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Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning Paperback – October 6, 2011
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This book is a collection of essays by various faculty members in which they describe their experiences linking a particular Christian practice to their classroom pedagogy. For example, one college professor sought to incorporate the Christian dimensions of hospitality into her classroom, thereby challenging the traditional professor-student relationship. Another experimented with the concept of religious reading in a German literature course. Students were to approach the literary texts with the expectation that moral demands would be put on them and that they would be transformed as a result. Whether the successes and disappointments chronicled here will be of interest or even applicable outside the world of Christian higher education remains to be seen. Collectively, these essays do beg several important questions: What is the humanist role of higher education? Should colleges and universities be moral academies that teach specific common values? Are we well served by only a consumerist approach to education? --Christopher McConnell
— Baylor University
“Christian professors who seek to integrate their faith into their teaching often lack wise guides. Fortunately, David I. Smith and James K. A. Smith here provide a work in which thoughtful Christian teachers lead readers through reflections upon their own efforts to transform their pedagogical habits by incorporating unique Christian practices. As I read and pondered these insightful stories, I found myself constantly rethinking my own teaching routines. This book represents Christian educational philosophy at its practical best.”
Craig Dykstra and Dorothy C. Bass (from foreward)
"If you want to see great teaching in action, read this book. If you believe that college classes can be communities of learning where knowledge of self, others, and the world is sought in response to God’s call and the world’s need, read this book. If you yearn for pedagogical wisdom capable of sustaining resistance to consumerist and instrumentalist pressures on teaching and learning, read this book. . . . This excellent book is one of the best we have ever read on the subject of pedagogy. It is also one of the best we know on the subject of Christian practices."
Religious Studies Review
“This is now the go-to volume for inspiring — as a first step rather than a final word — more holistic pedagogies what will make a difference for teachers and students, for teaching, and learning, within the Christian higher educational context.”
Midwest Book Review
“A thoughtful resource for examining the harmonious and potentially beneficial side of the co-existence between faith and pedagogy.”
Journal of Adult Theological Education
“A stimulating book and a challenging one.”
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Some of the chapters are hard to understand and written in unnecessarily complex language, in my opinion. However, the key messages are great and I have benefitted a lot from this book in my teaching. It also has great references. David Smith is doing some great writing and thinking about Christian practices of teaching and their formative effect on students. He emphasizes that the methods shape students strongly, and are worthy of great attention, along side the content of the teaching and the character of the teacher. Its really great and I strongly recommend it!
The editors David Smith and James Smith are passionate about using Christian practices to foster deeper learning and formation, rather than just information consumption. Both teach at Calvin College, a Christian liberal arts college in Grand Rapids, USA. David Smith is Director of Kuyers Institute of Christian Teaching and Learning, which conducted a three-year research project funded by the Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith. They invited teachers to study the literature on practices and then redesign a course based on one or more Christian practices. Ten of the teachers who took up this challenge reflect on their experience in this book. Half of them are from Calvin College; the other half from other American colleges. They integrate a variety of practices into their teaching of theology, philosophy, history, literature, economics, health science, politics and physics.
The basic argument of the book is that adopting Christian practices for pedagogical purposes will strengthen and deepen teaching and learning. There are ancient and diverse Christian practices that lend themselves to be adopted as teaching methods or community building exercises that enhance learning.
For example, a first year literature seminar was reshaped around the metaphor of pilgrimage, inviting students to dwell deeply with the texts to acquire wisdom rather than rushing the material with a tourist-like mentality. Another teacher used the prayer labyrinth to invite students to contemplate the freedom and restraint of physics as a subject. A nutrition teacher invited pre-nursing students to eat meals together. A philosophy class reflected on Saint Aquinas’ virtues and vices. A social science class adopted fixed hour prayer to think deeply about their topic and make connections with the re-ordering of time. An adolescent psychology teacher cooked, welcomed and talked with and about her students as if she was host and they her guests. The teachers still covered course material, although sometimes adjusted the amount of content to allow more space for going deep with carefully chosen material and reflecting on the new practice.
This reviewer’s favourite chapter was David Smith’s ‘Reading Practices and Christian Pedagogy: Enacting Charity with Texts’. Smith adopted the slow attentive reading of lectio divina (divine reading) and invited students to use it with repeated reading of German texts and poetry. He wanted to encourage a charitable reading stance to receive the message of the texts. His semester timetabling and reading selections helped this, as did the posture of curious enquiry he encouraged with his teaching. One class he entered absorbed with reading the assigned text, sat down and continued reading, then remarked: “You know, I’ve read this novel four times, and this is the third time I’ve taught it, and I was still, before this class, trying to figure out why on earth we get the sudden change of topic on page 40. Did that strike anyone else as strange? Can anyone help me out”. In place of an exam, final assessment options included meditating on one of the pieces, discussing it with a friend and summarising the discussion in a final paper, or writing a letter to a friend outlining how a close reading of one of the texts could be life-changing. Student evaluations appreciated the deeper reading the course encouraged, and some said they learned to also ‘read’ people in new ways with less premature judgment.
The book is at its best as a collection of examples of reflective practice. It narrates the teachers’ reshaping course aims, teaching methods, reading selections and assessment. The pedagogical experiments do not always work as the teachers had hoped and were often harder work and emotionally stretching. Some students still read shallowly, expressed anxiety about grades and resisted groupwork. But other students showed profound learning. And most importantly for the development of professional practice, the innovative approaches gave the teachers experience to reflect on and grow from.
Another strength of the book is its integration of learning and faith practices. Against the secular trend to keep religious practice out of the classroom, it invites Christian tradition in to be utilized and evaluated. This makes sense in an American Christian higher education context, but may seem strange for Australia. However it points in sensitive directions for introducing practices for students of Christian faith but also other faiths or no faith.
Some of the teachers realized a semester was too short to introduce and adopt practices meaningfully. This suggested to this reviewer that a theological college could adopt practices for teachers and students to practice over sequential semester subjects. A slow reading practice like ‘lectio divina’, a reflective practice like journaling, and a contemplative practice like ‘examen prayer’ that reflects on what is life-giving and what is life-draining would be three good practices across a course.
Teachers of theology, religion and spirituality will obviously be most interested in this book. It will also be of interest to teachers of non-theological subjects in Christian higher education contexts, or teachers anywhere who want to offer students meditative or prayerful space that will nourish and deepen the soul as well as stretch the mind.
Across the disciplines teachers are grappling with educational structures and student expectations that are limited by consumerism and instrumentalism. Discerning use of Christian practices can help teachers and students to move beyond just acquiring information to foster deeper learning and character formation.
This review was originally published in Pacifica 27 (February 2014), 116-118.
Contrary to the first review posted here, this book is not written only for seminary professors. It will be most useful for those teaching in Christian contexts (especially at the college level) but would be applicable to a much wider audience.
There is a review essay of this book on the Books and Culture website--probably worth looking at if you are considering purchasing it.