My journey as a Christian educator began at age 16 when I signed up to teach third grade Sunday School at the parish in which I was baptized and raised. I didn’t know a thing about curriculum or lesson planning at the time, but I loved Jesus and wanted to share my faith with younger children in the Church. The Reverend Patricia Sunday after Sunday I dutifully Phaneuf Alexander rehearsed Bible stories and led my charges through complicated craft projects – all in the name of making disciples.
I am not alone in this passion. Over many years, first as a lay Christian educator and now as an Episcopal priest, I have been privileged to serve alongside countless dedicated volunteers who offer their gifts generously to the Church, week in and week out. They have busy, full, professional and personal lives, yet they serve willingly and enthusiastically because they know how much their witness and mentorship matters. They have a heart for the Gospel, and they are called to share their faith with the next generation. As a mother, I am profoundly grateful for their labor of love.
A Changing Ministry
But the reality is that the ministry of formation can be challenging even in the best times, and especially at a moment in the history of the Church when attendance is less predictable and depleted by competing demands. Couple this with the fact that students in the digital age process information differently than they did even 10 years ago. It becomes apparent that the very nature of Christian education itself might need to evolve.
This is where research from the field of educational neuroscience (also known as “mind-brain education”) can prove so helpful to faith formation. At first glance this may seem like an odd, perhaps even oxymoronic, claim. What does neuroscience have to do with faith? Are they not by definition in opposition?
I confess that not too long ago I would have been hard-pressed to see the utility of applying neuroscience to Christian formation. For the past several years, however, I have served as a chaplain at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Maryland, home to the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning.
Through professional development with the Center, I have come to understand that some basic principles of mind-brain education apply equally to a math class or a Sunday School lesson or youth group activity. Learning is learning, and understanding how the brain perceives, processes, and retains information goes a long way toward helping young people comprehend and claim faith as their own.
Relationship and Positive Emotions
“For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” ~ Psalm 139:13-14
Of all the organs in the human body, the brain is indeed “fearfully and wonderfully made.” This is particularly true of the brain’s emotional center, or amygdala, which acts as a filter, or emotional “switching station.” When the brain experiences fear, stress, or other negative emotions, the amygdala automatically shuts down both short-term memory and higher-order thinking. (Whitman and Kelleher)
The implications for education, in any setting (including the Church), are clear. To absorb and analyze new information, it is essential for a person to feel calm, unthreatened, and emotionally connected to one’s teacher, leader, or mentor. In developing formation programs, therefore, it is important to remember that positive relationships, enhanced by appropriate humor and storytelling, are the foundations of learning.
This is, of course, what church communities do so well. Putting systems in place to ensure that children and youth feel safe, known, and loved – not just by their immediate families, but by the congregation as a whole – fosters healthy development. Adults have similar needs. Being accepted by a faith community allows people to embrace their beliefs and begin to share them with others.
Mixing It Up
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” ~ Ecclesiastes 3:1
Teachers and leaders new to Christian education may find structuring a 30- to 40-minute class or youth group meeting daunting. Knowing something about neuroscience can prove helpful.
Research in mind-brain education shows that students best retain information presented within the first 10 minutes of a “learning episode.” (Whitman and Kelleher) A new story or theme should be introduced at the outset of a class period, to be followed in the next 10 to 15 minutes by another activity.
Similarly, it is important to vary teaching modalities, or learning styles, within a session. Teachers can alternate storytelling with art, music, movement, play (they’re never too old), and prayer. This is preferable to planning one sustained activity for the duration of a class or group meeting.
Consider closing each session with an “exit ticket” that requires students to call to mind what they learned that day. This can be as simple as going around in a circle and asking students and participants to share one thing that they remember from the class. Other methods include journaling, drawing, collage-making, or reflecting on the time just passed. Not teaching until the very last minute of the session (tempting though that may be) and allowing the group to take a couple of minutes for closure and reflection also increases the likelihood that students will remember what they have just heard and experienced.
Service and Empathy
“So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up.” ~ Galatians 6:9
As followers of Jesus, we know that service is inherently “right.” In caring for our neighbor who is hurting or in need, we minister to Christ himself. At the same time, by serving others and experiencing feelings of empathy, we enhance our own brain capacity, as well.
Research by psychologist Daniel Goleman (best known for his work with “emotional intelligence”) demonstrates that empathy and compassion actually result in a “brain shift.” He explains, “The very act of concern for others’ well-being…creates a greater state of well-being within oneself.” (Goleman) The sense of well-being – when the amygdala is not under assault – allows for greater learning. (Newberg and Waldman)
Formation programs that include some component of service impact people of all ages not only spiritually, but emotionally and intellectually, as well. Leveraging these brain benefits may also entice more parents and others to support service activities that deepen their own commitments to their church.
To consolidate learning, it is important that people have an opportunity to reflect on their service experiences, either orally or in writing. Such metacognitive moments, or awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes, provide the “transformative link between the action of serving and the ideas and understanding of learning.” (Eyler) While service is beneficial in its own right, challenging people to think reflectively about their service to others promotes the making of meaning.
The potential implications of mind-brain education for Christian formation leaders seem significant. Incorporating these and other simple principles and techniques can invigorate teaching while deepening learning and enlivening faith.
This article first appeared in Episcopal Teacher:
Fall 2017, Vol. 29, No. 4, page 4-5