Brain Rules and Higher Biblical Education – Part 1

I was reminded recently of the satirical Canadian political party The Rhinoceros Party. At one point in this party’s history they promised that if elected they would improve higher education by building taller schools. Lately I have been thinking a lot about ways that higher Biblical education could use some reforms. Taller building might be helpful, especially if there are big windows since the view might inspire students.

But seriously, as John Medina’ points out in his book Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, if we wanted to create the worst possible environment for the brain to function well, we would probably come up with something similar to the modern classroom (or in the business world, the cubicle). He has suggested that for one, the brain is just not made to handle large doses of information delivered via long lectures. No matter how animated the teacher, people are pretty much guaranteed to forget about 90% of what they learn in the classroom within 30 days. But it gets worse; the majority of this forgetting occurs within the first few hours of after class (p. 100).

Another issue is that most teachers at this level are experts in their fields, and want to impart as much information to their willing disciples, as fast as possible. What we often forget is that they usually have at least 3 other teachers with the same goal. Medina compares this kind of cramming to an old movie called Mondo Cane, which he doesn’t recommend, but the movie does have a good analogy for what is happening in the average classroom. The famous scene depicts: “farmers force-feeding geese to make pâtte de foie gras. Using fairly vigorous stokes with a pole, farmers literally stuffed food down the throats of these poor animals. When a goose wanted to regurgitate, a brass ring was fastened around his throat, trapping the food inside the digestive tract. Jammed over and over again, such nutrient oversupply eventually created a stuffed liver, pleasing to chefs around the world. Of course, it did nothing for the nourishment of the geese, who were sacrificed in the name of expediency.”

Are not most teachers guilty of this kind of force-feeding? I don’t believe any teacher has a malicious desire to fatten their students’ livers, but many of us forget that our students aren’t ready for so much information in such small amounts of time. Most of us would be better to cut back on how much we try to pack into a lecture, and focus instead on making sure that the big points are delivered with clarity and focus. In the long run, the peripheral information will be forgotten anyways, so its wise not to sweat the little stuff.

In my next post I want to elaborate a little more on how Medina imagines the ideal learning environment. Here’s a teaser: this kind of school is experiential, in the sense that teaching happens in the context the student will actually work in as they enter the field. Secondly, this kind of school is taught by people who actually work their day jobs in the field they teach in. And finally, by combining these two elements, you produce a synergy that allows real-world problems to complement and expand traditional book-learning.

Stay tuned!


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