Date: May 14, 2019
The Craft of Christian Teaching by Van Dyk

The Craft of Christian Teaching (2000) by Van Dyk provides many religious pedagogical insights. It is a highly informative book that inspires to think of the very process and goals of teaching in a genuinely Christian way. The author is a well-recognized researcher and professor of Sioux Center Dordt College in Pella, Iowa. He lends a lot of rich personal experience to this project. To a large extent, the subject matter is not merely systematically reviewed. It is explored by Van Dyk. Discussed training and literature programs involve various information related to the very philosophy of Christian education, its multiple aspects, and the resulting curriculum. However, little discussion has taken place concerning the specific instructional methods and techniques that are most appropriate in Christian classrooms. Of course, there is a wide range of theories available in the world of secular scholarship. Many Christian teachers simply choose from a cafeteria of instructional models based on their philosophical leanings. Others choose simply based on their personal comfort level with one paradigm or the other. In this book, Van Dyk argues that, for true Christian teaching to take place, the entire process must be infused with biblical principles. Teaching strategies are not neutral with respect to the development of the Christian character. Appropriately, Van Dyk begins with a discussion of what it means to teach “Christianly.” He concedes to a wide variety of different conceptions of Christian teaching. For some, it is simply the insertion of a devotional element or the modeling of Christian behavior. For others, it involves evangelizing students or imprinting the biblical truth. Still many see it as simply the upholding of high standards in both academics and behavior.

One could claim that The Craft of Christian Teaching is not likely to contribute to the strictly academic, theoretical aspect of secular education. However, it has the capacity to expand the thought of Christian education. Moreover, the people of the US have a long-reaching demand for the most diverse means of religious teaching. The book naturally fits into the rich national tradition of co-existence of religious and secular education. It is particularly good for the creative models of Christian teaching and classroom. In defending the mentioned statements, it would be useful to review the framework of religious pedagogy in the United States schools and study the collaborative instruction classroom model suggested by the author, comparing it to the secular version. It would also be reasonable to evaluate Van Dyk’s understanding of the Christian teaching model, as well as analyze the author’s Christ-centered classroom.

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Religious Pedagogy in the United States Schools

Van Dyk wrote his book in the spirit of private educational institutions in North America. The author spends a great deal of time in schools as a teacher, observer, and consultant. The tone of The Craft of Christian Teaching is, therefore, explicitly related to the one of Christian private schools. However, the proposed Christian approach to teaching and learning can be useful in a broader perspective of religious education. To this end, it is worth considering the existing elements of religious pedagogy in the US.

According to Wald and Calhoun-Brown (2014), a structural and meaningful religious component, in one way or another, is part of a teaching process in all the schools in the United States, both public and private. On the one hand, it is contained in the independent religious courses, as well as in the form of programs, classes, and techniques aimed at the development of moral values, identified as absolute and religious (e.g., the value of human life and dignity, honesty, mutual respect, etc.). Moreover, this same concept is represented in the form of extracurricular and religious activities (worship, doctrinal, etc.). Finally, religious component is manifested in a constant presence of the religious worldview elements, its culture, and religious experience in all school disciplines, both humanitarian and natural sciences.

At the same time, religious worldview is a distinctive feature of the so-called “Bible belt” states, including Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia, Maryland, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, and, historically, of the family structure and the school system itself. Particularly, a Christian way of life was formed, fixed, and maintained here to a greater extent than in the coasts of the United States. However, the latter areas, being a subject of political and cultural tribulations, in fact, offer more religious courses and classes to their students. On the contrary, school and extracurricular life in the Bible belt region are permeated and filled with prayer and doctrinal elements.

The states of East and West coasts and the Midwest are famous for their most liberal views, as well as moral and ethical standards. On the other hand, they are subject to the greatest degree of government agencies and public authorities intervention in the life of local communities. The religious life of these regions is more strictly isolated and is denoted by the formal boundaries of the relevant laws, rules, and regulations governing the form and content of religious education in local schools. The relative homogeneity of the country’s economic conditions, in conjunction with the traditional mobility of most Americans, provides families with the freedom of choice. They can pick a school with an appropriate ratio of the religious and secular constituents, which can meet their needs and by which they want to educate their younger children.

Furthermore, the same amount of circumstances and conditions enables schools, their teaching staff, and administration, to find, develop, and adopt unique creative pedagogical solutions to this complex issue. Each school and district, as well as every State’s Educational Department,  is faced with this problem. In cases when a school, for any reason, fails to meet parental expectations and requirements on this issue, there is a possibility of implementing alternative forms of schooling, in which a measure of the religious component’s presence meets the expectations in full.

There have been many controversial debates among American scientists related to the inclusion of the religious factor in the process of secular schooling. On top of them is the analysis of the American experience respectful of religious knowledge in the content and forms of the US school work. They provide grounds to assert that the religious element is taught in terms of the spiritual and informative presentation and explanation of the facts of the human life, as well as the use of permitted religious practices at schools. The attitude evolution of the American policy-makers on the allowance of a religious component in a secular school education in the US is historically represented by the competition of religious and materialistic values (the middle of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries), their mutual exclusion (20th century) and complementarity (the 16th - early 19th centuries., and the 21st century respectively).

Therefore, the development of students' understanding and acceptance of different forms of the worldview perspective is promoted by the introduction of a religious aspect in the form of education programs with spiritual and ideological meaning to the content of secular school education in the US (along with a scientific approach). It is also enhanced by the enrichment of the religious knowledge of certain subject matters (such as history, literature, and art), as well as the study of religion as a separate class. Instilling in students the concept of human solidarity and the need to develop cultural dialogue also contributes to the presence of a religious component in secular education in the United States. It is carried out by the means of the practice of familiarizing students with the religious theory and experience through engaging them in various kinds of social activities.

The religious ingredient further complements the natural scientific approach in school education in the United States in two main ways. Based on the content, it incorporates the elements of the religious comprehension of the material world. At the same time, based on the organization, it is manifested through the existence of elements of religious practice permitted by the law, including those carried out by religious institutions or their staff in the school facilities and beyond. It is obvious that in this case, the religious component acts either as a subject matter or as an aspect of the study of natural and social phenomena or in a consolidation of the two approaches.

Finally, the presence of the religious element in secular schools in the US is represented by the diversity of approaches, revealing the following trends in its implementation. They include overcoming the orientation to the allocation of the religious aspect in a separate area of education and integrated application of familiarizing students to the spiritual experience of mankind. The latter incorporates a religious aspect to the composition of different subjects, expands the network of private, charter schools and homeschooling forms, and allows for wider use of the religious constituent in education.

In connection with the fundamental diversity of the described approaches, it is no accident that the religious principle is present in secular schools to a different extent, content, and degree. It varies from the religious-ideological elements to specific courses. In addition, it ranges from religious teachings based on the different ideological positions to offering students a choice of studying one or more religions. To this end, one could claim that The Craft of Christian Teaching can contribute to the rich, multifaceted social framework of the tradition of religious education in the US. It is long reaching, multilayered, and has the capacity to address the needs of students, families, schools, and local governments. Moreover, in the 21st century, further development of Christian education is likely to be perceived as complementary to secular values.

Collaborative Instruction Classroom Model

There is no argument when it comes to teaching. There is a number of different ways and teaching strategies educators use to fully engage with learners in their classrooms. Each and every teaching style across the nation is heavily influenced by two elements. The first is the teachers’ and associates’ worldview, which in this case is a Christian perception of the world. And the second is the national curriculum which dictates what they need to be teaching. The Craft of Christian Teaching looks into the first element of these two, in teacher’s worldview and how an educator, especially fresh out of a university, can teach any subject Christ and Christian values at the base of all subject areas and teaching practices.

The book looks at and critically examines the deficiencies and shortcomings of not only the state-implemented teaching system but also the commonly accepted ideologies that make up the Christian teaching manuals within the schools today. In his texts, Van Dyk poses that there is no alternative form of pedagogy available other than those that are commonly seen in the education system. The text outlines a number of key points including certain obstacles that stand in the way of Christian pedagogical approach of teaching in schools. It also details practical ways to ensure that teachers learn how to combat these impediments and presents them with ideas about how to address each of these potential setbacks in a classroom environment. Van Dyk presents the solution that suggests that the teachers, especially the young adults, are the most efficient and obtain the best learning outcome and results from students when they replicate the teaching styles of Christ. They are encouraged to do so through the means of collaborative instruction model.

The basic ideas of collaborative instruction learning technologies have been long developed. They were first discovered by the secondary school teachers and experts from Goldsmith's College, the University of London in the UK back in the mid-1960s. Later, in the 1980s, technology attracted teachers from other countries, including the US. This was not least due to the fact that it is well integrated with other methods such as with the case of distant learning (which is now very popular). The models of collaborative education were proposed by Mason and tested by the biologist Abercrombie, in 1964, in the context of training medical students. The results of 10 years of studies indicated that the latter was more effective in making a diagnosis when working in a group with other students rather than individually.

Collaborative instruction is an approach to learning and teaching with the underlying idea of students gathering in groups to jointly solve certain problems and to reach the desired outcome. The model is based on the assumption that education is a naturally social act, during which the participants interact with each other. The teaching takes place in the midst of the communication process. According to Panitz, cooperative learning is a philosophy rather than a set of teaching techniques and methods. All real-life situations, where people have to work in a team, involve some kind of relationship and interaction between individuals, revealing their human nature, quality, the contribution of each individual to the common cause, etc. The very premise of collaborative learning is based on the cooperation of the group members in contrast to the individual competition, whereby a person as opposed to the other members of the group. One can apply the ideology of cooperative learning in a classroom, business meeting, and gathering, a public meeting of a committee, council, or family simply as a way to interact with other community members. The founders of this approach tied together with the three main ideas, such as working in a team, inter-evaluation, and training in small groups.

It should be noted that the introduction of this approach had no significant impact on the quality of students' knowledge. Nonetheless, it strongly influenced the social context of the learning environment. During collaborative instruction, collective study group became the main force affecting the learning process, which was practically impossible by the means of traditional teaching. There are various epitomes of collaborative learning. However, they are all tied by a set of specific attributes: studying is an active process in which students assimilate data and transform it into new knowledge, relating it to the system of what was previously known. Learning assumes a certain challenge that opens the door to active cooperation with the partners, as well as the process of synthesis of information, as opposed to its mechanical memorization and reproduction. Student gets much more in a situation where there is an opportunity to consider several points of view of people with different world outlooks. The teaching efficiency flourishes in an environment where students talk to each other. During this intellectual gymnastics, students create a system of reasoning and argumentation. In the process of collaborative learning, individuals are strained emotionally and socially from the moment when they are introduced to different perspectives on a problem. They need to articulate and defend their point of view. Through this, students begin to create a unique conceptual framework instead of relying solely on the expert opinion or a textbook.

Therefore, the environment of cooperation provides students with an opportunity to talk with each other and exchange ideas. They argue and defend their opinions, share dissimilar beliefs, and make inquiries about the point of views other than their own. In short, they are actively involved in the learning process. Collaborative instruction can be easily integrated into the classroom system in several ways. Some of them require careful preparation (e.g., long-term projects carried out by students), while others can be used with little or no training (for example, the inclusion of group-solving tasks during a lecture or an offer to discuss the views with the neighboring person). MacGregor and Smith argued that the transition to training in collaborative forms does not actually call to disregard such educational activities as lecturing, note-taking, and listening to the teacher. They continue to play a role in students' discussions and other forms of active learning. Given all of the methods and amounts of substituted lectures, the ultimate goal remains the same: to move the process from teacher-centered learning to a student-oriented one.

Taking into account the foregoing, Van Dyk’s model for collaborative instruction comprises of several main elements. They include having a personal relationship with Christ, creating an environment where students are felt loved and unconstrained, fully recognizing that students have individual and God-given gifts, and using teaching techniques embracing these gifts. This will entail, should the students engage in collaborative work, they will recognize a need for each other and their specific skills and qualities and, therefore, will seek the best in one another in a classroom as opposed to the current education system that promotes students going up against each other. However, in the case of excluding the Christian component out of this model, one could argue that there was nothing substantially new developed by the author in terms of education.

Christian Teaching Model

Van Dyk posits that these are incomplete conceptions of what it means to teach in “a Christian way.” True Christian teaching is the imitation of Jesus, the Master Teacher. This definition requires some development, and Van Dyk does just that. It is evident from the record of Jesus’ words, that he was chiefly concerned with revealing the “Kingdom of Heaven.” This kingdom operates in a different economy and has social norms that are different from the kingdom everyone is used to. In fact, in many respects, the principles of this heavenly kingdom seem counter-intuitive to those born in a sinful world. God’s Kingdom, while very real, is obscured in a sinful world. Van Dyk says that it is the task of a Christian teacher, in all aspects of the classroom work, to unveil the “Kingdom of Heaven” for the students.

The Kingdom becomes visible through caring relationships between you, as a teacher, and students, as well as between the students themselves. When Marci has a bad day and can’t concentrate on the multiplication of fractions, the Kingdom becomes visible through encouraging her with patience, persistence, and understanding. The Kingdom of peace becomes visible in a social studies class as you observe how Julia, without prompting, quietly supports Jeffrey’s attempts to write the outline you have assigned.

Van Dyk’s formal overarching goal of Christian education is to “lead your students into knowledgeable and competent discipleship”. He defines discipleship as hearing and doing the will of God. “Hearing” involves the experience of God’s presence in one’s life. “Doing” is the acting out of the principles of the Kingdom of Heaven through “loving servanthood.”

The question still remains about what teaching strategies will foster knowledgeable and competent discipleship in students. In what, at times, seems to be a rather long but ultimately rewarding drum-roll to his stated intention of discussing specific strategies, Van Dyk establishes two metaphors for a Christian teacher. The first is the Craftsperson. A craftsperson practices the craft using universally accepted principles that all craftsmen of this kind would use. However, a craftsman also puts a personal stamp on the product without violating the universal aspects of one’s craft. Teaching is like this. There are principles of instruction whose effectiveness are verified by multiple researches and biblical truth. There is also room for the teacher to devote his/her own personality, talents, and intuition to the process.

The second metaphor is the Guide. The teacher knows the destination and the terrain that must be traversed but he/she is a fellow traveler journeying with the students, noticing the landmarks along the way, sometimes taking unexpected detours but never losing sight of the destination. There is a sense of adventure. Students are given a feeling that they are journeyed with rather than preached to. The teacher’s guidance is in the business of “unfolding” the terrain. The question is what should be unfolded. Naturally, in order to be knowledgeable and competent disciples, students need to know and understand facts about the world, as well as the people who populate it. Van Dyk says that a Christian teacher provides context and perspective for this knowledge. He/she helps the students see knowledge in light of the destination. The more the disciple learns, the more that person can identify the degree to which a sin has distorted creation from its intended state and, therefore, see the need for redemption.

Van Dyk’s Christ-Centered Classroom

Having established this philosophical foundation for the concept of teaching Christianly, Van Dyk turns his attention to the kind of classroom which will foster the development of discipleship in students. He examines and rejects the “individualistic classroom,” the “competitive classroom,” and the “simply group work classroom.” These either promote individualism or destroy the community. Discipleship involves servanthood which requires one to put others before one’s self. This can only be done in the context of the community. Therefore, Van Dyk asserts that Christian teaching, in its fullest sense, occurs in a collaborative classroom. That is a classroom where one student’s learning is related to other student’s learning. To a certain degree, students are responsible for each other. The classroom operates as a caring, supportive community. Classmates learn to value each other’s talents and use each other as resources. Discipleship skills such as “listening to each other, encouraging each other, helping each other, deeming the classmate higher than one’s self” are fostered in the above-described environment. In short, “the collaborative classroom exhibits the Body of Christ. Teacher and students form a community that visibly belongs to the Lord, eager to serve as his disciples”.

Having firmly established a collaborative classroom as the ideal vehicle for the development of discipleship in students, Van Dyk turns to the specific instructional techniques that represent the building blocks of this type of classroom structure. He states from the outset that it would be misguided to emphasize one instructional technique to the exclusion of all others. In fact, neither method should be used only by itself more than 60% of the time. Further, a distinction is made between a “direct” and “indirect” teaching. Direct teaching involves the transmission of information from the teacher to the student with little participation from the latter. Teachers employ such strategies as explaining, describing, demonstrating, and assigning. Students receive information from the teacher, textbook, videos, and assignments, but little interaction takes place with either the teacher or the content. “Indirect” instruction emphasizes inquiry and discovery. The objective is not only to master the information but to use it in order to draw conclusions and make generalizations. Van Dyk points out that the observer can often tell which approach a teacher is using by the kind of questions he/she asks the students. The teacher who favors a direct instruction method will use “convergent” questions because the assumption is that there is one right answer, and the students who have mastered the material will know it. Questioning in an indirect manner will be more divergent. That is, questions will provoke critical thinking with a multiplicity of correct answers.

Predictably, Van Dyk asserts that, in a collaborative, Christ-centered classroom, teachers should use an indirect instruction approach because of its potential to build a stronger community and because it encourages the development of critical thinking. He does not, however, call for the rejection of the “direct” instruction. It would be impossible to run a classroom without a certain amount of lecturing, drills, and mastery exercises. Nevertheless, the goal of a Christian classroom should be to ask difficult questions about how information can be used to become better disciples and build a Christ-centered community.

Van Dyk discusses various “indirect” instructional methods ranging from the participatory discussion, cooperative learning, shared praxis, and jigsaw strategies. These strategies are all enlisted in the pursuit of the ultimate goals of discipleship and a loving community. The author’s analyses of these techniques are very practical and helpful. Finally, Van Dyk addresses the danger that, in a collaborative classroom, so much emphasis will be placed on the community that the individual will become lost. One can avoid this pitfall by recognizing both the needs and natural gifts of students. There should be a diversity of concurrent tasks to allow students to choose learning activities that best fit their learning style. In this way, each valued member of the community will be able to bring his/her unique contribution to the table.

 

 

In this book, Van Dyk discusses instructional techniques that have been bandied about in educational circles for years. There is no new theory introduced in the book. Collaborative instruction is practiced in many public schools. There is no doubt an unfaithful reader will find little that is new or interesting here. However, for a Christian teacher, for the kingdom-minded pilgrim, for the one who yearns to be a disciple of Jesus, there is much to ponder. In addition, one may wonder whether the instructional technique has anything to do with authentic Christian education. Van Dyk makes a very strong case that it does. If discipleship is truly developed only in the community, then teachers should strive to make their classrooms more collaborative and Christ-centered.

Furthermore, Van Dyk's book has the capacity to fit into the rich tradition of incorporating the religious element into American public and private schools. It is particularly important considering the current state of the evolution of the policy-makers attitudes towards the interrelation between the secular and religious constituents of education. They are likely to be seen as complementing each other in the 21st century's America. Moreover, the book can expand the school's practice through the means of implementing the various reviewed direct and “indirect” instructional methods of a Christ-centered classroom. The strategies of participatory discussion, cooperative learning, shared praxis, and jigsaw strategies, on the one hand, and explaining, describing, demonstrating, and assigning, on the other, can be very helpful in facilitating students' discipleship. In addition, the author seems to have discovered the means to achieve the proper balance between the individual and community elements of the class.

Although the proposed collaborative model lacks the substance to enhance the existing secular educational practices, it must be noted that developing it in such direction was not Van Dyk's intent. His method is essentially focused on religious teachings. He eloquently argued that it would be very useful for a Christian classroom to employ as many biblical principles as possible to fully deliver the Scriptures' message. By no means should the process and learning strategies remain neutral in nature. Moreover, the schoolmasters are encouraged to actively replicate the teaching styles of Christ. The application of the collaborative model is seen as majorly contributing to this task. From the laid out perspective above, Van Dyk's book can be viewed as a broader attempt of re-establishing, re-integrating, and revising the elements of the genuine antique traditions of Christendom in terms of education.

For all that there is to appreciate about this book, it sadly lacks any substantive discussion of academic evaluation in a Christian classroom. Granted, this is not a book on educational evaluation. However, the question of how a teacher can enhance the community while still holding students accountable for learning through evaluation is unavoidable. Van Dyk would have done even better if he would dedicate a chapter to this topic. Christian teachers will be inspired by the author’s idea of God’s Kingdom becoming visible in classrooms. They will be challenged to decompartmentalize their view of where Jesus fits into their curriculum and instruction. They will be given a blueprint for the discipleship training in their classroom. All things considered, The Craft of Christian Teaching is a valuable contribution to the development of Christian education.