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Classical Christian Math?

October 19, 2022
By Monica Davis, Rhetoric Mathematics Teacher

If you look up the course offerings at my local public high school, you’ll notice some stark differences between their classes and those offered here at Rockbridge Academy. Instead of Literature of Antiquity, you’ll see English 11. Instead of theology courses like Bibliology and Hermeneutics, you’ll find Honors Comparative Religions. I think it’s probably safe to say that Rockbridge will never offer Business of Fashion. I’m equally sure that, were the roles reversed, someone looking at our course catalog would wonder what in the world Great Ideas I and II are all about!

Despite these obvious differences, there is one area where our course catalogues are quite similar; in fact, every single class we offer in this discipline is also taught at my local public school under the exact same name. I’m speaking, of course, of mathematics. You can find all our classes, from Pre-Algebra to Calculus, at any middle or high school down the street from you.

Does this mean that a public-school math class and a Rockbridge math class are the same? They have the exact same name after all!

The answer is a resounding no!

To be sure, there are many similarities between Rockbridge math classes and public-school math classes. The math concepts themselves do not change of course, and we all want students to be proficient in problem solving and successful in any future mathematical endeavors.

These similarities are far from the whole story, however. There are many differences between Rockbridge math classes and those in other educational settings. These differences arise because we do not have the same educational paradigm. Rockbridge teaches math from a classical, Christian perspective; other educational institutions do not.

What does this look like? Both pieces, classical and Christian, profoundly affect the way Rockbridge math teachers teach our classes.

To teach math classically has many components. First, there is an emphasis on conceptual understanding and eloquent expression of that understanding. We want our students to deeply grasp the concepts they are learning. We do not merely want them to know how to solve a particular problem; we also want them to understand the mathematical principles at play in that problem. Furthermore, we want them to express their understanding in an eloquent way. This occurs through informal class discussion, where students consistently use technical math vocabulary, and through formal assessments such as oral presentations and essay questions. (Yes–you read that right–there are essay questions on our math tests!) Putting an idea into words is an excellent metric to judge true understanding, and we require this often in our math classes.  

A second aspect of classical mathematics is an emphasis on history and historical context. We try to give our students a sense of where each concept falls in math history and discuss the important mathematicians who contributed the ideas, as well as where they fit into the larger context of world history. While we are not having daily history lessons (our class time is focused on mathematical content proper!), providing historical context whenever possible is a key component of classical mathematics classes.

A third element of classical mathematics is an emphasis on the integration of ideas, both within our classes and with the rest of the curriculum. Mathematics is an internally consistent body of knowledge, and we want our students to see how each concept they are learning integrates into one cohesive whole. We also want our students to see how mathematics is integrated with the rest of the curriculum. The most obvious point of integration is with science, which uses math as a language to model natural phenomena. While this is the clearest place for integration, it is far from the only place! Mathematics teaches us about aesthetics, much of its vocabulary has Latin roots, it has its own history as I mentioned above, and it engenders many interesting philosophical discussions.

Mathematics can even tell us about theology, or, more properly, theology can tell us a lot about mathematics. This leads us to the Christian component of a classical, Christian math classroom. We believe and teach our students that studying math gives us a glimpse into the mind of the Creator. The consistency, orderliness, logic, and creativity of God are all reflected in math, and in a world where relativism is the ideology of the day, math provides a picture of the objectivity and certainty of God’s Word. By studying math, students learn about the character and goodness of God. Ultimately, mathematics class is an opportunity to worship the creator of mathematics.

We certainly hope each of our students learns a lot of math concepts, expresses them clearly, understands the historical context, and can integrate ideas inside and outside the mathematics curriculum. We hope most of all, however, that our students walk away filled with wonder for our great Creator.

While there are many excellent math classes at schools of all kinds across the country where students build conceptual understanding, hone problem-solving skills, and become equipped for future callings, only in a classical, Christian math class do students get an excellent mathematical education from an explicitly Christian worldview.

So do not be fooled by the fact that our classes have the same name. The classical, Christian math classes at Rockbridge Academy are significantly different from the math classes at the local public school. And we math teachers wouldn’t have it any other way!

Monica Davis has taught all manner of 10th through 12th grade math classes at Rockbridge Academy for the last 9 years. When she is not delighting in math with her students, she enjoys cooking, baking, going for walks, and spending time with friends and family, especially her baby Theo and husband Josh, who is a Rockbridge Academy alumnus from the Class of 2004. 
 

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