I have the privilege of teaching a course on Christian Spirituality in a major seminary in town. For three hours every Tuesday, nineteen students and myself grapple with issues that pertain to our relationship with God. The last forty minutes or so of every class, I divide the class into small groups of three or four. In their small groups, the students share about what was most significant about the lecture they had just heard. One of the group is designated a “reporter.” He or she will take notes of the group discussion and report back to the entire class later so that the whole class gets to hear the gist of the discussion of every group. The reports from the various groups become mini case studies and these are discussed on the spot.
I am not sure how the class feels about this weekly exercise. When I was a student in seminary, I remember being more interested in what the professor had to say then in interacting with my peers. I am not sure if my students feel the same. My own reputation is no where near the reputation of the luminaries I studied with so maybe this is a non issue with my present class. Whatever. I am unrepentant in the use of small groups in my lectures. In fact I incorporate small group activity in most of my public lectures for a reason.
In this day and age, people do not need to come to a class to get content. They can just stay at home and download the best lectures by the best teachers. They can listen to these lectures in the comfort of their own homes or wherever they come online. They do to need to be in the same physical space with other students. When a class assembles, they become a community, with each student (including the teacher) bringing their own unique contributions to the life of the class. It seems such a terrible waste if all the students are passive and the teacher is the only one actively sharing. Learning in a class should seek to liberate all the rich resources present in the class and that means helping every student to see themselves as active participants in the learning process.
I have long practised this approach to teaching. I am also grateful to have discovered the writings of Jane Vella which have helped give voice to what I have been trying to do. In her chapter, “The Learning Task In A Small Group,” she describes the four elements in a learning task:
1. Inductive work
Inductive work connects the leaner to the task by relating the core concepts of the content to the learners’ real life, real work . . .
New content is presented. “It takes more then experience to create new learning”(Lewin 1951). Substantial and challenging content is presented in a nonstatic way . . .
Learners are asked to use the new content immediately, right there in the class. They get to touch it and practice it right away . . .
When real learning happens, it can survive outside the classroom incubator. Integration tasks ask learners to move the content into the world and apply it in some way.
(On Teaching and Learning, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2008, 63.)
I am not trying to downplay the importance of the lecture. As Vella notes, experience alone is not enough. Students need input of fresh and challenging content. But it is in small groups that the learners work at inductive work, implementation, and integration. And shouldn’t all Christian education be concerned with helping people connect what they learn with their own journeys, helping them see the implications and applications of what they learn for their lives, and helping people experience change so that they leave the classroom transformed in some way?
I fear that too much of the teaching that goes on in our churches and in our educational institutions is too passive. (Sunday preaching is a major culprit.) Learners are passive recipients of content. The learning experience is one directional, with the preacher/teacher as the expert doling out the truth. The learners’ duty is to receive the truth. The experience is also by and large anonymous with minimal personal interaction between the teacher and the learners, and the learners with each other. Where is the space for inductive work, implementation, and integration? Contrast what we often do with Vella’s approach to teaching:
Teaching adults for transformation involves first meeting those adults, learning from them about their present contexts, and shaping content so it is comprehensible and nourishing. It is not to distort the past, or the research, or the textbook. It is to prepare that content in such a way as to connect it to these lives. (On Teaching and Learning, xx.)
Which was what Jesus did.
Jesus did a lot of public teaching but his primary format for transformational teaching was a small group, the Twelve. He also gave special attention to an even smaller group, Peter, James and John. We see Jesus using questions frequently to draw His disciples into discussion. Rarely did He give abstract timeless truths divorced from life. He saw the Scriptures as authoritative (Matthew 5:17-20). But He was always helping His learners see how those authoritative truths engage the concrete realities of their lives.
If we are serious about seeing our churches and educational institutions become effective incubators of transformation so that God’s people can be agents of transformation in the world, we need to seriously rethink how we do our teaching. We need an approach to teaching that takes seriously, both Scripture and people.
And so I soldier on with my Christian Spirituality class. Afternoons are a very tough time to be lecturing. After lunch, listening to a lecturer in an air conditioned room, well, I am just grateful that there has not been any obvious snoring. I hope that the small group activity helps the students be more engaged. But more than that, I am hoping the small group activity provides a safe context for transformational learning. My hope and my prayer are that at the end of the course, the students will not be saying “what a great class we had” but will be saying “how much I have grown.”