Remember this scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? Man, this scene resonated with me because I had experiences like this when I was a student. I have also, unfortunately had youth ministry experiences like this when students wiped their saliva off their cheek after nodding out from listening to me drone on and on…
Our first objective as teachers is to capture our students’ attention. If we don’t gain their attention, the chance that they’ll learn anything is remote at best. The process of attention serves two primary purposes, the first of which is survival. The brain kept our ancestors safe by alerting them to possible hazards in their midst like strangers, thunder clouds, or wild animals. Fortunately, it is the rare occasion that survival is at stake in youth ministry. Instead, attention serves its second purpose – maintaining pleasurable feelings. The hot girl with the pierced tongue, a double chocolate ice cream bar, and listening to pop music are pleasurable diversions for modern teenagers. So are funny stories, terrible tragedies, and first loves, which the bible is full of.
So why does it seem that our kids are tuning out?
The brain is bombarded with information from the senses. Everything we see, hear, touch, smell, and taste finds its way to the sensory receptors, from the clothes on your back to the beige walls of the youth group room and the radio playing softly in the back ground. At the base of the brain is the brain stem, which controls involuntary actions like breathing, blood pressure, and heartbeats. Deep within the brain stem is the reticular formation, a system of neurons that gathers information from all of your senses and controls your awareness levels. Some awareness is at a conscious level (what you see and hear a speaker do and say) and some at an uncounscious level (the color of the walls or the socks you are wearing). It would be impossible for the brain to consciously focus on each bit of data it receives. You may be oblivious to the feel of a baseball hat on your head while the cute girl beside you captures your full attention. Consider the immense amount of information the brain is capable of absorbing, from the food stuck in your teeth to the lint on your coat, we are fortunate to be able to forget most things. Otherwise, we’d overload.
Ask a group of teenagers what they think about youth group teaching times and you might hear answers like: “Boring.” “Stupid.” “It sucks.” Of course, friends, potential dates, meals, and doodling don’t bore them; the adolescent brain is fascinated by (and seeks out) novelty and emotion (Koepp et al., 1998; Spear, 2000). Sitting through a youth group lecture (especially one that is self-indulgent) that fails to include either is the real test of a teen’s attention. Many teaching strategies have a great deal of difficulty keeping attention and arousing emotion, both of which are necessary to stimulate change in behavior. Lecture, which can be an efficient way to deliver information, is often not emotionally charged. Objective memorization rarely generate emotion and are often difficult to apply to real-world applications. Yet lecture is still a dismayingly popular means of presenting content. We miss opportunities when we overuse strategies that neglect our emotional and cognitive constitution – two powerful memory builders.
I’m not suggesting that we dress up like clowns and juggle for our students. I am suggesting that we understand their learning abilities and compensate for their developmental limitations and strengths.
How can we engage our students cognitive and emotional abilities in ways that motivate change in their hearts and their behaviors?