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When it comes to education, we always want to avoid the trap of simply trying to either cover material or do activities. Regardless of the situation, class, group, or whatever, we must always keep our eyes open for these two pitfalls. Instead, we look to learning. How do we keep our focus? We pay careful attention to the flow of information going back and forth between the teacher and the learner.
I find it useful to think of an hourglass. I know, I know, an hourglass is sort of an outdated thing, but hear me out. It’s a useful illustration. An hourglass has two identical broad sides that meet at a narrow point. When an hourglass is flipped, the sand contained on one side slowly trickles through the gap to the other side. Think of the sand in this hourglass as information flowing from one side to the other. Then think of one side of the hourglass as the teacher, and the other as the learner. With this in mind, here’s how we understand these four stages in the mechanics of teaching and learning.
Direct Learning Focus
Usually, teachers bring a wealth of information and background knowledge to their lessons. Think of the teacher as one side of the hourglass filled with sand. As the teacher prepares to pass on that information, how does he or she narrow and condense whatever is to be conveyed? As the vast store of information or possibilities funnel through the teacher’s mind, the teacher needs to make some decisions and focus the lesson. The tighter the focus and purpose, the easier it will be for the learners to understand what’s going on. The focus creates the narrow passage in the hourglass where information is passed between teacher and learner.
When learning focus is directed, broad background knowledge is communicated and packaged into instructional objectives that are appropriate for both the material and the learner. In addition, when directing the learning focus, the teacher must also make decisions on how that focus can be assessed. The two are closely tied together. Much of this happens behind the scenes in the mind of the teacher beforehand, but simply because it’s not seen doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. The choices a teacher makes in directing the focus has a tremendous impact on the rest of the learning process.
Create Learning Experiences
The next step in the mechanics of teaching and learning happens when information passes from the teacher side of the hourglass, through the focus, to the learner side. In other words, any time teachers engage in teaching their learners, they are creating a learning experience for them. In light of our focus, what teaching styles will help our learners understand the point the best? Traditionally, we don’t think of our learners listening to lectures (the go-to for many pastors I know) as a learning experience, but it certainly is. Other teaching styles that create different sorts of learning experiences include discussion, questions, simulations, and games. How we choose to hand off or present information to our learners is critical.
Picking the best teaching style to facilitate the right learning experience (the appropriate way for the learners to absorb and assimilate information) is a challenge. To use our illustration, how much information do your learners need? How long is the hourglass going to run before you check for understanding? Are your learners in information overload? Or are they not getting enough? This is the most up-front and visible of the mechanics of teaching and learning.
Facilitate Learning Feedback
This is the most overlooked or misunderstood stage in the learning process, especially in the parish. To use the illustration of the hourglass, this would be the time when you’d flip it over. Now it’s not the teacher who’s providing the flow of information to the learners. Rather, it’s the learners who are the ones on top and the teacher who is receiving feedback from the learners. Without properly flipping the roles, the teacher will never know what’s been learned. In addition, as the learners provide their feedback to the teacher, information passes through the learning focus (objectives or big ideas), where the teacher receives it. When opportunities to teach seem small or are short (like devotions in school or the parish), it’s easy to minimize this step. It is, however, crucial to overcoming the twin traps of activity or coverage.
Consider Learning Outcomes
This fourth step concerns what the teacher now does with the feedback that’s been received. As the information flows from the learner back to the teacher, some decisions need to be made. If there’s a clear focus, set of experiences, and appropriate feedback, the teacher should now have some usable data. Again, these are usually done behind the scenes, but they must be considered. What’s been learned, and does it align with my focus? What do I need to do to help my learners understand the critical points? What do I need to do to better direct my learning focus?
Then, once the learning outcomes have been considered, the hourglass flips once more. Now the teacher again passes information on to the learners and the whole process repeats. Any opportunity to learn will involve a constant back and forth between teachers and learners. The teacher adjusts, the learners participate and respond, and then the teacher considers and focuses once again. As the flow of information goes back and forth between the two sides, centered on a focus, learning takes place.
It’s a lot to take in, in rather abstract language. But don’t worry. Over the next few posts, I’ll give you some tools in each of these mechanics that you can consider when teaching in the parish. Until then, blessings on your work.
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