How Might We Teach Christianly?: A Review of On Christian Teaching

April 16, 2020
Title: On Christian Teaching: Practicing Faith in the Classroom
Author: David I. Smith
Publisher: Eerdmans
Publishing Date: May 28, 2018
Pages: 182 (Paperback)
ISBN: 978-0802873606

Is there such a thing as Christian teaching?

As a graduate student interviewing to become a faculty member at a Christian university I was terrified of this question. I hoped to teach mechanical engineering and physics, and I found it difficult to imagine a satisfactory (let alone deep) answer to this question. My discipline doesn’t lend itself to any of the “controversial” issues in science (with perhaps the exception of universe origins in physics), so I didn’t know how to answer this question. I certainly had no idea what it looked like in the context of a math-heavy analysis course like engineering dynamics, but I was pretty sure the “correct” answer was yes. As I recall, I said something about God’s fingerprints being everywhere, which must have been “good enough” because I got the job. But, the question continued to sit with me and niggle as I learned to teach and began to develop a more nuanced understanding of my students as both learners and image-bearers of Christ.

Teaching (at its best) is an intricate dance between content, space, and time. Experienced teachers know that for any particular content, the dance moves that work well with one group of students in a particular classroom may not work as well in a different space or with a different group (variability that seemed incomprehensible to me as a new teacher). During those early years, I learned about and applied a variety of pedagogy techniques, but it didn’t really click for me until I began to learn about early childhood development philosophies after the birth of my son a few years into my teaching career. Through parenting I became fascinated with the Montessori method, which, at its core, is a philosophical understanding of children as small people who are inherently worthy of respect, who are curious about their world, and who (because of these first two things) want to and will learn if given the opportunity. Maria Montessori believed that “The teacher’s task is not to talk, but to prepare and arrange a series of motives for cultural activity in a special environment made for the child.”1 Her approach has had remarkable results for early childhood development across socioeconomic contexts. The more I learned, the more I began to wonder if the answer to that question about “Christian teaching” lay in how I taught instead of what I taught.

This idea that “Christian teaching” might be how instead of (or in addition to) what is the focus of David Smith, a German language professor, in his book On Christian Teaching: Practicing Faith in the Classroom. In the book, Smith makes a compelling case that “the shape of the teaching and learning process affects how students access and experience that content, helping weave the web of values, relationships, and actions within which learning becomes meaningful. An account of Christian education that focuses only on the truth of what is taught, and fails to address the meanings molded through how it is taught and learned is at its best incomplete.” (4) The book also provides a framework for reflecting on current practices in the reader’s classroom and considering how to reshape those practices.

The first half of the book unpacks the layers of the learning environment through a series of in-depth case studies and reflections on moments in Smith’s own classes. While this might seem to risk being irrelevant to anyone not teaching languages, an engaged reader will find a myriad of promptings and aids encouraging them to consider their own actions, no matter their subject area. Smith unpacks how the use of space and time in a classroom activity conveys messages about welcome, belonging, and a vision of classroom engagement, all while observing and reflecting on how the patterns we create and habits we cultivate in a course shape the student’s learning. “My assigned task,” he observes, “is to teach German language, but I am never just teaching German language, not only because I have multiple, simultaneous goals but because there is no value-free way to decide how to pursue the main goal” (33). His examples of how this plays out on a daily basis in his classroom are rich and nuanced, and each chapter ends with a set of questions that reflect on how these things might look within the practice of the reader’s discipline.

One example that I find particularly thought-provoking comes from early in Smith’s career, where he recounts his realization that the German textbook he was using (and indeed most of the ones available) prepared students with vocabulary to be self-oriented international vacationers, focusing on their own needs, stories, and dissatisfaction, all of which in no way prepared them to see the individuals in the culture they were studying as fellow human beings with needs and stories of their own. He came to realize that these simple choices were shaping his students in a heart-direction other than what he intended, observing: “For Zwingli, as for Augustine, sin was no more than self-love: sin consisted in valuing oneself over others and conceiving of others and of God in terms of one’s own self…Sin reigns when I regard myself as the center of what has worth and the criterion against which to judge others as having worth” (45).

Reflecting on Smith’s writing makes me wonder how a student’s social imagination is shaped by the ubiquitous choice in my own discipline of engineering to rely on simplified abstractions (i.e. drawings of beams, etc.) to teach analysis and problem solving. I frequently encounter students who want to ignore the human dimension of engineering, focusing just on the calculations or designing a particular product (e.g. a race car) “because it’s cool.” How might their belief about the work of an engineer be different if their traditionally abstract foundational courses were instead embedded in stories about loving the alien and stranger, using examples of real people and design challenges in humanitarian engineering or healthcare technology to contextualize their learning? The answers to these questions are not easy. I’m sure this is not the only way that “the pattern of this world” (51) is embedded in the courses that I teach. Smith warns that “figuring out what this means in each discipline…will mean paying close attention to what its practices mean to participants and what moral order they project” (52), but if we want to teach Christianly this task of self-reflection is worth doing.

In the second half of the book, Smith proposes a framework for how we might rethink our courses: seeing anew, choosing engagement, and reshaping practice. He spends a chapter presenting the idea and then three more chapters unpacking what each of these might look like. He repeatedly encourages his readers to reflect on their use of time and space to create a pedagogy (which he defines as “a temporary space to live in together while learning” (12)),  and he supports his ideas with examples from a wide variety of disciplines (including math, physical education, and psychology) at both the secondary and post-secondary levels.

Among his many reflection-provoking and actionable ideas in this section, he considers prayer at the start of class and what messages faculty convey by how they pray (if they choose to pray to start class). This semester I have been starting one of my classes with a minute of silence followed by the Collect for Purity, which begins the Anglican Eucharist service, to remind us that the engineering work that we do is an act of worship. Smith’s discussion caused me to consider where I stand while we do that minute of silence and prayer—I had been at the front, facing the students, but now I have moved to the side, facing front with them. I’m still deciding what I think of this move, but it feels like a good reminder that first and foremost we are image-bearers of Christ, and that the imposed hierarchy of faculty and student comes after that.

Overall, Smith’s book is an engaging read, though the interested reader will probably want to intersperse reading with reflection so it may be a slower read than many books of similar length. The book is most directly aimed at post-secondary teachers, but all teachers will find it accessible and anyone who teaches—whether as a professional educator, parent, or church education volunteer—will find the ideas presented in the book useful for framing the intentionality of their actions. If you’re interested in thinking carefully about grounding how you teach in a Christian worldview, I highly recommend this book.

About the Author
  • Kayt Frisch is a wife and mother who serves an Associate Professor of Engineering at George Fox University. When not teaching in the classroom she can be found building relationships over good food, good coffee and board games, or hiking with her family.

  1. From Maria Montessori The Absorbent Mind quoted on Accessed 12 March 2020  

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