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What’s the Matter With Christian Education?

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? GUILT __ __ __ __ sea bird __ __ __ __ male bovine __ __
__ opposite of sell __ __ __ opposite of girl JOY

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, director of the National Alliance for Redesigning
Education, writes in his book Redesigning Education: “We must shift
from the traditional role of ‘knowledge dispenser’ to that of
model, mentor, and organizer of experiences that help students


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.’


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. We filled time with reams of
fill-in-the-blank worksheets and tests. We rarely worked 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 clich’ picture of the learning

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.


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

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
. 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.


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

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

*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

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
*How did Jesus use discovery learning as he taught? What other
examples from the Bible can you recall when Jesus used this
*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.

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