When your Sunday school lesson is broken, it might be one of these top-6 ways a lesson can be broken. Discover how to fix a broken lesson.
Here’s a simple question: Looking back at your last lesson, what did your kids learn? Don’t answer that too quickly. It can be easy to respond by simply reciting the Bible point or explaining the topic. Perhaps your children memorized a wonderful Bible passage or created a beautiful craft. Your class could’ve seemed to follow the lesson plan pretty well, even answering questions the right way. But what did they really learn? How do you know? Not that simple of a question, is it?
Just as kids have different personalities, physical features, and personal backgrounds, they also learn differently. And the way each child learns is often different from the way we like to teach. But making our lessons learner-based is more than just getting kids out of their seats and moving around. It’s about reaching every child every time. In the next few pages, we’re going to give you secrets to making a lesson learner-based-by maximizing each child’s potential.
We recently took our cameras into the children’s ministries of local churches to see how churches were effectively helping children grow spiritually. What we captured on camera was compelling. While churches varied in their programming and structure, they all had one thing in common: a need for real learning. This is what we saw.
Broken Lesson #1: Talk, Talk, Talk
Kids sit quietly; some lay their heads on their desks. Others watch the teacher sitting at the front of the room. The teacher reads a story from a book. As the story comes to a close, children wiggle in their seats, but they’re still quiet. When the Bible story is finished, the teacher then explains what it means. He tells kids the background of the Bible story and how it should apply to their lives. Finally, he closes by saying, “The point we should get out of this is that Jesus helps us.”
Passive children, quiet room, no one misbehaving: Sounds like a teacher’s dream, right? But what did the kids learn? Studies show that very few people can learn by merely listening, but teachers love to talk.
Why? Perhaps because we think we have all the answers. But when we teachers do all the talking, we shortchange kids from genuinely exploring and learning for themselves. The children in this classroom weren’t given the opportunity to learn from exploration. They were only told what they were supposed to take away. Unfortunately so many of us teach this way, and our talking gets in the way of kids’ learning.
- Let kids talk. Ask a question every now and then that encourages kids to explore their thoughts and feelings and connect the story or lesson to their lives.
- Give kids a chance to tell the story-in their way. Give kids Bibles to look up the passage. Then have them create a piece of art, a story, or a skit that applies the Scripture to their lives.
- Dialogue with kids to gauge their learning. Ask kids to summarize what they just heard, or have them tell a partner two things they took from the Scripture.
Broken Lesson #2: Rote Regurgitation
“Let’s learn this week’s Bible verse now,” the teacher says as she opens her Bible. “It’s found in Romans 12:10: ‘Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.’ Romans 12:10.” The kids then reply in unison, ” ‘Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.’ Romans 12:10.” After repeating it several more times, the teacher asks for volunteers who feel like they know the verse well enough to perform it for the entire class, which a couple do very nicely, not missing a word.
Another teacher closes in prayer: “Repeat after me. Dear Jesus,” pause, “thank you for your love and friendship.” Pause. “We know you came to Earth to love us and die for us,” pause, “so that we can be with you forever.” Pause. “Help us show your love to others so they can know you too.” Pause. “We want to live the way you want us to.” Pause. “Amen.”
In both cases, the children follow along very well. But do they understand what they just said? Memorizing Scripture is very important. Is repeating after a leader the best way to learn? Were children able to apply the Scripture’s wonderful truth to their lives? Probably not, because there was no effort to teach for understanding. Children also need to learn how to pray and to have faith in God through prayer, but repeating after a teacher only helps a child learn how to repeat, not how to pray.
- Focus on meaning. Help kids discover the meaning of the passage they’re memorizing. Lead them in an active learning experience that helps them discover the Scripture’s truth.
- Make the activity learner-directed. Let kids find the passage and create their own way of memorizing. Some kids may be able to memorize by repeating. Others may need to write it a couple times or put the words to music.
- Make prayer personal. Give children opportunities to pray from their heart, having their own conversations with God. Try starting the prayer, then allow kids to add their sentences throughout.
Broken Lesson #3: Only One Way
Children learn about Paul and Silas. The leader helps children find the story in their Bibles. Then she has kids take turns reading the verses. Following the story, she asks a list of questions:
- Who were the two men in the story?
- Where were they?
- Did they get thrown in jail for telling about Jesus?
- How did they get out of jail?
- Is it hard for you to tell people about Jesus sometimes?
- Who can tell us about a time you told someone about Jesus?
- The answers: Paul and Silas; in jail; yes; they prayed; yes; I can.
As teachers, we like to know the answer, so we tend to ask questions with only one possible answer. Or we may discount any other possible answers to make sure kids take the path we want them to take. In the example above, all except the last question are closed-ended questions, following a set path with set answers. These kinds of questions don’t really help kids learn or gain understanding-they simply help kids remember the story. It’s natural, though, for us to follow a path like that, because other paths may take us into uncharted territory.
- Start by getting kids involved in the telling of the story. Then you don’t even need to see if they remember it. The children’s ability to “teach” the story helps you know they have the facts of the story down.
- Use open-ended questions. Use questions that’ll help kids apply the biblical truths to their lives, such as, “Why is it hard to talk about Jesus sometimes? How can Jesus help you tell about him?” Kids may give a vast array of answers, but the questions will give them a deeper understanding. If an answer is way off-track, you can easily redirect by having kids tell you more about their thought processes.
- Allow children to ask questions. This will lead to a different valuable lesson for each child. When you ask children to ask questions, they may say, “I don’t know what to ask.” If so, encourage their thinking process by asking questions such as, “What would you ask if you were me? If you just guessed at a question, what would it be?”
The teacher holds up a white paper heart to begin his object lesson. He says, “This is what my heart looks like in the morning. I wake up and start a brand new day with a clean heart. As I go through my day, I make choices that can change my heart. The choices might keep my heart clean or they might dirty my heart.” As the kids watch, he tells them about one of his typical days. As he does this, he makes marks on his heart. He gives an example of someone cutting him off on his way to work, how he reacted to different situations at work, and so on. When he’s finished, his heart is all smudged. Then he explains that Jesus makes our hearts clean again if we ask, and he shows the kids a clean heart.
This is a great object lesson! It shows how our choices, good or bad, change our heart in different ways. But the kids get lost when the teacher gives examples from his adult life. Most kids don’t quite understand the concept of being cut off while driving. And they may not be able to identify with the situations the teacher had at work. For learning to be maximized, kids need to identify with the examples.
- Know your kids and their lives. Find out what their days are like as you provide examples that bring the Scriptures to life.
- Think like a child. Give examples of things they’d recognize by talking about an experience when you were their age. Help them connect to you.
- Pull from kids’ experiences. Ask kids to provide the examples as you teach your object lesson.
Broken Lesson #5: Missing the Moment
As the 4-year-olds in one room work on a craft, a little girl talks to the leader sitting next to her about something going on in her life: “I don’t ever get to see my daddy.” As she says this, she reaches for someone to listen to her. The leader responds, “When my parents got divorced, I didn’t get to see my dad much, either.” End of conversation.
This is a prime example of a teachable moment. A young child brought a concern to her trusted leader, but the leader missed the opportunity to talk to her about her feelings and give her a word of encouragement-or just an understanding ear. God gives us little moments in time to connect with children, to help others grow, and to reach out. Teachable moments present themselves to us in so many ways when we teach children; we just have to listen and look.
- Ask for more. When children open up a teachable moment, ask questions to draw them out: What happened? How does that make you feel? How can I pray for you?
- Listen. Really listen. The girl in our example just needed a friend-who could’ve changed her life.
- Pray! Don’t stop at that last question. Actually spend time, just you and the child and God, talking about what’s on the child’s heart.
Broken Lesson #6: Learning Styles vs. Teaching Styles
In a second- and third-grade setting, the leaders choose different children to read portions of the Bible story. Children take turns, and everyone eventually has a turn to read. Then the leaders hand out a worksheet for kids to complete. When kids finish the word scramble on the worksheet, they turn it over to answer questions and fill in blanks about the story. They get most of their answers right. In closing, the teacher says a prayer.
As teachers, we get comfortable doing certain activities, either because we’ve done them so many times or they’re what we’re good at. We tend to lead lessons the same way each time, and it’s the way we teach best, rather than the way children learn best. This is an easy mistake to make. This lesson was much too focused on the learning style of reading-to the exclusion of other learning styles. It can take time to build a lesson for different learning styles or different groups of children, and we may not feel like we have the expertise to do it well. So here are a few ideas to get you going.
- Make connections. Form groups where kids learn the Bible story and connect it to their lives in different ways. One group may be the creative arts group, another may re-create the story in drama, while another may actually read the story and write something about it.
- Give kids choices. Let them choose how they’ll learn each week. Then let them choose how they’ll apply that learning to their lives. You can give them three or four options to choose from, but make the ultimate decision theirs.
- Create a learning profile for each child. Keep notes of ways children learn, interesting characteristics about each child, and things you do that work or don’t work.
If your lesson is broken, you’re missing reaching every child in your classroom. Use these fixer-uppers to fix your lesson so you’ll reach every child, every time.