Teaching Students to Think Christianly

by Mark Witwer,
who has taught earth science and physics (among other things) for 25 years, the last 20 at Delaware County Christian School in Newtown Square, PA.  In addition to teaching, Mark is the school's high school science chair and K-12 curriculum director, and is a doctoral student at Oxford Graduate School in Dayton, TN.

The following ideas are excerpts from three of his longer papers, condensed (as indicated by ...s) to 25% of their original length.  If you are interested in seeing more complete versions of the papers, you can request these from Mark via e-mail, mwitwer@dccs.org


My Vision for Christian School Academics

      Why Christian Education?

      In many American communities, a smorgasbord of schools offers public, private, magnet, charter, on-line and home school education.  Why add a Christian school to the mix? ...  The reason is the same one that motivated the apostle Paul to risk his life planting Christian churches in the first century: the conviction that Christianity is true and alone among religions fully meets people's needs.  This means that Christianity alone provides an accurate frame of reference for learning.  Education that ignores this frame of reference is inaccurate: incomplete at best, false and misleading at worst.  This Christian frame of reference is often called a Christian worldview or a Christian mind.  A Christian mind thinks like Jesus and as a result behaves like Jesus. ...

      Obstacles to Christian Education

      As George Barna has demonstrated, few Evangelicals in post-Christian America have a robust Christian mind. ...  An intellectual reformation is needed among Evangelicals. The logical place for this to begin is Christian schools, but three obstacles have hindered the effort so far.
      First, Christian educators have often written about "the integration of faith and learning"  but most of this discussion is general in nature.  Specific Christian perspectives on each subject area are difficult to find. As a result, while teachers in many Christian schools agree that students need to be taught to think Christianly, they remain uncertain what this looks like.
      Second, most Christian schools are small...and instructors in small schools often must teach outside of their areas of expertise. ...
      The third and most serious obstacle facing Christian schools is anti-intellectualism in the Evangelical community. ...

      My Vision

      I dream of God using Christian schools to awaken the Evangelical mind. ...  Over the last fifty years, the Christian school movement has experienced explosive growth. ...  Has God raised up the Christian school movement for such a time as this? ...  In order to foster the growth of a well-prepared and distinctly Christian mind more effectively, Christian schools must do two things.  Both involve becoming more intentional about what our students learn over the course of their entire education.
      First, the faculty must create a relatively short list of critical data, concepts, skills and attitudes that students need to learn in each subject area by the time they graduate.  These core learning goals...provide a framework around which every course in the subject area is built.  With each course reinforcing the core curriculum over a student's entire educational experience, its goals are likely to be accomplished.
      Second, the faculty must find specific ways to articulate Christianity's relevance to each subject area.  These points of contact between faith and learning must be part of that subject area's core curriculum.  This is the only way to dispel the sacred-secular dichotomy that plagues evangelical thinking.  Students will not learn to think Christianly about every area of human thought and activity until they see this kind of thinking modeled.
      My vision for Christian schools is that they will increasingly focus their academic efforts on achieving clearly articulated, academically sound core learning goals in each subject area, including specific and meaningful examples of how Christianity is relevant to that subject.  This is a strategic way to more effectively develop a robust Christian mind in students.


Integrating Faith and Learning: Academic Contextualization

      Christian truth cannot impact students' lives until they understand it.  Contextualization, a term borrowed from hermeneutics and missionary theology...is the task of expressing Christian truth in such a way that it becomes relevant and meaningful to a specific audience (i.e., it makes sense within the audience's social and historical context). ...  Academic contextualization requires a school to articulate a distinctly Christian perspective on each subject area and to do so in a way that is relevant and meaningful to students. ...
      Despite good intentions, many Christian schools have failed to contextualize their academic instruction.  Some have confused the integration of faith and community life with the integration of faith and academics.  Others have mistaken the creation of a distinct educational subculture (e.g., characterized by Bible memorization, chapel attendance, modest dress, etc.) with educational contextualization.  In both cases, the challenge of effectively integrating faith and academics remains. ...
      What does effective contextualization in academic areas look like? ...  Christian truth must be expressed in a way that shows its relevance to the subject at hand and is meaningful to students.  Every unit of study must answer two questions:  First, what relationships exist between this subject matter and what God has revealed in the Bible?  Second, from a student's viewpoint, what does the answer to the first question mean and why should he or she care? ...
      Together, these questions define an effective process of integrating faith and learning.  The first question begins the process; the second completes it. ...  Academic contextualization begins with articulating a distinctly Christian perspective on a subject area and concludes with finding clear points of contact between this perspective and the student.

      Appendix:  Examples of Integrating Faith and Academics
      [ The remainder of the complete paper lists examples of academic contextualization in common school subjects, with key questions to establish their relevance to students.  Several science examples are below. ]
      1. Since the universe is God's creation, the more scientists discover about it, the more His genius and power is evident.  "How can this [the subject matter being studied] help me to trust and/or worship God more?"
      2. God transcends and governs nature.  The Bible identifies God as the cause of natural events whose mechanisms have now been described by science (e.g., "Do the skies themselves send down showers?  No, it is you, O LORD our God" Jeremiah 14:22 NIV; "... it is the LORD who makes the storm clouds" Zechariah 10:1 NIV).  Therefore, natural processes are God's secondary agents and fully under His control.  "Does God cause this or does it happen on its own?" ...
      3. Both science and theology make truth claims, based on human interpretation of data from nature and the Bible, respectively. ...  Thus, theological and scientific claims are equally vulnerable to human error.  "How will I respond when science seems to contradict my understanding of the Bible?"


Teaching Science Content and Context in Christian Schools

      Science students need to learn two types of material, which this paper designates "content" and "context."  Content includes the data, conclusions, and applications associated with a particular area of science; it makes up the bulk of most textbooks.  Context consists of three broad perspectives that give significance to the content.  Two of these perspectives are important in any school: science's process (i.e., how content is obtained) and science's relevance to students.  Christian education includes a third perspective: the relationship between science and faith.  Thus, content is information about the natural world, and context is how that information is obtained, its relevance to students, and its relationship to faith.  It is difficult to teach both content and context adequately. ...
      The quality of precollege science education in the United States has become a source of concern in recent years. ...  As a result of such concerns, 49 states now have curricular frameworks for science...and national standards have been written ...  Some of these frameworks are extensive...[which] creates a problem for teachers.  Teaching the content alone can occupy most of a teacher's instructional time, leaving little time to teach context. ...  Christian school teachers have extra context...the relationship of science to faith, a topic public schools can ignore. ...  When science content and context vie for instructional time, content usually wins.  The most obvious reason is that most science textbooks emphasize content over context.  Another factor is the influence of high-stakes tests. ...
      After twenty four years in the classroom, and after reviewing the literature, it is this author's judgment that a simple, effective method of teaching the content and context of Christian school science is needed.  The method proposed here, contextual teaching, involves occasionally asking five questions about information being taught.  The questions develop understanding of context by conveying three ideas: scientific claims are accepted because they are supported by evidence, scientific information has personal relevance, and it is important to integrate scientific information into a coherent biblical worldview.  The five questions are:
      1. "How do we know this?"  Scientific claims are accepted because they are supported by evidence.  Like detectives, scientists gather clues and try to explain them. ...
      2. "How sure are we?"  This question dispels the assumption that the word "know" always connotes certainty.  The claims in science textbooks may be placed along a continuum of confidence, ...
      3. "What should you do, as a result of this?"  Better understanding of the things God made facilitates better management of them. ...
      4. "How does this show God's genius (or power)?" ...  Science content contains many examples of God's genius and power that can strengthen faith and encourage worship.
      5. "Did God do this?"  This question is rhetorical, reminding students to give God frequent credit for the science content being studied. ...  The notion that a natural process happens "on its own" — meaning it is not done by God — confuses God's use of secondary causes with His absence.  As students build a Christian view of science, they stop asking whether God did something in nature, and begin asking how God did it.

      Contextual teaching is practical for Christian schools in four ways:
      A.  It minimizes the competition for instructional time between content and context.  Rather than replacing or adding to content, contextual teaching views the information from certain perspectives — how the information was obtained, its relevance to students, and how it relates to faith — ...[that] give it higher meaning and engage student interest.
      B.  It does not require that a school with limited funds buy new materials. ...
      C.  It is not complicated.  Any science teacher can highlight the context of a unit, by asking the five questions at appropriate times.  Even if a teacher is unsure how to answer one of the questions, or if little time is available for discussion, students will learn by being asked. ...
      D.  Contextual teaching is based on educationally sound principles. ...  It engages students in educationally productive thinking.


Copyright © 2004 by Mark Witwer, all rights reserved

Originally this was Section 5 of a newsletter, in 2004, for the
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