Mission (2): Learning for Mission – it’s all about memory

The second in a series of posts on mission, Part 1 may be found here.

This post is an application to Mission of current understanding and research on learning, and in particular a recent publication reviewed on my blog here.

From my original post introducing this series here:

“It is the missional problem of our time that needs most thought and reflection and most occupies my mind. Our failure to evangelise, to communicate the gospel, particularly to the young, and the decline of the church. I have a series of posts planned that will address this problem in four key areas for further investigation:

1 Mindfulness for Mission: there is no God-shaped hole

2 Learning for Mission: it’s all about memory

3 Seriousness for Mission: the easier we make it the less attractive it is

4 Morality for Mission: why people think the church is immoral”

There is a substantial literature on mission. People study degrees in it and publish learned theses about it. That is not my area of expertise. Although, I have been involved in mission all my life. In parishes and schools, in every context I find myself I have sought to bring people to know Jesus. I do not think we should be running schools unless they are genuinely at the heart of our mission to the nation.

So, this post is an exercise in applying what is the nearest thing to an expertise I’ve got, education, to the subject of mission. In particular a recent publication, Understanding How We Learn, provides an excellent overview on current thinking on learning. I believe there is much that the church, leaders, clergy, Sunday school teachers and others can gain from reading this and applying it in our churches.

Finally I will say a little about how I am applying this thinking in my own preaching and teaching in church contexts.

***

Who is Jesus? Seems like a good place to start.

In the Gospels there are 90 occasions when Jesus is addressed directly with a title. On 60 of those occasions he is addressed as ‘Teacher’. Jesus himself used the term when he said, “You call me Teacher and Lord, and rightly so, for that is what I am” (John 13:13). When Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, he said, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God” (John 3:2). We know, from Matthew’s gospel that “he taught as one having authority, not as the teachers of the law” (Matthew 7:29). At the end of his gospel Matthew tells us that Jesus commands his disciples “Go into all the world and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19).

Jesus’ followers are ‘disciples’, learners.

Teaching is a fundamental part of Christian leadership. The traditional explanation of the functions of Jesus in ministry are as ‘prophet, priest and king’, this was probably firstly explicated by Eusebius and then taken up in Reformed churches by Calvin, and, later Wesley. It has found its way into the current Catechism of the Catholic Church at no. 436 “Jesus fulfilled the messianic hope of Israel in his threefold office of priest, prophet and king.”. It is a shame that the tradition has not enshrined the role of Jesus as teacher as firmly as the roles of prophet, priest and king, but the biblical evidence is enough.

Teaching is what Christian leaders do. Discipling people is teaching them, enabling them to learn what it is to be a Christian.

When Jesus wanted to do the most profound thing he could to sustain his disciples (learners) through the darkest times, and at all times and in all places, what did he ask them to do? “Do this TO REMEMBER me.”

It shouldn’t, therefore come as any surprise to Christians that the best research education shows us that memory is not only the fundamental unit of learning but also of who we are. “Think about how you define yourself,” write Weinstein and Sumeracki in their book Understanding How We Learn, “your very identity is most likely full of things you remember yourself doing.” p. 64

“Everything you do requires memory in some form or another.” p 64

“For brain scientists, there are no other forms of knowledge: everything that is learned is memory.” p.75

We are what we remember.

This is not radical. My 86 year old mother has dementia. I don’t know exactly when but at some level we lost her a few years ago. We love her dearly, we do everything we can for her but she is not herself any more because she has lost her memory.

Memory is the fundamental existential unit. It is who we are. When we disciple people, we teach them to remember Jesus, not just in some abstract sense but by actually remembering, memorising the words he spoke, the psalms he prayed, the things people said about him. Almost every traditional practice of the spiritual life in the Christian tradition is about getting over our basic forgetfulness. Is about helping us to remember, praying regularly through the day, praying in every moment, helping us not to forget.

***

Understanding How We Learn, is written by two cognitive scientists. They provide really helpful models for teaching based on this pattern:

1Spacing

2 Elaboration

3 Concrete Examples

4 Visuals

5 Retrieval

You will, I’m afraid have to read the book – and I recommend it, without reservation, to clergy and other church leaders, to see what exactly is meant by this. I would however draw attention to the fact that the book addresses firstly the tendency we all have to assume that we know what learning is and how to achieve it. After all we have all been in education for many years, in fact though, intuition is the enemy of learning.

All of us who teach and preach in church need to re-examine what we do, and work out whether we are delivering, achieving what we think we are. All the evidence suggests that we are not. We need to do something differently.

***

In my own life I now cringe when I think about some of my earlier classroom practice. I also cringe when I think about my teaching as a priest on Lent courses, bible studies, and in my preaching. What I have been trying to do as the research evidence on effective teaching becomes clearer is to teach knowledge based sermons. Content is all. People should leave knowing more than they did before they arrived.

My experience is that evangelicals are much better at this than Catholic Anglicans, but that there is also a danger for evangelicals in becoming all about experience and not about knowledge. At New Wine this summer Ian Paul was, by a long way, the best teacher present, but probably the lowest attended sessions I went to. We live in an experience driven culture.

I want to distinguish between preaching and teaching sessions. I have, as anybody who knows me is aware, a deep love of the rhythm and structure of the liturgy. A sermon or homily has a character that is distinctive from a teaching session. But … as those of us who pray the Breviary know the extracts we hear and read daily from the great fathers and teachers of the church in their homilies do not bear much relation to the 3 minute ‘Thought for the Day’ that characterise many of our homilies.

***

I have come to believe that I need to think of my preaching much more in the way that I thing about learning in schools, Understanding How We Learn, can help inform our preaching and teaching.

I suppose, when I was ordained a quarter of a century ago I imagined preaching like a tiny diamond, the smaller, the more perfect, the better. Three minutes, perfectly crafted. I just do not believe any longer that that is sufficient for Christian growth. For most people in church on a Sunday that will be their only Christian teaching of the week.

To deliver an effective teaching session on a Sunday morning I now believe that 15 – 20 minutes are needed. This takes me 4-6 hours to prepare. The longer I spend on the preparation the better it is. In that time, didactic as it, intentionally, is, I try and make sure that it is not just me speaking. I often ask questions, I use paired activities, I use white cards that people write on, I ask the whole congregation to repeat prayers and texts after me. If it is a series, which I prefer, I revise material from previous sessions, I describe the map of learning. If I am presiding as well as preaching I will use every opportunity to re-cap the learning, pointing out at the beginning of Mass what I am going to preach on, preaching on it, referring to it again in the intercessions, at the peace or offertory, at the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer, at the silent prayer after communion and even just before the blessing, especially if I have set homework.

The content too of my preaching has changed. Doctrine and Scripture provide us more than enough material. Most people in our churches have received minimal if any substantial teaching. The field is open to us. My only question to myself: What have they learnt?

My ‘new’ (to me) style of preaching often elicits the comment “Oh, we can tell you are a teacher”. I used to worry about that. Now, I just think that I am grateful to be a follower of Jesus, The Teacher, and if I am described as a teacher that is flattery indeed.

Dear brothers and sisters in the priesthood and all in Christian leadership, please read Understanding How We Learn. It is very helpful indeed.

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