Very few Sunday School teachers are content with the studying their students do outside the classroom. Surely a very small percentage of all Sunday School students in evangelical churches even bother to do the home study lessons in their manuals. Those who go beyond that elementary stage to any kind of depth study on a biblical topic are as bard to find as a Sunday School teacher who studies next week’s lesson on Monday!
There are a number of ways to secure this home study, and we will talk about more of them in a future chapter dealing with the use of assignments in church education. In these present paragraphs we want to narrow our attention to a focus on the use of research and reports as a teaching technique. Our approach centers almost exclusively on preclass preparation rather than carry-over technique. To put it another way, the student will benefit more strategically from home study which he does on a subject to be discussed in the next class session, rather than review of last week’s class. The value then comes not only in the process of home study itself, but also in the input which he is able to provide for the discussion time in the class session.
It would seem that this method would be most commonly employed in teaching teens or adults. No doubt its great validity on that level should make it a popular choice in those departments. But we must not let the awesome scholarly overtones of the word research frighten us away from using this technique with older children and young teens as well. The acceleration of home study programs and the use of library and learning resource center materials in public education today have prepared most late Primary, Junior, and Junior High students to engage in serious individualized study outside of a collective classroom setting.
Chapter 11 dealt with an approach to learning which is presently called the “discovery method” or “inquiry learning.” If we accept the basic principles of the inquiry approach, then one of our most significant purposes is making our students independent investigators of God’s truth. This cannot be done simply by the transmissive pouring-out of information about God’s truth. It requires rather that the student enter a firsthand confrontation with the facts. Paul Pallmeyer writes, “In giving pupils the task of finding their answers also to the religious questions of life, a teacher can employ or suggest a variety of techniques: interviews with schoolmates, teachers, parents, and other people in the community; reflective thinking; group discussions; reading; individual or group research and reports; etc. In the use of the inquiry method our role as teacher is that of a research director and advisor to those engaged in the study” (New Ways to Learn, see p. 65).
Another purposeful result of the use of research and reports is increased learning on the part of the teacher. Too infrequently we think of ourselves as co-learners with our students. This is particularly a problem in monological teaching in which the teacher becomes a purveyor of information, a large pitcher pouring facts into the gathered cups.
When our students are engaged in research, they are frequently being confronted with diverse ideas and new positions. As they make their reports, these positions are aired in class and helpful discussion can follow. If out preparation for this discussion is sufficiently thorough, we are experiencing this exposure with our students. That is good for us. It also forces us to stabilize our own positions and come up with better support for the things we say in class.
Research and reports actually extend the teaching time. If our students pay attention to the subject matter only during the class hour, then we have confronted them with “the lesson” for approximately 45 minutes per week. If, on the other hand, their exposure to the content of what we are trying to teach extends to another two or three hours in preparation for next week’s class, then we have tripled or perhaps even quadrupled the exposure time, and that is a gold mine in which any teacher should want to be digging.
In any kind of human endeavor, the worker does what the boss inspects and not what he expects. If we are going to make research assignments meaningful, that research must find its culmination in reports, and that takes classtime. This is a “difficulty” because many teachers feel compulsive pressure to present a certain amount of material just because the manual calls for a lesson on six chapters in 1 Kings this Sunday.
If student Jim is going to spend two or three hours in research during this week, we are going to have to let him have a segment of classtime to report on his research. Consequently we are going to cover less ground in a given amount of time. But the depth learning which will accrue is many times more valuable than the elementary overview which we too often settle for in Christian teaching.
Another common problem in the use of research reports is motivation. Sometimes extrinsic motivation such as awards and rewards may be necessary to get a class moving. But we want to work toward the goal of intrinsic motivation in which the excitement of the very learning itself will be its own reward. Obviously this kind of goal is more easily reached with advanced teens and adults than with children. The key is the kind of attitude which we develop in class toward the research both when it is assigned and when it is reported.
Martha Leypoldt (40 Ways to Teach in Groups, mentioned earlier) suggests that in research and report teaching there are 9 responsibilities of the class leader and 11 responsibilities of group members. The following lists are reproduced from pages 96 to 97 in her book:
1. Assists in selecting a problem or issue
2. Leads the group in determining the needed area of research on the topic
3. Requests group members to volunteer to do research on the specific aspects determined by the group
4. Suggests possible resources, or provides the resources for group members to use for the research
5. Asks for reports from the individuals at the subsequent meeting
6. Requests reactions from other group members to the reports
7. Summarizes the main points, or requests someone else to do this task
8. Suggests a course of action or a way to use the information
9. Evaluates the group’s learning experience
The group members
1. Assist in selecting a problem or issue facing them
2. Assist the leader in determining the needed areas of research on the topic
3. Volunteer to do research on specific areas
4. Use the resources suggested by the leader and search for additional resources
5. Study diligently on the specific assignment given
6. Select relevant data
7. Organize material to present to the group
8. Report findings of their research
9. Ask questions of other group members to clarify issues
10. Determine a course of action or way to use the information
11. Assist in evaluating the group’s learning experience
If you have not implemented this method in your class before, you may want to begin with short and specific research assignments. The less experienced the researcher, the more both the task and resources will have to be spelled out for him. But give it a try. Maybe you can use a verse which has several seemingly valid interpretations. The class (or individual class members) can interview Bible teachers, check commentaries, or track down cross-references to clarify the possible meanings and rate the one they consider most accurate. Soon you will discover that research and reports are tools for individual learning.