project Fear – attempts on both sides of the referendum debate to frighten us with statistics that couldn’t be based on anything other than conjecture. But young people live in a fearful world, to which the behaviour of many adults around them has probably contributed in the last couple of weeks. The global reach of terrorism caused devastation in Orlando. Our TV screens carry news of beheadings, war and pictures of countless rivers of people made homeless and stateless by war. A much loved and respected MP was murdered in the heart of her constituency in the middle of the day. Many young people across all faiths are scared to discuss belief through fear of being misunderstood or of becoming the latest target of bullying.

Add to that fear of cyberbullying, fear of exam failure, fear of not getting into the best university or securing that lucrative career, and you have an explosive mix. For some, a fragile, recovering economy holds no promise of sustainable training or employment. And for many more, family breakdown means moving home, losing friends and living with fractured relationships between the people who once committed to love them, and each other, above everything. Is it any wonder that a tsunami of mental and emotional illness is sweeping away the hope of our young people?

Into this seemingly bottomless well of fear, God offers hope. The prophet Jeremiah was given a message for his people at one of the darkest times of their nation’s history. The brightest and best of their people had been rounded up and taken off to live in exile in Babylon. A puppet King had been put in place to rule over them, and before leaving their country, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar had plundered their wealth and ransacked their Temple, symbol of God’s relationship with his people. Things couldn’t really get any worse. But God told Jeremiah to say, ‘For I know the plans I have for you … plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’ (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV).

Through Jeremiah, God offered his people an invitation to worship Him and trust Him as their God. He had plans for them which offered hope not harm, and a future, not fear. And that message is still the same today. Hope is the central message of Christian education and of Christian teachers. Our children and young people don’t need to fear the work of terrorists, or the future state of the economy, or even the outcome of the referendum, because the love of God offers us hope.

Take the words of the Apostle Paul to the Romans into your teaching this week: ‘Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 15:13 NIV). And may that hope, love and peace flow out into your classrooms so that others can see that you live in hope, not fear.

Christian pedagogyFamilyMissional teachingParentingPartnershipRelational working feature-672x372-8545314 February 12, 2016 Admin10

You may have heard the howls of anguish from my study this week. They were provoked by Nick Gibb’s views on the value of pupils reading one ‘great work of the English literary canon’ each week – to instil a love a reading in order to promote social mobility and raise standards.

Have you noticed how much this government promotes ‘instilling’ in order to raise standards? We should instil character, we should instil a love of reading, instil knowledge, etc. etc, as if learning is merely a matter of instilling empty minds  with certain behaviours, some facts and the necessary soft skills to enhance employability. I cannot comprehend how you can juxtapose the words ‘instil’ and ‘love’ in the same phrase.

The dictionary defines ‘instil’ as the gradual but firm establishment of an attitude in a person’s mind, or to put a substance into something. It defines ‘love’ as strong affection or great pleasure. One is about training. The other is about a very personal, emotional response. Education is, as Yeats probably never said, not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.

That isn’t to say that we can’t nurture a love of learning, or reading, or maths, or that we can’t model the way to learn. But to do so, we have to commit to a relationship, both with what we are teaching and with the people to whom we are teaching it. We live in relationship with each other in a common humanity – a fact that John Donne understood when he wrote: ‘No man is an island, Entire of itself’. As he went on to write:

‘Any man’s death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in mankind,

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee’.

That is the essence of our humanness: connected with each other and with the world around us. J. B. Priestley understood it too – read Inspector Goole’s words in his play ‘An Inspector Calls’.

‘One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and a chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives and what we think and say and do. We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.’

If we are Christians, we have another connection: with God, as well as with fellow humans and God’s created environment. So while we may not be teaching about God explicitly, we take God into our classrooms with us. That influences our pedagogy. If influences the ethos of our classrooms and defines our learning communities. It affects every aspect of our relationship not only with our students but also with what we are teaching them. They are made in God’s image (whether or not they know it) and we are teaching them about God’s created world – whether or not they acknowledge God as the author of that knowledge.  We are, as Parker Palmer expresses it, finding ‘the hidden wholeness’ in each student.

They don’t come into our classrooms to have their heads filled with facts. They don’t come into our classrooms to pass tests, although the current culture of measurement might lead them to conclude otherwise. They come into our classrooms to learn and the best learning happens in relationship. Our job, as Christian teachers, is to open windows onto God’s wonderful world for that learning to take place.

The DfE is currently seeking views on the purpose of education. Nick Gibb defines it as ‘the engine of our economy’. I beg to differ. I suggest that a better definition of education is one of connectedness with each other, with our world, and with God. It’s about finding inner wholeness. It’s about drawing out ‘the full human potential of each child of God’ (Rt Revd John Pritchard).

It’s about educating for shalom.

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