Reimagining Spirituality

Sometimes blogging takes off. In this case, Lindsay Jordan, a fellow academic and doctoral student’s reflection on the philosophy of education – sometimes hers, sometimes more generally – produces some really worthwhile stuff.  Go and have a look: she makes a good case, for instance, here, around holistic views of higher education.

And this is why it was worth paying attention when Lindsay tweeted Jonathan Rowson’s report for the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce on spirituality. It is a really good report. It says to me that the spirituality component of our Masters’ module on Children’s Imaginative Worlds should be asked to read, mark and inwardly digest it as a matter of course, and that it is a really useful document for the Undergraduate work on Spirituality that I’ve discussed before, e.g. here and here, where I start from Rowson’s blog.

At a personal level, the passage in which Rowson discusses “the myriad addictions of apparently normal behaviour and [how] what passes for everyday consciousness begins to look like a low-level psychopathology” hits me almost with the force of a passage of Lectio Divina. Perhaps I have to follow the instruction with which the report ends, where Richard Rohr exhorts us  to “live ourselves into new ways of thinking.”

And this is where my own argument falters, and I have not yet worked out how to allow this holistic view of spirituality to develop my (sometimes uncomfortable) position as a member of a faith community teaching spirituality in a secular university. Perhaps, perhaps, it is time to move to a teaching of spirituality that is more open to (respectful) conflict and less eclectic, that allows, as one Muslim student remarked recently, “allows me to really re-evaluate what I believe – not so that I come to disbelieve it, but so that I know what I believe and I believe it stronger.” But does that mean that the academic demands are “best answered through practice rather than theory”? That the module looks at practising spirituality rather than examine it theoretically? Bonaventure, the great Franciscan theologian who recieved his doctorate at the same time as Thomas Aquinas is clear:

“…if you want to understand how this happens, ask it of grace, not of learning; ask it of desire, not of attentive reading; ask it of the betrothed, not of the teacher; ask it of God, not of humanity; ask it of darkness, not of radiance.”

Is this an anti-intellectual stance, or one that is simply demanding learning though practice? And what are its implications for the mixed community of a secular UK university?


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Are we lacking in stories about real kids?

Abigail makes a good point in Like a Real Life where she asks “why are children’s picture books hardly ever about children?” She raises the issue of anthropomorphism in a slightly different way: are real children really “soooo thirty years ago”?

I suspect I have an answer of some sorts, but before we go that way, I’d like to echo the idea that Like a Real Life explores: there are good books with animals standing in for humans, and there may well be some decline in humans as main characters – although I think a really effective bit of time-sampling would be needed to make this claim securely (just to play Devil’s Advocate, for example, I  might cite Charlie and Lola, and the great Bear Hunt itself).

But no: alongside Charlie and Lola, as Like a Real Life suggests, are the Julia Donaldson brigade, great stories, massively well marketed and brilliantly produced, with frogs, and mice.

Where I think the animal stories succeed is in blurring limitations of time, space and culture.  That’s not to say they are bad because of this, but that Room on the Broom, for example, may be “about” sibling rivalry or how people learn to get along but is not boundaried by portrayals of a period of time, class, ethnicity &c., as (perhaps) the work of Mary Hoffman or Shirkey Hughes might be. This might, the cynic in me argues, come  down to marketing, although you could argue (see my post on Diversity) that this is a weakness: that a frog cannot ever really stand  in for  a marginsalised child, for example. If this comes down to identification then we have to develop a much more acute sense of what is being signified by this mouse, that badger, good and bad wolves, so that we can “leave in the magic, leave in the bizarre and the adventure” and still let the children be in on the game.

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Maintained Nursery Schools

Killing any birds with any number of stones is not easy in election time. This blog post, short though it is, maybe is over-ambitious.

This information is intended largely for the enlightenment of my own students (do I own students?) as their write their assignments for Early Years in the UK Context – but since it is of wider significance, and came to me as a personal communication from my MP, I thought it could go here for more public perusal.

Letter from SOS to Rt Hon A Smith

These are politically senstive times, so I will present it without commentary, except to say that the letter in response to my own letter to Andrew Smith, who took up the matter with Nicky Morgan: the date is explained in other correspondence by the letter from the Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan in Sept not reaching Andrew Smith until this month.

Do use the reply facility if you wish.


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Fattening a Pig

My father-in-law, Donald, was a Master Joiner who spent a lot of his working life on farms in the vale of York. He was (although this is by-the-way) witty, well read, but not a “success” at school; whatever that means, we are not talking about a father-in-law who was an educationalist. He was, however, a man much given to pithy comments, and when SATs first came in, he once said “You don’t fatten a pig by weighing it.” According to Don, testing, whatever other soundbites might suggest, does not automatically improve standards.

So here I am, on an unreasonably sunny morning, procrastinating about my Easter email backlog and pondering what might be said about tests. I see the opposition to baseline testing is back, from Early Education and others, and from the Unions – and I gather that Tristram Hunt has said he is always ready to “listen to professionals but…”

And today the proposal to re-test children who fail SATs at KS2 is interesting: the language alone is worth a re-read. Look first at the Telegraph‘s report:

Children who fail their primary school leaving exams in English and maths will be made to retake the tests in their first year of secondary school under Conservative plans to ensure there is “zero-tolerance of failure and mediocrity”

Is “failure” at the heart of SATs, then? And are KS2 SATs to be seen as “leaving exams”?

I think I am in favour of giving children a chance to have another go at an assessment task. It may even be (although I am less convinced about this) that a child might do better in a different environment. What is really quite disturbing in the language used by the Telegraph is the shorthand which makes SATs the ultimate arbiter of a child’s success – so much so that they will take them again if necessary.

Of course, this isn’t really what the proposal would be like: children would be allowed to have further teaching that would improve their skills in basic maths and English, and their NuSATs (my neologism) would test how well they were managing to catch up. The BBC have a different take on this:

The test resit plan from the Conservatives, which would be implemented next year, is aimed at making sure that pupils have not already fallen too far behind at the beginning of secondary school.

Pupils who did not get good grades in the Sats tests taken by 11-year-olds in primary school would have to retake a test during their first year after moving up to secondary school.

So let’s hear from the SoS herself:

“If they don’t achieve the required level when they leave Primary School, then in year 7, their first year at Secondary School, they would take slimmed-down tests in English and Maths. They could take these either in the spring term or the summer term.”

and I hope this link to her BBC interview remains stable, since her ipsissima verba are mostly reasonable, not strident, well worth listening to and pondering. It seems to me a wholesome ambition that young people should move from Primary schooling with a strategy in place for all the support they need to make a success of Secondary (I have been marking undergraduate year 1 assignments recently and might comment on English at entry to University at some point – but not today). I am not sure she has really explained here what will happen to make sure the children reach what she calls the “required levels,” and I worry that this may mean that Secondary schools are asked to use what she calls “catch-up money” to brumm children who are “behind” up to a standard that may not really be sustainable but which has got them through their NuSATs. There is a slight unease as I hear her move into what view OfSTED and the DfE might take as they look at “whether the school is letting those children down by not getting them to the required standard…there could be an intervention (NB the word is first used by the Beeb’s interviewer), it could be that other head teachers could come in or offer advice…”

And we are back at what has always seemed to me the main reason for SATs: to assess, not children, but the effectiveness of the school.

So if the pig being weighed is not the child, can we apply my father-in-law’s dictum to systems? Can we over evaluate schools? Is the over-testing of system likely to cause irreparable damage to the system? While I acknowledge they say little about school systems, to finish, here are some YouTube clips in which stretching and stress are used to test materials  from a webbing manufacturer, and from a Lab Test on Stainless Steel.

They are testing products to destruction.  Absit omen.


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Evaluation stumble

Last week I wrote a Moodle Book.

If you don’t know what that is, well, the way I used it, it’s a sequence of pages in a tool on the Brookes Virtual Learning Environment that has allowed me to set up a series of reading activities with videos and questions to ponder around curricular documents from England, Wales, NI and Scotland. Simpler than the bells and whistles of things like Adobe Connect, although I’m sure my version is basic even for the Moodle Book.

I am sort of proud of it, although Sue Cowley’s blog on making raised beds for her allotment was very apt when I read it on Friday. I got better over time.

And on Monday morning – tomorrow as I type – students will go and have a look, maybe dip into a page or two and say “meh,” I should imagine. They may persevere: it’s info needed for the assignment turned into a self-study tool from possibly the dullest class of the whole year.

My problem, really, is the Start-Stop-Carry On activity I gave them when we last met. High-tech stuff, this: a piece of A5 paper with the words Start, Stop and (you guessed it) Carry on, inviting students to say what they felt needed to be done about their module, by adding (‘Start’) or removing (‘Stop’) elements. An ad hoc evaluation.

And the the thing that came out loud and clear was “Stop Doing All This Online Stuff.”

Stop-Start-Carry On becomes Stop Nick in His Tracks.  I’ve done this new one for Monday because I’ve said I would, but the students were all-but unanimous in wanting face-to-face sessions where they could.   This could be because I suck at online learning environments; it could be because of the hidden conservatism of the students. Whatever the reason, I feel I have to ask:

What do we do with evaluation that goes against the grain?

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Visual Methodologies


I’m re-reading Gillian Rose on Visual Methodology, and she has given me a lot to think about.  I’d like to see if I can apply her ideas to some children’s work such as this:

climbing 001


So let’s look at this in more detail.

There are two figures, arms down by their sides, under or at least near a complex climbing frame. Writing explains that the child feels s/he is “very good at playing on the climbing frame.”

Now, I know who did this (I have obscured a name, although I do have the young artist’s permission to share this drawing) and the context, but if we apply Rose’s criteria to it, we need to ask:

  • What is being shown? What are the components of the image?
  • How are they arranged?
  • Is this a contradictory image?
  • What knowledges are being deployed?

At the basic level, what is shown is as I’ve said above, a climbing frame and two figures in proximity to it. There are two components as I read it: humans and climbing frame.   If part of the questioning we need to undertake is around what has been missed out, what is not there is interesting too, however. It might be that we can distinguish here a sort of intransitivity: the climbing frame is not being climbed, and the figures are not climbing it. In the picture there is no sky or grass, no distraction from other equipment. Does this argue for there being a lack of need from the adult for a ‘holding activity’? “Just [go away for five minutes and] colour in the sky”? Or does it argue for purpose or maybe even haste in the interaction between adult and child?

But we might also suggest a third component: the writing, both by the child and the adult. Image and text work together, and are part of the same tradition (of which child and adult are aware) as the picture story book.  The arrangement is one in which this convention is upheld.

Where it is skewed, where it has an element of contradiction,  is in the adult intervention. What is the purpose of this object? The title gives it away: this is a piece of school record keeping, very probably created at the request of an adult “to go in your file.” The child’s writing (and adult transcription) and title and date suggest that this is part of a record-keeping system that tells someone (see below) something (again: more to think of here) about how the child artist-writer sees themselves.

So what knowledges are being deployed? In brief, as a first go at this I propose that we can discern:

  • an understanding of how text and image can work together;
  • an understanding of how to represent the various elements of the climbing frame (including climbers);
  • some understanding of purpose and power in adult-child relationships.

So in looking at this power relationship, we come to the reason the work was created. I suspect, as I said, that this is at the request of the adult – and therefore, to some extent, the adult is the intended reader, the sponsor of the activity. Even in the context of physical play, the child is constrained, as is the adult, to use the event to spawn other events closer to the curricular needs, not of the child, but of the adult: play and the observation (or in this case the self-evaluation) makes it have a purpose the adult world might value.



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Beyond the Motivational

This from Carl Hendrick is such a good blog post I have to point to it, even if my comments after it are lightweight.

“This type of stuff is obviously well intentioned but beyond symbolising a culture that privileges the media-soundbite over critical reflection, it does I think signify an increasing shift towards psychological interventions aimed at changing student self perception and represents a somewhat base and quite reductive approach to an extremely complex set of issues.”

I wonder how students would feel if instead of feedback such as “You must work on creating paragraphs with a tight and logical structure” we wrote “The first step to change is wanting to,” or “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
[Read more here if you really want to.]



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Lost Words

A lot was made recently of the decision by the Oxford Dictionaries to take out some words from one dictionary and put in others.   The choices that were especially criticised were the ones where “nature” words were lost in favour of computing words.  I’m not sure where I stand on this; it is the task of the lexicographer, and especially one working with a word-limit to make such decisions.  What words do children use? What do they need?

The excellent Landreader project makes some really good points in this blog post, not least the suggestion that the list of words to be taken from the Junior Dictionary  can be seen as a  “prose-poetry supplement to be administered like a multivitamin as a defense against lexical malnutrition” – a neat turn of phrase.  It’s neat because of the word “need.” What words do children need, and why?

They need words to talk about things – ivy, a starling, catkins. They might need a dictionary to help them understand something on the edge of their current world – the stream that gives its name to  Boundary Brook Road,  the kingfisher in Kingfisher School. They might also want – and this is where a dictionary helps immensely – to inform when a reader meets something new and unexpected – minnow, newt, porpoise.

This has limits, of course: the Landreader project has a glossary which introduces the visitor to words beyond usual use: sleech,  or drumble, or twitten. Intriguing though they are, they are not really for the Junior Dictionary. But are we really to think that heron and poppy are becoming part of the same world? That the comic  linguistic vagaries of Rambling Syd Rumpo might also now include conker and stoat?

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Attention sp

William Pooley raises some interesting questions here about attention span. Should we be “so willing to assume that every individual has a fixed ‘span’ (which can be stretched, or curtailed, perhaps, but still exists as a kind of objective measure)”?   The notion of us needing to maintain or enhance our focus is something Jason Elsom raised earlier this week in his tweet “How to focus in the age of…  SQUIRREL!!!” (@JasonElsom).  In both cases there are undertones of the now well-disseminated TED talk by Ken Robinson in which he claims too much of education is anaesthetising children.

I’d like, however, just to take an anecdotal sideways look at this.

Boys, we all know (because we are told we all know) have poor fine motor control, poor attention span., &c., &c. While William P is right that a serious study needs to be done on attention (I once found some interesting evidence of English monks in the Middle Ages muttering about long, rambling sermons, and attention during prayer has long been the focus of spiritual writers, but that’s even more of a digression), he is also right that this discourse of attention itself needs sustained enquiry. What follows is merely a snapshot.

Evan was having a good time – on and off – with the cars one week. Evan was four. One day he found that smashing trucks down a plank meant that the car crash was more spectacular than brumming them together. He built a ramp with planks and bricks to stop the trucks from falling off the sides. So far, an hour has passed. Group time, tidy-up time. Home time.

The next day he returns to the play, builds up the ramp, asks for some technical help about stopping the planks from sliding off the bricks (masking tape) and returns to his exploration of car crashes. He spends half and hour on this, goes to the loo, comes back – you can see where this is going. His key worker comes and sits with him from time to time, asking questions, finding masking tape, suggesting better cars – and by now fetching them from down the classroom where Evan is by now getting them to zip to. Two hours pass that day.

By the end of the third day, Evan has, in effect, devised an experiment to see whether how steep the ramp is affects how far the cars go. His key worker’s job on his Foundation Stage Profile is nearly done – if that’s a factor here.

My point is that the ‘discourse of attention span,’ when it hits the early years needs to take account of motivation: “Can concentrate on a self-chosen task” is a different thing (almost) entirely from “Can do as s/he is told for at least five minutes without wandering off.” Confusing the two risks misunderstanding the nature of self-motivated learning.


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Innocence and Childhood – thoughts for St Agnes’ Day

Some random thoughts here. Not sure I can bring them all together but here goes.

The monk, peace activist and writer Thomas Merton wrote a couple of poems on the child-martyr Agnes. The one here is in some ways the less accessible, with its interplay between English and Latin, and the references to liturgical practice, but does nonetheless have some things I want to explore.
St. Agnes: A Responsory

Cujus pulchritudinem
Sol et luna mirantur. . .
Hear with joy this child of God
Plays in the perfect garden of her martyrdom,
Ipsi soli servo fidem.

Spending the silver of her little life
To bring her Bridegroom these bright flowers
Of which her arms are full.

Cujus pulchritudinem. . .
With what white smiles
She buys the Popes their palliums,
And lavishes upon our souls the lambs of her confession!
Sol et luna mirantur,
Ipsi soli servo fidem.

Her virtues, with their simple strings,
Play to the Lover hidden in the universe,
Cujus pulchritudinem. . .
Who smiles into the sun His looking-glass,
And fills it with his glorious face:
Who utters the round moon’s recurring O
And drowns our dusks in peace.
Ipsi soli servo fidem!

The Roman captain’s work is done:
Now he may tear his temples down—
Her charity has flown to four horizons, like the swiftest doves,

Where all towns sing like springtime, with their newborn bells
Pouring her golden name out of their crucibles.

Two themes here, then: the martyrdom of eleven-year old Agnes moved the early Church partly because a child – and a girl-child at that – demonstrated her free acceptance of the consequences of her beliefs, in a way that ran contrary to the established views of childhood, in which subordinacy, docility perhaps, is key.  Agnes is independent,  willing to go to her death, and unafraid. It is a poignant picture, whatever you make of her decision. It is also touched by the tradition of the virgin martyrs (Cecilia, Anastasia – there is a list [in itself an odd document, if you don’t consider the context] on this site) many of whom chose Christian martyrdom rather than the “easy escape” of being married off. You might say that a child-virgin-martyr ticks a great number of boxes for Catholic Christianity, certainly in the early days.

Thus, Thomas Merton plays with the image of “the silver of her little life,” in the “garden of her martyrdom” (echoed in the penultimate line with “springtime” and “newborn bells”) to emphasise her childhood, but also depicts her briefly as playing a stringed instrument to her “Lover hidden in the universe.” Merton addresses a contradiction – as he does in his other, much darker poem on the subject.

The feast of St Agnes (21st January) challenges me to think about innocence and independence as I watch my granddaughters grow – but it also reminds me (as I prepare for the module on Children’s Spirituality this semester) of how important childhood is (or at least can be) in the formulation of Christian spirituality. Hans Urs von Baltasar (a theologian more or less contemporary with Merton) puts it like this:

The backward glance to lost childhood – as cultivated by Christian poets – is no longer just a romantic dream, but a longing for a lost innocence and intimacy with God that Jesus and Mary never lost… (Die Ganze im Fragment, cited in John Saward’s The Way of the Lamb).

I’d suggest that the early reflections on St Agnes are much the same kind of longing for innocence and intimacy, and that these are present in Merton’s poem. Both Baltasar and Merton, of course, might had had much to say about the scandals of abuse that now indelibly scar that vision.

Christian spirituality has had to grapple in various ways with the childhood and maturity of a God made flesh, and in orthodox Christian theology (East and West), the child fed by his mother is key. However, whether that child is a “mere” baby, or something more, visual and poetic depictions have often found hard to some to terms with: this is a child, but more than a child; a “silly tender babe” and “Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.”

And perhaps this tension is itself creative, propelling Christianity to think about children as people – innocent but independent, people of many possibilities,  and resilient. This is a vision that should, to my mind fly “to four horizons like the swiftest doves.”



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