Implementing PBL in a Sunday School

This summer I did something I have never done before – training Sunday School teachers in problem based learning (PBL). It was frightening, exhilarating, and ultimately very enlightening.

The church in question, based in South London, was keen to engage their children in creative learning and problem solving. They wanted their children to provide creative insights on how to do church in a modern-day metropolis like London and still stay true to the church’s mission. They also wanted their children to think creatively about using everyday technologies such as smart phones and social media to develop novel solutions to issues faced by the local community.

The church draws its congregation from various walks of life. Within the congregation there are engineers, medical doctors, nurses, social workers, people working in security, retail workers, primary and secondary school teachers, refugees, as well as those who are now retired. The church leadership was keen to find a way for this diverse skill set to be channelled appropriately to the children. They had heard of PBL, and I happened to be  available to identify and train  a core team of Sunday School teachers.

Training consisted of a Saturday afternoon in which I went over the key elements of problem based learning and team-based learning. After the talk, I organised the participants into 4 groups of six people each, and gave them exercises to work on. At any one time two of the participants  served as facilitators, with the remaining four being the students. The teams rotated roles every  20 minutes, so that  by the end of one hour everyone had had a turn at being a facilitator and at being a student. 

Most of the participants had never engaged in PBL before. They could teach, but they were unfamiliar with the coaching approach that is inherent to PBL. However, by the end of the day they felt comfortable enough to put their newly acquired skills into practice.

At the end of the training session the participants identified several topics that they would assign to the Sunday School children over the following five weeks. There were roughly sixty children, 20  of whom came to the Sunday morning service, with the rest coming in the afternoon service. Their ages ranged from five to twelve, and girls outnumbered boys two to one. The Sunday School teachers were to deliver all aspects of PBL and I stayed on hand as a consultant.

The first day of Sunday  School is a day to remember. Simply put, it was a day mired in confusion. The children expected the normal teacher-led learning, and when let loose ala PBL, they were unsure of what to do, when to talk, when to take leadership and when and how to engage with their fellow group members. They were used to being told: “Sunday School! No talking.” Now they were being asked to talk and to walk around the group table freely. They simply froze, and faced with this situation, most of the teachers lost their confidence, and their newly acquired Socratic teaching approach fizzled out.

Traditionally, the teachers were used to taking control, to being the sage in front of the children. Now they were on the side lines, so to speak, prodding the children, listening to their ideas, and unleashing them to take charge of their learning. And to make matters worse, the children appeared to know more about current technology than the teachers. This was very unsettling for both teachers and children. 

Sometimes when the children appeared to get stuck, it was very tempting for some teachers to step in and literally take over the project.  Moments of silence suddenly proved to be very frightening for both the taught, and the teachers. My challenge therefore was to restrain the teachers so that they remained in their coaching/advisory roles, as opposed to being teacher-sages.

All in all, it turned out to be a useful six-week period for everyone. The children came up with very insightful ideas on the use of technology in church life. Just as we tend to do in university, it turned out that we grossly underestimate children’s creative and technical abilities. Following this six-week immersion in PBL, I’m now sympathetic to the idea that current approaches to teaching have done more to destroy individual creativity and innovation than any other process that humanity has discovered.

Importantly, this six-week period has stimulated a desire to learn and master current technologies. For instance, as a direct result of this, a group of girls and women have come together to form their own coding club. They range in age from 10 years to 45 years. Some hold degrees, some don’t.  Some are still in school, whilst for some, school is now only a distant memory. 

Regardless of their personal circumstances, they share one objective, namely to be masters if The technologies that now underpin modern life and commerce. They are undaunted by The task at hand. The less able will learn from the more able, and the more able will be spurred on by their desire to impart their knowledge to others. Together they will conquer the once-impossible, and together they will change their world.

So, all in all, this has been a very fruitful summer for me. And the church leadership are confidently projecting that within the next few years this could lead to several techie start-ups being incubated in the church. They call it prophecy, and as for me, all I can say is “Why not?”
 

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