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Finding faith in school

How does the way we picture the world influence 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. 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. 

  • 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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