David I. Smith: What being Christian has to do with how we teach

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Formation happens not only from what students are taught but also from how they are taught, says a scholar of faith and learning. What are the implications for teachers who are Christian?

Today, teaching is basically viewed as a matter of technique, says David I. Smith.

“It’s like getting your car fixed at the garage,” he said. “You don’t care if your mechanic is a Buddhist as long as it runs again afterward.”

That view of teaching, however, is fundamentally mistaken, said Smith, a scholar who works at the intersection of faith and learning.

“Always, whatever you’re teaching includes some kind of formation,” he said.

David SmithA professor and the director of the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning at Calvin College, Smith said his work “is about recovering a richer sense of what happens when one human being tries to teach another human being and how our beliefs and values get bound up with that.”

He is particularly interested in “what being Christian has to do with how we teach and learn and how the choices that we make shape students.”

Before moving to Calvin, Smith, a native of the United Kingdom, was a researcher and teacher educator at the Stapleford Centre, a Christian educational institute, in Nottingham, England. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Oxford; a master’s from the Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto, Canada; and a Ph.D. from the University of London. His most recent books include “On Christian Teaching: Practicing Faith in the Classroom”; “John Amos Comenius: A Visionary Reformer of Schools”; and “Christians and Cultural Difference,” with Pennylyn Dykstra-Pruim.

He spoke recently with Faith & Leadership. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Give us an overview of your work and what ties it together.

I’ve long been interested in what faith has to do with how we teach. It is an issue that needs attention.

To give you an example of what drives my concerns, a few years ago scholars at Baylor University surveyed faculty across 48 Protestant Christian colleges and universities. When asked whether their theological tradition influenced their worldview, their ethics or their motivation for being in the academy, 79 to 84 percent said yes. But when asked whether their theological tradition influenced how they teach, only 40 percent said yes, 40 percent said no, and 20 percent weren’t sure.

For the last 50 years, the conversation about faith and learning has often been about what faith has to do with the content of education, with the ideas that get transmitted. But there’s been much less conversation about how faith affects how we teach -- which is strange, because formation comes as much out of how we’re taught as out of what ideas are put in front of us.

I’ve been interested in that from a number of angles, trying to find different ways into thinking about what being Christian has to do with how we teach and learn and how the choices that we make shape students.

Q: Do people tend to think of faith and teaching as two areas that don’t really intersect?

Well, over the past couple of hundred years, we’ve learned to think about teaching as basically technique. It’s like getting your car fixed at the garage. You don’t care if your mechanic is a Buddhist as long as it runs again afterward.

We think of teaching as this collection of techniques that make things work. But that’s fundamentally mistaken. Teaching is much more complex than that.

Always, whatever you’re teaching includes some kind of formation. Partly [my work] is about recovering a richer sense of what happens when one human being tries to teach another human being and how our beliefs and values get bound up with that.

Here’s an example I use when I talk to teachers and want to jump-start them into this topic:

When my son was 16, he came home from school one day -- a Christian high school -- and said, “I’ve got homework from my religion class. Would you help me study?”

I said, “Sure.” So we sat down and he had a worksheet with 12 words down the left side and 12 definitions on the right. The words were all theological words -- “justification,” “sanctification,” “kingdom of God,” “Trinity,” “ascension.” It was the 12 words you need to speak Reformed.

He said, “I’ve got a test on Friday. I’ve got to know this stuff.”

So I started asking him hard questions -- “What’s the difference between justification and sanctification, and how would you recognize either one if you found it in your lunch?” “Can you think of a story that illustrates any of these?” “Can you think of a Bible story that goes with any of these?”

He tolerated this for about three minutes before he took the paper from me, tossed it on the coffee table and said in a tone of faint exasperation, “I don’t need to understand it that well, because on the test, they’re only going to make me match the words with the definitions.”

Freeze-frame that moment. Notice he’s doing something dangerous -- he’s trying to predict the future. He hasn’t seen the test. The test is on Friday, so what enables him to say with confidence that the test is going to be this way?

What he’s really saying is something like, “Father, you don’t understand. During my time in high school, I’ve noticed certain patterns in the behavior of my teachers, and when they give me worksheets with matching words and definitions, there’s a very high statistical probability that the test is going to be a matching test or a multiple choice test.

“And if that’s the nature of the test, then I don’t need to understand the material. I only need to remember which word goes with which paragraph.”

He’s right. I’ve tried this with roomfuls of teachers. You can translate the worksheet into another language that people don’t speak, and if they’re good students, they can still get 100 on the test just by memorizing the first three letters of each word and the first three letters of each definition.

The teacher in my son’s class is one of the best in his school. I know that the teacher didn’t come into class that morning with a lesson plan that said, “Today I want to teach my students that theology is not important.” Yet the learning outcome was that my son had a list of the 12 most important theological words in the New Testament and he’s saying, “I don’t need to understand this well.”

What taught him that wasn’t anything the teacher said. The teacher did not stand up and say, “Hey guys, this is just theology. It’s not that important so don’t put too much time into this.” That learning came out of the correlation between the structure of the worksheet and the patterns of teachers’ behaviors and their testing strategies.

Yet if I asked that school to show me where it’s doing faith formation, I suspect that they would point me to their chapel program, Young Life, Bible study groups, their faith and learning statement, and so on. And I suspect it would take them a long time to say, “Wait a minute, we do a lot of matching tests based on worksheets. Maybe that’s faith formation.”

I think you’ve got faith formation going on there. My son’s relationship to theology is being shaped by this set of teaching strategies. Something is going on there in the choices that are being made about how to teach.

The problem is not content. You couldn’t get more Christian content onto that sheet of paper without using a smaller font. The problem is with the way the process relates to the content.

That’s the kind of thing I’m interested in. What choices do we make in how to teach? And how does that affect how students receive what we teach?

Q: Your example is from a Christian high school, but what you’re talking about is not just for people who teach in Christian schools, right? All kinds of Christians teach in all kinds of schools, public and private.

That’s right. I started my career teaching in what you would call public schools in England, and I started thinking about a lot of this there. It seemed to me that being Christian was not a thing that gave you Monday through Friday off just because you didn’t work in a Christian institution.

I was teaching in schools where it would be inappropriate to do evangelism, so the question wasn’t whether I had freedom to preach in the language classes I’d been hired to teach. It was more to do with, “I’m a Christian, so how does my identity as a Christian shape the choices that I make in terms of how I shape learning and what my learning goals are for students and how I turn those into learning experiences?”

Any teacher -- whether Christian or not -- faces questions about how to shape learning in their classroom and how their beliefs and values feed into that.

Q: So how do Christian beliefs and values and commitments shape one’s approach to teaching?

When I started teaching, I taught German, French and Russian in secular secondary schools. Early on, I was struck that the language textbooks I’d been given were pretty much based around consumerism. We spent a lot of time practicing dialogues in French and German where we were buying food in cafes and supermarkets and buying train tickets and theater tickets and going on vacation and talking about our vacation and talking about what clothes we bought.

I gradually thought, “Wait a minute. The picture I’m giving of why you learn other people’s languages is so you can buy stuff from them.”

Then I reflected on the biblical theme of hospitality to strangers. Leviticus 19 says, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18), and then a few verses later, “Love the foreigner as yourself” (19:34). I thought, “If, as a Christian, I think we learn other people’s languages because of the call to love our neighbor and because most of our neighbors don’t speak English, then how would that reshape the examples that I choose, the pictures that I show, the dialogues that we practice, the way I shape a language curriculum?”

When you work at it from that end and you question the underlying values that shape the curriculum you’re delivering, it starts to be possible to come up with alternatives that other people find attractive.

Q: Doesn’t any good teacher think about these kinds of questions, about how they want to shape their students?

In a perfect world, yes. But a lot of things stymie that. Teachers are under enormous time pressure. It’s a very demanding task. They’re under increasing pressure to standardize and meet various external benchmarks and tests, and in the worst cases, it can become a massive exercise in checking boxes and keeping records.

It becomes an exercise in bureaucracy more than an exercise in teaching and learning. It’s like the professionalism of the profession has been downgraded, and teachers are treated as folks who should just make sure that all the bits get covered, and not as people who should be thinking deeply about what they’re doing.

The way we think [most] effectively about our deepest values and how they shape what we do is through engaging in constructive dialogue with colleagues.

It creates more space for self-critique when you can bounce it off colleagues, but in schools, we often end up just teaching in our classrooms and maybe see other people over lunchtime briefly. It’s difficult to carve out time and space for deep collaboration.

Q: What are the values that are implicitly embedded in teaching?

There’s a range of values depending on the context and the area of the curriculum you’re teaching. In the language example, I started questioning the consumerism of curriculum.

Another example from that area is that after a while I realized that the first chapter of almost every language textbook had a cartoon of a person that we would use to name parts of the body as a way of learning to describe people. It’s fun at the start of a language course to be able to say, “My brother is tall and has brown hair,” and it’s also a way of introducing simple sentence structures.

But I realized after a while that the first adjectives that you typically learned were “tall,” “short,” “fat,” “thin,” “athletic,” “unathletic,” “blond-haired,” “brown-haired,” “black-haired.” In other words, we were preoccupied with physical appearance.

The first adjectives didn’t include, for instance, “kind” or “honest.” Again, the bias was toward focusing on external attractiveness. These are the kinds of ways in which a value bias gets built into the choices we make in classrooms.

I’ve seen mathematics [textbooks] where many of the examples are drawn from personal finance or sports statistics. We use mathematics for a lot of other things in the outside world, but again, this consumption-and-leisure cultural model gets reflected in school curriculum.

One of the questions that Christians bring to the table is, What is a human being, and what does it mean for a human being to grow?

Is becoming competent at navigating a consumer landscape and having good leisure options enough for a student to grow? Or do we need to find ways of exploring how the skills that we’re learning fit into other aspects of human experience?

Q: So it’s almost as if the teacher’s own Christian formation enables the teacher to see the underlying values that you saw?

One would hope so, if teachers are receiving a thick enough formation in their own Christian discipleship to be asking questions that go beyond the stories of the world of advertising. It ought to push us to ask these basic kinds of questions about what are we doing and why.

Q: In hindsight, was there something unique about teaching languages that opened your eyes to this?

Yes, I think so.

What drove me into questioning this was that I became a Christian as an adult and I became a teacher a couple of years later, and then I had to figure out what those things had to do with each other.

It wasn’t just that I didn’t teach religious studies or Bible class. In my earlier years as a Christian, I had started to internalize a theology that implied that if you were a serious Christian, you would be a missionary or a pastor or at least teach Bible class. But I found myself teaching languages with a very clear sense of calling, so I had to figure out what it would mean to be a Christian as a language teacher rather than as a Bible teacher.

I found that there hadn’t been a whole lot of thinking about that, so there weren’t answers already laid down. I had to try to figure it out from the beginning.

This stuff becomes vivid when you look at it historically. I looked at four language textbooks at roughly hundred-year intervals over the last 400 years -- one published in the 1650s, one from the 1730s, one from about 1900 and one from just a few years ago.

In the one from the 1650s, the first chapter is “Invitation to Wisdom” and the last chapter is “The Final Judgment.” In the one from 1730, the first chapter is “Things” and the last chapter is “Interjections.” In the one from 1906, the first chapter is “The Definite Article” and the last chapter is also something grammatical -- adjectives or something. In the one from just a few years ago, the first chapter is something like “Myself and What I Do: Possessions and Pleasures.”

So we’ve gone from wisdom to things to the word “the” to possessions and pleasures as the opening chapter of these language textbooks. You can track the history of social change through the pages of school textbooks. But until you step back and question it, that doesn’t feel strange to us, because it’s the water we swim in.

Q: What’s the overall message from your work for those who teach?

That teaching isn’t just technique. That the choices we make in the classroom have formative effects on students that need unpacking in lots of ways.

Teachers get to make choices about who speaks to whom and under what terms of engagement and what we talk about and what pictures we see and what examples we hear and what stories we’re invited into and what skills we get to try out and what things get left silent and never mentioned and what things we don’t get to develop.

So for teachers to be responsible for those things requires us to ask questions and invite others to evaluate what we’re doing in terms of what is implicitly being said through the teaching choices that we’re making -- not just through our words but through the way we structure the learning environment. There’s a basic taking of responsibility, and that can only happen in some kind of community. It requires conversation with one another.

Christian teachers ought to have resources to draw upon. They believe in the body of Christ and being our brother’s keeper and encouraging one another, but that is not always operationalized very well in terms of seeing our calling as something that we work out in community with others who share that calling.

Q: You also study how new technologies are reshaping education. Tell us about that.

Five years ago, we put together a project to look at technology in faith-based educational environments. We weren’t very interested in questions like, If you give kids laptops, will the math scores go up? We were much more interested in questions like, If you give kids laptops, what changes in the educational culture? In relationship patterns? In students’ experience of maturation? If it’s a Christian school, what changes in the way the school understands discipleship and Christian community?

We spent several years gathering data in five schools and were able to build up a rich picture of what was happening across a period of time in a school that had invested heavily in digital technologies.

It was a large project with a lot of different findings, but here are a couple that are interesting.

When we talked to parents, they had worries about social media, cyberbullying and pornography. They were concerned that as students spent more time with digital devices in their learning, it increased their risk of exposure to those things.

What we found was that, if anything, the school was having a positive effect on students’ exposure to those things. The students reported lower levels of engagement with pornography, for example, than averages reported in national studies, including averages for professed Christians. The schools’ efforts to teach students responsibility with technology use seemed to be paying off.

But what we did see all the time -- probably the No. 1 abuse of technology that we saw -- was students shopping in class. There were lots of examples of students in class with their devices and they’re on a shopping site, maybe window-shopping rather than buying things.

One student said that it was great to learn with laptops, because you can type faster, which meant you can get through the assignment quicker and then “when I’m done, while the teacher is talking, I can go shopping.”

And this is from a Bible class. So if you’re asking questions about faith formation, what faith formation is taking place?

Q: It shows us the consumerist education you were talking about. It’s working.

Exactly.

Until recently, advertising wouldn’t pop up in the middle of your math textbook, but now that students are learning on devices, you can access the shopping wing of the internet in the middle of class and browse stuff.

Yet we found that if students came upon pornography or other kinds of what they called “bad stuff” on the internet, they knew they should close their laptop and call a teacher over. But we didn’t hear any of that with the shopping. They were pretty open about it, because shopping websites are not bad, right? They’re not the websites that their parents are worried about, so for them, it seemed perfectly justified to spend 10 minutes shopping in class.

Another finding was how, just as technology is eroding the boundaries between work and leisure, it is raising questions about how much of the day the school is responsible for students.

If a student emails the teacher at 11:30 p.m. for help with homework, should the teacher respond? A lot of the most dedicated teachers were responding, which meant that there was no time when they were not at work.

If your students turn in homework electronically and it’s time-stamped at 2 a.m., is the teacher responsible to engage that, or is that the parents’ responsibility? Teachers told us stories about parents emailing them at 10 p.m. and then asking at the school door the next morning if they’d dealt with it yet. Or a parent texting in the middle of class that “I’m picking up my student in 15 minutes.”

It’s this expectation of instant response from parents via electronic communication. It’s the ways in which digital communication is eroding boundaries between home and school and who is responsible for the student when. Without clear shared expectations, it created pressure for the teachers to engage in the most heroic behavior.