I am sure, like me, you have all been there. You feel like what you have to say is literally from the Spirit of God. You have prepped all week; you carefully crafted your talk, studied the text, prayed through the text, and even created some of the greatest tweetable one-liners. You are convinced that your picture with a great quote is showing up on Instagram this week. The time comes, you take the stage, and not soon after you begin your greatest message ever, you start to feel like your words are vanishing before they ever reach the ears of your students.
Attention spans are dropping; faces are not illuminated with the Spirit of God— as you had hoped—but of that blinding glow the LED glow of their smartphone. Your point is lost, your motivation lacking, and once again the seemingly only viable solution is to cut down on the amount of teaching. Research is now showing that the attention span of the average student is actually less than that of a goldfish. And more often than not we believe that the solution is less teaching time. After all, doesn’t that make the most sense? Less attention span means I should try and say more in less time so that what students need to hear isn’t lost while distracted by the endless stream of notifications on their phones.
As disciple-makers, we are all caught in a bit of a conundrum because we feel like there are only two options. Do I run the risk of losing their attention for the sake of the message or sacrifice the message for the sake of their attention spans? It feels like either way, you lose. Because either way, you do lose. Unless of course, you modified your delivery method. The reality is that your students’ attention spans have less to do with content and duration and more to do with delivery. How we teach is just as important as what we teach—sometimes even more so.
This is precisely the challenge teachers face every day in the classroom. Imagine trying to keep the attention of students during the last hour of the day. As a teacher, I worked tirelessly to find ways that not only kept their attention but focused on coaching students to learn rather than just the successful transference of information via sound wave from mouth to ear. So I thought I would share with you what became some of my most successful tactics in the classroom and give a little insight into how I used them in ministry.
Take what is generally done in a classroom and have students do it at home and what they would typically do at home, have them do with the teacher in the classroom. So things like a lecture or instructional time would be done online at home, and the teacher would coach students through practice work in the classroom. This is a model very similar to how coaches run a practice. It allows students to make mistakes and receive immediate feedback and correction.
Let’s say you are aiming to teach those you lead the importance of sharing your faith and you want to provide a simple how-to along with it. That’s great. Normally, our first response is to craft a nice message with some easy points to remember and maybe a slick powerpoint presentation. Or you could flip it. Send students home with a message that taught on the importance and offered a few key pointers on how to share your faith turning your meeting time into actual hands-on practice. You could use role-playing, establish different scenarios, questions, and tackle roadblocks people may have. This allows space and time for immediate correction and encouragement and increases the chances students will take that learning forward and actually use it.
Teachers use a variety of instructional and assessment styles that are intended to change and adapt according to student needs and learning capabilities. So rather than just lecture at students for thirty minutes, give them a worksheet to take home and then give a quiz on the subject matter the next day, teachers choose a variety of teaching methods and present the material and then offer a more formative assessment model for student evaluation.
When you are preparing a lesson or sermon for the week, be sure to take a step back and consider as many learning styles as you can and incorporate them into your talk, sermon, or lesson. Take the necessary time to discover how your students learn (ask them, they probably know). It takes more time and effort on your part, but well worth it when you see all of your students engaged.
Put students into groups, give them a problem, and watch them collectively create a solution. This approached fosters creative thinking and gets students actively involved in the learning process. It eliminates the need for students to passively listen to lectures or instruction from a teacher and creates space to put new knowledge to work.
This kind of learning works excellent in a small group setting. Give students time to explore together how to take on the challenge you gave them in a talk or sermon. It gives them the opportunity to create individualized solutions and strategies for each other collectively. For example, rather than just quietly reflecting on how to conquer sin, in a collaborative learning setting students would create a strategy together for the individual. This also opens a much larger door for prayer and accountability among the group.
Giving students a project that throughout the entire process, takes them through a series of objections or milestones to complete. Project-based learning is designed to be actual hands-on training for the learner. It is a chance to engage in a task—success or fail— to learn.
We all want those we lead to live on mission. We want them to exemplify a biblical worldview in every sphere of their lives. Yet more often than not, we give our students marching orders and can only hope they follow-through. But, if we were to think in terms of project-based learning, we force ourselves to be more intentional with what tasks we give our students as well as our expectations and follow-through.
Now I might be able to guess what many of you are thinking—if you read this far. This is just one more thing to learn, one more thing to add into an already overcrowded day. I know, in some cases it sounds technical; and besides, teachers spend an entire career perfecting these, and for a pastor, teaching is just one part of an already overwhelming job. So here is what I would suggest: Pick one. Just pick one of these and try it. But you have to try it for a month or more. Ask some teachers in your congregation for help (they love this kind of stuff). It will undoubtedly throw your leaders off and even some of your students, but stick with it. Have reasonable expectations. At the end of the month, evaluate with your team on how they thought it went. Make adjustments or ditch it and try something else.
Have fun, and as always we are praying for you.