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Fiction or Gospel truth: can good stories tell a godly story?

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Book Reviews

Christian Faith in Church Schools

22nd November 2016

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Trevor Cooling has written many great articles and books about education (not least the report Doing God in Education for Theos) but his latest book, Christian Faith in English Church Schools, is surely his finest piece of work and one that is important for Christian thinking about education all around the world.

It is a report on research into the distinctively Christian approach to teaching and learning of the What If Learning project. Cooling and his team have given us something very different from the dry and dusty tome that the phrase ‘research report’ might suggest. This is a story book that tells of a journey with a project that grows and changes. It has at its heart conversations with fourteen classroom teachers in three church schools about their experience of adopting the approach in their classrooms.

There is no such thing as complete when it comes to stories; they always leave us wondering what might be written on the blank pages at the end of the book. This story book is no different and Trevor Cooling helps us by building into his story indications of what might happen next. He challenges those of us who are participants in the bigger surrounding story of God and education about what we can, and indeed should, do to take this narrative forward.

What If Learning is for use in any subject and with any age-group. It focuses on how rather than what we teach and learn, on classroom practices rather than on subject content. Education is taken to be formative of the whole person rather than narrowly focussed on students as brains-on-legs.

The conversations with the teacher co-researchers are at the heart of this book. Anyone familiar with the agonies and ecstasies of classroom teaching will identify with how these teachers experienced, reacted to and learned from an unfamiliar approach. ‘Weird’ was a word that occurred several times in conversations about their initial reactions to the new approach. From what several said, the sense of weirdness seemed to reflect a fear that their subject discipline would be compromised by Christian ethos being ‘shoe-horned’ into a lesson in which they thought it did not fit.

For Cooling, the deeper issue is about where theology meets education. He writes:

“This sense of weirdness appears to be created by the perception that distinctive Christian learning entails a positivist, transmission approach which requires them as teachers to tell Christian truths in their lessons in a way that is primarily focussed on persuading the students to assent.”

He argues that this has its roots in a positivist mind-set that is prevalent not only within secular education but also among Christians. He calls instead for a paradigm-shift that sees theology providing education with a distinctive vision of human flourishing that can frame classroom practices in the teaching of any subject of the curriculum. Classroom practices can be distinctively Christian without being uniquely or explicitly so, he argues, just as our distinctiveness as a person is not dependent only on the unique features that we share with no-one else. Rather, our distinctive identity is “woven from the fabric of many features, each of which, taken separately, might also be seen in someone else, but combined together make you the distinctive person that you are.”

There is much more in this book that this brief review cannot cover but hopefully there is enough here to convince the interested reader that it is worth reading. If not yet convinced, you can find some extracts online and also an interview with Cooling about the book. I heartily recommend it to anybody thinking seriously about Christian education.


Christian Faith in English Church Schools: Research Conversations with Classroom Teachers by Trevor Cooling with Beth Green, Andrew Morris and Lynn Revell is published by Peter Lang

John Shortt is Professorial Fellow in Christian Education, Liverpool Hope University

Image by hdornak from pixabay.com available in the public domain