I have been a primary and secondary teacher for 32 years. This is a tremendous privilege. Teaching is not simply baby-sitting, or a mechanical transfer of skills. To help form minds, awake curiosity, help human beings to grow; that is an exercise in formation — to make deeper, happier, and wiser people, mature beings with souls, virtues, courage, kindness, and fortitude. That is much deeper than preparing young people for the job market, “the modern world”, or to mouth correct opinions. It takes passion. It takes wisdom. And it takes humility.
Across my career formation has occurred at times, perhaps not often; or at least not as often as I would have liked. And at other times, I have failed. The reasons are many; some my own fault in just not being skilful or sensitive enough to reach my students, and at other times, pressures of curriculum delivery and a lack of time have precluded such thinking. Even so I still desire to see formation occur: to teach students to think for themselves, to take action to engage with the world and each other, to love knowledge and stand tall in the world as citizens of good character. Without this moral dimension, education can imprison people, rendering them ignorant, stunting character, and cutting-off the seeds of citizenship.
Teaching which leads to formation requires practitioners who understand learning and how it occurs and the teaching methods that support it. Concepts are discovered, grappled with, understood, and then applied. Teaching for formation requires challenge (so high expectations are established), explanation (so new knowledge and skills are acquired), modelling (so knowledge and skills are shown how to be applied), questioning (to provoke hard and challenging thinking), and application (to test and apply knowledge and skills in various situations). Above all perhaps, formation requires hard thinking. Accompanying the process is a moral understanding that there are good and bad ideas, arguments, and choices, and that reason alone, personal choice, or what may benefit an individual, are not necessarily unassailable means for discerning the good from the bad, especially when we understand what it means to be human in relationship with others. Even deeply-held existing beliefs, while important, should still be open to justification and challenge.
Challenging one’s own beliefs by passionate dialogue with others is an exercise in sharpening, and truth seeking. That’s why current debates on free speech and so-called “hate speech” are so vital. Our belief in free speech comes from modern philosophers like Jeremy Bentham and J. S. Mill (among many others), while “hate speech” is very much from a post-modern milieu that views social order in terms of factionalised groups antagonistic to each other; in other words, drawing on neo-Marxism and critical social theory. Education for formation should not shy away from explaining or debating these types or any other issues, but obvious skill is needed to structure such any classroom engagement in age-appropriate ways. So what might this look like for say, a Year 12 class? Firstly, classical ideas of freedom and why it matters to human flourishing would be explored and the texts may include extracts from a wide range of thinkers including (but not confined to) The Scriptures (Old and New Testaments), the Quran, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke,
Kant, Voltaire, Marx, Bentham, Mill, Nietzsche, Dewey, the Humanist
Manifesto, and so on. The roots of ideas would be on the table, and
the teacher encouraging and leading students to engage, and to
think, for themselves. I tell students that you can’t “kill” ideas; they
endure across time, be they good or bad, helpful or destructive. The
skill of the teacher would involve selecting aspects of the texts, often
just basic ideas, and grounding them in useful analogies, logical
reasoning and application. For example, Hobbes’ famous dictum
of the “nasty, brutish and short” life refers to mankind without
the restraints of social order, led, in his theory, by the sovereign. Imagine what could be done with that idea in relation to debates on republicanism and the future of the monarchy, to name but two related ideas?
As Karl Popper points out, ideas break down under the pressure of new evidence, questing minds, and challenge which tests them, looking for contrary evidence, testing and re-testing, looking for truth. This means that formation is a dynamic process and when it occurs how true it is that “when one teaches, two learn.” Everyone involved should have their critical thinking, sympathies and ability to articulate stretched. Challenging questions emerge: Can any speech ever be entirely free? Doesn’t “hate speech,” even if it could be proved, rely on the very categories and stereotypes that it seeks to reject? When rights clash, whose rights are most right, and why?
While I have a personal preference for classical texts and Modern Greats, almost all sources can be used to good effect in formation if the teacher is skilled in their use and in-step with their learners. So, Homer’s narration of Odysseus’ return after Troy might in fact, be juxtaposed alongside Homer Simpson’s mind bubble dilemmas; or the concept of euthanasia in the subterranean world of E. M Forster’s chilling novella ‘The Machine Stops’ could be debated alongside the arguments advanced by David Seymour in his 2017 End of Life Choice Bill. Engaging students interactively, maintaining relevance and interest, and being enthusiastic are all key in building relationship that makes formation possible. Opinions are not enough, they need evidence and a convincing and moral rationale.
It is the great joy of a teacher to see young people go on to live fruitful lives and make a positive difference. I think every teacher wants that and my deep desire is to see former students do well in life and learning, and in many cases achieve much more than I have. A particular cohort of students from some years ago remain very special. I still meet with a half-dozen of them a couple of times a year.
This formational friendship began in an unlikely manner. I was relieving their Year 11 history class at the time they were reading Morton Ruhe’s book The Wave. This is based on a real-life experiment in a Californian high school in the late 1960s when a teacher (Mr Ross) devised a practical experiment to help students understand how the Nazi holocaust could happen. The classroom became very strict, chants and symbols were introduced and students told they were part of something much greater than themselves. Over time, “The Wave” as Mr Ross called it, became exclusive, obsessive and violent, and those refusing to join were bullied and harassed. In short, “The Wave” was exactly what Hitler, Goebbels, Goering and Himmler did among their own people and of course, against Jews.
This sparked deep discussions within my own class and this group of students wanted to explore further. How could such persecution arise, and why weren’t there checks and balances in the political system and social order to prevent the spread of Nazism? Many readers will know the answers to these questions but students needed to grapple with the complex issues for themselves. During the remaining years at school we would meet at lunchtimes and “chew the fat” on a veritable cascade of intellectual and ethical issues.
When they gave me a medal at the end of Year 13 I was touched and momentarily felt like Mr Keating in Dead Poets Society. They are now all graduates, working, and in some cases married. I am amazed at their erudition and insights. They love talking about matters of substance: policy, philosophy, faith, politics, and of course, about culture, relational and employment matters—anything and everything really. This special relationship will endure, because, well… we like each other and get on. More than that though, we share an understanding of education as formation, which is about who we are, not just what we know; it’s about life-long learning and serving, not just course completion or graduation. And it is a dynamic process where at best, school is merely a catalyst to get started.
Somehow an education worthy of the name must transcend institutional demands and pressures to “pass NCEA” (not that there is anything wrong with this). How can a teacher do that? I have been asking myself this for three decades, and only now, very tentatively, propose an answer.
Firstly, the teacher must love their work and genuinely value the opportunity to work with children and young people. Without that, there is no joy. On a bad day when all of the perfunctory and administrative demands seem overbearing, we have to hang on to that truth; the “call” if you like. It will sustain through tough times. Secondly, the teacher has to love their subject area(s) and be knowledgeable; and thirdly, a teacher has to be teachable and always open to new ideas. Education specialist John Hattie speaks of the “thrill, will, and skill” of teaching and learning and I think this catchphrase pretty well sums-up teaching. If in some way, perhaps osmosis, a student imbibes a teacher’s joy and enthusiasm that may spark their own journey into a particular area of knowledge.
This process is never about Orwellian control or the dreadful cynicism in Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1980). We can all recall uncompromising disciplinarians who seemed to energise on their little bit of power in the classroom and who made major mountains out of what should only be minor molehills (for example, uniform infringements). Unfortunately human nature being what it is, we remember these teachers but for the wrong reasons. A worthwhile schooling provides the tools to encourage young people to think for themselves but there has to come a point where the initiative passes from an overseer to being self-motivated. This is what occurred with the special group of students I have described. I hope I have never told young people what to think but how to question and think for themselves. If they can pick up at least some of the requisite skills in my class then I will have done my job.
Formation is also deeply relational and interactive. This recalls a story involving the former Prime Minister David Lange. At the time (1989) Mr Lange was also the Minister of Education and on a tour promoting the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms. This larger-than-life man, accompanied by an entourage, came into my Form 1 (Year 7) class when they were reading a School Journal article about life in Papua New Guinea that included a section about eating crocodile meat. One of the students asked Mr Lange if he had eaten crocodile. He said he had, and proceeded to tell a delightful story about it which had us all enthralled. His humour, anecdotes, and insight were unforgettable. Although a lawyer and politician, Mr Lange intuitively understood some essential elements of teaching and learning, namely, that it is relational; stories connect us, they inspire and pass on wisdom across generations.
In my experience, many of today’s students, if they are readers, favour somewhat dark and dystopian texts. The Hunger Games and The Handmaid’s Tale for example, are hardly edifying but they are instructive. The dystopian genre warns what happens when education becomes subverted for state purposes and individual freedom perishes. The scary thing is that this process can be masked in false promises of enlightenment or liberation, but the end result is no such thing, rather, misery, death, and destruction. These texts have close ties to Orwell and many others that remind us of the premium genuine education places on being able to think for ourselves. This kind of source material presents virtually endless opportunities for a skilled educator committed to formation to evaluate the plot, characters, and values in light of say, Kant’s moral imperative to treat other people “as an end in themselves, rather than as a means to an end.” What would this look like in the world of the text? What if even one influential character challenged the dysfunctional status quo and put this principle into action?
Balancing these texts with a judicious use of the likes of Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare shows how important universal themes such as quest, hero, and spiritual virtue pervade literature. Is, for example, the world view of the witches in Macbeth much different to fashionable ideas of karma or the “attraction” model of The Secret? Does man really produce evil like a bee produces honey, as William Golding once said and Lord of the Flies demonstrates? How can we ever know if we don’t read, engage and reflect upon such texts?
As an educator I am constantly challenged by these and many other questions. Grappling with them means my own formation continues and I realise more about the human condition, my own inadequacies, but also the joys of journeying with young hearts and minds.