January 01, 2017
It has been a year of iconoclastic findings in education. Apparently, there are no benefits to students in single sex schools. Nor is there any evidence for learning styles—most famously, visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning styles. And brain training computer programs? They don’t work either.
How, then, might Christian educators use the findings of educational research which seem to produce ever-changing recommendations about the best pedagogical approaches? For example, evidence exists which shows that an emphasis on phonics over whole-school language approaches can be more beneficial for students with reading difficulties. In fact, one Christian writer, Douglas Wilson, has argued in numerous books that an approach on phonics, an emphasis on reading classical texts, firm discipline and an emphasis on hard work are at the core of a genuinely ‘Christian’ approach to education.
Putting to one side the very real issue of which metrics should be used to determine the success of each of these approaches, there appears to me a real danger of aligning any particular pedagogical approach with ‘Christian’ education. There is a long history of Christians and the church more broadly identifying a particular result from the secular academy and incorporating this into Christian orthodoxy. Ferdinand Baur (1792 – 1860) was a prodigious biblical scholar who wrote over 10 000 pages on theology. The only problem was that he interpreted everything through the lens of Hegel’s theory of epistemology. This led him to the unhelpful conclusion that early Christianity evolved from a conflict between Jewish Petrine and Gentile Pauline teaching. The Roman Curia who condemned Galileo held on tightly to the Aristotelian view of the universe that they had inherited from Thomas Aquinas leading them to reject the heliocentric model of Copernicus. More recently, we see many Christians accepting, without critique it would seem, arguments from a minority of scientists against evolution, thinking that such arguments are more consistent with biblical Christianity.
One would hope that today, across all fields including education, Christians might resist this temptation to identify one view expressed within a secular debate on education, or science, or philosophy as being more Christian than another. This is not to say that Christians should not engage in such debates, or bring their Christian worldview to inform their opinion about different approaches. But we do need to avoid rushing to the conclusion that any particular secular perspective is ‘more Christian’ than any other—including different theories and approaches garnered from the field of education. Let us engage in the debate about which approaches lead to better outcomes (in whichever way we choose to measure this) without identifying any particular approach as being more consistent with a Christian approach to education.
The one caveat I would add to this is that we do need to consider how the purpose of Christian education might lead us to adopt a particular teaching strategy or approach to the curriculum. That is, the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ are shaped by the ‘why’ of Christian education at the fundamental level of purpose. Our purpose as educators is to be a conduit for the work of the Spirit as it connects people to Jesus. We do this through claiming that Jesus is Lord, through sharing with students what it means in our context to be part of the Kingdom of God, as well as pointing to the coming future in which God will make everything new. These are the elements of a Christian education—the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ are only Christian (or not) to the degree that they enable (or obstruct) this tripartite work of the Spirit of God.
 See also T. Cairney, ‘Pedagogy, Formation and the Kingdom of God’. Case magazine #31, 2012, pp3-8; T. Cairney, B. Cowling and M. Jensen New Perspectives on Anglican Education (AEC, 2011).
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