You can listen to Dr. Mark Witwer’s podcast, “Teaching Christianly, part 1,” by going to the Curriculum Trak home page, or simply use this link.

The Question

What do teachers think about how faith should inform learning?

You have probably read books, attended workshops, or explored online resources intended to tell teachers what teaching Christianly can look like. These resources can be helpful but have you ever wondered how classroom teachers themselves think their faith should inform their teaching?

I became curious about this question while pursuing a doctorate late in my teaching career. Having been a classroom teacher in Christian schools for decades, I knew what teachers were being told about integrating faith and learning. However, I began wondering to what degree we teachers bought into the message. I didn’t question our desire for our classrooms to be places of blessing to our students, but I was troubled by the angst we sometimes felt about how to implement faith-informed teaching. For example, a colleague who was a skilled math teacher once remarked to me that he knew he was supposed to be integrating faith and learning but wasn’t sure how to do so without saying the same corny thing too many times.

Resources to help teachers with my colleague’s concern have improved since that time—Curriculum Trak’s Faith-Learning Integration component is an excellent example—but many teachers do not have access to them. Even when teachers do have access, the availability of great resources still doesn’t tell us what the teachers are thinking about how faith should influence their teaching.

The Study

I was surprised that although the modern Christian school movement has been around since shortly after World War 2, I could find only one large faith-and-learning study of K-12 teachers in Christian schools. (By large, I mean research that gathered data from roughly 1000 teachers or more.) There were plenty of valuable smaller studies, but large studies are especially useful for confirming patterns.

With the assistance of the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), I gathered survey responses from 1059 ACSI-certified teachers: about half with an elementary teaching certificate (grades K-6) and half with a secondary certificate (grades 7-12). The survey contained two sets of statements to which teachers ranked their agreement on a 1-5 scale (1 = strongly disagree; 5 = strongly agree). The first set of statements was about faith’s influence on what students are taught, such as, “My Christian faith influences my choice of content in the courses I teach.” The second set of statements concerned how students are taught, such as, “My Christian faith influences my choice of instructional strategies.” In addition to these numerical rankings, several of the statements in each section were followed by an invitation for the teacher to give an open response: “Would you like to give an example for the previous item?”

The rest of this blog and the next (Part 2) will unpack interesting insights that emerged from teachers’ responses. For those with access to the journal, an extensive discussion of this research was published in two papers in the International Journal of Christianity and Education.

We Are Doing Something Right

The first thing that emerges loud and clear from the results is the observation that these teachers were serious about teaching Christianly. That is not to say all were exemplars of robustly Christian teaching, although some certainly were. Rather, it is to say that most of them agreed (4 or 5 on the survey’s numerical scale) with statements about faith’s influence on teaching. This is important considering the angst many of us feel about teaching Christianly; recall the math teacher mentioned above.

I suspect that most of us, like the teachers in this study, are indeed bringing our faith to bear on our teaching. Can we improve? Of course. However, when it comes to connecting faith and learning, I fear that too many of us are preoccupied with what we assume to be our shortcomings. (I often describe myself as a recovering perfectionist; I know all about self-imposed guilt!) Instead, consider how much your faith is indeed influencing what you do in your classroom. Be encouraged; it is a much better motivator for growth than a nagging sense that you are always falling short.

Your Subject Matters

There is another reason to be encouraged, especially if you are a teacher of a subject like math, in which faith connections might sometimes feel forced. In this study, teachers of different subject areas tended to regard faith and learning differently, especially in secondary school. (Most elementary teachers reported no single preference for a teaching subject area.) For example, secondary math teachers had weaker responses about faith’s influence on course content (what students learn) than teachers of social studies or English. But surprisingly, math teachers’ responses were not weaker regarding faith-informed teaching practices (how students learn).

It appears that the math teachers embraced faith-informed teaching, but did so in different ways than their colleagues in English or social studies. When it comes to faith-informed learning, apparently one size does not fit all, and there are theoretical reasons to expect this. For example, in 1999, Stephen K. Moroney published a model of sin’s effect on knowledge that suggested sin disrupts knowledge most in matters related to God, less concerning people, and least of all in understanding the impersonal creation.

Moroney’s model implies that the need for a Christian perspective on their course content will be more obvious to teachers of subjects like Bible, literature, and social studies than to teachers of mathematics and the physical sciences. If you teach a subject in which connections between faith and your course content are not obvious and easy to incorporate into lessons, do not assume something is wrong with you. Perhaps the most exciting ways your faith will inform your teaching will be in how you teach rather than what you teach.

Hold that thought. In Part 2, we will explore more results of the study, including some related to how we teach.

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Dr. Mark Witwer served for 41 years in four Christian schools, teaching many courses but especially Earth Science, Physics, Zoology, and middle school Life and Physical Science. Mark also served as an administrator, leading curriculum in three schools and serving as Dean of Faculty in one. He is currently adjunct Professor of Christian Education at Knox Theological Seminary in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, and loves helping teachers, pastors, and homeschooling parents explore what it means to teach Christianly. Mark has a bachelor’s degree in English with a science minor (Grace College, Winona Lake, Indiana), a master’s degree in secondary school science (Villanova University), and a PhD in religion and society studies, focused on Christian education (Omega Graduate School, Dayton, Tennessee). You can explore more of Mark’s contributions to Christian education at the CACE blog and the science-and-faith website