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Teach With This Trait in Mind - Self-Directed

Teach the WordThis is the first article in a five-part series by Prof. Stephen Geiger, who teaches education and New Testament at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, the seminary of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.


Teaching involves a lot of common sense. For centuries, gifted teachers have figured out what works, and many have done well even without formal training. At the same time, we are ready to work at our craft. We want to do the best we are able so that God's word is communicated clearly and with methodology that does everything it can to engage our fellow Christians in understanding God's truth.

Teachers focus on two key things: their subject area and their audience. The trick is to find the best way to communicate a certain body of material to a particular audience. This can be incredibly complicated. There are so many aspects to our subject material, and no two members of our audience are exactly alike (not to mention that no two teachers are exactly alike either). To imagine that one can master teaching by simply embracing four or five bullet points is to underestimate the challenge that teaching is. At the same time, if we can put together a few key concepts that get us to think and possibly spark ideas for how we can teach even better then . . .

In the next five issues of Teach the Word, we are going to look at Five Traits of Adult Learners. As we look at the five traits, the overarching question will be this: How could my teaching of a Sunday morning Bible class be different if I keep this particular trait in mind?

Here are five key characteristics of adult learners:

  • Self-directed
  • Experienced
  • Task oriented
  • Problem solving
  • Interested in immediate application

Would you agree, generally speaking, that adults are like this?

TRAIT #1 — Adults are … SELF-DIRECTED

What does it mean that adults are self-directed? Simply said, adults like to have a role in deciding what it is they want to learn. As children, subject matter is pretty much chosen for us. When we move into high school and college, we get more and more choice—electives, majors, etc. Adults? "Give me a role in deciding what to learn."

That doesn't mean adults don't care about what is important for them to learn. We also don't want to give the impression that humans get to independently decide what God should be saying. But with the word of God as our one nonnegotiable, we do however want to give adults some flexibility in deciding what we're going to talk about.

How would this look in a Sunday morning Bible class?

  • Curriculum input: Pastors can involve a core group in selecting Bible study topics for the year. The pastor might make a proposal and members will respond. A larger group might take survey.
  • Raised hands – A friendly environment: Self-direction shows itself whenever a fellow Christian raises his or her hand and asks a question. How can you ensure that participants feel comfortable taking the initiative? A friendly and open environment is key. How do you know whether you have one? Offer opportunities for anonymous feedback periodically. Find some participants who you feel would be up-front, and ask them some pointed questions about how things are going.
  • Raised hands – Good pacing: How often does your Bible class feel rushed? There are times when it is best for you to summarize things with concise lecture. But a constant feeling that having you talk is the only way to get through the material can lead participants to feel guilty about asking questions. Having a clear starting and ending point for a class, but designing it in a way that gives you flexibility to skip questions where needed without everyone feeling like they just missed out on something really important (perhaps one has a smaller number of questions to start with) . . . this approach to class design can convey a sense of open space for learners, open space that can be filled with their thoughtful questions.
  • Raised hands – Ask for questions, and wait: Consider dividing the day's material into three or four subparts, at least in your own mind. When you get to the end of a particular portion, ask, "What are your questions?” Then allow there to be silence. There are different general rules for how much time to allow, but consider eight to ten seconds. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but just as that period of time is about to end, a hand might get raised. Another adult is displaying the tendency to be self-directed.
  • Question design – Open questions: Here's the big one. This may be the hardest one to put into practice, but it does provide a huge opportunity to tap into the "self-directed" quality of adults. If you can design questions for your Bible study that are open in nature, you provide space for adults to decide which direction they would like to go. What is an open question? Here’s an example: After reading Revelation 1:7-9, offer this task to the participants: Make a list of the top five spiritual struggles you find yourself grappling with personally in your day-to-day life. In what different ways is Revelation 1:7-9 an encouragement for those facing threats and struggles? Now here’s the same topic but with a closed question: List the words in Revelation 1:7-9 that give encouragement to those struggling. Both the open and the closed question get people into the Word. Great! But the open question gives adults a chance to chart their own course—to be self-directed—in two specific ways. First, they evaluate and verbalize their own spiritual challenges—they're picking the topic for discussion. Second, they figure out how the encouraging words of Revelation 1:7-9 apply specifically to the struggles they listed . . . again, following a path they themselves set.

Surely wisdom is key for managing adult "self-direction.” But when that instinct can be put to good use, use it!

In next month’s issue — Adults are ... Experienced