Can churches move from sermons to interactive learning?


Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur has developed a learning technique which he has found to triple students’ learning in comparison to a conventional lecture. Instead of trying to explain complex physics concepts to students, he asks them a question which will show who already understands the concept. He then gets the students who got the answer right to explain it to those who got it wrong. There’s a lot of noise, but also a lot of learning that goes on in this interaction. Within minutes, the recent learners have taught the rest of the class how to solve the problem – while the lecturer could have spent the whole class on the same concept without the same results. Follow-up studies show that students recall the information for much longer using interactive learning than they do in standard lectures.

Mazur has tapped into  the power of peer-to-peer learning. Learners make the best teachers. Someone who has recently grappled with and understood a new concept has fresh ways to teach others. The lecturer, on the other hand, learned the concepts so long ago they have forgotten which aspects were hard to understand, and can’t communicate as effectively to someone at a different level on the knowledge ladder. Mazur explains that when you become an expert in an area; “it becomes harder to teach, because you’re unaware of the conceptual difficulties of a beginning learner.” It’s easier to talk to a peer than to someone of higher status, so students are more able to admit their difficulties and ask questions when they need help. The students doing the explanation also benefit, as teaching is one of the most powerful ways to solidify learning.

If we could grasp this concept and use it in church, it would radically change the methods we use for teaching. Sermons simply aren’t tapping into the ability of God’s people to teach each other. If we re-structure the church meeting to facilitate people to share with one another what they have learned about God, it would engage people, empower people and challenge people. God’s people can learn more from each other than from any sermon.

A tale of two workers – an allegory of empowerment.

two men

Meet Mike and Peter. These two guys studied together, and have both recently started their new jobs. They both have the same training, the same skill set, and the same potential.

Mike is really happy with his new position. The boss seems like a great guy – intelligent and full of advice. He seems to know everything, the kind of guy who can talk for hours about any topic (and frequently does). He is willing to spend time telling Mike how to do his job well. He’s always quick to solve problems for Mike, and even takes over and does the work for him if Mike gets stuck. Mike has found a comfortable work environment and has settled in well. He doesn’t realise he is slowly being disempowered.

Peter’s new boss is also an experienced, intelligent kind of guy. He asks Peter for his advice and opinions. Continue reading

Why churches need to learn from new trends in education.

In the past, all schooling took place in rows. People believed that the teacher had all the knowledge, and that sitting and listening was the best way to learn. We’ve realized since then that simply isn’t true. Kindergarten teachers, school teachers and university lecturers now know that people need to be actively involved in the learning process, otherwise they switch off and don’t learn much at all. Active learning is better than passive listening. All around the world, teachers are exploring better ways to help students be involved in the learning process. They are exploring hands-on learning, discovery learning, collaborative learning and reflective learning techniques in the classroom.

What about in church? Well, church members don’t get graded after listening to sermons, so churches aren’t moving so quickly to find better ways to teach. There is an urgency in the education system to rethink teaching methods as the world changes around us. In the church, not so much. Sermons are still considered as the most effective way to impart information, even by many of the “missional” church models.

“Mindshift: how we will learn” is a great education blog that shares innovations in the education sector. Many of these are applicable in the church context. When churches start getting creative with teaching methods, we will start to see God’s people increasingly empowered, and reduce the clergy/laity divide.