Being a public school teacher is tough — especially as a committed Christian. My mother was a 2nd and 3rd grade teacher for 35 years, my sister a middle school math teacher, and my wife has taught Spanish (and now young children) for nearly a decade. Over the years, the challenges for them have been many-sided:
When we invited Dr. Mary Poplin, author and Professor of Education at Claremont Graduate University, to speak at the DIFW education forum in 2016, little did I know that I (and 80 teachers) would have the chance to essentially see and hear what it means to follow Christ as a public school teacher in America today.
I was literally speechless after our conversation. She fluidly moved between her research on highly effective teachers in low-income schools to speaking about praying for every student. Our conversation spanned constructivism to Che Guevara, Francis Bacon’s theology to Piaget’s learning theory.
Here’s a summary of what we learned.
“[Constructivism] is very popular in teacher training and teacher education. We believe it helps students be more creative. But the reality is children are not experts….The most effective teachers are strict, very serious, explicit instructors who are good at lecture and involving kids in a discussion while they are lecturing. They are not doing a bunch of constructivist activities; they don’t put children on projects they don’t know how to do.”
“[Effective teachers] explain things over and over until you get it in your head, and they don’t get mad if you don’t understand. Now that is not constructivism…This is a terrible problem, especially in poor schools. As E.D Hirsch says, ‘They have no background knowledge.’”
As I began our Q & A session, Dr. Poplin delved right into the the pedagogical issues that most affect teachers today. She explained that in the beginning of schools, the idea was that there was a certain body of knowledge that needed to be transmitted to the next generation. Each generation would add to it and we would gain knowledge. Teachers gave explicit instruction about what kids needed to know.
Yet several things changed. First, secular humanism changed our view of truth. For example, Dewey gave a set of lectures at Yale called “A Common Faith” - which was basically secular humanism, a ‘faith’ that led to a faith without reference to the specific God of Christian confession. Secular humanism led people to stop talking about received truth from previous generations and emphasized that students should “construct their own meanings.” Poplin said that when this filtered down to teacher training, the language being used was helping students become more “creative.”
So when this view of constructing meaning was combined with Piaget and Vygotsky’s research on structuralism, it led to the belief that kids will discover their own truth in small group settings. Structuralism “presumed that all human beings all around the world had particular cognitive structures that needed to be developed, and they were best developed through experiences,” said Dr. Poplin. On this, Piaget and Vygotsky’s research was good: it was done on real children, and depended on how much instruction a child had, their interest level, and their developmental level. But the key was this: they still used explicit instruction.
But later learning research was done on adults. Adults are good at learning through questions in small groups because they have background knowledge. But kids don’t have that, which is why constructivism is failing, especially for our poorest students. Constructivism is a good learning theory for those with background knowledge, but it’s poor teacher pedagogy for children, especially those who don’t grow up with parents who are highly educated.
Poplin said, “The children in Claremont, a university town, already read before they get to school. They’ve already watched the Discovery Channel and the History Channel. They talk with their parents who are university professors. That is not happening in South Central. They have a completely different kind of knowledge, but it’s not academic and it’s not going to help them get to college.”
Those who lose out the most in constructivist settings are not wealthy kids that come from educationally rich homes. It’s poor kids who need foundational knowledge to succeed.
“So kids would say two major things about their teachers. We said, ‘Why do you think this teacher’s so good?’ The number one thing was because they’re strict. And then they gave a reason: ‘They’re strict because they want us to go to college. They’re strict for a good reason. They’re strict because they believe in us.'”
“[One teacher] would say ‘I want you to remember that I’m here to teach you. And I don’t want you to struggle. If you find yourself at your desk struggling, you need to hold up your hand and I will come to help you…’ And he’d be working with one child at a desk and see a hand go up, and he’d say, “Mr Manzel [his student], I see your hand. I’m on my way — I’ve got you covered.”
Dr. Poplin’s research on highly effective teachers in low-income schools reveals that the best teachers are strict and are excellent at direct instruction. When giving instruction, they are masters at walking around the class and involving the students in discussion. “If I became a principal of a school that was in trouble tomorrow, the one thing I would have every teacher do is walk around the room when they give an assignment,” said Dr. Poplin.
Several of the highly effective teachers shared their teaching strategy: “I go to a medium kid, or even a medium-low kid first, and I see if he got it. If he didn’t get it, I know I haven’t taught it. So I stop the whole activity and I start again, maybe even the next day.” Because these teachers are in constant contact with students, these teachers know who is and who is not learning. Kids also don’t silently struggle; their teachers are there to help them understand a concept until they don’t struggle anymore.
Also, Dr. Poplin learned that highly effective teachers were uniquely determined people who believed in their student’s ability to achieve. “If you could put everything we learned about them [highly effective teachers] into four sentences, it would be this: ‘Every child in my room is underperforming based on what I see their potential to be. They’ve been allowed to do that because they’re in this school. It’s my job to turn this around, even if it’s only for a year. I want to do it, and I’m going to do it.’”
These teachers were determined people, who valued discipline, direct instruction, and who saw their students had unrealized potential. Poplin recounts, “These teachers would say, ‘I know this is hard work, but I know you can do it. And I’m going to help you until you can do it.’” That belief in students allowed them to bloom.
“I think if you also teach other religions honestly, that’s how you can [teach Christianity]. [Teachers can say] I’m gonna teach you what each of these believes, and what evidence they show for it…You’re trying to honestly present these things, including what orthodox Christians believe and why they believe it.”
Can you really teach students about Christian faith without either losing your job or getting a boatload of parent phone calls? This was my honest question. Yes, says Dr. Poplin. But it matters how you present the information. It also matters that you give fair say-so to other religions without mish-mashing all religions together in a secular assumption that says all religions are the same (the way Oprah does it).
In California, it’s required to teach students about religion, and in many public school districts, teaching religious literacy is central to being an informed, American citizen.
Teaching that Hinduism believes in a pantheon of gods and the wheel of karma; that Muslims believe submission to the will of Allah through his Prophet Mohammed is only path to God; and that Christians believe Jesus is resurrected from the dead and offers salvation as a free gift of grace to all who believe - these can and should be taught in classrooms as important subjects in world history, sociology and philosophy.
However you approach teaching about religion, don’t avoid it. Asking questions of ultimate meaning are important to helping students develop, learn and grow.
Will kids be tempted to follow other religions? Maybe. But in Dr. Poplin’s words, “I personally believe truth wins.”
Jeff Haanen is a writer and entrepreneur. He founded Denver Institute for Faith & Work, a community of conveners, teachers and learners offering experiences and educational resources on the gospel, work, and community renewal. He is the author of An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life and an upcoming two-book series on spiritual formation, vocation, and the working class for Intervarsity Press. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Denver and attends Wellspring Church in Englewood, Colorado.