The following is a presentation Derek Wenmoth made to the Baptist Assembly Council Retreat in February.
Throughout the world, education is considered up there alongside health as a key priority in government spending. An educated population is universally regarded as the key to a healthy economy and a growing and vibrant society. A good education is the key to participating fully in society and it opens the door to social mobility.
Yet throughout the developed world, education systems are in turmoil. Our current models of schooling are based in a 200-year-old production-line mindset, where the aim was to educate the masses to make them fit for working in the factories of the industrial age.
Understanding this, successive governments have embarked on various regimes of education reform, resulting in calls for “back to basics,” “no child left behind,” and “standards” as common approaches. And while these initiatives may be sincerely intentioned, the result is inevitably a Band-Aid on a sticking plaster rather than any genuine reform, simply because these approaches are pouring new wine into old wineskins.
To understand the complexity of the situation, it is helpful to consider some of the trends that are exerting pressure on the education system and those within it. These are not unique to education and have strong parallels with what is happening in other institutions, such as the Church. There is no particular value proposition in these trends – they are neither right or wrong, but the responses we make confront us with choices that will challenge some of our fundamental values and beliefs.
These are the five key areas of tension likely to have a significant bearing on our decisions for the future of education.
For a growing majority of our nation’s schools, it is difficult to escape the growing cultural diversity that exists in classrooms. An increasing number of students in our educational institutions were born overseas. As the world population increases, so too will the level of diversity. It is not unusual in many urban schools to find more than a dozen first languages other than English represented in a class of 25-30 students.
With the world population set to hit over 9 billion in just another decade, our students must be equipped to live and work in an increasingly globalised world.
Many of our churches are doing an excellent job in the way they honour and support those in mission. On the home front, a growing number of churches are supporting newcomers to our country to learn English as they seek to integrate into the local culture. Others are finding ways to make their services culturally relevant and to celebrate the diversity that exists.
The increasing impact of globalisation means we are going to have to put much greater emphasis on developing culturally appropriate schools and churches and to developing greater cross-cultural understanding.
In our consumer culture we have come to regard nearly everything we do as a commodity. In education we see this represented in many ways, from the focus on discrete “standards” of assessment to the use of terms such as “delivery” to describe the function of educational institutions and teachers.
Education providers compete with each other to attract students by engaging marketers to make their products more attractive. Our funding mechanisms and education priorities set by government are further examples of a “commodification” mindset.
The issue here is the extent to which we regard education as a public good versus a private good and whether being educated is about the development of the whole person versus the accumulation of existing knowledge.
There are parallels here for our churches. For many in our society the church has become a place that is used on special occasions for “commodities” such as weddings or funerals. For a number of church members, church attendance is governed by “what the church can offer me” rather than a commitment to the relational call of Christ to love one another.
A measure of democracy is the extent to which all aspects of society are open to participation, open to critique, and open to change. In education we are seeing significant moves towards concepts such as “open education,” “open content,” and “open curriculum.” Since the advent of Tomorrow’s Schools in 1989 we’ve seen a significant increase in the level of participation at a local level of school boards of trustees and the requirement of schools to be constantly reviewing themselves to reflect local needs and concerns.
Churches, like schools, have a mixed reputation for how well they achieve this aspiration. Yet the desire of the communities they serve remains the same – to be involved and participating in the decisions.
In recent years the notion of a “personalised” approach to education has been the catch-cry of governments all around the world. At the heart of this initiative is the recognition that all learners learn best in different ways and at different rates. So an approach that is personalised to those strengths and needs will have the most impact for them as learners.
While few would argue the intent of this approach, many struggle with how to accommodate personalisation when working within the traditional paradigm of whole class teaching and timetabled instruction. Some equate personalisation with self-centredness, where the needs of the individual are raised above the needs of the good and the community.
In our churches we are faced with a similar challenge, of meeting the needs of individuals and the interpretation of a gospel that touches each of us where we are, with the call to a collective accountability.
Put simply, disintermediation can be interpreted as “doing away with the middle-man.” We are seeing this in a range of sectors, with many of the traditional “middle-man” occupations and institutions under threat, such as retail shopping, mortgage brokers, travel agents and bankers. The impact of the online world is similarly affecting education, with the explosion of online institutions enabling people to access the course options and qualifications they want, without necessarily attending a traditional institution.
Our church is based on a gospel of disintermediation, when through Jesus’ death the way was opened for us to have access directly to God. We need to be constantly exploring the structures we have in place to ensure that we aren’t placing barriers between people and God – in our worship, in our service to others and in our expectations of a life of holiness.
Opportunity or threat?
Whether we regard these influences as an opportunity or a threat will depend on our attitude to change, our context and our level of personal security.
In each there is an opportunity and a threat and it is our responsibility to be informed enough to make sure we plan strategically to ensure the opportunities overcome the threats.
We need to be open to re-thinking church, in the same way as we must be re-thinking schools in the 21st century. The influences are changing many facets of society and aren’t likely to leave either of these institutions alone.
Within it all are a range of opportunities for churches to express the gospel in new and exciting ways. Just as schools are being challenged to re-think the traditional “one-size fits all” approach of whole class teaching, churches need to move from the “pedagogy of the pulpit” to find expression for the gospel that is lived out in the community.
Schools can be an excellent place to start. By participating in local boards of trustees and PTAs, members of the Christian community can positively shape the experiences of young people for a far greater period of their learning lives than the one-hour Sunday school class.
The provision of after-school and holiday programmes provide further opportunities. These sorts of programmes are most powerful when run in partnership with local schools, rather than as something separate and disconnected. And don’t forget, teachers and school leaders need support and mentoring too.
An overarching influence is how technology affects our lives, including the way we work, communicate, create and share knowledge. Churches should be embracing this to provide more than just a website, but to tap into the potential for creating a sense of a connected and networked church that is active and accessible at a range of levels and in a range of contexts that go well beyond what happens on a Sunday.
Derek Wenmoth is Director eLearning for CORE Education, a not-for-profit organisation that works with governments and educators to provide research, consultancy, professional development, online management, and education events.