I attended a session a few year’s ago at a Christian Educator’s Fellowship meeting where the leader talked about the importance of “good content, good topics, and good technique.” She delivered a very compelling vision of the task of teaching — organized, exacting, and precise. I went to another workshop on brain research, multiple intelligences, and learning styles. At the time I was reading a book (whose title I cannot recall) on adult learning that was talking about the importance of retention — effective teachers are those who help students retain the greatest amount of information. These things are true — to a point. My own research — and a boatload of research by others in academia — indicates that there is one factor that trumps all others in the realm of effective learning, and that factor is relationships. When pupils and teachers care most deeply about one another (in healthy, productive ways), learning is most effective. Doesn’t matter about the subject, the level of difficulty, or even the individual’s tastes and preferences — unless there is some pathological learning disorder — those who care most learn most.
Look at most global statistics about home schooling. While some socialization skills are often lacking, home-schooled students consistently out perform both public- and private-schooled peers. During the Vital Signs study, I talked to over 4,000 people about their spiritual formation. The vast majority spoke not of favorite classes or stories or curriculum — they spoke of favorite teachers. And those who retained the most, retained what they did because of the influence of a particular person. This is not only true in Sunday school and Christian education, but also tracks with findings in public and private school settings worldwide. Teachers and professors who master a subject are not necessarily going to be effective helping others master it. Simply understanding learning theory gives a teacher almost no advantage if that person doesn’t relate well on a personal level. The best materials and equipment provide no real value if students dislike or are apathetic to their teachers. We know this is true, but we keep dumping more and more money into fancy curricula, media, and equipment, thinking that somehow these things will bring back the glory days of Sunday school when classrooms were packed with happy, smiling children. Good luck with that.
I think about the five or six best Sunday schools I visited across our denomination a decade ago. Most didn’t buy any pre-packaged, pre-printed Sunday school materials. Most showed no videos, though music was often a central ingredient. The kids were engaged and attentive, and they obviously liked and learned what they were hearing. What was obviously different in these settings was how deep and close the relationships were between teachers and students. None of the teachers had a “degree” in Christian education, none had attended Christian educator workshops, and none was well-versed in multiple intelligences. No, what set these excellent teachers apart was their authenticity — they taught in ways that reflected their own gifts, talents, knowledge, and proficiency. They weren’t trying to teach “by the book,” nor did they emulate anyone else’s tools and techniques. They obviously loved God, loved their students, and made it safe and attractive to learn about God and Jesus Christ. So simple. Too simple apparently.
I met a young teacher who absolutely mesmerized her classes. She possessed the spiritual gift of teaching if anyone ever has. She knew each child, not only by name, but as a real person. In a classroom of almost 30 5-6-7 year olds, you could hear a pin drop. This young woman was amazing. Too bad the associate pastor at the church attended a workshop offered by Christian Ed experts. There she learned how important it was to have credentialed teachers. So, home she went replacing this gifted teacher with a credentialed teacher. Today the church has four children in the 5-6-7 year old class — three of them children of the new teacher. Where would we be without experts…?
The same is true for adults as well. I found some incredibly comprehensive and complex learning plans for adult learners — and indeed the information was important — but the apprehension, comprehension and application of the information was always conditional on the quality of relationships between teacher and students. And in the very best settings, all participants were both teacher and student, so relationships were even more important.
Teaching is not a task. Treating it as such is a recipe for… well, the results we are currently getting. Somewhere along the line we traded spiritual formation for religious information. Facts replaced faith. Trivia transplanted true teaching. Christian education displaced discipleship. Don’t get me wrong — lifelong learning is the foundation and core of Christian discipleship. It’s just that so much of what passes for “Christian education” is only nominally Christian and barely educational. What we teach is very important, how we teach it less so, but nothing will make a bigger difference than the relationship between those who teach and those who learn.