On Christian Teaching: Practicing Faith in the Classroom
For those who teach at a Christian school, whether in grades K-12 or at the post-secondary level, there is an expectation that one’s faith is integrally connected with one’s teaching. For many, this takes the form of a philosophical or theological analysis of the academic content, often focusing on controversial issues or a more general framing of the disciplines at the outset of the academic year. But what about pedagogical strategies and techniques? Are there uniquely Christian ways to approach teaching and learning? Distinctively Christian ways? Perhaps some are consonant with a Christian perspective in that they can be viewed as a natural extension of underlying faith commitments? David Smith engages the reader with such questions in his latest book On Christian Teaching: Practicing Faith in the Classroom. This book follows two of Smith’s collaborative works on similar topics: Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning (2011) and Teaching and Christian Imagination (2016). 1
Smith begins with vignettes from high school classrooms in which his son was enrolled as a student. In one course, the teacher assigns readings from the textbook on a regular basis, but students are able to achieve maximal credit by merely skimming the readings and without substantial engagement during class sessions. A second example from another of his son’s teachers highlights the difference between the assessments of low level understanding (matching terms with definitions) and a deeper consideration of the underlying concepts and issues discussed in the course. In both cases, the accounts highlight teaching practices that are not effective in producing deep engagement and learning.
From this negative exemplar, Smith then provides a detailed account of the first nine minutes of his initial class session teaching a second-year college German course. Through multiple analyses, he uncovers the ways that he fosters a hospitable environment by having students first speak to introduce themselves to a partner, listen to the corresponding introduction, and later introduce their partner to two other students in their seating cluster. Although I have experimented with a similar ice breaker in my mathematics courses, I marvel at Smith’s ability to infuse multiple language objectives, arrange the classroom seating to foster community among these four-student clusters, and “view students not as minds, achievers, customers, or challenges, but as images of God called to faithful living and to love of God and neighbor” (36).
It is important to avoid overclaiming exemplary teaching episodes similar to the above as uniquely, or even distinctively, Christian. Indeed, in a conversation with my daughter, who is currently completing a Ph.D. in mathematics at a large secular university, we both agreed that most if not all of the successful teaching strategies and considerations of the learning environment in Smith’s nine-minute opening could be endorsed by teachers with different or no faith commitments. Smith points to underlying motivations, including a desire to promote justice, shalom, and concern for others, as well as the view of students as God’s image bearers, as features that are consonant with Christian faith commitments. This, in turn, allows teachers and students alike to view the learning environment through “lenses of grace, justice, beauty, delight, virtue, faith, hope, and love” (71).
In subsequent chapters, Smith provides additional exemplars, from both his own teaching of language and literature and a variety of other disciplines. He stresses the consumerism and superficial nature of many introductory foreign language classes. By contrast, his extended example of the White Rose activity (58-61) in Chapter 5, “Motivated Design,” offers the opportunity for students to dig deeper into the story behind a photograph and some challenging historical moments from Nazi Germany even as they review appropriate German vocabulary. Smith concludes this chapter by reflecting on, and arguing that, “Teaching practices can be motivated by Christian faith in the sense that we can look for how well they fit, whether they are sensible extensions of being Christian” (63-64).
Chapter 6, “See, Engage, Reshape,” begins by identifying three facets of the What If Learning approach, “a name that derives from the strategy of approaching concrete pedagogical tasks with a questioning mindset” (69). These three facets— seeing anew, choosing engagement, and reshaping practice—are then developed in much greater detail in the three following chapters. Smith sets the stage by noting, “Faith can speak to the how of teaching and learning, and not just the what and why” (68). Most helpful in these discussions are the specific examples chosen from a range of disciplines, including a contrast of two science teachers and their interactions with parents during a conference and feedback from an initially skeptical science teacher during an in-service workshop on Christian teaching practices. This creative imagination which results in a teacher “seeing anew” allows for a greater focus on the context surrounding a lesson on standard concepts, such as logarithmic and trigonometric functions in a lesson based on the Indian Ocean Tsunami in December 2004 (87). Although a focus on real-life applications in the mathematics classroom is endorsed by nearly all math teachers, the opportunity to identify connections between poverty and lack of access to early warning systems for tsunamis seems a natural extension of Christian faith commitments to open eyes, hearts, and resources to those less fortunate among us. A similar analysis follows in Chapter 8, “Life Together,” which calls for a greater sense of community and full engagement by students in the learning process. Finally, Chapter 9, “Designing Space and Time,” draws the reader’s attention to the use of both space and time to enhance learning, foster community, and encourage reflection among students. Once again, these pedagogical practices are not uniquely Christian, but do emerge naturally from Christian faith commitments.
Smith returns to the issue of distinctiveness in Chapter 10, “Pedagogy and Community.” He accepts the goal of many colleagues to frame their disciplines from a Christian perspective, but argues for extending this perspective to classroom practices and procedures. He concludes that “it is not enough to have Christian perspectives without the embodied practices and intentional engagement that are consonant with them” (129). Drawing from a chapter in another of his (co-edited) books, Smith cites the work of Carolyne Call in her adolescent psychology class. 2 Call discusses several practices in her course, including praying for her students, preparing food for them, and listening to their personal histories. These faith- influenced practices allowed her to react with compassion to a particularly difficult student. Examples such as these help the reader to imagine ways of bringing a Christian perspective to the daily actions of the teaching and learning environment.
Smith uses the final chapter, “The State of Christian Scholarship,” to document the rich scholarship in the area of Christian perspective on specific disciplines, while simultaneously highlighting the paucity of published scholarship that seeks to apply this Christian perspective to teaching practices in particular. He argues that many Christian colleges and universities place a greater emphasis on the scholarship of discovery than on the scholarship of teaching and learning. He also cites research from Christian colleges and universities in which faculty members are largely in agreement on the influence of their theological tradition on disciplinary foundations and worldview, while demonstrating much less agreement on the role of these same theological traditions on course objectives or teaching practices (145). Smith acknowledges that exemplary teaching, including those practices consonant with Christian perspectives, exists in many Christian educational institutions at all levels. He writes, however, that “much of the individual engagement remains private, known only to local groups of learners, and much of what is published on Christian pedagogy remains fragmentary” (145). Although his evidence of the dearth of published work on this topic is accurate, I would note that many smaller and more nimble Christian liberal arts colleges—notably Trinity Christian College where I taught for nearly three decades—place a high value on collaboration in areas of both scholarship and teaching. At Trinity, a specific focus on teaching practices that emerge from underlying Christian faith can be regularly seen in faculty research presentations attended by colleagues from a variety of disciplines, collaborative summer research grants, and less formal gatherings of colleagues within and across departments. Over time, one would hope that these efforts will be shared with colleagues at other Christian schools, colleges, and universities, whether as part of professional development workshops, conference presentations, or written publications.
Overall, Smith makes a valuable contribution to the discussion of specific actions in the teaching and learning environment that naturally extend from one’s Christian faith. The particular examples he provides, though naturally emphasizing courses in his own disciplinary expertise of language and literature, span the spectrum of academic disciplines and should motivate those of us who have callings in Christian educational institutions to deeper reflection on these issues. Although each chapter has exercises and suggestions for journaling that could be done individually, I would highly recommend the use of this book in a cross-disciplinary book club during the course of a semester or perhaps as a main resource during a more focused collaborative work group on pedagogy.
Dave Klanderman is Professor of Mathematics and Statistics at Calvin College. Editors’ note: It is CSR’s practice not to assign book reviews to an author’s institutional colleague, and readers will note that Dave Klanderman and David I. Smith are both professors at Calvin College. However, the current review was assigned and written when Klanderman was Professor of Mathematics at Trinity Christian College, before he moved to Calvin College in fall 2018.
Cite this article
- David I. Smith & James K. A. Smith, eds., Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2011); and David I. Smith and Susan M. Felch, Teaching and Christian Imagination (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2016).
- Carolyne Call, “The Rough Trail to Authentic Pedagogy: Incorporating Hospitality, Fellowship, and Testimony into the Classroom, in Teaching and Christian Practices, 61-79.