Today’s post provides an excerpt of a new book written by Dr. Lynn Swaner, ACSI chief strategy and innovation officer, and Andy Wolfe, executive director of education for the Church of England. The book releases on November 16, 2021, from Eerdmans.
How do students, educators, and schools flourish together? We encourage you to pause for a moment to reflect on this question. What comes to mind when you imagine flourishing students? What do flourishing teachers and leaders look like? And what does it look like for an entire school to flourish?
These are the questions at the heart of this book. They are also questions we have asked thousands of educators in our own countries and across the world. And to a person, we have found that leaders and teachers know flourishing when they see it—in students who are exuberant in their learning and are growing socially, emotionally, physically, and spiritually; in educators who love their students and their craft, and who are ever improving as professionals and serving well together with colleagues; and in schools whose shared energy, creativity, authenticity, and hope overflows and blesses their communities. This reflects an important reality: flourishing is not an external ideal, or something that is completely foreign to us as educators. Instead, flourishing is something that we intuitively know ought to be the goal of education for students, the purpose of our lives as professionals, and something we desire ultimately for our schools.
And yet across much of education, flourishing is often far from the norm. In fact, it seems that many factors serve to inhibit flourishing in schools, whether financial pressures or limited resources, overworked teachers and leaders, students’ struggles outside of school, or societal rifts related to inequality and injustice. Schools are also influenced by reductionist views of the purposes of education, reflected in shallow definitions and measures of success for which our societies have settled; thus while schools’ mission statements may be loftily expansive, the daily experience of educators and students alike reflects a much narrower story about what can be accomplished in schools. We can witness the convergence of these realities in all-too-common educational “fallout,” from student disengagement to teacher burnout to school closures.
Our goal in this book is to call us back to educational flourishing, in the hope that by doing so, we will find fresh vision and energy to reimagine our schools—and ourselves—as what we intuitively desire them to be. To this end, we agree with C. S. Lewis’s assertion in Mere Christianity: “Really great moral teachers never do introduce new moralities. The real job of every moral teacher is to keep on bringing us back, time after time, to the old simple principles which we are all so anxious not to see; like bringing a horse back and back to the fence it has refused to jump or bringing a child back and back to the bit in its lesson that it wants to shirk.” As Lewis suggests, the journey toward flourishing involves a journey back—back to the heart of education, and what it means to be an educator. And in fact, we believe that it is precisely in going back that we can discover generative ways of going forward.
While we desire deeply for all schools to embark on this journey, our starting point is the Christian education sector. This is not just because we work with Christian schools, although of course our day-to-day work is highly influential in our thinking. But rather, it is because we believe that a Christian vision has much to offer in terms of broadening the purpose, goals, and intended impact of education on flourishing. We take our cue from Jesus, who declares in the Gospel of John, “I came to give life—life in all its fullness.” If this was Jesus’ purpose in his life and ministry and in the incarnation itself, we would reasonably expect that communities, organizations, and institutions bearing his name would reflect this abundant life. Where they do not, a Christian vision would suggest our own human tendencies toward fear, pride, selfishness, and exclusivity (to name a few) are at fault. But that same vision would encourage us with overflowing hope that transformation in our schools, our students, and ourselves is possible. And a Christian vision would fill us with the all-sufficient, enabling grace we need to rethink and reshape our practices such that they aim toward flourishing. Accordingly, the goal of this book is to lay out such a vision.
Flourishing is far from a new concept, and indeed many frames have been used to explore flourishing—perhaps beginning with the Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia, of human flourishing that is derived from “doing and living well.” From psychology, the concept of flourishing has been used to redefine well-being as a holistic state, one that is greater than just the absence of illness. Theologians from many different traditions have also deeply explored the question of human flourishing, and in fact, this book has been shaped by extensive conversation with some and draws upon the rich writing of many more. Our primary orientation, however, is educational research and practice in Christian settings. As such, we have laid out the vision in this book—grounded in a biblical framework, informed by rigorous research, and enriched by actual practice in schools—so that it will be useful for school leaders and teachers, academics and researchers, and those who support Christian schools through organizational or ministry work. We also pray that educators in all sectors, and across the globe, might find something attractive in this vision for education, and thus might consider joining us in collaborative conversation about what educational flourishing could look like for all schools. We believe the offer of abundant life is available to all, freely given, and generous enough that—as the title of this book suggests—we can flourish together.
About the Authors
Lynn E. Swaner serves as the chief strategy and innovation officer at the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), where she leads thought leadership and research initiatives including ACSI’s signature Flourishing Schools Research. In her previous work as an education faculty member in higher education, she conducted research and published on well-being, adult learning, and student development.
Andy Wolfe is the executive director of education for the Church of England. He has national oversight of the Church of England Foundation for Educational Leadership, which runs programs, networks, and research focused on leadership development. Previously, he worked as a senior leader in a large high school, where he oversaw the development of teaching and learning and the school’s Christian ethos.