The Truth About Changing the Church

Jesus is addressed directly ninety times in the gospels. On sixty of these occasions he is addressed as ‘teacher’. Jesus himself (Jn 13:13) acknowledges that he is a teacher, and his teaching is described as that of one who has authority (Mt 7:29).

I am always slightly bemused when people tell me that I have had or ask me about my ‘two careers’. Priest and teacher. For me they are not in any way separate. To teach is a priestly task. I have, only half-jokingly, said to bishops that they should ordain the headteacher of every church school. Priesthood is a teaching ministry. In preaching, Lent groups, bible studies, in schools.

It is interesting that despite these obvious facts – that Jesus is a teacher and that Christian ordained ministry is a teaching role – the teaching aspect has often been played down. ‘Prophet, priest, king’ is held up as the model of the priest. Pastor is emphasised as the role of the Christian leader.

I am fully committed to priests developing our skills in leadership and management but we also need to rediscover what it means to be a teacher. To get better at teaching the faith. We need the church to grow, we are commanded to make disciples. Discipling people means teaching them. We can learn a great deal about discipling people from the latest research on education and practice in schools.

Throughout my reading of Greg Ashman’s The Truth About Teaching I couldn’t help thinking about ways in which this applies to the church. Like education, we are, in the church, in a time of enormous change. In the Diocese of Liverpool, the Transforming Wigan project is exploring what that change might look like. In the diocese of Carlisle the creation of Mission Communities and in the Church in Wales the Mission Areas are all ways of seeing what change might be. These important structural developments need to be backed up by theological thinking about growing disciples and by a major change in culture. Teaching is at the heart of some of the most successful models for discipleship, HTB, New Wine, Alpha. Ashman points out that when we learn something we change. In Christian terms our conversion is learning. “Knowledge”, he writes, “is literally what we think with.” To put on the mind of Christ is not just an act of the will, it is to know Christ and his teaching, it has to be learnt, and it is learnt best when it is taught.

I published a post here reviewing Ashman’s book, I have reproduced that post below but inserted my comments, relating to the life of the church, in bold type. I begin with quotes from the book that illustrate how hard change can be. Seeing the resistance to change in education,where there are high levels of accountability and systems to enforce or drive change it is not surprising that it is hard for the church to change.

The Truth About Teaching: An Evidence Informed Guide for New Teachers

Greg Ashman

SAGE, 2018

Some of the objections to explicit teaching, while situated in theory, are almost visceral. This is a topic that people feel passionate about. It affects the emotions as much as the rational mind.” (p.88)

Marilyn Jäger Adams recalled Chall warning her that if she wrote the truth about phonics, she would ‘make enemies’. Adams observed, ‘as the evidence in favour of systematic, explicit phonics instruction for beginners increased, so too did the vehemence and nastiness of the backlash. The goal became one of discrediting not just the research, but the integrity and character of those who conducted it.” (p.157)

“It seems likely that we are simply the victims of a proliferation of bad ideas. When evidence is presented that demonstrates that these ideas are bad, it is easier, and far more human, to rationalise this away than it is to deal with the emotional burden of being wrong. It is hard to be that teacher who, with the very best intentions, did not do the best for his or her students.” (p163)


Change in education is hard. As teachers all know, everyone is an expert on education, everyone has an opinion. Popular ideas about education are deeply embedded in our cultural psyche and are hard to shift. When I have spoken about the need for a knowledge based approach to learning to groups of teachers I have occasionally had people walk out, or members of the audience have been reduced to tears. People invest themselves in schools and education, to admit that you might have been profoundly wrong is not easy.

Greg Ashman has long experience in teaching and school leadership in the UK and recently in Australia. He is an active participant in the lively education debates on twitter (@greg_ashman). This book is subtitled as being for new teachers. It would indeed make an excellent read for anyone new to or considering joining the profession. But is is also an important read for anyone interested in education. What is learning? How do we learn? What is memory? What does science and research tell us about teaching? Ashman’s book provides interesting accounts of some of the possible answers to those questions.

The Truth About Teaching surveys a vast territory of research and many interesting questions. But is is also readable and very digestible. There are also useful practical chapters on classroom management, planning lessons and using technology.

Perhaps because I am not new to teaching, and rarely a classroom practitioner these days, it is the philosophical and research based sections of the book that I found most interesting. In the first chapter Ashman provides an overview of the history of education. he highlights the “two main ways of thinking about education” (p3) as progressive – “a natural, drawing-out of something from within”, or a “sometimes painful process of passing knowledge from one generation to the next”.

On any number of occasions I have heard educationalists quote a version of a saying that has its origins in Plutarch: ‘education is not filling a bucket’, they will say, ‘but lighting a fire’. Ashman debunks that myth. Plutarch, as he rightly points out was in favour of lecture style teaching. Ashman equally well illustrates the influence of romanticism on the way we think about childhood and learning and the key document in British education as the 1967 Plowden Report with its emphasis on play.


Lighting a fire sounds so much more exciting then filling a pail. As Christians, when we think of people coming to faith we have a tendency to picture something like an emotional experience, a bit like falling in love. Much more like lighting a fire. But reading Augustine’s Confessions, for example, although his emotional responses are often quoted, it is his intellectual journey that forms the bulk of his account, the reading he is doing. The obstacle to faith for many people is not the possibility of an emotional experience in worship – romantic songs, opera, films, poetry can do the same – it is their intellectual difficulty with faith. To come to discipleship and growing discipleship requires detailed learning about Scripture, about the teaching of the Church and to some extent its history. The pail needs filling.


In his Chapter on the Science of Learning Ashman traces current understandings of memory. He is frank about how little neural-science can teach us about the classroom. He acknowledges that he is simplifying some of the material but provides good references for it. Nevertheless thinking of memory as working memory and long-term memory is a helpful model. It is particularly helpful that he shows how memory is change, “if something has not changed in your long-term memory, then it is hard to argue that you have learnt anything.” (p.40)


‘Do this in memory of me.’ It’s not a surprise that memory is important for Christians. Human beings are forgetful. Thinking is really just remembering. I would go so far as to say that believing is remembering. Remembering Jesus, who he is and what he has done for us. Our forgetfulness means that we need lots of ways to remember our believing throughout the day. 

The importance of working memory as the way to place memories in the long-term memory should not be under-emphasised. Ashman also shows how the working memory is limited. This is why repetition and memorisation is important. retrieval, he shows, embeds memories and strengthens them. This is why repetition is so important in worship and why we need to re-visit texts very often [I wrote here about my concerns about the three-year lectionary]. It is also why asking questions in sermons and teaching and re-capping information is so significant.


Over and over again in the book we are shown that our intuition is often wrong. We have a tendency to believe that if we work something out for ourselves we will learn it better than if someone tells us. But in fact the working memory has very limited capacity which can easily be overwhelmed by problem solving activities. It seems that we have evolved particularly well to learning things by being told them. It is also clear that retrieval of things we have learnt will help us to learn them more thoroughly, I particularly like the idea of retrieval as “disrupting the process of forgetting.”


Christians are called to be sanctified. To be holy. We are forgetful and we forget our belief from one moment to the next. The sanctification of time that the daily Office provides, or that the constant praying of the Jesus Prayer creates is nothing other than “disrupting the process of forgetting”. Learning things by heart is at the centre of the latest educational thinking. Discipling people by getting them to learn things by heart, Scripture first, of course, but also hymns, simple chants, quotes from Christian writers and the liturgy, gives them the raw material to fill their minds throughout the day. Providing material to re-cap or remind ourselves of teaching given on Sunday in the rest of the week is really helpful. Cards or sheets to be put on the fridge door. Apps, recorded sermons and talks are all significant. Homework in schools works best not for new material but as a reminder of material already covered, in series of sermons setting people tasks for each week can be highly effective.


Quoting Daniel Willingham’s work Ashman shows how “Stories seem to be ‘psychologically privileged’ by the human mind.” (p60) but he warns that we need to be careful that we are clear what it is that we want to be learn. Extraneous but interesting features might be remembered over key facts. “We must be wary of folk theories of motivation. In particular, we need to be careful not to motivate students by something other than the content we are trying to teach.” (p67)


Testimony, the telling of our own story is a powerful way of discipling people. Being able to bear witness to our own story is one of the key changes needed for many Anglicans taught that it is not polite to talk about religion in public. We need to teach how to talk about Jesus, our faith, offer prayer, in all sorts of circumstances of our lives. We ask people to tell their friends and colleagues about Jesus but we need to model how to do that. ‘Hot-seating’ or interviewing people in church is a powerful way of doing that, using effective questioning to help them recognise the expertise they have in faith simply by being believers with a faith story.

In our preaching we need to be clear, as every writer on preachings says,about what we are trying to communicate. It is no good if people remember the visual aid but not the teaching. Ashman’s book on planning lessons would be useful reading for anyone planning sermons, talks or study groups. Unfortunately much published material for us in study groups reflects the progressive and now discredited ways of teaching that many of us experienced or even practised in schools. We need to think less about group work, splitting into pairs, discussing our own lives and more about the content we want people to learn and how we will present that in small enough chunks to be learnt and re-cap and retrieve it in subsequent sessions. 

Just as I am somewhat embarrassed at the way I have taught at various times in my career I am also embarrassed about some of the study groups I have led over the years in the parishes I have served. Of course, having fun might be the aim sometimes but we need to be clear to ourselves when that is what we want to achieve. 


The chapter on explicit teaching is probably the most important of the book. There is a deep prejudice in our culture against explicit teaching “constructivism is often taken … to imply that teacher-led classrooms are inadequate in some way; that students cannot truly understand something that a teacher explains to them and so they must be involved in working things out for themselves or with their peers … this is not what the evidence shows.” (p72) “Explicit instruction aligns well with how we learn.” (p81). Yet it is not many years ago that school leaders, like myself, and Ofsted inspectors, were critiquing classrooms where there was too much ‘teacher-talk’. These attitudes are still to be found in many schools and conversations about learning. Fortunately they are being challenged by those who favour a knowledge based approach to learning.


Although preaching is about more than just communicating facts, for many people in church it will be the only Christian teaching received most weeks. We need to plan a ‘curriculum’ of what we are teaching so that people are learning new facts about their faith through our teaching. I think there is a real problem if our model of preaching is simply an evinced version of Thought for the Day, at Pentecostal churches in Lewisham I saw children and adults listening to substantial teaching for extended periods of time. One of the problems of the Eucharist being the only service that many people attend is that a lengthy, didactic (that’s a good thing!) sermon can unbalance the structure of the liturgy. When I was at St Andrew’s, Earlsfield we replaced a monthly family service with a Eucharist divided in two, the Liturgy of the Word with significant teaching, a coffee break and then the liturgy of the Eucharist which people were free to attend or not. 


Ashman does not however, dismiss all other methods of teaching and dedicates a whole chapter to other methods showing that used judiciously and in the right circumstances they can be helpful. This is a particularly helpful chapter because he traces the way in which the political writing of authors such as Paolo Freire have deeply influenced attitudes to instruction and motivation. Ashman is careful to show that even when other methods are used, knowledge and its acquisition is still the aim “Knowledge is literally what we think with.” He is scathing about the idea, again very popular, that the internet means we don’t have to teach knowledge. Critical thinking “rests upon knowledge of the matter that you wish to think critically about.” (p89) This chapter also includes important critiques of the grouping arrangements many teachers use and the idea of implicit learning and project-based techniques and differentiation, again once much loved by school leaders and Ofsted inspectors in the UK, often under the name of ‘personalisation’. Above all what is clear is that “the learning strategies that students most enjoy are not the ones that will lead to most learning.”(p98)


‘Edutainment’ is the opposite of learning. Entertaining people is a real temptation in the church as it has been in schools, they might come back for more! But teachers have to learn to be confident in what they are teaching, what I see in schools is that when the learning is made more challenging, when pupils can see that they are learning and making progress they like it. The most entertaining worship might not be the worship that disciples people, that deepens their faith, that draws them to Christ.

Knowledge is literally what we think with: what do most people learn each Sunday in Church? What have we given them to think with for the following week? What will we -recap when they next come to church r at a Lent group or Bible study in the week.

Attendance is an issue in many schools. Although it might seem counter-intuitive I have seen in many situations that when the teaching becomes more explicit young people attend more. After all it doesn’t matter if you miss Wednesday’s history lesson if you are going to learn so little that you can easily catch up, if all you are going to do is make a poster. But if you are going to miss substantial learning you might want to be there. It is often commented on that many people now don’t attend church every week. But perhaps they would if they knew they were going to miss out on substantial teaching that is part of a sequence of learning?


Ashman’s account of the debate about the teaching of reading acts as a case study in many ways for the issues the book raises. The evidence is clear that explicit teaching of phonics, the sounds that letters make, even with invented words (‘synthetic phonics’) is the best way of teaching reading. Yet many teachers resist this in favour of whole language, real books and the like.


No one would argue that we don’t want children to read wonderful literature, but getting them to the point of reading that literature involves many much smaller steps. This can sometimes seem artificial. It may be that we need to find ways of building these steps into our teaching even if it disrupts what we might consider excellent liturgy. 


A surprising element in the book, to me, was the discussion of whether or not teaching is a profession. Not yet, says Ashman, because we are not self-regulating and there is no shared understanding of what constitutes good teaching and learning.


I wonder how this applies to Christian ministry and leadership? 


This is really a very good book indeed. I hope anyone interested in children, young people and education, indeed in thinking, will read it.

I have written about my own journey as I have changed my understanding about teaching here. Michaela Community School is well known for its implementation of many of the ideas that Ashman writes about, read more here, here, or here.

Ashman’s book is far less polemical than some of the material on Michaela. It is no less revolutionary.  Education is changing, what happens in our schools is changing. The popular idea of what is or should happen in schools is changing much more slowly.

“We should set ego aside, read the research as it stands, call for better research where it is lacking and commit to heeding its findings, even if this means we were wrong.” (p 163)


As we face and shape the change that the church needs it is hard to admit that we were wrong, Hard to let go of our own defendedness so that we can create something different. Letting go of the ego could hardly be more Christian. The model of one priest/one church is long gone in many parts of the country. In schools for many years teachers regarded their classrooms a their personal territory and the place where they exceeded what happened and how it would happen, the cultural shift in schools has been slow to achieve. Teachers resented having to teach in a particular way or being told to change the way they teach, even when presented with overwhelming evidence that it wasn’t working. It is easy for clergy to think of the parish, or church, as their bit of the world to control. As I travel around the country whenever I am preaching anywhere I look up the diocesan website to see what the strapline is, what initiatives are being run, what the aims and vision of the diocese is. I often refer to these in my sermon and often ask people if they know what they are. Not once has anyone been able to answer these questions. I really admire the #thykingdom come #followthatstar and other materials but we have. along way to go before these are embedded in the lives of our churches.

One of the very positive developments in education that Ashman draws attention to is the growth of Educational research conferences in which teachers can hear the latest research and share practical examples of applying them. In many ways New Wine, HeartEdge, Alpha and other networks provide opportunities for this. It would be good to see more of these networks emerging and more sharing of data about what helps congregations to grow and how they grow. Not everything that is worthwhile is measurable but is good to learn what we can from what can be measured.

Learning from schools is not the answer to all our problems in the church, but we can learn a great deal by looking at how other institutions and systems have faced change. The church is disproportionately influenced by what happens in schools for many reasons: We have almost all attended schools, many clergy and others are teachers or former teachers, we work with children and young people, and as I began, teaching is an essential part of ministry. We need to understand the influence of education and ensure that we are influenced by the best in educational practice.




  1. ‘When I was at St Andrew’s, Earlsfield we replaced a monthly family service with a Eucharist divided in two, the Liturgy of the Word with significant teaching, a coffee break and then the liturgy of the Eucharist which people were free to attend or not.’

    That’s an intriguing model, Richard – have you written more about this anywhere else?


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