An invitation to explore the world and develop our own talents

Bill Lucas and Peter Seal, 9 September 2018

Isaiah 35: 4–7a; Mark 7: 24–37

We’re keeping today as what’s called Education Sunday. It’s good to have the chance to focus on this crucial element in our lives, whatever age we are. I’m really delighted to share this dialogue with Bill Lucas. Among other roles, Bill is Professor of Learning at the University of Winchester.

The role of education in our lives

Bill, could you tell me something about the role of education in your life?

Education is and has been hugely important. It all started with my dad, Geoffrey. He grew up in a poor family in Bristol and was brought up by my grandmother.

He was the first in their family to stay on at school after age 14 … then age 15, 16, then into sixth form … by which time he had decided he wanted to be the first to go to university. He chose Oxford! He was offered a place but needed a scholarship to be able to afford to accept it. He kept trying. On the last occasion a teacher paid for his bus fare and overnight accommodation, and he won a scholarship.

After Oxford, dad was a teacher, ultimately becoming a headteacher – or headmaster, as he would have said. I grew up with suppertime conversations about pupils.

I also was lucky enough to go to Oxford, and when I finished my undergraduate degree I wasn’t at all sure what to do with my life. I was only certain of one thing with regard to my career choice: I was not going to be a teacher! I had had too much vicarious practice via dad. But at the end of uni, like many students, I was broke. I found a summer job at an activity camp for European children. Within minutes I realised teaching was what I wanted to do. Thanks, dad! I went on to postgraduate study, then taught in schools, ending up helping to run a large secondary school in Hounslow.

All the while I’ve been interested in learning beyond school. From school I went into the not-for-profit sector, setting up two educational charities – Learning through Landscapes, in Winchester (when I first started coming to St Paul’s and met my wife, Henrietta) and the Campaign for Learning, in London. I’ve also developed a passion for outdoor learning, family learning and practical learning.

For the past ten years I’ve been at the University of Winchester, where I am part of a group called the Centre for Real-World Learning. Rather than teaching, what I now do is research, write and give talks about education to anyone who is prepared to listen, often outside the UK.

One more thing. When I was nearly five I couldn’t read and my parents were very worried about me. But with some creative help, I got there in my own good time and now love writing and reading. It’s important on Education Sunday that there’s no one-size-fits-all. We all have different talents and move at different speeds.

What about you, Peter? What role has education played in your life?

I think it would be true to say I had a rather chequered education. I grew up in Lichfield in Staffordshire and went to local schools. I too took a long time to learn to read. I think I was nearly eight! It was Mrs Allen who finally helped the penny drop. I passed the Eleven Plus and could have gone to the grammar school, but my parents decided I should attend the comprehensive in the parish where we lived. It turned out to be a poor school and I didn’t do very well.

We moved to live in Surrey and I recall being interviewed at Godalming Sixth-form College. The kindly deputy head said, ‘Even if you fail all your O levels, we’d still like you to come here’. My best A level subject, in which I got an A grade, was Economics. Taking that further might have led to a very different career!

For me, the connection between my experience and the great teacher Jesus is that I think we learn best when our teachers meet us where we are. That’s what Jesus always did: he met people where they were. We see that in today’s gospel of the healing of the daughter of the gentile woman. There is, of course, an element of healing in our learning.

Life in all its fullness

Bill, could you say something about our faith and education?

The Church of England vision of education puts at its heart John 10: 10 – the promise by Jesus of life in all its fullness – ultimately, eternal life. Different translations replace ‘fullness’ with words like ‘abundance’ or ‘overflowing’.

But it seems to me that the meaning is clear. Whether at school or in later years, the earthly bit of what Jesus is saying is an invitation to explore the world and develop our own talents.

The fullness or abundance referred to are not material things. Instead we are being offered the chance to develop wisdom, knowledge, skills, hope, dignity, respect and, perhaps most importantly in these challenging times, learning to live well together.

We are being offered the chance to develop wisdom, knowledge, skills, hope, dignity, respect and, perhaps most importantly in these challenging times, learning to live well together.

To do this we have the best possible role model to learn from in Jesus, the ultimate teacher. Let’s stop for a moment to marvel at just some of the qualities Jesus showed as a teacher.

Any teacher knows that you engage students by the quality of your material. And Jesus’ was rather good: the promise of the good news of the kingdom.

As Peter said earlier, Jesus would always meet people where they were – in fields, by lakes, in deserts, at parties, over supper, in streets, in synagogues, in homes.

Sometimes he would do the big keynote address, as in the Sermon on the Mount. On another occasion, such as at the Transfiguration, it would be a more private coaching encounter on a mountain. Just James, John and Peter were with Jesus and able to hear their master and teacher commended by his ‘teacher’, ‘This is my beloved Son; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’

The gospels are full of stories and powerful images that stick in our memory. Five thousand people and a few loaves and fishes, the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the water into wine – all wonderful teaching. But for me it is the challenging questions that are his defining teaching technique.

Matthew 5: 13 ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?’ There’s a conundrum.

Mark 11: 30 ‘Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.’ (Responding to the chief priests who questioned his authority.)

By the way, Jesus apparently asks 173 questions in the four gospels, if you want to do your own analysis of his teaching style! I can recommend an engaging website to help you.

And here’s a thing. Just like any teacher, Jesus knows the importance of repeating himself! Three times he has to tell his disciples that he is going to die and be resurrected – Mark 8: 31, Mark 9: 31 and Mark 10: 33–34.

Learning is for life, lifelong and life-wide. It’s never too late to start. I’ve been reading a book by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott called The 100-Year Life. It argues that if you are born today you are highly likely to live to 100. So, while Psalm 90 tells us that ‘the days of our years are threescore years and ten’, the days of today’s millennials are likely to be five score.

The pattern of ‘school – college or university – work – retirement’ is changing. In their twenties people will be more reluctant to get set on a single career. Career breaks will become the norm. We are likely to switch between work that pays and work that is voluntary. We may well go to college aged 60.

What will you do differently as your life evolves?

A full life is a life that overflows with curiosity and kindness and uncertainty and openness to new experiences. And the currency of a life in all its fullness is learning and education.

A full life is a life that overflows with curiosity and kindness and uncertainty and openness to new experiences.

Us as learners

I said earlier I was a late starter with reading. Peter, what kind of learning do you find easiest/most difficult?

That’s a tricky question! I think the best way I can answer is to say that, on my third day at Exeter University, I realised clearly that I was on the wrong course. I knew too that one day I hoped to be ordained. I changed course to study Theology. This gave me a reason to learn: I could see the point. There was a goal to aim for.

And what about education here in the parish?

I’m really pleased that we have our own very important Sunday morning groups for children and young people. And then during the week: a Pre-school here at St Paul’s; Western, our church school; the Westgate all-through school; and Peter Symonds College; as well as links with other schools through members of the congregation; and growing links with the university, too.

Education today

Could you say something about education in England today.

I’m not happy with it as it manifests itself in England. So unhappy, in fact, that I spend much of my working in life in Australia, where character is valued as much as competence. I’ve written about this in a book called Educating Ruby: what our children really need to learn.

Of course we want children to study hard in a number of different subjects. But at least as important is the development of character in children. Recently I have become a trustee of the Church of England’s Foundation for Educational Leadership in the hope that we might be able to change things.

I believe we need children and young people and young adults and 100-year-olds who are kind, generous, forgiving, morally brave, inquisitive, resilient, creative and collaborative.

It’s these kinds of attributes, I believe, that will help us to live life in all its fullness. And it is education and learning that are the means by which we can develop them.

Thank you Bill. It’s been good to talk in this way. It feels as though we’ve begun an important conversation that we can all continue.