On Christian Teaching: Practicing Faith in the Classroom
In my work with preservice teachers and in conversations with colleagues at Hope College, I frequently engage in questions of what it means to integrate faith and learning. Is it a matter of teaching Christian perspectives and ideas in a particular discipline? Is it about the worldview presuppositions that frame disciplinary assumptions and issues? Might it be about the ethos or ethic of ourselves as teachers? Does it boil down to the moments when we share our faith with students during and outside of our classes?
In his recent book, On Christian Teaching: Practicing Faith in the Classroom, David Smith argues that it is the pedagogical processes of our teaching, the how of our teaching and not just the what and why, that requires our attention as Christian educators. He claims discussions about Christian teaching tend to focus on the ways course content or a teacher’s character contributes to the integration of faith and learning. What is missing, he points out, is consideration of the teaching and learning processes themselves – the ways we grade, take attendance, arrange desks and order our course topics.
Smith spends the first part of his book setting the stage for his argument by addressing commonly held assumptions about what it means to integrate faith and learning. He laments the lack of a rich, shared framework for conversation about the ways pedagogical processes affect how students access and experience content. Playing with the word “paedagogium” (a place of pedagogy; an actual house of learning for fourteenth-century students at the university of Paris), Smith argues that teachers’ pedagogical choices create a “home” for their students, a “home in which teachers and students can live together for a while, a place to which students are welcomed as guests and in which they can grow.”
Framing what we do as teachers as “home-making” rather than implementing a set of techniques or instructional strategies leads to new questions such as: What kind of home might we be creating in our classrooms in the daily choices we make as teachers? How might our decisions about classroom space and time, gesture and image, objects and sound change if we lived out our beliefs that students are images of God called to faithful living and to love of God and neighbor? How might we encourage students and teachers to see anew in our disciplines?
In the second half of the book, Smith offers practical application to these kinds of questions through the lens of a What If Learning framework, developed by a team of curriculum designers, including Smith, from the US, UK, and Australia. The What If Learning model asks teachers to consider how to see anew, choose engagement, and reshape practice in what they do in their classrooms. Smith uses each of these facets to unpack how imagination inhabits classrooms, how students are (or are not) encouraged to participate in learning through our often implicit expectations of them, and how the material environments in our classrooms guide learning whether we realize it or not.
The specific and concrete examples that Smith shares with his readers in this section and throughout the book are one of the book’s many strengths. Drawing on his own teaching experiences as well as that of others, Smith’s examples, representing a variety of disciplines, grade levels, and teaching contexts, tease out the assumptions, considerations, and hopes that feed into a teacher’s decision shaping moments. By providing these helpful and generative examples, Smith avoids the tendency that often exists in the scholarship around teaching of using high levels of generality that fail to speak directly to the specific moments and decisions in a classroom. Smith, however, is clear to frame his use of specifics as starting points for discussion rather than as a recipe or handbook to follow. There is no simple formula for how to teach Christianly, he asserts throughout the book. It is his hope that readers use his examples to then think about their own pedagogical decisions and unique contexts. To this end, the Reflection and Discussion questions and Journal prompts at the end of each chapter are very helpful.
Hospitality toward readers
Another strength of Smith’s book is in the gracious hospitality he shows his readers. He frequently explains the bigger picture of his argument before honing in on specifics, frames ideas so that they build on what has been previously discussed, and carefully explains his decisions to include particular examples, often with humor. In so doing, Smith lives out the argument he offers in this book through these interactions with his readers.
Smith ends his book with a call for other Christian scholars to continue the kinds of conversations and collaborations around teaching and learning that he initiates, conversations that extend beyond epistemological and Christian worldview discussions and debates. I know that I am eager to do so. Smith’s book encourages me, my students, and my colleagues to reflect on how our faith might shape our pedagogical choices. This is no small task or feat as Smith frequently points out. Christian pedagogy is is crafted with prayer, study, listening to students, being aware of what transpires in our classrooms, and of being humble enough to hear from others that what we are trying to do isn’t always effective or meaningful. And yet, Smith’s book also reminds me of why I love what I get to do with my students and of what a privilege and honor it is for us as Christian educators to welcome our students into our God-glorifying classroom homes.