Education is the enterprise in which teachers and students collaborate toward the student’s formation and development. The formation which Christian education seeks is holistic, purposing not only to facilitate intellectual development, but also to contribute to the student’s spiritual vitality, growth in virtue, vocational discernment, emotional wholeness, self-awareness, and relational maturity.
Education’s end, however, is not merely the holistic development of individual students, but ultimately—by the grace and action of God— the cultivation of a more just, peaceful and flourishing world. Thus, the proper horizon of education is eschatological, anticipating the day when whole persons will dwell in renewed human community in a world restored to shalom. While education draws its telos from this eschatological reality, it—as a human endeavor—cannot ultimately produce that to which it points. Its role, instead, is to prepare persons and communities as foretastes of the final redemptive work of God, who alone can set the world to rights.
As a Christian theologian, my scholarship and teaching are explicitly in service of the church as it seeks to fulfill its mission of making disciples and teaching them to obey all that Jesus commanded. In teaching, I believe I have found my calling and vocation—a way to apply my best gifts to the highest cause: equipping churches and their members to facilitate redemptive transformation in individuals, congregations and their communities.
My role as a teacher is to facilitate this holistic development as it relates to the subject being taught. As a teacher I strive to be a guide rather than an expert, a provocateur rather than a politician, and a culture-shaper rather than an authoritarian. While learning is ultimately contingent on the investment of students, I believe that it is teachers who make or break the educational experience largely on basis of the classroom culture they have intentionally cultivated or (unintentionally) allowed to develop.
I have three sets of pedagogical aims for students: that they would be 1) equipped with basic information and key ideas that they can fruitfully and faithfully employ, 2) mentored in critical reflection and integration, and 3) initiated into transformed praxis in everyday contexts. I will address each of these aims in order, highlighting some of the teaching methods that I have found to be most beneficial for each.
Equipping students with the course subjects basic information and key ideas is a foundational goal, and is in many ways prerequisite to the other aims. I focus on three methods related to this aim: assigned content, in-class presentations, and summary assignments. Content assigned for reading (books), viewing (video) or listening (audio) is of primary importance here, and it is best for content-focused requirements to be heavier during the first half of the course, whereas during the second half of the course, assignments ought to focus more on the other pedagogical aims.
Class-time should not be over-run with content delivery. Instead of a meeting solely for the purpose of a teacher-expert to deposit information in the minds of novice-learners, class-time should be an event in which discoveries are made in the context of relationships of mutual respect. This is especially the case in our information age in which virtually any bit of information can be accessed at a moment’s notice through the internet. In this information-saturated context, class-time and assignments ought to focus on cultivating the skills in critical reflection and integration that are essential to meaningfully filter and process information. That said, in each subject there is basic knowledge which is foundational. This knowledge includes both basic information and key ideas, and two initial goals of my teaching are to empower students to 1) identify and assimilate the necessary information and 2) skillfully employ key ideas and perspectives. Often some of these key ideas are certain orienting questions. As such, the focus of my teaching is not merely on students learning answers but also on learning which kinds of questions generally give rise to the most fruitful reflection and the most faithful practice. To summarize, in my teaching the primary source of content is the assigned reading/viewing/listening, supplemented by in class presentations.
In order to assimilate information and ideas, students must be expected to take a step beyond mere reading, viewing, or listening to it. Often, once students discover they will not be “doing anything with the reading” many cease reading altogether. One simple, but effective method for addressing this is to have all students come to class prepared to be called upon to read a brief written summary of and response to the content. Not only does this increase investment in the reading and motivate students to identify key information and ideas in it, it also means they will hear classmates representations of it.
Though lectures and presentations are useful to augment the assigned content, they are, even more importantly, opportunities to model the critical and integrative work that students ought to learn. Lectures, therefore, are one valuable method for meeting the second pedagogical aim. Not all lecture-presentations do this, however, only those that include demonstrations of both critical analysis of the content and integration the work of various authors and ideas into relationship with one another. As an example of this, I recently gave a lecture-presentation to a masters-level evangelism class on “Missional Church, Emerging Church and New Monasticism: Ecclesial Trends in Evangelism.” This lecture depended on student’s general familiarity with each of these trends, added to their knowledge of each, related them through a “family tree,” and identified some of the key contributions of each to the Christian practice of evangelism. Both the students and the lead teacher commented that the presentation helped them to situate the trends in relation to one another.
Modeling critical and integrative work, is not enough. In order to mentor students in this practice, I provide environments for students to make first attempts at their own critical and integrative work. This work of response and articulation ought to also include appropriate self-reflection. That is, students should develop and demonstrate the ability to question their own perspectival biases and how these might be informing their responses. The ability to think critically, which is a basic educational goal, means not only developing the ability to critique others, but perhaps more importantly, learning how to critique one’s own self and community by entering into the perspective of others. Written assignments and in-class dialog are standard and useful ways of facilitating this reflective articulation. The teacher-mentor’s work here is only complete when they offer substantive and regular feedback on student’s reflective and integrative work.
In-class dialog is an especially good way for students to gain critical distance on their own positions, if students are willing to participate as actively in listening as in speaking. Indeed, true dialog is achieved not simply by ensuring that various persons are doing the talking, but that those who are not talking are deeply engaged through attentive listening. It greatly enriches discussions when students are required to come prepared to read a written statement of summary and response. In addition, I have found that students listen much more intently when they know that each week some students will called upon to respond to the readers. In this way, all students arrive prepared to be called upon, on the spot, to either read or respond and are eager to learn from the examples of others.
While valuable, methods of written work and dialog do not adequately facilitate my third pedagogical aim, that students would be initiated into transformed praxis for everyday contexts. Thus, these methods ought to be supplemented with others that make direct connections with the student’s everyday contexts. This praxis in the every day has both reflective and active dimensions. For students to gain the ability to reflect in new ways upon their everyday contexts requires a teacher to employ methods and exercises that make and call for direct connections with the student’s everyday lives.
Taking the class meeting to new context—the field trip—is one way of helping students to see the relevancy of the subject matter out in the “field” of their everyday environments. Creative in-class exercises can also facilitate this praxis-reflection. This is precisely what I sought to instigate in a session I taught on “The Mission of the Church” to a core masters-level course in Constructive Theology. After a lecture-presentation putting several authors that they had read into conversation about the church’s mission, I circulated a list of actual church mission statements mismatched with the churches and assigned small groups to reflect on one statement using some of the questions I had highlighted: Does this mission statement 1) speak to the evangelism/social-justice debate, 2) presume a certain relation of the church and kingdom of God, 3) suggest a view of the nature of the church. Which of our authors would affirm and critique it? Each group then presented their reflections to the whole class, and others were invited to offer insights. I also encouraged them to make a guess about which of churches or denominations, most of which the students were familiar, might be the source of the mission statement. Thus, I help them to form a bridge between our classroom learning and the world beyond, such that they were equipped to reflect theologically on church mission statements in other congregations, including their own. Student evaluations on this session were unanimously positive, many noting its effectiveness in promoting the engagement of the whole class. One student commented simply “Good content tightly linked to relevant issues and context of today.”
The action dimension of praxis must also be addressed pedagogically. While the proficiency of students in “putting into practice” what they have learned will vary greatly, it is irresponsible for a teacher to fail to require students to, at a minimum, experiment with what it might mean for them to live differently in the light of new and deeper understandings. Holistic teaching not only aims to equip students with core information and ideas and enable them to articulate their own critically reflective responses, but also to help them develop new skills and habits for life. This is especially important in courses related to Christian theology, because learning theology is not something that can be adequately demonstrated by written or spoken words alone. Theological learning is lived knowledge.
This praxis-action can be promoted through assignments that require students to experiment with new ways of being in the everyday world. For example, in an evangelism class I was co-teaching in which all the graded assignments had previously been writing projects, I developed an assignment called “Practicing Evangelism.” For this project, students engaged in something they believed was faithful Christian witness, and submited a short paper explaining what they had done, why they believed it was faithful evangelism, and reflecting upon what they had learned through the practice. In response to this assignment, one student commented that while she was initially intimidated by it, she found it to be eye-opening in that she discovered that there were many opportunities for evangelism already built into her everyday life.
To summarize, as I seek to fulfill my vocation as a Christian teacher, I focus on three clusters of pedagogical aims. First, I equip students with the subject’s basic information and key ideas through assigned content, summary assignments and lecture-presentations. Second, I mentor students in critical reflection and integration through model lectures, in-class dialog, writing assignments, and substantive feedback. Third, I initiate students into transformed praxis in everyday contexts by means of bridge-building exercises, class field-trips, and assigned experiments in new practice.