Nobel laureate Professor Carl Wieman raised hackles recently by branding the college lecture—the world’s most popular (and notorious) teaching strategy—as “educational malpractice.” Wieman won his Noble for physics but has made a name for himself as an educational reformer. He’s the teaching equivalent of Don Quixote, tilting at the windmill of one-way communication as a learning strategy. Simply, he believes the lecture method, used by almost all his teaching colleagues, has been proven, over and over, to be an inferior and ineffectual way to help students learn. Wieman not only advocates “active learning” but has been an innovative practitioner of it.
The “active” in active learning means people learn best through conversation, experience, exploration, and problem-solving. A mountain of research proves that lecture, also a universally embraced strategy in church ministry, is the medical equivalent of bloodletting. In an NPR interview, Wieman says: “It’s a very good analogy. You let some blood out and go away and they get well. Was it bloodletting that did it, or something else? When we measure how little people learn from an actual lecture, it’s just really small.”
Why do so many youth workers continue to use the lecture/sermon/message teaching strategy when it’s been debunked and exposed as a fraudulent way to help kids grow? When I’ve raised this issue in the past, a lot of youth workers have shot back that it’s a biblical strategy with deep roots in church history. That’s only half true. Thoroughly examine Jesus’ teaching strategy—he is, after all, the exemplar for transformational teaching—and you’ll discover a little bit of lecture but a mother lode of experience, parable, conversation, problem-solving, and debate. If we’re following Jesus as our discipler, the facts don’t back up the biblical argument. But it’s true that the church has a long history of sermon-making that has formed the norms around youth ministry teaching. And because we hang onto our traditions without a great deal of wide-eyed scrutiny, we’ve agreed to support a form of teaching that’s so bad, labeling it “malpractice” isn’t mere hyperbole.
What if, instead, we embrace the renegade heart of youth ministry—the one area of the church that’s been willing to engage biblical truth and cultural realities to innovate new ways of reaching people—and treat the sermon/lecture method as if it really were malpractice? And what if we don’t stop there? What if we sample other standard ministry practices we’ve simply accepted as normal and take a hard look at them? These are things we’ve held onto because we’ve believed false information, or we’ve dragged our feet because change is difficult, or we’ve kowtowed to other people’s expectations.
Here’s the first installment of my malpractice starter list. I’ll post the next three in succeeding weeks.
#1—Talking at Teenagers Instead of With Them
The on-ramp to this piece focuses on the proven weakness of sermons and talks as a growth strategy. So let me flesh that out a little… Often, when I make my case for teaching or speaking in a much more engaging way, I’m sorely misunderstood. Some ministry leaders assume I’m asking them to give away their important role as a kind of “rabbi” for their group. I’ve been teaching this way for 25 years and can tell you my impact as a leader/speaker is way more powerful and enjoyable when I’m involving everyone else in a rich conversation, not when I’m the only voice in the room. Professor Wieman says: “You give people lectures, and [some students] go away and learn the stuff. But it wasn’t that they learned it from lecture. They learned it from homework, from assignments.”
I lead a small group of 12 to 20 teenagers in our home. Every week I plan an exploration of the heart of Jesus that includes conversations between pairs, trios, and the whole group. In addition, we do simple experiences (including stations, object lessons, and practicing the truth we’re trying to learn), watch or listen to parables and metaphors lifted from films or stories, and engage in spirited debates. I send kids on explorations grounded in the things Jesus said and did; then we talk about what they discovered. And when we talk, I add my insights and guiding hand to bring us to a destination that’s transformative. The impact of my input is magnified because it comes in the context of mutual conversation.
And these kids—guys and girls, middle schoolers and high schoolers—absolutely love this way of learning. The group was supposed to be a short-term summer option for teenagers whose church youth ministries shut down for three months, but the kids have insisted that the group continue. We assumed no one would want to come the week of Christmas because life is so busy; turns out, that was our biggest turnout of the year.
I’m sharing this as an encouragement to try something new. Take steps toward acknowledging that the lecture method might actually be malpractice. You can learn more about how to teach this way from Rick Chromey’s book Sermons Reimagined and Rick Bundschuh’s book Moving Messages (great names think alike!). And we’ve created foundational resources that will help you practice active learning in your youth ministry. Check out our LIVE Curriculum, as well as our brand-new prototype for a series of teaching resources called YM Select.
Next week, watch for the second installment in this youth ministry malpractice series: “Blaming Fun & Games for Biblical Illiteracy.”