Church Leadership

Rewarding Students for Thinking

If I narrowed the learnings from Soul Searching & Sticky Faith into one axiom that has to impact how I raise my kids and how I teach students, it would be this: It’s more important to teach students how to think than anything else. 

For decades, the educational assumption of curriculum, teaching, and many kids/youth programs was: “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)

Don’t dismiss this point. That very verse is often in the introduction to curriculums. It pops up in committee meetings. It’s proclaimed as if Solomon was issuing a directorate for all eternity that memorization/regurgitation/repetition is somehow the best way to teach children about God. Because if we can just hide enough truth in their hearts they won’t become serial killers.

The problem is, for as long as I’ve been part of the church, that building an educational assumption around this verse hasn’t worked. They do leave. And all of that stuff we’ve hidden in their heart sure doesn’t manifest itself later.

We have asked kids to listen to lots of sermons. We have asked them to memorize lots of verses. We’ve turned things like “Bible Quizzing” into a church-sponsored sport. The hope (and often justification for funding) has always been that if you can just cram Bible knowledge and teaching into a students head that they won’t forget it. And the cold, hard reality is that it hasn’t made a large-scale significant impact.

I love a not-so-subtle change our church has made in the kids ministry areas. They are focusing less on students regurgitating facts and focusing more on teaching students what biblical truth means. For instance, they are adapting one of the core things about Awana— the memorization of verses — and instead they are rewarding kids based on what the verse means. In our high school small group I’m really clear, I care more about their hearts than I do about the lesson. The agenda is them. The content is a starting point but it isn’t the point of our high school ministry.

With our own kids, Kristen and I are challenging Megan and Paul to think critically and big picture about stuff as opposed to testing them on the details. “OK, so why did we tell you not to hit your sister. It’s great that you remember the rule… but why is it a rule and why didn’t you obey it?

That doesn’t mean that achievement is pointless. That doesn’t mean we don’t push our students to dive into Scripture or that we don’t challenge our kids academically. But it does mean that we are quick to ask them to say, “So what are you going to do with that knowledge?

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. James 1:22

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in the San Diego neighborhood of Rolando with their three children.

7 replies on “Rewarding Students for Thinking”

Great stuff, Adam. Important, simple reminder. I’ve found that for a lot of my leaders who come from the “Bible quizzing” background, they struggle with discovery learning when they could more easily tell the students what to think. They’d rather be the Bible expert than the hiking guide.

It’s a battle worth winning. I wasn’t involved much in the decision to morph Awana a bit, but I have a feeling it took a while for folks to get the “why.” But when they got it, they seemed to REALLY get it. Very exciting.

We used to have a camp scholarship program for our students that was based on memorizing a set of verses every year. Instead of that, I’ve started having students do some kind of project (art, essay, video…) that leads them to dig into a particular passage or Biblical theme in order to qualify for the scholarship. I love how it’s causing them to think more than regurgitate.

I love watching our younger students struggle with it the first time they do one. Unfortunately, they’re not challenged to process through scripture (or much of anything else) nearly enough, so it’s hard for them. It’s been a great way to discover some hidden creativity as well.

This week we started two weeks of walking through Philippians, but instead of crafting a sweet lesson around it, we just read the first two chapters and talked about who the letter was for, why they needed it, what it means for us etc. No spoon feeding. It was a risk, but it sure payed off!

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