Gathering around Great Things

“Your works are wonderful.” (Psalm 139:14)

There was a time when educationists debated whether we should be subject-centred, teacher-centred or child-centred. When the secondary level teacher would ask, ‘What do you teach?’, the primary level teacher could respond with the put-down, ‘I teach children!’.

Nowadays, we are more likely to phrase the debate in terms of the difference between having learning or teaching at the centre. The question to ask of what is happening in a classroom is not ‘What is being taught?’ but ‘What is being learned?’.

This shift of focus is doubtless a very helpful one and a salutary reminder to those of us who fall in love with the sound of our own voices that what matters is what the children and young people we are with are actually gaining from our being with them.

However, Parker Palmer, in The Courage to Teach, argues that there is, in fact, an important sense in which we should be subject-centred. He writes of what he terms ‘the grace of great things’ and says that the ‘great things’ are the subjects around which we gather, not the disciplines that study them nor the texts that talk about them but the things themselves. He continues:

“Watch a good teacher sitting on the floor with a group of five-year-olds, reading a story about an elephant. Viewed through the eyes of those children, it is almost possible to see that elephant in the middle of the circle! And with that great thing as the vehicle, other great things also come into the room – things like language and the miracle of symbols that carry meaning.”[1]

The disciplines we teach are French windows on God’s world, a world of his wonderful works. Let us open them and walk through them with our students into that wonderful world. May those we seek to teach learn that his works are wonderful as we gather around some great thing today.

Lord, when I consider the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore, restore to me some of that child-like wonder and grant that those I teach and learn with may catch something of it from me. Amen.

[1] Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), p. 118.

Knowing when

“A person finds joy in giving an apt reply—
   and how good is a timely word! (
Proverbs 15:23)

“There is a time for everything”, says the writer of Ecclesiastes and, a few lines later, “a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Eccelesiastes 3:1,7).

Much of our work in our schools has been traditionally concerned with knowledge of facts that can be expressed in ‘knowing that’ statements. The children and young people that we teach come to know that King John signed the Magna Carta, that the square root of 49 is 7, and that limestone is a sedimentary rock.

In an age when so much factual knowledge has become available at the click of a mouse, we are now becoming more concerned with ‘knowing how’, with skills rather than facts. Our curriculum objectives are defined in terms of what our pupils are able to do, not least in relation to how they use a computer and access the internet.

In his book, Wisdom and Curriculum, Doug Blomberg writes of the importance of another kind of knowing – ‘knowing when’ – which he regards as a major part of wisdom.[1] As teachers, we so often feel our lack of wisdom. It was a time to be silent but we uttered those words that we heartily wish we had never said. Or there was one of those unexpected moments when we failed to respond to the serendipitous, a time to speak but we didn’t speak. How we need to ‘know when’ to say or do the right, to have that sensitivity to the moment amidst all the words and actions of classroom life.

But if we lack wisdom, if we lack aptness of reply and timeliness of word, James tells us in his epistle, all we have to do is to “ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault” (James 1:5) and it will be given to us. Now that is surely gospel good news!

Lord, I lack wisdom. Classroom life is so full and so unpredictable. I don’t have time to think. Help me to show that timeliness of response in word and action to the moment, to the unexpected, to the person who is that child made by you in your image and loved by you. Amen.

[1] Doug Blomberg, Wisdom and Curriculum: Christian Schooling after Postmodernity, (Sioux Center, Iowa: Dordt Press, 2007), p. 5.