Christian intellectual practices are about a lot more than believing the right things or knowing biblical content. They have to do with how our thinking itself is shaped. The Practicing Faith Survey defines Intellectual practices as those that seek to disciple the mind and are directed at seeking the truth about God, the world, and ourselves. This could include:
- seeking out mentors who can help us to think clearly and challenge our prejudices
- finding and choosing to read material that helps us to understand our faith and how it relates to the world
- working at tempering our impatience or defensiveness when we hear a perspective that challenges our own
- practicing gratitude for opportunities to learn and for what we have learned
- learning to give full, careful attention to the beauty, intricacy, or complex needs of the world
- thinking about how something we just learned relates to Scripture or helps us understand and live our faith
- learning to avoid impatient judgments and hasty conclusions
Many of us have been trained to teach within a subject area like the humanities or natural sciences. Often the implied model of learning relies on mastering and apprenticing our students into correct beliefs and behaviors. Many of us also approach our faith this way. This brings a temptation to treat the intellect as a neutral container for facts, figures, and right beliefs that can be downloaded into our students. Thinking becomes mainly about producing the right answer.
Scripture calls us to love God with all our mind, and binds this together with loving God with our heart, soul, and strength. Intellectual practices are embodied. They connect with our spiritual health and growth. They can either be orientated towards God or somewhere else. This can work itself out in surprisingly concrete ways, such as in a mathematics class, as one teacher and his student discovered.
Brad went to see his professor at the end of his first ‘Intro to statistics’ class to explain that he did not like Math and was only taking the course because it was required. He wanted to know how much mathematical knowledge he was expected to bring to the course. The professor explained that Brad would need basic arithmetic plus some algebra and expected that this would relieve Brad’s obvious anxiety. It didn’t. Brad was still not sure that he could succeed, so the professor invited him to take some basic diagnostic tests and it turned out there were major gaps in his understanding. He asked Brad how he had made it through high school with such enormous gaps in his learning. Brad related that when he was in first grade, his teacher had held up his arithmetic homework as an example to the rest of the class of how not to do the assignment. ‘I was so angry at her,’ he recalled, ‘that I vowed that I would never learn mathematics for the rest of my life.’ He’d later memorized just enough to pass tests and scrape by. Brad’s statistics professor told him, ‘what your first grade teacher did to you was a terrible thing. This may sound strange to you, but you need to forgive that teacher. Your hurt feelings and your anger toward your first grade teacher are an obstacle to your learning. If you want to get through statistics, you’ll need to forgive her.’ Brad was at first unconvinced, but after praying about it he decided his professor was right. He forgave his first-grade teacher and he also hired a tutor to help him with arithmetic and algebra. A semester later he was performing at the top of his class.
This is a single story, not a recipe; other students will have their own particular connections and barriers to learning. The point is that the discipleship of the mind involves not just learning information, but building practices around the way we think and process information that allow us to seek truth and love God and neighbor. Take a look at the following lessons which build some of these practices in to the daily routines and habits of the classroom:
Take a moment to imagine how these lessons might be taught if the goal was simply to describe events in history, test comprehension and teach grammar. Talk to a colleague or reflect yourself upon what changes when the focus shifts to developing intellectual practices such as forgiveness, understanding the purpose of testing, or using grammar to encourage others.
In the subject area in which you specialize, are there similar opportunities to explore with students how their practices of learning and knowing connect with faith, hope, and love? What could you do to make your students aware that their mind is a place where God seeks to dwell?
You can find more concrete examples of teachers thinking through these same questions in specific teaching activities at the links below:
Whatiflearning.com, in particular the strategies labelled Encourage Thinking and Making Connections.