Malcolm Gladwell, Norton Juster, and the Biblically Integrated Syllabus

In his foreword to The Course Syllabus, Robert M. Diamond opens by saying,

“The research on teaching and learning is consistent: the more information you provide your students about the goal of a course, their responsibilities, and the criteria you will use to evaluate their performance, the more successful they will be as students and the more successful you will be as a teacher.” (xi)

This has at least one clear implication concerning biblical integration: If learning more about God, his world, and our role in it (biblical integration) is a goal of the courses you teach, then that goal should be outlined in the syllabus. This should include what the details of that integration will be, what role the students will play in it, and how their understanding of it will be measured. When these goals, means, and measures are outlined in the syllabus at the start of the course, they are much more likely to be successfully carried out until the end. They are also more likely to be organized and helpful, while less rushed or stressful.

So where should you start? I think an idea from noted author Malcolm Gladwell can help. In an appendix to What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures, he explains that he often works to make “lateral connections”—combining together two good stories in order to build one great one. Why does this combination turn good to great? Because the two stories illuminate and illustrate each other. In Christian education, we are, in a sense, working to do this type of work. Through biblical integration, we show the glory of God through our subject matter, but we also show the uniqueness/importance of our subject in light of the God who made it and us.

Let’s dig deeper into Gladwell’s essay writing. He brings two stories together so that the content of each can be more clearly understood. He shows that the two are actually one story that is more connected than we might think at first.

One of his essays is called “The Picture Problem: Mammography, Air Power, and the Limits of Looking.” In that piece, he shows the difficulty of dealing with incomplete information and varying interpretations. Both x-rays of the human body and satellite photos of hostile territories can include helpful information, but no one is certain about what these pictures mean exactly. By bringing together two seemingly unrelated topics—military reconnaissance and cancer detection—Gladwell is able to get to the heart of deeper issue… in this case, that rightly interpreting limited data is difficult (or impossible). By writing about two seemingly separate issues together, he illuminates both. The two aren’t actually so separate after all. When we integrate our teaching, we are showing those same kinds of connections. But instead of medical and tactical issues, we are working with biblical worldview and course content.

Let’s jump back to syllabus design. We don’t have to be great essayists (though that would be great!), but we do have to write a meaningful course description. The Course Syllabus says:

“A strong course description early in the syllabus can generate student interest by providing a stimulating overview of the course, including its content, value, and the philosophical assumptions behind it. You can increase students’ enthusiasm and motivation by emphasizing the relevance of the course. You will also want the description to reflect your own values and attitudes.” (51)

In your syllabus (or course outline/essential goals/etc.), you must include the ultimate rationale for your course—biblical integration. Students need to understand the great value that they are receiving in understanding God, his world, and their place/role in his world better.

One of my most treasured books is The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. I believe that it may be the most important piece of fiction that elementary students should encounter. At the start, the reader is introduced to Milo; a little boy who “didn’t know what to do with himself… When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in.”  Why was he so disinterested?

“It seems to me that almost everything is a waste of time,” he remarked one day as he walked dejectedly home from school. “I can’t see the point in learning to solve useless problems, or subtracting turnips from turnips, or knowing where Ethiopia is or how to spell February.” And since no one bothered to explain otherwise, he regarded the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time of all. (9)

Throughout the book, Milo encounters all kinds of conflict and questions on his way to meeting Rhyme and Reason. By the end, he has been transformed in his thinking so that he is fully engaged and invested in living a meaningful life.

When we integrate our courses, we are explaining to our students the ultimate why behind what we teach. We are sharing with our Milos why they should bother with our classes. We are to be Justers and Gladwells because we are showing meaningful connections to students so that they can understand how their work fits in with the ultimate questions of origin, meaning, morality, and destiny.  So, let’s get to the nitty-gritty. How do we put all this together?

The syllabus is a manifesto, a treasure map, a workout plan, a personal letter, a contract. And we want it to be a meaningful, vibrantly biblical one. I have offered some ideas about getting started here: Ideas on How to Do Biblical Integration. In addition, I walked through the three options in that post from a math point of view here, here, and here. Those are all good examples that I suggest you look at and make use of before the launch of the next school year.

Elementary School teachers, simple questions like, “What does this show me about God?” or “How can this help me live for Jesus?” can go a long way. For example, if students are learning to count, you might ask them if there is a number that God can’t count. Or you might point out how amazing He is since He knows the number of hairs on each of our heads (Luke 12:7). If you are working on reading, you might talk about how important it is to read so that we can hear God speak in the Bible—the book He put together for us. And the list could go on. But it really helps to put these questions in your course objectives (and even match them to specific units) in the beginning of the year. It will help things move smoothly, systematically, and less stressfully all year long.

Middle and High School teachers, I would suggest including a mention of biblically integrated rubrics in your syllabus. Using a rubric that includes an integration component helps the students see that it is a priority and it allows them to participate in the integrative work themselves.

Finally, below are some examples from Liberty University’s online syllabi. I have copied the course descriptions from  three subjects and included thought-provoking questions of my own in parentheses. These questions can function as samples that you can use as you integrate your own course description. Look for one in your subject area and think through it. The basic idea is to get your thinking jump-started.

English 101: COURSE DESCRIPTION/RATIONALE

Through the critical engagement of a variety of texts, including written, oral, and visual, this course prepares students to become careful readers, critical thinkers, and skilled writers. (Can you think of any biblical reasons behind why growing as reading, thinkers, and writers might be valuable?) Drawing upon rhetorical theory, it emphasizes the practices of analytical reading, informed reasoning, effective writing, and sound argumentation. (Why is it important that we can understand others and make a case to them?) The course requires 4,000 words of writing in no fewer than five writing projects, three of which are argumentative essays incorporating external sources. (Why is practice important? Why must we support our arguments with credible sources?)

Reading and writing are essential for success in college and in life. (Why are they so essential?) In English 101, the student will further develop his/her skills in analyzing texts, processing that information in the context of his/her worldview, and articulating his/her conclusions clearly to a particular audience. (What does it look like to process content according to a Christian worldview? Why should we be able to customize and argument for different audiences?)

HIEU 201: COURSE DESCRIPTION/RATIONALE  

A survey of the major currents in Western civilization from its beginnings in the ancient Near East to 1648. (Why is it important to trace the history of civilization? How does the Bible, the Church, and the biblical worldview fit into the development of Western Civ?)

This survey course introduces students to political, economic, military, religious, and cultural developments of the ancient, medieval, and early modern periods that constitute the foundation for the modern West. (How does the biblical worldview come to bear on how we think about politics, economics, the military, religion, and culture? How have these ideas developed over time?) It is a required prerequisite for upper-level courses in European history, and it may also fulfill a portion of the General Education requirement.

MATH 201: COURSE DESCRIPTION/RATIONALE

Introduction to descriptive statistics and probability, probability distributions, estimation, tests of hypotheses, chi-square tests, regression analysis, and correlation with applications in business and science. (What role do these measurements play in understanding the world? What do they tell us about our ability to know things? [Crosslisted with BUSI 230] (Why is this information so valuable to business?)

As members of a society increasingly devoted to the use and misuse of numbers, students must learn to correctly interpret and construct statistical presentations in all areas of public discourse, especially in their major fields. (Why is our society tilting toward mathematical/scientific presentations?) This course emphasizes the major applications of statistical knowledge rather than its theory. The course seeks to educate men and women who will make important contributions to their workplaces and communities, follow their chosen vocations as callings to glorify God, and fulfill the Great Commission. (How do we make the most of these skills for the glory of God?)

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Biblical Integration Calls for Biblical Action

We must be teachers of do-ers, not just know-ers. A tragic inaction is illustrated in the short, provocative book How Do You Kill 11 Million People by Andy Andrews. According Andrews, the German population during World War II was about 79.7 million people. However, the Nazi party never surpassed 8.5 million members. This means that almost 90% of the population did not actively endorse what the Nazis were doing. However, most of that extraordinary majority stood by, did little, and abrogated power to those who were committing atrocities. And while some historical distance may make it easier to point a finger of judgement the average German families of the 1930’s and 1940’s, there are many examples of Christians in many different contexts who failed to act on what they knew and believed. Even today, we should note that almost 60 million children have been aborted in the US since the early 1970’s.

So what does all this have to do with biblical integration? In short:  Integration must lead to action.

We must not stop short of important action steps. One of the classic approaches to Bible study helps us see this by recommending that, in our study, we ask three questions: What? So What? Now What?

  • What? What does the Bible say here? What are the facts?
  • So What? If the Bible says this, what does it mean? Where does it challenge me?
  • Now What? If the Bible challenges me and calls for response, how should I respond in real life? What does it look like to put God’s teaching into action?

As we teach students, we must teach action with information. Worship can be defined as people responding to God’s revelation. Whenever we point students to see or know God better, we also need to point them to appropriate response.

Ephesians 4:22-24 says, “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self,created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore…” The “therefore” is important. Paul makes the case that after being taught the truth about themselves and God, the Ephesian church would need to respond in particular ways. Action would be required. And here are the actions he lists in the rest of the chapter: 1) Tell the truth 2) Don’t let anger cause you to sin 3) Stop stealing and work 4) Give to those in need 5) Don’t speak inappropriately, but speak helpfully 6) Don’t grieve the Spirit of God 7) Get rid of bitterness and anger 8) Be kind and compassionate 9) Forgive others like Christ forgave you. Wow! That is quite the list of actions.

So when you show your students the great wisdom and design of God, ask them if they are living according to his design. Challenge them to do so. When you point out his power, ask if they are fearing Him. When you teach his love, ask if they are loving the One who loved them first. When you teach about a God who meets needs and stands up for his people, ask if they are committed to meeting needs and standing up for others.

Biblical integration must include a call to biblical action.