Tuesday 28 August 2012

Formative Education

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.

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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.

Monday 20 August 2012

Anti- Bullying, Communication, Cyberspace and Community

During the recent Olympics I caught a story on Channel 9's A Current Affair of great interest. It brought into mind a few interesting articles from Case # 15 Communication, Cyberspace and Community.

Over the past several months several local papers, digital journals and now ACA have reported on the Wollongong Catholic Education Office’s new Anti-Bullying program – and specifically the fantastic You-Tube video produced by a group of their primary and high school students.

The video speaks for itself, as it very clearly articulates the impact of bullying, and will no doubt provide some great talking points as this multimedia production is used as a teaching tool in many schools. The irony being of course, that the internet, which up until now had been criticized as an tool for student bullying, is now been used a weapon to reduce bullying in schools. The video went viral since its first release in March and has been attracting attention in other countries including England, Switzerland, and the United States. It was certainly heartening to see that this more modern mode of communication being utilised in such a vital project.

Case # 15 Communication, Cyberspace and Community, and in particular Mark  Hadley and David   Horne’s article “The Brave New Online World” is an examination into this vast new mode of communication. They observe
Since the launch of the Internet into the public arena in the nineties and the widespread adoption of mobile technology, our society has undergone a radical change in the way we gather information, learn, communicate and ultimately in the way we relate.
The article goes on to investigate now the internet can be a tool for radical change, instant easy global connection, community, and evangelism. The article, while it does identify some pitfalls of the technology it goes on to conclude

We need to think outside the square, be prepared to try anything, be willing to make mistakes and learn from them, much like the Internet industry itself. It is a Brave New Online World out there but, with God’s help, we can utilise it in our task of disciple-making.
While still in Case # 15,  readers might also read “Truth and the Internet”, just as schools and students (mentioned above) have found the internet as useful teaching and learning tool,  Prof Trevor Cairney in his article discusses how
“the Internet has changed the way most people obtain information and communicate with one another”
The article goes on to investigate the
“many questions about where it might take us. In particular, I have been contemplating how the Internet impacts on the knowledge we gain from it and the way we view the nature of truth”

I very much have enjoyed revisiting some discussion on the usefulness of internet and emerging forms of communication and learning, through my re-reading of Case # 15 Communication, Cyberspace and Community. I have provided some links to the relevant articles and invite Case readers to  check these articles out themselves. Remember Case #31 will be published in the next week or so… it might be time to subscribe to our magazine.

Happy reading!

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Monday 13 August 2012

Girl Guides Drop Queen & God from Pledge

The Australian Girl Guides movement has decided to modernise the pledge that its members give assent to. The changes are interesting. While the media has been quick to discuss the removal of any allegiance to God and Queen, it has overlooked what ultimately replaces the focus of their allegiance, the very foundation of their actions and life. The modern 10-14 year-old Aussie girl will now look largely to herself in order to judge the quality of their life and character.  Yes, they will 'serve their 'community' and 'country' and help others, but the test by which they will measure their life is by being 'true to themselves'. They will also 'develop my beliefs', but note that these don't guide. 

The pledge will no longer have any reference to God or the Queen, but will be a vow to serve country and community. The move follows about 18 months of consultations with thousands of members of the country's largest volunteer girl groups.

The national director of the Guide movement, Belinda Allen commented:

"We are open to girls of all cultures, all belief systems and we feel that to develop my beliefs is much more inclusive of our multicultural Australia".

The old Girl Guide pledge:

I promise that I will do my best.
To do my duty to God.
To serve the Queen and my country.
To help other people and keep the Guide law.

The new Girl Guide pledge:

I promise that I will do my best.
To be true to myself and develop my beliefs.
To serve my community and my country.
To help other people and keep the Guide law.

While in a diverse society like Australia it is understandable that some members (or perhaps more likely their parents) don't want to swear allegiance to God, this in my view is more reflective of a view that faith is seen as peripheral to the life of the individual, community and our country. There is a significant shift here in the commitment being made from the pursuit of virtue and the living of a 'good' life for the benefit of others and ultimately for God and Queen (representing the nation), to something that reflects the individualism of our age.

As MacIntyre reminds us in 'After Virtue', the modern man or woman is '...what I myself choose to be...'. But who we are, and what is for my good, is always to be for the good also of others, and take place in relationship to other inhabitants of varied life roles including daughter, cousin, citizen and servant of God (or some other god). Well, it certainly has been seen this way by diverse nations for over two thousand years. To ask these girls to swear allegiance to community and country while being true to 'self' is symptomatic of this age, where in western nations we see our responsibility as to self alone. In my view this is a sad day for the Guide movement.

Monday 6 August 2012

The Not-So United Nations

A Post by Dr John Quinn

It is impossible to be anything other than appalled by what is going on in Syria at the moment. Each night seems to bring a fresh atrocity as violence grips that most ancient of nations. As we watch the reports and listen to the commentary, it is easy to forget that Syria is something more than a nasty regime: it is nation of people who, like us, want to live their lives in peace without fear. In geopolitical reporting the plight of individuals is easy to lose.

Watching the news here in Australia I feel nothing but desperate sorrow for those who find themselves, by accident of their birthplace, caught up in the bloodshed. Like most people I feel powerless to do anything about the situation, and less than optimistic about the trajectory on which Syria finds itself. It is difficult to envisage anything other than trouble in that country’s near future.

In the face of such trouble and turmoil the world invariably looks to the United Nations.  The United Nations was set up in 1945 (at the end of the Second World War) with an initial membership of 51 nations, and has the aims of

·                     Keeping peace throughout the world;
·                     Developing friendly relations among nations;
·                     Helping nations work together to improve the lives of poor people, conquering hunger, disease and illiteracy, and encouraging respect for each other’s rights and freedoms;
·                     Being a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations to achieve these goals.[i]

Leader of the UN Security force in Syria (Source  telegraph.co.uk)

There can be no questioning that these are noble aims. That said, there has been plenty of ink spilled over whether the UN is effective in achieving its aims. The primary vehicle by which the UN aims to keep the peace of the world is through the Security Council.  The Security Council is made up of 15 member nations, 10 of which rotate and five which are permanent.  The five permanent nations are The United Kingdom, France, the United States, the Russian Federation and China. Importantly, these permanent members have right of veto over any resolution of the Security Council.  In other words, any resolution can be struck down on the say-so of one of these five nations.
I don’t think we pause often enough and reflect on how decidedly strange these arrangements are. The five permanent members have those positions because they held a certain status at a fixed point in history (which, arguably, they still do).  Had the UN been constituted in the 1700s, the permanent members may well have been Great Britain, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands  and Russia.  If it were constituted in the 1930’s, it might have included the Empire of Japan and Nazi Germany.  You might argue that this is a ridiculous assertion, but remember the millions who suffered in Mao’s China and Stalin’s Soviet Union while those nations enjoyed a right of veto on the Security Council.
We seem to have an in-built faith in the power of collective action, and the hope of a resolution from the Security Council seems to provide some sort of salve to our consciences that “at least something is happening”. We hold the Security Council out as the arbiters of justice and the protectors of peace, when in reality they are a (highly) flawed human institution capable of willful inaction in the face of insurmountable evidence. Moreover, the bickering that goes on between the permanent members as they settle old scores ensures that any progress will be slow, if there is progress at all.
UN Security Council
I wonder whether Christians ought to be a little more skeptical about the United Nations.  Some Christians have seen the UN in the beasts of Revelation 13, or in the woman riding the beast of Revelation 18: those are views of the fringe rather than the mainstream of evangelical Christianity.  That said, in Jesus’ own words we will hear of wars and rumours of wars[ii], and nation will rise against nation[iii].   We ought not to be surprised by geopolitical trouble, and even by the unedifying , almost callous, horse-trading that goes on in diplomatic circles while another nation burns.  Rather than relying on the quasi-democratic “goodness” of the UN, we ought to pray for that organization so that, in spite of its flaws, it might work more effectively toward bringing peace and security in troubled parts of the world. In the words of Paul’s first letter to Timothy:
“I urge, then, first of all, that requests prayers intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”
In the case of Syria the UN’s processes, to date, have been found wanting. We ought to pray that, for the sake of the Syrian people, God might shape those processes to bring a lasting peace a security to that country.  At the same time we should remember that God is the true arbiter of justice and bringer of judgment, and that the United Nations is but a human institution, as capable of evil as it is of good.

[ii] Mark 13:7
[iii] Mark 13:8

Dr John Quinn is Dean of Residents at the New College Village

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