Courses that should not exist

The CPD world has gone nuts. Everywhere you turn there are courses for anything that any public body has mentioned is a concern. Nobody knows who validates a lot of them and occasionally you come across one that should have been deleted as a thought before it became a word, and edited as a word before it became a course. Here is one, from the Swan Teaching School Alliance in Towcester. It is called

Your complete guide to preparing years 3 and 4 KS2 SATs – Maths.

You will be guided through this one day course enabling you to develop practical techniques to develop core skills in Preparing Years 3 and 4 for KS2 SATs – Maths

Erm. Y3 and Y4 do not sit SATs, and won’t for nearly 3 years, or nearly 4. And when they do, whatever else is certain, SATs will look different, either because the government has listened to common sense from the profession and their professional associations, or because they haven’t, and then been subject to widespread industrial action, and then have listened. Or, if none of that happens or has an impact, they will look different because this lot cannot leave well alone and will have fiddled with it.

The course, by the way, only costs £150 for a full day, presumably with lunch thrown in, and I expect it will be worthwhile for some who attend, just for the input and reflection that all courses offer. But you can bet that whatever else the course does, it will not prepare Years 3 and 4 for KS2 SATs. What does that is a combination of good provision in teaching, high expectations in learning, and deep understanding of how children learn maths.

If anyone else has course names that should not exist, please tell me!

Hospitality as a life skill

thousands-of-migrants-rescued-in-the-mediterraneanAs an inveterate note taker, I come across quite a lot of material that I have no recollection of ever having written in notebooks I can’t remember buying. And I am appalled at the rate with which I get through the cardboard-and-spiral bound day books in which my school life seems to be housed.

But this week I came across a notebook I remember distinctly buying in a bookshop in the West Edmonton Mall, reputedly North America’s largest shopping mall, in Alberta in 2012. It contained the notes of a sermon I heard at St Aldate’s Church in Oxford at the start of 2014 by Phil Atkinson, which got me thinking. I have been concerned with the issues around hospitality in churches and at school for a long time. We all want to be thought of as hospitable, but somehow we find it harder and harder. We are in the middle of International Langar Week, where Sikhs all around the world give out free food to the poor, the needy and to passers by. Theirs is a culture and faith that revolves deeply around food, and we have much to learn from them. If you are fortunate enough to be Sikh or if you have received free food at their hands, then you will know what a blessing, a breaking down of barriers, a cultural anomaly even, that this is. Enjoy the week and the food.

Before we get to the sermon, I have again been reading one of my favourite political books, Tony Judt‘s Ill Fares the Land, written just before he died in 2010. It is a beautiful piece of writing from a historian who knows 20th century history very well (his Postwar is the widely-accepted best account of European history between 1945 and 2005). Judt points up in it the degree to which we as modern westerners have been seduced by a political philosophy of a minimalist state and free markets as though this was the norm, and he demonstrates elegantly that it is not, and, following its widespread failure as a political and economic model, it need not be again. He argues for a political and economic social democratic consensus that militates against individual greed and corporate gain and for a willingness to allow the state to play the collective part that it must do to maintain a contented citizenry who feel able to contribute to their society, knowing that that difference counts – in his words, of “how to live the confident civic life”. The book is a polemic principally against inequality and a dissection of how that within-state inequality has arisen directly as a consequence of the abandonment of social democracy in all its various forms in favour of the small-state, market-driven model we now think is standard since Milton Friedman and his Chicago group “rediscovered” the work of Friedrich Hayek and others who had lived through the humiliation of Austria between the wars. Where Judt differs from others is where he places the responsibility – directly on us, and particularly the “us” aged below 40 whose desire and conviction that we can live better than we do is a motivating force, possibly containing better hope than those of my generation who have tended to grow up, since Thatcher thinking of human flourishing only in terms of how much stuff we can get.

There is much in Ill Fares the Land that speaks to the current state of English education as well, even if indirectly. That will have to wait for another post. But the social arc of his work is towards the graces we need as a society to live the way we know is better and therefore possible, and that begins in many ways with hospitality to each other.

Back to the sermon. Phil Atkinson begins with (hooray!) an examination of philoxenia, the Greek word that means love of strangers and which is the standard word for hospitality (often translated entertain in the AV) in the New Testament. It is the exact opposite of xenophobia the fear of strangers/foreigners. This is  good place to start for us at the moment, given the debate here about the relatively small numbers of people who are coming to the UK as refugees in need of our hospitality.

The New Testament call to hospitality revolves around the idea that we imitate God’s hospitality. If we are challenged by the breadth of hospitality shown in Middle Eastern cultures, for instance, it is worth pondering the extent to which their kindness is rooted in a very ancient cultural imperative of hospitality shown to the stranger because this is what God was like. The roots of our hospitality are thus related to that which God showed us, whether as ancient Israelites:

To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations—as it is today. Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes.He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. (Deut. 10: 14-19)

or as those in the early Christian community

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household (Ephesians 2: 11-19).

The key NT commands are:

Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:1-2)

Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practise hospitality. (Romans 12:13)

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. (1 Peter 4:8-10)

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in (Matthew 25:35).

In Romans 12, the verb for practise is dioko — this means pursue (or in other contexts, persecute) and Peter uses it in 1 Peter 3:11 when he tells us to pursue peace. It also means follow. This indicates that in the practising of hospitality, there is a way to follow, and that way, of course, is the hospitality that God, in Jesus Christ, showed us.

“making room for the stranger, not reciprocal, expecting nothing in return – this is normative, biblical practice, learned by doing it”

017rublev-troitsaBecause the call to hospitality is shown within the Godhead (see Rublev’s icon of the Trinity – relationship, hospitality, conversation, mutual reverence and love, around a table in an atmosphere of embrace, love and acceptance), and through the Godhead (see the Deuteronomy passage above), it is a fundamental command to God’s people. Be hospitable. We are aliens and strangers to whom God expressed hospitality. We were foreigners to the covenant, and we have been brought near as God made provision for us through Jesus. John Piper has said “everyone who comes to Jesus finds a home in God”.

The “way in” to hospitality is by considering:

  • Godly hospitality is different from English hospitality! it will be more open and selfless.
  • Godly hospitality draws people into a sense of God’s hospitality: how often do we articulate that in our homes and churches as a welcome?
  • What is it that we are inviting people into? What have we already created in our home?
  • Who is it we invite – not those who will invite us back, apparently.
  • Godly hospitality is infectious and transformative, as it is meant to be. It starts in the heart, in the desire to bless, loving those whom we might otherwise fear.
  • Godly hospitality requires time and planning: Eugene Peterson’s comment that “we face an epidemic of inhospitality in our life” (from The Pastor, p.189) means we have to be “intentional and imaginative”
  • Godly hospitality undermines busyness and is a good example of what Albert Borgmann called a focal practice.

I hope I have done Phil Atkinson justice here. It was a great example of how you can challenge, inform and encourage deep learning in a congregation in 35 minutes. I wonder whether he ever evaluated the impact of his words.

In a post on hospitality written when I was in Koln in 2014, I began addressing the implications of hospitality for us as a school, and we have made some progress.  These were the points I made then, and some comments on how we have done to date:

  1. Are relationships between staff to be professional or amateur? Or can they be both? Can we be familial in the way we address and serve each other? Can the equality that this implies be created, and what would be required from those in leadership to do this? We have made some progress here, in the way we allow access into each other’s lives. I think we have made particular progress in the “amateur” field, where people do things for one another because they are in the same family. Not sure if we have extended this to children and families yet, but we are on the way.
  2. What would homeliness – hyggelook like in a school? is it all cushions and candles or are we presenting ourselves differently? Conclusion here is that we present ourselves differently: we are automatically “open” to others, and this is growing.
  3. If work and the love of work are important to us, how do we extend the invitation to others to come join us in this work? Not much progress so far, BUT the way we interview and welcome, and the way we advertise, are beginning to show this.
  4. What barriers exist within us as teachers that need to come down? What challenges are we prepared to countenance? Would we accept the use of our first names by parents and expect to use theirs? By children (as we already use theirs)? Would the world fall down? The world would not fall down, but the culture is deeply ingrained. We use some first names for parents, but many still choose to keep a professional “distance” which I do not find that hospitable, though fully understandable.
  5. How do we speak of work? If our work is valuable to us, do we speak of it as valuable? Or do we get into the “longing for dsc03683the holidays” thing? Is perhaps a monastic model more preferable – where work is honoured, where faith is honoured, and faith underpins work? Amongst those who love what we do and are, this is changing. Holidays are appreciated but the work has rich value in school, and it is a delight to see.
  6. If we are building sanctuary and community, what does this mean for homes near to us that have no children? What does it mean for local businesses? Do we have a responsibility to support them? Big questions this – possibly one for the Christ the Sower Community Friends to think about.
  7. What about us as adults in school – do we invite our own families into school and make them welcome? Should we? Could we? This is changing slowly, with a welcome of partners and children to events, but a more explicit message is required.
  8. What about the environment of our school? If we are making our school more homely, what does this mean for the land we sit on? Should that be more of a garden? This has been a big success. The garden we created and the kitchen we have built have brought food to the top of the agenda. Turning the garden into a place both of beauty and of production (for the kitchen to use) is the next goal.

Teaching and learning – a view from the pew

pastor-clipart-clipart-pastor-on-pulpit-2-hmkr7a-clipartMost schools in the UK over the last 10-15 years have developed a very clear understanding of what constitutes good work in the area of teaching and learning, whether for children or for adult continuing professional development. And most churches have not.

There is still a large amount of dodgy practice around CPD in some schools, which the recent Standards for Teachers Professional Development publication has done its best to identify and eliminate, but I have never come across a serious publication that has alerted me to the best way of engaging adult learning within churches. Most of what I have experienced of church teaching has been “sermonising” or retelling, and little effort has been made to welcome questions and answers, of dialogic interaction within churches or clarity about the learning intent, nor has there been, in any of the 15 or so churches I have attended regularly in three countries, a clear articulation of an adult learning model. That this is a productive area for research  is shown by the work of Jeff Astley at Durham, whose work covers a wide range of what we might term “religious learning” but I am not aware of the impact of this good and sustained theological research into learning in a Christian context in any church I have been part of. I think that the issue of congregational and Christian learning is particularly important, and I incline towards the use of what we have come to understand of teaching and learning effectiveness in my own field (children’s education and staff CPD). I also have come to see that the Bible has a lot to say about this – both discipleship in general, but also about the mechanics of learning.

Part of the trouble in the evangelical churches is a twofold problem – we have seen Christian truth as somehow expound-able but not challenge-able: this has led to a view that what we believe is perhaps more important than what we do. Secondly, we have seen the truths of who God is, why Jesus came, his death and resurrection as both more important than and also disconnected from the gospel and epistolary teachings of Jesus on how to live, how to serve your neighbour, etc. And when we have grasped that there is a “way to live”, we have turned them into hard and fast rules because of the nature of truth being “unchallenge-able”.

This has led to some huge problems in our churches. On the one hand, some people cling to the high importance and “non-challenge-ability” of what is taught about Jesus, his nature, his salvation work, his resurrection etc.; these folk often feel they have nothing to learn from experience, from “the world” or from our culture – they just keep the rules. On the other hand, those who want to engage with their culture are progressively less critical of it and its impact on the discontented way that we live our lives. There are very few church congregations that I have seen or even know of that use the scriptures and their effective, debated exposition to lead to a lived corporate and public life that is sought out and emulated by others, as the first disciples clearly were (Acts 5 talks about this). Perhaps a modern movement like L’Abri or the Sojourners are such, or at least started as such.

Yesterday we were being taught from one of the most important passages on the growth of Christian discipleship and fullness of life, from Colossians 1:9-13:

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience,  and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light (Today’s NIV translation)

This, and similar “prayer passages” in Philippians, Ephesians and 1 Thessalonians, gives the pathway for learning within the Christian community. In fact, if you took this prayer, the explanation of where the power for this prayer’s fulfilment comes from in Colossians 1:15 and chapter 2, and then the application of this prayer that follows in Colossians 3:1-17, you would find a serious learning model for the whole Christian community. It would lead to richer relationships (here expounded and fully graced with the importance they should have in all churches), a deeper understanding of the teachings of Jesus Christ in the enrichment of those relationships and in the impact on our own spiritual growth and peace, a fuller understanding of the power of Jesus Christ by the Spirit to effect the transformation we want to see in our lives,  and a commitment to prayer for each other to ask God for grace to help the changes to take long term effect. The teaching program is geared around answering this prayer, in order to “fill (us) with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding” and the purpose of the learning is that we “live a life worthy of the Lord” by (to refer elsewhere) “making every effort” to “add to faith, knowledge, etc” (2 Peter 1) or “to maintain the unity of the body through the bond of peace” (Rom 4:1-2). This is measurable progress in disciples’ changed lives and attitudes that teachers should be able to take satisfaction in.

So the question we should be asking is:

How does the teaching in my church supply the learning that disciples need to grow closer to the likeness of Jesus and to be the kind of people He is calling them to become?

Places to start might be:

  • Establish in clarity what you intend to achieve. Be explicit about the process and the outcome. Make learning visible.
  • Establish the authority basis you intend to use – your view of the Bible – so people know why you are taking the perspective you are, and what weight to attribute to it.
  • Establish the body of common knowledge: what is it that your congregation have been taught before and can be expected to understand already? Take people’s prior learning seriously.
  • Establish the learning purpose from your teaching: what is it you expect the congregation to know, or do, or understand by the end of the teaching session?
  • How will you know  (what are the signs) that the learning has been learned? What would you expect to change? Are there criteria against which this can be evaluated?
  • Establish the lines of accountability, on the lines of Galatians 6:6 (Everyone who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor). Could you use a co-coaching model at the end of teaching, drawing people towards commitment to discipleship?
  • Don’t dumb down content, because you get the progress you expect. Set high expectations, but allow for plenty of failure and grace. The content is rich and needs to be explored in depth if we are to build up the body of Christ. As Michael Green said once – sermonettes make Christianettes. To hear people apologise for “boring you with Greek” is awful, sorry. The Bible was written in the language so expect people to at least get to grips with some significant vocabulary.
  • Teaching is training: it aims for growth in discipleship, to enable Christians to become disciples of Christ, students and apprentices in His kingdom.

I think there is much here to reflect on. Yes, it sets high standards, but we should expect much from our teachers – they handle carefully the word of truth.

Finally, there is a problem in our churches also in that once we were willing to listen attentively to a sermon that lasted 45 minutes. Sitting under the great evangelical preacher Graham Ingram in Cape Town in the 1980s, was rarely an experience that lasted much less than an hour. Ditto Michael Green, David Prior and David McInnes in St Aldates of the 1980s and 1990s. Ditto, actually, Paula Gooder expounding Ephesians 3 in detail at last year’s Spring Harvest. Christians want to learn, and will go to some lengths to do so. To fob them off with a content-poor homily of 20 minutes verges on the criminal. It is no wonder that we are so ineffectual if we are not urged and taught to pay attention to our own growth in Christlikeness through the teaching of the church. Have we taught people to take notes? Have we taught them how to listen for the main points? Do we enable this teaching to be filtered through the experiences of our lives through house groups? All of this is important for us if we are to grow. There is a whole world of adult learning to be explored, refined and, above all, articulated clearly to our congregations. When will we start this great work?

Local is best (2)

Following the first blog in this series last month, I was delighted last week to see some research published at the IoE by Kathryn Riley on the subject of place, belonging and schools as home-places. It comes with this video called The Art of Possibilities. It (the blog, not the video so much) is an important contribution to the national-local debate which pits most of the DfE on one side and schools thinking mostly on the other.

Much of the work we did in 2012-2014 on themes like Moving Stories and Grandparents Week had this idea in mind – that who we are and the place we live matters and impacts our education, but I am keen to find out more.

The idea of place as a centre for belonging has a particular resonance in a city like Milton Keynes where churches, schools and local communities (for the most part, and excluding well-established parts of Bletchley, Newport Pagnell and Wolverton) are struggling to find a sense of belonging. There is another post coming up shortly on the issue of hospitality and its impact on belonging, but in the meantime, Matt Abbott’s poem “This place is ours,” currently featuring in a Nationwide Building Society Ad is a welcome and beautiful restating of what it means to belong to a group of people in a place.

Time for thanksgiving

It has been a wonderful week where I have felt like giving thanks at every opportunity, even though the stresses have been quite high and we have been tired. It has been busy, to be sure, but there are glimpses of light everywhere and the sense of how good and full life is – the life of grace, if you will – has been a constant feature of the term.

So, first of all, I reckon, I have been deeply grateful for my leaders and teachers, who support and encourage me all the time, who bring challenge and wisdom and keep me grounded and careful when I would go off in flights of fancy. This gratitude for my leadership team is a gratitude I carry with me perpetually, which keeps us thoughtful and safe (an excellent and rich discussion at our SLT meeting on Monday, a very helpful visit on Tuesday from my LA improvement partner, Peter, a thorough discussion of our budget by Governors on Wednesday evening, and a challenging teaching staff meeting led by Dan Marshall on raising maths standards on Thursday, are among this leadership support) and broadens the context for learning as well as creating the capacity all the time to move the school to places we want it to go. The budget meeting was interesting simply because we share as leaders a conviction that we are spending the right amount of money on exactly the right things, and yet the pressure on the budget has never been greater. Governors were full of praise for Christine, my SBM, and the work that she does to balance and interpret and strengthen our financial position. It was an evening of forensic detail that resulted in the judgment that we have a good, investment-led budget that blesses children.

dsc03691Secondly, I have been grateful for parents and their generosity, children and their singing and reading, God and his eternal goodness, as shown in our celebration of Harvest Festival this morning. We couldn’t be totally positive, not whilst the Syrian government is pouring barrel bombs and incendiary devices on its own citizens in its largest city, but thanksgiving persists even through a meditation of the conflicts that destroy what God has called good. God’s promise in the picture above, from 2 Corinthians, to increase our store of goodness became a blessing that we said to each other at the very end of the service.

dsc03705Thirdly, I was grateful yesterday morning, following an extraordinary and wonderful livestream event with Katie Thistleton and Nadiya Hussain in our school hall for Children’s Authors Live, for all of our children at school. It was part of the promotion of Nadiya’s new book Nadiya’s Bake me a Story. Not only were the two stars of the event absorbing, interesting and inspiring for children, but the children themselves drew so many comments for their conduct, politeness and well-orderedness, particularly from the presenters, camera crews and sound people. It was one of those moments when all the work we have put in about values becoming virtues actually pays off, and I was really proud of all we had done corporately so that the children made such a rich impression.

This only scratches the surface, really, and points to some of the things that have happened that generate joy and thankfulness, enabling us to live in a growing awareness of God’s grace. I want to come in the opposite spirit to those who are simply looking forward to the next pay cheque or holiday, and say that we are engaged deeply in good work, which a good God honours and helps flourish so our store of goodness might increase.

Affordable and unaffordable in Bristol

I spent last weekend with my sister and cousins in Bristol, where they all live or have property, mainly to visit the laughingly ill-titled Affordable Art Fair. OK, some of it was affordable, but not much, and not by the standards of somebody who loves art and would spend money on it if only there was something that bore study and reappraisal and didn’t cost over a month’s salary. Compared with Sotheby’s, this stuff was of course cheap as you like.

dsc03572The setting was wonderful, in Brunel’s Old Station outside Temple Meads. The art was, as they say, varied, and more than I expected of it was unconvincing, so that when I saw things that stood out to me, such as the detailed paintings of Charlie O’Sullivan, the landscapes of Relton Marine or the fantastic lacquer work of Duong Sen from Vietnam (particularly his wonderful Mandolin), I started to take notice. I know that art that you put in a fair with this sort of title is mainly going to adorn the recently painted walls of the middle classes, but I was surprised by how little of it spoke at a more complex level. There was hardly any portraiture – when it was present, it was often good – and there was an enormous amount that was simply decorative, and little that challenged either the viewer or the establishment. Maybe I should not have been surprised, but I came away feeling that I had seen little that had touched me, challenged me, or told me anything of social realities, or faith, or inspiration, or a call to life – and I would say that good art has this function as well. There was nothing overtly (or covertly) political. There was also very little photography, which surprised me as well. I found more life and emotion, actually, in 2 mosaics that I encountered walking between the city centre and St Georges. One was a community mosaic on a bridge, and the other a community mosaic under a bridge. The latter was so overpainted by graffiti (not great graffiti either) that it was a struggle to find bits to photograph that weren’t affected. The former was bold, colourful and a delight to encounter, inspiring because it was attainable and communal, and gave new life to a unpreposessing bridge in Barton Hill. The picture of the two middle aged people stuck under a railway bridge on a mosaic half overpainted with graffiti was one of the most evocative pieces of art I have seen for ages. See what you think.



The Bauhaus Manifesto and the start of the school year

bauhaus_program37 of us at Christ the Sower have spent a day together enjoying the chance to be together, to relax and learn together and once again to receive the challenge of craftsmanship (that word again) into our lives and our practice.

I have little fear that we will not take this seriously – I am blessed to be surrounded by teachers who are committed to learning and changing, for whom a day spent flat-lining in terms of their own progress, and not reflected on, is pretty much a day wasted. Today I have been very proud of them, watching a co-coaching session where they outlined how they would commit themselves this coming year to the vision for learning we live by.

The metaphor this morning has been the Bauhaus manifesto, written by Walter Gropius in 1919. Its approach to schooling is quite inspirational, and relevant for the modern educational world, combining as it does the longing for high artistic creativity and elegance of expression along with the willingness to master a “trade” that can and must be reproducible and “marketable” to a world that is there to be influenced. We used two quotes:

The manner of teaching arises from the nature of the workshop: organic form developed from mechanical knowledge; elimination of all rigidity; emphasis on creativity; freedom of individuality, but strict scholarship.

There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman. The artist is an exalted craftsman. In rare moments of inspiration, moments beyond the control of his will, the grace of heaven may cause his work to blossom into art. But proficiency in his craft is essential to every artist. Therein lies the prime source of creative imagination.

Proficiency in his craft is essential to every artist… This is the nub of it: seeing teaching and artistry as crafts helps us with all manner of otherwise conflicting issues: creativity versus standards, for one; spontaneity versus discipline for another. You apply yourself to the craft of a subject and this in turn enables you to be as creative (and effective) as you want to be.

We have been studying therefore the impact of last year’s teacher development, and its growing impact on children. With the publication of the excellent Teacher Development Professional Standards (July 2016), we have been able to compare the work we did with the standards, and as a result, are encouraged by the direction we have started to travel. This is not the place to be too explicit about what we have discovered, but the implications for continuing work are clear:

Persisting with a deepening understanding, training in and application of our Theory of Learning in staff meetings and INSET together.

Changing the conversation in teacher development to a much more impact-focused approach to what we do:

  • This is what I heard/read/observed in pupil outcomes/learning/attitudes in my class
  • This is what I decided to do about it
  • This is how I changed my practice as a teacher as a result
  • This is what changed for children and here’s the evidence to demonstrate it

In other words, the driver for all professional learning is change to provision or outcomes for children in line with our vision for learning.

In the co-coaching we addressed four questions, to stimulate our thinking, express any concerns we had about the year to come, and become a little more accountable to one another as collaborators in this great work:

  1. What do you see right now as the main challenge(s) you face in Teaching and Learning this year?
  2. What are your initial responses to the challenges you’ve identified?
  3. What opportunities do you see to enhance your work towards our vision for learning, and what is the likely impact on your children this year?
  4. What support will you need either to enhance your teaching and learning or to meet the challenges you have identified?

It is a good start, getting our minds into a focused and necessary place, with the children as learners at the centre, and ourselves as learners right alongside them.

Have a good term.

Church of England Vision for Education (2): Wisdom and Hope

I mentioned in the previous post that in each of the four basic elements of the vision for education that the CofE published last month (wisdom, hope, community and dignity), there were areas that extended the way we have thought about the impact of the Kingdom of God and biblical teaching on the purpose and pedagogy involved in educating children and young people.

What got my attention on my first reading of the vision was this statement, appended as a footnote to p.14 of the document:

A major concern should be for the literacy required for reading well. The wisdom literature is just one of many examples of texts that cry out to be read and reread carefully, thoughtfully, in conversation with others (fellow learners, teachers, and previous generations of readers), open to being delighted, enlightened, moved, challenged and shaped by their message. An immense amount of what is most valuable in our own and other cultures is passed on in texts that require that sort of reading and conversation if they are to be adequately appreciated. Yet many are not inspired and taught how to do this. Other forms of reading – for pleasure, information, knowledge, know-how, assessment, and so on – are valuable, but reading for depth of meaning and wisdom is also something well worth learning. Learning this at school can give a habit (or at least an idea that this is possible and worth eventually developing) whose value increases over the years. We will seek to encourage schools to be places where such wisdom-seeking reading can happen.

I have never heard church leaders talk about this. In fact, the last time I read a book that encouraged me as a Christian in the art of reading was a chapter in Richard Foster’s excellent Celebration of Discipline, where he taught that you read every book three times (once to find out what it said; once to find out what the author meant; and once to respond personally to what the author meant). I think that this little footnote could be one of the most transformative parts of the whole document. Elsewhere in the “wisdom” section of Chapter 6, it says:

Jesus Christ was himself a reader and interpreter of his Jewish scriptures and was steeped in their wisdom, as well as in their traditions of law and ethics, prophecy, and worship. Early in his public ministry he gathered disciples (literally ‘learners’), and during his ministry a great deal of his time was spent in teaching and conversation as he formed a community of learners. His own vivid, imaginative, challenging teaching has been among the most influential in human history…(he) also breathed his Spirit into his followers so that they could be led further into the truth (John 16:13) and carry on doing as he did (John 20:21-22), initiating communities of teaching and learning that are now present in every country.

So the emphasis on reading was the first bit of “wisdom” teaching that I found fresh and new, but there are others that challenge and present things in a new way that the church has not really said to schools before:

  • Can we find a wise way of living with disagreement, that lead to negotiation and mutual understanding?
  • Can we see education as having a “horizon that looks to him, seeking truth and wisdom in all reality”?
  • The wisdom-teaching of the natural world must be recognised and appreciated: “the pedagogical potential of study in and of the natural world should not be squeezed out through timetabling pressures. In an age of multiple ecological challenges and increasing disconnection between many people and first hand experiences of nature, it is more important than ever”
  • How do we combine continuity and innovation wisely? Do we have the courage to reject innovations that we judge unwise?
  • Do we have the wisdom to challenge pre-existing cognitive structures and concepts, even in our own faith and that of others? In a world where 80% of people identify with a religious tradition, “but where religious faith is often neatly packaged, unquestioning, unimaginative and even dangerous, it is vital to have examples of wise faith” (p.12-13)
  • Do we think of the need for communication and collaboration as leading to a deeper wisdom in our thinking, especially in church schools who engage with the other branches of Christianity, other faiths and insights from those with no faith?

The big surprise in the section on “hope” is the emphasis placed on Collective Worship. What was more surprising was that there was not a very clearly-made connection between the two. It almost felt that they needed to put it somewhere, but then left it slightly unexplained why Collective Worship contributes to hope. However, it does (Tom Wright’s book Finding God in the Psalms, which I am reading as a devotional aid at the moment, really explores this well), and this paragraph is interesting in that context:

Jesus and the love he embodies are at the heart of our faith, offering hope that wrongdoing and sin, suffering, evil and death are not the last word about reality. The drama of his life, teaching, death and resurrection, set within the larger story of God’s involvement with the whole of creation and history, is fundamental not only to affirming the goodness of life but also to facing and finding ways through whatever goes wrong with ourselves and our communities. He inspires both a realism about how flawed and fallible we are and a confidence in transformation for the better. Even while involved in much difficulty, disappointment, failure, suffering and even tragedy, our trust and hope in Jesus inspires perseverance, patience, gratitude, openness to surprises, and celebration. (p.15)

Telling the whole biblical narrative, and appropriating that narrative through such summaries as the psalms, or Stephen’s speech in Acts, can show that our hope lies in the character and prior acts of God as well as in his promises, which we can trust because of the proven narrative. Collective worship, through its description of the church year, the retelling of the expectations of God’s goodness, and the different “colour” that those expectations have, when compared with what hope or wisdom looks like in the world is described in this paragraph from p.16:

The Church of England is (along with many others) a liturgical tradition, and encountering its worship is essential to understanding it and the God in whom we believe. The seasons of the church year rehearse the drama of Jesus Christ in the context of the larger biblical narrative, and they offer a means through which that narrative can be grasped and inhabited. Collective worship in schools, including prayer, reading and reflecting on the Bible, liturgy, sacrament and experience of the musical and other imaginative riches of Christianity, provide a vital opportunity for this.… there is a strong educational case for experience of worship being part of school life, since its omission lessens the possibility of understanding traditions to which worship is essential…we should host discussion, share good practice, and sponsor research in this area so that worship in schools promotes theological and religious literacy and liberates participants to an imagining of a different order of justice, mercy and hope.

Finally, the closing statement in the section reminds us that hope is an active and prophetic virtue, that remains truthful but clear and encouraging toward a deeper and more fully human future:

Hope in God’s future can often stimulate prophetic responses, both critical and constructive, to the present situation. The combining of hope with particular aspirations for our society, for each school, and for each pupil is crucial to the continuing health of society and its educational ecology (p.16).

I shall leave it there, and comment on the other two areas in the next post.

Church of England Vision for Education (1)

In July, the Church of England Education Office published their Vision for Education, subtitled Deeply Christian, Serving the Common Good. I read it during the journey to Italy for a short break, and on return have had some further thoughts about it. My copy is heavily scribbled on and annotated.

CofEVfEIt is, overall, an excellent document. It places itself firmly in the historic development of church thinking on education, then makes the very best of the theological framework that Tom Wright and others have been trying to articulate clearly over the last 20 years, so that the lordship of Jesus Christ is effectively established over the whole area of education, of learning, and in particular that bit of it that the CofE has direct or shared responsibility for.

The document takes a robust approach to many areas, and articulates its vision in terms of four values or areas of exploration – wisdom, hope, community and dignity. In each area it upholds the obvious areas of Christian educational commitment, but in each, to my mind, it marks a fresh departure in the church’s thinking – departures that will inform and inspire church school leaders such as myself. There is hardly anything in it with which I disagree, though I have often thought that the church is not bold enough in the way it approaches education, and my reservations about that remain after reading this document. In particular – and we shall come onto this again – the words invitation/invitational and disciple/discipleship do not make an appearance and I think there could be bolder implications of the gospel made through this vision. The authors say that they will make shorter versions for different audiences (including head teachers!), but at 21 pages of double spaced type, this is hardly necessary (there is an index, executive summary and a conclusion as well, so 17 pages really). In fact, a more weighty volume, digging deeper, or a bibliography of the theological and educational material, might serve just as well. We are in education – that makes us intellectuals of a sort, surely.

If you are a church leader, a school governor of any stripe in a church school, a teacher or chaplain or leader in a church school, you should read this. It is being published alongside the launch in May this year of the Understanding Christianity website and training course for teachers, which aims to root the teaching of Christianity in RE in a much more theologically coherent framework. And a good thing too, as the teaching of our faith is in general poor, and (like the teaching of some other faiths in schools) does not relate the theology of belief to the practice of faith particularly well.

It has also coincided with the articulated desire of the CofE to found/sponsor more free schools, and this bit has found its way into the national press, to the predictable alarm of some. I don’t like free schools, and don’t want them, but when you see some of the crazies trying to run them at the moment, then the CofE is definitely a preferred provider, with a long and honourable tradition (mostly) of school management.

What is particularly good in this document is that it takes no prisoners with regard to the kind of world we are in. It is as far from being apologetic (except in the theological sense of that word) as it is possible to be. It is confident; there is no retreat into a shell, but a clear articulation of the desire of God to bless all people. The theological framework is clear at all times and there is a particular desire that children and young people should “encounter Jesus” whilst they attend a Church of England school or any other school where Christian Anglicans (and presumably others) have an opportunity to teach and lead young people.

Being readied for publication after the March white paper but before the backtracking on some elements of that white paper by the previous Secretary of State, it unfortunately promotes “educational excellence everywhere” (p.3) for “everyone” (the bit that Nicky Morgan did not say!). The vision’s “deeply Christian” foundation will be seen “in teaching and learning both in RE and across the curriculum”, in “authentically Christian worship and ethos” in church schools, and “expressed and promoted as one of human flourishing” in schools not rooted in the Christian “ethos”. It looks to John 10:10 (“Life in all its fullness”) as the driver of the vision, and aims to embrace the “spiritual, physical, intellectual, emotional, moral and social development” of children and young people. The four basic elements (wisdom, hope, community and dignity) are expounded for the “common good of the whole human community and its environment”. It is meant to be “hospitable to diversity, respects freedom of religion and belief, and encourages others to contribute from the depths of their own traditions and understandings”.

The fuller vision relates to the Anglican communion’s “5 marks of mission” which are:

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  2. To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
  3. To respond to human need by loving service
  4. To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth

The argument as to why this is needed is summarized thus: God is concerned with everything he has made, and particularly to the wisdom, truth and knowledge which should mark the raising of the young and which shape their futures and their families and communities. As a result, every person is somehow related to Jesus Christ, and his word therefore can be applied to all. This includes education, one of society’s greatest contributions to the common good.

Following Tom Wright, John Lennox, Trevor Cooling and others, the document insists that there is no neutrality in education –

every school has a particular ethos, with commitments, beliefs and value-laden practices – and, amidst the variety of approaches, we are confident that our vision of education for ‘fullness of life’ is one that fully deserves its place in twenty-first century Britain. It is a special strength that it achieves educational excellence in a broad framework within which pupils and teachers can pursue the big questions of meaning such as ‘Who am I?’, ‘Why am I here?’, ‘What do I desire?’ and ‘How then shall I live?’ (p.5)
and that the approach it takes is timely, given both the educational changes and diversity of our country at the moment. “We see the present time as a time of opportunity that is unlikely to recur in our lifetimes. There are unprecedented opportunities to renew, improve and interrelate existing schools and to found new ones” (p.6).
At the risk of being brought up before the Commissioners on a copyright infringement, I am going here to reproduce the whole of chapter 5 of the vision, so that the basic content can be seen. You can find this on pages 9-10 of the vision document):
There are four basic elements that run through the whole approach. Together they form an ‘ecology’ of the fullness of life, each in interplay with all the others.
Educating for Wisdom, Knowledge and Skills
Good schools foster confidence, delight and discipline in seeking wisdom, knowledge, truth, understanding, know-how, and the skills needed to shape life well. They nurture academic habits and skills, emotional intelligence and creativity across the whole range of school subjects, including areas such as music, drama and the arts, information and other technologies, sustainable development, sport, and what one needs to understand and practise in order to be a good person, citizen, parent, employee, team or group member, or leader.
Educating for Hope and Aspiration
In the drama of ongoing life, how we learn to approach the future is crucial. Good schools open up horizons of hope and aspiration, and guide pupils into ways of fulfilling them. They also cope wisely with things and people going wrong. Bad experiences and behaviour, wrongdoing and evil need not have the last word. There are resources for healing, repair and renewal; repentance, forgiveness, truth and reconciliation are possible; and meaning, trust, generosity, compassion and hope are more fundamental than meaninglessness, suspicion, selfishness, hardheartedness and despair.
Educating for Community and Living Well Together
We are only persons with each other: our humanity is ‘co-humanity’, inextricably involved with others, utterly relational, both in our humanity and our shared life on a finite planet. If those others are of ultimate worth then we are each called to responsibility towards them and to contribute responsibly to our communities. The good life is ‘with and for others in just institutions’ (Paul Ricoeur). So education needs to have a core focus on relationships and commitments, participation in communities and institutions, and the qualities of character that enable people to flourish together.
Educating for Dignity and Respect
Human dignity, the ultimate worth of each person, is central to good education. The basic principle of respect for the value of each person involves continual discernment, deliberation and action, and schools are one of the main places where this happens, and where the understanding and practices it requires are learned. This includes vigilant safeguarding. It is especially important that the equal worth of those with and without special educational needs and disabilities is recognized in practice. For the first time in history, there is now something approaching global agreement on the worth of each person through the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and its successor declarations, covenants and conventions, including that in 2006 on the rights of persons with disabilities. How that is worked out in each nation and each school is a massive task that calls on the inspiration and resources offered by each tradition of faith and belief.
Given those basics focusing on the pursuit of wisdom, knowledge and skills, on trust and hope in the good as more fundamental than the bad, on the centrality of relationships and community, and on the dignity of each person, there is endless scope for deeper thinking and further applications, improvisations and creativity. This is what we mean by life in all its fullness.
My niggle with this vision is minor, but will be familiar to those with whom I have debated this in schools and churches. Is it possible for us to see the Great Commission to “disciple the nations” in a way that actually allows us to talk about and enact a form of discipleship in our schools? If we take Dallas Willard’s basic point in The Divine Conspiracy that “we have all learned to live from somebody else; we are all disciples of one sort or another,” then surely we can talk about the life we seek to lead as one of discipleship. If our basic direction of travel in God’s kingdom is to become more fully human, image-bearers of the great God, as Tom Wright argues in Virtue Reborn, then in schools as in all of life we move towards the completeness or perfection of the telos that Jesus intends. Our self-discipline and pursuit of the virtues of faith, love and hope are expressed theologically in terms of discipleship, of apprenticeship or of studentship under Jesus Christ. Can we not use these words in church schools to express what our “moral arc” is curving towards? I think the document should be bolder on this point.
Secondly, I would like to see a greater emphasis on invitational approaches. The document acknowledges that there is an attractiveness to others because of “the quality of its outcomes for children and young people” (p.5), but this is a wonderful opportunity to explain what it is we believe and to invite (not insist, ask or tell) all those in the school community to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34). I think that the work of Tom Wilson on hospitality in church schools can be taken to an invitational level, especially with those from other faiths, those recently arrived in the country and in fact anyone for whom going the extra mile provides a reason to talk about the Christian identity and virtues at work in a school.
In particular, this includes the issue of prayer. Offering prayer for people, invitationally, is a wonderful mark of mission, inclusive, welcoming and peace-making. The vision does not mention prayer much, and it should have done.
I will return to this, but that is it for now.


Garden ecology (4)

DSC03119It has been a week or so since I have last blogged, and whilst away in Italy I have had at last the time to think and read and reflect about a whole range of things. Italy is a good place to get thinking in perspective, partly because what they value as a culture is very different from what we value, or at least, they place higher value on some things than we do – children in public life, for one; their articulated cultural and artistic history for another (they know what makes them Italian far more than we can say what makes us British). A year ago I was travelling in the same area, and reading Andy Crouch’s excellent Culture Makers, a book that I return to from time to time. This year in Italy I read (and was completely absorbed by) Benjamin Markovitz’s You Don’t Have to Live Like This, a novel published last year about the “takeover” or colonisation by some wealthy Yale graduates and their mates of some of the abandoned lots in the urban sprawl of Detroit. It was quite an experience to read – the level of detail is compelling, and the discussion of racism helpful, but disturbing were the levels of disconnect experienced by the characters and lack of admirable values within the book. There were few people in the book I could identify with, yet I have long identified with the desire that many have of renewing urban spaces more effectively and being part of city transformation (Andy Crouch’s book, interestingly, also addresses the issue of city renewal through the cultures we create as Christians). Having completed the Markovitz novel, I then re-read Tom Wright’s Virtue Reborn, one of the most important books for Christians today and vital in my school leadership where we are trying to move from seeing Christian “values” as important (but not necessarily transformative) to a place where we are willing to allow the virtues we practice to transform us. I am still reading and annotating it, but already I have been grateful for the larger picture of Christian and biblical life it paints, as well as informing a distinctly Christian pedagogy that we could put to good use.

Finally, whilst on the plane out, I read through, and annotated thoroughly, the Church of England’s July 2016 vision for church school education, Subtitled Deeply Christian, Serving the Common Good. I want to summarise it and my response in another blog in the next couple of days, but it made a useful transition to re-reading Tom Wright’s book.

DSC03456We arrived on Garda, then, a town we know fairly well, on a rainy evening that turned into a proper thunderstorm. Our hotel balcony provided a wonderful place to watch lightning in the mountains whilst feeling dry. Opposite us was the block of flats illustrated here, mostly inhabited by elderly couples, but attached to it was the most fantastic communal garden plot. About 50m long by 10m wide, and bordered by a stone wall and a small river, it contained the most fantastic variety of fruit and vegetables and every morning and evening we would see men, mostly, leaving the flat and collecting produce in big baskets. The fruit trees included figs, peaches, plums and apples, whilst the vegetables included varieties of squash, including cucumbers, melons, zucchini and a pumpkin; aubergines, beans (a particularly long variety), rows and rows of tomatoes, large and small, and a host of other things under cover that we couldn’t see. There were some spectacular multi-headed sunflowers and some palms and herbs as well. When it rained on the first evening, I was glad for the refreshment, but happier for this lovely garden that over the week taught me all sorts of things. The garden was not the tidiest, just one of the most productive I have seen, and so the drawing below leaves quite a lot of the messier detail out! The garden seemed to “specialise” in runaway zucchinis. They were making a break for freedom over a garage shed (pictured here) over the wall into the hotel grounds, out the other side into the river (three of them, obviously a zucchini gang, were trying this), as well as others who had not made it out of the garden yet, but given another couple of thunderstorms and a week of sunshine would be with their mates. DSC03460Something in me rejoiced when I had seen it – partly the willingness of everything to grow (Tom Wright’s comments on how creation praises God were instructive at this point), as well as in thinking in the communal planning and care that this garden had received. I found the appropriate diversity wonderful as well – tons of tomatoes, because that is what Italian cuisine demands, but just the one peach tree, like a little luxury. It is a fantastic garden, at Via C. Preite 13 in Garda (should you visit!) and seeing the residents using it so productively and with affection, whilst also thinking about the conversations they must have had between them in planning the layout and keeping it growing in the summer heat, was an inspiration.DSC03106