Category CSE Magazine
Title Integral Teaching and Learning: Christ-Centered Curriculum for the Whole Person
Author/s Michael V. Pollock
Preview This article is an invitation to what is perhaps a fresh way of approaching our teaching, life, and worship.

Seeking and applying the implications of a Christ-centered universe for the transformation of students, schools, families, and communities is the essence of integral teaching and learning. As a teacher in public schools, I witnessed the need for transcendent truth and principles that underpin facts and skills. Teaching in Christian schools led me to desire a unity of curriculum often fragmented and incomprehensible as a whole. Later, as a principal and a school founder, I was convinced that living and teaching were indivisible and that thoughtful, intentional curriculum design and instruction could open a door to heart and life changes in people and communities.

This article is an invitation to what is perhaps a fresh way of approaching our teaching, life, and worship. Yes, worship. As we design and implement school life, either we encourage people in our communities to become all that God intends them to become in responsive relationship, or we hinder them from that worshipful relationship.

"So now, since we have been made right in God's sight by faith in his promises, we can have real peace with him because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. For because of our faith, he has brought us into this place of highest privilege where we now stand, and we confi dently and joyfully look forward to actually becoming all that God has had in mind for us to be" (Romans 5:1-2, The Living Bible).

The beginning of teaching and learning integrally is an encounter with the transforming power and presence of Jesus Himself. Real wisdom and power come only at a price, the blood of Christ. We must, as Christian education communities, be intentional and direct in our presentation of the gospel, as unencumbered by cultural accoutrements as possible. Then we must follow up with discipleship across the curriculum, teaching students to obey everything that Christ commanded. Encounter is the key to ontological fulfi llment, and discipleship is the essential element to becoming like Him and becoming truly ourselves.

I have identified seven key elements as part of integral teaching and learning:

  • the existence of truth, embodied in Jesus Christ
  • the integrity of the teacher
  • an approach to each student as a whole person
  • the communal nature of learners
  • an intentional development of relationships between students, subjects, and the Author and Creator
  • the power of the imagination for engagement and motivation
  • a recognition that meaning exists in subjects in full context

The Existence of Truth, Embodied in Jesus

Since truth is an accurate reflection of the way things are in reality, we have a responsibility to our students to help them wrestle with and grasp the nature of truth and the vital questions of our day. In the realm of philosophy and epistemology, the greatest challenge I think we face is postmodern existentialism, the idea that truth is personal, subjective, and relative. We need to teach students that just as they can't construct their own truths about mathematics, they cannot simply construct their own truths about God, faith, morality, or the purpose of their lives. Jesus said that He is the truth, and in Colossians 2:3 Paul writes that all knowledge and wisdom are treasures hidden in Christ. We can construct an accurate understanding of reality only in a relationship with Jesus and the Spirit who guides us into all truth (John 16:13).

Many others have posited the view that Scripture is all true but not exhaustive truth. I believe that teaching is a matter of using all the tools available to us to help students connect to the real nature of things, using a hierarchy of authority that puts prayerful faith in Christ and through the Bible first, and then puts reason next, accompanied by the use of tools such as scientifi c inquiry. One positive result would be a much more reverent and prayerful approach to the mundane tasks of ordering our classrooms, gathering materials, constructing units and lessons, and devising teaching strategies.

The end of this discipline is that all we do and teach in the classroom would be permeated by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Our curriculum must then be grounded in a biblical worldview that sees history as His story, math as a language of the beautiful order of the universe, and science as a way to use our faculties to comprehend the magnitude of God's loving power and to steward the creation that resulted from that power. Art, languages, literature, music, geography, physical education—all have a root in what the Father intends for us as His people, and we should explore them accordingly.

The Integrity of the Teacher

Who a teacher is matters as much as what the teacher knows or can do. Certainly I am not arguing for mediocrity among Christian teachers—God forbid!—but I am making the case that character is equal to competence.

Teachers are to be models of Christlikeness. The fruit of the Spirit should be evident in our lives. Our dependence on the Father and His words to us should be complete and visible. We are fallen, redeemed, image bearers of God who seek to obey and serve our King in every possible circumstance and to teach our students to do the same. Evidence of the indwelling Spirit should characterize our lives. Donovan Graham, in the book Teaching Redemptively, adds that "teachers' self-concepts must be formed on the basis of identity and security that rest in the person and work of Christ." Where we fi nd our worth, our value, our sense of self will make a significant impact on our character in the classroom. He continues, "We are to teach with authority, to embody what we teach, and to personalize our teaching so that we adjust our interaction style to meet the needs of the learner and the demands of the situation" (2003, 143).

If we live in the grip of Yeshua of Nazareth and let Him give us our identity, security, vision, convictions, and passion, then we bring that life with us into our classrooms, and we will not fail to lead our students rightly.

Each Student as a Whole Person

It is true that we were created to have a human experience and then to have eternal life with our Creator. When we teach, it is important to keep this long view in mind every day. We balance that long view with the knowledge that our students are in the process of discovering and developing the person that they are becoming. Therefore, we should give them a full range of experiences in school to develop the body, the mind, the emotions, and the spiritual being.

As we personalize the curriculum when possible, we are recognizing that each child has varying strengths, challenges, and speeds of development; different life experiences and perspectives; different styles of learning and expressing knowledge; and unique gifts to be discovered. To personalize the curriculum, we must spend time getting to know who our students are, where they come from, what they have experienced, and what they think of themselves. In short, we must understand the condition of our students in order to craft a destination.

The Communal Nature of Learners

Parker Palmer (2007) often refers to the need to create spaces where the diffi cult work of learning can take place. Community, the relationship of people to one another, is one of the ways we create safe boundaries in which to learn. It is not enough to "get down to work" with our subjects if we want our students to learn; it is important to craft the context of that learning, and that means taking time to build a sense of relationship and caring. Allowing students to share their personal stories, praying with and for one another, highlighting and celebrating each student's strengths, recognizing and empathizing with weaknesses, sharing the joys and burdens of life, and even involving students' parents and siblings when possible bring relationships into the classroom.

Relationships Between Learner, Subject, and Creator

The purpose of learning is not to control and manipulate but to love and care for the subject and to know God more fully, to love Him more deeply, and to enjoy Him more completely. The teacher's role is to bring as much of the subject as possible before the student so that the student cares about that subject and sees the nature of God. If we take the time to see God's purposes in our subjects, we will also see where those purposes have been twisted, where we may join in the redemptive work of God. Thus it is that we should bring less to the students by way of scope, and more in the way of depth.

The Power of the Imagination

Our schools, when focused strictly on the job market or on student test scores, may share the same fate. Time and again I have seen struggling students become engaged and successful when their imaginations were stirred. Myths and legends, fantasy, poetry, music, art, adventures, big ideas, role plays, experiential scenarios, simulations, and essential or core questions can all stimulate the imagination. Fantasy is free to assert and express truths that other forms of writing cannot. A child well versed in the good-versus-evil scenarios of fantasy may deal more effectively with the "spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" that Paul speaks of in Ephesians 6:12 (NIV).

When subjects engage the imaginations of our classes, it is easier to draw even the reluctant student into the hard work of memorizing, practicing, reasoning, debating, and synthesizing—work that is essential to the learning process. And I am not referring only to the use of the mind to "think up" things but to the ability of the student to "see behind the veil" of the way things appear in the world to the way things are, the faculty for which might be termed the moral or spiritual imagination. I believe that wonder and curiosity are ever more essential in our schools today as a counter to the cynicism, materialism, and apathy in our society.

Meaning Existing in Full Context

The idea that each subject we study has a wholeness of its own and fi ts into the tapestry of a greater context is a very Christian idea. The Creator is separate from the creation, and yet all creation is woven together in a cohesive story-creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. We live in a universe, not a multiverse, yet so often our curriculum is torn up into disconnected chunks that seem to have no bearing on anything else we teach.

Excellent education seeks to approach subjects from multiple angles and perspectives so that the whole of the subject is illuminated, like looking at a diamond through each of its many facets. The goal is to fi nd the core truths at the heart of each subject. If a class were to study the rise of Islam for instance, the class could look at the political, social, religious, and geographical context of Mecca and Medina in AD 600. The class could also study the sciences and mathematics that developed in the Arabic world in the following centuries; learn the art of carpet weaving or mosaic tiling; study Islamic architecture; explore the Old Testament accounts of Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael; and discuss current events in Iraq, Iran, and Northwest China. They could learn the pillars of Islam and the postures of prayer and then compare them with Christian practice. They could raise big questions such as, Are Muslims enemies or more like cousins of modern Christians? and How might Jesus approach radical Islam? Learning to pray for Muslims and for Christians persecuted in Muslim countries and fi nding ways to reach out to serve Muslim families in the school's local area could proactively engage students in the study.

In Conclusion

It is difficult to reduce what is essentially the narrative of our learning, our growth and discovery, and—it is hoped—our redemption to a set of bullet points and a short article. Integral teaching and learning is essentially narrative; it is the rich and varied story of our lives on this planet, the part that we each play in the Great Story and in God's grace and redemption in the midst of raging spiritual warfare. It is the process of helping students discover not only the fullness of what God intends for each of them but also the transforming power of His presence to bring that intention to fruition. What greater gift can we give our students than to help them understand the world and their place in it, as we and they move toward eternal glory?


Graham, Donovan L. 2003. Teaching redemptively: Bringing grace and truth into your classroom. Colorado Springs, CO: Purposeful Design Publications.

Palmer, Parker J. 2007. The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life. 10th anniversary ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Michael V. Pollock, MEd, lives in Tianjin, China, with his wife, Kristen, and their three children. Formerly Tianjin International School's elementary principal, he started Odyssey ISC (International Schools of China) in 2007. He has served as a teacher, a board member, and a founding head of school in the United States.

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