February 18, 2019—One major drawback to teaching in Christian education is the unwarranted, and often unintended, practice of setting ourselves up for inactive, non-participatory, learning. Many teachers of adults tend to shy away from challenging their class or group to participate in the learning process. This usually as a result of having made a failed attempt at an interactive activity, experiencing a numbing silence after trying to prod for more discussion, or being told, outright, that the class “just wants to listen to the teacher lecture.”
While adults need to feel they will not be embarrassed in a learning situation, they won’t likely learn unless they risk participation. Any approach to teaching that perpetuates dependency on the teacher as “expert” or facilitates non-participation on the part of the learner ultimately fails and becomes ineffective in helping people learn. Active learning is a participatory practice, not a spectator activity.
In the book Active Learning, Mel Silberman identified eight qualities of an effective and active learning experience:
1. A moderate level of content. Avoid the temptation of believing that learners need to learn everything at once. Be selective about what you will cover (hint: it should be ONE thing and maybe one or two derivative concepts). Adult learners need to learn what they need, not what is merely interesting.
2. A balance between affective, behavioral, and cognitive learning. All three are important but many times we tend to focus on the cognitive experience.
3. A variety of learning approaches. Learning experiences that provide synesthesia (look it up) tend to help in concept acquisition and retention. Use the senses, seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and talking, to help make learning active.
4. Opportunities for group participation. Adult learners have something valuable to share in the learning experience. Provide opportunity for them to reflect on their experiences and to share their insights.
5. Encouraging participants to share their expertise. A good teacher works hard to move learners from passive dependent to active participants. Remember that there are no “experts” in the Christian life. Don’t convince your learners that they are meant to be perpetually dependent on others for learning.
6. Recycling concepts and skills learned earlier. Review what you did last week, last month, last year, and build on it. Build on what your learners know when teaching new concepts.
7. Advocating real-life problem solving. This concept bridges Scripture or theological concepts, with contemporary issues and challenges in the adult’s life.
8. Allowing time for re-entry. Make the time in your lesson to help learners discuss and discover their skills and what actions they can take to incorporate what they have learned into their lives.
One of my rules about teaching is, “Never work harder than your students.” Moving toward more active learning on the part of your students is one way to ensure that your class or group members are active learners.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.