Teaching Style: What Would Jesus Do?

Last week I was sitting in church and I was struck by how the homily held my attention from start to finish. In the homily, the speaker compared the teaching style of Jesus to other rabbis and holy men of his day.

As I listened, I grabbed a pen and found a donation envelope in the back of the pew in order to jot down a few notes. I knew this homily was blog-worthy.

Whether you believe Jesus was The Messiah, just another prophet, just some guy who lived two thousand years ago or just some character made up in a book that a lot of other people find important, the fact is that the teaching style that was attributed to him was very, very different than what was considered normal.

There’s a lot of value for learning and development professionals to take a look around at how they apply their craft and ask: what would Jesus do?  

Let’s briefly take a look at four lessons that L&D professionals could take from this man called Jesus:

1. Don’t just wait for followers, go fishing for men (and women)!

I recently spoke with an associate pastor of a church near the town where I grew up (ok, fine, full disclosure: I was talking with my father on the phone). When I asked him what he knew about the ways in which messages were delivered, he said that in the olden days, rabbis and teachers would go out, preach their message, and wait for people to come to them, take copious notes, and ask for the privilege of being a follower.

Then Jesus came along and showed a little more proactivity, going right up to people and inviting them to follow him.

Two thousand years later, I see the same dichotomy in overall training strategy in organizations across the country and around the world.

Training programs are designed and rolled out and sometimes people are “invited” to take the programs only insofar as they’re actually mandated to take them.

Elearning modules are developed and uploaded to a learning management system and then linger. They’ve been built, why aren’t people coming?

Overall training strategies that want to be successful need to take a more proactive approach, painting a picture of why someone might want to attend a workshop or complete a module. Having a supervisor identify specific skill gaps, identifying specific people to attend or complete specific training programs and holding them accountable are all keys to greater effectiveness.

2. Parables make things real.

Two thousand years ago, rabbis would share the messages of what past prophets had said, in those prophets’ words. It was simply the way teaching and preaching in the temples had always been done. When I think of this, it seems like the predecessor to the current teaching style featuring lots of lecture and a few hundred slides.

Jesus, on the other hand, used stories like The Good Samaritan, The Mustard Seed and The Prodigal Son, in part, to teach in ways and use language that was more accessible by the masses.

The most effective presenters and facilitators I’ve seen use metaphors and stories, customized to their audience, in order to help people understand their content.

Instead of telling an audience that there are 10 million people who are corneal blind in the developing world, it could be more “real” to tell people that the number of corneal blind in the developing world could fill 181 football stadiums.

It’s one thing to tell people that we shouldn’t just do things like they’ve always been done. Using The Story of the Ham may be a more impactful way to get this message across.

When I used to get on my high horse about something, one of my favorite colleagues would always say to me: “Brian, you may be right, but are you being effective right now?”

Parables, stories, metaphors, comparisons – those are more effective ways.

3. Sometimes you have to be a rebel.

Going back to the days of the New Testament, there were these recurring, troublesome characters called the Pharisees who were always making up rules and laws and then trying to trick Jesus into confessing how he was breaking the rules. If you’re not familiar with the New Testament, just think of Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner.

In real life, they did have good intentions. The Pharisees were just trying to help people live more righteous and pious lives so they made up all sorts of rules (today, we might call this: giving people structure) so that they would lead more wholesome lives.

And then Jesus came along and began questioning some of these rules. Really, there’s no healing people who may be dying or blind just because it’s the Sabbath?

Fast forward 2000(ish) years and L&D professionals should be following this lesson. Silly or questionable rules that aren’t rooted in scientifically-based research are probably things we should be disregarding.

Learning styles. Dale’s Cone (people remember 10% of what they read, etc). All sorts of pseudo-science that’s permeated the L&D space needs to be challenged. Will Thalheimer’s Debunker’s Club is a very helpful resource to be more of a rebel.

4. “Forgive them, they know not what they do.”

Jesus, as the story goes, was nailed to a cross and yet chose to forgive those who had handed him over to be put to death.

Surely L&D professionals can find it in their hearts to be patient with subject matter experts, decision-makers and others who claim to be experienced presenters when they choose to eschew sound adult learning principles and concepts that actually make learning stick and instead advocate for easier options such as wordy PowerPoint decks and meandering lectures.

I’ve found the key to be to slowly and patiently ask questions, figure out the comfort zone, and then identify two steps beyond the comfort zone in order to nudge training strategies and presentation design toward something more effective and sustainable.

They may know not what they’re doing, but it doesn’t mean we should acquiesce to poor design. The hard work is found in slowly and continuously pushing SMEs, decision-makers and seasoned presenters toward a path in which all presentations can be engaging and lead to change. (Here’s one example of what this could look like.)

The next time you’re reflecting on your teaching style or looking for some inspiration as you put together a learning strategy, eLearning module or presentation, maybe there’s merit in reflecting on the question you can find on bumper stickers across the country: What would Jesus do?

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