Eric Jensen is well known for his work on student engagement. He has studied what makes the difference between a student who becomes engaged in meaningful ways in their education and a student who never seems to connect to their secular education.
What he discovered was that there are seven variables that seem to have the biggest impact on whether or not a student will be successful in school. I believe we need to examine those same factors and determine if managing them can mean Bible classes have a greater impact on children and teens and how they live their lives.
Why do I believe this is so important to us as volunteers and ministries trying to help young people develop strong spiritual foundations? Because Jensen found in spite of what teachers often claim, it really makes little difference what the parents do to support their child’s education. This is true if – and this is a major “if” – the teachers do the work to make sure these seven elements are addressed in some way by the teachers, school (or parents).
So what are the seven elements and how might they apply in churches and ministries?
- Health and Nutrition. If a student comes to Sunday School and hasn’t eaten since the night before – or in some cases, since school lunch on Friday, he or she won’t be able to process what is being taught. Many families don’t feed children before church in the rush to get everyone ready. Or they feed them sugary foods – meaning a child who has worship before class is in the midst of a sugar crash by the time he or she reaches class. The solution is not doughnuts or pastries. Rustic bread and other foods that would have been eaten in “Bible times” contain complex carbohydrates. They are healthier and keep blood sugar levels more stable – increasing the ability to learn.
- Vocabulary. If your students don’t hear scriptures at home, they won’t be familiar with the vocabulary you use in class. Be careful, because many students can fake an understanding of words like “righteousness”, but have no idea what the definition they have heard at church or home means either. Students can’t obey scriptures they don’t understand. There’s no need to get into the parsing of scripture done by theologians. The Bible was written for everyone. Just make sure they truly understand what all of those “church” words in the Bible mean.
- Effort and Energy. If your students aren’t putting any effort or energy into your lessons and activities, they will walk away having learned very little. Jensen found teachers tend to blame parents and students when students aren’t engaged in class. The reality he discovered was that the attitudes of parents and the original attitudes of students mattered very little – IF the teacher makes the lesson and activities engaging. You don’t have to perform a Broadway show, but you do need to make sure students understand how the lesson connects in meaningful ways to their lives. They need to have activities that help them explore and process what is being taught. Worksheets and coloring pages aren’t going to engage students.
- Mind-set. Jensen uses the term mind-set to describe how students view their future. Do they believe they are capable of learning the material that is taught? Do they think they can grow in meaningful ways by using what they are learning? Do they believe what they are being taught can have a positive impact on their future? How you view the Bible, God, Christianity and your students, has a huge impact on this factor. If you believe God can use your students, they will start to believe it. If you are excited about the difference God has made in your life, they will begin to believe He can make a difference in theirs. If you believe the Christian life is the best possible life – they will catch your enthusiasm.
- Cognitive Capacity. There is a belief that there is nothing anyone can do to increase the cognitive capacity/IQ of someone. Studies are showing though that IQ is much more fluid than we have believed. Positive learning environments, mentoring and other interventions can help improve cognitive capacity. We also need to realize that 80% or more of students with cognitive disabilities will eventually be able to reach the age of accountability. It may be at an older chronological age than others and they will need extra helping understanding what God wants them to do, but it is a realistic expectation. We need to start focusing energy on young people with special needs and not assuming they aren’t capable of spiritual maturity.
- Relationships. The ministry of Jesus was build around relationships. To have a meaningful impact on the spiritual lives of your students, you need to work on developing relationships with them. You won’t necessarily have mentoring relationships with everyone of them, but there should be some sort of connection. If your students know you love and value them, they will be much more likely to want to learn what you have to teach them about God.
- Stress Level. Students can’t learn when their stress levels are too high. You can’t control what happens at their homes or in the world. You can, however, control the environment in your classroom. Do your students feel safe there? Are they worried some academic or other weakness of theirs might be exposed and mocked? Do they feel loved and valued? Is your classroom a place where they feel they can find godly ways to help lessen the stress in their lives? If students are overly aggressive or overly detached, it could be their lives outside of your class are too stressful. Helping them manage their stress in godly ways can change the dynamic in class, too.
So what do you think? Can adapting these things improve students’ engagement in our Bible classes for kids and teens? Could it be one of the pieces many of our ministries are missing? These are things that can easily be “fixed” in almost any ministry. Will they erase the impact of not being taught at home? It won’t be as easy for us as it is for secular educators. We just don’t have enough time with them each week.
Even incremental improvement can change everything for some of your students, though. It’s worth our time and effort to make the positive changes that are shown to have an impact on student engagement.
For more in depth reading of Jensen’s findings and conclusions in secular education, you may want to read his book, Engaging Students With Poverty in Mind.