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- Finding faithHow people become Christians
- Effective communicationApproaches for biblical communication
- Bridge the gapMeeting people on the common ground of their interests & needs
- Bridging opportunitiesExamples and opportunities for using the Bridge Strategy
- Using cultureTypes of culture; understanding & using culture in evangelism
- Websites that workIssues for site planning, usability and promotion
- Problems in evangelismThings that stop us being effective
- Mission opportunitiesDigital evangelism & cross-cultural mission, mission & literature resources
- Writing wellHow to write effectively for the web or print media
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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:
- they feel in control and have choices in the direction of the learning process.
- they are given a high level of respect for their current viewpoints and status.
- there is no condescension by the teacher.
- the teaching builds on their previous experience.
- there is ‘transferability’ – they can apply the teaching immediately to real situations in their own lives.
- teachers realise that most people have a surprisingly short attention span. The hour-long lecture is not, in general, a good means of communication. After about 10 minutes of continuous input, people cease to absorb much new information. By 20 minutes, the heart-rate of most lecturees has dropped considerably. The apparently rapt facial expressions of attendees is in fact often a fixed glaze. Any presentation of any sort, be it sermon, presentation, lecture, must be broken up into segments of no more than 20 minutes. Breaks for questions or other interaction, visual demonstrations, video clips are essential.
- there is a mixture of teaching approaches, including considerable interactivity: role-play or drama, discussion groups, questionnaires or other feedback.
- visual aids are used – eg., video-clips, OHP graphics, Powerpoint.
- learners are given the space to come to their own conclusions based on evidence offered to them, in a non-pressured way.
- the learning environment is friendly, informal, and often humorous.
- they have the option to ask questions without fear of embarrassment or condemnation.
- they have a good trusting relationship with the teacher who should be sending them a good ‘para-message’ – in other words, learners are looking to see if the teacher’s own life reflects the content and usefulness of the teaching: does he or she ‘walk the talk’?
- the teaching has a specific, practical, assessable goal, rather than being vague, abstract, or aiming at a range of targets.
- they have a good relationship with the other learners.
- at least some of the learning process is within a small interactive group.
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 discipleshipWe can quickly see that evangelistic approaches which . . .
- are abstract, not relating to people␁s day-to-day lives and needs
- assume previous knowledge that learners do not have
- are preachy, one-way, heavy, lengthy
- give no opportunity for discussion, interaction or feedback
- lack humor
- are condescending, critical, negative
- provide no sense of identification or relationship with the evangelist
- use standardized content which does not vary in order to take account of the specific needs of individual differing groups
- are not backed up by an empathetic and transparently open and honest teacher
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 WebThe 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 moreTo look at Adult Learning in greater depth:
- Attention span issues – why 20-minutes really is the maximum.
- Lecture attention span – the ‘Change-Up’ in Lectures
- Understanding Audience Attention Span – because good marketing should not be rocket science
- Guide for Effortless Presenting – valuable 5-page PDF download. Save it and print it!
- Principles of Adult Learning – excellent summary of the key essentials.
- Seven Characterisitics of Highly Effective Adult Learning Programs – useful insights – including "learning must be fun".
- Assumptions About the Adult Learner – issues for adults, particularly those who have been out of the learning environment for some time.
- Adult Learning: An Overview – by Stephen Brookfield.
- Adult Learning: From Theory to Practice – a free online distance course.
- Adult Learning Theory – from Learning Point Associates.
- Game Theory – the study of how people interact and make decisions.
related pages within the Reach outsiders menu links
recommended books evangelism principles, including free downloads
valuable online videos about web ministry