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How adults really learn

How best do people learn? It is an interesting question with some fascinating answers, because it has a high degree of relevance to effective Christian communication of the Gospel. Until relatively recently, all teaching strategies were developed for children. But now, considerable research has been done on the best ways to teach adults effectively. Indeed it is a subject that can itself be studied at undergraduate or postgraduate levels.

Adults learn anything best when:

Teaching is far less effective when some or all of these elements are absent. No doubt the clever motivated learners will still obtain some benefit, but many others will be unable to learn much.

Well, surprise, surprise! We see here many elements of communication which are clearly demonstrated in the Bible, and also reflect biblical principles of behaviour and respect, inter-personal relationships, and an understanding of the individual worth of any person. Indeed, we see them demonstrated clearly in the ministry of the Lord Jesus. As so often, we find that we are “thinking God’s thoughts after Him”.

Application to evangelism and discipleship

We can quickly see that evangelistic approaches which . . . ... are unlikely to be very effective. We want to be the very best we can be for Him – and this framework can help us.

Here are clear strategies which apply to any type of teaching or evangelism program within a church. If we use the one-way lecture style of communication, we may find that our audience (and maybe indeed the whole congregation) will only consist of self-selected well-educated people who can handle a 40-minute monologue. This is why interactive evangelistic Bible study programs such as Alpha-type courses work so well, which are also using the principles of permission evangelism.

It takes a preacher who is gifted far beyond average, to be able to communicate anything much beyond 20 minutes. That they may be sitting their smiling, even feeling good inside, is not the same as actually hearing and taking in a great deal after 20 minutes. Preachers, communicators, teachers – trust the experts on this one. A maximum of about 20 minutes one-way dialogue without a break should be a golden rule.

It is interesting to find that even in cultures where teaching has traditionally been hierarchical and unquestioned (often by rote), people quickly respond to this better form of communication after a short time of acclimatization. And some elements of adult learning in fact correspond to the communication styles which work best in oral communication cultures.

How it fits the Web

The nature of the Internet enables it to fit well with many of these aspects of effective communication. We can build a sense of community into websites so that visitors feel they belong and can interact with both the webmaster and other site visitors. A self-deprecating use of humor is always valuable. Just as TV is not just radio with pictures, the Internet is not just linear text transferred to screen: it can be dramatically more. It is also a ‘pull’ medium that draws users to specific pages based on their felt needs and interests. The user must feel in control, welcomed and unthreatened. We must always assume that site visitors have no understanding of Christian words and concepts.

We also see these principles working in Alpha-type interactive Bible studies, and in apologetics discussion sites. The need for an interactive apologetic approach is increasingly needed in a postmodern culture, argues Dr Wade Bradshaw of L’Abri Fellowship in Capturing the Low Ground.

Learning more

To look at Adult Learning in greater depth:
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