About teaching and learning…

Posted by on Dec 4, 2015 in Blog | 2 comments

Perhaps you wonder why you are reading this post. ‘I’m not a teacher,’ you say, ‘so teaching and learning really doesn’t have anything to do with me.’ But most of us are teachers of one form or another. We might be raising our children – then, regardless of if we want to be or not, we definitely are teachers. Or we might be responsible for supervising someone in the workplace. Or perhaps we lead a home group, or… you get the point. Teaching does not only take place in those formal settings called a school or college. I’ll say it again. Most of us are teachers of one form or another. 

If you accept that thinking (and I don’t see why you wouldn’t), it is worth thinking about the philosophy or approach that undergirds the teaching you are actually doing – albeit consciously or through modelling. Well, that’s what I’ve been thinking about over the last few days.

I’ve been at a conference exploring teaching and learning. One of the tasks we were set was to develop a personal teaching philosophy statement that outlines what we believe about teaching and learning.

First thing that struck me was that although I have now been involved in theological education for over 30 years (scary thought), I haven’t yet developed one. Is it because I thought the ideas I was trying to convey were so important that they needed no further backing – that it would simply be enough to articulate them? Possibly – but probably not.

Like so many teachers I have got stuck into what I think I should teach and only reflected fleetingly on how I teach it, why I teach it, to whom I teach it, what people actually learn from it, why some people benefit from it and others don’t, why it is occasionally transformative, and at other times seems merely to add to the already overfilled basket of information available to those in the class.

Set the task of writing out my philosophy, I asked myself, ‘so what is it about teaching that excites me?’

I think education is about opening windows on the world. It is about creating new world’s of possibility. It provides the opportunity to move beyond the safety and narrowness of the local setting and to plunge into conversation with people through the centuries and from different cultures, as we engage with their thoughts and insights.

I find that liberating. While I have truly loved each place I have lived, another part of me has always been aware of other worlds out there.

I remember with gratitude how my high school teachers opened up new horizons to me… it was through exposing me to the writings of DH Lawrence and George Elliot and Charles Dickens, through urging me to join the school debating team where I discovered that every view has a counter view, or the physics class where I enjoyed proving by experimentation – or even maths, where steely logic would always win the day. Each spoke to me about a world that was bigger, and in my own teaching I aspire to create that same sense of wonder and surprise. There is more… and yet more. Dive in a little deeper, swim out a little further. Be unafraid. All this awaits.

I have come to the conviction that if you truly understand something, it is not too hard to break it down into non mystical chunks and to communicate that. But that is just stage 1 – helping people to grasp previously unrecognised truths.

As I have developed as a teacher I have discovered the delight of then inviting people to trawl what they have grasped – to spot its many layers of relevance, and to explore the new questions it leads to.

This requires a process… one in which we are always open to new ideas and possibilities. Having received them, we pay them the honour of probing them and testing them. Some stand up, others show themselves to be shallow… but always we explore in an atmosphere of affirmation for the process. It is good to be a seeker of truth. After all, if Jesus is the truth (and John 14:6 clearly states that he is) ultimately all truth will point back to him and will uphold the wonder and mystery of God. So no questions are foolish.

Real questions are most commonly birthed in safe settings, where fear of ridicule or of being belittled for not expressing the kernel of an idea with great clarity, simply don’t exist. The best classrooms are not only safe. They are positively doxological – a readiness to praise God and marvel at His creation, never far from the surface.

Of course I can also look at the teaching task in a more formal way. I need to remind myself that the teaching task takes place against horizons. My fellow students (for while a teacher, I am always also a class member, also learning and growing) need to be able to answer four questions (this with thanks to Geoff Treloar of the Australian College of Theology, who facilitated the workshop)

  • the descriptive empirical (what is going on?)
  • the interpretive (why is it going on?)
  • the normative (what should be going on?)
  • the stategic (how can we react?)

Each is of enormous import. So often we stop at stage1 – what is going on… as though accurate description absolves us from all further responsibility. Alternatively we might tut tut about what we discover is going on. This is not the world we want, nor the world that should be. We must keep probing. It is why ultimately we must all be (or all are) theologians… interpreting reality, evaluating it and listening for the God whispers that help us discern a path ahead.

Teachers are interpretive guides. Fellow pilgrims on the journey they commit themselves to reflective practice. What proved helpful – what not?

Sometimes the best teachers throw some dissonance into the learner’s world. Like the grit in an oyster, these irritants can help grow pearls. But we must differentiate between that which is simply an irritant, and that which facilitates growth and wholeness. That means asking about our students. What makes them tick. Malcolm Forbes has said: ‘Education’s responsibility is to replace an empty mind with an open one.’ We need to ask what will faciliate that leap in each learner. For some it is through being challenged. For others it is via nurture and care. For yet others it is through clarity and careful explanation – for most it is through the example of a life worth living.

Ultimately this is the model of Jesus. It is the model of calling disciples and inviting them to explore life together. Incarnation has nothing to do with cold professional distance, but vulnerability, openness and the willingness to get alongside.

So how does my teaching match up to this? Deficient on many scales… but hey, writing these convictions down is a start. And real learning is about taking the next step.

Whatever your teaching context, I hope that you too will be encouraged to take that next step.

As always, nice chatting…


  1. Thanks Brian. I saved this post for the holidays so I could savour it – and I have. I think it is true that even those of us who have been in Christian schooling for a long time have not really reflected on or tried to capture our understanding of what teaching ( and learning) really is . Geoff Treloar’s 4 question are very helpful and I will use them in one of my weekly communications with my teachers if that is Ok with you.

    • Very happy for you to use it with your staff Phillip. My real hope is that each post will reach a wider audience and prove helpful for them, so always feel free to share material. All the best for the new year.

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