Theology and Methodology in Education

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

I realize that in our discussion of education I have largely been staying on the theoretical plane, but I am also a homeschooling mom and I know that on Monday morning you need to know what to do with your children/students. All this stuff about the nature of man and what it means to know — what does all this have to do with actually educating our kids? The answer is – quite a lot. Theology is not separate from methodology. Or, to put it the other way, our methodology says a lot about what we believe.

In his book A Reformed Christian Perspective on Education (Grand Rapid: ChapBooks Press, 2011) Donald Oppewal argues just this point. He says that “a teaching methodology is no more philosophically neutral than an epistemology” (p. 147) [1]. We must therefore be careful what methods we use:

“The adoption of a classroom methodology proposed by others, whether it arises out of Platonic idealism, Deweyan pragmatism, or realism, is fraught with the danger of inviting the Trojan horse into the City of God.” (p. 147)

Take, for instance, the Socratic method, otherwise known as dialectic. This using of questions and answers as a process to uncover knowledge is the hallmark of classical Greek education (for a fuller explanation of classical classical education, as opposed to its modern reincarnation, see this post). This methodology rests on a belief: that knowledge has been planted within man by the divine and that the goal of education is to discover knowledge within ourselves. The question and answer technique is designed to do just this, to help the learner find the knowledge that is within him. The problem with this, from a Christian perspective, is that knowledge does not reside within us. All wisdom and knowledge belong to God. They are external to us.

Since the late 1800s, much of public education has been dominated by the ideas of John Dewey, known as pragmatism.  Dewey was heavily influenced by evolutionary ideas. His philosophy is materialistic, denying the existence of the spiritual. His methodology reflects this. Very simply put, just as the theory of evolution says that creatures have changed and adapted in response to forces in their environment, so too Dewey’s approach to education says that students must be confronted with conflicts and resolve them in order to learn and advance.

Oppewal offers his own methodolgy which he calls the discovery method (see this earlier post) which “requires active participation of the learner. He or she is not simply accepting, but constructing explanations for what they see. They are respected as a participant in finding, and not simply treated as a receiver of, knowledge” (p. 220). The theological principles behind his method Oppewal identifies as “the doctrine of the image of God, the priesthood of the individual believer, and the cultural mandate” (p. 220).

There is a lot here I like. In terms of specific applications, I would go a different way, but Oppewal is right on target with the idea that we need to construct a methodology that recognizes the unique personhood of the child and his standing before his God. The Bible teaches that children are fully human persons. While they need education (or we wouldn’t be here having this discussion), we need an approach to eduaction which recognizes: 1) that each children is a complete person, unified and yet composed of rational, emotional, physical, and spiritual elements; 2) that each is a unique person created by God; 3) that the child is a fallen creature; and 4) that he has a standing before God; that he is both able to sin and to be saved.

Practically speaking, this means a few things —

Children are not vessels to be filled, lumps of clay to be molded, or plants to be coddled in a hot-house. It is not us that shapes and trains them but God and we need to be very careful not to overstep our proper boundaries by manipulating the child, playing upon his feelings and desire for acceptance, etc.  This is an idea which Charlotte Mason made much of, and, while I disagree with her theology, I think on methodology she has a lot to contribute.

Contrary to the belief of Rousseau and of the modern unschooling movement, children are not inherently good. They will not gravitate towards what is best for them so we do need to exercise some oversight and to teach them discernment. There is a place for the teacher to determine a suitable curriculum.

We believe in absolute truth which exists outside of us. But we also believe in the uniqueness of each person. We need to recognize that not every child needs to or is going to learn the same things. Related to this is the idea that the child has his own relationship with his Creator. God works in the lives of each one and we need to allow Him to do so. Because the Holy Spirit is the giver of wisdom, we will not be able to control outcomes and we need to be willing to allow Him to work  — or not work — as He wills. Again, I think Charlotte Mason was on the right track in how she balanced the common core of a curriculum versus the unique abilities and personality of each student. See this earlier post.

While I personally have defined education as the transforming of the mind, this is not meant to operate in isolation from the other aspects of the person because we are not separable into mind versus heart versus body versus spirit but all parts work together. Balancing all of these in a school environment which doesn’t also usurp the ultimate authority of the parents over their child’s training is very, very hard to do. I think this is actually one good argument for homeschooling. How this principle of unity in the person plays out practically speaking for education is something I am still mulling over. I am not convinced, as some are, that there must always be a physical action to accompany the intellectual work of learning, but we do need to be aware that the child needs transformation in all aspects of his being and that to address one area and neglect the others will lead to a kind of warping.

That the child has a standing before his God also means that he needs to be able to interact directly with the things of God. It is these things — God’s general revelation — which we place before the child when we educate him. I agree with Oppewal that the child needs to be able to actively participate. I am not sure that agree with him on what this participation looks like. “Actively,” again, does not need to mean there is a physical action involved, creating a diorama or doing a service project for instance. Instead it is intellectual activity we seek. Once more I return to Charlotte Mason — she believed that students need to digest material for themselves. Worksheets, fill-in-the-blanks, short answer questions all ask for regurgitation of material. Narration is a process which requires the student to process the material for himself. He does not merely extract facts pre-determined by the teacher but his mind is actively involved in understanding the material, selecting and extracting relevant information, making connections, putting his thoughts into words, and so on.

This has been an introduction to how we begin to construct a methodology and I realize it has been somewhat scattered. I’d like to return in the not to distant future to fleshing out a methodology that fits our reformed theology.


[1] Epistemology is the field which answers questions about knowing, i.e. what is knowledge and how do we know something. See this earlier post, also on Oppewal.

2 responses to this post.

  1. […] « Theology and Methodology in Education […]


  2. […] I am going to offer my modest proposal as a series of bullet points which I hope work together to gradually build up a philosophy of education founded on Reformed Christian principles. As I said, I have been working on this series for two years (and there were years of preliminary study behind that). What follows is a summary of what I have read and gleaned. While there is some logical sequence, the numbers are given mainly to aid in discussion. [Unfortunately, WordPress does not seem to allow me to use a continuing sequence of numbers; if you look at the Google Doc version of this proposal (link below), you will see that it is actually a 100-point plan.] Behind all this is the belief I started with, that any philosophy of education, as it makes assumptions about the nature of man and about his ends, is an inherently theological enterprise (see here, here, and here).  […]


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