Who was the Brain in that Jar?

Sometimes all good teaching needs is the right framing.
September 8th, 2016

As students and teachers are nestling back into another academic year, here's a conversation you'll want to listen in on. Beth Green, Cardus director of education research, talks with Professor Trevor Cooling about his latest book Christian Faith in English Church Schools: Research Conversations with Classroom Teachers. Trevor Cooling is professor of Christian education at Canterbury Christ Church University. Drawing on empirical research carried out with teachers, this book challenges popular assumptions about what distinctively Christian education is. Professor Cooling argues that we need to get past approaches that shoehorn evangelistic messages into lessons. Instead he offers a way to reframe teaching and learning in the light of the kingdom of God and the formation of distinctively Christian character.

BG: Thank you very much, Trevor, for taking the time to talk with me. You've got a story you tell about seeing a brain in a jar and its impact on your journey into Christian education.

Being distinctly Christian is not about being uniquely in-your-face Christian. It's about actually knowing that the way your life is lived as a teacher, the way your classroom is run, is faithful and rooted in a Christian understanding of the world.

TC: Yes, it was when I was at school—I think I was about fifteen at the time—and we were having a biology lesson on the different regions of the brain and how they control different bodily functions. Our teacher had us all around the front. There was this jar, and in it was a human brain. Basically it was an information lesson about the regions of the brain, but what I remember is, first, the colour of the brain: I'll spare you the details but it wasn't gray. Then, second, I remember trying to work out where the thoughts were now that would have been active in that brain.

I was really trying to work out the relationship between mind and brain. That wasn't on the agenda for the lesson at all, because it's not considered "science." But I realized afterward that I was being dosed up with a materialist understanding of the human brain. In retrospect, I think that could have been changed completely if, for example, the teacher, at the beginning, had simply made a stop for a minute and reflected on the person who had given us this brain. That would have framed the whole lesson differently, because it would have personalized what we were doing. As an approach to teaching biology, it was only a small thing, but it taught me a lot.

BG: The book, Christian Faith in English Church Schools, reports findings from your research project that looked into a distinctively Christian way of framing teaching. Can you tell me a little bit about the history of that project and its assumptions? Why should a Christian teaching that lesson about the brain do it differently?

TC: Well, the language "distinctively Christian" emerged from the Church of England, which in 2001 published a very significant report explaining that their schools in England and Wales were in danger of disappearing completely into the state-funded system. They wanted to remain part of the state system, but they also wanted to say that we have something distinctive to offer. That was the challenge that went out to schools. One of the questions is, how does that affect all of what teachers do in classrooms, and not just teachers of religion but teachers of all subjects?

The project that is reported in the book is an investigation of how teachers respond to that challenge to be distinctively Christian. But we didn't just let them loose to do it on their own because we've also developed a pedagogy called What If Learning. What it does is it gives teachers the tools to frame their lessons within a Christian understanding of what it is to be a human being. For example, when I talked about shifting a biology lesson from a materialist approach to one that recognizes personhood, simply introducing that notion of personhood at the very beginning reframes the whole lesson. The project looks at how teachers manage that, how they work with the What If Learning approach. We worked with fourteen teachers for a year.

BG: Can you give me a taste of the main findings?

TC: Well we found that when teachers get it, when they switch on to the process, they can do some amazing things.

BG: Do you have a favourite story of a teacher for whom it really worked?

TC: Well, my favourite is a hockey lesson.

One of our responsibilities as Christians is to build for the kingdom of God, so we are in partnership with God in the world, foreshadowing his ultimate goal for what it is to be truly human.

BG: Yes tell us about the hockey lesson, that will go down well in Canada. Although it is field hockey isn't it?

TC: Yeah, not ice hockey. It was a teacher working through how to do a push pass in the lesson. It's fun to ask people how you would teach the push pass in a Christian way. The most common suggestion is to add a short homily to the end of the lesson about discipline or Christian ethos. When we asked the students what they had been learning in their hockey lesson they told us that they were learning to be encouragers of other people. There was no homily in the lesson. They had spent the whole time coaching one another and then playing a short match. This is a teacher who has reframed all of his lessons through a coaching lens. He did this because he was concerned about the impact of elite sport on the students in his school. He felt that it emphasized performance and getting personal glory, and he wanted to offer them an alternative vision of how sport contributes to life.

BG: One of the things that I know people have said to you is, "What is Christian about this example, isn't this just good pedagogy?"

TC: Yeah, one of the funniest times it happened to me was when the CEO of the British Humanist Association, Andrew Copson, challenged the What If Learning approach by saying it isn't Christian. When I asked what he meant, he said he liked it, he like the outcomes, but if he liked it as an atheist it couldn't possibly be Christian. His argument was that to be Christian it's got to be unique to Christianity. It's got to be a clearly identifiable religious thing, and this wasn't. I think the problem is that a lot of Christians think like that too. To me, being distinctly Christian is not about being uniquely in-your-face Christian. It's about actually knowing that the way your life is lived as a teacher, the way your classroom is run, is faithful and rooted in a Christian understanding of the world. So you can show why coaching, for example, is important because of a Christian understanding.

BG: What were some of the challenges you encountered in your conversations with teachers?

TC: One of the things that came out of the project for us—and this was one of the, if you like, the negative findings—was that many of the teachers struggled with what we were asking them to do. To cut a long story short, I think the issue was that their perceptions of what being faithfully Christian requires contradicted their instincts as teachers. Before using the What If Learning approach they seemed to have an understanding of Christianity in which the only way to be distinctively Christian was to insert an evangelistic message into every lesson.

BG: This seems to raise a big question about what Christians think the gospel is. I know N.T. Wright has been an important theological conversation partner for you and for this project, particularly his work on Christian character. Could you tell us about the significance of that?

TC: If you ask people in England what they think the gospel is, they'll usually say, well, we sinned, Jesus died for us, we need to respond, and then we'll go to heaven. That's a bit of a caricature, but there's a fair amount of truth in it. That is part of the gospel, but it's not the whole gospel. I think N.T. Wright has been very helpful in bringing to the fore this sense that the good news is not just about personal salvation and going to heaven, it's about the restoration of God's rule on earth. That one of our responsibilities as Christians is to build for the kingdom of God, so we are in partnership with God in the world, foreshadowing his ultimate goal for what it is to be truly human. There's an anthropology built in to the gospel, which we can offer now to the world, and it benefits everybody. They don't actually have to be Christian to appreciate that this is a way of being human that has a lot more to offer than many of the current models on offer.

BG: You've talked about the fact that one of the distinctive functions of a Christian school is to be a signpost to the kingdom of God. Can you say a little bit more about that as a model?

If the vision of the school is only really first about becoming a Christian, then you're actually creating an apartheid within the school.

TC: One of the reasons why I think this is important in the United Kingdom is because most of our Christian schools have children in them who come from families that aren't churchgoing or Christian. To be able to offer them something distinctively Christian, which doesn't first require them to be converted, is very important. Otherwise, you have this sort of two-tier school, which is what you found in your PhD research, where you get kids who are on the inside because they're the ones who have become Christians, and then you've got all the others who are on the outside. If the vision of the school is only really first about becoming a Christian, then you're actually creating an apartheid within the school. What I think the sort of work that Tom Wright has done theologically is to offer teachers a way of understanding their work that is for everybody. They're offering them a vision of what it is to be human, in God's way, which they can begin to respond to as created creatures.

BG: There's a lot of interest in virtue or character education on both sides of the pond, and it often gets associated with words like "grit" and "resilience," as if, by the strength of our own effort and strength of character, we can flourish. How is this vision of Christian character education different?

TC: Wright talks about the fact that there is a lot of similarity with how Aristotelian virtues are taught, but that's not enough because there isn't the ultimate telos, or end goal, of ushering in the kingdom of God. I went to the first launch conference of the Association of Character Education, which was a huge conference by English standards. It's a very big movement over here. Everyone was talking about Aristotle, because Aristotle's okay, because somehow Aristotle is neutral. No one mentioned Jesus because that was not okay, we can't do that. But one of the things that struck me most was when one of the presenters talked about a child in his school he was really pleased with because this child had said, "Well, at the end of the day, if I lose everything, I've still got my character." What struck me about that was the anthropology that was being assumed. It was what I call the brave hero, all on their own. I wanted to say, "No actually, you haven't just got your character, you've got your God. You've got your saviour." But that would have been considered inappropriate because it's sectarian to a particular Christian group, whereas somehow that brave hero, which is quite Aristotelian, is considered to be universal. I think we need to challenge that discourse.

BG: It's also individualistic, isn't it? The assumption is that you make your own character, whereas one of the points about the kingdom of God is its embodiment within community. This reminds me of James K.A. Smith's work on how we reimagine our worship together. The sorts of liturgies we build as a covenant community are actually really important for the development of our character. You don't do it on your own.

To finish, I wanted to talk a little bit about an important difference in the way this research was carried out. A lot of current educational research focuses on big data, and there are only fourteen teachers in this project. Was that deliberate, or was it just because you didn't have enough funding to conduct a randomized control trial?

TC: One of the things that came out of this project for me in terms of the methodology was the realization that in the United Kingdom, we are moving toward a notion that the only form of valid research, what our government calls the gold standard, is a randomized controlled trial, where you sort of have two sets of data, one in the control group, one who receive an intervention, and then you look at the difference.

That is a pervasive model, and we ended up in a debate about the validity of our research with the British Humanist Association, who said basically we couldn't prove anything from what we were doing. That made us think a lot about the status of the knowledge we are producing, and the positivist idea that the only form of valid knowledge is that which comes out of that sort of randomized controlled trial.

BG: Well it takes us back to the disembodied brain in the jar because it says that there's no human, there's no complexity, there's no personhood, and all that exists is just the bits we can measure.

TC: The danger is that as Christians we think that we're just in a conflict fighting over kids' minds, and that somehow we've got to win by getting our stuff in and stop the opposition getting their stuff in or by empirically proving that our stuff is better. If you think like that it leads us into indoctrination and brainwashing. The metaphors we use to think about what we're about in Christian education are really important. This is one of the issues I had with Smith in my book. I mean, his work is really, really important to this whole project, but he uses a metaphor about conscription of the farm boy in the First World War. I was uncomfortable with that, because it implies a sort of enforced taking over of someone's mind without their really having much control of it. I'd be much more comfortable with the metaphor of recruitment. The metaphors we use are really important, because they shape our behaviour.

BG: All the way along in the research you've been saying that we need critical reflection on the relationship between our theology and how we know and learn.

TC: That kind of reflection needs to be on the table, and teachers, I think, find it immensely helpful to have that sort of background work done for them. One of the things that we recommended in the book was that school leaders see themselves as theological and pedagogical leaders. They're actually going to help their teachers think through those sorts of things. In the UK situation, there aren't many of them that have been equipped to that, so that's a really big task for the church.


Beth Green is Program Director of Cardus Education. She previously directed the National Centre for Christian Education at Liverpool Hope University in the United Kingdom where she also ran the Professional Doctorate in Education (EdD). Dr Green has a DPhil from the University of Oxford which was funded by a prestigious Economic and Research Council Scholarship; she is also a graduate of Cambridge and London Universities and took the Hans Prize in Education for her MA thesis in Education Management. Dr. Green has an international reputation for her expertise in religious school ethos; leadership and management; teaching and learning and social theory in education. She regularly publishes her empirical research in international journals including the British Journal of Sociology and Education and the Cambridge Journal of Education. Her consultancy regularly takes her to Europe and Australia where she advises on effective approaches to measurement, professional development, and pedagogy in the religious school sector. Dr. Green is a former high school history teacher who has worked in both government and non-government schools in the UK.

Academic Publications


Trevor Cooling is professor of Christian education at Canterbury Christ Church University in the United Kingdom. He is director of the National Institute for Christian Education Research and author of Christian Faith in English Church Schools: Research Conversations with Classroom Teachers. The book was written with Beth Green, Lynn Revell, and Andrew Morris and is published by Peter Lang.


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