The Cream of Theological Education

Posted January 1, 2014 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

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The Cream of Theological Education

There is a strange custom in theological  education which I am unable to understand. Perhaps some readers can enlighten me. I have visited plenty of colleges in Europe and beyond in the last few years and almost all of their lecture rooms have blank walls painted cream (or “magnolia” as they say in the UK).

Is there a reason for this? No doubt some will say that it is done this way in order that the students are not distracted, but the reason does not stack up. If we were serious about this, we would close the blinds or the curtains as well so they could not look out of the window. Or even do what one college did in the inter-war years in the UK – build a partition wall down the length of the classroom with males on one side and females on the other so all could see the lecturer, but men could not see  women and vice versa, and so not be distracted.

I could criticise this custom by saying that students are no longer at school, but students coming in to our classrooms are not reminded of school because, nowadays, the walls of school classrooms are covered with stimulating pictures, charts and colours – it has been shown to help learning.

In any case, we tend to say that the classes which go best are those when students come into our own room for a seminar. We generally decorate our rooms with good colours, nice curtains, pictures on the walls and beautiful or meaningful objects around us.  After all if those things do not distract us and create a happy and rich ambiance for our work, we guess they will do the same for our students.

Maybe there is an historical reason. Many protestant non-conformist churches tend to decorate their worship places in cheap plain and functional ways and it is not surprising to see blank cream walls in such church buildings. The theological reason here, of course, is that we emphasise the Word spoken and have a protestant fear of any ornaments or pictures in church. But in so doing, in church or theological college, as we set out to create emptiness for the Word we often instead create coldness.

Can I dream a little? Class begins and the students come in to a warm, rich, comfortable, stimulating atmosphere, some real colour on the walls, curtains at the window of pleasant fabric, pictures hanging, a few beautiful objects around, no full waste paper bins or dirty white boards. Comfy chairs and decent carpet not made of industrial plastic. In my dream, I would also ask for coffee brewing on the ring and cups ready (with saucers!) for use. The smell is wonderful. The strange habit of the coffee break in nice surroundings has merged with the classroom. The teacher and the students start to talk to each other and the class is under way.

Now that is hospitality and, as Nouwen, Palmer, Shaw and others have pointed out, hospitality is at the core of good theological education.

Guest Post by Dr Allan Harkness, Dean of Asia Graduate School of Theology Alliance

Posted December 1, 2013 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

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A namesake, table and significant pedagogy

‘Harkness’ isn’t a common family name, and so I’ve been flattered to discover a namesake pedagogy – the Harkness Pedagogy. Not heard of it? Google ‘Harkness Pedagogy’, ‘Harkness learning’ or Harkness method’ and you’ll discover it’s better known than you might guess.

Back in 1930 Edward Harkness, a US philanthropist (I’m not a relative, so I’ve not seen any of his wealth), donated the equivalent of about US$80 million to a New Hampshire college to encourage the purchase of ­– wait for it – large oval tables, and to fund the salaries of the teachers to sit with students around those tables.

So the Harkness Table (a cool 1,120,000 hits on Google) came to be, as an essential item for the Harkness Pedagogy. These tables were sometimes so large that they had to be installed before the walls of the room were built around them. You can buy Harkness tables via the internet – I rather like the look of the 17 foot ’eco-friendly’ model.

The genius of the Harkness Pedagogy is certainly not a 20th century novelty, although traditional schooling models don’t reflect it widely. One commentator has suggested, ‘the table is the method’. For – in contrast to the unilateral transmissive model that marks much education – having a small group of students sitting around a table with a teacher lends itself to a much more participatory and interactive form of learning. Think of the likely dynamics:

  • Numbers of participants are limited – up to a dozen or so comfortably. No-one can be lost in the crowd, and all have time to contribute.
  • There’s no ‘front and back of the room’, and no backs-of-heads. All participants can have eye-contact with each other. Thus a web of interactions is possible.
  • The teacher is seated among the students, rather than on or behind some sort of ‘pedestal-of-power’. Potential for a mutuality, being learners together.
  • All can hear each other. No need for a microphone, with its assumption of unidirectional communication.

All in all, the Harkness Table provides a much more hospitable space for learning than the traditional classroom. Recognising the power of the interaction between the use of space and relationships for effective learning in theological education, I wonder what might happen if we made greater use of Harkness tables.

I’m reminded of features of the teacher/learner relationship in the early churches:

  • Faith, not knowledge per se, relates us to God, and so all are on common ground before God.
  • The Holy Spirit is ultimately the primary teacher of God’s message, and thus teachers need to be learners from God as they teach.
  • ‘Formal teachers’ needed to be open to learning from God and others, so all were teachers and learners almost simultaneously.
  • The quality of knowledge is more important than quantity, so learning came from all with relevant insights.

These features lie at the heart of effective theological education for ministry formation too. Imagine how the Harkness Table might enhance them. It’s to recognise TE as providing hospitable space for a communitarian endeavour, in which all (and their contributions) are welcomed, and hosted ultimately by the One who ‘will guide us into all the truth’.

Hmmm. It leads me to think also of tables of welcome – especially with food and drink – we see at deeply formative occasions in the Bible, especially the table we Christians are drawn to week-by-week and month-by-month.

So, thanks for the reminder, Edward Harkness!

Decaffeinated theological education

Posted November 1, 2013 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

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Decaffeinated theological education

The purpose of coffee is to enliven. Real coffee is not just sweet and tasty; it contains caffeine which mimics the action of a neurotransmitter. It has life in it. Decaffeinated coffee is a nice drink but doesn’t make the heart beat faster; the key ingredient has been taken out.

So what is decaffeinated theological education? It is theological education with the key ingredient, the life taken out. And the key ingredient? Love to God. If the theological educator does not deliberately inspire love to God in the students, his teaching has been decaffeinated. I mean that it must inspire love to God with their minds; in their heart of hearts out of which everything else springs; in worship and then flow over to love for those God loves.

Now, just as there are a number of different brands of decaffeinated coffee, so there are varieties of decaffeinated theological education.

One brand is EUT – enlightenment university theology, dis-interested, uncommitted theology – an investigation or study of the phenomenon called Christianity and a set of classical texts called scripture, all of which can be done without faith commitment.

Another brand with a similar taste is DFAD – pandering to the desires of some young people to get a degree – and if they are Christian young people, it may as well be a theology degree, often in a safer place than a secular university. But here the theological café can do a good job. They may come in for decaffeinated coffee but when they taste the real thing, caffeine and all, they are often changed and go out with deep love for God in their hearts to serve Him with their lives.

One more brand of decaffeinated theological education is SFPP – study for practical purposes. There is a form of vocationalism that misses the point. It says “You will never be a good missionary or minister unless you grow spiritually, so we need to help students grow in their faith.” That is not love for God. Love for God is not one of ingredients of a good cake, it is the reason we bake the cake in the first place.

The real job, of course, is done not by the café designer but by the barista, the one who makes and serves up the coffee. He or she determines whether the caffeine is present or not. The café provides a pleasant place to drink it. So the most important contribution is not made by the college or seminary, but by the theological barista, the teacher. It is his or her job to see that the caffeine is in the cup, the aim of the love of God in the teaching.

Why serve up a nice, sweet, tasty theology with the key ingredient missing? For goodness sake, give them the real thing.

Decaffeinated theological education never did make the heart beat faster.

Old teachers are better

Posted October 1, 2013 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

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Old teachers are better

My thesis is simple; older teachers make the best theological educators more often than not.

Oh, I know the arguments in the other direction – I have even used them myself when I was a young teacher. “Teachers” we are told “need to be close to the youth culture of their students.” “The old fellows cannot keep up with the new technological developments” (although why good teaching suddenly after two thousand years can only take place through IT is a mystery to me). “The challenges of this generation are so different from being a Christian in the previous generation.” As the saying goes, old teachers never die, they just lose their class.

So, perhaps it is time to say to all the youngsters teaching today in theological education that the above may well be true but, generally speaking, the older teacher is a classier act than the younger teacher. Why? Here are a few good reasons;

  1. We know ourselves better than we did when we were young. After all, we have been in close proximity to ourselves for many years and, however much we may have tried to fool ourselves, the truth has come out by now. So we are good at helping with the vital task of self-discovery, self-understanding, that is going on in the hearts of our students (and some younger lecturers).
  2. We have discovered the difference between wisdom and knowledge. We know that the average theological education experience for students is heavy on knowledge but only experience can bring wisdom. We have seen much and heard much. Every student is unique but, because of our experience with many students and colleagues, we may well understand you better and perhaps help you beyond knowledge to biblical wisdom.
  3. We tend to take more account of deeds than words in our spirituality. We have heard plenty of student pledges of dedication, thousands of hymns and choruses of total surrender sung. But we have not seen so many going out and getting on with the job of bringing in the kingdom, at real personal cost to themselves. We have heard plenty of talk about community by staff members but not always enough love shown to all.
  4. We are often gentle and kind. We have nothing much left to prove now. We have done most of what the Lord has asked of us, we are not hungry young academics with a research profile to create, people to impress and ladders to climb. There is more space to be gentle.
  5. We have usually become more tolerant and open. Life was very black and white when we were young, we knew how God worked and where he was not. But slowly, out of wider travel, encounters and surprising discovery, we have realised that it is more complicated than that. There is no need to abandon our theology to come to the place where we can say with Faber that “the love of God is broader than the measure of man’s mind” and with Philips that the God of our younger days was “too small”.

Now I had better stop before I go too far. All of this, and much more, can only be true if the older teacher maintains a lively mind and a loving heart – which does not always happen. Students can help here if we are open to them. As it is said, they make you old and keep you young, both at the same time. And I know that we need young lecturers to relate quickly to the situation of the students. I am really pleading for a mixed age faculty where we all share our own special riches.

But I stand by my thesis. Older teachers make the best theological educators more often than not.

And if you are reading this as a fresh young teacher, don’t despair, you too will be old one day and, if you keep your head and your heart in good condition, you will be an ever greater blessing to your students.

Rush to Judgment

Posted August 31, 2013 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

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Rush to judgment

Judgment is a thorny subject for theological educators. On the one hand, we are told by James that not many Christian should become teachers because “We who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3v1).

And then, although we are told many times not to judge our brother, the whole assessment system we use does that in one way. Nor is it enough to say that we just judge academic attainment so such verses do not apply. If we have spiritual, ministerial and discipleship objectives for our teaching then in some ways we have the duty to make judgments in those areas as well – not least for the students themselves and also for their potential employers.

So we are under strict judgment ourselves and have to judge with grace and carefulness. This is not usually the atmosphere with which we approach the end of year marking, report writing and reference composing.

Like many reading this post, I have been judging for many years, as internal and external examiner in a variety of settings and as one who seems to be writing a constant stream of references for my ex-students. Here are a few things I have learnt;

  1. Done properly it is a time consuming, hard part of the job.
  2. Teachers ought to do the marking and assessment themselves, not leave it to other to “grade papers”. This is because in judging the students, we are judging ourselves. We can see how far we have been successful in achieving our objectives only when we take part in the assessment. Teachers are as much on trial as the students when we face a pile of scripts for marking.
  3. The distinction between formative assessment during the course and summative assessment at the end of the course is especially relevant for theological educators. The first is much more important than the second (although both have justification), we are in the business of forming students more than grading people.
  4. Numbers do not matter so much. It is always very difficult to justify giving a 62 rather than a 64 for a piece of work. But when we are judging ability in ministry or personal commitment to Christ, numbers become ridiculous. If you are marking a history essay, 50% is not such a bad mark. If you are teaching a pilot and half of the test is getting the aircraft up safely and half is getting it down safely, 50% is not such a good score.
  5. This leads me on to my central observation. We should remember that, in theological education, the easier something is to assess, the less important that something is.
  6. And lastly, this rule also applies to our teaching.  By all means read the student feedback forms but realise that they hardly touch the centre of good teaching. Love for students, love for subject, love for God, the presence of God within the teaching situation and the transforming of the spiritual and ministerial aspirations off the students rarely feature in the forms. But who will deny that these are in the centre of what we are trying to convey and to do?

Some of my statements above are a bit bold. Please judge me with grace and carefulness.

Who are “the least of these”?

Posted August 1, 2013 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

 

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Who are “the least of these”?

Martin Luther King Jr. asked this question of North Americans in one of his famous speeches in the civil rights movement. He was referring to Matthew 15 v 40.

“I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers, you did for me.”

The point is that, when Christians meet the needs of the poor, hungry, thirsty, marginalised and in trouble, they are ministering to Christ himself.

Now there is a tendency today to refuse to see our students as poor, thirsty, needy and in trouble. This is rightly seen as an old, “top down” view of teaching, and Henri Nouwen himself castigated teachers who see themselves as spreading a rich table of truths for the poor, needy students who come to them as empty beggars to receive. He was concerned to stress that students also come with great gifts to the teaching situation, in their own experiences of life and God.

And this is true but it is not the whole truth. Theological education is a complicated business and we need to hold a number of attitudes in tension. Eschewing the pride of the teacher which Nouwen was keen to combat, we can also say that students are needy, and our job is to meet their needs.

They need re-assurance that they do hold something valuable in the situation; they need guidance in their thinking; they need the raw material of what others have thought on the issues we are discussing; they need a good model to follow. Sometimes they get into difficulties with their faith and they need re-assurance and hope. Occasionally they need rebuke.

Then there are students with particular needs. Some struggle more than others academically, for instance, and there is a debate going on as to how far we should respond. After all, if we spend many more sessions with one student than others, are we not becoming unfair because they will all sit the same exam? Here surely pastoral responsibility must triumph over academic process (provided there is equality of opportunity to access all the help each student needs).

But the key issue before us is how we respond to what must surely be a startling truth of theological education.

Provided we relate to students as those in some way in need, which we must, then what we are doing for our students, we are doing to and for Christ himself.

How can we respond to that? With two things; with carefulness, to ensure that we do care and do act in love to our students, as Christ asks us, – and with joy. I am sure many Christians have dreamt of caring for the man of sorrows as he walked this earth. The theological educator can do this, for Jesus would say “for as much as you did it to the least of these my brothers, your students, you did it unto me”.

Now that is an encouragement with which to start the new academic year which will be, no doubt, full of “student problems”.

Lost in Space

Posted June 1, 2013 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

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Lost in Space

We all know that the physical space in which we teach can be stimulating or deadening for our students but, since Nouwen and Palmer, we now know the even greater importance of the psychological space we create by our intentions, attitudes and relationship with our students. They talked about a free and friendly space without fear but with boundaries, in which authentic encounter can take place with the teacher, with the truth, and each other.

A forum for theological educators from across South East Asia took place in Bangkok in May this year organised by a small group of concerned practitioners. It explored the matrix between learning, space and relationship and one key issue to come out of the discussions was the importance of seeing our learning and teaching taking place within a space that is fundamentally Christian. But what does that mean?

Firstly, it means that we cannot buy into the secular enlightenment university paradigm of teaching theology and biblical studies, which regards them as just a few more objective scientific enterprises which do not need faith or the Holy Spirit to succeed. We must assert that they are to be done by Christians for Christian purposes. In the words of Aquinas, they are faith seeking understanding.

Secondly, it means that we see our calling in theological education as a form of ministry, for God, to our students. Our objectives for them are as for ourselves, that they may love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength and their neighbour as themselves. As such, all the great passages in the New Testament about Christian ministry become guides, challenges and encouragements to us in our work.

Thirdly, it means that we consciously create the space for encounter; for the students to encounter us teachers as fellow Christians striving, with them, to please God; with each other in real Christian community; with the fellowship of past and present scholars; and above all, with God. We teach and learn in the conscious presence of the God we talk about. We are not just looking for knowledge about God but greater knowledge of God.

Fourthly, it means that we model for our students a real engagement with society and lead them into that engagement. We do not create “locked away” Christian space that has no interface with the world, we create real “discipleship in the world” space. This means, among other things, a deep and full and free engagement with the academic enterprise of society, academia – working at its level, heeding its quality control rules, engaging with its questions and being a respected partner. Christian space is open space, not narrow space.

This does not exhaust the concept of Christian space and I would encourage readers to extend it in the comments section below.

We must now do two things. We must work out just what this means for our practice in teaching. And we must, because it is the harder and less safe option, have the courage to try to create just such a Christian space for ourselves and our students.

In the words of Captain Kirk, “to boldly go……It’s teaching, but not as we know it….”


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