By Mark Witwer, February 17, 2022, Faith and Science, The CACE Roundtable
From the very start of my career, I simply loved teaching. The fact that I was teaching in a Christian school was a plus, but as a rookie, I could not articulate a clear philosophy of Christian education.
By the time I retired from full-time teaching two years ago, I had come to love teaching Christianly. I describe teaching Christianly as nurturing minds and hearts by allowing my faith to inform both what I teach (offering a Christian perspective on the subject matter) and how I teach (attending to the formative power of practices).
The discussion that follows explores some of my favorite strategies for teaching Christianly, grouped under two broad topics: God’s Genius and The Embrace of Controversy. My focus is on science, but most of these ideas can be adapted to other disciplines as well.
Science brings us face to face with the astounding scope and complexity of God’s creation. The more we learn about nature’s structure and function (the way natural systems work so well), the more our jaws drop in wonder at God’s genius. (I like the word genius because students do not hear it applied to God as often as the related terms glory, greatness, power, or creativity, but each is appropriate.) Below are ideas for improvising on this theme.
- God’s genius encourages trust. A colleague once told me about her childhood math teacher who stopped occasionally to exclaim, “God is a genius!” Pause with your students to be amazed…but don’t stop there. As illustrated by God’s “science lesson” to Job (Job 38-42) and by Paul’s point that nature speaks to all people (Romans 1:19-20), our goal is for students to move from “Wow” to worship, to trust God. God is not only mighty; he loves us. Nature abounds with illustrations of what God can do, but God’s care for us humans exceeds all else (Matthew 10:29-31).
- Only God can turn “Wow” to worship. Keep in mind that nothing we educators do can make students move from “Wow” to worship. Even if we teach perfectly (LOL), the life-change we desire for students will not happen unless God acts. Thus, praying for our students might be the most important thing we do for them. Having them pray for each other in meaningful ways can also become a practice that shapes their idea of community.
- Why is science so mathematical? The mathematical nature of reality is a potent example of God’s genius. Years ago, my students wondered why we were doing math in science class. Good question! Galileo’s famous statement about the universe being written in the language of mathematics provides a big-picture answer: God operates the physical creation according to mathematical rules. It is fun and instructive to have students imagine a world minus these rules—a world that did not operate predictably.
I also point out that nature’s rules represent God’s activity. Making this connection protects students from conflating natural processes with God’s absence. To use a ballet metaphor, God is the choreographer behind the curtain.
- Telling is only a start. We learn what we live. Don’t simply tell students; have them do something with the idea that nature displays God’s genius. If students conduct science projects, God’s genius as reflected in the topic could be highlighted in the final presentation. Students who journal might collect their favorite science factoids and examples of God’s genius throughout the year. Examples of God’s genius can be highlighted in student posters, poems, and even as a question in written assignments (e.g., “Does anything in this material impress you as an example of God’s genius?” Be sure students know they are welcome to say “No.”)
- Classroom practices are spiritually formative. Interacting frequently with how nature displays God’s genius can teach students to be on the lookout for useful examples in each lesson. In other words, these routines can become formative practices that influence the value students place on scientific knowledge. Practices have power. It is not only what students learn that shapes them; what they do to learn is also formative. The importance of faith’s influence on the process of teaching, not only its content, has been under-emphasized in conversations about Christian education (Smith, 2016; Smith, 2018).
The Embrace of Controversy
Teachers often deal with controversial topics in the classroom. Our frailty makes such conversations difficult: our understanding is limited, and we struggle to disagree charitably.
For science teachers, the topics often concern how scientific data should influence personal convictions or public policy. (Think evolution, climate change, vaccines, and so on.) Conflict might seem daunting, but a Christian school is an ideal place for learning how to disagree charitably. Below are ideas for leading students in this direction.
- Be clear about your affective goal. Exploring controversial topics in an educational setting should have a cognitive (knowledge-related) goal and an affective (attitudinal) goal. The cognitive goal is obvious: we want students to become informed about the issues. The affective goal is less obvious, but it shouldn’t be to win a student over to a certain perspective.
Rather, the affective goal in this context is for students to practice loving their neighbors (Mark 12:31) in the midst of disagreement. Such discussions offer opportunities for growth in peacemaking, extending grace, assuming the best of others’ motives, and so on. Disagreeing Christianly should not be perceived as a zero-sum game in which only one side wins.
- Assess everything that matters. To many students, if it isn’t graded, it doesn’t matter. An effective strategy for motivating students to take the affective goal seriously is to incorporate it into their grades. Assess charity in a charitable way, such as by rewarding sincere efforts to disagree respectfully, rather than expecting perfect performance. Grades send powerful nonverbal messages about what matters.
- Educate, don’t indoctrinate. Before you begin, be clear with students (and their parents, if you teach grade-school students) about the non-threatening purpose of the lessons: to inform and build understanding, rather than to indoctrinate and convince. This explicit communication helps your classroom become a safe place for students to ask questions, even about sensitive topics.
- Be wary of debates. Some students enjoy debating controversial topics. However, because disagreeing Christianly is not a zero-sum game, “winning” the debate must be redefined or avoided. One alternative to choosing a winner is to have students identify the strongest and weakest arguments on both sides. They might also give honorable mention to outstanding examples of disagreeing respectfully.
- Model and teach verbal restraint. The Bible commends verbal restraint. Disagreeing respectfully involves acting with humility (Philippians 2:3-8, 1 Peter 2:23), listening in order to understand (James 1:19, Proverbs 18:13, 17), and replying calmly (Proverbs 15:1).
- Take a cue from Paul. In Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, the Apostle Paul addresses Christians who disagreed about secondary beliefs, such as whether it was acceptable to eat meat that came from an idol’s temple. Paul did not use his apostolic authority to end the argument. Instead, he described how to love despite disagreement: those who felt free to eat were not to look down on those who didn’t, and those who did not feel free to eat were not to condemn those who did (Romans 14:3). The antidote to division over secondary issues was not agreement (uniformity), but love (unity).
There are rich opportunities to teach Christianly in every subject area. Whatever you teach, I hope these science strategies have given you some helpful ideas. Enjoy the adventure of allowing your faith to inform your teaching!
Smith, David I. (2018). On Christian teaching: Practicing faith in the classroom. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Smith, James K. A. (2016). You are what you love: The spiritual power of habit. Brazos Press.
Mark Witwer served for 41 years in four Christian schools, directing curriculum and teaching courses such as Earth Science, Physics, Zoology, and middle school life and physical science. Mark was selected to participate in the Faith-and-Science-Teaching (FAST) project that created the units at teachfastly.com. Mark has a bachelor’s degree in English with a science minor (Grace College, Winona Lake, Indiana), a master’s degree in secondary school science (Villanova University), and a PhD in religion and society studies, focused on Christian education (Omega Graduate School, Dayton, Tennessee). He is currently adjunct Professor of Christian Education at Knox Theological Seminary in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.
This article was originally posted on 2022/02/17 at www.cace.org. The Center for the Advancement of Christian Education (CACE) exists to network Christian schools, to develop Christian leaders, and to promote innovative practices in Christian education.