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The Creator’s Canvas: How should Christian science teachers approach controversial issues?

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June 10, 2014 Tags: Christian Unity, Creation & Origins, Education, Science as Christian Calling
The Creator’s Canvas: How should Christian science teachers approach controversial issues?
Photo credit: strngwrldfrwl from Japan (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Today's entry was written by Jeffrey Mays. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Science education, like the scientific enterprise itself, is an eminently Christian activity. Theologians for centuries have acknowledged the “two books” of God’s revelation: the book of God’s word and the book of God’s works. To study God’s works is to place yourself before a non-verbal form of God’s communication to humankind. A Christian scientist is, in some ways, like a museum-goer or art historian. The work of science and science education is to study and admire the artistic expression upon the Creator’s canvas which is the cosmos. What is the artist trying to communicate?

One could therefore easily make the case that the faithful student of God’s works honors God and seeks to know him with the same virtue and validity as the student of the book of God’s word. What a strange, bright light this casts upon the fact that science has been the battleground of warring forces for so long. What should be acknowledged as a holy vocation is as much the occasion of denunciation and vitriol as any ecclesiastical or theological controversy.

Like the children of soldiers engaged in the battle, students trying to learn science can suffer the effects of the war going on around them. In many cases, they are taught from an early age to suspect the opposing side of treachery, irrationality and impiety. In the worst cases, science education devolves into as much an polemic against science as a study of the wonder of God’s works.

The good news, and the hope for a way forward, is the fact that deep down inside, the guileless and open-hearted constituents from both sides want the same thing, that is, good science, true knowledge, accurate learning, and intelligent students. Both sides believe this is what they are striving for. It seems helpful to speak of “sides” because of the polarization that persists, and because it creates mental space for the idea of a “third side” or middle way, a voice that stands between the extremes of secular versus faith or works versus word. The best Christian stance is this middle way that does not force a choice between word and works, but sees the two as God’s grace in speaking to humans so abundantly and diversely. It sees science in the same way a biblical scholar sees the field of hermeneutics: a method for engaging with God’s revelation.

A true Christian perspective takes the tenet that God created the world and declared it good, and deduces from that the creation speaks truly. And it speaks about a variety of things: it speaks about history, about the properties of substances which God created. Creation speaks accurately and believably about processes in nature and offers us ways to utilize nature. Creation submits itself to mathematical characterization in a way that is unexpected and amazing. But it also can speak accurately about the Creator himself, his glory, and his attributes, as Psalm 19 and Romans 1:20 teach.

How then should a Christian science teacher approach the administration of her class? It is not enough to memorize the names of muscles and bones, parts of the cell, universal constants and formulae. Nor is it sufficient to study only those topics that steer clear of controversy. A faithful science course will endeavor to bring students into the conversation. It will strive to nurture wise disciples of Christ who can speak to the issues. It seems to make great sense that where the entrenched forces of the warring sides cannot make progress, fresh perspectives of the faithful young men and women educated to reason and dialog may be the best hope for not merely a détente but an exciting future in which Christians are able to admit their own short-sightedness of the past, as they slowly did after Galileo, and engage with the God-honoring enterprise of delving into the seemingly bottomless wonders of his creation.

A number of issues stir up strong feelings in science education—climate change, the age of the earth and all that goes with it (plate tectonics, dinosaurs, radiometric dating), ecology. Evolution, however, is the undisputed hottest topic of the unfortunate and unnecessary science/faith debate. But again, if Christians understand that they have nothing to fear from the study of the world because God made it and it speaks truly, then what we find in genetics or anthropology or paleontology is not dangerous; they are brushstrokes on God’s canvas for our continued study.

When the day comes in biology class that evolution is the topic of discussion, a Christian teacher should immediately begin by creating safe ground for conversation. She should announce that all questions and serious comments will be entertained with respect, and that there are no landmines waiting to blow up if a student makes a statement that seems to align him or her with a controversial opinion.

Most Christian students have a lot of questions about evolution and the other controversies, but are afraid to ask them for fear of the adults gasping in horror. The right way for a Christian teacher to proceed is to accommodate questions, foster inquiry, and encourage students to think and engage with the issues. She should teach in such a way that does not give away her own opinion, but clearly explain the details of the science with a goal to enabling students to enter the ongoing conversation thoughtfully, not merely armed with polemics.

At Novare Science and Math, we are helping educators do their work with excellence, supplying them with quality curriculum and resources, and most importantly serving students by constructing premier science and math programs. Read more about our project at novarescienceandmath.com

Jeffrey Mays is a writer and administrator with Novare Science and Math. He was an educator for several years and a pastor for four, completing an M.Div from Covenant Seminary in 1999. He is interested in finding ways to harmonize science with Christian doctrine. He is also a fiction writer and his debut novel, The Former Hero, will be released in Fall 2014 by AEC Stellar Publishing.

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David Eckstrom - #85692

June 10th 2014

As a veteran science teacher, I just wish any student would make any comment or ask question any time.  Discussion (on topic) is almost entirely absent in my school.

Kids don’t see what we are teaching in school as having any value outside the context of school.  Because of this, their primary focus in classes is to figure out what is going to be “on the test” and memorize that as quickly and accurately as possible so they can regurgitate it and then forget it. 

Asking students to interact with the concepts through discussion is like asking them to take their clothes off in front of the class.  It’s a no win for them.  If what they say is “wrong” it’s embarassing, because we’ve conditioned them to never take risks.  If what they say is “right” then they’re a know-it-all nerd.  Inquiry is dead.

Merv - #85699

June 10th 2014

I struggle with the same thing in my classes, David.  It isn’t so much that inquiry is dead at our school as that most of my high school students seem to have fairly settled convictions from their families that they bring to the usual hot-potato issues.  If I set aside some class time to have a non-threatening conversation about larger topics, I end up doing most of the talking instead of it being much of a conversation.  I know that is my fault as a teacher, and I’m still working on how to build the comfort level that helps them feel safe to speak up.  I think telling stories about historical situations where scientists (many of them Christian) faced interesting new issues for their day is a great way to invite students into such narratives and seeing implications for today.  But I’m a long ways from being successful in that with my physics and chemistry classes.

PNG - #85700

June 10th 2014

Merv, a few years ago I helped one of my nephews with a project for a science class in high school. When the date came for the projects to show their stuff, I went down and observed. The level of social tension there was amazing; it brought back what it had been like for me when I was in high school. Kids at that age have such a powerful need for the approval of their peers that it must seem like too much of a risk for them to speak up in a class, especially on a controversial subject. Maybe you could give each a Valium as they come in. Well, I guess that solution isn’t allowed to be that easy.

Merv - #85711

June 11th 2014

... yeah ... I might have some trouble getting school board approval for that.

Ted Davis - #85747

June 14th 2014

This is simply wonderful material! Thank you, Jeffrey, for your contribution to BL.

I was a high school science teacher many years ago, so I can relate to the comments about the great difficulty of getting one’s students to talk in class. To a significant degree this is still true in college (at least at Messiah), except in the honors sections where I literally can’t stop the students from talking. NOTE: If you are a high school student, pay attention—the honors students are (mainly) the ones who aren’t afraid of sticking up like nails to be hit. We need more nerds in the church. Have the guts to be one.

Leading discussions in which students actually speak is not easy, but since I now teach only humanities courses it’s essential. IMO, you just can’t teach humanities properly without significant time for students to interact with texts—and to do the most effectively on the students’ end, those texts should be print texts, not etexts. Neuroscientific research is increasingly showing that subtracting print equates to dumbing down. NOTE: If you are a high school student, go against the flow. Seek out print libraries, take time to browse the shelves, and use print books on a regular basis. What I do to prepare students for class discussion is to require them to submit written answers to real questions (not dumbed down questions) at each discussion period—they must have read the selection(s) carefully in order to earn full credit. Some students will then feel more prepared to talk, and I can call on the others and expect good answers most of the time. This activity is always worth at least as much as a unit exam and often quite a bit more, such that it’s difficult or impossible to pass one of my classes without doing it.

The rub is, for most science teachers, this is a foreign activity. You don’t learn how to do this in science labs or by solving physics problems. You need to take some tips from your colleagues in history (assuming anyone still teaches that, vis-a-vis “social studies”), English, and other topics in the humanities. I bet they have ways to motivate students to say something useful in class….

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