Teaching that Fosters Learning

By Scott Hughes

At some point in your life, you’ve had coaches or mentors who were constructive and exceptional and others who were not. If your experience is like mine, you’ve had coaches who did not provide specific directions or who offered only clichés that belong on inspirational posters. You’ve probably also had coaches who did give specific instructions for improvement that enabled you to take your skills to the next level.

One of the worst experiences I had with a coach was when I tried out for the junior varsity basketball team. The coach showed up halfway through tryouts (in his defense, he was coaching another sport until then), failed to connect with the players, and didn’t communicate well (so those who made the team told me!).

Good coaches are a fitting example for facilitators of learning. In earlier blog posts – “When Does Real Learning Happen?” and “Does Teaching Produce Learning?” – I’ve hinted that I am always looking for ways to promote and foster learning environments. Here, again, is my working definition of learning: “Learning occurs when self-reflection or a disruptive event causes us to reassess our assumptions and presuppositions so that they are modified (strengthened or changed).”

Learning occurs when self-reflection or a disruptive event causes us to reassess our assumptions and presuppositions so that they are modified strengthened or changed.

In the New Testament, we see Jesus using a variety of teaching methods with the disciples. At times, Jesus gave instructions (Sermon on the Mount); and at other times, Jesus allowed the disciples to have firsthand experience. We see this in Luke 10 when Jesus sends the disciples out to pronounce the kingdom of God. Jesus gives instructions about how they are to complete the task (without items that will make them more dependent on others’ hospitality) and what they are to do when they encounter failure. The disciples’ experience played an invaluable role in their learning. Without a doubt, these firsthand experiences helped them to grasp Jesus’ ministry and message more clearly, even if they still failed to do so perfectly.

Educators have a name for this methodology – inductive teaching. Duane H. Elmer’s article “Inductive Teaching: Strategy for the Adult Educator” in The Christian Educator’s Handbook on Adult Education (Baker Books, 1998) offers three assumptions of inductive teaching. Here’s my summary of his points:

(1) Learning happens best when the teacher avoids doing all the talking

(2) Learning is a joint venture of sharing among learners.

(3) Learning occurs best in an atmosphere of trust.

These assumptions are present among the great coaches that I’ve had or witnessed. The best coaches are also listeners to their students’ experiences (#1 and #2, which fosters #3). Great coaches can tailor their teaching to their students’ personalities and needs (#2). Coaches have a rapport with their students, which enables the students to hear and incorporate the instructions of the coach (#3).baseballlearningthumb

Certainly, these assumptions apply to teaching within the church setting as well. When it comes to either formal classrooms or small-group settings or mentoring/discipler relationships, good teaching happens when the teacher incorporates students’ experiences (#2). Good teachers allow time and space for their students to reflect upon their previous and upcoming experiences as well as the assumptions the students carry (#1). Good teachers are not solely concerned with content, but are focused on relationships, so they are aware of how to deliver the content (#3).

There are many ways good teachers and coaches live out inductive teaching and many similarities of good coaching with good facilitation. While these skills are important, even more important is the character and integrity of the teacher or coach. Students won’t listen as effectively if they don’t trust the coach or the teacher. (And as I argued in “Does Teaching Produce Learning,” the learner is in charge of whether learning will occur.)

The disciples went out because they trusted Jesus. Good teaching (or coaching or facilitating, if you prefer) happens when the integrity of the teacher allows the Holy Spirit to control and shape the learning process in both the teacher and student. I’ll give the last word to Duane Elmer:

“[Inductive teaching]’s power for the adult educator lies in a three-way synergism: the teacher who engages the learner in the learning process; the learner who proactively assumes some of the responsibility for learning; and the Holy Spirit who is able to take these efforts and bring the desired changes in both teacher and learner” (147).

Reflection Questions:

Look again at Luke 10. How did Jesus use the inductive teaching model? How did that foster learning that was greater than if he had solely preached about the kingdom of God?

What are ways you can incorporate inductive teaching into your facilitation and/or preaching?