What follows is a partial transcript of an interview with Dr. Mark Eckel. To hear the full interview, please go to The Teacher’s Lounge podcast.
Michael Arnold: We’re joined today by a longtime friend of Curriculum Trak, someone I refer to as a teacher’s teacher, someone I am honored to have been impacted by both personally and professionally, Dr. Mark Eckel. Many Curriculum Trak users may be familiar with Dr. Eckel by name as they explore the Faith-Learning content, and we’ll be glad to talk with him about that today.
He’s an author, not only of that content, but of several books and resources, and we’re excited to hear more from Dr. Eckel’s experiences today and what led to development of that content and some of the other things that Dr. Eckel is doing. Welcome, Mark.
Dr. Mark Eckel: Thanks so much. I’m glad to be here.
M.A.: So we have a lot to talk about. I thought we’d tried to do this in three parts beginning by tracing your experience in K-12 education, and then focusing on what led to the faith learning content that so many schools have found to be so helpful, and then getting into some of your current work and how that may even be influential in faith-based education today. You’re currently working with adult learners, right? Are you currently teaching at the high school or junior high level now?
M.E.: Not right now. Actually, my last opportunity to teach at the high school level was in 2020, though I taught for over 20 years in Christian high school settings starting in 1983. I was also teaching for ACSI going through the country as well as internationally, doing a lot of enablers for ACSI, specifically in the arena of faith-learning integration.
I’ve been teaching for 40 years now. I teach undergrad students at a public university here in Indianapolis called IUPUI. And I also teach PhD courses at Lancaster Bible College and grad school in Pennsylvania.
So, I’ve really been all over the map in terms of age level. For instance, I started teaching in 1983 in the junior and senior high school area. Now I teach all the way through PhD students.So I’ve taught students internationally, all over the world, all over the curriculum spectrum, all over the age level spectrum. And now of course, I have grandchildren, so I get a chance to teach them.
M.A.: So would you consider yourself an educational theologian or a theological educator or some other mix? Maybe different terms altogether?
M.E.: Yeah, that’s a great question. I would say everything is theological, everything from the tiles in the ceiling to the carpet and the floor and everything around us. If God made it, then He sustains it and He is the culmination of all things. He will bring it to its ideal conclusion. I am looking forward to that time in eternity for that. But ultimately, since I believe everything is theological, I don’t think in terms of a bifurcation of things. I don’t separate stuff out, so I don’t think about education as theological education. I just think of it as, how do I express this from a biblical point of view? But I like theological educator. You know, that’s got a ring to it.
Why Education and the Classroom?
M.A.: What drew you into education? How did you find yourself in a classroom?
M.E.: I have an undergrad in Religious Education. My THM is in Old Testament studies. My PhD is in Social Science Research. Then I went back to get an MA in English. I’ve been all over the place in terms of educational background, but what got me into it was the back door.
I honestly thought I was going to be a pastor, and I still love to preach. But what really got me into it, I think, was Francis Schaeffer. When I was 16 years of age, one of my classmates was a brilliant soccer player, an all-state soccer player, but he was an atheist. He sat behind me in homeroom. And I’ll never forget this, he leaned over the seat during homeroom announcements when I was 16, and he asked me, How can I believe in something I cannot see?
That question bothered me so much that I sought out answers. The only answer that I found that had any kind of foundation to it was from Francis Schaeffer. So I read all of his books by the time I was out of high school, everything that had been published by that time at least. If I would recommend one book to anybody, it would be How to Be Your Own Selfish Pig. Susan Schaeffer Macaulay takes all of her father’s really cool stories and puts them in one volume.
M.A.: You probably developed a lot of Bible curriculum as you were teaching it. What are some of your published instructional resources when it comes to high school Bible curriculum?
M.E.: ACSI was publishing courses with a few of us who were in the classroom doing this teaching and the first coursework that I created was Let God Be God, which covers the attributes and characteristics of God. Next came Timeless Truth, which was an apologetic for scripture. The Bible is a historic document and we follow its historicity, authenticity and authority.
Since that time I’ve been developing all different kinds of things. I speak in conferences and for in-services for Christian schools. I’ve created all kinds of essays that would be helpful and perhaps the most helpful aspect of what I do now presently can be found at my website, markeckel.com.
M.A.: One thing I’ve discovered as I’ve used your resources, taught from your materials, read your articles and so forth, is that you tend to avoid the doctrinal distinctions. You seem to be very much about essential doctrine, letting scripture speak for itself. Would you share your thoughts about that and why that’s important to you?
M.E.: Sure. Let me start with maybe just an educational principle. I think this educational principle can be extended into any arena, believing and unbelieving, past, present, future, K through 12 through higher education–doesn’t matter. For me, I always think about two aspects of life whenever I’m teaching: origins and outcomes.
Now, we use different kinds of terms for these ideas. By outcomes, I mean, what do I want my students to leave my classroom with today? For instance, when I teach my course that I’m teaching tomorrow, Reading, Writing, and Inquiry, I have one thing that I want my students to know every single time I teach. We spend 75 minutes arranging and organizing and then culminating that particular activity to show an outcome.
What’s even more important for the Christian is that we know our source, the origin from where things come. And so I would say that ultimately my responsibility as a Christian educator, even in a public setting, is to help people to ask that question, Where did this come from? How did we get this?
If you’re a believing person, it doesn’t matter what church you go to or what denomination you’re in. What really matters is that you actually believe in a creator, and that this creator is personal, eternal, and triune. And that creator has made all things.
So, as I tell my students in public university, you begin your assumption basis from two points of view: you believe either God is eternal or matter is eternal. Those are your only two options. Because of that, we think about this from an origin point of view. I actually believe in things like order versus chaos. I believe in something that gives me direction and intention. Where does all of that come from? It comes from an origin base that says there is a God who has made all things. He has spoken to us as human beings through His scriptures.
And now my responsibility is to reflect those kinds of principles that He’s literally embedded in creation. Proverbs chapter eight tells us that wisdom is embedded in God’s creation. My job then is to help people to actually consider how it is that we think about anything from a Christian point of view. Do I believe in certain doctrines that are really important to me in my church? Of course I do. But so does anybody. What I’m really most interested in is, is there a God, and if there is a God, has He made this world? Has He communicated with us? If He’s communicated with us, how is it that I should follow that kind of communication? And then, what kind of practical principles should I be living out in whatever vocation I’m invested in because of that communication?
So that kind of gives a broad view of this. But I probably wouldn’t pigeonhole myself in any kind of denominational setting when it comes to my teaching.
M.A.: Let’s go back to the outcomes of the classroom. If I’m a Bible teacher or even just a core content teacher in a classroom, the focus is on essential doctrine as opposed to maybe the unique distinctives of different denominations.
M.E.: Yes. Let me approach it from the core curricular aspect. We’ve done 20 different areas of education at Curriculum Trak through the Faith-Learning integration emphasis. But I actually started with four, which were science, math, literature, and history. So, if we just took those kinds of ideas and even if we broke them down into the sciences and the humanities, we would look at things, look at life from a Christian point of view very differently than our unbelieving colleagues would.
I’ll give just a few examples. It doesn’t matter where you are in terms of grade level. The question really becomes, do you believe that an author wrote something and that author actually meant what they wrote and meant to write what they wrote? Now in our culture what really is of greatest concern to people is what folks refer to as a reader-response theory. That reader-response theory focuses on the individual instead of the original content of the book. You could be reading Dr. Seuss, or you could be reading Dostoevsky, it wouldn’t really matter. Did that person have an intention and a direction for their particular reading and writing in whatever venue it might be? I would argue, yes, that has to do with an origin issue.
Or take the concept of history, for instance. We have to ask ourselves a question, Where did history begin? For the Christian, history begins in eternity. According to Revelation 13:8 and 17:8, there were certain things that happened before the world was made, not the least of which was the plan for Jesus to die on the cross for the sin of the world. So when we begin to study scripture, we begin to see some of these things that would matter to us.
If I were to take, let’s say for instance, the concept of math, and we ask the question, Do I discover or create math? From a Christian point of view, we discover what God has already made. And so it’s not something we create. We certainly utilize the gift given to us in that sense.
Or take science. Science is simply an observation of the world that is,the existence of the world all around us. So science is our friend. There is no dichotomy or a separation line between faith and science. No. What should happen is simply that we read scientific discoveries all around us and say, Oh, wow, isn’t that cool? Isn’t it something that humans finally got their act together and discovered that thing?
M.A.: This is intriguing. And then you were referencing the living curriculum and the teacher being the living curriculum. How would you address a teacher who says, I believe it–I believe in God, I believe in scripture. I don’t know if I know how to teach it that way. What would you say to them?
M.E.: I would say to everybody: Start small, start somewhere, but start. And by that I would suggest that you gain materials that would be helpful in this regard. Find people that are speaking about or talking about or writing about these ideas. Let’s be honest. Every single person who is a teacher is looking for curricular ideas constantly. There’s a reason why people are making lots of money as teachers on places like Pinterest because they can create their curriculum, create their ideas, and then people purchase those things. I would suggest that this is no different.
And for all of us, I would say that we need to find a good resource for an ongoing theological education. Something that would start us down the road. I’ll go back and say, if you have a copy of How To Be Your Own Selfish Pig, you’ve got a good start because there’s a really good understanding of simple, direct teaching.
Bottom line is to find simple ways to learn biblical truths and those biblical truths then will give you a foundation for thinking Biblically and Christianly about all things. I say that because it’s really important that teachers understand that we go to all kinds of conferences, and we do all kinds of personal development courses. We have expectations from administration and certification. We are responsible for lots of different things. We should not think it’s any different that we should spend time thinking about how to actually do this. And what are the kinds of things that I ought to be thinking about?
I would say, ask yourself the question, in whatever course I’m teaching, what are some basic principles of the Bible that I already know that would apply to my courses that I teach right now? If you can come up with 10 for a year, that’d be pretty good. Hey, start with five. Start with one. Start with one idea that communicates something about what you teach from a decidedly Christian point of view.Then begin to say to your students, This is how we think differently as Christians. I think that would be something that would get us down the road.
M.A.: What should we be trying to prepare our students to do in our faith-learning process? Christian education is not the same thing as public education. It’s not just public education plus. It’s got completely different outcomes. What does that look like for you?
M.E.: If you were to ask me what is my definition of education, I would say it’s one word: ownership. I want my students to own what they believe. I actually ask my students to write a lot because writing helps students to consider, to think. Writing and thinking have connections, and by writing, students then begin to think about, How do I explain this to somebody else–my beliefs, my thoughts, my concerns for the future? And that is where they begin to own their own thought processes.
I would encourage in my teaching a lot of questions. By asking them questions and having them deal with their own answers to their own questions, they begin to own what it is that they say they believe. The ultimate outcome for me is for people to own their belief. For all educators, it’s my belief that we should get students to own their belief system whatever that belief system may be. I have to be honest and say that I had students in my senior high classes who would come to me and they would say to me, “I don’t believe this. I don’t believe in the Christian way of life.” I literally would stick out my hand and shake their hand. And I would say to them, “Thanks for being honest.”
Students will say to me, “I remember when you said this” or “I remember when this particular incident happened in a class” or ”For all of my days I’ll never forget that you gave us this one thought to think about when we were studying X, Y, Z.” Those kinds of things, I think, matter most to me because now I’m hearing from students themselves and they will tell me this is how the teaching has changed their life.It wasn’t me necessarily, though I was the instrument being used. It was the Holy Spirit through the scriptures and through all of life itself that God has made and created that allowed these kinds of things to happen.
So ultimately the outcome is to get students to own it. We can talk about approaches if you’d like, but honestly, I think that’s the ultimate outcome for me.
M.A.: Student outcomes equals student ownership. I think that is a great way for Christian educators to wrap their mind around what this looks like. It’s a student owning these truths as their own, personalizing them, embedding them into their minds and their hearts.
Now you do a lot of work with adult learners, college and beyond. Could we just spend a few minutes thinking about if you were to address K-12 educators, maybe in this context of outcomes and ownership, what do you see as maybe a flaw in the educational system or maybe pitfalls as far as preparing our students for what comes next, in college and life beyond?
M.E.: I would say that we should spend less time on method and more time on content. For students, they need to know something. I would have discussions with students and we would start a new unit or a subunit on whatever the discussion point was. Then I would ask them, Okay, let’s look at this text or this author, or let’s open scripture. And, inevitably, somebody would raise their hand and say, We want to continue to discuss this. My response would always be the same. You don’t know anything yet. You have to wait until you know something in order to discuss it.
M.A.: But they have feelings. They have feelings about it.
M.E.: Yeah, they have feelings. I wish I had a nickel for everybody who said to me, I feel instead of I think. Yes, we live in an emotive culture for sure. I’m actually trying to dissuade my students in public university from using that phrase even now. This isn’t a feeling. Those come later. Let’s think, please first.
So I would say that, generally in education settings, if you take a BA in education any place, they’re going to have all these different courses on methodological approaches. Quite frankly, I think you should have one course on that. What really makes me shake my head is that we tell teachers what and how to teach as if they aren’t teachers. This is like me going to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs and telling him how to throw a football. No, I do not want to come to your classroom and tell you how to teach. There might be curriculum that we need to follow and we can have that discussion, but the way that you teach is dependent upon you as the educator.
I have to tell you that I am married to a second grade teacher. I’m telling you what, living with this woman, getting her insights on life is amazing and she is constantly learning. She is constantly looking stuff up for new ways to approach learning. She doesn’t need a course on that. She doesn’t need somebody to come and tell her how to do those things. She will discover it on her own. Why? Because she’s a creative teacher. She loves to teach and she’s really good at it. So let teachers teach.
My point and emphasis here is that content is king. It is not methodology. It’s not another course on how we should think about the culture of the day at this particular moment. That’s not the crucial issue. The crucial issue is do you know your subject area well enough so that you can spin off with whatever question that comes up in the classroom and deal with it at that particular junction?
Content is Key
M.A.: These days we have Google, Alexa, Siri, even AI available to answer any question we might have at any moment. So some would say memorizing facts, teaching content is not as important as it might have been at one point in even our more recent past. But it sounds like you’re saying content is important, content is key, and students still need to learn facts. Teachers still need to teach facts. Is that right?
M.E.: Let me just say what a big fan I am of one particular educator whose name is E.D. Hirsch. Hirsch was most well-known in educational circles for something that he wrote back in 1987, I believe, called Cultural Literacy. In that book, Hirsch argued for the fact that he and anybody who taught had to have an understanding of a cultural background.
That is, why did somebody create or do or speak or write or establish themselves as a leader in whatever context it might be? So here’s an example of this. In order for us to understand the Constitution of the United States, it’s really helpful to know about something called the Federalist Papers. Now, the Federalist Papers give the cultural context of how Madison and Hamilton and some of these other guys are writing the Constitution. What were they thinking about when they were writing the Constitution? That gives us a cultural, contextual idea of how we think about whatever the subject area might be.
Since we’re recording this on MLK day, I’ll mention that we actually put out a Truth In Two celebrating the history of that great man, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When we think about MLK, we have to think about this in a different way in 2023 rather than what Martin Luther King might have thought about when he was giving his address in 1963 in that great “I Have a Dream” speech. When we think about the cultural context, the time and place of 1963 and compare it with 2023, we have to ask ourselves a question, okay, how am I going to frame this or approach this from a cultural contextual point of view that may be very different today than it was 60 years ago.
Hirsch, in fact, went on to create all kinds of curriculum. You can find books entitled What Your First Grader Should Know, What Every Second Grader Should Know, What Every Third Grader Should Know. There are these wonderful books that have all of this wonderful content about the arts and language arts and science and exploration and history and discovery. It’s marvelous stuff. They’re sucking in all of this content, and it gives them a framework from which to operate their lives and their thinking as they continue to grow.
That’s why I believe content is so important. The more we give students, the more facts and knowledge and information they have to gain. The problem with Alexa, the problem with Google, is that it’s outside of a cultural context. It is a puny punctiliar in space and time that literally just answers one question that has no understanding of a wider scope of why that question is asked.
M.A.: So then how would you respond to this latest trend of the teacher as facilitator? I was just reading an article the other day that suggested that one of the impacts the internet has had on education is in the role that the teacher plays in the classroom. The article boldly proclaimed, gone are the days of having a teacher playing the role of sage on the stage. Now teachers should see themselves as a facilitator of the student’s learning, even a coach coming alongside the student as they learn together in this age of information. How would you respond to that?
M.E.: My response to that generally is that the teacher functions in a multiplicity of roles at any given moment. I believe the teacher is a sage on the stage, but the teacher is also facilitator at times. The teacher is also a guide. The teacher is a questioner. The teacher is a shepherd.
There’s all different kinds of metaphors and action points that teachers take, depending on the given context and culture, the situation in which they find themselves. And this, by the way, includes students. So how I approach one student is going to be very different from how I approach another student, given my knowledge of them as persons.
I would say that as teachers, we fill a lot of roles all at once and sometimes separately. But I would not say that we are one thing or that schools are one thing. And I’m certainly not a facilitator of knowledge. I’ve actually been hired to do something because somebody thinks I have not only the content behind me, but the ability to communicate it.
To Be Continued…