The new book by Emeritus Professor Trevor Cairney, Pedagogy and Education for life: A Christian reframing of teaching, learning and formation, is a very important contribution to Christian Education in this country. It is a comprehensive work, which poses the fundamental question of the purpose of education. It is timely to do so in an age when politicians increasingly pursue a utilitarian reductionist agenda that education is about the numbers on national and international tests.
Cairney argues that education is not just cognitive or propositional; students are more than ‘cognitive machines’ (p44). He argues for the importance of the affective domain and, indeed, that how teachers teach, rather than what they teach, is vitally important. In fact, he insists that ‘the education of our students requires the teacher’s orchestration of the life of the classroom in the shaping of student character’ (p77). This is a highly pertinent argument at a time of growing interest in the role of schools in character formation. In short, it poses the question of what it means to be human. Cairney argues that there is such a thing as Christian pedagogy, made explicit in how, rather than just what, teachers teach. The responsibility of the Christian teacher therefore is to ‘orchestrate a lived experience for their students that will present God to them in a biblically consistent manner’ (p57).
Cairney’s argument is based on very wide reading in the areas of theology, anthropology, philosophy and educational theory, and is strengthened by the depth of his research. Indeed, he has spent a lifetime exploring effective pedagogy and particularly how this might make the role of a Christian teacher more efficacious. One of his key propositions is that ‘an authentically Christian education needs to evidence a concern for children eventually being able to imagine, desire and embrace the kingdom of God’ (p19).
Cairney is about education as transformation: ‘as teachers we are doing much more than imparting knowledge at schools; we are also forming young lives as we engage with them in a rich life of apprenticeship, mentoring and discipleship’ (p86). This is education at its best, with high and indeed Christian goals rather than reductionist utilitarian objectives. It is a helpful corrective to the oft-cited Sydney penchant for being entirely cerebral. Indeed, we know that for many young people, faith is ‘caught’ more than taught, and Cairney’s work certainly would support that proposition.
Trevor Cairney’s book is partly a reaction against the primacy in Christian education of world view formation, which he sees as an overbalance towards correct content and away from the pedagogy which may be far more influential than imbuing students with knowledge. Nonetheless, I am keen that in making this corrective, we do not swing the pendulum too far. Christian schools need both content, thought through biblically, as well as modes of instruction which best reflect the kingdom of God. Both is better than either by itself.
Trevor Cairney’s book is happily contextually Australian and adds to the corpus of recent local publications in the field of Christian education. His is a particularly fine book, which deserves and needs to be read, both in Australia and internationally, as it makes a major contribution to excellence in Christian education.
Dr John Collier
Head, St Andrew’s Cathedral School, Sydney
Head, St Andrew’s Cathedral Gawura School, Sydney
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