March 14, 2013
Can You Read?
When you look at the statistics from census reports, government surveys, or international organizations, they will tell you that more than 90% of Paraguayan people are literate. They can read. What they don't tell you is that many only completed the 6th grade in a system where your 6th grade and their 6th grade probably aren't very similar. What they don't tell you is that even though this many people can READ--sound out the letters that make up words and pronounce them in a way that, when said one after the other, makes a sentence--this isn't the way they've been taught to learn.
How does this impact us? In a big, huge way.
At the basis of learning in a developed nation like the United States, is the written word. I can choose to sit down and read a book for educational purposes and learn all sorts of things by the time I turn the last page. I might outline the key points and take notes as I go, and even if I don't, my brain is processing these words in a manner that makes logical sense to me and leads to more understanding as I read.
If I come into this country thinking that's the way most Paraguayans learn, I will base my teaching around that. In fact, I did base my teaching around that. I planned English classes and discipleship sessions and Bible studies around what fit my learning style, and I got a lot of blank stares. I set up powerpoint presentations and hit the main points, and I got polite nods. Or I got folks who really wanted to please me by filling in the blanks on my study sheets or writing something down to answer my discussion questions, but who hadn't really grasped what I wanted to teach.
I made the mistake of thinking that because most of the people in my "listening audience" could read, this was the way to teach them.
What I've since learned is that Paraguayans love to sit around and talk. They love to hear or tell a good story. They do their best work in groups. They learn in community. They grasp a skill or learn a trade by working alongside others and watching them while listening to their explanations. Not all fit this mold, especially younger Paraguayans educated in the cities, but enough do that we have had to shift our mindset at the foundation of what we consider teaching and learning.
Jesus recognized the learning style of his followers, and his way of sharing included parables, discussions, and stories that related to the lifestyle his listeners understood. As we follow his example, we've found many ways to convey the message orally, whether by storytelling, movies, audio files, dramas, or songs. It's a giant learning curve, and we are terribly thankful for those who've gone before us in Paraguay, such as the SIM initiative to put mp3 players with Bible stories in the hands of farmers and other oral learners. Or our friends who are training men and women from the community to tell and retell Bible stories using stick symbols that can be drawn in the dirt. Or some more friends who are learning their stories in Guarani--Mbya-style--so they can share them with the tribe they're ministering to.
Many of these folks have been kind enough to share advice and resources with us, which we are already making use of. In the prison, we plan to develop a set of stories that work these guys through some basic Sunday school stuff, starting from Creation and working through the New Testament. We are working on incorporating art into these stories, so that the young men can express themselves and will be more likely to remember the stories.
As I've taken classes online about this and googled articles and books, I've run across several mentions of how orality is being used in the United States, as well. Simple things like having a few stories ready for public transportation or waiting rooms, when you find yourself with an opportunity to chat with the guy beside you. Youth pastors and children's ministers are using this method to increase retention in their teaching. And small groups leaders are picking up on the benefits of "hiding the Word in your heart".
I've amassed quite a collection of resources that can be found online for free, including several workshops and video classes, and quite a few books and articles. Anyone interested in further information can let me know in the comments. I'm certainly no expert, but I do know how to find the free stuff! ;)