I am a huge fan of the work of Trevor Cooling and others who have devised and put into practice the What If Learning approach. We try and use it in our planning and teaching to help children look at their learning in a more ethical, God-centred way. It has enormous power and the potential to grow thinkers and learners – if teachers take it seriously. However, I am not convinced that we do, and one of the reasons for that is that somehow we have not got past the basic disconnect in our minds between
- a secular National Curriculum that can possibly be taught in a godly/ethical way and
- the possibility that there exists knowledge that we as a church school have as a result of our Christian identity, existing alongside, and of the same status as, that accepted by all to be curricular knowledge that others can have only if they accept the knowledge premises that we have.
In other words, church schools can be party to privileged information by virtue of their identity. I will come back to what this information might be in a minute.
It seems to me presently that schools in England, and this includes church schools, have argued thus:
- The most important thing for children as a result of attending school is to know how to read and write well, and to do maths proficiently and then to acquire the knowledge and skills stated in the rest of the national curriculum as best they can (and for some schools, according to OFSTED’s annual report 2017, this is not being done very well, in pursuit of better RWM scores); all our definition of “goodness” and “being outstanding” currently rests upon this.
- Therefore our ethos, religious or secular, must necessarily be honed to make (1) possible and to enhance the likelihood of successful outcomes in (1).
- This may involve some aspect of what is called character education, which will either by default or design, derive from (2) in order to maximise (1).
- If this does not produce (1), then we are in a pickle and may have to abandon (2) and (3), because of their (widely-held) lesser importance.
This argument places at its core the very knowledge that the government and our enlightenment culture has placed at the heart of learning and education in schools since the end of the 19th century. The outcomes in (1) are certainly desirable and useful, but are they the central – or only – outcome for which schools should exist? Suppose that this was not the right direction of argument, and founded on the wrong assumptions? We could test this by arguing why (1) was so important, and for whose benefit – the child’s, the school’s, the society’s or the nation’s? We could then test it to ask whether this was the fulfilment of all that the child, the school, the society/community or the government actually wanted for its children? Obviously the answer here is no. However geared for the economic purposes of the government schooling is designed to be, it is meant to produce a lot more than just English and Maths, as everyone involved in the enterprise will testify – this is why schools that pursue English and maths as the only subjects of consequence are so wrong to do so. They should recognise that this does not lead to proper human flourishing. If our government and its inspectorate can manage this, then so should they. Schools that pursue those out of fear should not (there is nothing to fear, certainly judging by Amanda Spielman’s report), and those that pursue them to be seen as something great, are just foolish and self serving. As Jesus said: they have had their reward.
All that having been said, it is obvious that the body of knowledge that schools are being asked to teach will lead to far less than a good life. The reason for this is because nobody in our modernist/post-modernist world can really agree on what a good life, a life well-lived (for adults who have been around the block a couple of times), or a life-to-be-lived (for children who have just emerged from the front door of their lives) actually is. They do not have the knowledge or information to do this, and by and large have abandoned the strong moral and spiritual knowledge required to live a truly good life.
Instead, we blithely assume that everyone is good, or worthy already, confusing their infinite worth in God’s eyes (and the raft of equality legislation that derives directly from this spiritual knowledge) with the worthiness of character and deed that actually comes from respected conduct and consistency in doing good for others from a basis of love. This conflation of worth and worthiness ignores a substantial and authoritative body of knowledge that has to do with how we live and how we live well, and in the western world, that comes principally from the Jewish understanding of justice and Jesus Christ’s teachings on love of God, of your neighbour and of your enemy, achieved not simply by “being good” but by engaging with God and through effort acquiring a character worth having. This body of knowledge is powerful, has had enormous impact on social and legislative foundation of most western societies at least up until the middle of last century, and where respected, still has that impact.
This body of knowledge, however, is no longer part of the national curriculum in England, and this goes for most countries in the West. Such knowledge, if regarded as knowledge at all, is relegated to a place beyond the curriculum, into the realm of private opinion or belief. What there is instead, in some jurisdictions (New Zealand comes to mind), is a set of learning and character-related skills that support the educational outcomes planned within the heart of the curriculum. The recent publication by Philip Stabback for UNESCO in devising a new Iraqi curriculum, offers four questions that are not uncommon in most western countries’ curricular planning:
- Which knowledge, skills and values should we include in our curriculum?
- Would the acquisition and development of such knowledge, skills and values, and of the associated capabilities and competencies, enable our young people to lead meaningful and productive lives?
- Is our current paradigm of a set of ‘subjects’ constituting a curriculum adequate?
- How can we make learning relevant and interesting to students?
Both the curriculum and the planning of this seem to me to be wholesome (especially the fascinating 3rd question which we are exploring here), and I have commented here on its value. However, the first of Stabback’s questions is answered in his paper wholly from a secular, Western viewpoint. It does not take into account any of the “knowledge” that already exists in the society about the role of Islam, the reverence for Allah and his law, the wisdom that has been shared through imams and ayatollahs – it separates out that knowledge and assigns it as a lesser importance (not explicitly, but by virtue of excluding it from what is taught in school). Of course, in Islamic societies, madrassas do this work more or less well already. And if we follow Michael Young’s line of thinking in his exposition of knowledge-differentiation, we might imagine that in more coherent societies such as Islamic ones, where a large number of people adhere to a strongly articulated religious worldview, that knowledge is well and truly alive, even if it need not be taught in schools.
And it is worldview that concerns us. The What If Learning initiative posits the contrast between two stone cutters – one of whom says “I’m carving a block of stone” and the other says “I am building a cathedral” – this is a useful metaphor when planning the content of lessons and units of work and the way that they are going to be used. One thing What If Learning has done, beyond dispute, is tackle the issue of worldview, challenging an exclusively secular worldview that sits behind the current National Curriculum, and arguing for repositioning the knowledge content of the curriculum within a Christian and ethical philosophical framework that allows a generous assault on the secular values assumed within the curriculum. This is important work and needs to be extended not just into church schools who can use it in a variety of ways, but into many schools concerned with the unethical drift of a secular curriculum, away from harmony and toward an individualistic mastery-driven curriculum.
But is there actual spiritual knowledge, long abandoned by schools and universities that needs to be taught carefully (and to a degree of “mastery”) by schools (and then colleges and universities) that have a Christian identity? Is there a curricular content that we know as Christians that is denied to those who have not yet chosen to acknowledge, follow and learn from Jesus Christ? I would argue that there is and that we have a duty to find out what it is, to define it in teachable terms, and then to teach it to children and young people for their good and for the good of the society in which they will learn to flourish. This is a lot more than “ethos” and a lot more than fitting our Christian or church school perspective into a curriculum program where the assumptions have been already colonised by enlightenment thinking. It is a worldview based on an understanding that certain things are true and real even though the secular world, which has not encountered them, cannot acknowledge their existence and feels it has to challenge their legitimacy.
Dallas Willard dealt with these questions at length in his book Personal Religion, Public Reality, the last major book he wrote before his death in 2013. I am reading this at the moment for the fourth time. I read it twice shortly after publication in 2010, gave my copy away to a friend in 2012 and then found a remaindered copy on sale at MK Library for 50p just before Christmas. The best 50p I ever spent. Essentially, Willard argues that spiritual reality can be understood as communicable knowledge, not simply grasped “by faith.” In so doing, he avoids all the pitfalls of dogmatism and catechistic repetition that so often passes for “knowledge” in those traditions (and their schools) that are concerned to communicate a dogmatic worldview – people have rightly fled from this kind of sectarian dogma, witness Quebec and Ireland in the last 20 years. But, in arguing that faith, commitment and belief are different from, though related to, spiritual knowledge, he says that for the public redemption of a proper view of what is good and how one becomes good, we need a biblical worldview rooted in knowledge of God, of his kingdom, and of the reality of learning to follow Jesus Christ as his student so that we walk in love.
Willard defines the knowledge of something as the ability to represent it as it really is, on an appropriate basis of thought and experience. Because he was a philosopher by profession (Professor of Philosophy at University of Southern California from 1984 to 2013), he welcomes all arguments to the table and is humbly willing to learn from a variety of insights, and this has meant that some Christians have found plenty of fault with him – his chapter in the book on a proper Christian pluralism is a highly effective answer to this criticism. But this gives the book strength, as he is fully versed in Plato, Aristotle and the ancients as he is in Hume, Locke, Kant and the Enlightenment philosophers.
Willard contends that any worldview gives the answer to four essential questions:
- What is real? How is reality defined? What can you actually depend and rely upon as sure?
- Who is successful? Who “has it made”?
- Who is a truly good person?
- How do you become a truly good person?
Contrasting the answers that have come from modernism (the naturalist narrative) and post-modernism (the nirvana narrative) to that offered by the bible, Willard states Jesus’ answers as the following:
- What is real? How is reality defined? God is real, and so is His kingdom, the range of his effective will.
- Who is successful? Who “has it made”? Anyone who is alive in God’s kingdom, “who is interactively engaged with God and the various dynamic dimensions of His kingdom”
- Who is a truly good person? Anyone who is pervaded with love.
- How do you become a truly good person? You place your confidence in Jesus Christ and decide to become his apprentice or student in kingdom living.
Do these answers, which were the standard answers upon which the large majority of western civilisation was founded, and which in an earlier generation would have been respected and sought after, have a place in a church school? Do they constitute the kind of knowledge that we are allowed to consider and present to children as real and to be relied upon? Certainly they have an authority, that comes from historical and sociological evidence of people, communities, whole societies and even nations attaining a kind justice, peace and order on the basis of them. They certainly can be represented on the basis of thought and experience. Can they be proven, with appropriate cause and effect being identified and evaluated? Yes, they can – the work of the Restorative Foundation, rooted non-explicitly but nonetheless with a high-degree of coherence to the teaching of Jesus Christ, demonstrates this unequivocally in the lives of children, adults and school communities. The impact of servant leadership, rooted in a sacrificial love for adults and children, has this last term had an astonishing impact on some individuals in our school, particularly 3 troubled children and one adult in distressing circumstances.
Defining and then expounding this knowledge basis will not be easy, and it cannot simply rest upon the usual suspects – God loves you, God wants the best for you – that sort of thing. This is knowledge you acquire by thought, by attending to it as you would to mathematics, and by the interpretation of experience. To master it will take time, and some of the models already existing are not always particularly attractive. But if what we really want for children, for our own communities and for our country is a renewed understanding of life under God’s kingdom kindness, then we had better be ready for the search. Asking the right questions – as I believe I have here – will be a start. Enabling those questions, through careful application and teaching, to have the desired impact so that the children we long to see actually emerge to have the right impact on our society, will take longer, and require a teaching program of some strength, through collective worship, RE, What-If Learning approaches across the curriculum and the application of philosophical teaching to the questions of how we live well.