What I Learned About Teaching Teens
“By the time I get teenagers at ages 17-18, the preponderance of their formal experiences of learning have been, at best, disconnected from what they consider important and, at worst, actively alienating or oppressive.” My students range widely in terms of race and class, but across these social locations, most of them experience learning in high school as boring, irrelevant, stressful, or dismissive of their culture. Therefore, coming to YTI for some requires some “unlearning” about what it means to be part of a learning journey. They expect to be told what to think, and are frustrated at first when we do not do this. They expect one right answer, and are confused that there is not one. They do not trust their own insights. They do not believe that theology relates to their everyday lives. They do not know that they are smart. They have generally not been asked what they think about anything.
“Kinesthetic and experiential learning is important, but only as part of a larger process that involves discussion, reflection, and lecture.” I often begin with a movement activity, and/or return to one midway through to keep us moving. I have found that lectures are more effective if they are shorter, 10-15 minutes, and reinforce what was discovered or experienced immediately prior through a movement, reflective, or conversational activity.
“A few new vocabulary words and concepts, when repeatedly used and applied, give teenagers the means to describe reality in a new way, and sticks.” At YTI we introduce a few key concepts early on, and keep referring back to them and point them out “in action” whenever we can.
“Learning to ask good questions is more important than finding facile answers to shallow questions.” Our pedagogy at YTI consists mainly of asking scholars questions, and asking questions to their questions. Most of the time it is frustrating for teenagers at first, but they get used to it and come to appreciate it. This technique models and explicitly emphasizes the value of asking questions.
“Teaching is about modeling the dispositions and habits of a lifelong learner, not delivering finalized, expert content.” When one shares one’s view on something, one also tells a story about how one came to hold that view, to show the process. I’ve learned that it’s okay to say “that’s a good question, I don’t know;” however, it’s even better to say, “That’s a good question. I don’t know. Let’s research it!” or “What do you think? What does anyone else here think?” You should footnote authors you’ve read not to show off, but to mention books that you really do love, that have shaped your thinking, that might be of interest to the youth. Explain that it is okay to have a provisional answer, and to change one’s mind later. Learning is about changing one’s mind!
“New ideas, especially dangerous counter-cultural ones or ones that threaten self-image or self-delusions, take lots of time to marinate. We wait in patience and hope, and trust that the Holy Spirit is moving within the process.” It often takes years for some scholars to grasp the significance of some of what we talk about at YTI, in part because they needed to live more life; in part because some ideas are too dangerous to hold while one is still living under a parents’ roof. There are moments in which challenge is the most loving thing you can do. There are moments in which embracing is the most challenging thing you can do.
“It takes multiple teachers to teach each person.” It takes an ecology of perspectives, dispositions, and moods to engage the student at different times of day, moods, and social locations. Teachers teach best when they are teaching with other teachers. They can see and learn from each other; they can hold each other accountable. They can build on each other’s work.
“If you teach young people how to engage in social critique, you better be ready to have that critical lens turned on to you and your ministry.” It most likely will hurt, but you can’t be defensive. Take the opportunity to see it as an invitation to improve and learn more.
“Important concepts are more engaging if linked to their lived experience. This is not the same as making it entertaining.” Most young people’s lived experience is pretty close to adults’ lived experience. The same social forces are operating on them. You learn what it is by listening, not assuming. You don’t need to be hip to the latest pop culture references, as long as you do have an idea, from listening to them, about what their lives are like. You can use pop culture references if they really do illustrate a point you’d like to make. But get it right. Or ask them where they see the point illustrated in pop culture.