Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Teaching and Christian Practices

In their introduction to Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith & Learning, David I. Smith and James K. A. Smith identify a limitation in the foci of Christian conversations in higher education upon “the integration of faith and learning”. First, they say there has been a focus upon the content—what Christian ideas will be taught—in the integration of faith and learning. Second, there has been a focus upon the sorts of learning faculty ought to have in the integration of faith and learning. While recognizing the necessity and value of these two foci, Smith and Smith argue that little to no attention has been given to the learning of students. They ask, in effect, what historically Christian practices can inform and impel the education of learners in a classroom setting? Or, to put it another way, what makes any method of teaching and learning distinctively Christian? Moving beyond the ideologies of Christianity that form the presuppositions of Christian education, Smith and Smith want to focus upon Christian practices; specifically, how practices shape virtues and habits in the formation of learners. The focus upon practices relies largely upon Alistair McIntyre’s After Virtue, where he defines practice as:

[A]ny coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended. (quoted in Smith & Smith, 8)

According to McIntyre, a practice is social and largely inherited; it possesses certain internal goods to be realized in its course; and it maintains relevant standards of excellence, which are pursued and extended. What is, or is not, a practice? Consider the example of chess, for a moment. Playing chess in order to sharpen one’s thinking in preparation for law school would not constitute a practice, for although one’s participation in chess could be social and inherited as well as have standards of excellence to be sought, the goods involved terminate outside of the activity itself; the “good” of playing chess comes apart from chess itself. One’s “realization” of the goods associated with chess would only be deemed successful insofar as one saw their impact upon one’s legal education—chess is but a means to another end. However, one’s participation in the practice of chess would include motives terminating in the goods internal to chess itself, such as the analytical skill, strategic imagination, and competitive intensity that comes in the activity of playing chess. One’s “realization” of the goods associated with chess would be successful in the playing of chess itself, that is, playing chess according to its own standards of excellence within the social environment.
Within Classical and Christian education we could conceive of a similar bifurcation between a full-orbed practice, and education as a means to another end. The student who wants a Classical and Christian education primarily in order to boost test scores for college and gain more scholarship money is not engaged in the practice of Classical and Christian education. Neither is the teacher whose instructions emphasize grade achievements or other goals that terminate outside of the content and process of learning as such (even the goal of “pleasing one’s parents” would not constitute one’s Classical and Christian education as a practice).
In a lecture delivered at the Alcuin Retreat held at Calvin College in November 2012, David I. Smith provided an excellent example of how methodological habits can disrupt rather than cultivate the internal goods that educators strive to emphasize in their courses of learning. Smith’s son came home one day asking for his father’s help to study for a theology exam that was coming up the next day. The teacher described the course material as, “eleven ideas without which no one can understand the New Testament.” The test was to cover the eleven terms (e.g. “sanctification,” and “justification”) and their definitions. While quizzing his son on the definitions of, differences between, and examples of sanctification and justification, Dr. Smith’s son, exasperatingly exclaimed, “But Dad, I don’t really need to know these that well.” That is to say, Smith’s son had learned that when the teacher (whom Smith described as one of the best at the school) gave terms and definitions, only two kinds of assessment were likely: multiple choice questions or matching terms and definitions. In order to ace the test, and “understand the eleven most important ideas for understanding the New Testament,” one needed only to memorize the patterns associated with the terms and their definitions. To illustrate, Smith changed the terms and definitions into Wingdings font and it was still possible to discern which terms went with which definitions. In other words, one could ace the assessment without having ever achieved the ostensible goal set by the teacher—that is, to grow in one’s ability to correctly understand and apply the ideas most important in the New Testament. Because the teacher had not reflected upon the assessment in terms of whether it was really suited to meet the goal—in other words, by not adequately integrating all the elements in the course into a coherent practice—the chances of his students failing to receive the desired learning outcomes were increased, if not missed altogether.
What then would be distinctively Christian practices that bring consistency between "classical and Christian education" and teaching "classically" and "Christianly"? Perhaps it would include singing songs together to begin the day, or reciting a corporate prayer, or ritual conversational topics desired to stir up one another for good works (discussed once a week during lunch). Perhaps it would include topical prayers offered prior to assessments, such as, "Lord, as I endeavor to fulfill the task of this assignment, let my mind be clear of selfish ambitions, distracting desires, and other temptations of which I am unaware. If I have not prepared as I ought, forgive me, and teach me through my weaker efforts to desire greater diligence in preparation; showing mercy unto me according to your lovingkindness. If I have prepared, may my efforts be an acceptable service in your sight. Amen." There are plenty of possibilities, many of which may already be in place in your home, school, job, or church, and only need to additional realization to make the practice more understandingly performed and more gratefully appreciated. Maybe there are many more, which you could begin considering and working to implement. What practices have you in mind?

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