The original version of this article was published on the CACE Blog on May 22, 2019.
There is power in the naming of things. I imagine that when God gave Adam the task of naming the animals, Adam didn’t just think up sounds for what to call them. He connected with the genius of what God made each creature to be, and out of Adam’s discernment of “Christ in all things,” each name came forth from his lips. A true name reveals the essence of a thing. It’s a truth more than a label, claiming its perfect place in the Logos.
I love it when authors name things for me, things that I have known deep in my bones . . . but not in my mind. Like a blind man, I’ve felt its contours, its texture, it’s temperature, but never quite brought it into full light. The author names a feeling, a connection, an insight, a revelation, and that’s it! A blinding flash of the obvious!
This brilliance of naming brings me to David Smith’s book, On Christian Teaching. He names an idea that I have felt in the marrow of my bones for the last five years. I’ve managed to utter a few grunts and verbalize a sentence or two, but Dr. Smith eloquently articulates it with humility, depth, and intriguing examples. Here is my big takeaway from Smith’s book: there is not one God-ordained way to teach Christianly, but rather, we need to be in regular conversation with God and each other about what implicit messages our everyday classroom methods communicate about who we are in God’s story and the role God has for us to play, individually and corporately.
Smith asks us to go beyond (or rather beneath) what we teach to explore the formative power of how we teach it, the marrow of our pedagogy: “There is a rich, interesting, and important conversation to be had about faith and pedagogy. It goes beyond questions of the worldview or perspective expressed in course content, and it is not reducible to questions of character or treating students kindly” (Smith, 2018).
David Smith challenges us to recognize that everything we do, from the moment students walk into our room, carries implicit messages about our vision of the community of God. (This message may come even before they enter: I used to have my fourth graders line up in the hall, shake my hand at the door, and respond to this question before I invited them in—“Why are you here?”). Each move matters: the way we arrange the furniture, what we have posted on the wall, how we welcome them into the “world” of our classroom. What do rows of desks facing the front of the room communicate about who we are together in the Kingdom of God? What does copying a problem from the board say about our mission together? How we greet one another (or don’t), our instructional methods, our assessments, how we end the class (bells and run?) all shape our students’ imagination of Christian community at a sub-cognitive level.
Smith invites us to consider the nature of all our classroom interactions: “The ways in which we design learning tasks affect the kind of engagement that will emerge between teacher and students, students and each other, students and topic, students and text, and students and the wider world. What kinds of engagement do we want, and why?” (Smith, 2018)
What do we imply about the nature of learning if we expect students to do it solely through textbooks? What different message do we give if we immerse them in real problems; engage them with issues relevant to their community; expect them to develop theories, propose solutions, and test them against competing ideas and in light of God’s word?
What does our pedagogy say if we expect that all learning will take place within the four walls of the classroom, managed and presented by one teacher, or a different teacher for every subject? What different message do we send if we regularly get out into the community to meet our neighbors, learn from professionals and invite experts into our classrooms?
What worldview do we promote if we divide our day into discrete subjects, each of which we teach for 45 minutes? What different message do we give when we integrate the subjects in longer periods of time and go deeper into the experience of learning?
What do we imply about who we are in the image of God if we manage students’ behavior with charts of apples or ladders and reward them with prizes? Think about it. You can train obedient (compliant vs. engaged) students, but if they are doing it to get their apple on the tree or a pizza party on Friday, are we preparing them for salvation by works or faith?
We can present the most Christian worldview, but if the whole classroom learning system is motivated by grades, how does this compare with life in God’s gradeless world-room? There won’t be any grades once our students leave school. They will be measured by the quality of their work and their likeness to the character of Christ.
It helps to remember that our classrooms are already part of that larger world: “[Our] pedagogy is a home in which teachers and students can live together for a while. . . . It involves resources for and patterns of interaction, both intended and unintended, that shape how those within it grow and imagine the world” (Smith, 2018).
We have to focus beyond the content, as important as it is, to strongly consider the medium through which material is introduced. The medium itself has hidden power to shape us at an unconscious level. The content of our lessons is just, as Marshall McLuhan wrote, “the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watch-dog of the mind.” We are shaping something deeply significant not only with the content, but by the way we introduce it, invite students to live it, and assess what we value in it.
To see what engagement might look like, watch this short video of Chicago middle-school students whose learning activity went far beyond textbooks.