All systems Go

During his recent visit to Australia, Manila-based Fr Johnny Go SJ talked about the genesis of the program Learning by Refraction. He also discussed the success of the book of the same name, describing a 21st-century method of bringing the traditional Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm into classrooms.


It’s been a long day and he’s finally in the embrace of a comfortable, well-upholstered armchair, with his head resting back in total and well-deserved relaxation. A slow smile lights up Fr Johnny Go’s face, when I ask him how he chose the name ‘Learning by Refraction’.

He doesn’t use words like ‘programme’, ‘innovation’ or ‘re-invent’. Instead, he talks about a story and how you make it relatable and relevant.

“When you tell a story,” he says, as his eyes light up, “you have to make sure that it is packaged well, or else people won’t listen or feel inclined to pay attention. This is especially applicable today, with all the prevailing clutter of information.

“For a long time, we had a document called Ignatian Pedagogy Paradigm (IPP) and Jesuit schools were encouraged to use it to pursue a uniquely Ignatian brand of learning and teaching.

“But in many schools it wasn’t really being practised as well as it could be. Yes, we would name all the various components of the IPP, but it wasn’t making a full impact in the classroom. So we started studying Ignatian pedagogy more closely, and we started consulting practitioners both in the Philippines and in the Asia Pacific region. I came here to Australia for an IPP workshop some years ago and I learned a lot from the school leaders here. In addition, we also spoke to our colleagues in the US.

“Ignatian pedagogy bred very enlightening conversations. We learned about the best practices as well as some of the malpractices that existed, and we tried to explain what the malpractices were and how to avoid them. We then looked for ways to practise this approach more concretely.

“After about 10 years of consultation and research, we decided to come up with a manual. We did not want to just call it Ignatian pedagogy again because we wanted to offer a fresh approach.

Fr Johnny Go SJ. Photo: David McMahon.

“For the name of this new approach, we played around with a few options and finally we came up with the notion of refraction. We thought it was a good metaphor. As you know, reflection is not the same as refraction. In the case of reflection, you get everything back exactly as it has been presented – but that is not the kind of learning we wanted to achieve. In the case of refraction, however, you see something in a different light. In short, you don’t just parrot what the teacher says.”

The book Learning by Refraction: A Practitioner’s Guide to 21st Century Ignatian Pedagogy, by Fr Johnny Go SJ and Ms Rita Atienza, was published in 2019 by Ateneo de Manila University Press on the 25th anniversary of the publication of Ignatian Pedagogy: A Practical Approach.

“The whole objective of Learning by Refraction is to give teachers a 21st century approach with concrete tools that they could use in designing both learning and formation. And the other bonus that we actually stumbled on is that Ignatian pedagogy can serve as an umbrella framework that is compatible with the soundest 21st century learning theories, principles and strategies.”

So what set Fr. Go on the quest to look beyond the traditional view of Ignatian pedagogy? “It goes back to 2001, when I was sent to run Xavier School in the Philippines, my own alma mater. When I was first assigned to the school, which I ran for 12 years, I knew little about education. My background had been media production, making documentaries and so on.  One of the first things I did was visit Australia to learn from the Jesuit schools here in terms of the efforts to strengthen the Ignatian identity of the schools. Fathers Ross Jones, Andy Bullen, Mike Ryan and others were so generous in sharing what they were doing and I learned so much from them and others in the Australian province.

Fr Johnny Go SJ conducting a workshop.

“They shared everything that truly mattered and that was relevant to me. They welcomed me into their community, they brought me to their schools, they shared with me the faculty development programmes that they were running in the schools as well as their best practices. There were a lot of things to learn, a lot of approaches to absorb. It was like being in the supermarket of education and with their permission, I ‘begged, stole, and borrowed’ whatever was relevant to us – of course, with some adaptation.

“Working on Learning by Refraction has made a huge impact on me because it has given me an even greater appreciation for Saint Ignatius and the Spiritual Exercises on which the IPP is based.

For the past four years, Jesuit Education Australia has been working closely with Fr Johnny and Rita on widening the reach of Learning by Refraction in Australia. While the co-authors did not expect the book to create ripples outside the Philippines, it found relevance far beyond its original intended readership. It has been translated into several languages, including Spanish, Chinese, Thai and Portuguese already, with Polish and Japanese editions expected soon.

“I was overwhelmed by the response to the book,” Fr. Go says. “Last year we conducted a couple of workshops in Europe for the educators there.  I suspect the reason it has succeeded is that it is a very practical version of the traditional Ignatian approach.”

By David McMahon, Communications Manager, Society of Jesus in Australia 

Buy the book Learning by Refraction: A Practitioner’s Guide to 21st Century Ignatian Pedagogy 

Fr. Johnny Go SJ is the Inaugural Dean of the Gokongwei Brothers School of Education and Learning Design of the Ateneo de Manila University.

Rita Atienza is Director of the Ateneo Teacher Center at Ateneo de Manila University.