Teaching through Experience

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This essay was originally written by pastor W. Buisman. For specific examples of this teaching method, see the Experiential Learning page.

Ah the age old problem of teaching a lesson. We often struggle more in how to teach others than what to teach others. With the high tech, fast paced world we live in delivery matters just as much as content. It is my personal opinion that retention and life application are the signal of successful teaching. In other words, does what and how you teach actually make a difference in the lives those you're teaching? The harsh truth is that in the church half the people in your audience has already heard the lesson you're going to teach, but the issue is that they aren't living it. So in many circumstances it's not the content that is the problem, it's delivering the truth in a way that spurs people into LIVING the Message of Christ.

There are 3 basic ways of teaching someone anything. The first is LECTURING. The value of lecturing is you can give a significant material in a relatively short amount of time. Most preaching is essentially done in this format. You may tell a story or two to make your point but it's mainly just the facts ma'am. The downside is people listen to the words, but they often don't hear the message. It's the proverbial in 1 ear and out the other. Most people need something more to drive home the point. It's not that they don't understand or know what you're saying; it's that the message hasn't been made personally relevant to them. In a perfectly efficient logical world however, this would be the best method and may actually be the best method with certain audiences and content.

The second way is through OBSERVATION. This method adds a new dimension to the lecture format in that the audience is actually allowed to witness something. Maybe a video clip, a skit, or a physical demonstration of some kind allows the audience to SEE the message in action. This is often a very favorable method given the context, content and audience for many lessons such as sermons or devotions. It can deliver less content than the lecture format and the people aren't actually doing anything themselves, but people will often go home remembering more of what they were taught and thus be more likely to actually live it out in their lives.

The third way is through EXPERIENCE. This method is fairly rare in the teaching world because of its high cost. You will only be able to present a limited amount of content, but your audience will have a very high retention and hopefully application rate. Teaching through experience means involving the audience in a situation where there may actually learn through it themselves. If Lecturing is telling a kid not to touch a hot stove, and Observation is showing the kid that a hot stove is hot and dangerous, then Experience is letting the kid touch the stove for himself. Now despite the possible child abuse in the analogy, which do you think the child will be most likely to retain and apply in his life? When we learn through experience we retain more of it because most of our senses are involved in the process and because we have personal ownership in the lesson. Indeed they are no longer audience or even participant and you are no long sole teacher; everyone has become teacher and student at the same time. Your new role is what is called the “facilitator” of the experience. Your job is more of guide, than dictator.

Experiential learning is not easy or guaranteed. Often the time required to set up a successful learning experience can take double the amount of time that a simple lecture takes. Not only do you have to do your homework on what you want to teach, but you have to be creative in how you're going to engage the people in the lesson and then you have to do the set-up. Often a format or context is not particularly friendly to Experiential Learning. Take for instance a Sunday morning service. The sanctuary set-up, the tradition and the time constraints are all highly limiting factors. However, even in this context there is the possibility for Experiential learning with thought, effort and creativity.

You might be wondering, “How do I actually go about teaching through experiences?” There is no law, but there are some guidelines that may help you be more effective. First you are going to need to let go of the need to control every aspect of the lesson. This can be hard if you're used to the lecture/sermon style. If you provide an experience activity, people will often learn several different lessons, many of which were not your actual focus. You, as the facilitator of those experiences, need to be flexible enough to use the situation to its fullest, while still maintaining ultimate fidelity to the Truth of Christ. I have often found it more important in my ministry to facilitate and utilize a life changing lesson, than to teach MY Lesson that I had planned for the day. We must be open to the teaching of the Holy Spirit in any given situation and be adaptable with it.

Paradoxically to the need to “let go,” you will also need to be fully prepared. I think of it like I do camping; I don't always know what exactly is going to happen on the trip, but I do come prepared for any number of possible situations. You need to have all the thinking, set-up and safety precautions fully taken care of. If you haven't put thought into the experience your group won't learn as much as they could have. If you haven't done the set-up for the experience then it probably won't go to plan and they won't learn much to begin with. And if you haven't taken care of safety precautions, then someone will get injured and no one will have learned anything except not to trust you. Winging it is a dangerous option for this method of teaching.

Another important aspect for you to consider is your context. Who's going to be there and what can they handle physically, emotional, spiritually? What facilities and resources do you have available? What about time and space constraints? Where is my group's overall maturity and intellectual level? I don't do the trust fall with 80 year olds and I don't talk to Children about the details of the hypostatic union. The Cut and Paste method usually doesn't work unless you're very lucky. What someone else did with success may not fit your context. So spend some time really thinking about your context. The final aspect in teaching through experiences effectively is debriefing the experience, usually after the fact. Again the role of facilitator is needed here more than dictator. A good rule is to ask good questions and then be prepared to really LISTEN to their answers. You can't use their experiences to help them learn something if you have no idea what they actually experienced. I will usually ask at least 5-10 questions after an experience and then only after I have a really good feel for where they are at will I close with a few points and a Bible Passage or story.

  • What did that feel like?
  • What was hard/easy/scary/funny about it?
  • Was it fun? Why?
  • What did you learn from that?
  • How could that experience apply to your life or relationship with God?
  • Etc

I want to say that all three methods can be effective, depending on your context. And in fact the Bible uses all of them. Jesus Lectured (Beatitudes), Jesus used Observation (Parable of the Seeds), and Jesus used Experiences (Peter walking on water) to teach people his Truth and his lessons. I hope only to provide you with another awesome and effective way of communicating God's message to your people in your context. I have not gone into very much detail on a specific experiential learning activity however there are several available to you on this website. Please read the all the content and prayerfully and thoughtfully consider whether it is what God wants you to use for your context. I will close with this final though. In the last 4 sermons I have preached, 3 of them were traditional sermons with a mix between illustrations and lecture and the fourth was truly experiential learning. The only one I have heard about and continue to hear about is the experiential sermon. People retained and learned through it and God willing they applied it in their life. Enough said.