St. Michael's Orthodox School
Why We Need An Orthodox Pedagogy

     Orthodox elementary schools and home-schooling parents in the United States use a variety of educational approaches: Charlotte Mason, Classical, Montessori, etc. While there is value in each of these approaches, we would like to present, in this article, the need to articulate an Orthodox approach, an Orthodox pedagogy, that is, an approach to teaching that is founded on the teachings of the Orthodox Church. A bit of history will provide a context for what is to follow.

     During the late 1970's early 1980's, the authors were part of a group of people who wanted to start a school. We were not Orthodox, but rather in a search for true Christianity. We wanted a school that would have a different approach to education than what we saw in the public school system. While it was easy for us to articulate what we did not want, it was far more difficult to clearly state what we did want.

     So, we started to explore various schools of thought on education. We read about the approach taken by Charlotte Mason, an English educator who was very active at the turn of the 20th century. We explored the ideas of Marie Montessori, an Italian physician and educator who was active a little later, during the first half of the 20th century. We considered the Classical approach, which is based on the thinking of the ancient Greeks and emphasizes the study of Latin and Greek, logic and history. We also read about the Waldorf approach, started by a German philosopher, Rudolph Steiner.

     We picked what we liked from each of these sources and started a school, using techniques and practices from many different educational approaches. As a result our pedagogy was rather eclectic. Some of what we did was compatible with the approach of Charlotte Mason; some was what would be seen in the Classical education model; some was inspired by what was done in Waldorf schools; some could be considered Montessori. Finally, our curriculum included activities that were not from any particular educational approach, but came from our studies of childhood neurological development.

     This eclectic mode of teaching was very enjoyable as well as successful, but it lacked an over-all vision, a philosophical framework. We did not notice this deficiency at first, but as we learned about the Orthodox Church, and started striving to acquire an Orthodox world-view, it became increasingly apparent. We realized that each of the approaches we had studied and used was based on a particular view of the nature of man and the role of education in a child’s life. Although these various schools of education may not have articulated this understanding of a human being to any extent, each particular view was still the unspoken foundation of the curricula and methods of teaching.

     Charlotte Mason’s view of a human being is different than Maria Montessori’s view. Therefore their approaches to teaching are different. The goal of a Classical education is different from the goal of a Waldorf education. Therefore these two approaches emphasize different subject areas and have different teaching methods. The methods of teaching, the subjects emphasized, and the overall goals of these various schools of education reflect their different world-views, specifically their particular view of the nature of a human being.

     If one were to visit grammar schools which were aligned with one of the educational philosophies mentioned above, one would find a significant degree of consistency. Each school would be similar to those using the same approach. However, visiting Orthodox schools, one would not find such consistency. Some would be more Classical, some Montessori, some Charlotte Mason and some very similar to public schools. This observation comes from our visits to Orthodox schools as well as examining how Orthodox schools advertise themselves on their web sites.

     At this point, some readers may be thinking, “You are imagining a problem that does not exist. Orthodoxy is a religion; it is not an educational philosophy. What is the problem with Orthodox school using various approaches - Classical, Montessori, Charlotte Mason, or any other approach to education?”

     The answer is that Orthodoxy is not a ‘religion’, simply one among many. Orthodoxy is the revelation of Truth, the fulness of Truth, not only concerning the nature of God and His plan for the salvation of mankind, but also concerning the nature of mankind itself. Therefore we should not easily put Orthodoxy in one box and our educational philosophy in another. In doing so, we may unknowingly become intellectually split by adhering to one view of our nature in church and another view of our nature in our educational efforts.

     By making these observations, we are not questioning the value of any Orthodox school or educator. Any parish and any parents willing to make the sacrifices required to start a school or to teach their children at home should be commended and greatly appreciated. Yet the fact remains that while some popular approaches to education have excellent aspects to them, none of them come consciously out of an Orthodox world-view. None of them start with the thinking of the Orthodox Church. This is not to say that they are totally wrong, but it is to say that they are not complete because none of them start from the right beginning.

     There was a time when we experienced this intellectual duality. After being baptized, we were in the church; we were spiritually home. Yet our educational philosophy did not automatically align itself with this change. Once we were in the Church, it became increasingly unsatisfying to explain that we taught in a certain way because “it worked”, or because “the children liked it”, or because “this is what Charlotte Mason, or Maria Montessori, or the ancient Greeks taught.” We wanted to be grounded in the teachings of Orthodoxy and discover how those teachings should influence what we did in the school. We wanted Orthodox anthropology, the Orthodox view of man, to be at the core of the school. Many devout Orthodox families strive to make their home “a little Church.” We wanted to learn how to make our school “a little Church,” as well.

     Since educational pedagogies are based on a particular understanding of our human nature, we must start to develop an Orthodox pedagogy based on the Orthodox understanding of a human being. Unless we can develop such a pedagogy, and make it the heart of our schools, the Orthodox aspects of our schools will be only superficially applied to some other pedagogy, like frosting on a non-Orthodox cake.

     The question being posed is, “Can we discern the principles upon which a truly Orthodox pedagogy is based? Can we find, in the teaching of Orthodoxy, as expressed in the Holy Scriptures, in the teachings of the Holy Fathers, and in the Orthodox Divine Services, a set of principles or guidelines which can be used in the teaching of our children, not only in terms of what we teach, but also how we teach, thereby placing Orthodoxy at the core (from the Latin, cor, meaning heart) of our schools?” The answer is, “Yes, we can.”

     Archimandrite Sergius (Bowyer), the abbot of St. Tikhon Monastery in Pennsylvania, in his book, Acquiring the Mind of Christ, makes a simple, yet profound, point: “The Church’s mind is the mind of Christ. The way the Church thinks is the way we need to learn to think about God, each other and the world.”

     That we should strive to think the way the Church thinks is an observation which would be difficult to gainsay. This simple observation, however, has a corollary that we should consider. Would not thinking as the Church thinks include teaching as the Church teaches? Our efforts should be toward learning how the Church teaches, because if we learn to teach the way the Orthodox Church teaches, then the core of our schools can be an Orthodox pedagogy rather than the pedagogy of the ancient Greeks, Charlotte Mason, Maria Montessori, or any other popular educator. By starting with the mind and pedagogy of the Church, we could develop an educational approach that is Orthodox at the core, not just on the surface. Our Orthodox schools could then be more faithful extensions of the Church, thereby a “little Church.”

     All that has been said thus far does not mean that we must totally disregard the various approaches already being used. It certainly does not mean that, once we articulate the principles of an Orthodox pedagogy, we need to develop a standard Orthodox curriculum to be used in all Orthodox schools. That would be disastrous.

     It does mean, however, that we must shift the beginning point of our thinking. It means that we need to articulate a set of criteria, based on the Orthodox Christian teachings concerning the nature of a human being, that can be used to evaluate various educational methods. Some aspects of other pedagogies may be acceptable, others may not be acceptable. With an understanding of the Orthodox world-view, we will have a basis from which to discern the value of particular practices or methods of various pedagogies.

     If we learn to teach the way the Churches teaches, then we can hope to fulfill St. Theophan’s admonition,

"It should be placed as an unfailing law that every kind of learning which is taught to a Christian should be penetrated with Christian principles, more precisely, Orthodox ones. Christian principles are true beyond doubt. Therefore, without any doubting, make them the general measuring stick of truth." (The Path to Salvation, pg. 64)

     We are preparing additional articles which will further explore this subject, with the goal of articulating the principles of Orthodox pedagogy and giving examples of how to actually put it into practice.

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