Divine Child teacher’s lesson examining China’s ‘one-child policy’ earns national praise

Divine Child theology teacher John Brahier, pictured with his wife, Annie, and son, Stephen, won first place in the University of Notre Dame’s Teaching Human Dignity Contest for developing a full unit on China’s “one-child policy” incorporating math, ethics and a real-world application of Catholic teaching. (Photos courtesy John Brahier)

John Brahier claims first prize for lesson delving into theology, history and math as it relates to population control debate

DEARBORN  Students might not expect faith to have much to do with math class, but that’s not how Divine Child High School theology teacher John Brahier sees it. 

In fact, Brahier’s belief that ethics and faith can have a real-world impact on math and statistics recently earned him national recognition from the University of Notre Dame.

As part of Notre Dame’s Teaching Human Dignity Contest, sponsored by the McGrath Institute for Church Life, Brahier submitted a full unit of lessons about China’s “one-child policy,” which the communist nation used for population control from 1979 to 2015 (China now adopts a “two-child policy”).  

Brahier received $750 for first place, and his unit was published on the university’s Office of Life and Human Dignity website. 

“One of the most important things we can do at Catholic schools is help students see the world through a Catholic lens,” Brahier told Detroit Catholic. “This is done by looking at real issues, real problems, through a variety of different lenses, all informed by the Catholic tradition.”

Brahier’s lesson leads students “to understand the horrors of the one-child policy, primarily the repulsive practice of forced abortions, while simultaneously building computational and conceptual skills related to exponential and logarithmic functions,” according to the contest website. 

Brahier developed the lessons to get students to think about math beyond numbers and factor in ethics, history, morality and religion into real-world problems.

“It’s very easy for students and teacher to fall into the, ‘faith is meant for the theology classroom’ mentality,” Brahier said. “So I’m always looking for ways, especially in a math class, where kids might not be expecting to see their faith come up; but see their faith be authentically integrated into a math class.” 

Brahier's unit will be available online for teachers to borrow for their own lesson plans, hosted at the University of Notre Dame’s Office of Life and Human Dignity. 

Brahier’s unit examines the Chinese government’s controversial policy from the standpoint of history, statistics about what the government was trying to accomplish, the global conversation surrounding population control at the time, and the Catholic Church’s own moral interjections into the debate.

“On the math side of things, they learn exponential functions, typically before Algebra II, but also a deeper dive into the model used by China’s policymakers,” Brahier said. “It’s not the exact model, but it gives a good enough model to allow them to look at the charts and graphs that were used.  

“When I expanded the unit, I incorporated some of the conversations that needed to be had around the ethical side of things, adding depth to the theological questions posed with this problem,” Brahier said. 

It’s not just a series of numbers; there are various perspectives we have to consider when making decisions that impact peoples’ lives,” he added.

Brahier now teaches theology at the Dearborn Catholic school, but developed the lessons around the topic based on a lesson he devised while teaching math at St. Ursula Academy in Toledo, Ohio, in 2014-15. This summer, he submitted the unit to Notre Dame so other teachers can take advantage of the lessons or gain inspiration for their own.

“I worked with the Chinese language program instructor at St. Ursula and the morality instructor to provide more context when I was developing the mathematic components of the unit,” Brahier said. “It was more of a one-point project at St. Ursula, whereas I wanted to develop a more extensive unit to explore the problem from all these different perspectives.” 

To develop his lesson, Brahier examined the discussions around population control that were happening in the 1960s, in particular Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich’s book, “Population Bomb,” which predicted a worldwide catastrophe if the human population continued to grow. 

“When I was doing this research, I discovered the Church was thoughtfully engaged in a variety of circles, both secular and religious circles, and continued to flesh out its reasoning why the Church taught population control was wrong,” Brahier said. “In developing the full unit, I had time to show some of the popular, secular thought, and the Church responding to it at the time. It’s a way to show students the Church isn’t some old, archaic institution, but is engaged in the outside world.” 

Brahier will teach Scripture this year at Divine Child, so he won’t have the opportunity to teach the unit himself, for now. But he’s excited the lesson will be available on a larger platform for Catholic school teachers across the country to use.  

Beyond teaching math concepts and ethics surrounding population control, Brahier hopes students learn that mathematics has an application beyond basic calculations and hypothetical scenarios. Even in the world of faith.

“It’s exciting for me to find something in a math classroom that talks about faith authentically,” Brahier said. “It’s how we build the Catholic worldview in schools: showing how our faith is connected to everything we teach in school.”