Thursday, March 13, 2008

A little background . . .

Hopefully, this post and the next will help to make more sense of some of the last few posts. First, a few bits that shape my perspective, in no particular order, so you know some of where I'm coming from when it comes to the subject of teaching and learning:
  • I've grown up in the evangelical church and never left. My mother took us to Southern Baptist churches growing up, I went to a Lutheran grade-school, a non-denom evangelical middle school & highschool (bible class every day, chapel once a week), attended and led small groups & then college ministry at a Vineyard in college & law school. Since then I've been a part of two evangelical church plants. (My point: I've heard a moderately high amount of teaching in the evangelical format, and even given my share of it.)
  • As far as non-religious schooling goes, I've had about as much as I can get without changing fields of study. I have a B.S. in Business, a law degree and a master's in tax law. I've also been working as an adjunct professor at a local Christian university for two years. My classes, two per semester, have approximately 30 students each. (So I've also heard a relatively high amount of teaching in the academic format, and even given my share of it.)
  • FWIW, in the academic setting I generally got great marks as a student and as a teacher (at least in the academic setting, you get formally evaluated on these things). Whether as a small group leader, college minister, professor, etc., I really have cared about what people who were part of these groups were taking away from them. Though questions about teaching have been in my mind for decades, doing the teaching/leading work myself kicked them into high gear as I attempted to help people learn and see something, and even be shaped differently.
  • The current church plant that I'm a part of is coming out of a parachurch ministry in downtown West Palm Beach--Urban Youth Impact ("UYI"). It's largest program is an after-school tutoring program, but it also does a variety of evangelical outreaches, bible studies and community service projects on a regular basis, and has been in the community for over a decade. Like most strongly evangelical organizations, UYI's outreaches were typically designed to get conversions--getting kids to say a prayer so that they can go to heaven instead of hell whenever death inevitably comes. UYI has gotten several thousands of these conversions over the years, which they sought to "follow up" with bible studies and the like. But here is the fact: UYI can only point to a handful of people who show substantial change toward Christlikeness out of the thousands who have "converted."

So what? Well, obviously I've not studied learning theory (yet), and have no formal education training. My experience is only as a congregant, a disciple of Jesus, a 'secular' student, and as a church leader and professor. But each of these undertakings have been wonderfully helpful and also left some splinters in my mind about the learning process, specifically as it applies to our apprenticeship to Jesus. Here are some splinters, again, in no particular order, that I haven't yet fully dug out (the next post will be the tangible structures that the current church plant is adopting that these splinters helped shape):

  • In all the above experiences (and as a parent), I've seen lots of ways one can teach, and lots of ways one can learn. Some ways of teaching are less effective (i.e., less likely to change the hearers intellectually or more thoroughly) than others. The evangelical church tends to emphasize, even revere, the least effective form of teaching of which I'm aware--uninterrupted lecture by the same person.
  • Jesus, speaking to the apostles, whose 'teaching' responsibilities were only going to increase, told them not to let anyone call them "Teacher" or "Father", and gave essentially two reasons: There was only One worthy of such titles, and they, the apostles, were all equals with anyone they'd be 'teaching'. I have no doubts that changing the title to "pastor" or some other term designed to honor and distinguish a servant from the other brothers somehow remedies what Jesus was trying to prevent here.
  • Relatedly, being given the task and gift of teaching by God is different from letting people put a title on you. Gifts give energy and life to the giver and the recipient. But few things in life are heavier than a religious title, whether for the individual or the individual's family. Do your leaders a favor: call them by their first names, and think of them that way.
  • The longer one stays in academia, listening to experts give lectures, the less one feels qualified to do anything. One has to actually do something themselves and see it work to build confidence with the subject matter.
  • Parents whose goal is maturity don't primarily teach by lecture; talking is just step one.
  • I don't think we're making as many disciples of Jesus as we think we are.
  • While I realize that "not many" should aspire to biblical teaching (for the harsher judgment and the general challenges of the tongue), didn't the early churches enjoy a plethora of teachers (how could Corinth play favorites if they'd only ever heard one guy; how could Timothy know if a potential elder is "able to teach" if the candidate has never done it; if the Jerusalem church "devoted themselves to the apostleS' teaching, that church had at least a dozen teachers, not even counting James, Jesus' brother, and some other folks who likely also taught; if "two or at the most three" prophets would speak per gathering in Corinth, do we really think it was the same two or three every gathering, etc., etc.)
  • Guest speakers in my class have a big advantage in being effective just by having a different voice and face and personality than my own.
  • Prioritizing "new births" over "Christ fully formed within" will play itself out in actual living results.
  • Students tend to retain a lot more if WE discuss, than if I lecture.
  • I learn a lot by prepping to teach. I learn even more if I ask the students good questions and listen to their answers and questions.
  • No amount of lecture (or even discussion) can make up for a student who doesn't really want to learn what I'm teaching.
  • Creating learners is more helpful than teaching, and there is a difference between the two.
  • A truth discovered sticks and shapes several times better than a truth heard.
  • Seeing and doing something in action (apprenticeship) is so much better than classroom "learning", it's hard to even compare them, but apprenticeship is much slower and requires a lot more "teachers", and a lot more work by the student.
  • Would the apostles be horrified by our near permanent "delegation" of the teaching to one person per church, with lecture being the typical method?
  • As Dallas Willard has suggested, are we getting the results we now have not despite our efforts but at least partially because of them?

As I said, next post will be the structures our new church plant is adopting, which have been shaped in part by these splinters.

1 comment:

Kyle said...


Interesting comments. I concur with most of them so I'll only remark on those I might diverge from (I know, I know... like I would ever even consider disagreeing with you!!).

I'm not certain if you are suggesting this (correct me if I am misconstruing your comments here) but as an aspiring professor I am not convinced that we should abandon the tenets of a lecture oriented teaching method (or, what some may term "Enlightenment" or "Modern" pedagogies).

I tend to think that this method of teaching still is and will be profitable for some students. Your point is noted: this method should not be the only method. However, conversely, neither should it be abandoned. I can think of two reasons why.

The first reason it should not be abandoned is because it has history. In a treatise that now eludes me Augustine once remarked that what makes a person wise is not what books they read or how much knowledge they possess but who they submit themselves to. Clearly, this resonates with your notion of apprenticeship (which I share). However, for Augustine it also entailed a catechetical element to it. A student not only submits him/herself to a master in order to act like them and be like them but also to know what they know. The master instructs or lectures them in all they know. Although it is not recorded in the Gospel accounts I presume Jesus did this with the disciples given the emphasis on the apostolic tradition in the early church. The ubiquity of this emphasis in the later church also corroborates this. Catechumens - those training to become Christians - had to endure years of preparation and study before they were to be initiated. They were required to learn how to act, be, and think like a Christian before committing to the Christian faith. To us, this pedagogy may seem amiss but I think it sheds light on how important catechetical instruction is in learning. Knowing the right things is just as important as doing the right things and being the right person. And for many throughout history, although not all, this knowing has predominately come to fruition through lecturing and instruction. The pedagogy of the early third century Eastern theologian, Gregory Nazianzen, was, “let us teach dogmatically today and discuss tomorrow.”

With that said, if I may opine for just a moment, it seems to me that many in our postmodern culture have not only abandoned this teaching method but cognitive instruction altogether. Because it was such a central focus in modernity, where it eventually became the only focus, many "postmoderns" have reacted against and jettisoned it choosing to focus only on how to act and be. This is prevalent especially in churches. Not only is the catechetical element conspicuously absent but also sermons tend to focus only on moral action and spiritualities of emotion. Why do our sermons and discussion no longer center on the Trinity or eschatology? Do these not matter in our day like they did the 3rd century? Just because Enlightenment theologians and pastors did not connect these theoretical doctrines to praxis and everyday life does not mean that they are worthless. Nor does it mean that they have no relevance for our lives. By neglecting these catechetical doctrines many churches are constructing a pernicious dichotomy for Christian academia and future churches. Soon enough many of us will notice we have no theological beliefs. We know how to act but not on what basis. We will know how to be but not on what premise. Yet, I am hopeful for emerging churches that are seeking to be egalitarian in order to be communally educated (resembling the “priesthood of all believers”). The historical Church has always attempted to maintain a balance in knowing, acting and being. I fear many of us are becoming more and more deficient in our balance. The second reason why the lecture oriented teaching method should not be abandoned is because many students are still cognitively oriented this way. Personally, I like the Socratic (dialogue oriented) pedagogy the best, and plan to espouse this as my primary method when I am a professor, but I have discovered that not all students learn this way. Those who are in the sciences more often than not do not learn in this way especially mathematicians. They prefer the more lecture-oriented model. I know you know that not all teaching methods work in every context. The beautiful art of teaching is that a teacher learns how to teach by those whom they are instructing. Some students will learn best by lectures, others by direct experience, and still others by other methods. The best teachers are those who can accommodate to their students without coercing them to accommodate to the teacher. This is arduous work.

A general theme that perceive throughout these comments and which I am affirm is your "priesthood of all believers" sentiments. Yet, I must say, I am not completely satisfied with the postmodern and emerging leadership models and pedagogies I have encountered. I would like to see a more robust notion of the “priesthood of all believers” than what I typically find in churches today. Those trained in theology, ministry, and biblical studies should be training others in those areas whom they are in community with. Calvin and Luther were convinced that only those who were trained in Greek, Hebrew and Latin were good exegetes. So, they sought ways to educate others in local churches. This is where I think I can benefit the church in the future. Just because I will have a PhD in theology does not necessitate that I should be the only one to preach, exegete Scripture, or be the resident theologian. No way! But, it may mean, that for a while I should be “up front” teaching my community what I have learned and experienced so that they too may know and experience what I have (We both know that there is no "front" in our communities ;) But, I presume you know what I mean). That being said, in our house community here, in the summer, a friend and I will be facilitating a few seminars on church history, basic doctrines of theology, and biblical exegesis. We don’t consider ourselves experts but we take the “priesthood of all believers” seriously and want our friends to know what we know so that it may too benefit their faith and eventually benefit our community as we share life and mature together as disciples. This is the notion of "priesthood of all believers" that I think Luther and Calvin had in mind and that we should retrieve today.

Many in the church are oversensitive about modern failures in areas of leadership, teaching, and doctrine. These areas have been used despotically and oppressively and it is far that many are suspicious of them. However, I differ from many pastors nowadays in that I am not afraid to redeem these areas and to accentuate how they are necessary for the church and can be salubrious for her as she struggles with how to live the faith in a postmodern context. And, as I intimated above, catechesis, instruction, or lecture-oriented teaching is one of these areas that I would like to redeem.

[Side note: I am become increasing interested in neuroscience with respect to salvation and the church and plan to incorporate this into my doctoral studies on friendship and the church in late modern culture. A connection I have made already in my studies is how culture conditions particular neuronic synapses. Neuroscience has revealed how culture influences and conditions what are proper responses, thoughts, and neuronic connections. In other words, culture instructs every person how to think, which in turn influences and conditions how they act, which in turn influences and conditions what kind of a person they become. This can become reductionistic, which I would eschew, but it is informative for understanding how much culture influences individuals in areas where the church should be. As an example, in my friend’s homiletics course he was informed by his professor that the average attention span is approximately in twelve minute intervals or something and she suggested that sermons therefore should only approximately twelve minutes. Typically, when it comes to the church and culture I have a holistic perspective and not a demarcating one, yet, I found this professor’s suggestion to be problematic. Should culture be the one determining what is an appropriate attention span or the church? Or, if culture is the one determining what an appropriate attention span is should the church acquiesce?

All this to say, cognitively, it is within the church’s power, via the Spirit, to redeem lecture-oriented teaching methods for God’s reign in ways that are profitable and liberating.]

Okay, that’s enough for now. Thanks again for your comments. I look forward to the upcoming posts.

P.S. Good point about heuristic learning. This seems to be truly how we all really assent to particular beliefs and positions. Yet, I think that this heurism is shrouded in whatever learning method one is inclined to learn from. Some will discover in hands-on experience, others reflecting on and connecting lecture notes, and still others by dialoguing with loved ones whom they trust the opinion of.