I am taking a class right now on curriculum and instruction and (unsurprisingly) have found parallels in the ways in which children and adults both learn. When compared to how Christians learn about God, the similarities are uncanny.
For some time now there has been a raging debate between those who are interested in exploring new learning techniques and those who call for a return to the basics; reading, writing and arithmetic. The progressives say that different learners have different ‘intelligences’ and that the traditional and more formal methods favors those of only certain types of ‘intelligence’; particularly those who prefer rigid structure, predictable routines and memorization. Traditionally, this would result in a classroom where some students ‘got it’ but many did not. The informal methodology recognizes the various learning styles in the classroom and adapts the instruction to meet these students where they are, allowing more students to learn at their potential. Although productive, this certainly does not make the teacher’s job any easier and critics insist that the lessons are being ‘dumbed’ or ‘watered’ down.
I see the differences between the formal and informal schools of thought as being akin to the differences that exist between the emerging and traditional churches. The following is from a paper that I presented to this class:
In “Lesson Plans – Does Traditional Teaching Work” (Cadalyst, Oct. 1, 2006) Matt Murphy suggests that many traditional and formal ways of teaching are outdated and ineffectual. He contends that the vast majority of what we learn is not found in classrooms but from personal experiences and relationships. This is not to say that classroom teachers will become obsolete but, as Murphy says, “what it means is that most of what we learn isn’t taught to us”. If this is true, then as educators we should understand that most of what is being taught is not being taught by teachers and we should be looking for ways in which to modify our curriculum to address the ways in which our students learn the most.
Murphy talks of the differences between traditional formal learning as ‘pushing’ the student whereas informal learning is more like the student is being ‘pulled’. Initially, at least, new learners need to be ‘pushed’ by the more structured environment of formal teaching. But as they gain maturity and expertise they often find that this structure becomes boring. In the same token, students with more experience will often lose motivation or even rebel when placed in formal learning environments.
Speaking from an industry based perspective, Murphy notes how workers will typically learn more from co-workers and work experience than they will from formal training sessions. He notes the many varied ways in which adults will learn, often through venues that would not normally be seen as educational, like the internet and water cooler gossip (what he calls the Grapevine Effect). Businesses would benefit from a better trained and more satisfied work force if these ways of informal learning were explored and encouraged
Dennie Palmer Wolf, in her article “Outside the Box:” (Winter 2008, www.CConline.org) suggests that this same approach to informal learning would enhance the quality of education in today’s schools. Using mathematics as an example, Wolf demonstrates that much (if not more) of the typical students’ math skills are developed outside of the classroom just by practicing the daily activities that involve mathematics. These practices are not deliberately undertaken with the goal of learning in mind yet the students will easily pick-up and retain information that is useful and has relevance for them (not something that they often expect in the classroom). For example; after-school study groups generally result in significant results yet the environment is unstructured and student led. Perhaps student led and cooperative learning strategies might be employed successfully in the traditional classroom.
Schools need to acknowledge the benefits and obvious results of informal learning and find ways in which these student-driven endeavors may be encouraged or assisted. In addition, educators should look into ways in which the most successful of these informal activities might influence the classroom curriculum. As Palmer asks; “If so much mathematics is being done together on the bus or in late night phone calls, wouldn’t it make sense to enrich and inform that system? What if part of the curriculum were how to teach, help, or support one another?”
Wolf, suggests that schools should partner with communities and families and look into the surroundings that students find themselves in and explore ways in which these environments might be made more hospitable to informal learning.
Both Murphy and Wolf reach the same conclusions coming from two different directions; one approach is from the perspective of industry, which depends upon educated children who graduate from our nation’s schools to make up their workforce. The other perspective is that of educators who hope that the students that they teach will some day go on to find meaningful and rewarding employment as adults. Both perspectives have provided them with a vision in which students of all ages continue to learn on their own, at times with the assistance of those who understand that a gentle pull is more persuasive than a firm push.
Formal religion is a tool that can help the novice find their way towards God. For many of us, at some point the formal structure of religion needs to be cast off so that we may continue to learn. Formal religion is like the raft in the Buddhist parable; it is a means to help convey us across an uncertain river towards understanding, but once there we should not cling to it, as it would only slow us down on our journey.