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The True Difference Between Teaching and Students Learning

For years, teachers have had to goal to teach. But what happens when these same teachers set their goal to student’s learning? 

Curriculum publishers sell boxcar loads of printed pieces they call teaching materials. Here’s an example from a well-known Christian publisher’s fifth and sixth grade student materials:

Can you turn GUILT into JOY by changing only one or two letters at a time?


__ __ __ __ sea bird
__ __ __ __ male bovine
__ __ __ opposite of sell
__ __ __ opposite of girl


Some might call that exercise teaching. But can anyone call it learning? Do those fifth and sixth graders now understand how to turn guilt into joy (without first becoming a male bovine)? Teaching and learning are not synonymous.

Yet we continue to use these traditional methods of teaching. Why? The word “traditional” probably explains it all. We continue teaching with blind disregard for learning because it’s how we were taught. You see, even if we failed to learn the subject matter in school, we did learn the methodology. We all know how school is supposed to look and sound. Teachers hand out banal worksheets and stand in front of students and dispense knowledge.

That, to most of us, is teaching. But it’s not learning. Lynn Stoddard, author of Redesigning Education, writes: “We must shift from the traditional role of ‘knowledge dispenser’ to that of model, mentor, and organizer of experiences that help students grow.”

A Dangerous Assumption

We’ve bumped along in the church so long doing our teaching thing that we’ve rarely stopped to take stock of our effectiveness. We simply assume that if we’re teaching, our flock must be learning. It’s a dangerous assumption.

In a Group Publishing national survey of fifth and sixth graders, 54 percent couldn’t recall one thing they learned at their church class that same week.

“There is a general assumption that teaching should result in learning and that learning is the consequence of teaching,” writes professor Frank Smith in his book Insult to Intelligence. “The problem with this assumption is that the student tends to be blamed for failure to learn. The thought is rarely entertained that teachers might not be teaching what they think they are teaching. A teacher or program may be teaching ‘reading skills,’ but the student might be learning ‘reading is boring’ or ‘I am a dummy.’ ”

Learning Good Stuff

Teaching good stuff isn’t good enough. We must be certain our people are learning good stuff. How do we do that?

First, we must unlearn how we were taught. We sat quietly in little desks, in rows, in sterile classrooms, with a teacher who lectured to us all the facts. Our time was filled with reams of fill-in-the-blank worksheets and tests. Rarely did we work together with other students. We memorized the facts we thought the teacher wanted us to know, rarely pursuing what we might want to know.

We must not blindly accept this cliché picture of the learning environment.

Next, as teachers we must realize that knowing our subject matter isn’t good enough. We must know how to enable our students to learn the subject matter and live it. How much time do our Christian colleges and seminaries spend teaching the tiniest nuances of theory and theology rather than helping their students learn effective methods to generate true learning in their future churches? What good is all our knowledge if it does not affect the lives of the people among whom God has placed us?

The master teacher Jesus gives us some clues about how to help people genuinely learn.

Jesus’ Learning Techniques

1. Start with the learner’s context.

Jesus used objects and story subjects that were familiar to his learners. Boats. Fish. Sheep. Water. Wine. Bread. Fig trees. Seeds. Grain. He started where the learners were. He knew that effective learning builds upon what the learner already knows.

We can follow Jesus’ example. What are the familiar tools of a group of third graders? Toys! We can use these tools—as Jesus did—to help kids learn from their own context. A Sunday school class filled with the objects of kids’ love presents a fertile learning ground.

2. Allow learners to discover truth.

Jesus beckoned Peter to walk on the water to learn about faith (Matthew 14:25-33). Peter discovered a bit of truth through his own experience. Jesus could have simply lectured Peter about faith, but he wanted Peter to discover. After Jesus pulled Peter from the water, he asked the disciple, “Why did you doubt?” He could have told Peter, but he asked instead. Because he wanted Peter to discover.

We can use this same technique, not necessarily walking on water, but discovery learning. People learn best when they discover answers for themselves. In discovery learning, the teacher steps away from being the prime dispenser of answers and becomes more of a coach and facilitator.

If we’re more interested in teaching, we can tell our class how God’s power and creativity are present in nature. But if we’re more interested in learning, we’ll take the class outside and let them discover God’s handiwork.

3. Take advantage of teachable moments.

The woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). The storm on the lake (Luke 8:22-25). The paralytic in the synagogue (Matthew 12:9-13). Jesus knew when his learners were ripe for learning. He never hesitated to create a lesson out of what happened around him. In contrast to the rote practices of the Pharisees, Jesus knew the difference between teaching and learning. When he observed people engaged in a captivating activity, he knew they were ready to learn. And he took advantage of the opportunity.

If freckle-faced Bobby pulls the chair out from under dainty little Sara, you’ve got your teachable moment. Forget the printed curriculum for that day. Keep the crafts on the shelf. All your learners are focused on this little girl who’s just splatted onto the floor. Now your students are ready to learn. Process the situation with them. Ask how Sara is feeling. Ask the others if they’ve ever been a victim like Sara. How did they feel? Why do we laugh at another’s expense? Will Sara forgive Bobby? Why or why not?

The kids won’t forget a session like that. Nor will they forget what they learned.

4. Provide learners opportunities to practice what they’ve learned.

Jesus instructed the rich young man, then challenged him to sell all his possessions (Mark 10:17-21). Jesus taught his disciples about betrayal, then gave Peter, Judas, and the others time to practice their loyalty (Matthew 26:31-49). Their failures during practice seared the lesson into their memories.

Few lessons stick without actively putting those lessons to work. You can hear a lecture on riding a bike, but if you don’t practice, you’ll never ride. You can study the word “servant” in your church lesson, but if you don’t practice serving, you’ll never become a servant for Jesus Christ.

If we’re teaching about telling others how God is working in our lives, we need to let our people practice. Right there. We can ask each person to turn to a partner and tell what God has recently done for him or her. Everybody practices. Right there. That practice will result in genuine learning.

Teaching-Training Meeting Allowing Learners to Discover Truth

Before this training session, prepare slips of paper, each with one Scripture passage. Use Mark 1:21-28, Mark 2:1-12, Mark 4:35-41, and Mark 8:14-21. Place each Scripture in a colorful plastic egg or roll each scripture into a scroll and tape or tie it. That’ll add to the mood of “discovery.” Hide the scriptures in your meeting area, one hidden verse for every two teachers.

Form pairs. Blindfold one person in each pair and have partners link arms. Explain that the seeing person is the “voice” and the blindfolded person is the “hands.” As they search for a “hidden treasure” in the room, they must help each other retrieve the treasure. (Don’t tell them what the treasure is.) Let teachers hunt for the verses. When pairs each find one, they must return to you, still linked with one partner blindfolded. Have pairs stand by you until everyone has found a treasure. Then discuss the following:

  • Describe your feelings during the hunt.
  • Explain how being blindfolded affected your feelings.
  • Describe your feelings when you found the treasure.
  • Tell how this experience is like making discoveries in God’s Word.

Have pairs read their treasure and then act it out for the group. (If you repeated the Bible passages to accommodate a larger group, put everyone together who found the same passage.) After each story, ask:

  • What were the discoveries or ah-ha’s for the story’s characters?
  • How did Jesus use discovery learning as he taught?
  • What other examples from the Bible can you recall when Jesus used this technique?
  • Why is discovery learning so important in this story?

Wrap up by asking teachers to share what their biggest ah-ha has been in this training. Conclude with teachers each praying for help on one specific way they’ll add discovery learning to their class.

Looking for more teaching tips? Check out these ideas!

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