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Finding faith in school

The way we picture the world, our deep-down beliefs about how things work, influences what happens in classrooms.

What does Christianity have to do with education in schools? The mere question seems set to trigger a host of entrenched tensions, well-tested arguments and political postures. It risks launching us into one more round of heated debate about religion and society, and might be more likely to achieve heated reaction than thoughtful reflection. So let’s take the scenic route and see if we can find some different paths to explore.

Imagine the following. You open a secondary school textbook and see the title of chapter seven: The Indian Ocean Tsunami, December 26, 2004. Below the title is a photograph of people fleeing as a huge wave engulfs palm trees. The text below the picture begins: “What is a tsunami? A tsunami is an ocean wave that is generated by a sudden displacement of the ocean floor.” It goes on to mention that “tsunami” is a Japanese word for “harbour wave” and to describe the tsunami that devastated several coastlines in 2004.

If you closed the textbook and took a look at the front cover, what school subject would you expect to see named there? Which class do you think you would be in if you were reading this chapter?

I have asked this question of many groups of teachers in several different countries. People typically guess that the book is for some branch of natural science or geography, or possibly history. Since all of those guesses are wrong, my next question is what led us all to be so confident (even though we were mistaken) that this could not be a mathematics textbook. (For in fact, the page does come from a secondary school mathematics resource.)

Someone usually comments that there are no numbers, which is not quite true – there are numbers in the title, but they are the wrong kind of numbers, dates instead of problems. We do not expect numbers in mathematics books to focus us on a particular time and place in history. Someone else often comments that there are people in the picture, and sure enough we tend not to expect pictures in mathematics textbooks to focus on human beings. Some do not expect there to be pictures at all. Someone may point out that the title and text are wrong – in mathematics textbooks the title should name a mathematical function and the text should not explain Japanese words or the physics of the ocean.

What enables us all to “know” (even though we are wrong!) that this tsunami chapter is not from a mathematics textbook? It has a lot to do with what philosopher Charles Taylor calls the “social imaginary,” which is, simply put, the basic ways of imagining how the world works that we share with people around us. Every time you step into the street and look first to the left, or expect cross-traffic to stop when lights turn red, or hold out your hand and expect someone to shake it, or enter a restaurant and expect them to have beer, you reveal that you have and trust in a picture of how the world works that is largely shared with those around you. Any of these things might work differently in another time or place, throwing you into confusion if you were suddenly transported there, but for here and now you just expect things to work a certain way, without having to put any conscious thought into it.

In much the same way, you have some ideas in your head about what school textbooks look like, and about what happens and doesn’t happen in mathematics classes. Like the other examples, this is largely a result of when and where you live. 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.

Using math to seek justice
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?

(Now here I need to head off another well-worn debate that could get triggered here. I am not about to suggest that every mathematics textbook chapter should be about doing good in the world, or even about applying mathematics to action in the world at all. In fact the mathematics resource from which I took the example does not by any means take this approach in every chapter – most of its chapters are not about applied mathematics.)

Shaping our imagination
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? And when we do discuss faith more directly, perhaps in a different class entirely, what does it do to how we imagine what faith is if our learning across every other area of the curriculum has born little trace of its presence?

I have asked a lot of questions because I am trying to suggest not so much a new solution as a different conversation. Most of us have been well socialized into sharing a picture of the world in which, if we want to talk about religion and education, that must mean debating whether theological beliefs (and whose theological beliefs!) get taught in the religious education classroom, or whether prayers (and whose prayers!) should happen in schools. Those are important conversations, and I am not for a moment suggesting setting them aside. But too dogged a focus on them tends to obscure other questions that we should be asking, questions about what vision of life is fostered through the way learning is shaped across the whole curriculum, and how we are invited to imagine the world when we open the mathematics textbook and read the title to chapter seven.  

To see more than a hundred examples of Christian teachers exploring how their faith might shape their teaching across the whole curriculum visit whatiflearning.com.


  • David I. Smith is the Director of Graduate Studies in Education and the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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