Friday, March 09, 2012

Want to Be a Great Teacher?

“Ask any great teacher or coach the most effective way to help people learn, and you’ll get a uniform answer: through stories. … Perhaps that was why Jesus Christ relied so heavily upon stories as His primary instructional method.” George Barna, in the introduction to Felicity Dale’s An Army of Ordinary People.

Do you think this is true?

Seriously, “any great teacher,” “the most effective way,” “uniform answer”? Sounds fishy.

I guess that tells you something about me. If you want to stir me to debate or make me think, just start making unequivocal statements like that one.

What is the most effective way to help people learn?

Any ideas?

Maybe it depends in part on culture, or personality, or "learning style."

The value of stories and storytelling as a teaching tool is great, I’ll grant you that. And, though I might never be a “great teacher or coach,” I, too, rely heavily on stories as an instructional method.

Yet I do not think storytelling alone will do the job, and I wouldn’t give it the #1 place in my bag of tricks to help people learn. I think there’s something better.

What do you think?

I'd say.... Experience. Call it situational learning, or created tension, or teachable moments. But many people learn the most through on-the-job training, not through novels or sermon illustration or hearing about something that happened in somebody else’s life. Internships, experimentation, and practical application assignments can do what lectures and stories cannot: only when a person applies the new skill or knowledge to a real-life situation does it really "stick."

So that’s why I say that storytelling isn’t #1, situational learning is. Look through the Gospels and see how well they jive with Barna's claim about Jesus and storytelling. The disciples weren't just sitting around on mountaintops listening to sermons and parables every day; instead, Jesus creates and redeems dozens of powerful teachable moments. 

Perhaps the wise teacher doesn’t use just one technique but several. If you want to be systematic about it, you might find it helpful to analyze your teaching plans in light of Robert Gagne's “Nine Events of Instruction.”
1. Gaining learners’ attention (e.g., ask a question to pique interest).

2. Informing learners of the objective (where are we going with this? What will they get out of it? Create a level of expectation for learning).

3. Stimulating recall of prior learning (i.e., appeal to previous teaching or common life experiences so learners can related it to something they already know).

4. Presenting new information (explain and demonstrate the “content”).

5. Guiding learning (case studies, examples, analogies, mnemonics to help them grasp the content).

6. Eliciting performance (learners apply the knowledge or skill and practice it, show that they can put it to use).

7. Providing informative feedback (coaching, basically. Learners are immediately rewarded/corrected for their application of the knowledge or skill; they see that they “got it” and that it works).

8. Assessing performance (this time, learners are tested in some way without hints, feedback, or coaching).

9. Enhancing learning transfer and retention (learners “perform” or apply their new skill or knowledge and are encouraged to review the content and create or consult reference materials when needed).


Megan Noel said...

i don't know that it is the best and only way, but all of the teachers in my life who have left an indelible mark were story tellers. i had a chemistry teacher in college who was a story teller, for instance - not an obvious subject for stories - he did not use stories to teach about atomic weights etc, but the stories were the glue that held it all together. and maybe you can flip it around and say some people LEARN best by hearing stories.

Marti said...

Good point. Many students tend to respond strongly to good storytellers... and one of the main responses is to "love" the storyteller. That is really conducive to learning. Though sometimes loving your teacher and his/her stories doesn't extent to embracing, incorporating, and retaining what they are teaching, does it? As when people walk away from a church service remembering a pastor's joke and but not his main point.

fionalcooper said...

Stories capture the attention and the imagination in a way that a lecture doesn't, and I think that's why so many people appreciate their use as teaching tools. It's an enjoyable way to learn, if they are used well, i.e. by including the teaching point within the story, or at least having the teaching point tightly related to the story. However, I find stories are too often used in the pulpit simply to entertain the audience, while making the teaching point some other way.

I think stories are most useful for teaching people to understand abstract concepts, which, I think, is how Jesus used them.

But I agree wholeheartedly with you about situational learning being far more effective for the good absorption of new skills and knowledge.