Don’t just give them knowledge on a plate

I’ve written a few articles over the past few days about the importance of providing foundational knowledge as we teach people, whether in schools, church or other educational type contexts.  I see this as important but things can go too far the other way. There is a benefit to not always teaching knowledge and providing all the cultural capital on a plate.

To understand why, it might be worth returning to the origins of the contemporary focus on this.  In my first article I mentioned a US professor called ED Hirsch who might be seen as the father figure of this particular pedagogy.  One of Hirsch’s concerns was to see improved literacy as this is crucial to academic achievement. Students in later years will be held up in their learning if they are not able to read and process well.  A good foundation of cultural capital enables us to read quickly and acquire further knowledge. If we are constantly having to stop and work out what a word means by sounding it out and then going to dictionaries and the internet then reading becomes slow and laborious.

However, the ability to read at speed is not the be all and end all of literacy. I remember when I started at theological college. I knew my Bible well, I had memorised sections of it, I was familiar with most of it. I could quickly read a passage and take in what it was about helped also by the Biblical cultural capital I’d picked up from childhood. The risk with this was that in my speed reading that I might glance over parts of the text leaving gaps which my mind would then fill in for me. And if I did that then I risked confusing what I thought the text said with what it actually said. Furthermore, I would not benefit from enjoying every twist and turn, every nuance, every intentional use of grammar, vocabulary and syntax to drive a point home. 

So one of the first things that several of our tutors encouraged us to do was to slow down our reading. There were things put in place to do that. These included

  • Encouraging us to read a different Bible version
  • Reading Scripture in Greek and Hebrew
  • Use of analytical tools such as sentence flow diagrams.

Now I can read a whole book of the Bible in an hour or I can spend many hours working slowly through three or four verses.  I am varying my pace.  You see, study isn’t always meant to be easy even if it comes naturally to you. There’s a benefit from the pain, the slog and the wrestling. We are pushed to think things through and so engage with a subject more deeply.

Let me give you another Biblical example.  If you read the book of Ruth, then on one level you have a nice romantic story but you will miss so much without a bit of underlying knowledge. Now I can tell you in advance that Bethlehem means Bread, Elimelech means “God is my king” and “Mahlon” means sickness.  I can also give you some background about the location of Moab and laws about kinsmen redeemers.  All of that will enable you to engage more effectively with the text and it is likely that without any prior knowledge you will miss all of that. However, if you know that Hebrew names mean things and that there were a whole host of Old Testament laws and customs shaping life at the time then you yourself will be on the lookout for such things. You’ll read slowly on the lookout for these clues. You’ll stop to look up the meaning of names and then you’ll start to ask questions like “I wonder why the name of a character mentioned in two or 3 verses and dead by the end of verse 5 is mentioned. Why doesn’t the writer just say “Naomi had two sons, they got married and died?” You’ll wonder what a kinsman redeemer is and you’ll go digging into the Torah. You’ll slow down to meditate and to chew on these things and you’ll find enrichment and joy in your discoveries. You will grow a personal fondness for the text and a delight in what you are learning about God through it.

So whilst there is a place for teaching knowledge in advance, we must not underestimate the benefit of teaching people the skills to discover for themselves.