This piece is a slightly adapted version of a recent editorial written for the International Journal of Christianity and Education. [LINK: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/20569971231161032]
In the preface to his recent book Transforming Fire: Imagining Christian Teaching,1 Mark Jordan (2021) recalls his experiences as a young teacher who “found many books about teaching beside the point” and asserts that “we don’t need books about teaching so much as books that teach” (vii). Stated in such bald terms, I am not sure the distinction quite works. There are books that teach but teach the wrong thing, or have no bearing on teaching at all, and presumably these are not the items desired. It seems that the desire might be for books that teach that also teach us something about teaching.
While Jordan’s book clearly aims to teach through a particular rhetorical mode and the inclusion of imaginative exercises and invitations to reflection, it still seems appropriate to call it a book about teaching. Yet I am not sure that the intention was a clean philosophical distinction so much as a provocation to consider whether the ways in which we write and read about teaching actually help us to teach, let alone to teach in a manner wisely informed by theological reflection.
Read in that way, the comment resonated with some of my own longstanding dissatisfactions. It names a problem that seems worth probing further. Jordan explains his own antipathy toward many of the books he encountered early in his career as being rooted in the sense that “either they offered small, tidy solutions to incidental problems or they deduced a satisfied system from assumptions about what ideal Christian teaching should be.”
Again, this rings true to my experience. There have been plenty of books offering collections of tips and tricks for the classroom. A current wave of books offering guides to applying the minutiae of current cognitive science may be added to the list. They can be a helpful source of small fixes, some of which are a significant help, yet many of them offer little reflection on what, why, whom, or even exactly how we are teaching. Many model an atomized way of thinking about what teaching is, accumulating the fixes one by one and presenting them in lists of increasing size.
The apparently unlikely search combination of “hundred” and “teaching” yields plenty of hits in major online bookstores, reflecting the same preoccupation with numerical accumulation of quick solutions to life problems accompanied by minimal demand for commitment or joined up reflection that adorns the front covers of lifestyle magazines at the supermarket checkout. Neither a rich sense of context (social, ethical, economic, cultural, spiritual, interpersonal, etc.) nor a strong investment in cohesion of underlying educational vision are typically strong points in such texts.
At the other end of the scale are books that are big on systematic questions, outlining the philosophies, theologies, worldviews, or politics that offer to put us right about the best way to approach teaching, but that in the end say very little that feels close to the processes of the classroom itself. Here there is often a sense of displacement, whereby the topic initially seems to be teaching and learning but before long we find that we are mostly discussing epistemology, theology, or sociology, important matters indeed, and matters that do have a bearing, but in the end not quite the same thing.
I am not sure that the distance between these poles is best described in terms of a simple opposition of the theoretical and the practical. That is part of what is going on, but I think the reality is again more complex than a single pair of categories will bear. Recently, after two successive years of increasingly pointed student complaints, I finally abandoned a textbook that I had used in successive editions for many years in an education class. The version I first adopted seemed to work well, with a reasonably good balance of information from source disciplines, narratives of practice, examples of classroom activities, and even some consideration of what we might commit to ethically and philosophically as a frame for decision making. No book is perfect, but it did a decent job of opening spaces in which we were able to learn together.
As it progressed through subsequent editions, the material added often took the form of short summations of the findings of a range of published research studies, perhaps prompted by the need to seem abreast of the literature and the recent emphasis on evidence-based practice. Stylistically it began to include stretches that read somewhat like the literature survey chapter of a doctoral dissertation, with parenthetical literature references inserted as liberally as Bible references in the most proof-text-obsessed theological text. There was no shortage of academically sound content.
Yet my students, undergraduate novice educators trying to gain a clear sense of how they were going to go about being language teachers, found it decreasingly illuminating and increasingly a chore to read. We finally abandoned it and renewed the quest for a text that was both about teaching and capable of teaching us something about how to teach.
The problem with our textbook was not simply that it was too theoretical; it still contained many of the same practical tips, and many of the reported research findings were included because of their relevance to questions about what works. I suspect that the biggest issue for the learners in my class was that the manner of writing increasingly included patches of prose that reflected the ways in which scholars address one another in journals, and decreasingly enabled my novice students to creatively imagine their own teaching practice. I think it may be a case of what Jordan is getting at—it became a text about teaching that failed to teach, at least for my students.
My students’ struggles to find a fruitful and engaging path into wise practice in the pages of this text do not mean that the text was doing nothing to shape their learning. Positively, the diligent among them did gain a good deal of relevant information, at least in the short term. But I worry that it was also teaching other things. Bram de Muynck recently reported on a study in which education students were asked to read a range of different text types to gain perspective and insight on teaching. I was struck by the finding that students “struggled to read these texts with a focus on formation, due to their habit to study texts as a part of the curriculum with a test at the end.”2 I wonder whether my own students would have thought about our textbook in terms of their formation, however much information it offered to the determined among them. Whatever the manner of a text’s attempts to teach about teaching, it offers students an implicit model of how they should read about teaching. (The point may be extended to other disciplines: when we assign texts, we are implicitly teaching students what it should mean to read about the aspect of reality that we study.) This implicit model of learning can move them closer to or further away from insight into the meaning of their own present or future practices.
The pipeline from empirical finding to helpful technique that dominates an influential sector of current writing about teaching tends to neglect the realm of imagination, understood here not as creative thinking but as the space in which we articulate to ourselves why our choices matter, who we are becoming, and what it is that we are in the end trying to do to one another when we teach and learn. I suspect that the books of Parker Palmer, to take just one example, have found such wide and lasting resonance in part because of the degree to which they tap into this space, offering an informed and careful quest for insight rather than a mechanical fix or assertion of authority. Here again, the issue is not that they are less theoretical, but that they bring serious reflection to bear in writing that still reads as if it has whole people in view as they teach and learn.
Teaching is of course neither the whole of education nor the sum of what educational scholarship is trying to understand. It should be informed by detailed work in all of the relevant disciplines. Yet teaching is not reducible to findings from those disciplines, and teaching is at the heart of what educators do. To tweak Jordan’s phrase slightly, it seems to me that we need more books about teaching that also teach, books in which we find ourselves gaining informed insight into the concrete weave of practices in which we are embedded and a sense of hope and possibility for how they could be made new.
- Mark D. Jordan, Transforming Fire: Imagining Christian Teaching. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021).
- Bram de Muynck, Bram Kunz, and Piet Murre, “Learning from predecessors: Disclosing the inspiring potential of historical educators.” International Journal of Christianity and Education 26, no. 2 (2022): 107–111, p.108.