Archive for February, 2011

Teacher’s Toys

Many lecturers today powerpoint their subjects to an early grave. They then shovel in a few podcasts, You Tube video clips, websites, an interactive CD or two and press the earth down with the module’s Facebook page.

What is wrong with the use of modern technology in teaching? Nothing at all, of course but, if we imagine that the use of the technology is good teaching itself and that, if we use it, we are good teachers, it is a disaster. Technology can add 10 to 20% to the teaching experience, It can subtract 80% if relied on to do the job. After all, good teaching had been around for a few thousand years before Bill Gates founded Microsoft.

This is now beginning to be widely understood. As the enthusiasm for the new tools dies down, articles are appearing distinguishing them from good teaching. We are now clearer that they will not make bad teaching good, that they will make good teaching a little better and that they are in danger of drowning good teaching in our classrooms.

What is a lecture? I am sure we can agree that it is not primarily information transfer. That can be done more effectively in other ways. And we are all happily beyond the “schooling” approach to theology, or any other subject, where the students collect the information in lectures and return it to us in the exams. We must also agree that it is not a performance. There is drama. We are, in a way, actors in front of an audience, but this is very much a sub-plot in the process. Yet some lecturers so load the lecture with dramatic graphics and sounds that the students are mostly entertained.

A good lecture is a giving of yourself – and your relationship with the subject – to your students. Then, as they trust your reality, they form a bond with the ideas – and hopefully, a deeper bond with your God. I remember a lecture we received once from a university teaching unit on how to give a good lecture. The lecturer used all the tools – sound clips, videos, flashing powerpoint slides rushing in from the right and the left. She had come to help us be better technicians but she did not sit on the edge of the desk, talk face to face, eye to eye, about what was in her heart.

Our job in the classroom is to build relationships – between us and the students, the students and the subject and the students and God himself. It is to inspire, provoke, argue, share yourself, lead them up the garden path and then show them the safe way back, get them to love as you love. My best classes have generally been sitting round a table and a subject with students. My best moments have been when a student says “Yes, but..” or when a smile appears on a student’s face because he or she has suddenly connected with me and the issue before us.

That is teaching, with or without the toys. It happened quite a lot in Galilee.

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The laughing lecturer

Laughter is a funny thing.

It is a good communication tool; it relieves pressure and relaxes the listener. C.H. Spurgeon once explained to his students how he used humour in the pulpit to get his point across. He said that if you try to force open a live oyster or clam you may well not succeed. What you need to do is tickle the edge of the shell and when it opens, you stick the knife in. Humour relaxes the mind to accept the truth

But someone might say that humour is inappropriate to theology. Theology is a serious matter and so it excludes laughter. But there is nothing more serious than humour. Theology needs laughter because laughter is a sign of theology’s humanity. Only humans laugh. Dictators and fanatics have no sense of humour because they have lost much of their humanity and regard themselves to be God-like. Laughter was banned from medieval monasticism, quite logically, because many monks drew a dichotomy between being human and being spiritual.

And, of course, Jesus laughed. Can you imagine how the crowd in Judea fell about laughing when Jesus described the Pharisees carefully removing gnats from their wine and swallowing whole camels without noticing? And do you imagine that there was not a smile on the face of our Lord when he said it? As Sherwood Elliot Wirt says, to deny laughter to Jesus is to be theologically unsound because you cannot have a person who is fully human without laughter.[1]

Bernard Ramm writing of Karl Barth, entitles one of his chapters “The Laughing Barth”. He writes, “Humour in theology serves the function of reminding every theologian that he or she is a human being performing a very human task”.[2] There is a fundamental distinction between theology and the Word of God. I will not laugh at the Word of God. It is divine and perfect. But my definition of the infallibility of Scripture will not be infallible. The way in which I talk about the divinity of Christ will not be divine. For all the help of the Holy Spirit and the blessing of knowing what others have done before me, I create theology as a human being and so open it up to that characteristic human response, laughter.

To be frank, some of our divisions and furious theological contests are laughable. One of the best things you can say to some theological lecturers these days is “loosen up”, “be real”, “smile a little more”, “you’re only human.” You students will thank you for it.


[1] Sherwood Eliot Wirt, “The Heresy of the Serious” in Christianity Today, April 8th 1981, pp43f.

[2] Bernard Ramm, After Fundamentalism, Cambridge, Harper and Row, 1983, p194.

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