The Christian Approach to Teaching Elementary Math

The Christian approach to teaching elementary math begins with knowing and teaching that reality does have structure and order because it was created by a rational, orderly God. In elementary math, the students study one aspect of the order of the real world and indirectly begin to know more about the God Who has given them the world they live in. In the math processes, the students are not creating truth but learning truth; they are, in a sense, thinking God’s thoughts after Him. The students will find exactness, preciseness, and completeness in the subject matter of mathematics just as would be expected in God’s world.

As the content of the math curriculum and the textbook has reason and order to it, so the math class must itself be taught according to an organized, reasonable plan. A daily class should include oral drill, the teaching of new material, the practice of new material, and the review of basic facts. All four areas should be completed in sixty minutes or less time each day. Good classroom habits and procedures will produce an orderly classroom conducive to good learning.

Elementary math, quite naturally, begins with the most elementary, basic processes of arithmetic. Students learn best when they proceed from the specific to the general, from the concrete to the abstract. Elementary math properly emphasizes the facts of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division that have immediate application and accord with the child’s stage of mental development. A solid foundation is laid for high school math which gradually and appropriately introduces the student to a higher level of abstraction. The student will learn more efficiently and be better at algebra and all higher mathematics if he masters arithmetic first.

We are unabashed advocates of traditional math, not only because the students learn something that can be built upon, but also because it accords with our Christian viewpoints on education. Only from a Christian perspective can the basic rationale—the intrinsic reasonableness of traditional elementary math—be seen and appreciated. Traditional math will not succeed unless it is taught with the conviction that something more than arbitrary process derived from arbitrary principles is at work. The elementary student does not need to “understand” 2 + 2 = 4 in order to learn it and use it; he will learn the abstract principles later. But the elementary student does need to see his multiplication tables as part of the truth and order that God has built into reality. From the Christian perspective, 2 + 2 = 4 takes on cosmic significance, as does every fact of mathematics, however particular.

The way we view a subject matter and the method we think we ought to use to teach it are always related. Traditional math goes with traditional teaching methods, and we believe that these teaching methods also accord with our Christian perspective. Elementary students are taught the elementary math facts through oral and written drill, just as the Bible says, “For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little” (Isaiah 28:10). Elementary students learn the facts by hearing and using them over and over again.

A teacher who is faithful in teaching the facts of elementary mathematics in a reasonable, consistent way will be teaching much more than the particulars of mathematics—such a teacher will be instilling within the students some of the most basic attitudes that are necessary for knowing and obeying God. C. T. Studd, missionary to Africa, understood this principle well and used it in his work with a people who had just risen from the depths of cannibalism. Norman Grubb described Studd’s reasoning:

Every pole had to be exactly the right length, placed at the right angle, etc.; and he had a purpose in it, for the natives must be taught that good Christianity and lazy or bad workmanship are an utter contradiction. He believed that one of the best ways to teach a native that righteousness is the foundation of God’s Throne was by making him see that absolute straightness and accuracy is [sic] the only law of success in material things (C.T. Studd, Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, Christian Literature Crusade, 1972, 1974).

Traditional math is Christian math, and it must be taught by traditional methods. A math lesson rightly taught is one more way that a Christian teacher can instill within students the principles of God’s Word.