Constructivism: an Entrust perspective

by Alicia Costello, Entrust curriculum team

Often on a Sunday morning, I will be listening to a sermon, and one point or a single phrase will catch my ear. I get lost in thoughts of my own, thoughts that I want to remember. I begin writing them down. I have questions. I start writing my questions in the margin of my Bible or in the notes app of my phone. Then I am pulling up the Blue Letter Bible app, figuring out what the word means in Greek, seeing if there are any other instances in which that word is used. I’m furiously typing notes and meanings, connections and differences, and linking it all to what I’ve been reading in my own personal devotion times. Notes are scribbled, then edited, then re-scribbled. Lines and arrows are drawn. I begin writing self-reflection questions, calls to action, challenging myself to take what I’ve just learned and apply it to everyday life.

Before I realize what’s happened, the preacher is off the platform and the sermon has ended. What were the points in the sermon? No idea. I got wrapped in another sermon — a sermon, it seemed, that was just for me.

A constructivist — one who subscribes to the learning theory of the same name — would celebrate that learning happened! Although it may have not been the alliterative points the preacher so carefully took time to prepare, it was a learning moment for me. I certainly walk away from those sermons with much to process and apply. Constructivism began as a reaction to the memorize-and-repeat education philosophies of the day, so it is less concerned that I learned the point that was taught and more concerned that I learned at all.

Teachers who operate on the memorize-and-repeat model have a few underlying assumptions. First, they assume that their information is perhaps more valuable than the information the student currently possesses. Therefore, they may be unintentionally or subconsciously uninterested in the student’s information or opinions and prioritize the flow of information from teacher to student only. Teachers may assume the student is not informed — or is incorrectly informed — about the discussion topic. Consequently, teachers’ second assumption can become that the learning of their information is of the utmost priority in their time together. Questions are encouraged, but only so that the student more readily falls in line with the information given. Thirdly, teachers can assume (rather incorrectly) that all students will have the same actions/opinions based on the information they possess.

Entrust facilitates modules for adult learners, so it’s expected that the participants have some life experience that might add to the information being exchanged. Sometimes, the learners have more knowledge or experience than the facilitator. Participants chime in, a point might be disagreed with or taken in a new direction. A teacher who subscribes to the memorize-and-repeat method might be terrified at this occurrence. The Entrust facilitator loves this occurrence.

Entrust’s method is deeply informed by our understanding of Scripture. One of my favorite examples of this is Romans 1:12, where the writer mentions to the Roman church that, when he visits, “we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (ESV). If Paul is coming to your church, the inclination would be to allow him to speak as long as possible for the sake of gleaning as much knowledge as time would allow, effectively reverting back into a teacher/student model. However, Paul declares this is not his intention; the fledgling Roman church can encourage and teach him as well. Therefore, it seems that Paul is advocating for a mutual exchange of ideas and fellowship in the Lord, something much more recognizable to us at Entrust in the facilitator/participant model.

Participants are diverse in age, culture, theology, opinion and life experiences. Participants are encouraged to diversify the understanding of the group by bringing their own unique perspectives. Now that the facilitator is not the arbitrator of all knowledge (although he is always a handy resource,) the group may be free from the shackles of always needing to have the right answerBecause Entrust is based in the facilitator/participant model rather than the teacher/student model, constructivism finds a welcome home here. The teacher steps off the proverbial platform, and the modules prioritize the previous experiences and contexts of the adult learners. immediately.

When discussing or seeking to understand new ideas, participants need to know before they speak up that their ideas will be treated with respect and consideration. A large part of making an Entrust module the kind of place where participants feel comfortable bringing up diverse ideas is setting an atmosphere where their ideas feel welcome. As the old saying goes, “When you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” so facilitators discuss before the module begins how they can make their group welcoming to diversity. Group members might come in with the understanding these modules adhere to the teacher-student method; it is up to facilitators to explain that they care and want to hear about the learners’ understanding, opinions and ideas.

But as anyone who has experience with group dynamics knows: what people say and what people do are sometimes two different things. We facilitators must be careful to not only say we appreciate, respect and consider diverse opinions, we must actually demonstrate it in our actions during the module. Participants will tell facilitators if they truly feel their experiences are appreciated and validated: they will share their ideas, or not.

At Entrust, facilitators recognize that we come alongside people who may already have a substantial Christ-centered worldview through personal devotion and fellowship with God and with other Christian believers and institutions. God is already at work in each person’s life. We are simply coming alongside to be helpers in God’s plan. We are there to assist what God is doing and speaking. Instead of the facilitator as the teacher, God is. We are simply peer learners who joyfully share in what God is doing throughout the world.

God has a big kingdom. We are blessed that God allows many of his children, from many corners of his kingdom, to come alongside us and allow their iron to sharpen our iron, and vice versa (Prov. 27:17). What the Holy Spirit has taught them is just as valid as what the Holy Spirit has taught us, and we are all better when we share the knowledge God has given us. We may learn just as much about the subject as our participants, and we will certainly get a perspective we have never before considered. This is the essence of Christian fellowship, but it fits in nicely with the egalitarian nature of constructivism. In the teacher module, the learner’s iron gets sharpened, but the teacher’s remains the same. In constructivist models, everyone grows in understanding.

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