Teaching math faithfully

My passion for teaching was fostered by being raised in a Christian home and blessed with a Christian education. My love for mathematics made it a natural choice to teach, but I found that connections to the spiritual realm are not as overt in mathematics as they may be in other subjects. When I first started teaching I consoled myself that my faith would be clear in how I interacted with students. The math was the same, but the atmosphere made my classroom distinctively Christian.

As I worked to more fully integrate my faith, however, I realized that this view limits the possibilities for integration. Math is not neutral and there are more opportunities to integrate faith in mathematics than I first believed. My renewed vision for my classroom is a community of students striving to learn more about the mysteries, beauty and usefulness that God has interwoven in the spatial, physical and logical dimensions of reality, an environment which prompts students to ask “Lord, what would you have me do for you with this knowledge?” I’ll share two methods that have helped me come closer to this vision.

The first method is questions. Questions are a key resource for all teachers, but asking good questions can bring matters of faith to the fore. Two types of questions that I use to integrate faith are essential questions and significant questions. Essential questions frame the technical aspects of mathematics and provide a Christian perspective. Examples include the following: Where does math come from? What does God reveal to us in math? How does geometry describe creation? Essential questions can also emphasize the purpose of learning a mathematical topic such as these: How can Christians use probability in our lives? Unfortunately, a hidden curriculum exists in many mathematics classrooms that communicates that mathematics is a tool to manipulate or to control others in order to get ahead. Essential questions can provide purpose and frame mathematics in a broader perspective.

Significant questions have also been a useful tool for integrating faith and mathematics. These questions are designed around the mathematics intended to be taught, but incorporate issues such as justice, stewardship or compassion. Significant questions may explore inequity in medical care in the U.S. or use statistics from human trafficking to learn about averages. These questions still cover the curriculum, but also provide rich opportunities for growth beyond mathematics as they provide fertile ground for a heart response in students.

‘Guide on the side’

A second method that I’ve found helpful in integrating my faith and mathematics is a subject-centered approach. Many K-12 mathematics educators have moved from teacher-centered to student-centered classroom pedagogies. This move was made in response to research about how students learn and an effort to engage students more deeply in their learning. I made this change as a high school teacher over a decade ago, but became uncomfortable with the underlying philosophy. I still find many student-centered teaching approaches valuable, but I am concerned that they go too far in fostering individualism and ultimately allowing students to “construct” their own knowledge.

As a result, I’ve worked to create a subject-centered classroom. In a subject-centered classroom both students and the teacher are actively involved, but math is the focus. I have found a subject-centered approach to be a more faithful way of sharing mathematics with students. With the subject at the center, the beauty and structure that God has created in mathematics is clearly communicated. As an educator, I am not the “the sage on the stage,” but a “guide on the side” leading students to discover God’s creative characteristics in mathematics.

An advantage that I’ve found in the subject-centered approach is the ability to choose the best method to help students learn about each mathematical topic or skill. The teacher’s role is to orchestrate opportunities for students to engage the subject and guide the students as they wrestle for greater understanding. Students and educators are image bearers working in concert to build a learning community in which Christ’s sovereignty is acknowledged in the area of mathematics.

These are some of the methods that I have found helpful in my pursuit of a mathematics classroom that acknowledges God’s sovereignty over all creation.  Admittedly, I have not reached my vision and am fully aware that I won’t until I get my first mathematics classroom in heaven. Yes, you read that correctly. I fully expect mathematics will be a part of the new heavens and earth as a part of God’s good creation. Until then, I hope to instill in my students an appreciation for mathematics and a desire to serve God with the knowledge that they gain.

Author

  • Valorie Zonnefeld

    Valorie Zonnefeld teaches mathematics and mathematics education courses at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa.

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