A Simple Recipe for Teaching Adults

by Richard E. Dodge

I learned to cook when I was a child. Something intrigued me about mixing what seemed like disconnected items and coming up with a cake, cookies or brownies. Admittedly, my mother was remarkably patient, especially that time when I cooked a cake complete with spoon inside. But I was learning, and mistakes were to be expected.

Just as cooking a cake required mixing the right ingredients, teaching adults requires some specific ingredients. Attending class each week does not mean that the adults really are learning and growing. All teaching-learning experiences require some foundational ingredients.

Jane Vella, in Taking Learning to Task (Jossey-Bass, 2001; p. 8), identified four essentials that must receive attention in planning and leading adult learning experiences. These include life experiences, unique life context, open questions and reflective responses. When blended adequately and in balanced proportions, the result often will be learning experiences that lead to life transformation.

We must remember that adults participate in Bible study and discipleship experiences because they make a conscious choice to do so based on some personal need. Whether for the content, fellowship or an invitation, they come because they choose to rather than because they are mandated to attend. That places heavy responsibility on the shoulders of the "cook," the teacher guiding the learning experience. Consider these tips for developing sound learning experiences.

Respect each person's life experiences. Our life experiences generally have a positive or negative impact on learning. Also, my personal experiences are valid and unique, even though others may have been through the same or similar events. Failing to gain a clearer picture of the background and prior experiences of life can open doors for embarrassment or hostile responses. We can bring learning from the theoretical into the real world when life experiences can be incorporated into learning experiences. Ask individuals beforehand what experiences have influenced their lives and learning. Know them well enough to know how to refocus the lesson based on learners' experiences. Always get permission to use personal experiences of learners in teaching experiences, however.

Consider the context of the learner. What I need from a study may be greater discipline to perform some aspect of the Christian life better, such as reading my Bible daily, while what you need is clearer understanding of what the Bible says about personal spiritual growth. Same class, same content, but different personal application. Failing to take context into account may leave some participants feeling that their teacher missed the point of the lesson or cannot address their needs. Talk with learners between sessions about the coming lesson and ask questions about how the subject relates to their personal lives. Assure them you are not trying to embarrass them. Explain that you are trying to make the lesson more applicable to them.

Ask open-ended questions. Open questions are those that can be answered correctly with a variety of responses. Closed questions usually require a specific answer and can be graded right or wrong. Open questions leads to critical thinking and personal evaluation that allows everyone to provide valid, correct and unique answers in each learner's personal context. I can explore the meaning of the content and how that meaning applies to my own life. Teachers present short and concise portions of information that become the platform for personal study, even within a large class or small-group assignments. Open-ended questions rarely have wrong answers. Incorrectly focused answers can be redirected, but each answer is valid.

Encourage reflective responses. Learners need time to process and experience the content. Allow time for individuals and groups to process the material. Reflective responses often grow out of questions such as, "What does this material mean to me?" "Why do I need this information?" "What difference will this information make in my personal relationships?" or "If I use and apply this information in my own life, what will be the cost and the benefit?"

I remember that the cakes I baked myself seemed to taste better than those baked by others - except of course Mom's cakes. Doing it myself made me feel good because I was investing myself in the cooking process. I truly believe that learners gain more understanding of biblical content and feel better about learning when they are active participants in the learning process. Exploring, discovering and processing the material makes learning much more exciting and deepens the learning experience for most adults.

Story Highlights

  • Respect each person’s life experiences.
  • Consider the context of the learner.
  • Ask open-ended questions.
  • Encourage reflective responses.

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