Spirituality and Education – the spiritual classroom (Part 3)

What would a spiritual classroom look like? The first and most obvious difference between a truly spiritual classroom and the secular one is the role of the teacher, at least in theory.

The spiritual classroom follows one of the central tenets of traditional knowledge: the notion that a true teacher is a reminder or a guide. For Christians, humans are created in God’s image and are endowed with the gift of freedom, and the power to know God and to love Him, in Islam the message of Prophet Mohammad, the Quran, was a reminder of what we already knew but had forgotten. Kierkegaard writes on this when he describes Socratic theory of learning. Here Kierkegaard, like the Islamic notion of Truth as a reminder, assumes that the student already knows the truth and is reminded of it or pushed towards locating it. Here we are finally fulfilling the dreams of those who advocate a child-centered approach to teaching, where the teacher is the facilitator.

In fact, in the spiritual classroom the teacher isn’t much of a teacher at all but another student, or in Kierkegaard’s metaphor a midwife “who helps the student give birth for (and to) herself”. This notion of midwife does not underestimate the knowledge or wisdom of the teacher, on the contrary, when the teacher is a student of knowledge rather than a giver of truth, learning is bound to be more dynamic.

It is however a way to reinforce, just as it was to Socrates, that a midwife is the highest form of relationship a human being can have with another – a concept which in the spiritual paradigm is not difficult to grasp. Interestingly, when the Truth is admitted as extra-personal, as it is in a spiritual classroom, true reflection can take place and truth becomes something that transforms rather than something that confirms.

The teacher as a reminder fundamentally changes the relationship between student and the classroom. Usually, it is the student who is the variable in the equation; it is they who have to change to try and fit into the rigid school system, not the other way around. In a spiritual classroom, the student is central, the purpose, and the goal of everything. As a teacher, I myself have found myself complaining about students being ‘off task’, some even inform parents of this characteristic in their child.

However, we could also ask: what is the task that we are expecting children to do? Is it really a task worth staying on? Could it be that the task is not worthwhile?  Or is that precisely it: Are we demanding that the child learns to do things they do not want to do and things they know will not be useful? The spiritual classroom will break out of the paradox of an educational system that is fundamentally relativist and secular, but which, ironically, demands that students see classrooms as places of worship, and to see us, the teachers, as prophets.

Many teachers expect that students sit and listen, and that the only valuable education is one which maintains the teacher’s authority. Others criticize this teaching method, and advocate an interactive approach. Nevertheless, the teacher, whether called a facilitator or not, is in practice still a teacher, and once the carefully planned interactive lesson is over the students must listen for bells, follow time-tables they had no role in deciding, forced to be segregated according to age-groups and ask before they may use the toilet – all of which returns to the relationship between teacher and pupil that we set out to counteract.

Contemporary mainstream schooling is not primarily designed for children. The school day is prolonged to aid working parents, the very organisation of it reflects the factory model. In the words of John Taylor Gatto,

“school has done a pretty good job of turning our children into addicts, but a spectacular job of turning our children into children.”

It is as the latter proclaims rightfully, the great tragedy of modern education that school isn’t for or about children, but built around the interest of others. Jackson’s notion of the hidden curriculum revealed the same. Schools primarily were aimed at teaching children to cope with delays, deny their desires, deal with social distraction, develop contradictory allegiances between teacher and peers and come to terms with unequal power relations.

In the end, the relationship between teacher and student is a microcosm of what relationships we imagine between people in the public sphere – and that is fundamentally based on what role we imagine for ourselves on this planet.


Spirituality and Education – education as a gateway to God (Part 2)

Is there a place for God in the English National Curriculum? Could that be the answer to the incoherence and search for direction that is occupying those in charge of designing our education system?

There is barely any time to prepare our students for their exams, let alone think about the spiritual and moral side-issues that OFSTED has claimed we should also be teaching. No doubt, something more internally focused would be welcome. Rates of depression have increased by 70% among teenagers in the last 25 years, and 90% of teachers who responded to a Parent Zone survey described a worsening situation for teenagers with mental health issues in their classrooms. The child protection group NSPCC reported a 200% increase in young people seeking help and counselling over exam related stress.  Despite this, when the PISA rankings were published and the UK was predictably low in the league table, commentators looked upon the British education system, modelling the behaviour of a bad parent by shaking their head at the country like a parent disappointed with their child and saying, ‘why can’t you be more like Singapore?’.

There is a general incoherence to the education system, each subject teacher in secondary school is fighting to get through their curriculum, alongside all the other expectations placed on teachers and students. There is no real emphasis or focus on what kind of student we are trying to produce through all of this mess.

It wasn’t always like this. Jack Priestly describes the clarity of the ‘renaissance man’ and the education system that was required to produce him, or the ‘Christian gentleman’ of the 19th Century, as examples of ideals that existed against which the curriculum could be judged. He asks: Was there ever such an image discussed at the heart of the contemporary National Curriculum?

The very first normative statement in Department for Education’s framework for the National Curriculum in England is,

“Every state-funded school must offer a curriculum [which] promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society”

The irony of a secular education system, using at its primary foundational concept a fundamentally religious one is not lost on everyone.  Stephen Bigger comments on the contradiction among OFSTED inspectors who lack clear definition of spirituality while maintaining its centrality to their inspections – and predictably rarely finding it. Yet, in our quest to clarify the spiritual aims of British education, OFSTED’s definitions are not without value. According to the 1994 OFSTED comments, spiritual development is,

“Experiencing feelings of transcendence – feelings which may give rise to belief in the existence of a divine being or the belief that one’s inner resources provide the ability to rise above everyday experiences;

Search for meaning and purpose – asking ‘why me?’ at times of hardship and suffering; reflecting on the origins and purpose of life”

In a report by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA), spirituality is defined as: “a response to God, the ‘other’ or the ‘ultimate’” and “an inclination to believe in ideals and possibilities that transcend our experiences of the world”. Here spirituality is defined in its rightful context: in relation to the transcendent, to God.

How God could play a bigger role in our curriculum?

Pope John Paul II, outlining an ideal pedagogical approach, emphasizes the importance of being “deeply concerned with truth”. In our current world of deconstructing and cynicism that statement is a controversial one. “Whose truth?” some may ask, “everyone has their own truth”. At the most fundamental level, the notion that each person has their own truth is part of the problem and close to the root of the whole issue of a hollow education system. Children want to learn things that are “out there” in the words of Fox Mulder, not reflect on their own feelings and opinions.

In traditional scholarship there is actually a consensus on this issue, that there are some human activities that are lower than others. In relation to knowledge, study that quenches the spiritual thirst is higher than that which satisfies the ego. A purposeful school would naturally promote the study of the higher spheres, not maintain the reflective self-analysis which can if misdirected, work towards a stronger ego.

To learn is to grow, to move beyond your ‘self’ at any given time. The Muslim scholar Imam Abdullah ibn Alawi Al-Haddad (d. 1720), describes this as being “when a man rises above the dense veils of ego and body of effort and self-discipline, he knows more and more”. In Catholicism too, the spirit, that which God has in-spired by breathing in his Holy Spirit, cannot be known apart from through faith, “it escapes our experience”. In Buddhism our essence is that which escapes us as we attach ourselves to the worldly, and a search for that essence is only possible through detachment, not further questioning of the worldly.

Although, speaking the language of religious tradition is jarring in the modern context, spirituality, which as a concept contains the divine and sacred, should be considered a right. A school which is serious about its purpose must work towards the spiritual development of the student. In the words of Ibn Sina, or Avicenna,

“Education […] should be undertaken for the spiritual development of man, and with the aim of deepening his understanding of the world around him…and to use this understanding as a gateway to spiritual love and apprehension of God”

God is the unity of the world, that which binds everything to everything. Traditional knowledge linked everything to faith, love and/or God. In contemporary society that unity is broken up into a “world of compartmentalization”  and of fragments. Everyone has their own path. Education must be an antidote to all the divisive and broken bits and pieces that make up the life of a child, the mission of the school should be a holistic one, to promote wholeness and holiness, in an era of fragmentation.

Spirituality and Education – the incoherence of RE and the incoherence of education (part 1)

Before I became a school teacher, I used to flick through the Education pages of newspapers and read teachers’ complaints and criticisms of the changes to the curriculum or lack of direction in education. As a university student, I was often on marches against cuts in education – it seemed like a no-brainer – where I met teachers, often very angry ones.

Now, after three or four years of teaching, I am also frustrated. For me it isn’t so much the cuts or the overpaid academy bosses but the lack of direction and aim. What is the purpose of education in the first place? What kind of student are we trying to create? You know, the questions that make teacher’s eyes roll because it reminds them of their naive undergraduate days, before they started work in our league-tabled-led, broke and aimless schools (obviously with little miracles here and there otherwise we wouldn’t do it).

A recent study on the relevance and future of Religious Education was done by the University of Exeter, with an interesting albeit unsurprising finding: “the content of the RE curriculum generally lacks coherence and continuity”.

The finding is unsurprising. How can we expect a National Curriculum which does not know its own purpose, to be able to teach philosophies which deal exclusively in purpose? It is however an interesting point because I think it gets to the core of the issue with our education.

I made a similar observation with my own students, and discussed with them my own findings: their education at school does not really have any real purpose. By that, I explained, I meant in terms of answering questions which are relevant to our lives, learning content which enlighten. Of course, there are a lot of lessons learned, about being on time, sitting still, obedience, patience and so on and so forth. After some discussion, I gave each student a piece of paper and asked them to write one question they would like an answer to, on any topic. The majority of students asked questions, which according to OFSTED (The Office for Standards of Education) class as ‘spiritual’: “Why do humans exist?”, “Why is life unfair?”, “Is there a God?”, “Why do people believe different things?”

I think these are all linked; the lack of coherence in our RE curriculum, the decline of our education system, the high numbers of teachers leaving the profession– in our daily job teachers know what they are doing, but as a whole we have no idea. In short, there is a lack of purpose and a lack of understanding of what purpose really means. OFSTED wants schools to promote spiritual development, but do not know what that means.