There was no aversion to repetition. The notion that only the new and innovative is meaningful had not invaded this transplant of the Dutch Reformed tradition in Bigelow. Through repetition, elements of the liturgy and Scripture sank so deep into one’s soul that nothing thereafter, short of senility, could remove them.

9780802876799This paragraph, from Nicholas Wolterstorff’s beautiful “memoir of his life in learning”, In this World of Wonders, is an echo of similar words by Wendell Berry in his short essay-meditation, Healing:

Works of pride, by self-called creators, with their premium on originality, reduce the Creation to novelty – the faint surprises of minds incapable of wonder.

This perception was what underlay my thinking in the presentation in the last post, and a slow reading of Wolterstorff’s memoir has begun to crystallise it.

The idea that innovation will always trump what went before depends entirely upon the use that was made of what went before. Thinking back to the work of Albert Borgmann, and his concept of focal practices, I imagine that it is often the under-use or poor use of pedagogies, learning technologies or teaching practices that leads to disillusionment and their subsequent abandonment in education. Some innovations endure, by being perceived as an effective replacement for something that went before (some teachers have smartboards in mind when they think this way), whilst others struggle because space (physical, intellectual or timetabled) needs to be made for them. Our introduction of restorative practice at Christ the Sower was an effective change because it found a niche both within PSHE and our behaviour policies, whilst introducing some focal practices, that, through repetition, embedded themselves in the life of (most) classrooms. Innovations that embed good purpose in schooling are generally those that are communal and which can command wide respect as meeting a particular need.

The point I tried to make in my presentation was that all innovations have a target teleology. They work within an expectations framework, and are not neutral. All technological innovations build upon ideas that came before and these in turn have an inbuilt perception of what a child is, what they are for, and what constitutes “goodness” for them. That innate worldview is often unspoken and usually unexamined. We cannot simply assume that it will be good for children or good for the adults who care for the children for us to innovate. More often than not, an innovation requires a debate about its use before we receive it into our teaching world. As Wendell Berry often puts it, to innovate is to be hostage to an imagined future of which we have no knowledge. Innovation in this context is simply experimentation upon children, which in many other contexts would be breaking the law. Michael Fielding puts it this way:

Just as school effectiveness and school improvement articulate the moribund categories of a frightened, unimaginative society, so the aspirant hegemony of the technologies of teaching provide a classroom equivalent which will do more damage more quickly and more widely than its institutional predecessor.

Fielding, M. (2000) J. Educ. Pol. 15 (4), 397-415

Take maths as an example. In maths, the move to “maths mastery” has as one of its precepts a desire to fill in the holes of children’s mathematical knowledge through a particular approach to the subject matter and its application. As an innovation it has had some success because (a) it was what we used to do in the UK before 1980 and therefore we have a folk memory of its applicability and (b) because it seeks to be a whole-school/whole-child solution to the teaching of maths. In other words it was fully used as a concept and looked back to the evidence of what worked in the past. In that it became a focal practice: something that used the innovation fully enough to carry meaning and pleasure in the learning of the subject. This looking back is also important.

Not all technological innovations have been introduced without cost, of course. In fact most have been introduced as dependents upon a fossil fuel economy that is one-sided in its cost analysis: the cost to the future is only now beginning to be considered, and even then, little is being done about it. Technological innovation assuming that a carbon-based economy will support it is not good for humans in the long run. This is again a reason to look to the pre-industrial past, to the natural processes of the earth, to find technologies and “innovations” that may serve our children.

I contend, though, that the focal practices we need to use must be those that direct us towards the communal, the affectionate, the work-celebrating, the ecological, the embodied – the human. We are not human in isolation (we become less human if left alone beyond our will to be alone), and we were made for relationship with other humans and the other creatures of the earth. So our innovations, whether technological, pedagogical or managerial, must fall within the scope of a particular, Christian and biblical understanding of humanity in shalom.  A good question to ask of any innovation is “Does it enable the person to become more – or less – human? More – or less – in community? More – or less – able to care for the earth and the soil?”

Maths mastery may not serve to meet this requirement because it is geared rather to meeting the requirements of an orthodoxy that measures school effectiveness by the averaged achievements of individual children, not by what they have created together. But there are other pedagogies and curricular innovations that will do that, and provided they are deeply embedded and mined for their full worth, they may indeed serve as true innovations.

Back to Wolterstorff. One fascinating comment from his early life in south-western Minnesota concerns the practices of family reading and prayer together before meals. He does not, he reports, recall teaching in church on having a personal prayer life. But prayer together, in family and in church, was where it really happened. Thinking back to Jamie Smith’s comments on “prayers of the people” in his home church, we get a similar picture of a faith lived and acted out together, a family and communal understanding of what it meant to be Christian, human, living under the hand of God. Such an innovation in our churches o schools today would be an assault on the primacy of the individualist philosophy most of us have made our own. But it is the way ahead, surely.

About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher by profession, now working as an educational researcher, in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011. My work looks to make education effective for the whole child and keeps a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, amateur printmaker, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for children. The views on this blog are all my own.

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