Mastering Teaching by Roberta Hestenes, Howard Hendricks and Earl Palmer

532345_w185In 1991 Multnomah Press and Christianity Today published Mastering Teaching by Roberta Hestenes, Howard Hendricks and Earl Palmer.[1]  This paper is a review of that work including summary of the book’s major points with relevant commentary.  Authored by three experts, each writer’s experience included an integration of advanced education and church vocation, and their varied denominational backgrounds provided a balanced, yet conservative perspective.  The writers alternated the chapters in round-robin fashion with each chapter presented by a single author.  Though somewhat dated, Mastering Teaching presents a readable yet thorough survey of foundational teaching principles and practical advice.

Summary of Major Points

A slim one hundred and fifty pages, Mastering Teaching makes no attempt to provide a comprehensive treatment of its subject.  The book’s focus is based on usable practicality and is organized thematically in three major topics; The Teacher’s Task, Challenges of Church Education and The Longer View.

The Teacher’s Task

Unlike the general scholastic goal of knowledge transfer, the purpose of Christian education is to change lives.  Howard Hendricks draws this distinction as the book’s foundation.  Reason is the cornerstone of secular education, but it must be joined by revelation to accomplish an instructive means to this validating end.  Christian education therefore begins and ends with God.  Further, it is directed to eternal truths with the enabling help of the Holy Spirit.  The teacher is joined by God in the process of affecting human lives to be conformed to the image of Christ.  With this holy mandate in mind, it is the teacher’s responsibility and joy to be as effective as possible.

The presence of God changes everything, and as Roberta Hestenes writes “Knowing what subject to teach and how to teach it can become less of a mystery and more of a ministry.”[2]  Dr. Hestenes’ distinction is that we are teaching people rather than a subject.  Topically the content will vary, but the educational process will always proceed from the singular aim of holistically equipping the students for Christian growth.  Echoed by Yount as “dynamic synergism”, Hestenes writes that a comprehensive teaching approach is derived through the questions “What do I want the student to know, to feel and to do”?[3] [4]

Earl Palmer continued the know/feel/do theme as a discussion of fluency; Textual, People and Schedule.  Palmer placed heavy emphasis on research and preparation, overweighting personal student contact with study and hermeneutical rigor.  His caveat was that preaching was his main outlet for teaching.  Palmer writes that a pastor need not apologize for demanding research time, but that schedule flexibility must be granted by the congregation.  Palmer calls this “paying the rent” or earning the right by genuine investment in people’s lives.[5]

Challenges of Church Education

Students bring variety and with that, challenges.  Learning styles differ and educational leveling is harder in church settings than its secular counterpart where better resources often afford a more rigorous stratification.  Hestenes takes this challenge back to God and reminds the reader to earnestly seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance as we prayerfully consider our lesson plans.  Methodology and consistency are important but each fall behind the primary purpose of bringing students closer to Christ.  It is easy for educators to confuse the ends with the means and prayer is essential for gaining true insight to the student’s needs.

Earl Palmer writes that the answer to diversity’s challenge is inductive teaching.  As Palmer states “old and new sheep feed on the same pasture.”[6]  By this he means that the life changing power of the Bible will cut through age and educational differences if teachers allow the text to speak for itself.  This expositional approach contains its own difficulty because the teacher must at once make the text understandable to contemporary listeners but likewise remain careful not to embellish or diminish the meaning.

For Howard Hendricks, the key to student motivation is relevance.  Hendricks writes that an effective teacher is one who helps the students identify with the lesson by personal example and affirmation.  Stories and illustrations from the teacher’s life will facilitate rapport.  Combined with encouragement, this student/teacher affinity critically bridges the learning gap because as Hendricks writes “teachers are often answering questions that learners aren’t asking.”[7]   The teacher operates from a body of knowledge but the student learns through a felt need.  When the student can see the teacher as “like me”, the environment is conducive to learning.

Much of the leading literature on educational effectiveness is aimed at teaching children.  Roberta Hestenes believes Christian education should be primarily focused on adult learners and further, that churches often err by failing to treat adults like adults.  To Hestenes, programs that force curriculum extensibility from children to adults is at best forced and at worst insulting.  The outside bias that Sunday School is for children is reinforced when adult participants are subjected to shallow, condescending or patronizing teachers.  Hestenes writes that the adult learner is self-directed, equipped with a large reservoir of knowledge and oriented to their task, roles and identity.[8]  Beyond these distinctions, adults bring complicated life issues with them and want knowledge that can be immediately applied.

Learning by rote can be useful but learning by discovery can be life-changing.  Earl Palmer cites catechism as an example of the former in which preset questions yield preset answers.  Palmer believes that preaching as teaching is more a guided path to discovery rather than pontification.  Adults are naturally curious and are much more intrigued when they are allowed to be an active part of the learning process.  As Palmer says “don’t get to the point.”[9]

The Longer View

The majority of Mastering Teaching is focused on the craft itself, but helpfully the last third offers guidance toward a sustainable program.  Howard Hendricks (though he did not specifically call it so) begins with a discussion of continuous improvement.  Under the topic of evaluation, he writes that all programmatic and individual teaching must be judged on the basis of changed lives.  Adjustments must be made on that criterion alone.  That basis drives teacher recruiting as a ministry and the best responders will see the role as a calling.  The ultimate accomplishment of teaching occurs when the student trusts the teacher as a mentor and friend.  The imparted guidance then becomes one of both knowledge and emulation whereby the deepest transfer of life changing truth is possible.

Every successful program is only one generation away from oblivion absent robust replenishment.  Recruiting and training new teachers is an ongoing necessity.  While teacher recruiting is addressed in part throughout the book, it is specifically examined in chapter eleven.  Mastering Teaching is especially articulate here with Hendricks as author.  Training the trainer is paramount in priority and Hendricks rightly sees it as transcending technique to emulation as the mentor/friend goal is achieved.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea”[10]  Hendricks describes this as “igniting passion.”[11]  More caught than taught, this powerful leadership building emphasis includes personal testimony, giving trainees a forum, assigning trainees to leaders who have passion and quickly involving trainees in actual ministry.[12]

Critical Reaction

Mastering Teaching is a useful, if somewhat overly ambitious book.  The need for robust and effective Christian education is indisputable and each of the three authors brought wisdom and clarity to bear.  In the book’s introduction, Mark Galli correctly highlights the importance of teaching by quoting Christ’s Great Commission (in part) to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, teaching them…” (Matt 28:20) and then wonders on our behalf how so much of what we collectively offer seems only to draw yawns and mundane discussions.[13]    The three authors selected to address this dilemma are certainly qualified and each did an admirable job.

Reason and critical thinking are important educational aims but each pale to the nobler goal of a changed life.  The foremost strength of Mastering Teaching is its consistent presentation of man as God’s beloved creation who is worthy of our best help.  Each author’s heart for people resonates and it is clear that their passion has resulted in committed lives of deep service.  We have much to learn from these voices but they are neither perfect, nor hold themselves out as such.

The book is written conversationally, and as such will appeal to lay readership, but much of the technical and detailed material that would be needed in a book with such a weighty title is lacking.  The tone and language is generally colloquial with an assumed aim of attracting lay readership.  This of itself was not a fault because the discussion never slipped into banal banter.  The only shortcoming derived from the style is an imagined richness that could have been affected by a stronger vocabulary.

While no explanation for the use of three authors is offered, it is possible that an aim was to enrich the material through varied styles and diversity.  If so, this was somewhat achieved but all three authors occupy a narrow band of theological perspective.  That is not to say they are shallow but rather similar.  Given that the agreed aim of Christian teaching is to change lives to closer alignment with God, the conversation would have been livelier if the writers had brought a wider theological point of view.  It’s hard to imagine that the book would have been much different if any one of the three had authored it alone.

Editorially, the book is arranged in a logical format with each chapter offered by a single author.  It is unclear whether the three writers collaborated at all or if the editor simply compiled the separate pieces and wove them together.  Each author is individually brilliant, but the content would have been helped by collaboration.  One can envision the three of them sitting together in comfy chairs holding forth on all of the material.  What a rich conversation!  We were cheated by keeping them in separate rooms.

A handful of tips and techniques are peppered throughout the book and it is possible to quickly garner some highlights by scanning the subheadings.  A more useful arrangement would have been to either separate the philosophical discussion more cleanly from the execution ideas or better, to have attached an appendix for later quick reference.  The authors proved well-armed in lessons-learned but given the apparent target of a lay audience, it seems logical that some pointers could have been indexed or assembled.

The content itself is solid.  The anecdotal style of writing does not diminish the compelling substance and each voice represents decades of truth gleaned through day to day work among God’s people.  The aforementioned challenges are quibbles when stood against time-tested wisdom which has, with God’s power, resulted in powerfully changed and empowered lives.  These teachers have influenced, encouraged and launched many others like Chuck Swindoll who studied under Howard Hendricks.  He is but one example and only God knows the actual number.

Additional Research

Prior to co-authoring Mastering Teaching, Howard Hendricks (with Kenneth Gangel) edited the more thorough Christian Educator’s Handbook on Teaching.[14]  The book addresses Christian teaching’s foundation, patterns and processes, crucial roles and varieties.  Produced as a topical reference book, the handbook is a near four hundred page product of nine renowned Christian education scholars.  In addition, a full bibliography follows each chapter and is itself an invaluable resource.

Hendricks truly shines in this book.  Writing two of the twenty-one chapters, his teaching draws heavily from the example of Christ and is both instructive and inspiring.  The foundation of all curriculum is inductive Bible study and scripture seems to shine brightest when describing the life of Christ.  In Mastering Teaching, Earl Palmer points out that the etymology of “teaching” is “to cause to learn” which Hendricks more fully addresses in the Christian Educator’s Handbook on Teaching: “If teaching is causing people to learn—to alter their thinking, feelings, and behavior—then the Savior qualifies as the ultimate Teacher. He changed His generation and every one since.”[15] [16]

Though Mastering Teaching was written later, it feels like an appetizer to the more robust Christian Educator’s Handbook on Teaching.  Reading the more thorough work by Hendricks was more satisfying than the benefits gained by the former’s brevity.  Though both Earl Palmer and Roberta Hestenes are absent from the larger work, their perspective is harmonized and reinforced and one is spurred to read their more scholarly publications as well.

The Christian Educator’s Handbook on Teaching was updated in 1998, but like Mastering Teaching (written in 1991) the examples are tired and dated.  A reader who was an adult during those years can forgive old illustrations as nostalgic but younger audiences are likely to miss the nuance.  Some old material is humorous, like Stuart Scott’s chapter on using the personal computer in the classroom.  Writing in 1988 Scott says “The key to the usefulness of electronic spreadsheet software is its ability to accept formulas as entries in addition to numerical values and labels.”[17]  Indeed!

Another work of additional value is William Yount’s Called to Teach.  Yount also builds on a holistic framework he calls the Triad of Teaching which he introduced in an earlier work A Christian Teacher’s Introduction to Educational Psychology.[18]  The (ideally balanced) components are Thinking, Feeling and Doing and the three together create a synergistic learning dynamic.[19]  Like Mastering Teaching, Yount’s work focuses on the transformation goal of Christian education as the unique differentiator from secular instruction.  Called to Teach, from the title and throughout emphasizes the critical need of a ministry focus to both curriculum and methodology.  For the Christian, an educated mind is also a renewed mind.

The renewed mind as described in the twelfth chapter of Romans is based on sacrificial submission to God.  A cursory understanding of this requirement might lead one to assume that God does not want us to think for ourselves.  That could not be farther from the truth.  The renewed mind is a mind unleased to examine the gestalt, or the fullest context of revealed truth.  Ralph Waldo Emerson came close to describing this in The American Scholar when he discussed an educated man’s ability to “stand next to his thoughts”, but that alone is insufficient.[20]   Yount more fully describes it as Level 3 Metacognition.  Here the teacher (and ultimately the student) most closely approach objectivity as they examine not only what is known but why it is believed.  Yount says it “allows us to step back again and evaluate how we evaluate our own learning.”[21]

Fortunately we have an example of this daunting goal in the person of Christ.  Yount describes Christ as the ultimate Dynamic Synergist as most fully embodying the  think/feel/do triad as Prophet, Priest and King.  Jesus is our example of the transformative educator, but He is significantly more.  As Yount says “Jesus demonstrated in his own teaching ministry, in his own life, the balance we raise as our standard. He is our Model, our Guide, and our Helper as we seek to emulate this balance in our own life and ministry.”[22]

Conclusion

The paradox of easily accessible information through smart phone technology is that society’s willingness to work hard for knowledge exponentially decreases with its ability to get a fast, shallow answer.  Book sales decrease every year and our collective attention span is paced by social media feeds.  The inherent challenges facing educators is not limited to Christian churches and schools, but little solace can be taken in general malaise.  Absent the transformative power of God’s word to resonate in the heart of man, Christian education will slip increasing farther from society’s collective interest.

The true power of Mastering Teaching is the compelling voice of its three writers, each a lifelong lover of God who genuinely long to reach people for Christ.  That can be said for many, but few have received and utilized their gifts with such compelling levels of service.  Roberta Hestenes, Howard Hendricks and Earl Palmer could have readily honed their talents toward worldly gain, but their lives of servant-hood have resulted in countless souls brought closer to God.  Absent our ability to be physically present with them, we are blessed by their willingness to share their lives through this book.  From their example and thankfully their written contribution, the future of Christian education is lifted to a mandate no less important than the Great Commission.

Bibliography

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The American Scholar. New York,: American Book Co., 1893.

Gangel, Kenneth O., and Howard G. Hendricks. The Christian Educator’s Handbook on Teaching. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1988.

Hestenes, Roberta, Howard G. Hendricks, and Earl F. Palmer. Mastering Teaching. Mastering Ministry. Portland, Or.Carol Stream, Ill.: Multnomah Press; Christianity Today, 1991.

Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de, Katherine Woods, and Rouben Mamoulian Collection (Library of Congress). The Little Prince. New York,: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1943.

Yount, William R. Called to Teach : An Introduction to the Ministry of Teaching. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999.

_________. Created to Learn : A Christian Teacher’s Introduction to Educational Psychology. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996.

Endnotes

[1]Roberta Hestenes, Howard G. Hendricks, and Earl F. Palmer, Mastering Teaching, Mastering Ministry (Portland, Or.Carol Stream, Ill.: Multnomah Press; Christianity Today, 1991).

[2]Ibid., 27.

[3]William R. Yount, Called to Teach : An Introduction to the Ministry of Teaching (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 3.

[4]Roberta Hestenes, Howard G. Hendricks, and Earl F. Palmer, Mastering Teaching, 30.

[5]Ibid., 44.

[6]Ibid., 65.

[7]Ibid., 79.

[8]Ibid., 83.

[9]Ibid., 96.

[10]Antoine De Saint-ExupéRy, Katherine Woods, and Rouben Mamoulian Collection (Library of Congress), The Little Prince (New York,: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1943), 32.

[11] Roberta Hestenes, Howard G. Hendricks, and Earl F. Palmer, Mastering Teaching, 134.

[12] Ibid., 135.

[13]Ibid., 8.

[14]Kenneth O. Gangel and Howard G. Hendricks, The Christian Educator’s Handbook on Teaching (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1988).

[15]Roberta Hestenes, Howard G. Hendricks, and Earl F. Palmer, Mastering Teaching, 130.

[16]Kenneth O. Gangel and Howard G. Hendricks, The Christian Educator’s Handbook on Teaching, 29.

[17]Ibid., 183.

[18]William R. Yount, Created to Learn : A Christian Teacher’s Introduction to Educational Psychology (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 5.

[19]William R. Yount, Called to Teach : An Introduction to the Ministry of Teaching, 3.

[20]Ralph Waldo Emerson, The American Scholar (New York,: American Book Co., 1893), 34.

[21]William R. Yount, Called to Teach : An Introduction to the Ministry of Teaching, 26.

[22]Ibid., 15.

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