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 Peels Off Dragon Skin

A.W. Tozer memorably noted, “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply.” We want our students to be blessed which means, among other things, we must try to create opportunities for God to hurt them. This does not mean that God is doing something bad; nor are we. Quite the contrary! He is doing something needed in tearing away the bad. In C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of the characters is turned into a dragon, but desperately wants to be a boy again. Aslan, the great lion, came and pulled the dragon-flesh away. Look:

“I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.
The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off….
Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was lying on the grass, only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again.”

There is pain in transformation—even in worldview transformation. Transformation means the advent of something new, but also the end of something old. Who we were must die so that we can become who we ought to be. God is in the business of breaking down our idols, even when our hearts are tied to them. Listen to this expressed in Hosea 6:1-3:

“Come, let us return to the Lord.
He has torn us to pieces
   but he will heal us;
he has injured us
   but he will bind up our wounds.
After two days he will revive us;
   on the third day he will restore us,
   that we may live in his presence.
Let us acknowledge the Lord;
   let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises,
   he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
 like the spring rains that water the earth.”

Biblical integration must, at times, put students in a place to be “torn to pieces.” This is not evil. This injury is needed. The Surgeon must cut in order to heal. And we have myriad idols that need to be cut away. As we press our students to acknowledge Him, there will sometimes be difficulty and pain. But do not be alarmed. After they have been hurt, they can be used.

In what areas is your course uniquely positioned to peel back the dragon skin of worldiness? Where do you need to press your students toward the truth… even if changing directions causes them to fall down for a moment?

Screwtape, Students, and Biblical Integration

I recently read the short essay by CS Lewis, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” in one of his essay collections. If you are unfamiliar, Screwtape is a fictional character created by Lewis to help us understand how Satan and his demons might work to harm us. In short, Screwtape is an accomplished administrator for the cause of demonic activity. He supports up-and-coming Junior Temptors as they enter the field. Lewis’s essay records Screwtape’s speech for the graduation of a new class of temptors.

About halfway through the speech, Screwtape comes the to the topic of education. He has a great deal to say about how education can be, and is being, used for evil. He latches on ideas that are popular in education even today. However, his main point relates to a warped view of democracy: treating different people as if they are the same.

He says that if we can get schools to teach students as if they are all the same—equally gifted, equally engaged, equally hardworking—then many future leaders will be damaged. If the future theologians, teachers, poets, scientists, doctors, musicians, and philosophers are treated as identical they will be held back. If their learning is frustrated, we can be confident that their contributions in the world will be held back too.

Every person (yes, this includes students) is equally valuable as an individual created in the image of God. However, people do have different aptitudes, strengths/weakness, characteristics. We know this is true. And in most areas of life we live with the differences in mind. For example, a tall, athletic student will likely excel at basketball more than a small, uncoordinated student. Therefore, we should help each of them achieve their full potential, but we should not give them the same standard for success. Greatness for small student in this area might be mediocrity for the large one.

Screwtape’s plan is to keep students from learning because an accurate understanding of the world, and their place in it, has the power to unleash godly leaders in all fields. In other words, Screwtape is adamently opposed to biblical integration. And part of his plan to harm the process of biblically integrated education is to diminish education as a whole.

So what are we to do as Christian educators?

  1. Know the students. We need to understand their gifts and struggles and teach accordingly. Screwtape celebrate a child able read great literature like Dante being slowed down because of other students his age who are still spelling out, “a cat sat on a mat.”
  2. Call the students to their giftedness. Expect great effort and great results in areas of great gifting. Screwtape intends that, “All incentives to learn and all penalities for not learning will vanish. The few who might want to learn will be prevented; who are they to overtop their fellows?”

There is no shame in recognizing differences of gifting. A great athlete is great. A great musician is great. A great writer is great. A great scientist is great. But there is a great shame in treating all students as if they have been created identical. They are equal in value, but not identical in design. This is why my school (and many others) emphasize individualized learning.

To integrate well, we must know the students well. And then we must help them grow to be successful in the areas in which God has gifted them. Why? Because just as He shows his glory to students as they study the world, He also shows us his glory as we note how He uniquely designed each student.

 

A Simple Question

John Frame is one of the theologians who has most influenced me over the past few years. I love the way that he is able to communicate complex truths in simple ways. In one of his articles, he speaks on Christian education from Deuteronomy 6:6-9, saying:

“God-centered” is really too weak a term to describe this kind of education. “God-saturated” is more like it. Children are to grow up in an environment where they cannot avoid the Word of God; it is always there, searching them, admonishing them, instructing them in the truth. [emphasis mine]

I love this statement. Christian education should be so saturated with God, through his Word, that students cannot avoid encountering what He has to say.

So here is the simple question: Can a student in your class avoid being searched, corrected, and instructed by the Word of God?

I pray that we would all improve in this area so that our teaching is truly biblical. Let me close by quoting Frame from the same article. Note his strong case for a truly biblical form of biblical integration:

It follows that everything the child learns about the world should be related to God’s Word. And in a way Scripture speaks about everything. It doesn’t give us detailed instruction about plumbing, or British history, or auto repair, but it does teach us how to relate all these things to God, how to study them, and how to implement our studies in practical life so that God is pleased. We cannot, for example, study history while ignoring divine providence, let alone (as in many secular curricula) ignoring the substantial role of religion in forming the culture and politics of nations. We cannot teach science without emphasizing that this world is created and directed by God. It is God’s providence that makes the world an orderly place that we can understand and dominate (Gen. 1:28-30). We cannot teach modern music and film without teaching children how to evaluate these from God’s perspective.

 

The Sufficiency of Scripture in Biblical Integration

Since biblical integration is biblical, we need to think about the role of Scripture in the classroom. There will be much more discussion on the topic of the Bible on this site, but for now we want to note that the Bible provides us with the knowledge and orientation that we need to understand everything else. Peter says something about this in 2 Peter 1:3-9:

“His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.” [emphasis added]

Our gracious God has provided all that we need for godly lives. How did He do this? Through the knowledge of Him that we have in his great and precious promises (Scripture). So, we must engage in Christian education: growing in faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual affection, and love.

The Bible is not a textbook, but it does provide what we need to think about all the information that might be contained in our textbooks. Scripture shows us what we need to know in order to interpret everything else in the world.

The idea of the sufficiency of Scripture is helpful here. There is a good article that helps us with what this means on Desiring God. In that article John Piper explains:

“The sufficiency of Scripture means that we don’t need any more special revelation. We don’t need any more inspired, inerrant words. In the Bible God has given us, we have the perfect standard for judging all other knowledge. All other knowledge stands under the judgment of the Bible even when it serves the Bible.”

Biblical integration, and the biblical worldview, rely on God’s Word to help us “judge all other knowledge.” God is the Author of truth and He is truth. And He has given us special revelation in the Bible to give us a way to understand the world (general revelation). How should we respond? “Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.” That is what Christian education is all about.

Teaching Against that Spurious Logic

Christian teachers have an essential job when ministering to Christian students. We are helping these young people learn the God they love. The more accurately they see God’s world and Word, the more they can respond to Him in lives of worship. In The Pursuit of God, A.W. Tozer said it this way:

“How tragic that we in this dark day have had our seeking done for us by our teachers. Everything is made to center upon the initial act of “accepting” Christ (a term, incidentally, which is not found in the Bible) and we are not expected thereafter to crave any further revelation of God to our souls. We have been snared in the coils of a spurious logic which insists that if we have found Him we need no more seek Him.” (12-13)

Those who know Christ are exactly the ones who should seek Him most passionately. We have tasted. We have seen. It is up to us to guide the students under our care to seek Him as well. They need to know that accepting Christ is accepting a whole new way of life.

Students need to grow in awe of Him as they see his creation. They need to learn to thank Him as they see his grace to broken people throughout history. They need to deepen their partnership with God as they better love the people that God has made in his image.

It is up to us to guide them on this journey. A Christian education that does not educate students in seeking the God they love may be Christian in name, but not in essence.

In your classroom, how will you press fight the spurious logic that accepting is an end rather than a beginning?