That They May Learn
This is the fourth in a continuing series on Sunday school work. The January issue will feature the same subject as this month’s article; namely, Christian educational psychology.
How many fathers and mothers have asked their children a question like this, “What did you learn in Sunday school today, Johnny?” —only to receive an answer like this, “Nothing!”
While the number of such parents is probably legion and while the answer is likely exaggerated in most cases, there is still a horrible possibility that sometimes Johnny might be pretty close to the awful truth!
Can the average Sunday school teacher do anything to avoid such a calamity? Without a doubt he can!! In fact, there are numerous teaching principles, both biblically and psychologically sound, which any intelligent, spiritual teacher can apply in order to make his teaching more effective and more productive of genuine spiritual results in the lives of his scholars.
The Influence of Example
Never underestimate the power of a teacher, especially a Spirit-filled teacher! For not only does his verbal teaching carry a spiritual impact evident to everyone, but also the godly example of his Christ-like life exerts an obvious, yet immeasurable influence on the pupils in his class.
In Sunday school work, the primary principle of effective teaching and productive learning is embodied in Paul’s instruction to Timothy, “Be thou an example” (1 Tim. 4:12).
The character and behaviour of children are inevitably influenced and moulded by the people whom they contact: parents, classmates, and teachers. However, only spiritual people can provide the kind of spiritual influence whereby growing, developing youngsters will be led to glorify God through the reproduction of His likeness in their hearts and lives (See “Why Sunday Schools?”, Food for the Flock, September 1959, page 173). It is essential, therefore, that every teacher heed the Lord’s injunction to His disciples, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
From another point of view, even the worldling knows how futile it is not to practise what you preach. Children too will not heed the precepts of a teacher whose life is a glaring contradiction of the truths being taught, regardless of the obvious validity of the truths themselves.
Never Too Young
“Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6).
Many educational authorities and psychologists believe that while a child is two and three years old, more can be done to mould and develop his personality than is possible throughout his years at college. Truths implanted and attitudes developed during the child’s most formative years will inevitably be crucial for his future growth and maturation in the Lord, as well as for his initial decision to accept the Saviour.
The Lord Himself stressed the vital importance of working with youngsters when He spoke to His disciples, “Suffer little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God … Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein” (Luke 18:16-17).
In other words, we dare not assume for a moment that the teaching of the youngest child is a whit less important than teaching the adult Bible class. And while parents no doubt bear the primary responsibility for carrying out the child’s earliest training, nevertheless, the Sunday school teacher’s responsibilities and opportunities are great indeed, particularly in the case of little children whose parents are not Christians.
Here, then, is a second important principle essential to effective teaching throughout the child’s years in Sunday school: a strong foundation must be laid in the youngest classes, and so the school’s best teachers must invariably be placed in these grades.
Growth and Development
Most of us realize that no two children are exactly alike; yet, we often forget that no two age-groups are alike either. As youngsters grow and develop from birth to adulthood, they are constantly changing, stage by stage, so that each succeeding age-level is characteristically different in several respects. This is a principle clearly recognized by professional educators and certainly very explicitly stated in the Scriptures (1 Cor. 13:11).
A basic characteristic that steadily changes as the child grows older is the one commonly referred to as “attention span.” This simply means the period of time for which a child is able to “pay attention” or concentrate on the subject in hand.
Nursery children have an attention span of only three or four minutes; and yet how often they are expected to sit through a class or children’s meeting listening to a concentrated twenty-minute sermon!
To ensure productive learning, every teacher must be thoroughly familiar with the characteristics of the particular age-group he is teaching, and then adapt his whole approach accordingly.
The best way to learn these characteristics quickly is to obtain good literature on the subject; e.g., the descriptive folders published by Scripture Press, 1825 College Ave., Wheaton, Ill., under a series of titles such as Nursery Children, Their Characteristics and How to Understand Them. Similar titles are available on beginners, primaries, juniors, intermediates, seniors, and even adults. While these folders give the subject only brief treatment in each case, and while they contain a fair amount of promotional information about the organization’s Sunday school materials, they are nevertheless very sound and quite helpful. Free copies are available on request from Scripture Press.
How to Understand and Influence Children — Dr. Clyde M. Narramore—is an excellent volume on children of ages five, six, seven, and eight. For further details, see the Book Review on the inside back cover of Food for the Flock, September, 1959.
Although not primarily a Christian publication, These are Your Children, by Jenkins, Shacter, and Bauer, contains a wealth of useful information about the various stages of the child’s development. Publishers are Scott, Foresman and Company, Chicago, Ill.
Correspondence courses on teacher training should certainly not be overlooked as another possible means of acquiring help in this area. The lack of teacher training is one of the saddest, most deplorable deficiencies in our whole assembly Sunday school program, but correspondence courses have served admirably in attempting to fill in this gap.
In addition, a great deal of assistance can be obtained through the use of Sunday school manuals and study helps prepared by professional teachers who are also consecrated Christians. The best Sunday school publications are carefully graded as to teaching concepts and vocabulary, so that the teacher using them properly will be guided in his approach to the particular age-group with which he is working.
Teaching concepts and vocabulary must correspond to the child’s experience. If the teacher uses ideas and words that are outside his experience, then the teaching will be ineffective and little or no learning will result. In other words, to get the best results, the teacher must think the child’s kind of thought and speak the child’s kind of language.
A Learning Atmosphere
Children learn most efficiently when they feel comfortably “at home.” Through careful planning, the teacher can create a homey atmosphere which will spark the child’s interest and motivate his learning.
For the Christian teacher, atmosphere must be considered in terms of spiritual, as well as social and physical conditions.
A proper spiritual atmosphere is possible only through daily communion with the Lord, as the teacher diligently prepares himself (as well as his lesson) throughout every day of the week. Prayer and the study of the Word of God are of all things most essential, but unfortunately they may often be of all things most neglected.
A wholesome social atmosphere is also highly desirable and can be encouraged by taking a personal interest in each child and by showing a friendly attitude towards him. In addition, there is no substitute for regular prayer that an increasing spirit of friendliness and co-operation might prevail amongst all the children in the class.
On the physical side, the proper choice and arrangement of furniture, lighting, temperature, and ventilation can all be used to produce the atmosphere most conducive to effective teaching and productive learning.
Seats and tables should be scaled to the size of the child; otherwise, discomfort, and distractions result. Lighting must be adequate (bright, but not blinding) so that children can read and see the lesson illustrations clearly. Temperature and ventilation must be properly regulated, or children will be sleepy, fidgety, or otherwise uncomfortable.
The very best physical equipment is, of course, only complementary to the teacher’s spiritual equipment. The latter is the most vital aspect of the whole learning situation, and without care and exercise in this regard, nothing else will be much avail in producing the best spiritual results.
At the same time, we should always remember that Sunday school teaching is the Lord’s work, and the Lord deserves the very best, not only in personal devotion and sacrifice, but also in methods and equipment.
Of course, it costs us something to give Him our best, it always has. But in this connection, David’s comment is the classic for all time: “Neither will I offer burnt offerings unto the Lord my God of that which doth cost me nothing” (2 Sam. 24:24).