Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Distinctively Christian Approach to Teaching Science?

I'm thinking a lot lately about how we teach science in Christian schools.

I teach a Science Methods course ("how do we teach science?") for elementary education majors. Being a Christian institution, we talk about being "distinctively Christian" in our approach to teaching...everything! In our department, "distinctively Christian" means more than slapping on Scripture to Christianize a lesson, and more than teaching Bible classes or holding chapel services in school. We want students to think deeply about their faith and how it intersects with lesson planning, with assessment, with classroom management, with school culture, with how they interact with students and colleagues...basically with every part of their teaching practice. As I've said it to my students: "Where do you want your students to end up? That's the point you should start teaching from."

So it's fundamentally a question of religious orientation: Who owns your heart? And how does that influence your "moves" in the classroom?

The problem with this: my students hear about "distinctively Christian teaching"--in general, at least--in practically every education course they take.

I've done this too--speak about teaching Christianly in very general terms. My friend John Van Dyk has developed a pretty useful organizing methodology for thinking about teaching Christianly, which has informed my own teaching practice. I, in turn, share this with my students as a means of getting them to think about a distinctively Christian approach to teaching. In his way of thinking (I'm paraphrasing here) the teacher has three roles to play:
  • Guiding - The teacher is an experienced fellow-traveler on the road. Just as a guide on the hiking trail is able to draw attention to both points of interest and possible pitfalls, the teacher seeks to point way on the trail to understanding.
  • Unfolding - The teacher is charged with making choices about what parts of the curriculum to "uncover" along the way. Just as unfolding the whole map all at once might prove overwhelming--and not always useful--the teacher may decide to "uncover" just small sections of the terrain at a given time.
  • Enabling - The teacher provides opportunities for students to use what they have learned to love God and serve others on the journey. Students aren't just learning for learning's sake, but to make them more faithful disciples.
(Side note: if you like the sound of this and would like to find out more, I'd heartily recommend Dr. Van Dyk's book The Craft of Christian Teaching: A Classroom Journey. You can find out more information here.)

How does this apply to teaching science? As we think about teaching science Christianly, I've made the argument with my students that this might mean:
  • Guiding students into inquiry-infused learning situations. You aren't going to just tell them...but you also are going to ensure that the things they are trying are safe, and wise, and will result in understanding science content. As an experienced fellow traveler, you can both give suggestions, and prevent disasters before they happen.
  • Making curriculum decisions about what you choose to unfold at a given time. Maybe 3rd graders aren't ready to learn about particle physics just yet. Maybe middle schoolers really should spend some time examining Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. Maybe Kindergartners need time to just play with magnets to get some working understanding of how magnetic force works. Maybe senior Anatomy and Physiology students should dissect fetal pigs to help them see the interrelatedness of mammalian body systems. 
  • Enabling students to think about how their faith affects the way they think about the world around them. This allows for conversations about ethics and stewardship and wisdom (not just knowledge.)
But here's the students see where I'm coming from...and they basically agree that this all sounds good, and they would like to do this sort of teaching. But...there's usually some level of dissatisfaction, a feeling of "This isn't enough, Mr. Mulder! I mean, you're describing good teaching in general! Of course we're going to do this stuff. What makes this a distinctively Christian approach to teaching science?"

They've got me there. I can't argue with that--I would hope that all science teachers are going to use inquiry-infused approaches, and wisely ensure that the curriculum topics they teach are developmentally appropriate, and that they would engage their students in discussing ethical situations and stewardship of the world's resources. Does Van Dyk's methodology fall short then?

This has been bothering me for a while, because Van Dyk's methodology makes so much sense to me as an organizing framework for applying my worldview--my "ground rules"--for how I approach my classroom practice, my interactions with students, my thinking about assessment and curriculum and marking papers and the rest. So why doesn't it feel like enough for my students when we talk applying this methodology to teaching science in particular?

I've started thinking about how I can better articulate my perspective for what a distinctively Christian approach to teaching science might look like. I'm still working out all the details of what this might look like, but here I'll share my thinking so far. I'd love to hear your feedback about this.

A Distinctively Christian Approach to Teaching Science

1. Distinctively Christian teachers will begin with a biblical worldview comprised of Scripture-based convictions about the nature of creation. For example, I believe:
  • "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." (Genesis 1:1)
  • "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it; the world, and all who live in it." (Psalm 24:1)
  • "For in him [that is, Christ,] all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible...all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together." (Colossians 1:16-17)
The way in which we teach our students about the creation should point them toward the Creator!

2. Distinctively Christian science teachers will allow for--and even plan for--opportunities for their students to simply stand in awe at the way the Lord has created the cosmos. I believe that God has revealed aspects of himself to all people through the creation. (This idea is clearly expressed in the Belgic Confession. Also, I love Psalm 19:1-4 as a poetic description of this reality.) While we won't come to saving faith in Christ simply through studying the creation, we can clearly stand in amazement when we consider the way God has designed things to work together, and we can see his providential hand sustaining the order of the world he has made.

3. Distinctively Christian teachers will embrace questions. While our knowledge is imperfect and our understanding incomplete, questions are good! We should wonder about the world we live in--I believe God has created us with a curiosity planted in us--and we should give students the freedom and latitude to pursue their own inquiries, and support them in looking for answers to their questions. We should help our students to understand that some questions are "scientific" questions, that can be answered by scientific methods--observation, measurement, experimentation, data collection, inference, and the like.

4. At the same time, distinctively Christian teachers will recognize that not all questions are "scientific" in nature--they can't all be answered via scientific inquiry. Some questions are fundamentally religious in nature, and while they should be asked and wrestled through (even in science class), we should recognize them as questions that are not fundamentally "scientific." An example might include: "How old is the Earth?" This question has a scientific flavor to it, and scientifically-derived data might help us answer this question, but the way we interpret the data will be influenced by our "ground-rules," our faith commitments. [I picked this question deliberately, as there are a range of perspectives on this topic, even within the realm of Christendom.] Challenging as controversial topics like these can be, distinctively Christian teachers should embrace controversy as a means of engaging with students in faith development.

5. Much of the current literature about science education seems to indicate that students best learn science when it is taught in "Hands-on and Minds-on." Hands-on implies that students should be actively manipulating materials and conducting investigations, and minds-on implies that they should be engaged in thinking their investigations, making connections, and developing understanding. This comes largely from a Constructivist educational philosophy. While I don't wholly embrace Constructivism--carried out to it's conclusion, Constructivism reduces the Truth to each student's own experiences and the knowledge they build for themselves--I do think there is some merit to this sort of approach to teaching science. So I would advocate that distinctively Christian science teachers should also teach science in a way that is "Hearts-on": that we should evaluate the ideas we encounter about the way the world works in light of the truth of Scripture. "Hearts-on" science would acknowledge that God has called us to understand the world around us, not simply for the sake of having that knowledge, but rather so we can better take care of the world. (See Genesis 1:26-28, which is sometimes called the Creation Mandate--God's command to humankind to "rule" over the creation by learning to take care of it.)


So that's where my thinking is at this point. What did I leave out? What needs firming up? Where am I way out in left field? Could a Christian teacher in a public school still use this framework?


  1. I like it a lot! It gives some more concrete ways as to how to put this into practice than the other classes at Dordt have shown. If this is how Dordt wants us to be teaching, I feel like we should be actually working together more as to how to make it authentic Christian teaching in each of the subjects. Too often I feel as though we say that we are going to see the students as image bearers, which is obviously the right thing, but thats as far as we go. That is too general of a way to be teaching in that manner. If we want students to be getting that authentic Christian perspective in each class we need to really make it apply to them in each of the subjects.

  2. I teach at a Christian school and I like much of what you said. Having said that,I am challenged by the notion that we can categorize evidence based on 'our ground rules'. What this really means is that if we don't think evidence (by evidence I mean verifiable to a very high degree of confidence) fits into our world view we interpret it to fit or discard it. That is a problem. The earth may not be precisely 4.5 - 4.6 billion years old, (though by all evidence this is the case) but it is certainly not 12,000, 24,000, or even just a billion. We can know this and should be able to say that we do know this from what we have found. And this is just one of the thousand other cross points that are necessary when teaching science honestly. (Evolutionary biology, cosmology, etc etc) We have to be able to deal with what has been found and to speak it plainly in the classroom. (perhaps this is a dream) Otherwise, we do not teach good science but rather a shade of it that suits us better.