Back to the Future Pedagogy: Discovering the Power of Experiential Learning

A co-worker and I were ensconced in a hotel room for several days in an Asian country that is hostile to Christ and His Church. Every morning, seven tribal pastors arrived one by one, stayed into the evening, and then left one by one, a few minutes apart.

Together, we were wrestling with 1 and 2 Corinthians. One particular aspect of these letters gripped us: Paul’s passionate, personal engagement with these believers.

He had spent 18 months with them, in their homes and their synagogue. After his departure, Paul sent coworkers to further serve and encourage them. He also sent these long, detailed letters. In every way, Paul embraced these dear saints even though they had caused him great heartache.

He praises them, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you wee enriched in him in all speech and knowledge…” (1 Cor. 1:4-5). He pleads, “I appeal to you brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree…” (1 Cor. 1:10). He chides, “But I brothers could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ…” (1 Cor. 3:1). He admonishes (see 1 Cor. 4:14) and boldly rebukes, “And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn?” (1 Cor. 5:2).

And so the letters continue, full of pointed, even harsh critiques, yet at the same time, selfeffacing vulnerability, even more surprising given his strained relationship with the church: “For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (2 Cor. 1:8). Paul admits to struggling with deep discouragement, perhaps even depression. We looked at 2 Corinthians 12 in which Paul boasts of his weaknesses: “So the power of Christ may rest upon me… for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9-10).

But this embrace of weakness is only expressed after Paul is driven to boast at length about his accomplishments and apostolic credentials in order to counter the sniping criticisms of the so-called “super apostles” (2 Cor. 11-12).

Paul engages them at a heart level, his emotions never far from the surface. “For I wrote you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears…” (2 Cor. 2:4). He pleads with them to reciprocate. “We have spoken freely to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. In return (I speak as to children) widen your hearts also” (2 Cor. 6:11-12).

What is this strange amalgam of emotion and reason, boasting and humility, warnings and affirmations, sarcasm and love? And to what end? What is Paul’s larger purpose? What shepherding intent is he pursuing? For Paul is not merely transmitting information or theological truisms; he is seeking to provoke Spirit-empowered, word-mediated transformation in their lives.

These observations from the Corinthian letters led our small group into a profound discussion about pedagogy. The educational model in their country is typically Asian: information download from the all-knowing professor to the uninformed student. Rote memory, repetition, and regurgitation of facts are standard educational fare.

But how do we break through this cultural model? “It’s impossible!’ some would say. “The top-down model has been used for millennia. The country’s educational system is too deeply engrained to change. The overweening respect for the honorable teacher would never allow for a more engaged, more egalitarian approach to learning.” We all soon discovered that the standard educational model wasn’t so standard after all!

I had remembered that one of the pastors was also a carpenter. “Please stand up, Kueyo. Would you be willing to teach me how to build a chair?” I asked him. His look of puzzled embarrassment spawned a gaggle of giggles. But Kueyo soon warmed to task. “Would you just lecture me?” I asked. “No, of course not,” he answered. “Well then, how would you teach me? And remember, I know nothing about carpentry.”

Kueyo began to describe the process he would use to educate this uneducated westerner. First, he would show me a well-crafted chair. He would have me sit in it and then study it…by lifting it, turning it, feeling it. Next, he would show me the various tools and explain the unique purpose of each. He would place each tool in my hand and cover my hand with his in order to show me the proper way to hold and wield each tool. He would have me practice using some of the tools on scrap pieces of wood, until at last I had demonstrated a minimal level of competency.

The real work of building the chair began with Kueyo, the master craftsman, demonstrating the process. After measuring and cutting the first piece of wood, he would shape and refine it with rasp and file and sandpaper. My turn. “No, that’s not quite right. Try this. Yes, that’s better. No, no, you’ll gouge the wood. Yes, much better. Ah, notice which way the grain runs. Good, you’re getting the hang of it.” Thus, the chair would slowly take shape, with the master providing less direction and more encouragement over time.

What just happened? This man, steeped in a traditional education system, intuitively knew that the most effective way to teach me to build a chair was the classic apprentice-training model. It came naturally to him, for it was the way that he was taught. It was the way that he had learned. This conversation prompted a question which seemed to float about the room: “What does this suggest about how you as pastors might better teach, shepherd, and equip God’s people?”

I then asked another pastor, “When I go back home, I want to tell my wife ‘I love you’ in your language. Please teach me to do that.” Again, there was more embarrassed laughter, but then a revelation came: “We never tell our wives ‘I love you.’ Instead, we communicate love with our eyes and with our tone of voice.” These tribal men already understood the priority and the power of non-verbal communication. It was already rooted in their culture.

“Please, help me learn,” I responded. After a few more bemused twitters, one of the pastors stood up and demonstrated the ‘love look.’ “Like this?” I asked after my pathetic attempt to mimic his facial expression. More laughter. “Is this better? How about this?”

Finally, I asked, “If you catch a thief in one of your villages, how do you teach him to stop stealing?” Another revelation came: in the old days, the village elders would prepare a bed of hot coals and force the offender to walk over them barefoot. Yikes! Nowadays, the elders are more likely to sit the thief down and give him a “talkin’ to.” If necessary, they castigate him publically with the hope that he will bow to the pressure of the community. This tribal group had long ago discovered the power of experiential learning and small group dynamics.

“Think about what you’ve just told me about your culture,” I told them. “You use a wide variety of teaching methods, don’t you? To be sure, your formal educational system tends to be uni-directional with little or no personal engagement. But in the rest of life…in your real world…your teaching process is highly relational and hands-on. It’s full of praxis: action followed by reflection and correction followed by more action and reflection.”

These oral-preference tribal leaders realized that passionate, personal, experiential teaching and learning were already embedded in their culture. They already embraced an adult-education teaching model in the everyday outworking of village life. They discovered that a life-on-life teaching approach is congruent with both their culture and with their Bible.

Previously published in the Orality Journal.

Craig Parro

Since joining Leadership Resources International in 1989, Craig directed its international ministry, and as of January 2010, he now serves as President. A graduate of TEDS (M.A., Mission), Craig is a stimulating teacher and has equipped and encouraged pastors and churches throughout the U.S., Latin America and Asia. Craig also serves on the Board of Directors of TOPIC (Trainers of Pastors International Coalition), an association of pastoral training organizations focused on accelerating pastoral training worldwide. Craig has authored articles appearing in several magazines. His first book, Unlikely Warriors, was published in 1992. He is also co-author of Finishing Well in Life and Ministry: God’s Protection from Burnout.