This article was first published in The Christian Teachers Journal, vol. 21:2, May 2013. It offers an overview of some key themes that informed the design of the resources at www.whatiflearning.com I focus in particular on the idea of Christian practices and what they have to do with teaching.

In what follows I want to make a single, simple point (though I’ll need more than this paragraph to unpack it). Here it is: Christian teachers and Christian schools need to attend carefully to practices and what is Christian about them if they are to make better headway with developing Christian pedagogy, rather than just adding Christian information to the curriculum or talking about Christian beliefs.

Many of the most common approaches to thinking about our role as Christian teachers are valuable but insufficient for renewing our pedagogy. Christian character, for instance, is important for Christian teachers—but character is not yet pedagogy; I can be virtuous and yet teach badly. A Christian worldview is also a fine and necessary thing—but a worldview is not yet pedagogy; I can know the truth and yet teach it ineffectually or coercively. Christian spirituality has clear connections to Christian education—but prayers and chapels are not yet pedagogy; I can pray and cite scripture and then immediately teach oppressively. It does not take anything away from the importance of Christian character, Christian thinking, or Christian praying to note that if what we are about is Christian education, there is something else that needs attention: our pedagogy, how we structure the processes of teaching and learning. And pedagogy is something we practise, with our bodies, together, in space and time. It involves seeing the world in certain ways, but also engaging with one another and harnessing material resources in particular ways. That’s why we need to think about whether there are such things as Christian practices.

Note that I said ‘practices’, plural. I’m not just getting at practice in general here, like the practice we mean when we talk about ‘putting things into practice’ or about ‘theory and practice’. I’m not just concerned with being more practical or with familiar clichés about rubbery things hitting roads. By practices I mean something a little more specific, something with a particular meaning sketched out in a variety of recent work in philosophy, theology, sociology, and education theory.1 That’s why I need a little more than a paragraph. We are not about to embark on the full tour, but it will help to briefly sketch in some basic landmarks before stepping back and seeing how they might help us think about teaching. So what is at stake in talk of ‘practices’?

DEFINING PRACTICES

Some human behaviours are, well, just behaviours. Scratching my nose. Kicking a stone. Stroking the cat. Others become more complex, woven together, and sustained and so rise to the level of practices. Fixed hour prayer. Architecture. Teaching. Various scholars have slightly different definitions, but broadly speaking to count as a practice something has to be:

• sustained over time (not just done once);

• developed and engaged in by a community (not just an individual);

• pursued intentionally in order to achieve some desired good (not just toyed with or fallen into by accident); and

• sustained by a shared narrative that makes sense of it (not just done mindlessly or randomly).

By submitting ourselves to the rhythms of such a practice, we find ourselves being formed at the level of character.

Suppose I want to grow in my faith, and I decide to engage in daily Bible study. Whether I keep it up for months or years matters more than whether I miss one particular day. Even if I read alone, this is a practice that a community has handed to me—I did not invent it, it is clearly recognisable by others as their practice, too, and is engaged in by the community as a whole, even if in different ways and at different times. I’m not reading just so that I can check off days on the calendar—I am seeking to grow. I do not just go through the motions—I remind myself that this is God’s word, I ask God to speak to me; I can tell the story that makes this practice hang together as a meaningful thing to do. Suddenly deciding at half past three on a given Wednesday to read a book on beekeeping is not the same kind of thing, even though it also involves reading. Practices are things we do over time, in community, in pursuit of shared visions of the good.

Schools are made not only of ideas and curriculum plans, but of practices, the ongoing rhythms of what we do together. In the secondary school that I attended, scores for quizzes were regularly read out from the front of the room, with names, in ascending order. I learned that learning was a competition, and that another student’s failure contributed to my success. Another school relies heavily on multiple choice and word-matching tests. Students soon figure out that they do not have to think that much about the material because they will likely only be asked to recall it in order to gain high scores. A third school generally arranges the furniture in straight rows facing the front. Teachers and students come to take it for granted that teaching and learning has to be directed from the front of the classroom. What drives our choices is often less our philosophical reflections, and more the unexamined network of practices in which we are embedded.

PRACTICES AND CHRISTIAN EDUCATION

What does that have to do with Christian education?2 Well, imagine a teacher who becomes exercised about the degree to which her students are caught up in the frantic pace of modern life. It seems they are always rushing from one activity to the next, never taking time to reflect, to rest. They need to take greater heed of the importance of Sabbath to the Christian life, the importance of having a time when we lay down our frenetic efforts to secure our own existence and allow God to be the one holding the world together. (If this question has never arisen in our school, perhaps that too is a symptom of allowing a good and proper focus on beliefs to eclipse needed attention to practices.) What is our teacher to do?

Well, she could plan a series of classroom devotions about Sabbath in scripture, or perhaps (lest it seem like merely a pious add-on) she could develop a whole unit to be taught in class exploring the theology of Sabbath in relation to modern culture. We can picture her choosing biblical texts to display, collecting examples to reinforce her argument, designing handouts that lay out the theological arguments for the role of Sabbath in a Christian view of the world, composing questions for class discussion about how we use our discretionary time. Perhaps we can hear her carefully explaining, then passionately exhorting her students to live more intentionally, more christianly. All of this might be a good thing, a very good thing even. Notice, however, that so far it is all focussed on conveying information and on exhortation.

Perhaps she takes a different approach.3 Instead of preparing talks and handouts, she decides to restructure her course so that it is not feasible for her students to work for her on Sundays. She plans her homework assignments so that they are always due to be handed in on Friday, or electronically by Saturday evening. She makes sure that no new assignment is known to the students before Monday morning. She insists on strict deadlines, with serious penalties for letting the task run past Saturday evening. As the semester progresses, her students discover that for this class at least there is no way to work for class credit on Sundays. Notice that we have shifted the emphasis here from information and exhortation to behaviour. Rather than just telling the students that they should each live more faithfully, the teacher has created a shared learning structure within which there is a built-in bent towards obedience that operates at the level of the whole group. This is a simple, small instance of how one might begin to build shared practices.

Let’s pull it apart a little further, though. As we saw above, practices are not quite the same thing as behaviours. A behaviour might be a mindless one-off incident. A practice is at some level intentional—it involves a shared story, a shared imagination that helps make it a coherent, meaningful practice rather than just a collection of movements that happen to take place one after the other. Our imaginary teacher’s second plan might count as a practice at some level—she has a narrative about Sabbath that makes sense of it, and the learners are being caught up in a communal set of moves that will help shape their sensibilities. But it risks falling short of being fully-flowering shared practice as long as the students are not invited into the narrative. Left at the level of homework instructions, it might end up as little more than behaviour modification, with little investment from the students in the practice of Sabbath-keeping (which is about more than avoiding maths homework).

Suppose, then, that our teacher decides to combine her first and second approaches. She decides to invite the students with all the winsomeness and creativity she can muster into an account of life in which God calls us to Sabbath—AND she implements a homework policy that supports this way of living through shared behaviour patterns by refusing to claim a right to students’ time on a Sunday. She is careful, moreover, not to settle for an inspiring talk in the first week and rely on memory for the rest of the semester. She understands that building a shared imagination in a group is a gradual process of alignment, and so she adopts a strategy of taking frequent opportunities to graciously remind her students that part of the agenda for the semester is to learn to live Sabbath, and that that is why the homework is once again due Saturday. Sometimes on Fridays she mentions big questions about life before God that she plans to spend some time thinking about on Sunday, and suggests that others join her. Sometimes on Mondays she shares something that came from spending time the day before meditating on a text or praying over a situation, and invites students to do the same. Sometimes during the week she draws students’ attention briefly to how the practice of Sabbath might make us view some other aspect of our culture differently. While doing her best to avoid becoming drearily moralistic, and certainly seeking to avoid a tone of ‘I-know-how-to-do-this-and-you-youth-of-today-need-to-shape-up’, she works to weave a consistent story through the semester—and she polices the deadlines to support it. What she is doing now is building shared practice.4 A shared practice is a structure over time that we live in together and narrate to one another until we have become different people from when we started. It creates a space into which we invite God’s work in us.

PRACTICES ACROSS THE CURRICULUM

The Sabbath theme is, of course, just an example. We could explore others across the curriculum. Suppose, for instance, we decide that learning a foreign language in a Christian school should be thought of in terms of loving strangers (Leviticus 19:34-35, Matthew 25:35).5 We could—and should—talk to students about this, but we would also need to look at things like whether most of the utterances practised in class begin with ‘I’, whether the activities have students talking about themselves most of the time, or whether the interactions with others that are practised are mostly to do with buying consumer goods. We might want to consider whether the pictures of foreigners in the textbook are capable of evoking empathic connection, or whether they are mostly cartoons and stock photos. We might want to consider how the balance between learning to say what I want to say and learning to listen to others is playing out. Here again, if we want to move towards a Christian pedagogy then our shared practices are important, not just the words that we layer over the top of them.

STEPS TOWARDS A CHRISTIAN PRACTICE OF TEACHING

Addressing teaching and learning in this way involves at least three basic steps.

First, there is the question of seeing anew—whether it’s Sabbath or loving strangers or seeking justice or celebrating the natural world as belonging to God, there needs to be some reflection on what the basic story is around which we are looking to build shared imagination. How do we want ourselves and our learners to see things differently as a result of our practices together?

Second, there is the question of choosing engagement, choosing to engage together around the core vision and choosing how to engage. This involves not just talking about the beliefs and values that concern us, but figuring out the ways in which we and our students will actually engage with them, and engage with one another around them. Will this involve sitting and listening, talking to one another, engaging with people outside the school, changing habits…how will we live into this learning together?

Third, there is the question of reshaping practice, harnessing all of the practical details of the learning environment in ways that support the vision and engagement that we are trying to choose. Where will we place the chairs, which pictures will we use, which question should we ask first, how will we manage time—patterns of practice are built up out of these small choices.

Building Christian educational practices is unlikely to happen by each of us sitting staring at blank sheets of paper trying to reinvent our courses out of our own individual creativity. Shared practices grow in community. This means that school communities need to find ways of enabling teachers to renew their practice together. There are also resources beyond the individual school. In a recent project a group of Christian educators and curriculum developers built an extensive online resource based on the approach described above. If you visit www.whatiflearning.com you will find not only some more reflections on teaching as a Christian practice, but also more than a hundred examples from across the curriculum and the age range of teachers connecting their Christian faith to classroom practices. These are accompanied by an extensive strategy bank and a collection of training resources, all freely accessible.

My original, simple point was this: Christian teachers and Christian teachers need to attend carefully to practices and what is Christian about them if they are to make better headway with developing Christian pedagogy, rather than just adding Christian information to the curriculum or talking about Christian beliefs. I have tried to unpack some of what that might imply, and to point to some practical resources and ways of making headway. The next steps can only happen in your, and my, school community.

Endnotes

1 For those with an appreciation for the precision of philosophical prose, here’s perhaps the most often cited definition of practices, from Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue:

By a ‘practice’ I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.

Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 187.

2 For a much more detailed version of this argument (in a more academic register), see David I. Smith & James K.A. Smith, Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).

3 I owe this example to my colleague Kurt Schaefer.

4 For a detailed account of this process of building shared imagination and shared practice in a group setting, see Etienne Wenger, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

5 See David I. Smith and Barbara Carvill. The Gift of the Stranger: Faith, Hospitality, and Foreign Language Learning. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.

Leave a Reply