We sounded a somewhat irreverent alarm over 25 years ago about the state of children’s curriculum in churches. The book that my wife Joani and I wrote, Why Nobody Learns Much of Anything at Church, caused quite a little discomfort.
At the time, most student materials were inundated with silly busywork–word scrambles, puzzles, and fill-in-the-blanks. I’m sure the writers were well-intentioned, trying to be creative. But the results were very disappointing. Precious time was squandered on empty activity that did not help children’s spiritual growth. And the “hidden curriculum” of such activity was dangerous–sending a message that the Bible is a tedious exercise, intentionally obscuring its truths.
How far have we come since then? Though we’ve seen some progress, many curriculum providers continue to churn out banal worksheets that pickle kids’ minds. A recent review of current children’s Sunday school and vacation Bible school materials revealed many examples of meaningless busywork. Here’s a sample:
The vowels are missing below. Fill them in to read an important message.
G___ ___ D TH___NGS W___LL C___M___ T___ TH___S___ WH___ ___R___
F___ ___ R ___N ___V___RY TH___NG TH___Y D___.
This constitutes a pathetic waste of time–especially when we consider most churches have just an hour or less to spend with children per week.
In our book, we quoted educator Frank Smith, who said such word puzzles and fill-in-the-blanks “teach children nothing about the way people employ spoken or written language. Filling in blanks is not the way anyone uses language, spoken or written. No one ever says to a child, ‘Put on your _______________ and we’ll go to the game as soon as you guess the missing word.'” Smith, also author of Insult to Intelligence, said such classroom exercises are “irrelevant and misleading.”
This is advice we’ve passed along to our curriculum developers at Group Publishing for decades. You won’t find this stuff in Group’s curriculum or VBS. Instead, we’ve sought to model our teaching times after Jesus’ healthy approach–using stories, meaningful experiences, and conversation to embed life-changing learning.
But others persist in using counter-productive methodology in the church. In fact, the fill-in-the-blank contagion has spread to adult Bible studies and even sermon times. Again, I’m sure it’s well-intentioned. But it raises questions of stewardship when we have no time to waste.
I am in agreement with what you are saying, but have yet to find a curriculum that keeps kids active and learning. Could you give more examples of what you think are some of the good curriculums.
Thom – Thank you for the insight and painful reminders on these types of exercises in curriculum. I have been witness to countless meaningless activities like these throughout years of use and review of curriculum products. Generally a time-filler activity with little impact – mostly a nod to educator’s attempts to fill kid’s heads with facts, rather than spend time in meaningful life-changing learning.
Jackie – I appreciate the effort of some publisher’s, but really, the best I’ve seen over years has consistently been those offered by Group. The most integrated, active learning curriculum is (by far) Hands On Bible Curriculum and more recently – DIG IN – both by Group. Both have active learning central to their lessons. Also, the in-lesson activities cover a variety of learning styles which help reinforce the lessons and makes the learning stick. The use of everyday types of objects in lessons keeps the learners involved and engaged with each other as well – which is a good sign of learning taking place.
Many curriculum providers have attempted to integrate active learning or say their curriculum is hands on, but their definition of active learning is far from it. Most resort to having teachers use objects to demonstrate parts of a lesson- rather than get the actual learners involved – putting the teacher at the center of the learning, rather than those they are attempting to engage.
Thanks again Thom-
Thank you for those leads. I will definitely be checking those out.
My thoughts: while I agree that activity fillers may appear to be a waste of time, if children enjoy and engage with them, I don’t think that has to be a “waste” IF the remainder of the curriculum is meaningful and high quality. My bigger concern is that many churches have all but abandoned exposing children to the rich stories and content of the Bible, trading it for “Veggie tales”/Sesame Street style teaching.. and it is well documented that children’s attention span is far shorter than it’s ever been. Some researchers attribute it to the amount of screen time, as well as the pace of attention required by many children’s programs. Sesame Street for example, uses short bursts of facts, never requiring more than a few seconds focus before moving on to the next sound bite. A friend of mine has attended Christian writers conventions, and was taught that the days of readers wanting Francis Schaffer or CS Lewis are gone. She was told, that to be successful in this generation, one has to use short sentences and a simple vocabulary, as well as a shorter, less intellectual style, if one hopes to sell a book to todays Christian audience.
All of this results in a shocking change. Many children at many churches, will not hear Bible stories, unless they hear them at home, or in a Christian school setting. Perhaps the problem is bigger and more harmful than just looking at the activities of the classroom?
Ideas to help kids remember the stories