loving learners

I may have gone through my entire education without ever asking a single question in the classroom. I certainly never did it in my MDiv (theology), or my BSc (chemistry) days - and I have no memory of ever doing it in high school.

The reasons are partly physiological. The anticipation of speaking-up led to such a combo of clanging nerves, sweaty perspiration and pumping pulse that it never seemed to be worth the effort. Plus I tend to blush badly under pressure. As a learner, it was far easier to be quiet and passive.

So my early days as a student were not great. While the physiological plays its part, there have been some philosophical issues as well. I've learned a little about learners in subsequent years.

As a young lecturer, more than twenty years ago, I remember the meeting when the Academic Dean walked in, sat down and said, 'OK, we need to change the way we describe our courses. Teaching objectives need to replaced by learning outcomes. We need to shift away from a focus on what the teacher teaches and over towards what the learner learns and everything, especially assessment, needs to be aligned with this change.' That shift started a revolution in my approach to learning.

About this same time, I heard an expert say that making things compulsory in adult learning situations was counter-productive. 'Remove as much compulsion as you can'. 'Don't treat adult learners as children'. Intrinsic motivation is critical. As a principal of a theological college, I decided to commit myself to this conviction - with one example being a refusal to make chapel attendance compulsory. Instead, we worked hard to make them too good to be missed; we worked hard at the rationale for the rhythm of worship to be embedded into the discipline of study; we worked hard to set a good example for participation etc.

As a preacher, my bread-and-butter has been what is often called exposition where you begin with the biblical passage, assuming its authority, and gradually come to the listener. But now I love playing with a more inductive logic as well. Here you begin with the listener living in their world, lingering with them a little longer than the usual introduction - and gradually drawing them into biblical truth, as the rationale for it gradually unfolds in front of them.

As a student (again!), my doctoral work focused on the parable and the role of the reader, alongside author and text, in the process of interpretation. With the Bible I believe that a divine author lies behind an authoritative text with a clear and certain meaning (in an overwhelming majority of cases) delivered by a preacher with authority ... and yet, even with that being true, the listener still retains some sovereignty because they can choose simply to stop listening. The parable genre reminds us of the need for the reader/learner to participate if meaning is going to be complete and full.

As a trainer, I like to arrive early on that first day - always. Why? Because I am seriously fussy about something. I want to see how the chairs are arranged in the room where the learning will take place. Are they in rows, all facing the front, suggesting that all that is of value comes from the front?  Or, are they in circles, or clusters, or around tables, facing each other, suggesting that learning will come from each other as well - because it does and it will, as participation and interactivity is featured.

Participants from four different continents collaborate in the process of learning
If I was ever a pastor again, one of the first initiatives I'd take is to have a small group from the congregation walk the preaching journey with me for a year. I'd draw them into the process of forming the sermon. I'd have them help me with illustration and application. The sermon-making process would become more collaborative. We'd change the group each year and gradually the entire congregation would be drawn into this participatory learning process.

In all these roles I have come back to Berea (Acts 17.10-15) where the preacher is hardly mentioned, even though it is an apostolic one. The focus is on the quality of the listener-learners. It is a reminder that preaching is not just about the preacher and the text - but about the listeners as well. To be effective, good preaching needs good listening.

nice chatting



Jeremy said…
Thanks Paul,
I remember you writing a post which drew parallels between leadership and creativity. This came to mind when you mentioned intrinsic motivation. Over the last couple of years, I've discovered in the language classroom that the students always respond positively when I have attempted to create something more personal from the the text.
Hopefully in the near future this will spill over into preaching too.
Yes, Jeremy - I do like that 'hopefully' in the final line and the anticipation of you adding the preaching setting to the language classroom. There will be lots of cross-over. [I think there are a few other skillsets bursting to be developed in the near future, however - congrats! ... and here's hoping that I have the right Jeremy].

With preaching it is entirely possible to honour and respect the listener and yet still have the highest view of God's word and its preaching ... and the whole of Acts 17 demonstrates this with the spacious flexibility we find in that chapter.

best wishes
kelsavino said…
Still mulling over the statement "The sermon-making process would become more collaborative" and drawing inspiration from it..Thank you Dr.Windsor.
God bless you, Kelhu. It was such a joy for me to see you in your setting last month.

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