Make Them Think in Sunday School!

Monday 24th March, 2008

A few years ago, I became the teacher of a class that had had a well-loved teacher. The teacher was very personable, a great leader, and a great lecturer. Having attended the class prior to becoming the teacher, I chose to make some changes. Rather than only lecture, I divided the large group into smaller groups for part of the time and gave each small group an assignment.

Each week the assignment followed a basic outline: read the assigned Bible passage, answer questions about the passage, and determine what God wanted the group to do as a result. I would introduce the lesson and lead up to the passage of group 1 and call on them to read their passage, questions, and responses. The class went from a half dozen who previously were participating in the lesson to almost 100% participation. But after two weeks this had made three attenders uncomfortable enough that they asked me to go back to the old way of teaching (lecture). I asked them to give me four more weeks, and at the end of that time two of three told me that they now understood and thanked me for teaching them to study God's Word for themselves.

In many ways, I believe we have developed a bunch of fill-in-the-blank Christians who know answers but don't understand them. They don't know how to study God's Word for themselves, and they don't know how to think. How can we change this? I want to warn you in advance of trying that there will be resistance. Some don't like change. Some don't like to think. Some are afraid to allow learners to think. But in order to move converts into disciples, we must persistently move attenders toward thinking and application.

A few years ago, Thom and Joani Schultz wrote a book entitled Why Nobody Learns Much of Anything at Church: And How to Fix It. Chapter 5 is entitled Make People Think. They make seven great suggestions for shifting from lecture to methods that will lead learners to think, primarily focused upon asking questions. Thom and Joani's suggestions are listed in all capitals followed by my brief commentary:

  • DEVELOP A CADRE OF GREAT ASKERS. Their suggestions included training your teachers to ask open-ended and follow-up questions, waiting for students' answers, not evaluating students' responses, and encouraging students to ask questions. This begins with the teachers.
  • CREATE A SAFE THINKING PLACE. This may take time. Think about the class. Is it safe to think or does someone make fun of those who answer questions? Thom and Joani offer a great Safe Thinking Zone Ahead quiz to check on your class environment. The quiz checks that people listen, show respect toward each other and their ideas, expectations are clear, the teacher is an example, humor is used positively, mistakes/failures are seen as opportunites for growth/learning, and trust and care are present.
  • HELP STUDENTS SUCCEED BY BEING VERY CLEAR ABOUT YOUR EXPECTATIONS. With no expectations, any behavior goes. And that means that it is acceptable for attenders not to participate or think. Instead, be clear. I have mentioned the benefits of a covenant before (see Sunday School Class and Home Bible Study Group Covenants and Benefits of a Covenant for a Revolutionary Sunday School Class for more information. Expect attenders to ask questions. Expect them to participate. I like t he expec tations T hom and Joani shared: listen, participate, give reasons for answers, stay on task/topic , and ask questions.
  • STUDY HOW JESUS ASKED QUESTIONS. Help your teachers understand how and why Jesus did it. Make assignments to get your teachers to do a study of Jesus' practices in the Gospels. Then gather your teachers to debrief what they discovered.
  • LEARN TO PHRASE THOUGHT-PROVOKING QUESTIONS. Thom and Joani encourage using differenty types of questions: closed-ended, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Teachers should help learners approach biblical passages with a desire to understand even more than answers to the six newspaper questions of who, what, when, where, how, and why. I really like one suggestion Thom and Joani made: "For fun, star all the questions in the teachers guide that require higher-order thinking. Count them and see how the questions rate on making people think."
  • DEVELOP A LIST OF TIPS FOR THOUGHT-FULL TEACHERS AND CLASSROOMS. Gather your teachers and brainstorm a list of ideas to help create an atmosphere that fosters thinking. Thom and Joani shared the following ideas: write questions on the board/newsprint, explain what you're up to, wait for answers, tell them you will give their answers feedback, and use small groups.
  • CHALLENGE TEACHERS TO BREAK OLD HABITS. Lead teachers to practice asking better questions in teacher planning/training sessions. Get them to self-report in the next planning/training sessions. Observe them, or as Thom and Joani suggest: "Invite someone they respect to be their 'observer.' Challenge them to audio or video record their class to evaluate how they did. Another way is to ask students to hold teachers accountable to practice good habits. As Thom and Joani put it, "One courageous teacher...gave points to students who recognized closed-ended questions. She discovered this not only helped her, but got students to really listen!" Pair off with another teacher and hold each other accountable.

Stretch yourself. Add new practices one at a time. Remember, new habits take time to form. Don't be overly critical in the meantime. Be patient. Be accountable. Take time to think. Give your attenders time to think. Ask yourself and your students good questions. Be revolutionary!

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