All Learning Is Transformational
by Greg Gerber, SCSBC Director of Learning ◊
In seeking efficient ways of “doing school” it is easy to forget about how big a deal the impacts of teaching and learning really are.
A few weeks ago, I was speaking with a Christian couple who were deliberating whether to enrol their children in a Christian or a public school. They cited many common positions, questions, and considerations including perceptions of teachers at Christian schools caring more for their children, and questioning whether their children were meant to be a light in the public school. They spoke of academic advantage, extracurricular activity, the impact of having Bible courses, and whether the associated tuition costs balanced potential benefits. These parents were caught in the quagmire of deciding for or against Christian schooling based on dominant societal stories concerning the purpose of education.
This couple had done their homework. But, I was struck by one major omission from their litany of exposition. Had they neglected to consider the foundational and inalterable truth that schooling is fundamentally about personal transformation?
Let that statement sink in for a minute. Schooling, and more specifically, learning, is about transformation.
Learning, or to have learned something, means that the content, concepts, understandings, or abilities gained through the learning processes we engage in become readily available to us in new situations. We carry that which we have learned into our conversations and into our thinking. Our learning translates into and affects our understanding of how we come to see, experience, and interpret the world. What we learn permeates how we understand or misunderstand things which, in turn, shapes our dominant perspective of the world around us. Piaget said it this way, “What we see changes what we know. What we know changes what we see.”1
In short, learning forms us.
Being formed through learning or being involved in the formation of others through our teaching is a BIG DEAL. It is a big deal because we are talking about change – changing how we think, how we interpret experiences because of what we know, how we see things, how we come to interact with others. Over time, our learning informs what we value and what we believe.
All learning is transformative. Learning affects thinking, thinking affects behaviour, and both inform the formation of values and beliefs. Paul understood the power of learning and its transformative power on our ability to become more Christlike. He wrote, “Do not conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”2 What we think about, what we view, read, or participate in transforms us.
The Old Oxford Dictionary defines education this way: The process of bringing up a child, with reference to forming character, shaping manners and behaviour, etc.3 The goal of education is change. We expect children to be different when they are finished their schooling than when they first began it. We want them to grow, to learn, to have insights, and to be able to think. But we also must recognize that education is necessarily a value-laden proposition. Shaping one’s character is directly related to molding one’s values. Values are learned and adopted through experience, knowledge, understanding, and through the modelling by mentors in our lives.
I’m not sure that we think about this very often. Curriculum and education are often conceptually reduced to consideration of the “stuff,” the subject content focus, the deliverables of what we expect to come to know as a result of schooling. By some form of conditioning and a dominant cultural narrative, the idea of curriculum is most often construed as being neutral, or secular, and value-free. But this idea is incongruent with what we know of how learning happens, of the realities of teaching and what it means to engage students in uncovering and making meaning of that very “stuff.”
Teachers teach in manners consistent with their value system and personal understanding. As Parker Palmer states so powerfully:
We teach who we are. Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse. As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together. The entanglements I experience in the classroom are often no more or less than the convolutions of my inner life. Viewed from this angle, teaching holds a mirror to the soul.4
In keeping with this truth, teaching also frequently discloses glimpses of the fabric of who teachers are, complete with values, beliefs, constructions and misconstructions. Teaching is an exercise in vulnerability. Palmer argues that it is next to impossible for a teacher to separate their identity, their underlying values and belief structures, from their teaching. From the content engagements a teacher selects, to the perspectives offered for consideration, a teacher’s values necessarily contribute to the landscape of the learning environment.
And so I return to the conversation I had with the prospective parents considering whether Christian school was the right decision for their children. We discussed how all learning is transformational and that any engagement with curriculum necessarily teaches some dominant underlying value. For example, outside of a biblical worldview, mathematics education might convey a humanistic portrayal of man’s ability and self-reliance while when taught from the Christian worldview, math proclaims the consistency of God’s design within creation. Or, biology and science outside of a Christian worldview reduce creation to an examination of happenstance rather than serving as an invitation into a deeper relationship with the Creator. In consideration of this context and the real effect of education and learning informing and transforming values, beliefs, and who we become, the young couple noted something profound. “We have been asking the wrong questions. Our values define who we are – of course, education affects what our children will come to value.”
- Piaget, J. (1926) The Language and Thought of the Child. London: Routledge & Keagan.
- Romans 12:2, The Holy Bible (NIV)
- “education, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2018. Web. Retrieved 3 April 2018.
- Palmer, P. (2007) The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape
of a Teacher’s Life. Jossey-Bass.