Christ in the Classroom

Every now and again, I reflect on teaching and the relevance of the methods used by Jesus. Even without the miracles and the content of the message, some of Jesus’ pedagogical principles continue to stand out. Here is my list.

Integrate the topic with your students’ lives. Jesus used many agricultural, marine, and even food analogies, but he also routinely incorporated other images from his interlocutors’ experience-from cleaning the house to dealing with tax collectors. Sometimes he incorporated their own words and questions, as when he used water to explain his mission to the woman at the well in Samaria. Teachers today would do well to tap into images and metaphors deriving from their students’ lives. Some of the most important of them come from the worlds of entertainment and sports-and the newest means of communication.

Reach out to students, especially those who are disenfranchised. Jesus lived under conditions similar to those of the people he wished to instruct. Even though he often taught in the temple, he distanced himself from the established leaders and teachers. He was more at home in the byways of Galilee, and resided with the common folk, eating the same food they ate. He was conscious that he had come to save sinners, social outcasts, and the poor. In contrast, most teachers today rarely interact with their students outside the classroom, let alone with students’ families. This lack of connection is a loss for everyone.

Critical thinking requires understanding and action, not just following the rules. Jesus’ emphasis on critical thinking is apparent over and over in the Gospels. For example, he often distinguished between laws and their purpose. When challenged about healing on the Sabbath, he pointed to the law’s higher purpose: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm,” he asked, “to save life or destroy it?” At other times, critical thinking means not judging by appearances alone. Having pointed out the primacy of the love of God and the love of neighbor, Jesus answered the question “Who is my neighbor?” with his famous story of the Samaritan on the way to Jericho. Critical thinking also means that consequences will follow.

Today, critical thinking is often identified with deconstructing someone’s words, position, or argument. For Jesus, critical thinking meant recognizing the carryover from reflection to action. Perhaps the dominant characteristic of his teaching is that judgment requires action. His invitation to “Come, follow me” implies making a radical change. Our current educational models value new knowledge and analysis, but often they shortchange the development of new skills and attitudes that lead to radical change.

Respect the opinions, decisions, and actions of others. This is another fascinating dimension of Christ’s pedagogy. Again and again, he engaged people directly, even those who differed with him-not to mention his enemies. He did so by making his case with an argument, not simply by denigrating or chastising others or their views. His language was often strong, but it always included some argument to support his case.

Human rationality is a potentially powerful, empowering force. A student who feels that the teacher listens and respects his or her ideas is more likely to listen and respect the teacher. Even the most hostile students should be listened to with respect, and never written off.

Rewards and punishments matter. I have always been uncomfortable with the importance of rewards and punishments in Jesus’ teaching. But that has made me think more about their place in my own teaching. Certainly teachers use exams and grades to motivate students. But Jesus moved this process to a higher level. He linked the content of his teaching to the major decisions people make in their lives, and coupled this to important, long-term consequences. Moreover, he pointed out that decisions have ramifications, not just for the individuals in question but for society, civilization, even the history of salvation. When teachers fail to help their students see such connections, everyone loses. Education that stresses only short-term, personal gains fails to meet the larger educational challenge. Less deconstruction and more construction is needed on all sides.

Published in the 2007-04-06 issue: 

J. Paul Martin is the executive director of the Center for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University.

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