This website aims to help teachers see what it might mean in practice for education to point in a Christian direction. The “What if Learning” approach uses three brief phrases or steps (seeing anew, choosing engagement, and reshaping practice) as a broad framework. They do not cover everything that needs to be said about faith or about teaching; rather; rather, they are offered as aids to focusing on some key points of contact between Christianity and the way we teach. They also serve to identify some common threads in the many examples described on other pages. They are meant to underline that our concern is with how teaching and learning happen, not just with what content gets taught and when certain Christian words and ideas feature in the curriculum.
A student complained to the teacher at the start of a required foreign language course that he wished he did not have to take the course. He did not think he was very good at languages and couldn’t see much use for them in relation to his future career plans. He thought it was unfair that he was being made to spend so much time on something that would not benefit him. Over the school year the teacher encouraged his students to think about language learning in a new way: it could be a way of loving our neighbor by showing interest and speaking to them in their own language rather than expecting others to do all the work. Before Christmas the same student shared with the teacher that his attitude to his learning had changed, and he now thought language learning should be required for everyone.
As this true story vividly illustrates, teaching and learning are not only about the content to be taught and efficiency of the teacher’s methods. What teachers and learners imagine is going on plays an important role. Teachers come to see children, schools, and the subject matter they teach in particular ways, and these affect how they teach. Are children empty buckets to be filled with information? Is learning seen mainly as a prelude to the world of work? How would mathematics learning, for example, be changed if we actively considered how math skills are used to serve others?
Students also come to see their learning and the world around them in particular ways, ways influenced by their teachers. For instance, is language learning mainly about getting ahead in the world, making more money, or submitting to exam requirements? Or could it be a way of relating better to people from other cultures? How do students come to imagine their own growth and place in the world in our classrooms? Do we take responsibility for guiding the ways in which they come to imagine the significance of the things they are learning about?
A first need, then, is to begin to think about how a Christian focus on faith, hope, and love might help us to see anew—to see students, subject matter, and what goes on in classrooms in fresh ways and help learners to do the same.
An elementary class was about to hear a Bible story, and their teacher wanted to find ways of helping them listen more actively and ask good questions, rather than just passively listening to what the teacher told them or perhaps resting too easily on what they remembered from having heard the story before. The teacher decided to tell the story without mentioning the characters’ names, instead describing them as “the man who prayed,” and so on. Small figures with blank faces also were used during the telling of the story, which happened while the class was seated in a circle on the carpet. Then the students reenacted the story, using the figures, and were asked to think about what each one might be thinking or feeling. Finally, the students read the story from a children’s Bible.
This example points to the need to match the way we envisage a lesson with engagement. This teacher thought carefully not only about what content should be taught but also about the different ways in which students could be guided to engage with it, leading to different ways of experiencing the material and different kinds of learning. Suppose a teacher had talked a great deal to students about the importance of faith, hope, and love but then allowed no time for them to talk about their own beliefs, or never asked them to address questions of faith in their own work. The talk of faith, hope, and love probably would begin to ring hollow pretty quickly—or, perhaps worse still, students might adopt the talk without learning to connect it with their day-to-day choices. Vision and engagement would drift apart.
Engagement is about how we take part in learning. There are many possible ways of engaging: listening quietly, vigorous discussion, answering questions, writing essays or poems, responding through pictures or music, taking part in role play or dance/drama, doing independent research, collaborating with others, helping fellow learners, praying for one another, looking for life applications, and so on. For any given lesson, we have to choose the ways of engaging that best fit our learning goals and support the new way of seeing we are inviting students to share. This means paying attention to whether the ways in which we enable learners to participate in class, as well as our own participation, are genuinely conducive to spiritual and moral growth. The central issue is not the ideas and information to be learned but how each person in the class is to relate to them and to one another.
A science teacher taught a lesson on labeling plants. He wanted to communicate that a plant was much more than the sum of its parts. He wanted his class to have a fuller experience of flowers and not reduce plants to a list of botanical terms, missing the wonder. The teacher chose a standard labeling exercise but had fresh flowers on the desks, and at the end of the session he showed a few images: a remembrance poppy, a wreath, and a Valentine’s Day carnation. All have leaves, stems, and the like, but they are far more than that. He also displayed a diagram of a plant beside a Georgia O’Keefe painting of a flower.
This third example points to the next step. We allow ourselves to see anew and think about ways in which Christian ways of seeing the world can inform how we teach. As a result, we consider the kinds of interactions and engagement with people and the world that we want to encourage by our teaching. At some point we have to decide how we translate our change in vision into concrete classroom practices. We will begin to establish fresh patterns of practice—concrete ways of using classroom resources, space, words, pictures, and so on. It is in these patterns that a great deal of implicit learning takes place. Practice includes the kinds of questions we ask and when we ask them, the kinds of activities and tests we design, the ways we organize groups, the stories we tell, the layout of the room, the images we display—all of these (and more) say a lot about what really matters in our classroom. If we say that faith, hope, and love are essential but our testing only asks for lists of information rather than responses that are concerned with meaning and significance, or if our gestures do not communicate respect, then tensions will remain between the Christian way of seeing that we are doing and the concrete patterns of practice that shape our classrooms. To take seriously the task of framing education in Christian terms implies seeking patterns of practice that are rooted in core Christian values and encouraging forms of engagement that reinforce them. (Does this make Christian teaching practices different from all others? Explore further here.)