Education is a conversation between the generations about what it means to be human. This paper traces this conversation from its Greco-Roman and early Christian roots to the present—looking at how the Christian notion has shifted our conception of excellence in important ways, but how we have perhaps lost a fully rounded vision of it in our late modern world. We also present some of the data from the Cardus Education Survey, in order to begin mapping possible ways in which excellence is understood—arguing that Christian schools, at present, typically settle for either adopting the dominant discourse of excellence uncritically or eschewing it completely. Finally, we proffer one possible approach to rewarding teacher excellence in Christian education.
In short, excellence is not abstract. In this paper we map the ways in which excellence has been understood partly to act as a reminder that there was life before the Enlightenment, but also to argue that excellence as a virtue encompasses three important components. First, telos: excellence is always for something. Second, character: skills and knowledge are to be exercised wisely. And third, Christian framework: excellence is always grounded in the pre-existing character of the Creator.
By contrast, a brief review of the literature suggests that there are broadly two ways in which contemporary discourse understands teacher excellence; one rests heavily on systems theory, the other on developing reflexive practice. Interestingly, both of these approaches emphasize a mastery of competence and skill, and both are heavily oriented toward individual performance rather than a broader conception of the common good. Also, neither considers the significance of character or the wise application of knowledge.
In conclusion, excellence is always relative to context and embedded in practice. We have made the mistake in education of attempting to engage with and measure an abstract principle, instead of recognizing that without critical reflection we are importing a whole set of assumptions about what education is for—and, implicitly, who the person is. Christian educators need to talk about what education is for: They need a story and a set of practices guided by the Christian story, as it is lived within committed faithful community. Only then is measurement possible and, as we have argued, is it possible to have a set of robust and successful outcomes nested within the Christian telos. Ongoing reflection, evaluation, and dissemination of excellence awards builds the standard of excellence within the Christian school community and offers this as a contribution to the common good.
During a recent Uber ride, I (Beth) learned that Kevin, my driver, had an excellent teacher he still remembered. His science teacher had put Cheerios in a blender, added water, and poured the mixture through a bottle over a magnet. Two hours later, an iron pellet was visible. Kevin could still remember how he and his classmates felt: “Whoa, there’s iron in our breakfast cereal! That’s cool.” Kevin also told me about a less positive experience from a science lesson in his religious school: various liquids were added to a beaker, and as it got progressively darker the students were told that this was an illustration of what sin does to the soul. I asked Kevin how this made him feel, and he admitted that he felt pretty torn up: “I used to be a Christian,” said Kevin, “but now I am a pagan.” Of course, the science lesson wasn’t the reason Kevin made that journey, but as the Cardus Education Survey tells us, Christian schools do have an impact on how students go on to live out their faith.
Kevin could recognize the excellent teaching and learning practice that helped him learn and the destructive one that he had been hurt by. It seems that most of us have something in mind when we think about “excellence,” but just what does this elusive term mean? Excellence is a buzzword in education. It is sought after for students and teachers and school communities. Educators strive for it and want to form it in others. But the question persists: What do we mean by excellence, and how are we to foster it?
Kevin told me he had not entirely seen the point of getting an education but that now he liked to learn things. He said to me, “Surely the best way to learn about anything is to talk about it.” And he illustrated this during the Uber ride. “So, this is your first time using Uber, right?” he asked. “To learn about how it works, you should just ask me questions, and I will tell you about it.” Kevin has probably never heard of the educational philosopher Michael Oakeshott, but Oakeshott said essentially the same thing: education is a conversation between the generations about what it means to be human.1Kevin understood this intuitively.
The conversation that has been taking place about excellence in education is indeed a long and complex one, and our hope in this paper is to briefly trace an outline of the roots of excellence in Greco-Roman and early Christian thought. Specifically, the paper will look at how the Christian notion shifted the classical conception of excellence in important ways, and how we have perhaps lost a fully rounded Christian vision of it in our late modern world. The paper will also present some of the data from the Cardus Education Survey, in order to demonstrate this loss—arguing that Christian schools tend to either adopt the dominant discourse of excellence uncritically or eschew it completely. Finally, the paper proffers one possible approach to rewarding teacher excellence in Christian education.
Tracing Western education back to its classical roots reveals that education has almost always been associated with a striving after excellence—what the Greeks termed arete. In his landmark study of the period, Henri-Irénée Marrou defines arete as “the ideal value to which even life itself must be sacrificed.”2For the ancient Greeks, arete was tied to effectiveness: How well could a person develop and use all the resources available to them for maximum results? As Marrou notes, this concept assumed a human-centred world, where human actions are of ultimate importance. So, the first key point is that excellence is not abstract; it is connected to human action, oriented toward what is valued, and related directly to what one believes education is for.
By the fifth century BC, educating young men to be influential in the burgeoning political body of the polis—a body of citizens democratically governed—was the ultimate purpose, or telos, of education.3And so an excellent education trained an elite in the techniques necessary to persuade others through the powers of rhetoric. This gave rise to the Sophists who, for money, could train young aristocrats in this techne, or art.
Socrates challenged the idea that education was merely for the attainment of some “technique” or skill, whether that be in war or in words, which would lead to the necessary power and influence to govern the state or become an elite. You could argue that Socrates was the first one to say that good education did not conceive of excellence, or arete, merely in its external, public function. Rather, as Richard Gamble points out, for Socrates and Plato, “education is properly understood as the care and perfection of the soul. Excellence (arete) is not primarily excellence of skill, but excellence of virtue.”4This understanding of education marks the beginning of a turn inward, which signalled an important change in how excellence was imagined. Excellence was not merely tied to competence in speaking and acting, but also to the inward workings of character and the cultivation of wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice within a person.
In Plato’s formulation, excellence becomes highly intellectual. It is not a skill but a pursuit of the right way of thinking and judging—one that is dialogical and thus dependent on others in society. Indeed, the entire Republic is an extended argument that the ideal, transformed polis is only fitly ruled by someone (a philosopher) who has been inwardly transformed first. For Plato, the philosopher-ruler is capable of ruling only due to a rigorous, formational education. We are not advocating for the kind of education that Plato lays out in the Republic, but the second key point is that the formation of character (paideia) matters a great deal in such an education. Paideia, excellence in education, is also about using knowledge and skills wisely.
Christians from the earliest times have had conflicting attitudes about how to deal with the classical intellectual heritage. Some, like Tertullian, advocated a sharp rift between “Athens” (Greek philosophy) and “Jerusalem” (Judeo-Christian religion), while others, like Augustine, believed one could still see the goodness of the “gold of the Egyptians” without fashioning it into an idol. In his short primer for Christian elders, On Christian Doctrine, Augustine encourages Christians to boldly take the treasures of the pagans:
If those who are called philosophers, especially the Platonists, have said things which are indeed true and are well accommodated to our faith, they should not be feared; rather, what they have said should be taken from them as from unjust possessors and converted to our use. Just as the Egyptians had not only idols and grave burdens which the people of Israel detested and avoided, so also, they had vases and ornaments of gold and silver and clothing which the Israelites took with them secretly when they fled, as if to put them to a better use.5
In terms of understanding excellence, the transition from the Greco-Roman world to the Christian world witnessed a subtle shift, particularly as it related to the New Testament focus on virtue and the fruit of the Spirit. Early Christians not only converted from paganism but also converted key philosophical and educational concepts along the way, putting this pagan gold to better use.
When arete appears in the New Testament, English translations usually use “moral excellence” or “virtue.” For example, the NIV translates Philippians 4:8 as follows: “Whatever is true…noble…right…pure…lovely…admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Clearly, the writers in the New Testament, Paul particularly, think of excellence in moral and spiritual terms, with its perfect manifestations found in God’s character—and most clearly articulated as the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22–23). Indeed, the most significant shift in thinking, demonstrated in Augustine’s treatment of excellence in his Confessions, is that the formation of human excellence is always grounded in the pre-existing excellence of the Creator. Excellence that is not rooted in God’s character is idolatrous.
A brief review of the literature suggests that there are broadly two ways in which teacher excellence is commonly understood by educational commentators today: one rests heavily on systems theory, the other on developing reflexive practice. Interestingly, both of these approaches emphasize a mastery of competence and skill, and both are heavily oriented toward individual performance rather than toward a broader conception of the public or common good. Also, neither takes into account the significance of character or the wise application of knowledge.
A systems approach to improving standards in education focuses almost exclusively on inputs and outputs.6Teacher excellence in this model is posited very narrowly because it focuses almost exclusively on student outputs, primarily measured in terms of achievement on a standardized test. In such a model, excellence in teaching and learning can be understood only in relation to inputs that can be directly measured by their effect on academic outcomes. An example of one such output would be covering the syllabus. The attempt to identify the teaching and learning practices associated with good academic outcomes and to disseminate them is laudable. Indeed, teachers and education systems should be held accountable for student outcomes, and it is not unreasonable, at first glance, to define teacher excellence as that which promotes good academic outcomes.
However, there are three main problems with uncritically adopting this model and defining teacher excellence this way. The first problem is that little to no account is taken of the relational or affective domain associated with teaching and learning—the focus is primarily cognitive. Second, the broader socioeconomic and religious contexts in which teaching is located are not deemed to be important. (Ball and Green all discuss at length, elsewhere, why this is deeply problematic.7) In effect, this model functions as an educational assembly line that promotes homogenous teaching and learning techniques focused almost exclusively on covering curriculum content. Collaboration, innovation, and risk-taking are not rewarded in systems that exclusively measure academic outputs—particularly when attainment is defined purely in terms of one mode of testing. The third consequence of defining excellence in terms only of academic performance is perhaps unintended but significant nonetheless. Narrow performance models encourage teachers to teach to the test, and discourage them from using any teaching and learning practices that go beyond the transmission of factual knowledge.
The latest research into teaching and learning demonstrates the centrality of the affective domain, showing that learning also requires engagement with practice.8Contemporary teacher-education and professional-development models in Europe and in North America have ostensibly embraced what is commonly referred to as a “reflexive practice” model. These approaches tend to affirm greater innovation in teaching and learning strategies, problem solving, and collaboration in which the learner has greater autonomy.9In this model, teacher excellence tends to be associated with the development of personal characteristics of the learner. It assumes that an excellent teacher is one who has the skills to develop “positive relationships with all students.”10While this model engages with a more sophisticated understanding of how learning happens, a significant qualifier should be made. The reflexive approach still places much emphasis on the individual teacher rather than a full consideration of the complexity of the classroom, which includes the socioeconomic context of the learners, different levels of prior attainment, and their access to stable identity formation. In this failure to attend to the particulars of the students it also tends toward a “competence” model of excellence. This competence model arises because the teacher is still primarily conceptualized as an individual possessing all the necessary personal qualities to achieve excellence in the learner. Qualities understood this way are a priori, not emergent. In other words, this theoretical model still does not take fully into account the relational aspect of teaching and learning, the interaction with the learner, and the significance of context in the classroom.
Yet this focus on excellence still doesn’t tackle the larger question: What is education for? Going back to the Greco-Roman and early Christian worlds, one thing that both paradigms shared was an implicit understanding that education had both internal and external dimensions. Internally, education was about the formation of virtues, morals, and, more broadly, character. Externally, education was meant to form citizens and leaders of public life. Ideally, both the internal and external teloi were met. Today, the desire for excellence in both its internal and external dimensions still lingers in educational discourse, but in many ways our schools and communities do not conceive of excellence as fully as they might. Data from the Cardus Education Survey show that in some ways this less-than-full conception of excellence is particularly true of religious independent schools. James Davison Hunter examines Christian reluctance to seek power and form cultural “elites” as a somewhat admirable trait, and one rooted to good theology. Hunter explains that there is a real tension today between our “desire for” and “fear of” excellence. He asks, Is it possible to “pursue excellence and, under God’s sovereignty, be in a position of influence and privilege and not be ensnared by the trappings of elitism?”11In this paper we argue that teachers and schools should continue to strive after excellence and even continue to measure it, but in ways that are not reductionist. In order to do this better, teachers need to recover a full-orbed vision of excellence.
Conceptualizing excellence as a virtue might offer a way to overcome some of the tensions inherent in the common ways of thinking about teacher excellence and to help Christian schools navigate what can be affirmed and what needs to be challenged in the light of Christian understandings of education’s telos. Cardus’s own research is contributing to the revival of a discussion of teacher excellence within the K–12 Christian school community in North America because it insists on measuring wider educational outcomes. These include the academic, spiritual, and cultural characteristics of Christian-school graduates. In this way it is contributing to a growing body of work that argues for the significance of religious belief and practice in the context of learning, and for a better understanding of the impact of schools.12While the Cardus survey does not directly investigate teacher excellence, some findings from this research suggest that the way in which Christian schools engage with the concept of excellence, particularly as it manifests in teaching, might be significant for their ongoing reflection.
Cardus first collected data from nationally representative samples of graduates in Canada and the US in 2010 and 2011.13The study found significant differences between two of the largest religious-school sectors: Catholic and Protestant evangelical. As Ray Pennings and his co-authors summarized in a later report,
Evangelical Protestant (EP) schools excelled in forming spiritual life and faith and building commitment to family and church life, but their academic outcomes fell short of the other sectors. Catholic schools produced much stronger academic outcomes, but efforts to instill faith and spirituality did not manifest in young adulthood.14
In 2014, Cardus repeated and extended the sphere of study, collecting data about the occupations of Christian-school graduates as adults and their views and practices regarding science and technology.15The 2014 findings continue to reveal a significant difference between EP and Catholic schools as it was described in the 2011 report. In addition, they report that the graduates of EP schools focus less on careers in science, technology, engineering, and math than Catholic graduates do. EP graduates value vocational calling heavily and are also more likely than Catholic graduates to choose to work in human-service careers, such as social work, health care, and education. Pennings et al. hypothesize that this difference can partly be accounted for by a different motivation or conception of the purpose of education, particularly since the EP community emphasizes spiritual formation and vocational calling and service more than academic outcomes.
In this paper we have mapped the ways in which excellence has been understood partly to act as a reminder that there was life before the Enlightenment, but also to argue that excellence as a virtue encompasses three important components. First, telos: excellence is always for something. Second, character: skills and knowledge are to be exercised wisely. And third, Christian framework: excellence is always grounded in the pre-existing character of the Creator. Interpreting the data with these three components in mind reveals several interesting findings. The echoes of telos and character can be heard within the EP school sector, but there also appears to be a reticence about the external dimension of excellence. This suggests that the formation of leaders and cultural influencers is not seen by all as a legitimate or even as a desirable goal. The results for the Catholic-school sector seem to illuminate an opposite trend, where we find fewer attempts to critique the dominant contemporary discourse of excellence in terms of telos and the character of God.
How to define, measure, and reward excellence in Christian education is no longer merely an abstract question. Cardus has co-sponsored the Teacher Excellence Awards in Christian independent schools since 2016.16In the remainder of this paper we offer an overview of the elements developed for these awards. First, fundamental to the awards’ design is the assumption that the community of Christian schools itself should be given the opportunity to articulate the telos of Christian education and reflect on where current understandings of excellence reside in the schools’ existing practice.
Second, teachers are nominated by their communities rather than by applying themselves. The distinction between “nomination” and “application” might seem like a nuance, but it is not. The process of nomination requires a consensus among the members of the community, who recognize that excellence in teaching and learning are contributing to the proper telos of education. This consensus affirms the external domain of excellence as a practice because it focuses on the contribution made to the whole community. This will of course include evidence of academic outcomes, innovative pedagogy, collaborative method, and use of technology, to name several criteria typically applied to excellent teaching and learning and ubiquitous within the literature. The critical point is that the awards criteria do not reduce excellence in teaching and learning to the performance of these techniques.