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Do we have the guts to confuse and perplex our learners?

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Today I discovered this TED talk by Ramsey Mussalem a chemistry teacher. Three years ago a life threatening condition gave him some deep insights into teaching. If you have a teaching role in the church this video is really worth watching.




Ramsey suggests that it is the student’s questions that are the seeds of real learning — not some “scripted curriculum that gives them tidbits of random information.”

I found this very challenging. It seems to me that most Christian Education curricula encourage teachers to spend a lot of time talking to children and asking them questions. If Ramsey Mussalem is right it is the children who need to be asking question. So I’m going to ask a challenging question:

How do we turn our teaching around, so that the learners are asking the questions?

Ramsey says, “If we have the guts to confuse our students, perplex them and evoke real questions…. then we as teachers have information that we can use to tailor robust and informed methods of blended instruction.”

My first response is to say, “Woah hold on a minute! Confuse and perplex our students? Really?” But isn’t that what Jesus did over and over again? Turn to John 3 and read the account of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. Do you see how Nicodemus is confused and perplexed into asking deep questions?

Ramsey has three rules that he brings into his teaching

  1. Curiosity comes first. Questions can be the window to great instruction, but not the other way around.
  2. Embrace the mess- understand that learning can be messy- It can mean a lot of trail and error.
  3. Practice reflection

So how do we translate this into children’s ministry? For that matter how do we translate this into any kind of teaching ministry? How might this kind of approach change

  • the ways sermons are preached?
  • young people are prepared for confirmation?
  • synods are challenged?
  • clergy are trained?
  • church educational resources are written?
  • Bible studies are led?

I have no idea! I’ve only just started to think about it. I know it challenges me as a teacher and writer. It scares me to even contemplate this kind of approach. Do we have the guts?

What do you think?

“If we as educators embrace a new paradigm as cultivators of curiosity, we might just bring a little bit more meaning to their school day and spark their imagination.”

Sharon Harding

About Sharon Harding

I was born in England and immigrated to Canada almost 30 years ago. A graduate of Gloucestershire University (B.Ed.), I have been involved in children’s ministry since I was 16. Over the past 12 years I have written for a variety of Christian Education curriculum resources. I also write a blog at encouraging parents to build strong connections with their children. When I am not working I enjoy painting, reading, and pottering around the Internet.

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10 Responses to Do we have the guts to confuse and perplex our learners?

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I’m not a children’s educator, having spent most of my ordained ministry working with adults, some of whom have been stunted by childhood experiences of being “told how it is,” and then discouraged from questioning. Adult education is all about questioning. It works best when it is rooted in challenging childhood and youth education.

    • Sharon Harding

      I’ve been a part of the church for many years. It is only in the last few years that I’ve finally given myself permission to ask questions, and express doubts. I wish I had learned how when I was much younger!

  2. God save us all, big and small, from rote learning curriculum!

    I am a huge fan of “Godly Play” approach. It is scripted but only for the adult storyteller. Children CAN relate to that kind of storytelling, done well — ever tried to abridge or otherwise alter the telling of a beloved bedtime story? Kids want to hear the story as they know it! But in GP the connection and learning comes with the “wondering” afterwards, where children are invited to engage the story in a ‘messy’ not a ‘there is only one right answer’ way, encouraged to be curious, and then given a chance to reflect and explore what they make of it. There are nonverbal lessons inherent in the GP approach too. The “I wonder…” encourages kids (and adults!) to wonder and question and consider, too.

    For older kids and adults, there are also the “Confirm Not Conform” resources for Confirmation. There are others out there not satisfied with flat, coercive educational approaches!

    • Sharon Harding

      I’ve been a part of the church for many years. It is only in the last few years that I’ve finally given myself permission to ask questions, and express doubts. I wish I had leanred how when I was much younger!

    • Sharon Harding

      Thanks for sharing some resources that encourage questioning. I’m always interested to hear what others are using and how it is working.

  3. I was quite excited to see this post, Sharon. As a child, I had the advantage of being offered a school program that involved plenty of independent and creative study. It was what made school exciting, and what allowed me to develop the skills to improvise and apply universal/standardized knowledge to multiple situations.

    It’s funny: you posted this video just days after a number of conversations in other social networks addressed preaching without notes, or with an unscripted outline. Comments ranged from fear of straying away from “the message” to the excitement of being led by the Spirit, to the necessity of applying scripture to the joys and struggles voiced by parishioners on their way into church. It seems to me that this kind of creative approach applies across the board, regardless of age or occupation, because life is unscripted.

    • Sharon Harding

      Thanks for joining the conversation Jesse. I think you were very blessed to go to such a school. I wonder if it is time to revamp our aprroach to sermons altogether. I find it difficult to listen attentively to sermons, because it doesn’t suit my learning style. I would much rather hear something thought provoking and then break into small group discussions to talk about it. I’m not sure how that would work in larger churches though!

  4. I did not grow up with the Sunday school experience and have been thinking hard about what kind of experience I’d like for my own children in terms of religious “education”, at church or outside of it. What about the idea of throwing out the idea of a curriculum entirely, and focusing on the curiosity and questions that the children have about God and their spiritual life? I know at some level, you need to have a base language to talk about the experience of God, which is how I see Godly Play approaches it. But I do wonder if we could involve children more in the constructing of the questions, the activities, the structure of their learning from even the earliest years? I know traditional approaches to catechism focused on a core God/church curriculum to be learned and accepted, but I am finding it challenging to justify in light of what we know about learning.

    • Sharon Harding

      Thanks for joining the conversation Blue. I have been thinking about your comment and wondering…. How would it work? How would we train the leaders? I think that many leaders would struggle with the approach you have suggested. It’s so much easier to read the provided story and provide a cookie cutter craft, than open up the time for the children’s wonderings. I believe one of the most important things we can do is to share our faith stories with the children. It helps to have a structure to ensure that most of the important faith stories are covered. One of the trickiest things to deal with is that many children seem to be reluctant to ask questions and follow their wonderings when it comes to their faith. That is such a shame and I wonder how we can rekindle it.

      • For me, the challenge is to take the school out of Sunday school. I think that is what makes children reluctant to wonder and ask. Because it still feels like there is a right answer to produce for both the child and the teacher, and this automatically stifles wondering. I think a good goal is for adult leaders to help children have an experience of God every time they come to church. For me that’s an unconditional welcome from the community, a sense of being named and special, engagement with the senses and body to appreciate the gifts of God. A curriculum, even if it’s very hands on and flexible, still presupposes there’s a body of knowledge we need kids to know about God. What if we thought about a curriculum that develops the skills we can use to meet God, and trust that God will give what each individual needs to know when she needs it.

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