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At my middle-school daughter’s “back to school” night, my wife and I followed a virtual trail of breadcrumbs through a cold gauntlet of lockers into the classroom jungle. In our journey of seven classrooms, we spent 15 minutes with each of her teachers—to get a micro-taste of what Lucy’s day is like, along with a shotgun blast of what each teacher was planning to do over the next nine months. Our last stop was in her social studies class. Lucy had already told us she was nervous about this teacher, so we were expecting to be underwhelmed.
But we were wrong.
Her social studies teacher, it turns out, is quirky/passionate about teaching middle schoolers. His obsession was helping kids learn how to think critically. The topics he planned to target seemed almost secondary to him—his real goal was to entice young adolescents into thinking and doubting and exploring and pursuing. This, of course, must have sounded a little intimidating for Lucy—thus the ambivalence. But the more this guy described his teaching techniques, the better I liked him.
Two weeks later, that teacher abruptly resigned. He was near retirement, and apparently trying to hold out for one last year while he labored under an ominous medical diagnosis. But he couldn’t do it. And after Lucy came home from school and told us the news, I was surprised by how deeply sad I felt—not just for the struggle this servant-teacher was facing, but for the valuable training my daughter would now miss. Critical thinking is really the key to so many doors in life—and in youth ministry, it can be primary conduit for discipleship. Even so, critical thinking is typically not the means or the end in the strategy most ministries use to engage kids with scriptural truth.
Our conventional models for discipleship training—almost always some version of an “information download” seasoned with a video or a story—are fatally flawed, in much the same way our conventional models for public education are fatally flawed. I heard this fatal flaw threaded through an investigative report on why fewer than half of all Colorado students score at grade level in science, and most lose interest in it by 4th grade. Replace “science” with “biblical truth” in public radio reporter Jenny Brundin’s report, and the impact could be prophetic in your ministry…
Brundin: When you explore the gargantuan question of why so many kids are failing in science, you find some of the answers just by talking to high school junior Elizabeth Ramsey…
Ramsey: A lot of us did not enjoy science class during middle school, and it kind of carried through with us here. Either they just talked at us and we didn’t really do anything—or we took the occasional note and listened. Others didn’t do a really good job at explaining. We couldn’t understand what they were saying and they couldn’t explain themselves very well.
Brundin: So what’s going on in classrooms? Lots of talk about facts and procedures. And students mostly just listen. They don’t get their hands on things, or they’re often not required to figure things out on their own—that’s according to a National Research Council study of high school science classrooms. [The key is] getting kids to think critically and invent, using real-world examples. Dissecting a frog or mixing chemicals in a beaker isn’t enough. Research shows those lab exercises are more like following a recipe than discovering scientific principles. Here’s Barry Cartright, former science specialist with the state Department of Education…
Cartright: Recent research has found that the method of delivery isn’t as important as making sure the kids are really engaged in the material and having to do some deep thinking about it.
Brundin: That means “minds-on” instead of just “hands on.” They have to be mentally engaged. And that means asking questions, debating ideas, and gathering evidence to refine those ideas. The teacher guides the discussion and discovery. She asks challenging and reflective questions. Students who discover the answers will remember them much better than if a teacher told them in a lecture. Here’s teacher Trish Loeblein’s advice…
Loeblein: Try to figure out how to get the teacher out of the center stage and how to get the students realizing that they’re the learners and that they need to be the doers.
Our goal is for kids to discover truths, not merely hear us talk about them. Find more ways to ask questions, not make pronouncements, and more ways for kids to experience truth, not merely look at it behind glass. ●

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