The University's National Institute for Christian Education Research (NICER), which is a dedicated research centre in the Faculty of Education, continues to be at the forefront of research into the changing nature of faith schools, specifically those inspired by Christian teaching. After six-and-a-half years at the helm, Professor Trevor Cooling has recently stepped down as the Institute's Director. Here, Inspire talks to Trevor about NICER's achievements under his leadership, highlighting the benefits and challenges of integrating religion and education.
Christian education plays a key role in the history of the University. In 1962, Christ Church was founded as a Church of England teacher training college because of a shortage of teachers in CofE schools. Today, the University has an extensive portfolio across the arts and humanities, sciences and health, and teacher education remains a strong area of activity.
Trevor is particularly proud of NICER's research to support teachers in interpreting and implementing a distinctively Christian learning experience in schools.
Among some of the major projects the Institute has undertaken in recent years is the pioneering work looking at how schools interpret the notion of spiritual development.
A key element of this has been the implementation of an innovative pedagogical method called What If Learning – an approach to teaching and learning in schools, designed by an international team of educationalists, that helps teachers to frame their lessons within the Christian ethos of their school. It particularly focuses on the learning experiences that teachers design and how these contribute to pupils' spiritual development. Trevor describes it as a method for "teachers to introduce ways of encouraging pupils to question how their everyday learning in different subjects can be shaped by a Christian ethos. The approach is focused not on curriculum content; rather it looks at the whole way the subject matter one deals with is framed".
The application of What If Learning has helped teachers to adapt Christian perspectives to the subject they are teaching. The resulting empirical work has led to an acclaimed report and a book entitled Christian Faith in English Church Schools (Peter Lang, 2016).
The approach has proved to be a success with both teachers and pupils. As Trevor points out: "The Church of England is now using What If Learning as one of its main ways of thinking about the nature of education. It falls under the description of 'character education' which has now become an influential and attractive approach."
NICER has also worked successfully with teachers on the Government's British values agenda and, in particular, its focus on tolerance. A joint bid with the Church of England secured a grant from the Department for Education and led to a 12-month research project. The study investigated the response of pupils and teachers in 20 church schools to an intervention which focused on promoting the Christian virtue of hospitality through teaching and learning across the curriculum.
As Trevor states: "We wanted to investigate how church schools look at British values and contribute to that tolerance positively. We therefore worked with the teachers on the notion of what we call Christian hospitality."
Trevor cites the example of a primary school science class, where the children's working groups were disrupted by moving one child from each group into a new group.
As he explains: "One of the tasks each group was given was to think about how you would embrace a new arrival in a working environment where you've already got established patterns. It was an exercise in learning how scientists work collaboratively as well as an exercise in acquiring scientific knowledge. The school put this scenario forward as their example of how they could integrate the notion of Christian hospitality into science. I thought that was very clever – it's simple but also incredibly insightful."
Although Trevor has now stepped down as Director, he is confident that NICER will continue to play a pivotal role. He said: "I have now stepped down from the position, but have been working closely with my successor, Dr Robert Bowie, for quite some time – so the transition has been smooth. Going forward, the Institute is poised to continue its important research work, focusing on how church schools interpret the various different dimensions of their Christian ethos."
Trevor looks back on his time in the role with considerable satisfaction: "I have been Professor in Christian Education at Christ Church since 2011. Having enjoyed a long-standing career in Christian education, I never expected to end up in academia because my main work experience had been in the charity sector. However, I've always had an interest in the academic side.
"Although it was never part of the career plan, I've really enjoyed it. The development work I carried out with the projects I was involved with beforehand has really fed into the academic work, particularly around the What If Learning pedagogy we've developed."
But what's next on the horizon for Trevor? "The main reason I decided to step down from the Director role was to free up time for more voluntary work," he reveals. "I am Chair of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, which is an umbrella organisation promoting the high-quality teaching of religious education. We have recently set up a high-profile commission to review the subject. It's an issue of paramount importance so I'm pleased to be able to invest time in that.
"In addition to my consultancy work, I am also continuing in my professorial role here at Christ Church, which includes working on future research projects as well as ongoing involvement in the University's doctorate programmes in education.
"Incidentally, Christ Church is the only institution in the country with someone specifically working in this role with this title – it's something really rather unique for the sector."
Find out more about the work of NICER.