November 8, 2005

From Sabbath School to Social Epidemiology

1545 page22 capT WAS A TYPICAL FRIDAY. My Fridays are devoted to driving two hours to the university where I am earning a master of science in Nursing. After attending three other classes that particular Friday, I arrived in my Social Epidemiology class--my last class of the day. Each week two students had given presentations based on assigned research. The professor teaching the class had repeatedly expressed his frustration with each of the previous presentations. He didn't want lecture-style presentations. He wanted interactive learning experiences.

Although previous presentations had been good, based on well-researched academic material, none had met with his approval. I took a seat, quickly noting that the usual 30 or so graduate students were all present. Doctor Woodward* called the class to order, and immediately admonished us, once again, to make our presentations more interactive learning experiences instead of lecture presentations.

I squirmed uneasily in my chair. Today was my turn to present. I leaned over to a classmate near me and said softly, "What I am about to do is either the dumbest thing I have ever done or exactly what he wants." The class sat quietly. Dr. Woodward turned and looked at me, and asked if I was ready.

Instead of starting the presentation with a lecture using overheads, I divided the class into partners to participate in an active learning teaching method. Throughout the presentation I used several teaching methods specifically designed to encourage class members to participate. At one point during the presentation near pandemonium erupted as the students raced to arrange and rearrange topic cards sequentially. Several times during my presentation I glanced to the back of the room at Dr. Woodward. Each time I saw him writing rapidly, taking notes. I thought that might be a good thing.

1545 page22At the end of the presentation I quickly walked to the rear of the class. I handed Dr. Woodward the written review of the article on which I had just presented, and asked him if that had been the kind of interactive presentation he was looking for. He excitedly said, "That was great! An A presentation! But I don't really know what you presented; I was too busy writing down all your teaching methods." He continued, "Where did you get all those great ideas? You need to e-mail all of those teaching methods to me. I can use them in class!"

I smiled. The teaching methods that I used in my graduate Epidemiology class were activities I had done with children in Sabbath school. As I watched all the mature, highly driven graduate students eagerly participate in active learning during my presentation, I smiled to myself. Even graduate students seem to learn best when they actively participate!

I told the professor that I worked in the children's ministry department in my church, and that we used active learning teaching methods to help teach spiritual concepts to children. He asked me if I could please forward all of the teaching methods to him anyway. I said, "I can't send you all the teaching methods I use by e-mail; it would be impossible. But I can bring a lot of resource books that have great examples of interactive teaching methods in them. However, there is one problem." (Dr. Woodward is a staunch evolutionist, proudly tying evolutionary concept to epidemiological lectures.) I looked at Dr. Woodward and continued, "All the teaching methods I use come from youth or children's ministry education books. I'll be glad to bring some of them to class next week for you to look at. But you may have to change your core philosophy before you can fully appreciate the resource books." Dr. Woodward looked a bit baffled, but encouraged me to bring him whatever I had anyway, regardless of its Christian content.

As I drove home, I started to evaluate what had happened in class. I had taken Sabbath school activities and adapted them to present concepts related to the topic I researched. The graduate students had participated with vigor, and enjoyed the presentation. The entire experience had been a success, but one thing puzzled me.

At the beginning of the presentation I had led the class in a "readiness activity," a fun, interactive activity to present an idea, followed by a debriefing session to talk about concept application. This is the same way that I start every one of my Sabbath school classes--but there was one difference. The Epidemiology class members had a difficult time making the connection between activity and concept, whereas the Sabbath school children make the connection between activity and spiritual concept readily. This made no sense, since children are concrete thinkers, while adults are able to conceptualize.

The difference between graduate students and children in Sabbath school then became quite clear to me. Children who grow up in the Adventist Church participate in their spiritual experiences--through Sabbath school, Adventurer, Pathfinder, and Youth programs, and church attendance. They learn the process of concept application. They are trained to think about the activities they participate in, and apply spiritual concepts. As they mature, concept application becomes a natural, vital part of the way they think.

Jesus gave numerous lessons using active learning in the Bible. He spent his ministry using experiences and real-life situations to illustrate spiritual concepts. When He gave a lesson on evangelism, He took the disciples fishing. When He taught the lesson of humility, He washed the disciples' feet. Jesus understood the use of active learning and participation. Ministry and spiritual growth were defined by His example in the terms of verbs, not nouns. It is by following His teaching style that we can best reach seekers of faith today, including our children.

I realized that day that in the repetition of church activities, we are not only training our children to participate in church life, but we are also training them for life itself. The skills we teach them have applications well beyond their spiritual journey. We are giving them the ability to conceptualize; to "connect the dots" between action and motivation, to actively learn through their experiences. I taught Sabbath school class less than 24 hours after presenting to the Epidemiology class. My class was eager to participate and just as eager to apply the concepts of the lesson. They easily made the transition from activity to discussion, and learning took place. I was glad to be back in church!

*Name has been changed to protect the privacy of the individual.

Sharon Aka is a full-time, sessional professor in the Collaborative Ryerson/George Brown/Centennial College Baccalaureate Nursing Program. She lives with her husband, Tim, in Toronto. They have three children.

Bill Bradford is a clinical laboratory director, previously serving as Allied Health Department chair at Andrews University. He lives in Dowagiac, Michigan, with his wife, Dorothy. They have four surviving children and 12 grandchildren.