Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Confucius, Cicero, and Jesus all have two things in common. They were all great teachers. And they didn’t teach children. Even so, as ancient as society’s emphasis on adult education has been, there is surprising little research on how to effectively educate adults. The first academic studies began to emerge in the 1920s. The research tells us some interesting things about the way adults learn.
Life is an education
You may have heard the phrase, “Experience is the best teacher.” For adults, that turns out to be true. Adults learn through experience. Experience alone won’t always provide expertise, however. The key is to reflect on new experience in a disciplined way, perhaps with the guidance of a mentor, to develop mastery.
Teachers are secondary
This is a bit counter intuitive. When we think of the great teachers of history, we wonder how they could be secondary. But consider the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. When Jesus started to walk with them, they did not immediately turn to him and say, “Lord, teach us.” They first reflected on their recent experience. And even then, they kept on walking, sort of half-listening to what the “stranger” had to say. Even the Risen Christ had to shape his message to fit the experience of his listeners so they would learn effectively.
It’s all about me
When it comes to adults, they are selfish about their learning needs. They do not want to learn what you want them to learn. They certainly don’t want to learn what a textbook or an adult faith formation program wants them to learn. They want to learn what they want to learn. That means our “curriculum”—our topic list or our RCIA sessions—must be built around the needs of the catechumen or candidate.
Where to find resources
One of the most frequently asked questions we get at TeamRCIA is where to find RCIA resources for teaching adults. Researchers tell us the number-one resource for educating adults is their own experience. Our job as RCIA catechists is not, first of all, to teach doctrine. Our first job is to help catechumens and candidates recognize the Risen Christ that is walking along side of them. Once they are aware of having had a significant experience of Christ, we help them reflect on and evaluate that experience. This is where the doctrine comes in. Newbies are prone to misinterpreting their experience. Our task—our vocation—is to guide them to an understanding of their experience that is aligned with the gospel.
The 1970s called, and they want their teaching method back
Some people worry that this style of teaching is a regression to an “I’m okay, you’re okay” model of faith formation that was popular right after Vatican II. Let’s clear up a few things first. Some of our worries about such things are overblown. The “lost generation,” if there is such a thing, is my generation—the baby boomers. Percentage-wise, there are more boomers in church than there are younger generations who were raised with “Catechism-conformed” resources.
And more significantly, all the conversation about the faults of our early catechetical efforts has to do with teaching Catholic children. We have very little experience with teaching unbaptized and uncatechized adults.
The Alpha and Omega teaching method
Finally, to say we are using adult experience as a starting point is not to say that is our ending point. If an adult has had a significant experience of the Risen Christ—as the disciples on the road to Emmaus did—his or her heart will be burning with questions about what that experience means. And when a catechumen or candidate has those questions, RCIA catechists can help them find the answers. An effective RCIA formation process both begins and ends with the Risen Christ.
See also these related articles:
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- Preparing seekers during summer Ordinary Time, Cycle A – part one
- RCIA will never be the same again
- RCIA in the Easter Season: How to continue forming elect, catechumens, and candidates
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- Are you fluent in “RCIA seeker language”?