“Students these days just want the answers to the questions and they want us to give it to them.”
Ask most educators and they’ll say the biggest struggle in education today is what they call “teaching to the test”. In our current educational system with its performance-based funding, teachers are under an increasing amount of pressure to raise standardized test scores and graduate students. This pressure causes teachers to “teach to the test”. That is, they teach in a way that students can answer test questions, not assimilate knowledge in any meaningful way. This of course may raise test scores but is it really education? Do our students have the ability to think critically for themselves or are they simply mindless automatons programmed to respond with the correct answer at the appropriate time?
The Goal of Christian Discipleship?
If Christian educators are not careful, the same thing can happen in the Church. Our students are often presented with Bible stories and Christian doctrine in a manner reminiscent of trivia game shows. We ask, “Can you name the twelve disciples?” or “Do you know the Pauline books of the New Testament?” When encountering a student that is able to answer these questions, many of us would immediately put this youth on the proverbial spiritual pedestal. We might even assume that this youth is called to ministry concluding that the strength of their call is in direct relation to the rapidity in which they responded to the question.
But does a student that can regurgitate rote responses necessarily equal a developing Christian disciple? Maybe the mark of a developing Christian disciple is not the ability to sing a song about the books of the Bible but instead the ability to embody Christ to their family when their cousin dies needlessly in an automobile accident. Maybe the mark of a developing Christian disciple is not the ability to recite the Apostle’s Creed from memory but instead the ability to embody Christ to a student in their class that is being bullied because he is gay.
What kind of student is your ministry developing?
In an educational system that is “teaching to the test”, what is the Church’s role? Personally I believe that the Church has the potential to be the last great bastion of critical thinking. We have an amazing opportunity as Christian educators to challenge our students to think critically for themselves in a way they don’t experience anywhere else.
Here are just a couple of ways that you can avoid “teaching to the Christian test”.
Study Intentionally – Let’s be honest, sometimes the easiest thing to do for a youth meeting is consult the “every-thing-you-need-for-a–youth-meeting” book. But what if we, as ministers to youth, took serious time to reflect on our lessons? We should take time to wrestle with the lesson and think of questions our students are asking. We should take time to think through our own struggles with a particular Bible text or topic. What are some ways you can convey your own struggles to your students in an encouraging and genuine way? If your students see that you have spent time with the text and topic they will realize the importance of spending time in study.
Think Critically – As youth ministers, we usually plan our lessons with an end goal in mind. At the end of the night, we want our students to answer question ‘A’ with answer ‘B’. We lead our young people from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’, generously connecting the dots for them. But does this really enable our students to think for themselves? What if instead of leading (read “dragging”) our students by the hand to a predetermined destination, we instead let our youth think critically about the lesson in a way that enables them to draw their own conclusions? Sometimes in my personal study I spend weeks on one text without understanding it completely or knowing how it applies to my life. I believe it is important for our students to understand this is part of the discipleship process. Sometimes we teach the Bible like it’s composed of sitcoms…set-up, conflict, and resolution…all in thirty minutes. Unfortunately real life doesn’t work that way and neither should Christian education.
Teach Passionately – If you’re like me you have many different types of students in your program. Some kids are quiet. Others are loud. Some kids are hyper. Some kids don’t want to move. You get the idea. Find a way to engage them all. Find a way for them to put themselves in the stories. Ask how they would react in each situation. The more you can connect their actual life experience with the emotions and consequences of a situation, the more passionate a response you’ll get. The buzz word often used is “relevance”. Our students need to hear the story and learn to put themselves in it. Of course it is important for them to know the context and important words but challenge them to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions from their own understanding. From their conclusions, you’ll be able to guide them into a deeper understanding of their faith story.