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franciscan - May 1996

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1996

Learning Ways

by Sarah James

Among people involved in helping adults to learn there seems to be a recurring debate about the balance between process and content. Recently I heard of a diocesan bishop who criticised a Reader training course because it focused too much on process and not enough on content; perhaps he thought that the pendulum had swung too far from the old days of lectures and essays, that too much attention was now being paid to the philosophy that ‘people retain something like 20% of what they hear, 40% of what they see and 80% of what they do’, and not enough time being given to solid facts.

There is a school of thought which holds that every Bible study or lesson within the church should take as its starting point a passage of the Bible. The purpose of this short article is to consider how a right balance can be achieved between the experiential and the didactic, between the given teaching of the Bible and the received learning of the individual.

It is extremely difficult at any age to learn something which is in a vacuum, or has no relevance to our life or experience. As children we learnt (or failed to learn) a mountain of hard facts, dates, tables, formulae; as adults we probably only remember those which have been of use to us (e.g. tables) or which have related to subjects or activities which particularly interested us.

In To Live and Work, (1) the meat of the study is the Bible passage, but the starting point for the session is the experience of the individual. Each unit has been carefully structured with balanced timing, in the hope that about half of the session will be spent considering the text. However, in order that each person will be able to make connections with the text the session starts (after prayer) with time to explore, on one’s own in silence, one’s own experience: e.g. in one of the units on caring, to recall what care one has received or shown in the past, and what help was easily acceptable or not and why.

Having identified this for oneself (in five minutes) each person then shares and discusses the findings with another person and possibly with a wider group (ten to fifteen minutes). Three quarters of an hour is then spent opening up a Bible passage and relating it to this discussion, and this leads to a time to make decisions about what response the individual and the group might make for the future. Finally the session is gathered up in worship and prayer

The reason for asking people to identify and state, out loud, their own experience before turning to the Bible is that otherwise we can be inhibited by what the Bible seems to be demanding of us. Sometimes this can make people feel that their own thoughts or habits are not good enough, not worth mentioning, or even that they are ‘wrong’; they can, probably without realising it, look for the ‘right’ or ‘holy’ answers to the questions posed. It is important that people taking part in a group feel relaxed and that what they have to say is valued, or they will not be able to contribute generously.

On the other hand, it is equally important that the discussion of people’s experience is not allowed to last half an hour, squeezing the reflection on the Bible into a few minutes. It is also important to avoid bending the Bible passage to fit or to accommodate that experience, or to appear to be limited to it. The leader has the responsibility of seeing the Bible passage as a whole and using it to the full. Obviously leaders cannot approach these sessions with a set speech; they will have to attend to what the participants say, draw out what is significant and develop it in the light of the passage from the Bible.(2)

The purpose of the studies in To Live and Work is to encourage participants to see the whole of their lives as their response to the love of God. In particular it tries to enable them to respond to God’s generosity as exemplified in the feeding given in the eucharist, so that ‘in the power of the Spirit’ they can indeed ‘live and work to God’s praise and glory.’ f

1 To Live and Work is a six-session, study guide produced as part of the three-part programme for the Mothers’ Union for the Decade of Evangelism. The whole programme started with I Believe and Trust, a course to help people identify and appreciate what they believe, and continues with To Live and Work, exploring how we share our faith with those outside the Church through learning, praying and caring. The third focus will be on bringing new people, especially younger people, to know God’s love for themselves.

2 In addition to the Bible text, the course book also provides notes on the texts and some complementary, non-Biblical material.

Sarah James is the Reader Vice-Chair of the Central Readers Council of the Church of England, and a General Trustee of the Mothers’ Union; she was co-author with John Field of To Live and Work and, in 1995, compiled The Mothers’ Union Worship Book. She was a member of the working party which produced On the Way and lives near Gloucester.


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