On Christian Teaching: Practicing Faith in the Classroom

David I. Smith
Published by William B. Eerdmans in 2018

A review of one’s work, especially a fair and kind one, is a gift. An invitation to address the matter further in response is another. In the present case, there is little cause for a response of the crossing swords variety, since Dave Klanderman apparently liked On Christian Teaching: Practicing Faith in the Classroom and found its argument persuasive. Even the caveats in his review are essentially restatements of cautions already noted in the book. I have little cause to grumble. And yet, one aspect of how Klanderman frames his description of the book leaves me a little uncomfortable and feeling the need to clarify.

Klanderman describes the early chapters of my book in categories familiar from current conversations about teaching and learning. He comments on the examples in those chapters in terms of whether students were engaged, whether lower-level engagement gave way to higher-order thinking, and whether we can identify exemplars of good and bad practice. More specifically, he notes that the examples in the first chapter were “not effective in producing deep engagement.” Klanderman appreciates the activity described in the second chapter, and wonders whether such “exemplary teaching episodes” can be claimed as Christian. He points out that the “successful” parts of the teaching activities could be used by teachers who are not Christian. This summation evokes a focus on generic, pragmatic criteria of success. But that is not the emphasis that the chapters themselves offer. In fact, it evokes the very account of teaching that they (along with the rest of the book) explicitly seek to problematize.

The examples in the opening chapter are not described in order to consider whether students were engaged at the appropriate cognitive level. The more extended example in the second chapter is not offered with the purpose of providing an exemplar of best practice or successful teaching. Nor is it presented as an activity at all unique to Christians. I think this is quite explicit in the text. I introduced the latter activity, for instance, emphasizing that there was “no claim that it is the correct way to begin the year, or that it is what everyone should do, or even that it is anything particularly innovative or remarkable. … It’s just teach- ing” (14). The point, then, was not that this is an especially Christian activity or an especially successful one; to the contrary, it was that it is an entirely ordinary one. I go on to say that the point of the example “is to try to clarify some of what might be at stake when some teaching happens” (15). I hoped to show that when we look more closely at a sequence of teaching, there is more going on than we commonly notice.

What the first few chapters of my book set out to show, then, is not that there are bad activities that fail to engage students and good activities that can be claimed as Christian. Rather, the examples described are presented in order to explore “how faith might be implicated” in quite ordinary sequences of teaching and learning. The opening chapters are not about best practice. They are about looking at everyday sequences of teaching and seeing the ways that faith commitments become implicated in their structure and effects. For me, it is this perspective that motivated, and underlies, the entire book.

When we begin to see teaching as a complex social practice rather than a matter of effective technique, questions of basic beliefs and values arise quite quickly, and specifically Christian questions about how we are constructing teaching and learning become possible. To judge from the rest of his review, I take Klanderman to be basically with me on this point. As he rightly notes, I think that exploring this carefully is a neglected task in Christian higher education. In On Christian Teaching, I worked with as many concrete examples as I could in the hope of making clear that my case does not proceed from a principial argument (that there must be a Christian approach to teaching), but rather from the effort to pay closer attention to the contours of practice. This effort leads me to the view that there is no such thing as a uniquely Christian teaching activity and that particular ways of teaching can be, in a phrase that Klanderman quotes, “sensible extensions of being Christian.” After the paragraphs that worry me, Klanderman does a fine job of summarizing how this concern plays out through the book, for which I offer my thanks.

Cite this article
David I. Smith, “A Response to Dave Klanderman”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 48:2 , 181-182

David I. Smith

Calvin University
David I. Smith is Professor of Education and Director of the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning at Calvin College.