What does Jesuit education look like?

The Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm is most effectively used as a whole school approach rather than just a classroom tool, writes Fr Chris Gleeson SJ.

In April 1993 I had the good fortune to be working in Rome in the office of the Society of Jesus’ Education Secretary, Fr Vin Duminuco SJ, before my taking up the role of headmaster at St Ignatius’ College Riverview.

Indeed, I was present at the launch of the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm (IPP) by Fr General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach SJ, at an international workshop at Villa Cavalletti on 29 April 1993.

One might argue that the IPP has been another stage in the process of renewing and refreshing Jesuit education since 1599, when the final draft of the Ratio Studiorum or ‘Plan of Studies’ was published.

The Ratio was a successful attempt to systematise Jesuit schooling that lasted 174 years until the Suppression of the Society in 1773.

In 1986, 400 years after the first draft of the Ratio, an international group of Jesuit educators produced The Characteristics of Jesuit Education as a contemporary identity statement. In his introduction to this fine publication, Father General Kolvenbach wrote:

‘A document listing the characteristics of Jesuit education is not a new Ratio Studiorum. However, like the Ratio … and as a continuation of the tradition begun then, it can give us a common vision and a common sense of purpose; it can be a standard against which we measure ourselves.’

While people reported satisfaction with the Characteristics as a visionary statement, teachers and administrators around the globe were soon asking for practical help to embed the Characteristics in everyday practices.

The International Commission on the Apostolate of Jesuit Education (ICAJE) in 1993 responded by endeavouring to demonstrate that the constant interplay of experience, reflection and action integral to Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises is essential to the teaching-learning process.

To this tripartite cycle were added the two bookends of context and evaluation, to complete the paradigm in five parts, as we know it today.

In their effort to make the Characteristics more accessible and practicable in the classroom, ICAJE published Ignatian Pedagogy: A Practical Approach — a valuable discussion and elaboration of the IPP explicitly linked to the Spiritual Exercises.

In my experience of visiting schools and talking to teachers and administrators, I believe the IPP has been most successful where the teacher already has a good understanding of Ignatian spirituality.

Where the IPP has been used only to devise lesson plans, or merely as an instrument to help students, it has been deficient. It is crucial to understand that the IPP is also about the spirituality of the teacher.

In speaking to teachers about the IPP, I always begin with the following idea of Fr Richard Rohr OFM in Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality: ‘You lead others to the depth to which you have been led … you can only transform people to the degree you have been transformed.’

Elsewhere, Rohr writes challengingly that education is about transformation. What we don’t transform in ourselves, we transmit. In short, the depth of one’s spirituality as a teacher is pivotal to the effectiveness of one’s teaching ministry and the success of the IPP.

Fr Ron Rolheiser expresses this well in Seeking Spirituality: ‘Long before we do anything explicitly religious at all, we have to do something about the fire that burns within us. What we do with the fire, how we channel it, is our spirituality.’

A teacher or administrator without some Ignatian fire in the belly, or unable to channel that fire, is not going to be a successful exponent of the IPP in the classroom, or any other space for that matter.

There is some support for this argument in Dr Chris Hayes’ 2006 doctoral thesis on the influence of the IPP in Australian Jesuit schools. After researching teachers’ perceptions of the IPP in an admittedly small sample of schools, Dr Hayes recommended:

‘Jesuit authorities need to provide more opportunities for spiritual formation of lay teachers before their introduction to Ignatian Pedagogy. If they wish to foster the Jesuit charism and spirituality in their schools, a more logical place to start is an introduction to the experience of Ignatian spirituality for teachers.’

Interestingly, he also recommends that the IPP be used more effectively as a ‘whole school’ approach to processing issues rather than be restricted just to classroom applications. Administrators could take the lead and develop pastoral care policies using the pedagogy.

In conclusion, our previous Fr General, Adolfo Nicolás SJ, was fond of asking: ‘Is this a new school or an old school in a new building?’

He saw a ‘new’ school as one that takes student-centred learning and accompaniment by the teacher as essential. No longer do we focus on the teacher as the sage on the stage, but as the guide at the side. Our students are not in front of us any more; they are alongside us.

At Riverview in January 2012, Fr Nicolás stressed the importance of accompaniment with the words: ‘Young people have very good hearing in the water, but not on dry land.’

Despite the difficulties of implementing the IPP in Jesuit schools around the world over the past 25 years, its value remains in connecting the heart and soul of Ignatian spirituality with pedagogical practice.

It has made a good contribution to addressing the challenge extended to educators by Pope Francis: In accompanying young people today, ‘we need a new language, a new way of saying things. Today, God asks this of us: to leave the nest which encloses us in order to be sent.’

This article originally appeared in Companions magazine.