The beginning of August means I read a book on teaching, and my pick this year has been all and much more than I expected. It is by Ken Bain and is called What the Best College Teachers Do. This book deserves to be in the library of every pastor and church educator; parents would do well to let it shape parenting. There are two basic approaches to education:
Some think it is “information download.” Teacher knows; teacher informs; student doesn’t know; student absorbs. Student answers tests; teacher grades. This is the teacher model.
Others think it is about “motivating students.” The teacher may be the knower, but the student is a learner. The teacher’s task is to design an environment that puts students in learning situations so they can learn, the teacher can give feedback, and then assess or evaluate the student. This is the learner model.
Questions for the teaching dimension of church ministry: Is the role of the pastor a teacher? Is preaching teaching? What happens if churches reshape their “educational” programs according to the “learning model”?
You may think the teacher model teaches learning, but it doesn’t. It imparts information and rewards memorization, etc., which has its place but it’s a long way from turning students into learners. What the learning model does is to shift responsibility from the teacher being the informer to the student being the learner. The latter is bingo! for genuine education. Yes, information is acquired — but in context. We learn by doing, not simply by listening.
The learning model asks what students can do with their learning; the teaching model asks what students can produce on an assessment/test. The evidence clearly shows that focusing on absorbing information will get clear evidence but there is a major dysfunction here: most information we absorb is not remembered and neither is it transfered into usable skills. Skills is where the big game is played.
Example: if you want to learn how to putt a left to right break on a golf green and someone tells you to keep your putter square and don’t open it up because it will put even more side spin on it, you might amass the information. But, real progress is measured by not only amassing information but being able to put the knowledge to use: did you open up your putter face on the left to right putt? Teacher models emphasize the knowledge of the teacher and the ability to download that information into students; learning models emphasize what students can “do” as a result of the course.
Apply this to the church: do you want parishioners to “know” theology or “do” theology? At home: do you want your kids to “know” right moral decisions or to be able to “do” right moral decisions? The answers to these two questions are obvious. What is amazing is that the predominant form of “education” in churches is the “teaching model” instead of the “learning model.” I could go on.
If you want a good example of the latter, this book is it.
What this book does is something I’ve not seen: it studies the best teachers. So, you ask, who are the best teachers? Good question. Here’s Bain’s answer: those who “achieved remarkable success in helping their students learn in ways that made a sustained, substantial, and positive influence on how those students think, act, and feel” (5). That is, they found teachers who had a substantial influence on students and figured out how they went about the business of teaching.
I’ll be sketching what good teachers do in the weeks ahead.