Whether you teach preschoolers or senior citizens, as an effective leader you need to understand human development so you can teach well. Education, even in the church, is a process. To teach well we need to keep our end goal clearly in view.
For over a thousand years, educators in the Western world operated from an understanding of human development called the Trivium. While most teachers today have never heard of the Trivium and many schools do not operate based on it, a scientific understanding of human development has confirmed the practices of the ancients.
Trivium refers to three levels of education, which were classically referred to as Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. To make things clearer and simpler, I’ll rename them as Soaking, Thinking, and Speaking.
The soaking or grammar stage of human development roughly coincides with preschool and elementary school (There is a reason they were once called Grammar Schools!). Grammar doesn’t refer just to the rules of English but to the basic elements of knowledge in ever subject. The minds of young children are like sponges. God has designed them to memorize things, soaking them in. This is why young children can learn both their native and foreign languages quickly. Their mind is designed for it by their Creator!
For this reason, we focus on teaching Bible content—the stories of the Bible, the big picture storyline of the Bible, and Bible verses—to young children. A common misconception today when teaching children is that children need to understand what is being taught to learn it. However, our own experience will tell us otherwise. Many of us memorized Scripture in the King James Version as children. Often we did not understand clearly what the verse meant, but our parents and teachers got the verse into our heads. Later when we were older we grew in our understanding. Before kids “get it,” they need to “know it.”
When we teach children, we want to major on the facts and minor on life application. We want to soak as much Bible into their sponge-like brains so that when we squeeze later in life Bible will come out.
During the preteen or middle school years, the logic function of a child’s brain begins to kick in. This is part of what makes preteens so difficult. They are constantly thinking and questioning. While this may drive parents crazy, God has designed them this way, and as teachers we need to harness this for the glory of God.
So for middle school students we need to start to squeeze their brains. They want to think. We need to guide them to think biblically. If they already know Bible content, it is easier to get them to think about the meaning of the Bible and how it applies to their lives. “Theology” may be a word that scares many adults, but it is exactly what middle schoolers need. They need to be challenged to ask questions like “How did God inspire the Bible?” “How can Jesus be both God and man?” “Why does the Bible command us not to commit adultery?”
Beginning in high school, young men and women begin to develop the skill that the ancients called rhetoric—the ability to communicate their ideas clearly and convincingly. For those who teach high school students and adults, we must add to Bible content and to theology the challenge of proclamation. By proclamation, I do not mean preaching.
Not every Christian is called to preach, but every Christian needs to be able to communicate what they believe to those around them. Fathers and mothers need to be able to communicate biblical truth to their children. We need to be able to answer the questions of our friends and coworkers, and we need to be able to speak biblical truth into the needs and desires of those we love rather than resorting to the folk wisdom that so easily rolls off our tongues.
The mature disciple of Jesus is someone who has soaked up Bible content, who thinks theologically, and speaks clearly. Effective teachers keep this goal in mind and faithfully play their part in the process.