If I was to accept the materialist worldview—that nothing exists beyond matter and what we perceive around us is the result of blind chance—I would find myself as an educator faced with a disturbing possibility. That is, that despite my best efforts as a teacher, some students will learn well in my class, while others will not. Like everything else in the universe (if I was to accept the materialist perspective in toto), what students bring to the classroom is a matter of chance: neurochemistry, family background, genes, the culture within which students find themselves and so on. As a teacher, I find myself hoping that this is not true. And yet, it is a scenario that teachers accept implicitly when we talk about students ‘not achieving their potential’. We have already identified in our minds what their potential is and have no qualms about identifying ‘bright’ students, even if we acknowledge that describing others as not bright is socially unacceptable. But to give a student such a positive or negative epithet regarding their capacity is not only to acknowledge that some come to our class with gifts and abilities that other students lack, but also suggests that what happens in the classroom is not going to change this fundamental reality. In fact, our efforts to educate our students may serve merely to highlight the uneven distribution of pre-existing advantage.
This way of thinking is at the ‘chance’ end of the spectrum of ways to account for educational success. Everything comes down to dumb luck—our potential is determined by factors outside our control or our students’ control before they even walk into the classroom.
An alternative narrative is one based on ‘choice’—the notion that success comes down to decisions students make about how they will engage with their studies which will impact their progress and the development of their minds.
Of course, the reality is somewhere in between, yet the stories that we often tell as educators embrace the ‘chance’ narrative. What we do as teachers does not seem to change the achievement of students in our class, suggesting that there are underlying causal factors we have no control over. You see this particularly in mathematics: whatever the topic, we expect that it will be the same students who achieve good results on the next test and the same students who do not. Unfortunately, these beliefs are communicated—directly and indirectly—to students, leading them to question whether they have any agency that might impact their educational outcomes.
I have seen this countless times in the classroom, and, if I was drawing my opinions purely from experience, I would conclude that there are more reasons to adopt the ‘chance’ narrative than the ‘choice’ narrative. However, I want to challenge this belief, putting aside my everyday experience so that I might develop a perspective that reflects a different worldview to that of materialism; a worldview in which the material interacts with the immaterial[i] in such a way that the universe remains open to change that comes about through the agency and choices of human beings. I want to adopt the second narrative, maintaining that it is possible for students to make positive choices that redefine their potential. If what we communicate to our students is the belief that their choices can make a difference, they may get the message that they can take steps to move from being a student who is struggling with the content to one who is able to master the content and, consequently, receive commensurate results in the future.
There are different educational approaches associated with each of these narratives. Put simply, if you adopt the ‘chance’ narrative, your teaching approach is unlikely to make much of a difference to the expected result. You go about your task, presenting the content and testing students on their level of understanding, knowing that some will have understood it while others will not. You will tend to explain the performance of students in your class as the result of what students bring to the classroom rather than considering how different pedagogies can make a difference.
But what if we adopt a ‘choice’ narrative? How might this reshape our pedagogy? How, for example, might we intentionally leverage student choice such that it has a direct impact on the learning outcomes of students? Students could be encouraged, for example, to select the level of difficulty of questions that they are going to attempt in some circumstances and observe how their individual choices impact their learning. Students might be encouraged to ask more questions, to choose learning partners they see as people who could assist them in the classrooms. They could choose how much practice they are going to do each night. Rather than set a fixed amount for students to attempt, we might ask students to set their own home learning tasks. Teachers might also provide additional, optional tutorials for students. In each of these different ways, the key message to students is that your choices make a difference to your learning outcomes.
Is it naïve to believe that students’ choices can make a difference? Teachers committed to materialism are likely to think so. If everything is predetermined, so too is educational success, and attempts to subvert fate are doomed. But some teachers—including Christian teachers—are committed to an understanding of reality that acknowledges more than mere matter. This perspective affirms the reality of personal agency and sees human agency as essential for learning. The human mind, within the Christian worldview, is not merely a biological artefact. It is immaterial, yet capable of transforming the material world around it.[ii] As people with minds, we are free to act, free to choose and, through the choices we make, capable of transcending our circumstances. And in doing so, we learn and grow, developing the capacities God has given us.
Dr James Pietsch is Principal of Inaburra School, and a regular 'Work & Education' columnist with Case Quarterly. His doctoral research focused on sociocultural theories of mathematics education.
[i] Christopher Watkin in Biblical Critical Theory (Zondervan Academic, 2022) refers to a similar approach, which he calls either ‘enchanted materiality’ or ‘embodied spirituality’ (p70).
[ii] David Bentley Hart makes such an argument in The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness and Bliss (Yale University Press, 2014): ‘there will always remain that essential part of the conscious self that seems simply to stand apart from the spectacle of material causality … That there is a deep and integral connection between the brain and mind no one doubts; but, again, since the brain can be investigated only mechanically while consciousness admits of no mechanical description, the nature of that connection is impossible to conceive, let alone identify’(pp158-159).
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