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Listen Before Teaching

A pastor wrote, “Some of our members believe that receiving the Lord’s Supper when they are ill will make them die more quickly. Some will even excuse themselves from taking the Lord’s Supper when the pastor visits them.” That surprising comment came from a Malawian pastor. He was giving his input for an upcoming seminar on the Lord’s Supper. A seminary professor from Wisconsin was coming over to Malawi to teach. He had agreed to work together with me to design the seminar using a Dialogue Education ™ approach. Our first step was to send out a few questions to the pastors who would be taking the seminar.

In Dialogue Education parlance, asking for advance input on a learning event is called doing a Learning Needs and Resources Assessment (LNRA). I’ve found it to be a great benefit in preparing to teach. In the case of the seminar on the Lord’s Supper, the advance input clearly improved the course design. During one lecture, our visiting professor carefully explained what the Bible teaches about the health benefits of taking communion! Perhaps an odd point to include in a Western context, but the lively discussion following the lecture proved its worth.

Doing an LNRA is not just valuable in cross-cultural teaching. We might be planning a series of adult Bible studies on millennialism for our members. We could guess about what approach might interest them, but why not ask? We might be preparing a study of Christian rebuke for our church elders. Finding out what the elders feel they need to know would be sensible. If we are preparing a marriage seminar for area congregations, couples who sign up can give valuable input ahead of time.

How do you conduct an LNRA? Each teacher has to find the best way, considering his or her own personality and context. The request for input could go out by e-mail, text message, hard copy, an online survey, or a face-to-face. Maybe the input will be better if it is submitted anonymously. You may want input from everyone who might attend. Or you might find (as I have) that input from a sampling of participants is enough.

Assessment questions can be very general. “What are you expecting from this study?” Better results come from more specific questions. “Next month we’ll study Christian rebuke. A major theme I was thinking of exploring is ‘How rebuke is an act of love that maintains spiritual health in a Christian community.’ What are your reactions?” A request for input could include practical issues. “In our upcoming marriage seminar, we plan to meet from 9 to 11a.m., Saturday mornings, at St. Peter’s fellowship hall. What are your comments or questions?”

It pays to listen. Sometimes the input we receive challenges the assumptions we made. “Your proposed seminar theme isConflict Resolution in Marriage.’ We’re not newlyweds. We need to learn how to adjust to an empty nest.” Sometimes learning needs are revealed that might not have been predicted. “If you give handouts, could you make a large print copy for me?” Practical things come up. “That fellowship hall is deathly cold. Have them turn down the air conditioner.” Listening to advance input can improve your lesson designs, reveal needs, and even uncover practical issues that might interfere with learning.

Conducting an LNRA does one other thing. When you ask their advanced input, learners know you are taking them seriously. The implicit message is respect. Your desire for input says, “I appreciate the wealth of experience and the valuable ideas you adults bring into this course.” Mutual respect between teacher and participants helps promote learning.

Try asking some questions ahead of time. Listen to your prospective learners and see how it changes and improves the learning experience. As Calvin Coolidge said: “No man ever listened himself out of a job.

Video Extra: Teach the Word – Interview With Pastor Nitz, Part 4

This is the fourth article in a five-part series by Paul Nitz, a WELS pastor and missionary to Malawi. He teaches pedagogy at the Lutheran Bible Institute, the beginning level ministerial school that serves the Lutheran Church of Central Africa in Malawi and Zambia.