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Teaching that forges faith habits

by Muriel and Duane Elmer, authors of The Learning Cycle. Insights for Faithful Teaching from Neuroscience and the Social Sciences, IVP, 2020.

hammer and forge

What does it mean when we say we have learned something? Why do we forget so much of the information we are taught in church? Why do we see so little evidence of our beliefs in our daily practice? Could it be that how teachers teach, is not necessarily how adult learners learn?

The Learning Cycle explains how to teach with the brain in mind, so learners are more likely to ground their behavior in biblical truth. We offer teaching strategies that respect recent scientific findings on learning, contribute to sustaining faith habits which strengthen character and build Christlikeness. These strategies help teachers teach for deep learning that transforms minds, emotions and lifestyles.

Recent neuroscience findings illuminate what happens in the brain during learning. The fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) allows researchers to determine which parts of the brain are active (or inactive) when confronted with information. For example, once it was believed that feelings were contained only in one part of the brain. But, when a young man is shown a picture of his girlfriend, the fMRI tended to register activity in 12 parts of the brain! Since then, we’ve discovered that positive emotions are a necessary component of all learning.

What does this mean for you when you teach or lead a Bible study?

The learning cycle: the five levels of learning

head with gears inside

We have taught the five levels of learning to groups in many global contexts. About 10 years ago, neuroscience yielded important scientific support for each level of this model, prompting us to write this book for the benefit of the church. Consistent faith habits will grow character, integrity, wisdom and ultimately Christlikeness. Please note that every level of the learning cycle is grounded in recall, remembering the truth.

Level I recall – I remember the truth

Researchers describe three memory stages: short-term-memory, working-memory and long-term-memory. Most of what occurs in the classroom or sermon generally enters the short-term-memory — a good beginning but doesn’t yield long-term results. So how do we ensure long-term results? By prompting information (scripture, sermons) to enter working-memory. And how does that happen? We will see. But our ultimate goal is not even working-memory, it is long-term-memory. Why is long-term-memory so important? Because only what settles in long-term-memory will produce stable beliefs, sustainable behaviors and character development — Christlikeness.

Bible teachers tend to emphasize knowing the truth. It’s done as a claim to excellence. Being able to recall and explain a biblical passage is important. But scripture always defines excellence differently; faithfulness to God and service to church and humanity. “It is required of a steward that he be found faithful...” (I Cor. 4:2) Thus, being able to recall and explain God’s word is the means to an end, not the end. Faithfulness is.

If a truth is to be retained by listeners, it must do two things. It must make sense and it must have meaning. Making sense suggests that listeners understand and can faithfully repeat in their own words what was said. Want to test this idea? Call some people on Monday and ask them to summarize the Sunday sermon in one or two sentences. It can be discouraging. Here are two ideas that might help: before the benediction, have the listeners write on their bulletins (or speak to their neighbor) a one-sentence summary of the sermon. This brief activity engages their brains. It also moves information from short-term-memory into early stages of working-memory. Or you might suggest everyone share their thought around the dinner table. Activities like this stimulate the brain and grow the neural pathway. Working-memory is now more robust. The more often the thought is rehearsed, the stronger the neural pathway becomes. Rehearsing the thought helps people reflect on what God was saying and increases the probability of that truth entering their long-term-memory where it affects beliefs, behaviors and character.

Meaning refers to a connection the sermon makes with the present or past experiences of the listeners. Information is meaningful when it raises memories stored in other parts of the brain. Typically, our brains don’t register information not connected to our reality. So, making references to the worlds of your listeners will help to engage their brains. But there is more. When you make that meaningful connection, the Holy Spirit can use that connection to convict, encourage or prompt toward action.

There are more ways to make material memorable and life-changing. Research on retention, what we remember, reveals several facts. First, the brain is most alert at the start of the sermon/class. Therefore, don’t waste time. Jump in with some interesting material. Second, fMRIs also reveal that listeners’ focus gradually decreases and by the16-18 minute mark they tend to “drop out.” The brain is processing little or nothing. That lull lasts approximately 8-10 minutes before they re-engage.

What does an alert teacher do? To stop the decline in retention, ask a question, even a rhetorical one, to re-capture attention. Experts tell us that questions hijack the brain so our brains immediately begin searching for an answer. An illustration does the same. A story engages more parts of the brain than virtually any other approach. A simple technique at the right time “resets” our brains and attention returns for another 15 or so minutes.

Level II recall with appreciation – I value the truth

person holding box with cross and heart

Most of us have had favorite subjects and favorite teachers. Emotions are the gatekeeper to learning. Negative feelings hinder, even stop learning. fMRIs show that when learners feel positive toward the teacher and environment, the rational, thinking part of their brain is receptive and active. When learners feel fear, anxiety or boredom in the classroom, rational activity virtually disappears.

It’s simple. A positive attitude advances better learning. If one teacher is a favorite, analyze why. Is it the teacher? The subject? Something else? More importantly, how does the emotional state of your learners affect your teaching? Or your Bible study? How people feel either opens or closes the learning gate. You are the key. The quality of the relationships you nurture will make the difference.

When teaching, strive for two kinds of credibility: competence and safety. Careful preparation equips you for the first — competency. But safety is just as important. Do people feel safe with you? Do they trust you? That includes respect, concern, encouragement. Does the Imago Dei drive your relationships? Honoring each as a bearer of God’s own image and affirming their dignity builds safety and credibility.

Level III recall with speculation – I ponder how to use the truth

How can we foster Christlikeness? To speculate means pondering what I should do as a result of some truth. When God uses a sermon or Bible study to impress something on me, the next question should not be, “How nice to know this,” but, “So what? What difference should this truth make?” Too often we teachers simply do not raise the “So what?” question to prompt further thought.

Ask: “Is God speaking to you with some insight or conviction? If so, write it down.” Then, ask, “What do you need to do based on what you wrote? What might hinder you from doing that?” and finally, “Who might journey with you in prayer and accountability in your decision?”

Another strategy to encourage speculation is a “Memo to Myself.” After Bible study, ask the group to write a half-page paper on a thought that was meaningful to them. Was the Holy Spirit saying something, and what might they do about it? Ask them to send it to you. You read it, comment and send it back. They read it again. At the next meeting ask them to share the “Memo to Myself” with someone in the group and later share it with one or two other friends outside class.

See what is happening? They hear a truth, write about it, read comments about it, share it with a group member and with one or two others. They have now rehearsed a given truth and a corresponding behavior five or six times; the “So what?” In doing so, their brains are prompted to move the truth from short-term-memory to working-memory. Rehearsal of a truth creates and builds a neural pathway and, under the power of the Holy Spirit, that truth will lodge in long-term-memory where it affects worldview — beliefs, behavior, character. Educators call this deep learning that leads to transformation. (Note: not the same as deep learning in information technology.)

Barriers to change

no entry barrier

Why don’t people just practice the truth? Well, there is a catch, called barriers. Barriers include fears from “what others might think if I change a behavior” to “what if I fail” to “what will it cost me?” Those first attempts to change are precisely where speculation moves into real life. Barriers often threaten our plans to do the truth.

To detect possible barriers, you may use an open question. “What would keep you from acting on this truth?” It exposes obstacles to transformation. Once named, we can plan to overcome them. Wasn’t that what Jesus was doing when he told the parable of the sower and the seed? He identified major barriers that keep people from producing fruit. Disciplined teachers help learners name what might keep them from doing the truth. Anything less is a huge, missed opportunity!

Level IV recall with practice – I begin to change my behavior

Why is new so difficult, uncomfortable, even frightening? When believers decide to begin a new faith practice, it feels awkward, even fake. Here teachers need to be deliberate cheerleaders. We cannot abandon learners as they begin practicing. Think about a change you have made for your faith. What helped you make that transition? Was it a group of supportive believers who asked how you were doing? Was it a ministry experience with careful debriefing? Establishing new behaviors requires a supportive faith community with you taking the lead in showing them how. Believers need each other. “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up...” (I Thess. 5:11) We speak into each other’s lives and invite them to speak into ours. God’s ordained community for change into Christlikeness is the church.

What does this mean for pastors, teachers and mentors? We must build interactive faith communities that foster life change. Pose open questions to stimulate discussion of faith practices. Debrief learners’ initial attempts to change. Encourage them that early failures tend to expose barriers and strengthen resolve. Remind them that anything worth doing is worth doing poorly, the first time.

man serving in tennis

Level V recall with habit – I do consistently

A habit is a specific recurring thought or set of actions that become so internalized that we repeat it without thinking; a default setting. To create a habit requires thinking about a cue (the trigger), an action(s) and the sense of satisfaction or reward. Our brains love efficiency. When we sustain a new behavior with the help of the Holy Spirit, the neural network literally grows stronger such that the behavior is more likely to become integral to our character.

This new behavior becomes our default to overrule ungodly options. In his parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus illustrated how unconscious thought habits determined their actions. Remember the surprise of both groups when the Lord rendered his judgment? “When did we see you a stranger ... hungry or thirsty..?” (Matt. 25:38, 44) Unbeknownst to them, their habits revealed their respective motives — either corrupt or righteous.

Building a faith habit begins by reflecting, valuing and speculating on a truth. Then we must take action, deal with looming barriers and persevere until that truth is fully integrated into our lifestyle — it becomes habitual. Teachers and mentors must walk alongside their learners, pray for them, encourage them and foster communities of believers who will do the same.

God calls us to a holy life. (II Tim. 1:9) Our prayer is that you will find ideas here to help inspire your learners to live faithful lives as they grow into wisdom, integrity and Christlikeness. © Muriel and Duane Elmer, 2021

Whether you’re a pastor, small group leader, Sunday School teacher or you seek to help adults learn in any other capacity, take time to consider the following questions, and discuss them with your colleagues.

  1. What is one practice you might incorporate into your teaching, to assist your learners in grasping the sense and meaning of your material?

  2. How might you create a sense of safety among your learners?

  3. In addition to the “Memo to Myself” approach, what are some other methods you’ve found to assist your learners in applying new ideas?

  4. What are some practical ways an interactive faith community can foster behavioral change?

  5. How would you describe the process of building a new faith habit?

  6. What is one next step you will take, having read this article?

  7. With whom will you share that next step?

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