They contain a wealth of printable material for both Traditional and Rotation Model educators.
Links to some Sunday School articles by Neil MacQueen
Neil started Rotation.org in 1997 and has been writing "training and think pieces" for both Rotation.org and his own churches and his Sunday Software website for a number of years.
Neil wrote this article after hearing "all the excuses" and wondering if there was any research data on the subject of "kids being (too) busy these days." Surprisingly there is!
The problem is not sports, btw.
Teaching and Writing Lessons that touch their hearts, not just their heads.
Look at the next post for an updated version of this article!
Information to Transformation
How to write and teach lessons that move from information to transformation.
by Neil MacQueen
This article has been moved and updated in our Teacher and Writer Resource Forum
Draft 3.0 2/15/19
A much earlier version of this article first appeared at my software website in the early 2000's and was linked to by rotation.org. It's original content featured "what every 3rd and 6th grader should know about the Bible." I've since substantially re-written it and look forward to your comments. I've also added some additional "what we need to evaluate in Sunday School" comments at the end of this article. -Neil
Evaluating our Sunday School Kids & Teaching
A think piece by Neil MacQueen that covers several related subjects, including:
♦ The need to evaluate (test) what our kids know and don't know
about what we've been teaching them (and how to do it)
♦ The importance of Bible literacy.
♦ And some Bible literacy goals .
(What every 3rd and 6th grader in our Sunday Schools should know).
"Prove me O Lord and test me"
"Test everything; hold fast to what is good."
1 Thessalonians 5:21
"We cannot aspire toward God
till we have begun to be displeased with ourselves."
John Calvin, Institutes on the Christian Religion, Book I Chapter 1.1
Judging the effectiveness of our Sunday School TEACHING can be a "displeasing" subject. But we cannot aspire to better Sunday School and improved Bible literacy without asking questions of ourselves and our kids.
Thankfully, Sunday School is not the be-all, end-all. Many children have stayed members of the church and matured in their faith, or have left the church and come back, in spite of having a good or bad Sunday School experience. I, for one, hated Sunday School as a child and tried to avoid going as much as possible (and look where it got me). I absorbed a lot, though, especially as a teen and in my college years in my church. The teachers I encountered left an impression on me that told me I had to make up for my lack of early immersion in Bible stories. I realize, however, that I was the exception --that most of my peers were leaving church and faith life as I was coming back into it.
Whether you too came back or never left, the fact that you're reading this tells me that you too feel the call to examine and improve what should have been a wonderful formative AND EDUCATIONAL experience for children over the past decades, but seems to have failed the church and those kids if the statistics are to be believed. (I've put a few stats down below. If you need further proof, you are part of the problem.)
To be clear, this article isn't about attendance. It's about how well we are teaching those who DO attend.
Through many efforts, I've made it my ministry to discover and create the kind of Sunday School that my friends and I would have loved going to -- and might have kept them connected and growing in their faith. (See my work at rotation.org and sundaysoftware.com for those specifics.) I was the exception to the usual rule. I came back. Some of you never left. Together we are the "faithful remnant" and that is nothing to be proud of.
This article is focused on the question of the Bible literacy we hoped all those lessons, time, effort, and money would produce -- and didn't, and what we now can do to make things better. The obvious holistic answer is "many things," but this article is just about "evaluating" what our existing programs have been doing. I have no illusions that anything we do will be anywhere near 100% effective. But surely we can learn to move the needle upwards -- given the fact that we figured out how to move it down.
To the point:
- Are our students learning what we are teaching? ...i.e. remembering and understanding it over the long term?
- How do we measure what our kids know and don't know?
- What should they know and at what age should they know it!
Serious educators want to know the answers to these questions --because they are teachers at heart, not babysitters or administrators. Sunday School is a huge waste of time, effort and money if we can't or won't quantify what we think is working and what is not working.
The answer to the first question is simple: we need to "test"* them in various ways and over time.**
- But what should we be testing for?***
- Who and when should we test?
- How should we test?
- How should the test results be handled?
- And who is the test really for?
* I'm not proposing 'grading our students,' 'pencils down' or 'making them sweat.' My definition of 'testing' is this: activities that produce some form of quantifiable results that tell us what our student know and don't know about the content we think we have been teaching them. Gotta warn you, however, it can be a sobering epiphany.
**Over-time means not just once in a blue moon or a couple of questions at the end of the lesson. Our memories don't work that way. We need to reinforce in the short-term, and refresh memories over the long term.
***This question is not about "relationships" or "how faith works." It is simply about the BIBLE CONTENT we spend so much time and effort trying to pass along.
The underlying premise: Bible Literacy is an important feature of a person's Biblical faith.
Simply put, if you don't know the stories of Jesus, then the odds of you following Jesus are slim. I should have put the following section ahead of the one above it, but decided to put my "point" closer to the top for skim readers.
The following facts are the tip of the iceberg.
A few facts for the recalcitrant sinners among us...
According to a Gallup poll, only three out of five Christians can recall the names of the first four books of the New Testament! Only half of the Christians polled correctly identified the person who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. And a full 42% of the Christians said that without the government's laws, there would be no real guidelines for people to follow in daily life.
According to the Search Institute's National Study on Christian Education (1992), Bible literacy is an excellent indicator of future faith maturation. Yet, the last 50 years of Sunday School have produced huge numbers of Christians who do NOT know their Bible and no longer go to church. Coincidence? Statistics also show that most Christians have their mind made up about Jesus and church participation by the age of 12. This means that Sunday School -- which has been the primary formative church experience for children for the last 50 years, has failed millions of Christian children in the U.S. The stats, btw, also show surprising levels of "spirituality" among those who have left the church.
(Yes, I can say "their parents failed them too," but we're talking here about the kids who DID or DO come to our classes, not the ones who don't. In another article, I will talk about how we can appeal to those who have stopped coming, but for now, we're focused on testing the quality of our teaching to the ones who DO come and we don't want to see leave biblically illiterate.
Bible Literacy faces a "structural" problem in "traditional" Sunday School.
That structural problem is curriculum that changes the story every week as if every kid is there every week, and as if one 40 minute class is enough to remember a Bible story they won't hear for another five years or more.
Traditional publishers and denominations failed to see this structural problem as they pushed lesson plans that kept pace with the preacher's lectionary. The result? 40 years of kids not knowing their Bible and leaving the church. Yes, it was assisted by lots of other factors, and we need to address those too, but you have to start somewhere, so why not with the elephant in the (class) room?
The Model for Sunday School which I have been involved with, The Workshop Rotation Model, was created to CHANGE those structural problems. Instead of one week on the Prodigal Son, the typical Rotation Sunday School will spend four. Kids who are there each week get it in-depth and through a different learning medium each week. Repetition is hard to beat and it's easy when each week uses a different fun teaching medium. (You can also slip quizzes into those fun lessons.)
The Rotation Model embraces two important goals: Bible literacy and happy campers. We need each to achieve the other. But in too many churches past and present, it's been about one or the other, "drilling and killing" or "light and fluffy." Neither of which floats this Presbyterian's boat.
When done well, the Workshop Rotation Model achieves better Bible literacy. How do I know? Because I have tested students for YEARS in many churches where we have used the Model --though none of them probably realized we were doing it. My kind of testing just looked like fun to them.
The ability to "test" my kids and find out what I needed to teach better was actually what got me exciting about incorporating computers in the Rotation Model so many years ago. I could put a Bible quiz on a piece of paper and the kids would groan. Put that same quiz on a computer screen and the kids would compare results!
It also taught me the value of going back over previously taught content, and doing so using a variety of teaching methods and mediums so that it didn't feel like "review" (which kids don't really like).
Why did we EVER think that teaching a new story every week was the right idea? Seems idiotic to me now. (If I was in curriculum sales, however, the need for all that printed weekly and graded curriculum would seem like a great idea!) Of course, any of the workshops can have "fun quizzing" in them. But to MAKE SURE it was a priority in the Rotation Model, we created the "Bible Skills and Games Workshop" to enshrine it structurally in every story rotation. Yes, the "Bible Games Workshop" is really a front for reviewing and quizzing.
Repetition works because that's the way our brain works --whether you're learning to shoot a basketball, or learning your ABC's, or learning Algebra, or trying to remember the story of the Prodigal Son or how Jesus died on the cross.
Repetition is the cornerstone of learning.
Repetition is the key to all types of literacy.
Testing what they know is the only way to know for sure if our methods are working.
Repetition + Testing* = The path to Bible literacy.
*Testing = intentionally measuring what's supposed to be in their brains by virtue of our fabulous teaching and our student's wonderful brain cells.
And the great side-effect of testing is that it promotes long-term recall. Pinch me!
So what should we "test" or measure?
I found this excellent description at Lutheran Bible Ministries' website some years ago and have adapted it a bit for our purposes.
There are at least three levels of Bible knowledge:
1) The foundation of biblical literacy is factual knowledge - knowing the people, places, events and teachings in the Bible.
2) A second and higher level of biblical literacy is that of "assent" -- meaning: accepting this knowledge is an important guide to me, i.e. that we should learn and remember it because it is God's Word .
3) The third and highest level of biblical literacy is knowing and responding to God personally through a life changing commitment. This is the ultimate goal of Bible literacy -- that it leads us to God and is one of the important ways we hear God's voice speaking to us.
I love that this definition stresses literacy as more than just the facts. But that's the first level we should be testing for: basic fluency in the "facts" --the fundamental stories, themes, and message of the Bible, and by extrapolation: the fundamental facts, themes, and message of any Bible story we are teaching our kids. These are first things we can "test for" through fun classroom activities (such as fun quizzing) and special events (like a "Big Bible Gameshow").
"Assent" is more challenging, especially with untrained teachers and lesson plans that don't get around to asking students to internalize and express the message. Typically we've given "assent" to the "Reflection" step of the lesson, but in many cases teachers have turned it into an opportunity to summarize the facts and add a "do this" exhortation --without asking students to consider and express themselves. In other words, we've focused on "information, not transformation." (I've written about strategies for doing that in my "Information to Transformation" article.) Assent also happens outside the classroom -- most often through opportunities to serve and teach. Transformation (assent) is the product of internal and external forces and practices.
"Life Changing Commitment" sounds like an altar call, and call it what you want, but there is an undeniable element to faith maturation that happens when your name is called and you are asked to say what you believe, not just believe it. And it's never one event (like Confirmation), it's usually a collection of events, people, mentors, opportunities, and stresses (yes, trouble) that bring us to the point where belief becomes faith in a present God.
Is there more to say about these three kinds of Bible literacy? Yes. Please continue to explore them!
Towards a program of testing (or "measuring" if you prefer)
From time to time we should take measure of these three things:
- Attendance in Sunday School -- not only individual attendance (how they are doing), but as a percentage of total enrollment (how we are doing).
- Core Bible Knowledge -- whatever 'core' facts you have made an effort to teach, and want to measure.
- Each individual's "apparent" location on the road of faith. I say "apparent" because we never want to confine ourselves to "faith" as a set of checkboxes. This last item may surprise or shock some. But at some point we need to understand the role of "teacher" as really one of "faith mentor" ...and a mentor is somebody who cares about what's in their young person's heart, as well as what's in their head.
A closer look at "Core Bible Knowledge"
Here is "Neil's Core Bible Knowledge List." What's yours? The point is to have one, and test for it. Note: This list was originally known as my "Stuff I think every Sunday School kid should know" list.
By the third grade all regular attenders (twice a month or more) should be able to:
- Say in front of a trusted friend, parent, or teacher what they believe about Jesus and why he's important to follow and learn from.
- Tell in simple but understandable fashion the basic story of Jesus' birth, life, death and resurrection.
- Tell in simple but understandable fashion the basic stories of Creation and the Exodus.
- Be able to define in simple terms these words: Grace, Sin, Forgiveness, Holy, Prayer, Worship, Confession, Stewardship.
- Tell in simple but understandable fashion the parables of The Prodigal Son and The Good Samaritan.
- Tell in simple but understandable fashion at least one other New Testament story of their choice, and one from the Old Testament of their choice.
- Be able to recite the Lord's Prayer and find Psalm 23, remembering its first line or two.
- Be able to name the first two books of the Old Testament and find them quickly, and additionally name three other OT books.
- Be able to name the first four books of the New Testament and find them, and additionally name at least one other NT book.
- Be able to sing at least one verse of a Bible song or verse of a hymn/worship song of their choice.
There are other things I'd like my third-graders to do, including, help in worship, serve, pray, ...but this article is trying not to turn into a book.
By the sixth grade your regular attenders should:
- Know everything on the third-grade list but with more sophisticated understanding.
- Be able to sequence the Exodus story and know most of the Ten Commandments.
- Know what a prophet is and what a prophet does. And be able to tell you the names of two prophets and at least one story about a prophet.
- Know the basic stories of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, Saul & David.
- Know at least two Jesus miracle stories and what those stories mean. I prefer they know the story of the man let down through the roof and the feeding of the 5000.
- Know at least two additional stories from the life of Jesus, preferably the Wise Steward and Jesus' teaching on forgiveness.
- Know at least two Beatitudes and know where to find them.
- Know who Paul was and what he did to spread the Christian message.
- Relate at least one story from the life of Paul, preferably his conversion on the Road to Damascus.
- Know the names of three of Paul's letters and be able to find them relatively quickly.
- Be able to correctly locate and paraphrase, if not have memorized, the 23rd Psalm.
- Be able to point to and describe an experience in their lives that has all the hallmarks of being a "spiritual" one.
Ways to measure...
These answers assume you have read the rest of this article with its insights and caveats.
- The answer is that you can't just administer a multiple choice test, though that's certainly one way to discover what they know or don't know.
- As you've read above about the Rotation Model, we achieve "remembering" by repeating, and by doing fun short-term quizzing as part of some of our monthly workshops, usually in the form of games.
- If you have a computer or computer lab, you can use a number of computer games which have Bible quizzes in them. (I have designed quite a few for my Sunday Software work, and most of my Bible story software HAS quizzes built-into them.) Even if you don't have a computer lab, you can bring in a laptop with some scripture memory software to teach and test how well they know basic core content you want them to know "by rote." (More about that below.)
- Reinforcing at the end of every lesson is important, but it has to be more than just you reminding them. Activities that "use it" (instead of lose it) are preferred. Express, share, draw, make, etc. --these kinds of activities aren't just for the main part of the lesson, they can be harnessed to reinforce at the end of the lesson too. (You see us doing this in a lot of the Writing Team lesson plans at rotation.org --writing interactive reflections that aren't just summaries.)
- Then you have to get back to it over the long-term. In fact, if you don't REFRESH previously taught lessons, the science of memory says you might as well not have bothered teaching it. LONG term refreshing is essential. Quiz shows, computer quizzes, and scheduling key stories for more than once every five years is essential. (Children's sermons can be helpful with this if you have a pastor who knows what the kids SHOULD know.)
- Just be careful that your measuring activities aren't just measuring what the smartest, most vocal kid in the class knows!
- Confirmation is a good time to take measure. It can be a real eye-opener and indication of what the pastor needs to focus on --plus what the pastor needs to request the children's program does a better job teaching. But why wait? Why not sneak some quizzing into other programs, including your fellowship programs.
Measuring the Results and What's Typically Missing
And remembering how remembering works!
Most kids need their memories jogged before they can begin to tell you more about something they've learned. They might also get parts of different stories confused. For example, if you start them thinking about Moses, they may put the Ten Commandments ahead of the Burning Bush and completely forget the story of the Plagues and Passover. So "how much" you decide is "good" depends on how well you have taught them, and who your kids are.
One way to gauge what YOUR kids should know is to first test the smartest, most Biblically literate. best-attending students you have (who don't have a parent at home drilling them). Use them as a quiet measuring stick.
Perhaps more important than "basic facts" is basic meaning. Use a stock question that's easy to understand, such as, "What does this story teach us about what God is like and about what God wants?"
Some of the information we are teaching SHOULD BE learned "by rote" and recalled without much prompting. For example, I should be able to ask your children to recite the Lord's Prayer and tell me who taught it, and who he taught it to.
But there's also a large part of the memories that I would call "functional" memory that needs to be triggered in order for it to come to the surface. (A lot of memories are like that... we start telling a joke and someone remembers the punchline before we say it.) This is technically called "associative memory" and it is a big part of HOW we remember things. When "testing" kids, you need to prime their memory pump, so to speak, in order to "trigger" their memories --because one memory truly does lead to (associate, reference, trigger) another. Worship, prayer, life -- they all depend on memories that are "triggered" by events, feelings, images, words, and the like. Our job as teachers is to FEED their memories with as much future biblical reference material as we can, and give them the tools and inklings of meaning that they can continue to reflect on long after our lessons are over.
Don't forget that one of the main reasons to test our kids is to IMPROVE their memories! We need to do it both short-term and over the long-term.
While you're at it.....have a little fun administering these "tests" to the congregation or an adult class. It might just spark a wider conversation and need.
Can you assess Faith Maturation?
I think we can do some of that through faithful observation and conversation. And it can be helpful to share these observations with other teachers, leaders, and the student's parents so that they can identify who might need some encouragement or reinforcement. And roundabout the 4th grade is not too early to start.
1. Do they have a positive feeling about participating in church activities? ...and are they participating?
2. Do they express or show faith in Christ?
3. Can you see examples from their life that show them struggling with and acting out their faith? Wrestling is often a sign of a faith that's trying to mature.
Once you've made these assessments, it's important to have a plan of action tailored to the specific student. Are they ready for leadership? Do they need extra TLC? What book or experience might help them take a step forward?
Just keep in mind that assessments are not predictions. I'm living proof of that. If you had tested my 5th-grade attendance or attitude, you would have written me off as a lost cause. It was through some mentoring (questioning and encouraging) that I started to struggle with and then get a grip on my faith. It wasn't formal, but I can still see the faces of those who took the time to reach out to me in subtle and not so subtle ways.
We're talking about longitudinal faith monitoring and mentoring, not just waiting until they show up for Confirmation. In fact, I'd love to get rid of Confirmation as it has been practiced simply based on what it has NOT created -- loads of teens coming back to the church as adults. Confirmation has become the equivalent of looking for the cows after we've left the barn door open, so to speak. Yes, go after each sheep, but what if you had fewer to try and "drag back" to the barn? Ah, metaphors.
Note: The idea of being a "faith measurer and/or mentor" requires the student's (and parents') permission. It doesn't have to be overly involved, just inquiring, observing, keeping in touch, and dropping a few hints and resources. You may also discover that there's already someone who is filling or could be filling that role. An older sibling, a close aunt, a father who just needs some advice.
Yes, there's so much more to be said! Start by examining your own Bible literacy and "structural problems," then your church's, then your students'.
<>< Neil MacQueen
Neil MacQueen is a Presbyterian minister with over 35 years experience working with children and youth. He is one of the founders of the Workshop Rotation Model movement (www.rotation.org) dedicated to revitalizing Sunday School.
Originally written in 2003 and updated in 2019 by Neil MacQueen. This article may be reprinted or excerpted in its entirety without permission provided the author's name, copyright info, and web addresses are included.
Thanks to Luanne Payne who provided input to this article.
Other things about Sunday School we need to evaluate
- Teacher quality, training, preparation, support, and satisfaction
- Parental support and involvement
- Pastor support -- words and presence
- Budget & Facility support
- How other children's programming complements/supports.
- Support from other programs, such as, how do Adult Ed classes promote/hinder Sunday School attendance? ...and, how does the choir or Sunday schedule help/hinder.
- Your idea here!