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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The Rubric and Biblical Integration

In Every Bush is Burning, I make the case that if biblical integration is in the syllabus and the assessments, it will be much easier to ensure that you really teach in an integrated fashion. As teachers, we want our students to be prepared for their exams. We want them to accomplish what is mapped out in the syllabus. However, as with most things, integrating assignments/assessments is often easier said than done.

Here is one area that can help you make great strides to integrate your class: Include integration in the grading rubric.

The purpose of a rubric is to assess student performance against stated expectations. Therefore, if you regularly include an integration component into your rubric, you will then teach students to integrate everything they do. Look at the (incredibly basic, bare-bones, lightweight) example of a rubric that might be used in any class that assigns papers, presentations, etc.

Style/Grammar (40) Good: … Fair: … Poor: …
Content (40) Good: … Fair: … Poor: …
Biblical Engagement (20) Good: Accurately, thoughtfully shows connection to biblical ideas/themes/principles. AND cites/references specific Scripture passages. 16-20pts. Fair: Makes some effort to show connection to biblical ideas/themes/principles. OR cites/references specific Scripture passages. 10-15pts. Poor: Does not engage biblical ideas/themes/principles. OR presents inaccurate/shallow understanding of biblical teaching. 0-9pts.

Notice that all students are expected to participate in biblical integration. It is not something that they consume, but something they contribute. They are expected to practice thinking about their topics from a biblical worldview. This means that they are growing in their critical thinking, Bible study, and gospel communication. That sounds like a win for Christian education to me!

PS: This really can be done across subjects and in many different ways. Here are some examples using themes from the book of Jeremiah. In English, a student might note the brokenness of the heart (Jer 17:9) that arises in so many literary themes. In Anatomy/Biology, they might note design that God employed in making his people (Jer 1:5). In Music, they might talk about the different ways that God has given us to express emotion (Jer 33:11; 48:36).

Ideas on How to Do Biblical Integration

One of the most exciting parts of being a teacher can be seeing how your subject/content-area is a part of the discipleship process. Here are three ways that you can go about starting to think through your class. NOTE: These can be especially helpful if you think through these issues with your course descriptions, unit goals, or essential questions in hand.

The Worldview Question Approach

Ravi Zacharias (among others) makes the case the there are four major worldview questions:

Origin  – Where do we come from?
Meaning – Why are we here?
Morality – What’s right and what’s wrong?
Destiny – Where are we going?

Biblical integration can be accomplished by asking, “How does my course relate to these questions? Does it answer them? Does it help me understand any of them better? How so?”

The Perspectives Approach

John Frame advocates a way of looking at issues from three points of view. I have attached his perspectives to my take on inductive study to show you what I mean.

Information (Normative/Head) – What is the truth presented here? (What does this subject show about God, the world, life, hope, meaning, goals, etc.?)
Understanding (Existential/Heart) – How does this affect who I am or how I see the world? (How does this subject change, challenge, or engage my thinking?)
Action (Situational/Hands) – What should I do with this? (What does this subject change in my life? How do I live this out?)

The Stewardship Approach

In Genesis 1:28, God’s Word speaks of subduing and filling the earth. In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus calls his followers to make disciples. The big question here is simple:
How does my course content help students be better at ordering the world and making disciples? What skills can they learn here to be more equipped for a faithful life?

These are just three options, but they can be a great place to start!