Teaching Is A Two Way Street


By: Rev. Perry Downs

As the teacher droned on monotonously, the bored students began squirming and watching the clock. The seconds dragged on. It was the same routine each week–the teacher began lecturing at 9:30 and by 9:40 the class had tuned him out. What he didn’t realize was that teaching is more than telling and that class participation is a vital part of the learning process.

Sunday School classes for children, youth, and adults are many times predictive in their methodology. Students sit either in rows or in a circle around a table and listen with varied degrees of interest. The lesson is usually important and relevant, but students appear unimpressed because the teacher is talking too much and not actively involving the students in the learning process.

Student participation was successfully used by Jesus in His teaching ministry. A study of His methods reveals that He spent a relatively short amount of time in the process of lecturing His students. Instead, by
skillfully guiding His students’ activities, He led them until they were ready to receive the Truth that He had to give. Rather than seating His students in rows to listen while He taught, He involved them in the
educational process.

However, Jesus’ methods are not entirely normative for us today. Rather than teaching illiterate fisherman on the hills of Galilee in A.D. 30, we are functioning in formalized classrooms in local churches in the 1980s.

Though our teaching situation will be different, there is much to learn from the principles of the Master Teacher.

1. Learning is an Active Process

When you teach a child to swim, you don’t talk about theories of buoyancy and proper leg flexion. The child needs to get into the water to learn to swim. Does the same principle hold true in the spiritual realm?

In teaching children to pray, the parents need to pray with them regularly. That is, both the parents and the children pray. “Learn by doing” is not merely an educational cliche. The more the student is involved, the more he learns.

Perhaps you can remember when as a child you were being taught something new. You were eager to try the new experience for yourself. This same kind of excitement can occur in Bible study.

People want to share their ideas raise their questions, and make their comments about a passage of Scripture. Rather than program for passive listening and thinking, the creative Christian teacher will attempt to improve the quality of the learning by designing means for more active student participation.

A. Participation makes bible learning more personal. The ultimate goal of Christian education is to help the students personalize scripture by responding to it in their daily lives. Simply helping the students to know
what the Bible says is not enough. We are working toward helping them to be obedient to its teachings. For this to become a reality, the student must understand the Scripture in terms of his own experience.

Student participation is essential to this process. By allowing the student to interact with the scriptural ideas, we greatly increase the probability of personalization. Rather than being lectured to about the relationship of Scripture to his life, the student, through participation, can talk about how scripture relates to him.

The accusation that “church is basically a spectator sport,” should not be true, but often our practices make this observation valid. Not allowing the students to participate depersonalizes the learning and makes them spectators rather than participants.

Careful planning is needed to encourage students to participate by getting personally involved in Bible study. As they see the need to be involved in the process, students realize that they are responsible for their Christian growth. Rather than saying “Feed me,” they are taught to feed themselves.

B. Participation helps meet students’ needs. Meeting student needs is foundational to Christian education. My understanding our students’ age characteristics and the basic personalities, we become more sensitive to their needs and can then tailor our teaching to meet these needs.

Sunday school curriculum writers who understand the general needs of each age group design Bible lessons with these needs in mind. For example, since junior high and senior high needs are quite different, separate curriculums are developed around the basic physical, mental, social, emotional and spiritual characteristics of each age group. Curriculum writers also suggest teaching methods @hich fit these characteristics.

Each student is an individual with his own characteristics, personality traits, and needs. While it is possible to generalize about the characteristics of all teenagers, we must remember that no one teenager is completely “typical.”

Jesus as a teacher trained the disciples on an individual basis.
Recognizing that Peter and John had different personalities, He taught them differently. Because each of our students is unique, we must teach them in an individualized manner.

Allowing our students, regardless of their age, to express themselves through class participation makes us more sensitive to individual needs so that we can plan our teaching accordingly. While curriculum helps us to be sensitive to general needs, class participation provides us the feedback we need to understand their specific needs.

When teaching James 1 to a group of teenagers, the leader may initiate a discussion on the kinds of trials facing Christian teenagers today. Through this type of class participation he is able to learn much regarding the pressures on these particular teenagers and is later able to relate appropriate Scriptures to these problems.

Beyond lesson preparation itself, he is able to find some very practical ways to help individual teenagers in the trials they are facing. Through this kind of involvement the teens are able to sense more realistically the
practicality of the Christian faith.

C. Participation can relieve discipline problems. Young children especially have an abundance of energy. So when the teacher says, “Sit and listen,” their bodies say, “Wiggle and move,” and an inner conflict arises.

Frustration results when the student is pulled in two directions at once–wanting to please the teacher and wanting to listen to his natural urges. The teacher is angered because the student appears to be “disobedient.” Children need to learn obedience and self-control, but teachers need to be sensitive to how God made children.

If the energy of a child is expressed in positive class participation, it won’t have to be expressed in disruptive behavior. So, one of the best ways to maintain discipline is to provide some means for the children to participate expressively.

In a beginners’ class, the lesson dealt with Jesus calling Andrew, Peter, James, and John. Rather than simply telling the story, the teacher dramatized it with small dolls from a toy set. After she told the story,
the children were encouraged to retell the story themselves as they moved the dolls around. Student involvement was total, and discipline problems were greatly reduced.

D. Participatory learning is fun. Do your students endure or enjoy your class? Nowhere is it written that “education must be tedious.” On the contrary “The wise teacher makes learning a joy” (Prov. 15:2, Living Bible. Effective learning does not require hard work, but this does not eliminate the possibility for enjoyment.

If people enjoy a task they will stay with it longer. Thus if we can make Bible learning more enjoyable for the student, the possibilities for extended and more effective studies will be enhanced.

By interviewing college students regarding their learning experiences, educators have observed that students enjoy some classes more than others. Beyond the obvious factors of the content of the course and the personality of the teacher, student involvement was an additional factor. Students enjoy classes where they can ask questions, discuss issues or do creative projects.

This fact is especially true for younger children. Most of their learning experiences and relational understandings come through the vehicle of play. An outstanding child psychologist, Jean Piaget, has long argued for the importance of play in the child’s development.

The best type of class participation in Sunday School for the young child is creative, directive play designed to help the child relate biblical concepts to his own experience. The teacher’s success in incorporating this
type of participation into his learning activities will determine the child’s enjoyment of the learning experience.

2. Guidelines for Effective Participation

The forms of student participation are as varied as the creative capacities of the teacher. Class-participation may mean finger plays for nursery children or group reports by adults. It may be round table discussion by
teenagers or painting a mural by juniors.

While the kind of participation may be extremely varied, certain basic guidelines should be observed when planning for student participation in the class.

A. Do not force student participation. Students come in all sizes, shapes and with extremely differing personalities. Some are always active in class. Question discussing, debating, they always have something to say, and the teacher knows they are thinking.

Other students are attentive, but quiet. No matter how we try, we cannot gain active participation from them. Their participation is real, but nonverbal. We must allow for both kinds of students and for all varieties in between.

Some students do not want to participate in the way we have planned. While maintaining a balance of proper control of our classroom activities, we must be sensitive to those who choose not to be involved. To force such astudent to participate is as improper as not allowing participation when students desire it.

We as Christian teachers must recognize individual differences and allow for them in our students. Apparently this was true with the disciples since Peter was almost always involved while the Scriptures are virtually silent about Bartholomew. He was perhaps a non-participator who learned by listening.

It is a shame that some students are frightened away from church because they are forced into activities against their wishes. Participation should be actively and lovingly encouraged by the teacher, but never forced at the expense of the students’ feelings.

B. Allow for variety in participation. Because there are so many ways that students can be involved in their classes, we as teachers must allow for variety in their participation. By thinking creatively we can determine ways for our students to express understandings, articulate feelings, or pose questions. Asking, writing, drawing, telling, building are all available means.

“But I’m not creative,” someone objects. By observation and reading we can develop many new ideas for creative class participation to enrich our repertoire of teaching methods.

One of the best sources of ideas for class participation is the Sunday School manual. Curriculum writers provide a wealth of ideas related to class activities.

Repetition creates boredom, but new experiences create interest. When classroom involvement takes on a variety of forms, the students’ level of interest will be higher.

C. Always praise participation. One of the most effective ways to get a person to do something is to praise him when he does it. Especially in the initial contacts with our class as we try to help them develop good habits, we should sincerely praise their participation.

Even if a student’s answer is wrong, he should feel good about the fact that he tried, so the teacher must create this feeling within the student. Such comments as “Good,” “That’s right,” or “I understand” will provide the positive reinforcement the student needs to develop the habit of participation.

Our praise can be nonverbal–a nod, a smile, or just to listen attentively. In any case we must be careful to praise the fact of participation regardless of the quality. If the student feels good that he has tried, he
will participate again, perhaps with even better results. The key to the students’ reaction to participation is the teacher’s praise.

D. Match your expectations to the group’s abilities. One Sunday School teacher learned a difficult lesson from a college career class. He was working for class participation by asking discussion questions. Each time he asked a question, the students simply stared back at him. Finally, the frustrated teacher blurted out, “Why won’t you answer my questions?” With a pained expression, one of them responded, “Because they are so easy, they make us feel ridiculous.” The teacher realized he was insulting their intelligence by expecting a level of participation far below the group’s abilities. As he began to ask more complex and demanding questions, group participation increased.

When we underestimate the group’s abilities, the group gets bored. Many times children dislike Sunday School because they are asked to do “baby things” when they want to function on a higher level. Teenagers may also measure the level of participation expected in Sunday School against that of the public school and conclude the Christian education must be inferior.

On the other hand, some teachers expect too much from their students. When the teacher’s level of expectation is beyond the group’s abilities, the students become discouraged. The teacher must be sensitive to the abilities of his students so that he can determine the proper level of participation.

E. Direct and control class participation. Too much of anything in life may cause problems. Student participation so extensive that the class objective is lost or teacher control is forfeited is incorrect. The teacher must remember that he needs to maintain control. Student participation must not go beyond that which is beneficial to the learning process.

Some teachers pride themselves in doing just what the students want. If the students want to discuss a certain issue, then the day’s lesson is put aside and that issue is discussed. At times this may be a wise decision, but the danger is that the students soon learn that this teacher can easily be led off the subject. Soon, every week the students go off on a discussion of their own and the curriculum is no longer followed. When this happens, the teacher has ceased to be a teacher and has simply become a participant in the group process.

Balance is the key in this area as in many others. If the teacher controls the class to tightly, he stifles student participation. But if he becomes too free, rather than being a learning experience, the classroom becomes chaotic.

The teacher must create an atmosphere in which the students feel sufficiently free to express honestly and openly their feelings and understandings regarding the topic, but at the same time feel compelled to stay within the boundaries of the program. A sense of balance can be developed only through experience.


3. Suggestions for Creative Participation

While there is no limit to the kind of participation available for our classes, some practical suggestions for creative participation can be helpful. As with all ideas, these must be adapted to your own situation, and they may suggest other new ideas to help you develop class participation for your group.

A. Children’s division. One way to get children to participate is to allow them to tell and act out the Bible lessons themselves. Either by placing the figures on the felt board themselves or perhaps using Fisher-Price
figures to tell or act out the biblical narrative, the child can relive the story as he acts it out. Sometimes simple Bible costumes help the children to dramatize the story.

Recording children’s ideas and reactions on a cassette recorder is another means of involvement. By letting them pose questions to “Moses” or make a thank-you tape to God, we allow them to think through some of the biblical concepts.

The more advanced children can be encouraged to write a letter to God by employing their new-found skills in writing.

Because of their nature, children are natural participators. Generally the problem is on how to get them involved but rather how to control the involvement and make it exciting and productive.

B. Youth division. While peer pressure many times inhibits participation by youth, it is still possible to get teenagers to take an active part. One practical means is to have them discuss how the main ideas of Scripture relate to their lives.

Such questions as “How can I honor my father and mother?” or “How do I practically yield my body as a living sacrifice to God?” are pertinent questions that need to be discussed. Rather than telling them the answers to these questions, we should think through the answers for themselves.

Writing a personal paraphrase of a Scripture passage helps the student to understand what the Bible writers are saying. By having them put such passages as Romans 5 or 1 Corinthians 13 into their own language, we can help them come to grips with the biblical ideas. An entire class period could be given to study and paraphrase of a passage of Scripture. The following weeks the paraphrases could be read and discussed.

Creative drawing allows students to express ideas and feelings in a nonverbal way. As we analyze a college-age student’s artistic expression of the world problems facing him today we see problems as he sees them, and we are better able to meet his needs. By having to draw rather than simply express a problem, the students are encouraged to think more deeply into the issue and then find a way to express it in nonverbal terms.

Much more feeling is often expressed nonverbally and a greater depth of honesty can result. Even though some students will reject this kind of involvement, this creative technique is often successful.

C. Adult division. Perhaps the most difficult people to encourage to participate are the adults. They are used to sitting quietly and listening as the teacher talks to them about the Bible. One of the greatest educational needs in the church is to get the adults actively involved in the learning process. The teacher’s continual encouragement, praise, and creative thinking are definitely needed.

Some adults are reluctant to speak in a large group, but they find it easier to speak in a small group. By dividing the class into groups of not more than four people and then posing stimulating questions, adult
participation can be greatly enhanced. The small groups then report back to the main group their findings and conclusions.

A more energetic but effective means of adult participation is through role play. The class can observe an extemporaneously dramatized life situation (such as a role-played parent-teen confrontation) and then discuss what they have seen. Role play is a very effective means of gaining insights from life situations and getting students involved.

Another way to get class participation is to encourage the adults to write a personal psalm. The instructor takes several minutes to explain to the class what a psalm is and then reads some excerpts from some of the Psalms to show the different kinds. The class is given the opportunity to either pour out their hearts to God in praise or worship or frustration or in some other way to write out their feelings to God. Students have said that this is one of the most effective exercises they have ever done.

D. Think participation. While participation is not a panacea for all educational ills, it is an effective means to improve the quality. Because we are working for our Lord Jesus Christ we must always try to do our best
for Him. Even though participation is a very demanding way of teaching, it greatly enhances the educational process.

By using these ideas as a springboard for your own thinking, you can become a teacher who values class participation. Participation, not as a gimmick or educational extra, but rather as a means of ingraining the Scripture in the lives of your students. Years later, even after the students have forgotten who you are, they may remember what they experienced in your class. Scripture will be a deeper reality because when you planned your lesson, you learned to “think participation.”

(The above material was published by Insights Teacher Series.)

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