Formative Education

August 28, 2012

The latest issue of Case magazine is out with the theme ‘Formative Education’. I introduce the issue by asking whether we have too small a vision of Christian education. John Hull has suggested that ‘what normally passes for Christian education can be more accurately named Christians educating’. (i) This strikes a chord with me and has been the foundation of a nagging concern I’ve had for many years. For I have observed many godly people building and sustaining schools that are good educational institutions, but which are hard to differentiate from good secular schools. I suggest that authentic Christian education should be different.

I anticipate the obvious response is, "so what should it be like"? and offer a response by making a case for the view that "Education is nothing other than the whole of life of a community, and the experience of its members learning to live this life from a particular standpoint".

This simple definition has two major propositions that I use to frame my essay. First, education is about the ‘whole of life’ of a community, not just the mandated curriculum or that which occurs in planned lessons. Much occurs within the ‘cracks’ or ‘peripheral spaces’ of daily life. Second, participants ‘learn to live this life’ together with others under the influence of a particular standpoint that shapes community life. My argument is that the role of Christian teachers and schools is to nurture, inspire, form and influence for good the children God gives them. Our chief task should be to create contexts for educating children that assist students’ formation as learners, mature humans, communicators, people who work, people who can cope in community as knowers, lovers and desirers of God. As James K.A. Smith argues in the second paper in the issue, Christian education aims to form the loves and desires of students; loves and desires that, in turn, govern and generate action.

Brueghel's famous painting depicts over 200 children engaged in over 80 play activities (Wiki Commons)

I also argue in my article for a greater commitment to pedagogy. This is a pedagogy based on the view that in the day-to-day life of the school community, children learn more than curriculum content. They learn about life and faith, about beauty, loneliness, rejection, truth, humiliation, love, companionship, hate, sadness, and so on. The thing we call ‘education’ is the whole of life of a community not just curriculum, teaching methods, school discipline, or even chapel and Christian Studies. These things—which Christians have often given the greatest attention to—have not necessarily helped to create more authentic Christian classrooms and schools.

By ‘pedagogy’, I mean the way that the life of the classroom is shaped by the teacher with the participation of all others. In a sense, pedagogy is the embodiment of what we believe good research, and our biblical understanding of personhood and God’s ultimate purposes for us in Christ, would suggest we do. 

Sometimes the orchestration of the life of the school community will be dominated by curriculum in the form of method, content, assessment and so on, but always, the habits, beliefs, knowledge, dispositions, actions and words of its members will incline it towards a telos or end purpose and goal of education. An authentically Christian education needs to be evidenced by a desire to see children embrace the Kingdom of God. In the rest of the essay I discuss the way that children learn within communities of practice as they experience the life of the school. I suggest that the task of teachers is to orient themselves and the life of the school 'communities of practice' to the Kingdom of God.

The edition also has four other articles on the theme. James Smith argues, “education is nothing less than a re-narration of our identity in Christ…Christian education is a comprehensive project of rehabituation”. Such habit formation he suggests is ‘at the intersection of stories and bodies’. Education isn’t just about dissemination of information, it is more fundamentally an exercise in formation.

Dr James Pietsch offers an interesting piece in which he uses sociocultural theories, particularly Vygotsky’s, to argue for Christian approaches to classroom practice. He suggests that the Christian teacher needs to see classrooms as ‘relational spaces’, in which we seek to reshape in order to reflect the values of the Kingdom. In this way students' will experience a classroom life in which “…patterns of interaction are distinctively Christian, characterised by humility.”

David Leonard offers a different view of excellence. This is defined not in terms of success, doing one’s best, or even producing excellent work, but rather as a virtue. A virtue he defines as a “habit or disposition which is conducive for enabling one to flourish as a human being”. He considers what such a different definition of excellence might mean for education.

 Finally, Dr Dani Scarratt offers a fascinating insight into the reasons that some Christians choose to send their children to secular rather than Christian schools. She asked a group of such parents to talk about their reasons for making this decision.

If you’d like to become a CASE associate you will receive Case magazine each quarter, gain access to additional resources online and receive discounts on some of our other activities and events.

Related links

Trevor Cairney, Bryan Cowling & Michael Jensen (2011) 'New Perspectives on Anglican Education: Reconsidering Purpose and Plotting a Future Direction', Sydney: AEC (HERE)

2012 New College Lectures presented by James K.A. Smith on 'Imagining the Kingdom' (HERE)

2012 'Education as Formation' Conference (HERE)

(i) John Hull, ‘Aiming for Christian Education, Settling for Christians Educating: The Christian School’s Replication of a Public School Paradigm’. Christian Scholar Review Vol.32 (2), 2003, pp 203-223.

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