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Discipline-Specific Knowledge: Why Teachers and Pastors Should Care

I often feel that I write directly for both teachers and pastors.  I only have experience as a teacher, but I do consider myself an armchair theologian and studier of all things religious.  Today I feel the need, after reading an article on discussion based approaches to developing understanding and thinking specifically on discourse analysis, to speak to the need for developing discipline-specific knowledge in those we teach or pastor.

First to the teacher (although a pastor is just as much so a teacher), I rediscuss the importance of helping students develop discipline-specific knowledge when they are interacting in your field.  Too often we think of students as either comprehending something or not comprehending something, but most of the time, as Langer notes, student comprehension is “a mixture of understandings, questions, hypotheses, and connections to previous knowledge and experience.”

Students come to a specific subject with very little knowledge of how experts in that field interact with one another and why those experts interact in the way they do.  In fact, those experts only learned how to interact because of complex sociocultural cues they picked up as they worked for days, months, and years in a particular discipline.  A scientist, for instance, learns about the scientific method, but probably understood little about the actual process until actually performing his first experiment and seeing how his theoretical knowledge of the field played out in a specific context.  Preparing students, no matter what their specific field, for this so-called “lab time” is the ultimate goal of any discourse we have in the classroom.

In other words, when a student hears a math word problem for the first time, he is not simply going to read the question and understand what he is supposed to do.  The students will first need to be taught that when mathematicians write word problems, they mean for us to read them, analyze and isolate variables, solve the problem, and then check our answer to see if it is reasonable.  All of these steps require explicit instructions for the student to know how to interact with mathematicians who have already been welcomed into the “club.”

While I see some teachers talking about discipline-specific knowledge, including why the field uses their procedures and terminological jargon the way they do, many simply skip over this step as theoretical mumbo-jumbo (thinking some of these ideas too “complex” for students).  I compare this to trying to talk about a sailboat without talking about the tides.  The currents and the winds are an integral part of the sailboating experiment and make up part of the theoretical framework even though they are not “part of the boat,” per se.  Students need to understand the environment in which the dialogue and discourse is taking place.

We cannot simply “get to the content.”

While I have less experience in a pastoral role, I have seen enough sermons to know that pastors often do a good job of sharing their conclusions during a sermon, but do little for their congregations to model their process of getting towards a conclusion.  While, for instance, it might be important to talk about helping the poor, the first step in talking would be to share fundamental framework ideas and how church, as a whole, might fit sociologically in helping people groups and why the church, in general, interacts in the world proactively.

And this is important: Talking about the poor (or any other issues/subjects in which a sermon might deal) cannot be something imposed on the outside by a pastor from some reality “out there.”  The talk about poor needs to start with student definitions and work from there.  We cannot simply “get to the content.”  The way we approach the content will be different for almost any group we interact with based on their notions of poor.  I have more to say on this pedagogical struggle for pastors, but that may have to wait for another post.

The main point I wish to get across here is that we must bring students into our discipline.  Our job is to give them the framework for the discipline and to help them interact themselves in it.  Too often, we simply leave students on the outside and share our conclusions from our work within the discipline, but students end up being unable to do any sort of the discipline-specific work because we never taught them about the parameters of the discipline).

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