Finding Faith in School

Here is another great article that I highly recommend. It is from the Christian Courier and is authored by David Smith of Calvin College and the Kuyers Institute (I’ve linked to the Kuyers Institute’s outstanding math resources in the past).

Personally, I am in the midst of reading Teaching and Christian Imagination by Smith (which I also highly recommend) and I always find his questions great points for reflection – on how I view teaching, on how I view my discipline, on how I view my students.

Here is a (long) quote from the article on how math might be used to seek justice.

School resources have not looked the same across the centuries and across cultures, but as far as your imagination is concerned, all mathematics classrooms are pretty similar, and they are like the ones you have experienced. They are just part of how the world works.

So what happens when someone decides the emperor does not have to keep wearing those particular clothes? Why would anyone start a mathematics textbook chapter in the Indian Ocean? Well, what if the chapter went on to explore the complex mathematics involved in describing the shape and acceleration of a wave? And what if it then pointed out that if we can use mathematics to do this, we can build early warning systems for tsunamis? What if it prompted some reflection along the way about what it might mean if people in poorer countries are more likely to die en masse when tsunamis happen? Is it just a natural disaster or might some human responsibility be involved? And suppose it then explored how mathematics is also involved in the aftermath. You need to drop food and water to people from helicopters – how would you figure out the best height from which to drop the crates so that you neither waste time and fuel descending too low (helping fewer people) nor damage the contents of the crates (helping fewer people)? The chapter from which I drew the example does in fact go on to explore these kinds of questions. It was designed by a group of Christian mathematics teachers and professors who wanted to explore how learning mathematics might be connected to matters such as seeking justice, enacting compassion and serving one’s neighbour.

Might students learn mathematics from such a chapter? Surely they could, if the problems are designed well. What else might they learn? How might time spent in this particular class help shape the way they imagine the world, their role in it, their future actions and responsibilities, or the reasons for being in school at all?

Smith’s point is that the way in which we present the material as teachers shapes the imagination of our students – how they see and interact with the world. Smith continues:

My point here is not to advocate for a blanket approach to mathematics, or even to claim that this is the best mathematics book chapter ever. My aim is simply to ask us to think about how the way we picture the world, our deep-down beliefs about how things work, might influence what happens in classrooms, whether or not religion is getting mentioned.

What happens to the shaping of our imagination as we pass through school if most of the examples in our mathematics textbooks are about shopping and sports? Or if there is never a mention of what is done with mathematics in the world? Or if mathematics is only related to science and technology? Or if it is, at least occasionally, shown to be possible that the knowledge and skills offered by mathematics might intersect in various ways with the effort to love God and neighbour?

Smith offers a very vivid portrayal of how the work we do as teachers can impact students at a level beyond their cognitive understanding of the material. We can use mathematics in service-learning, or in examining issues of sustainability or social justice. Not that every lesson will always address these issues, but if we are going to teach math Christianly then we should always be considering ways in which we might use mathematics to teach our students to love mercy, seek justice, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).