December 18, 2017—At a recent teacher development seminar for church educators a teacher came up to me after the presentation. He shared a challenge he faced in his adult Bible class. His class was made up of a variety of students whose span of interests and depth of knowledge was broad. Some were seminary graduates, some were university professors, many were adults with only rudimentary exposure to religious or Bible knowledge. Additionally, she observed, some were highly motivated and engaged students while others seemed consistently un-engaged in the learning experience. While some were eager learners open to learning new truths, many in her class seemed merely to desire confirmation of what they already knew or believed.
Her dilemma was, “How do I teach such a class? Do I aim for the high end, or the lowest common denominator?”
We explored options for the challenge she faced. It was evident she was a passionate teacher, and no quitter, despite her obvious frustrations. At one point I shared a truism about teaching, and life in general, “Challenge promotes growth; coddling does not.” Immediately she responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!” The statement seemed to affirm her resolve to aim high in her teaching, rather than over-focus on making some of her learners comfortable.
“Learning has a lot in common with eating,” so said St. Augustine in On Christian Teaching. Augustine observed, like the teacher in the conversation, that there are levels of learners—those interested and motivated, and those, not so much.
“In a word, the function of eloquence in teaching is not to make people like what was offensive or to make them do what they were loth to do, but to make clear what was hidden from them. If this is done in a disagreeable way, the benefits reach only a few enthusiasts, who are eager to know the things they need to learn no matter how dull and unattractive the teaching maybe may be. Once they have attained it they feed on the truth itself with great delight; it is the nature of good minds to love truth in the form of words, not the words themselves. What use is a golden key, if it cannot unlock what we want to be unlocked, and what is wrong with a wooden one, if it can, since our sole aim is to open closed doors? Learning has a lot in common with eating: to cater for the dislikes of the majority even the nutrients essential to life must be made appetizing.”
Ultimately, teaching is about learning, to expand the mind of the learner or, “open closed doors,” as Augustine put it. Sometimes, learners don’t know what they need, and therefore are unmotivated, preferring to be entertained, coddled, or to have beliefs and prejudices affirmed. Teachers who live into their calling will never be satisfied with that. But one challenge is how to make learning appetizing for those who don’t know they hunger for knowledge.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education 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 and Don Reagan.
His books on Christian education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.
Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans.