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Book Review: Christian Education in the Small Membership Church, Part 2

Part 2: It's all About People!

Click here to read Part 1

In her book Christian Education in the Small Membership Church, Karen Tye reminds us that Christian education, like so many other things in life, is not primarily about programs or curriculum, it is about people.  When you are talking about a smaller church and its educational program, this is even more the case.  In a smaller church, you do not have the large numbers to draw from for participation, everyone knows everyone else, and in general, healthy interaction with the people involved becomes even more crucial.  The history of the parish comes into play, and so do the personalities of the parishioners.  Positively, in smaller programs, the talents and good will of the people are often the greatest assets of the church school.

Tye feels, along with most educators and psychologists, that there are three aspects of the human being that must be taken into account when teaching them- especially children:

  • their biological nature
  • their developmental nature
  • their ability to learn.

When attempting to educate both children and adults, the biological nature of the learner must be taken into account, particularly in the case of children or adolescents.  Each has abilities according to age, and even sex.  With the older learner (adults), planning programs must take into account the fact that mental processes may not be as sharp as in younger people, and there are often issues of vision or hearing to be aware of.  Traditional forms and methods of teaching may have to be adjusted with these issues in mind, and can certainly be done more easily in the smaller church.

Children vary even more so biologically.  Not only do genes come into play, but age very much so.  Younger children of course have shorter attention spans than older children, so having every age level in a church school be involved in a forty-five minute lesson each Sunday is a little unrealistic, and needs to be addressed.  Also, when planning appropriate activities for Christian education, the sex of the child can also be a big determining factor in what you should plan for the group.  While girls develop fine motor skills fairly early, for example, boys simply develop them later.  Therefore, when planning, you may need to have several activities available which the children can choose from, so that both boys and girls can be on an even playing field.  With youth there is another issue, although at this point boys have pretty well caught up with girls in terms of things like motor skills.  As Tye points out, the body of adolescents is really on a different time table that that of adults, even though we tend to view them as just very immature adults when it comes to learning.  The biological make up of teens and adolescents is just different.  They are growing and developing at a rapid pace, and need far more sleep than we think they do, or that they usually get.  They are just not ready for a real brain work-out earlier in the day.  So, it will probably work better to schedule classes and activities later in the day, or even in the evening.  Many churches plan youth groups for evening hours- a good move when you take this into consideration.

It is a biological fact also, that children and adults alike are hampered or enhanced in their learning capacities by how well their everyday physical needs are met.  Every teacher knows that if a child without enough sleep comes to class, he or she will not be able to learn very much, especially in the earlier part of the day.  Likewise, when there has been no breakfast in the schedule, the attention span and ability to concentrate will be adversely affected.  In addition, since a large percentage of our brain is made up of water, if enough liquids are not taken in on a regular basis (especially in hotter months), the brain will just not work as well when it comes to cognitive processes.     We seldom think of it, but it is extremely important to insure that students have eaten, gotten enough rest, and taken in enough water to function well.  Sometimes this may mean the teacher providing snacks and drinks during the Christian Education period of the day, and this can be easily done with a small group.

Tye believes learning is also affected by children’s developmental natures.  This basically means that people’s cognitive development changes as time goes on, in the way they learn and what they can handle in terms of materials and approach.  So, as children move from primary students on up, while the same general themes may be used, the way it is presented must be changed to meet the developmental nature of the child.  Simple word changes aren’t enough- every age level finds certain ways of maximum learning, in addition to an individual person’s natural inclinations.  Most importantly, the teacher cannot assume that everything can be grasped by children of all ages, if you just “dumb” it down enough.  Younger children just cannot grasp abstract concepts, for example, while adolescents usually love a good debate generated by presenting such a concept.  Fortunately, there are many guidelines available to help the teacher plan according to these differences, including from the Antiochian Orthodox Church’s Department of Christian Education.  What makes this a bit more challenging in the smaller church school is that a class may consist of several age groups, requiring more planning and analyzing. 

Tye believes that children are natural learners.  Once you find the right approach and the right methods of teaching, a child will learn.   She wraps up this section of her book by emphasizing three important things to remember when teaching or planning an educational program.  First of all, we should teach to make connections.  To do this, we must have a good idea of the world in which the student lives.  Making a connection from the material you are using to reality for the child may be tricky.  She gives the example of what happened in one class that was covering the worship of idols in the Old Testament.  Products of the 20th and 21st centuries, the connection these children made was related to the TV program “American Idol,” and therefore, this connection just didn’t work.  It is important to remember that each generation has its own connections with the past and their own reality in the present.

Tye also tells teachers to remember the role of emotion in learning.  Certain images, music and themes will have more emotional impact on a young child, say, than it will an adolescent.  Reversely, because of their ability to do more cognitive learning, older students will react strongly to things which leave the young ones confused or uninterested.  This is another aspect of learning that changes with age, and needs to be considered.

Lastly, Tye feels the educator must always teach to the challenge, and never connect achievement in learning with reward or punishment.  If learning is made fun, almost like a game, students will respond to it as they would to a challenging game of kick ball or soccer, and will enjoy the doing of it, not needing the gold sticker or prize bag to encourage them to learn.  This is what makes for the life-long learner also, and will make for adults in the parish who also love to learn for its own sake, thereby becoming more deeply rooted in the faith.

Review by Catherine Sullivan

Click here to read Part 3