What If? Learning

What If? Learning

The What If Learning (WIL) approach is a creative framework for character education through a values based curriculum.


AN INTRODUCTION TO WHAT IF LEARNING    www.whatiflearning.co.uk

The What If Learning (WIL) approach is an outcome of the Transforming Lives Project which had input from UK ( Trevor Cooling), USA ( David Smith) and Australia. It is supported by a wide ranging website with practical examples, training materials and background information.

It asks the question : What kind of human beings do we wish  to develop in our schools? It involves the aspiration of building Christian character. It involves a distinctive, holistic and consistent approach to education.

Trevor Cooling used the metaphor of two medieval stonemasons cutting stones. When asked what he was doing, the first mason replied, “I am cutting a block of stone.” The second answered, “I am building a cathedral,” The outcome might be the same but the approach is markedly different.

It is an approach that will enable head teachers and teachers to articulate what is distinctively Christian about their curriculum. It goes a long way to address new standards in SIAMS and a focus on character education.

It also asks the question: What do children imagine they are doing in a classroom?

It addresses a reframing of teaching and learning through :

  • Seeing anew – the teacher using a different lens to look at content and pedagogy  that sits comfortably with the school’s values eg less getting and more giving in maths; a moment for wonder in a science lesson ( the website uses the values faith, hope and love but schools can easily use their own)
  • Choosing engagement – the teacher tweaks their planning to promote a new way of seeing and learning eg  slight changes to resources, allowing time for reflection,  using  peer coaching, changing the layout of a room, asking open ended questions
  • Reshaping practice – the teacher designs learning experiences to support the new way of seeing and learning  eg children  writing about  their local environment either in English or Geography, turn their chairs so they are looking out of the window as they work


The Good News for teachers:

  • This is not an overhaul of the curriculum, it is reframing existing content and a refreshing approach to the new curriculum
  • This is not tokenism or a bolt- on. It links to the School’s values and ethos and spreads it over time right through the curriculum.
  • The website encourages a DIY approach not a slavish following of examples
  • These are very small containable step by step changes across the curriculum – moment by moment. They should not add to the teacher’s workload.



A fundamental question for those involved in Christian Education must surely be: “What sort of person do I hope and pray will emerge from our school?” Properly understood, education entails the formation and development of our students as persons.

Unfortunately, the demands of examinations, the need for qualifications, the pressure to be seen to be a 'successful' school in a competitive market and the requirement placed on teachers by governments around the world 'to raise standards' can easily cause schools to lose sight of that and focus on just conveying academic information. The What If Learning approach is, however, fundamentally concerned with the sort of people that will emerge from the experience of learning that Christian teachers create in their classrooms. It focuses on how academic information contributes to personal formation by giving attention to the learning that students experience.

Christian education should offer a distinctive vision of what it means to be a person made in God’s image. Theologians write on this subject at length and a website such as What If Learning can only scratch the surface. In designing the website, we have decided to take the three Christian virtues of faith, hope and love as a practical way for classroom teachers to develop this Christian vision. During his ministry on earth, Jesus had plenty to say about the Kingdom of God. Again, much has been written on this subject, but one essential element is that the Kingdom offers a vision of the new heaven and the new earth that will be established when Christ returns and God’s rule is finally established. In the meantime, we live in the period between Christ’s first and second comings and, as such, we experience a foretaste of life in God’s Kingdom, even though we also experience the reality of fallen human nature. Growing into Christ entails learning to live more in the experience of New Creation and less in the experience of the Fall; it’s about maturing in the practice of faith, hope and love.

One of the prime functions of Christian education is, then, to introduce students to what it means to belong to God as part of His Kingdom. This entails inspiring them to live life now in the light of God’s assured future. An important aspect of the Christian life is therefore to seek to be more loving, more faithful, more hopeful now as an expression of obedience to God and in the knowledge that to love, hope and be faithful in a perfect way is the ultimate destiny of God’s followers. Christian education should encourage this, supporting pupils in developing towards being the persons that God wants them to be. It is, therefore, concerned with the formation of Christian character and the development of Christian wisdom and Christian virtues.

Character is formed by the year-in, year-out development of patterns of thought, response and behaviour that become part of who we are. Following Christ is not, in the final analysis, about keeping rules, nor even about following Christian principles and values, as important as rules, values and principles are. Rather it is being a particular type of person, one who is shaped by Jesus’ teaching; someone whose life is an embodied anticipation of the Kingdom yet to come. Christian character results from years of wise choices becoming second nature, whereby dispositions to think and act in Christian ways are nurtured as the Holy Spirit works in us. Sometimes it is thought, wrongly, that character is only a moral dimension when, in fact, it manifests itself in the spiritual, social, intellectual and other dimensions of life. A person of Christian character is someone then who foreshadows God’s wise rule in all these dimensions in the sort of person they are.

What If Learning offers a Christian approach to learning that is fundamentally concerned with developing Christian character through the design and management of learning experiences in classrooms. The three steps facilitate this. In seeing anew the teacher is essentially setting the learning of subject knowledge in the wider context of its meaning and significance in God’s Kingdom. It is in this step that the teacher considers how the lesson to be taught can contribute to the students’ understanding of a Christian worldview and how that shapes character through the development of faith, hope and love. In choosing engagement and reshaping practice, the teacher then designs learning experiences that serve to promote this new way of 'seeing'. The aim is that the students have an embodied experience of seeing their academic work anew through the activities and practices that they experience in the classroom.

Christian character, of course, arises out of a relationship with God through Christ. However this does not mean that the development of Christian character is not an appropriate teaching goal for students who may not themselves be Christians. One of the functions of education is for pupils to be offered a vision of being human even if they themselves do not, in the end, embrace it. It therefore makes complete sense in a Christian school for all students to be offered a Christian vision of personhood. After all, God’s vision of what it is to be human applies to all people, irrespective of whether they are Christian or not, although the decision to follow Christ is, of course, the student’s.

In a Christian school it is extremely important that all the students should feel valued and significant members of the school community. As in a Christian family, it would be quite wrong for children to be treated as less significant because they were not themselves Christians, either because they had not yet made a personal commitment or even if they had for some reason turned away from God. So just as in a Christian family the parents will nurture Christian virtues in all their children irrespective of whether they are Christians, so should a Christian school. To do this for all the children in our school is to express God’s love for them.

In our experience, many people who are not themselves Christians are attracted to this distinctively Christian approach with its emphasis on quality of relationships, the development of virtues, the promotion of wisdom and the setting of the academic in the context of meaningful beliefs and values. This should not be a surprise since everyone, Christian or not, reflects God’s image and is therefore usually inherently attracted to behaviour reflecting His Kingdom.

Christian schools should be distinctively Christian institutions. Ultimately this is all about nurturing faithfulness to Christ and His teaching in all members of the school community. It is about being a community where learning to see and act in the light of a Gospel vision is a core task. It is about developing a community where learning to be co-workers with God in the foreshadowing of his Kingdom is central. A Christian school is then a distinctively Christian community through being a signpost to the Kingdom of God for the wider world; a community where Christian virtues and Christian wisdom are treasured and practised in the classroom experience of teaching and learning.


Further reading:

  • Michael W. Austin & R. Douglas Geivett (eds), Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012)
  • Steven Garber, The Fabric of Faithfulness: weaving together belief and behaviour (Downers Grove: IVP books, 1996)
  • Michael Jensen, “The Creature who Learns: A Theological Anthropology for Christian Education” in Trevor Cairney, Bryan Cowling & Michael Jensen, New Perspectives on Anglican Education: Reconsidering Purpose and Plotting for a Future Direction (Sydney: Anglican Education Commission, 2011)
  • Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope (London: SPCK, 2007)
  • Tom Wright, Virtue Reborn (London: SPCK, 2010)



Once we begin looking at our teaching practices in connection with Christian faith, sooner or later the question arises as to whether the ideas proposed are distinctively Christian. The question can arise from critics or from sympathizers. On the one hand, there is a concern from some that particular ideas and practices may be claimed by Christians as something tied to Christian faith when in fact they could have come from other sources. Perhaps, it is suggested, Christians are claiming too much in calling a particular teaching practice Christian. On the other hand, some worry that practices proposed as part of Christian approaches to education are not distinctive enough, that they should be more different from things other people might do if we are really to claim that they are Christian. Perhaps, this concern suggests, something more obviously radical is needed.

It is of course quite possible in any particular instance that either of these concerns might be appropriate and justified. It is certainly possible for Christians to mistakenly claim something as their own, just as it is possible for them to be too uncritically conformed to the cultural practices around them. There are, however, more things to consider before accepting the horns of this particular dilemma.


Is difference the goal?

First, it is worth questioning the degree to which difference in itself should be our goal. Perhaps the primary concern should be faithfulness and consistency rather than comparisons with what others happen to be doing. Our task as Christian teachers is to find ways of teaching that are genuinely consistent with our Christian faith and genuinely educationally helpful to students. Sometimes this might drive us to make choices that are rather different from standard practice in the wider educational world; sometimes it might lead us to affirm, for Christian reasons, practices that are also affirmed by others. Either way, the most important question is whether we are really being faithful to our Christian calling, not how similar our actions are to someone else’s. Christians see God’s grace at work in the world in many ways, and can rejoice when the work of others who do not share their faith reflects a little of that grace.


What about history?

Second, in the western world talk about what is distinctively Christian is complicated by history. Our cultural heritage has been shaped by various sources, including Ancient Rome and Greece, but it includes an enormous Christian influence. Ideas and practices that are now habitually thought of as ‘secular’ or are even associated with other belief systems may well have had their roots in or been influenced by past Christian contributions to culture. This makes drawing a sharp dividing line between Christian practices and those of the wider culture more complex. Sometimes Christian ideas are similar to ideas that are more widely present in society not because Christianity has nothing to contribute, but because the society itself still contains and operates out of echoes of its Christian history.


What is distinctiveness?

Third, reflect for a moment on how difference and identity work. Consider your own uniqueness as an individual. It is likely that there are at least a few other people in the world who have exactly the same nose as you, others who share your exact hair or eye color, others who went to the same school, others who share your first or last name or even both, others who ate the same meal that you did yesterday evening. What makes you distinctively you? Would we have to go looking for the one hidden feature that was different from everyone else in order to find what could really be said to be you, and then discount everything that was shared with others as not really belonging to your identity? Are you for example your fingerprints? Surely not. Your identity is a particular combination of features that, taken one by one, may not in themselves be unique. Your identity is woven from the particular way in which many features and experiences, each of which taken separately might be similar to others, are combined into a distinctive pattern.

Compare the Christian practice of the Eucharist (or communion), breaking bread in remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice. Baking bread isn’t distinctively Christian, nor is breaking it and eating it. Others beside Christians also drink wine and share meals together. Others even share meals to commemorate past events. But communion becomes a Christian practice when all of these elements come together and are informed by the Christian story. You could go through exactly the same outward motions without reference to Christian faith and you would not be engaged in the same practice. Christian faith patterns and renews the things of this world, it does not put us in another world entirely.

Similarly, taken piecemeal and one by one it may well turn out that many of the particular actions suggested in the examples on this site could be adopted or invented by teachers of various beliefs. We make no large claim that at the level of individual strategies these examples are unique to Christians, though many of them occurred to the teachers concerned because of their faith. We are more concerned with whether they represent a way of teaching that is faithful for Christians, and we suggest that it is when the individual examples come together into a consistent pattern over time and get connected with the Christian story that we can talk about distinctively Christian teaching. It’s a matter of building a rich whole that is informed by faith, not of whether each component part is trademarked.



Andrew Rickett’s View as SIAMS inspector

The new SIAMS has raised the bar significantly for schools in terms of a cross curriculum approach and the articulation of spirituality.

It is early days but already myths and mixed messages about spirituality in lessons are doing the rounds – a prayer in every lesson, bible stories applied in every subject….

Speaking positively, SIAMs creates opportunities to liberate schools from a mechanistic, fact packed curriculum. What If Learning is a timely response to the new National Curriculum, a chance to reshape the school. It could have enormous impact on:



It is OK to have the aspiration to transform character. SIAMS is about aspiration for children in church schools. It reflects Chadwick recommendations. Schools aren’t necessarily there yet, inspection will guide schools toward it and WIL can contribute a great deal.



SIAMs is tied much more closely with pupil performance – the impact on teaching and learning of the school’s ethos and standards. How does Christian character contribute to performance? How does a refreshed pedagogy build to higher standards?


Christian teaching and learning

The extent to which this is underpinned by Christian character – content as well as pedagogy. It could be said that a pedagogy that involves reflection and higher order thinking skills leads to outstanding lessons (see also National Society’s post Chadwick advice to schools to be published Autumn 2013)



Developing a person’s humanity – the extent to which children can express themselves at a deeper level to explore difficult questions. Lessons need to be planned to include opportunities for reflection and questioning so that they move to a deeper spiritual dimension – this is encouraged by the  WIL reframing strategy


Some questions

What concrete contributions can WIL make to the SIAMS process?

How could WIL support church schools who are currently I) outstanding or  ii) satisfactory?


Researching What If Learning

Diocese of Carlisle Research project 2014 -15

During the year three schools took part in a research project funded by the Jerusalem Trust. They looked at pedagogy and evolving curriculum content, they used a range of pupil feedback to assess and develop their practice. Their question was “ Does the consistent use of the WIL curriculum lead to raised standards in teaching and learning in our church schools?”  Included here are some of their findings and practical advice for classroom teachers.

Many thanks to the teachers at:

  • Beetham C of E Primary School
  • St Herbert’s C of E Nursery and Primary School, Keswick
  • The Bishop Harvey Goodwin C of E School, Carlisle



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