Theology and education represent very different fields of discourse—one focused on questions of ultimate meaning, the other seeking to inform the everyday practice of teaching. But now and again, there are moments of commonality when some of the theological answers to life’s deepest questions intersect with perspectives drawn from educational research.
One such point of commonality provides the potential for the development of a richer understanding of educating for human flourishing. In 1987, Yrjö Engeström presented a model of school-going activity in which there exists a fundamental tension between achieving grades and developing understanding.[i] According to this model, when schools become focused on results, they become theoretically analogous with factories, focused on the production of a certain outcome. In contrast, when schools are focused on developing understanding and preparing students for participation in other cultural activities, they become places of ‘expansive learning’ which grow and evolve to transform the participants themselves, ready to engage in new forms of cultural activity.
Lucas, Claxton and Spencer adopt Engeström’s notion of expansive learning to define expansive approaches to education as those which adopt goals beyond conventional achievement (grades), identifying dispositions and habits of mind that prepare students for participation in cultural practices beyond the school gate.[ii] In his book Building Learning Power, Claxton argues that students need to strengthen a whole raft of dispositions or ‘learning muscles’. Schools are encouraged to give each of these dispositions ‘the work-outs they need in order to develop’ (p14).[iii]
A similar metaphor is adopted by Tom Wright in his book Virtue Reborn to describe how it is possible to develop Christ-like character through establishing habits of practice.[iv] He argues that character development does not come through obeying rules, nor does it come about by following one’s own conscience. Instead, it comes about by choosing to act in certain ways over and over again, creating habits of practice which become character-forming. The strengths (or virtues) of character identified in the New Testament, such as humility, compassion and kindness, are developed through ‘putting on’ these virtues (Col 3:12 – 14). C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity makes this same point—‘very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already’.[v] The ethical teaching of the New Testament could be summarised as ‘be the person you are becoming’.
Lev Vygotsky’s famous theory of the zone of proximal development (foundational to Engeström’s theory) is sometimes summarised as ‘what you can do with assistance today, you can do on your own tomorrow’. Here, as in Engeström’s model of expansive learning, is the idea that educational practice provides students with opportunities to be the people they are becoming. While Engeström and Vygotsky understand ‘becoming’ in terms of preparing for cultural practices, Jesus and the writers of the New Testament understand ‘becoming’ in terms of participation in the kingdom of God, fully realised at the end of the age. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches his disciples to ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect’ (Matt 5:48)—not a standard which Jesus demands of his disciples, but a calling to simply be who they are becoming.
Education, by this account, is less about acquiring knowledge and more about being the person one is becoming. It is about character, learning how to learn, developing ways of thinking and habits of mind, rather than remembering knowledge for an exam. Whether we are teachers in a high school, a Sunday School, or a theological college, the challenge is to consider how educational practice shapes the learning character of students, preparing them for participation in cultural practices as servants of the kingdom and heaven on earth into eternity.
[i] Y. Engeström, Learning by expanding: An activity-theoretical approach to developmental research (Orienta-Konsultit, 1987).
[ii] B. Lucas, G. Claxton, & E. Spencer, E. (2013). Expansive education: Teaching learners for the real world (ACER Press, 2013).
[iii] G. Claxton, Building Learning Power: Helping young people become better learners (TLO, 2002).
[iv] N. T. Wright, Virtue Reborn (SPCK, 2010).
[v] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Collins, 2012).
Comments will be approved before showing up.