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Our History

Toward a Quaker Pedagogy


Nancy Starmer
September, 2003

George School has just completed the first of a four-year curriculum review process. We started with an exploration of new research on learning and the brain, as well as an exploration of what being a Quaker school means in relation to our academic program. This year we’ll be focusing on how we group students, and on skills (what skills we believe are important for our students’ success at GS; what skills we want to make sure we teach them before they graduate; how and where we teach these skills).

Pedagogy—how we teach what we teach—will be a major focus throughout our review. As you can imagine, the new information on learning and the brain that was a primary focus for us last year has huge implications for how we teach. A member of our Curriculum Review Committee shared an article that was on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer just after school ended last June that predicted that recent research on learning and the brain would soon transform the teaching profession. At George School, as I noted, we are coupling our study of learning with the question of what being a Quaker school means in relation to our curriculum. The result of that work last year was a set of Principles that I’m beginning to think might also have a huge impact on how we teach.

Four years ago, when I was interviewing for the position of Head of School, a George School teacher made a comment to me that I’ve thought about several times since. He said something to the effect that “you can tell we’re a Quaker school if you look at what happens outside the classroom—at meeting for worship, at our commitment to diversity, at our service projects—but in terms of how and what teachers here teach, there really isn’t much difference between George School and any other pretty traditional independent school.” That comment raised a question in my mind that has been there ever since, which is “what might a Quaker pedagogy look like?” Not just a Quaker classroom, where students call their teachers by their first names; not just a set of broad principles; but a Quaker pedagogy. Are there in fact particular teaching methods that might help us transmit the values and beliefs of Quakerism more effectively, the way there are techniques for transmitting language or organizational skills more effectively?

As we have been examining new research on learning and the brain and our mission as a Quaker school, we’ve been guided by two outstanding consultants, Carolyn Olivier, educational director of the Ennis William Cosby Foundation, and Paul Lacey, Earlham College Professor Emeritus. This past summer, Carolyn and Paul were joined by Jim Baucom, Professor of Educational Psychology at Landmark College, in presenting a week-long workshop for George School teachers that focused on the teaching of academic skills. We also ran a pilot Academic Orientation Program this past summer, where teachers applied some of what they’d learned over the course of the previous year to the task of preparing students from a variety of educational backgrounds for the particular rigors of the George School classroom.

In reflecting on our year of work, and particularly on the summer workshop and orientation program, for the first time specific qualities began to emerge in my mind as possible answers to the question “what might a Quaker pedagogy look like?” Following are some tentative, very early insights.

1. The Query

The first insight emerged during Jim Baucom’s presentation at our August workshop on study skills. In discussing the importance of having students ask what he called “reflective and elaborative questions”, Jim made a very brief comment to the effect that research has demonstrated recently that asking questions actually opens up new synapses and connections in the brain, connections that make the brain more receptive to new and different points of view. I wrote that down in my notes and in the margin wrote “Quaker connection”.

Questions, I’ve observed, have a prominent place in Quaker practice. Perhaps that’s what allows Quakerism to remain as open and non-dogmatic as it is. And there is one type of question, the query, that has special prominence. The query (which I’ve come to understand doesn’t just mean “question” in Quaker practice, but something more precise) is meant to elicit self-examination, or group self-examination, and also to keep us attentive to the need to align our actions with our beliefs. I was fascinated in a curriculum committee discussion last year to hear members Laura Kinnel and Barb Kibler talk about queries. They almost always start, Laura explained, with the words “Do I” or “How do I”; “Do we” or “How do we”. A couple of examples from Faith and Practice: “Do I attend meeting for business in a spirit of love and understanding?” “How does our Meeting act to advance peace?”

Barb pointed out that one of the most important aspects of the query is that its object is the individual participant or the group as a whole; responsibility for the answer doesn’t rest with someone else—a speaker, the teacher—but with the participant or the group. Jim Baucom’s brief aside about research on asking questions makes me wonder whether more conscious use of questions and particularly of queries in our classrooms might not only encourage new synapses in our students’ brains that will make them more receptive to different points of view, but also help them become more spiritually grounded, principled actors in their lives.

2. The “Reflective Essay”

The second insight I had into the question of what might constitute a Quaker pedagogy came from a workshop by Carolyn Olivier on rhetorical patterns. Rhetorical patterns are the structures that we use in speaking and writing to achieve different ends. We use one pattern when we want to compare and contrast two things, for example, and another when we want to describe the steps in a process. Students can learn to distinguish these patterns, to discern what is being asked for in a question and to apply the correct pattern automatically, making them more adept and effective speakers and writers.

I’m beginning to think that there is a distinctly Quaker rhetorical pattern, which for the sake of illustration I’m going to call the “reflective essay”. My three years at George School are peppered with examples of this rhetorical pattern, from which I’ve chosen three from different venues. The first comes from Meeting for Worship, the second from an assembly in which students were asked to share their thoughts on how to respond to terrorism, and the third from a letter written recently to the George School faculty by their clerk.

The Reflective Essay starts with a question, either explicitly stated (“I’m struggling with how our meetings for business can remain spiritually led?”); or the question can be implicit in the context (at meeting for worship, when a student rose to speak about his relationship with his father, the question was implicit). In either case, the question is the opening of the essay.

The second part of the pattern is descriptive and often historical. In the clerk’s letter, he explained how Quakers throughout history have struggled with the question of how to conduct meeting for business. In meeting for worship the student described his past experiences with an absentee father. In the assembly on terrorism the speaker described her experience living in a Palestinian settlement on the West Bank.

In the third section of this rhetorical pattern, the question emerges once again, but this time with a much more explicit focus on a central ethical dilemma. In the meeting for worship example the student stated “I have never really known my father, why does it matter so much to me whether he follows through on his promises to come to my games or now to my graduation?” Our assembly speaker asked “Why haven’t the people who were my neighbors, who faced humiliation day in and day out over the three years I lived there, become terrorists?” And the Clerk asked “How can we conduct our discussion of curriculum in a way that is true to Quaker process, when we have such varied perspectives, knowledge of Quakerism, and tolerance for delay?”

And then the conclusion, which is phrased in tentative, open-ended, and more often than not hopeful language. The boy who talked about his disappointment in his father concluded his comments this way: “I don’t know exactly what I’m trying to say here, but I guess it’s just that our relationships with parents are important, even if they aren’t close; and when they are close, I guess what I’m trying to say is that we should be grateful.” The assembly speaker ended her talk with this statement: “Perhaps those who become terrorists are the few in any society who don’t have the capacity to be generous in the face of adversity.” And the clerk ended his letter with these words: “Few institutions operate consensually in matters of curriculum—the fact that we do…seems to me to be a genuine blessing”.

On the chart Carolyn Olivier gave us of rhetorical patterns there’s a column titled “linguistic clues”, words or phrases that help a student recognize which particular pattern they’re seeing. In the persuasion essay, for example, some of the linguistic clues are ‘the most important reason’, ‘to emphasize’, ‘again’, ‘to repeat’. The linguistic cues in the pattern I’m describing are tentative, open-ended phrases like “I don’t know but”; “I guess”; “perhaps”; “it seems to me”; and words of hope: “gratitude”; “generosity”; “a genuine blessing”. Language that invites others to engage and to reflect, and reminds us of our spiritual center.

Maybe there is already a name for this pattern that I am just not aware of, and perhaps there are teachers at George School or other Quaker schools who teach it explicitly. I don’t know, but I’ve seen it so often that I do know it is taught implicitly and modeled, handed down from one generation of George School students and teachers to the next. And I sense that like the query, the reflective essay has a place in a Quaker pedagogy.

3. An On-Going Habit of Reflection

The third quality that I believe may have a distinct place in Quaker pedagogy is a regular, ongoing habit of self assessment and personal reflection, as an opening for learning as “continuing revelation”. I saw two examples this past summer. In the closing assembly for our Academic Orientation Program, the student counselors described how they met daily with a small group of new students to help them reflect on the roles they were playing in their classes. Each student was asked to respond to a set of questions such as “how alert and focused were you during this lesson?” “What helped you remain engaged, or prevented you from remaining engaged during the lesson?” “How did you act to move the discussion forward or build on the ideas of others?” These daily meetings gave students from a variety of different educational backgrounds and experiences a chance to assess their own performance and to take responsibility for being effective participants in George School’s interactive classrooms.

At our curriculum workshops Paul Lacey also gave teachers some very interesting examples of small-scale classroom assessments that could be used as tools for reflecting on their own practice: asking students at the end of the class what aspects of today’s lesson are still not clear, for example. So the use of small-scale, ongoing assessment and reflection would be the third quality I’d identify as an important aspect of Quaker pedagogy.

4. Speaking to the Condition of Others and Attending to the Voices on the Margin

The next quality that I believe might comprise a Quaker pedagogy is a little more difficult to explain, not as clear in my mind yet, but it has to do with the practice of “speaking to the condition of others” or “learning from those on the margin”. I started exploring this concept in reflecting on William Penn’s pairing of “love and information.” Paul Lacey introduced us to this phrase in a talk he gave to the George School faculty in January 2003. The phrase is from a reflection of William Penn’s in his book Some Fruits of Solitude. Penn was reflecting on the religious, political and cultural differences that divided people of Pennsylvania from one another in the mid-1600’s. “We are too ready to retaliate,” he wrote, “rather than forgive or gain by Love and Information.”

Love and Information. Often when we think about curriculum we focus on information. In emphasizing the importance of speaking to the condition of others, Quakerism asks us also to include love. We do live in an information age, and often what our culture tells us to do with information is to use it to persuade. Not only in advertising, where one would expect to find it, but in scholarship, in business, in the law, in politics, persuasion seems to be the dominant form of discourse in the United States today. When a scholar writes an article announcing the results of her research, a lawyer argues a case in court, the President defends his policy to the American public, the goal is to persuade: to provide a tightly reasoned, elegant intellectual argument that will convince an audience that the scholar or the President or the lawyer is right.

There are many good things about this style of discourse. It requires the ability to be precise and discerning. It hones the skills of close reading and observation. It demands a high degree of verbal and written fluency and critical acumen, the ability to anticipate opposing arguments, and, in its verbal forms especially, the capacity to think quickly and creatively. These are all important skills, ones that would undoubtedly end up on a list of skills that George School teachers want their students to master by the time they graduate. But unless they are coupled with the skill of “speaking to the condition of others”, “attending to those on the margin”, I worry that they might also be dangerous or misleading.

The sense of power that mastery of this style of discourse gives us can be incredibly seductive. It is ultimately a kind of competition, where the one who is the most fluent and the most compelling wins. Please don’t get me wrong—I’m not against competition, nor am I against the powerful feelings of discovery and mastery that come with learning how to construct a tightly reasoned, elegantly persuasive argument. Both have an important place in our classrooms. I just think there are drawbacks and limitations to persuasion, the most important of which are that it is a tool that can be used to any end whatsoever, and that it has a tendency to separate us from the voices that may be “on the margin” of our argument.

Conscious attention to the voices on the margin and the condition of the other, is the antidote to the downsides of persuasion. We know historically what’s happened when the wealthy and powerful in the United States ignored others who remained on the margins because they didn’t have the money, technology, education, political power, capacity, training or organization to persuade. But it doesn’t have to be the rich and powerful who leave “the other” out: we all, I think, have a tendency to marginalize those whose perspectives are most alien or threatening to our own. How do we speak lovingly to the condition of the terrorist or the militant fundamentalist in our own society or abroad? On a more immediate scale, I know that many Quaker schools have been struggling with how to attend lovingly to the voices of political conservatives in our own school communities.

In its focus on speaking to the condition of others, Quakerism provides us with a pedagogical direction that far from canceling out the skills and advantages of persuasion, can complement them. Attending to the voices on the margin can ground an intellectual argument in a way that persuasion alone can’t be grounded, keeping us humble and reminding us that we depend on one another, and that ultimately, no one of us has a lock on the truth.

5. Letting Our Lives Speak

Much of our conversation on skills this fall at George School has centered on the skills of effective communication. What are the best ways to teach writing, to help students develop the tools to speak clearly and effectively in public, to express their ideas? What methods are most effective in helping new students develop the confidence to offer their perspectives in class, or the self-knowledge and social acumen to know when to pursue a topic and when to hold back? These are all critical questions for educators. To them Quakerism adds another dimension. Clear, effective communication in a Quaker context serves a particular purpose. It is aimed at discerning truth and motivating action.

In addition to teaching rhetorical patterns, steps in the process of writing a research paper, how to make eye contact with an audience, or any of the many other skills associated with effective communication, I believe that we are called to teach another set of skills. Communication, like love, is relational. Skills like active listening and the ability to build on others’ ideas are as important in a Quaker classroom as the ability to write a clear summary paragraph.

6. Collective Truth Seeking

The goal of all true scholarship can, in one way or another, be described as “truth seeking”, but from what I can discern, in Quaker tradition, this phrase has a particular meaning. Not only is it collective in nature (as is scholarship; new research, interpretations and discoveries must by necessity occur within the context of a “discourse community”), but the extent of the discourse community in the Quaker truth seeking process tends to include a wider range of perspectives (not only “experts” but others with a point of view on the topic), and also takes moral principles, or testimonies, as a starting point.

In the fall of 2002 I assigned my ninth grade class, to focus their learning about how to use the newspaper as a source of information, to gather information and perspectives on whether or not the United States should go to war with Iraq. We tried three different methods of responding to the information they gathered. First we had a “circular discussion” in which the students were asked to form a tentative opinion on the question. One student started the discussion by presenting his or her opinion, and others were instructed to repeat what they heard the first student saying, then respond to or build on a point he or she made and so on. At the end of the exercise students were asked to take a stand on the question. In reflecting on this exercise afterward, students observed that the process was heavily influenced by the opinion of the first person to speak.

The next method we used was a debate. I assigned the teams, consciously asking those who believed at the end of the first exercise that we should not go to war to argue the other side and vice versa. After the debate, students were particularly interested to note the degree to which the point of view that they were arguing changed their original opinion. They also observed that as much as they tried, they got caught by one particular argument (“but what if involving the UN or negotiating peacefully doesn’t work? What will you do then?”) The conclusion to the debate, a reluctant one on the part of those assigned to argue against going to war, was that violence must be used as a last resort.

For the final exercise, we had a Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business with the purpose of coming to unity on the question of how we feel about the United States going to war with Iraq. I explained to the students that in Quaker process, the object is not to persuade, as in a debate, but to listen openly to the perspectives of others so that we can find the best wisdom of the group.

Because many of the students in my class were not Friends, I asked them all to talk with each other in advance about their own religious traditions or beliefs about violence. I shared readings from the peace testimony, including reflections by Friends who had decided to fight in World War II, and taught them a bit about just war theory to give them a sense of how a couple of different Christian faith traditions have responded to the commandment Thou Shalt Not Kill. And I explained how some other faith traditions had responded to this moral imperative.

When we began our meeting for business, we placed the “Peace is the Way” poster from PYM in the middle of the circle so that the peace testimony would be at the center of our consciousness throughout the discussion. As I had with both the circular discussion and the debate, I presented a set of “rules” for how the meeting should proceed (these I took from Michael Sheeran’s book Beyond Majority Rule).

We spent two class periods meeting on this question, and though the students weren’t in unity by the end of that time, they were comfortable enough to end the discussion with the statement that “If killing is ever justified, it is only when the cause is just, and we are not convinced at this time that the cause for war with Iraq is just.”

I asked my students on their term exam to reflect on the differences among the three methods of forming a point of view on the question of war with Iraq, and their answers were illuminating. While some said they liked the debate best “because I could say what I wanted to say and say it strongly” or because it moved more quickly (one student wrote “if John F. Kennedy had used Quaker process to determine what to do in the Cuban Missile Crisis, we wouldn’t be here answering this question!”), many agreed with the student who wrote that “of all the methods, I felt my own opinions were transformed most significantly in the Quaker meeting process. It really made a difference that I had to listen so carefully and really consider what my classmates were thinking.” Several also commented that having the statement “Peace is the Way” at the center of their consciousness changed the way they approached the question, even though they were prepared with the same factual information in this discussion as they had been in the earlier debate.

Placing Friends testimonies at the center of our thinking in situations like this, and attempting to organize classroom activities around the concept of collective truth seeking, both have the potential to be powerful pedagogical tools in Quaker classrooms.

So these are my first tentative answers to what might constitute a Quaker pedagogy: the use of questions, and especially the query; an active use of reflection as both a teaching and a learning tool; a Quaker rhetorical pattern that I’ve termed the “reflective essay”; the practice of attending to the condition of the other and voices on the margin; a focus on the skills that are necessary for our students to put their beliefs into action effectively in their lives; and the practice of collective truth seeking. While I don’t know if I’ve “got these right”, I am convinced by the exercise that just as we can articulate distinctly Quaker aspects of our spiritual and community life, relationships, and extracurricular programs, we may also be able to articulate distinctly Quaker teaching methods.

The curriculum review process provides George School with a very exciting opportunity over the next two years to work on this task. I would invite educators in other Friends schools to join us in exploring the patterns and practices that define a Quaker pedagogy.