In the world but not of the world : Ethos, assessment and professional learning in the Christian school context

Prof Doc Thesis

Varlet, Maria. (2019) In the world but not of the world : Ethos, assessment and professional learning in the Christian school context [Prof Doc Thesis]. Australian Catholic University Faculty of Education and Arts
AuthorsVarlet, Maria
TypeProf Doc Thesis
Qualification nameDoctor of Education

This research examined how professional learning could support Christian school teachers as they seek to apply their school’s espoused Christian ethos to aspects of school life and practice, and, in particular, to their assessment practice. The translation of Christian ethos from a set of aspirational goals, statements, policies and even personal beliefs into the everyday practices of teachers can be challenging. This is particularly so given that Christian schools and their teachers are required to operate within the context of the broader education field that is driven by worldviews and philosophies that are often in conflict with Christian ethos.

The purposes and practices of assessment are currently rigorously debated in the education field and present a particular challenge within the Christian school context. Christian school teachers are required to work within a system that privileges high stakes assessment practices that are built on politically and economically driven purposes. At the same time, these teachers have a biblically driven goal for the holistic development of each child and a desire for each student to foster ‘Christlike’ attributes. This research explored how the teachers perceived this dichotomous relationship and how professional learning might support them to operate within the ‘system’ whilst at the same time remaining faithful to their school’s vision of “integrating the gospel into all they do”.

This study was located within a qualitative paradigm and used case study methodology. The case study site was my own workplace, positioning me as an ‘insider’ researcher. The key data collection strategy was individual, semi-structured interviews with 13 teachers. Additionally, data analysed in this study included the school’s official documents, which provided insights into the school’s espoused Christian ethos, as well as notes and artefacts collected from school-based teacher professional learning sessions in which all teachers participated. Findings emerged through a sequential and iterative approach to data analysis that utilised Bourdieu’s theoretical concepts of field, habitus and capital as a background theory through which to draw out both the perspectives of the participants and institutional assumptions, and also conceptually to understand, analyse and explain the data collected in this study.

The findings of this research show that teachers experience the relationship between Christian ethos and assessment practice as one of tension. The key reasons for this were pressure imposed by the broader education system, parent expectations and the fact that teachers themselves are habituated into the conventions and practices of the education system and rarely question it.

The findings recognised that the first step in addressing this tension is to create opportunity for teachers to be able to identify and acknowledge it. Underpinning philosophies and conceptions of assessment then need to be challenged and reconsidered and, finally, new approaches, practices and resources developed. The teachers in this study affirmed the literature by identifying that professional learning practices that would support them in this process need to be clearly focused, differentiated, collaborative, sustained over time and enable teachers to work together to develop new strategies, concrete resources, structures and models which would support them to better align Christian ethos and assessment practices.

This thesis contributes to the field of Christian education in three key ways. First, utilising Bourdieu’s tools as background theory, this study provides a new way of conceptualising an aspect of potential mission-practice misalignment within Christian schooling. Second, it provides insights into how Christian schools might utilise professional learning strategies to effectively analyse and critique the worldview assumptions of prevailing assessment practices and address existing binaries between faith and learning. Third, it highlights the role that the teachers’ own habitus has in shaping practice along with ways that schools might intentionally foster the development of teachers’ faith habitus.

KeywordsChristian ethos; assessment practice; bourdieu; background theory
PublisherAustralian Catholic University
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Page range1-236
Final version
File Access Level
Publication process dates
Accepted04 Jun 2019
Deposited23 Feb 2021
ARC Funded ResearchThis output has not been funded, wholly or partially, under the Australian Research Council Act 2001
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