[This seminar was presented at a Child Evangelism Fellowship conference. Although it is labeled as techniques for teaching children, I use these techniques across the age spectrum, and encourage others to do the same.]

Effective Techniques for Teaching Children

Today we're going to be talking about techniques we can use to help children understand and remember lessons that we teach them. I'll share with you six different techniques (all of which can be found in the teachings of Jesus, and throughout the Bible). At the end of the session, we'll take a few minutes for you to share some of the ways you have done these things, or intend to do these things.

How the Brain Works

Before we get started with some of these techniques, I'd like to talk briefly about how the brain works. Don't worry, I'm not planning to get into biology and neuroscience; those aren't my fields of expertise!

If any of you have ever read Sherlock Holmes, you may remember a scene in which Holmes shows a deplorable lack of knowledge of what we might regard as important topics. Instead, his knowledge is very specialized in minute details of things that might help him solve crimes. In discussing this with Watson, Holmes explains (in my own rough paraphrase) that the brain is like a card catalog from a library. And you only have so much space in the filing system, so if you fill it up with things you don't need, you won't have room for the things you do need.

Of course, Holmes was also not a neuroscientist, and had no idea what he was talking about. If I wanted to describe the brain, I would say it's more like the internet than it is like a card catalog. The storage space is, for all practical purposes, infinite. The problem is finding the information you need. On the Internet, the only way you can find a web page is if some other web page links to it.

What are the pages which are easiest to find? The ones that have links from a lot of other web pages. So we don't need to worry about over-cluttering our brains; what we need to focus on is making sure the information we impart is linked to something else already in the child's brain. For example, if I tell someone that my name is Doug, they're likely to forget it very quickly. But if I tell them that, and then turn my head suddenly while exclaiming, "Squirrel!" (a reference to the movie Up), they are much more likely (if they've seen the movie) to remember my name. 

With all that in mind, what we're going to be talking about today is not primarily about how to impart information, but rather, how to link it to things that children already know.

Tie Lessons to Everyday Objects

This is probably the most obvious technique of creating content links in your brain. Think of an object that your students will recognize, and use it to help emphasize your point. Let's consider just a handful of examples.

  • mustard seed: In Matthew 13:31-32, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed and a mustard plant. These were common plants in the region, so Jesus could count on people seeing mustard plants on a regular basis. And every time they saw one, it would trigger their memory to think of what Jesus said.
  • Ebenezer: In 1 Samuel 7:12, Samuel places a rock by the side of the road as a reminder of God's provision and help. For generations to come, parents would tell their children the story of how God helped them against the Philistines as they passed by that rock. The rock became a link to that event.
  • A railroad spike: This one is (obviously) not from the Bible. A few years ago I was doing some teacher training with some of my youth group leaders, and we discussed some of these techniques. I asked one of my leaders to teach the Bible lesson at a youth group meeting, and one of the teens (having heard about what I was teaching the leaders) handed him a railroad spike, and asked him to incorporate it into his lesson.  James 3:8-10 was his passage, and he said that the tongue is like a spike -- it can be used to build things (encouragement, edification) or to destroy.

Tie Lessons to Everyday Activities

Not just objects, but activities. Things that your listeners will do (or see being done) on a regular basis are a very valuable source of links.

  • Plowing a field: In Luke 9:62, Jesus compares the dedicated life of a follower with a farmer plowing a field. Now, whenever someone is walking down a road and sees the common sight of a farmer out in his field, that will trigger the recollection of Jesus's words.
  • Looking in the mirror: In James 1:23, James compares the word of God to a mirror. How often do you look in a mirror? When you do, think about how God's word is like that mirror!
  • Washing dishes: In Matthew 23:25 Jesus compares the cleaning of a cup or dish with having a clean life.

 

Tie Lessons to Current/Historical Events

Even children are aware -- to some extent -- of the events unfolding in the world around them. To the extent that a news story is ubiquitously known, take advantage of that to connect it to an important truth.

If a news or historical event is not widely known, it may or may not be productive to use it; if you have to spend a lot of time explaining the historical event, it may disrupt the flow of what you're trying to explain. Here are a few examples: 

  • Jews sacrificed/tower falling: In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus starts by answering a question about a current event, and then reiterates his point by referring to another current event.
  • Serpent in the wilderness: John 3:14-15 offers a historical comparison to events far back in the history of Israel -- dating back to the time of Moses!
  • “The Great Emancipator” – Abraham Lincoln is often referred to as the "great emancipator," but his work doesn't hold a candle to the work of Christ setting us free from the dominion of sin and death: John 8:34-36.
  • Steroid use: Recently there was a news story about athletes getting disqualified from the Olympics because of steroid use. Conveniently, I was teaching a series of messages on Second Timothy, and came to this verse:  2 Timothy 2:5

Use Repetition

I've been told by more than one person that in some Bible schools (disclaimer: I've never attended a Bible school), students are taught that a sermon should be "five points and a poem."

I have a slightly different approach: instead of having five points, I like to have one point that I teach five different ways. Here are some examples of repetition in teaching:

  • In Matthew 5 (the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus repeatedly uses the phrase "You have heard it said...but I tell you...." This repetition of phrasing helps to reiterate an overarching point Jesus is making, which can be found in Matthew 5:20.
  • In John 21, Jesus repeatedly gives Peter the instruction "Feed my sheep," after repeatedly asking the question "Do you love Me?"
  • Several years ago my cousin preached a sermon at our church, in which he repeatedly, at various points in the sermon, made the following statement: “It is what it is, and it’s not about me.” Fast forward many years, and people in our church still repeat that phrase in appropriate contexts.
  • In our youth group, a few years ago, I did a series of messages on "small things," with the goal of emphasizing to the teens that no gift of service or generosity is too small for God. I taught the following passages: the parable of talents, the rebuilding of the temple, the widow and her coins, the feeding of the five thousand, and David and Goliath. Every one of these presented similar concepts, but were so different, that I was able to hammer away at the same point five different times, without the teens ever realizing that I was repeating myself. As I said earlier, one point taught five ways.

Use the Element of Surprise (Cautiously)

  • Leaven: Leaven is a symbol of sin, right? So certainly it would have shocked people when Jesus compared the kingdom to leaven in Matthew 13:33.
  • The story of the prodigal son is actually an exercise in surprising the audience, because his listeners almost certainly expected the older son to be the hero of the story, and for the younger son to get his comeuppance. The surprise comes in Luke 15:20.
  • Matthew 5:4 could be (literally) translated as: "Happy are the sad"

I mentioned the need for caution when using the element of surprise. Be sure to think through the repercussions of your surprise first. We had a pastor who decided it would make an effective point to arrange to have a couple teens in the congregation jump up and shout something at him at a certain point in the message. There were two things that went wrong with this. The first is that the surprise overshadowed the point. Years later I still remember those two teens jumping to their feet and yelling something, but I can't remember the point that went with it. The second issue is the danger of being misunderstood. The pastor had people coming up to him later concerned that enough wasn't being done to deal with those "unruly teenagers."

Use Specific Examples and Applications

This technique will often come at the end of your lesson. It's very important, and it's often overlooked. Examples and applications should be very specific.

If I'm teaching on Philippians 2:3 to young children, don't just say, "Consider others more important"; also say “Maybe that means you'll let your little brother have the last piece of bacon,” or “Maybe it means that you'll help your friend with his schoolwork, even if you would rather be at recess.”

Don’t just say, “Let your yes be yes and your no, no,” say “Even when you know you’ll get in trouble, don’t ever lie to your parents,” or “When your friend asks you to do something dishonest by helping him cheat, say ‘no.’”

In fact, make a list of practical applications of the lesson; this will get the students thinking, and they  may think of other applications on their own.

If you’re speaking to a group with a wide age span, be sure to list something that would apply to each age group. Last week I spoke at a teen retreat, and a few days later, gave the same message to a congregation of mostly senior citizens. I changed very little in the message between the two sessions; the primary change was that I used a different list of application examples.

Conclusion

I hope these ideas served to whet your appetite for exploring other ways Jesus used these techniques, and I hope your thoughts will be stirred to think of ways you can use these techniques as well. Let's finish by brainstorming some ideas, and sharing illustrations and object lessons that have worked well.

[Added content, July 2018: I have been thinking recently about how a well-formed illustration always flows from the lesser to the greater. I can remember cringing every time we rolled around to July 4th weekend and someone would, from the pulpit, tell us that Jesus died for our sins, and then use that as a segue to talking about American soldiers dying for our freedom. This is a horrible example of an illustration going from the greater to the lesser. It does not elevate our thoughts to Christ, it brings them down to the earthly realm.

More appropriately, this year, one of our elders spoke briefly about the Declaration of Independence, and then used that to segue into talking about our citizenship in the heavenly kingdom of Christ. This was an illustration from the lesser to the greater, and served the purpose of elevating our thoughts and ideas to the heavenly realms. 

Always think carefully about how your illustration is structured. Does it drive us from the lesser to the greater? Does it elevate our thoughts upward toward Christ? Or downward to this earth?]

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