Engaged Learning in Church

break out groupW. Brian Lane is a physics professor who wrote the very first post for Scholar’s Compassour ongoing online devotional for academics. This fall, he’s writing a series on engaged learning and how it can help Christian academics teach well in the university and the church. In our mission to support emerging Christian scholars, we’ve found that one key question most grad students and early career profs are asking is how they can serve their students by teaching well. We’re delighted to publish Brian’s reflections on engaged learning this fall, and we hope they help you as you hone the craft of teaching. To God be the glory!

How I Use Engaged Learning in Church

Break-out Groups: An example of engaged learning

We saw last time that learning requires the learner to work; it isn’t enough for students to simply watch their instructors explain concepts. In fact, it isn’t even enough for instructors to “engage” the entire class at once, since we can only dialogue with one student at a time. On the other hand, break-out groups distribute the engagement into pairs or trios of students as they try to address a problem they’ve been presented. While these groups wrestle with the material, the instructor hovers around the room silently, listening in and offering a quick correction or suggestion when needed. One trend I’ve observed in physics classes is that each break-out group tends to progress along the problem at approximately the same pace, reaching the same roadblock at approximately the same time. To help students navigate past a roadblock, the instructor can (1) repeat the same advice once per group, (2) announce the advice to the class, or (3) provide advice to one or two groups and watch the advice spread across the classroom. After working in break-out groups, it’s usually helpful to regroup the entire class to review their solutions, especially if you give them slightly different problems to work on. In physics, giving slightly different problems usually means adjusting each group’s numbers, but there are more interesting variations you can try.

The greatest teaching trick I ever pulled

This brings me to my favorite experience with using engaged learning in a church environment. I was teaching an adult Sunday school class about the parables in the Gospel of Matthew, and every class meeting followed approximately the same format: I handed out a set of notes, we read the text together, I gave a few comments about textual and cultural context, the participants gathered into break-out groups to discuss a few interpretive questions, and then we regrouped to share our answers. The bulk of class time was spent in the break-out discussions, and the participants became accustomed to this rhythm quickly.

Then came the week we were scheduled to discuss the parables of the treasure in the field and the costly pearl (Matthew 13:44-46). It turns out there is some debate as to whether (A) the objects of value in these parables represent our relationship with Jesus in his kingdom (which is certainly valuable) and the person represents us (seeking Jesus’ kingdom above all else), or (B) the objects represent us (valuable in Jesus’ eye) and the person represents Jesus (seeking us at the expense of his life). So, I handed out two sets of notes: One was designed to lead to interpretation (A), while the other led to interpretation (B). The break-out sessions proceeded as normal, and each group became convinced that they had arrived at the correct interpretation, unaware that the other half of the class had been convincing themselves otherwise. Upon regrouping, the room erupted in the most lively debate I’ve ever seen in Sunday school, leading to a deeper respect for the nuances of biblical interpretation. Most of these participants appreciated the interactive class format (including this little stunt). However, I have encountered some resistance to engaged learning in a church environment.

Resistance to engaged learning

In a different adult Sunday school class, I gave an anonymous feedback form at the end of one class meeting. (Yes, I voluntarily imposed student evaluations on myself…) While many participants appreciated the interactive format, some of the responses were more critical: “Small groups lead to small talk,” one participant commented. Another wrote, “I want to hear about what the teacher has read and learned, not what my neighbor thinks.” It seems, then, that some Christians find a conflict between the self-directed nature of engaged learning and the revelatory basis of Christian doctrine.

This challenge is certainly worth considering! After all, if God himself has spoken to us, what need do we have to hear from each other? My answer is that God has similarly spoken in nature, providing us with measurable information to examine, but a physics student learning this information through an interactive process does not negate the authority with which God has spoken in nature. In the same way, learning about God’s word interactively does not negate the authority of that word, but instead confirms that authority as we learn more deeply.

Next time, I’ll share some experiences I’ve had with developing engaged learning through online videos.

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W. Brian Lane

W. Brian Lane received his Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Florida in 2008 and is now a Professor of Physics at Jacksonville University. His favorite classes to teach include Electromagnetic Theory and Technical Communication. He has also occasionally taught adult Sunday School classes, and produces videos for his YouTube channel Let’s Code Physics. Whether at church, in the university, or on YouTube, Brian enjoys teaching with interactive engagement practices with an eye toward mentoring learners. @WBrianLane

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