I have always been fascinated by the process of learning. That probably comes as no surprise from someone who has devoted himself to the advancement of knowledge. Even as a local church pastor I took seriously my role as teacher, considering both formal education and worship as opportunities for structured learning. But we spend little time thinking about how people learn – the mechanisms and processes – as we focus on what people learn. It is futile in many respects to focus on the what if we have given very little thought to the how. This year I have the opportunity to think more critically about how people learn through an innovative learning grant I received. I have learned a few things along the way that I thought might be instructive for the local church.
Much to the chagrin of every preacher, recent research on learning suggests that people can only process 10 chunks of information in any given setting (Kagan, 2014). Our working memory can only handle so much stuff at one time. That means the longer we talk, the more people’s minds wander and our message becomes less effective. My current teaching mentor admonishes me to consider my lectures in 10 minute segments, providing time between segments to process the new information. This allows students to move content from short- to long-term memory by engaging in some activity that contextualizes the information. Admittedly it is difficult to integrate activities into the middle of a sermon, but pastors and worship leaders might think about ways to integrate process time into the worship experience. The caveat here is that research suggests that such activities should actively engage the listener which means the people need to do some work (after all, liturgy is the work of the people). The implication of this finding about the way people learn is that we in the church need to engage people in diverse ways that explicitly and intentionally connect the teaching from sermons and religious education to actions and activities done in the world around us. Our aim should, therefore, be to create a holistic experiential learning environment.
But we also face another significant obstacle in teaching old dogs new tricks. We develop knowledge either through experience or by believing what others have told us. This prior knowledge often stands in the way of learning new things. What someone knows about a topic or related topic shapes how they will integrate new knowledge. If I am trying to make an insightful argument about the historical Jesus and early Christian conceptions of The Christ yet my congregation largely knows only the biblical Jesus, then the awesome arguments I’m making could get completely lost. Important here is to think about the steps in knowledge development and how to restructure the way we think about things. Sometimes we have to “unlearn” concepts before a new version of that concept can be understood (Svinicki, 2015). As we unlearn and relearn, new knowledge is better incorporated when we connect it to other portions of our memory as a kind of support structure. Our brains store information in structures meant to generate meaning and facilitate recall; when we are confronted with new information, particularly if it is counter to what we already know, our brains need a new way of sifting through and incorporating the new knowledge into old knowledge. So when we get frustrated that people just “aren’t getting it,” it may be that we need to spend time deconstructing prior knowledge and embedding new knowledge within old structures.
In the church we continually work to create a new reality, to encourage new thinking, and to inspire evangelists to go out and change the world. We seek to make meaning of the world around us through the experience and witness of the radical one we call Jesus the Christ, the very child of God whose birth we celebrate this season. But this is to celebrate the what – the content. I posit that to understand the implications of Jesus’ birth, some 2000 years later, we might need to confront our prior knowledge about who he was and what it means to be a Christian in the 21st century. We may need to pause and consider how we learn. In the end, it is to ask the question how we make meaning.
Kagan, S. (2014). Kagan structures, processing, and excellence in college teaching. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25(3&4), 119-138.
Svinicki, M. (2015). What they don’t know can hurt them: The role of prior knowledge in learning. Toward the Best in the Academy, 5(4), 1993-94. www.podnetwork.org