Or the honest title: “5 things my professors probably tried to educate me about teaching, but it was when I had run out of gummy worms to sustain my attention.” This post is more about questions than answers.

I finished my undergraduate studies in Youth Ministry almost a decade ago, and went directly into youth ministry for a year. Through a quirky sense of providence, I ended up in a place that youth ministers never think they’ll end up: a private Christian school. For 5 years I taught alongside REAL teachers, and they enlightened me as to what it really means to have students who LEARN.

Here are 5 things I gleaned from them (Georgia Hensley, here is your shout-out).

1) If you want budding students, Bloom’s Taxonomy is the water.
Who is Bloom? Not really sure, feel free to google it. The basic idea behind Bloom’s taxonomy is this: push students to use higher level thinking skills, and they will retain information in a usable way. In other words: regurgitating info= Bad; synthesis, creation, and application =good.

How do you apply this? The first place to start is with your lesson plans. What’s your objective? How do you want your youth group kids to live differently as a result of the truth you plan to present? A good example: “Students will be able to create spiritual habits so they can experience the ministry of the Holy Spirit.” When you have discussion questions, push them to come up with their own ideas and feelings as a result of looking at a passage or a truth that was presented. Google “Socratic Method”.

2) Practice makes perfect; in other words: ASSIGN Homework!
Two thoughts are running through your head right now: 1) My kids are already swamped with HW & 2) That’s not cool. True and also true. So how do we get our students to practice what we teach or at least interact with the content in a personal way so that it becomes a part of them? If you want to get good at math, you have to complete the HW. If we want our kids to grow from God’s truth, how do we provide opportunities to interact with the material?

To be honest, I have not completely figured this one out yet, and I am still experimenting. What our ministry has been attempting is what we call “Bucket Challenges”, where I present a dare or a mission for the month, and they respond by posting it on Facebook or Instagram. Sometimes I post a video on our blog for them to comment on, and other times I challenge them to find song lyrics in line with our series and post them. The problem we have encountered is that social media is a spontaneous context, and we’re essentially asking them to do something planned. The most successful Bucket Challenges have been Instagram photo contests, but participation would be even higher if our student leaders exhibited some solidarity and the students scheduled a reminder on their phone.

3) The power of repetition and routine.
“A teacher is a person who never says anything once”- Howard Nemerov. I have found that it’s all too easy to default into teaching a mile wide and an inch deep as there is so much I want my kids to learn. I mistakenly offer my students the fire hydrant instead of the water-pack. Choose one idea you want your students to walk away from, and repeat and review that one thought for a couple weeks. Is there something you want them to remember for a lifetime? Review it for a month or more, and touch on it throughout the year. This also gives you the ability to assess and evaluate (test) to observe if they are absorbing any truth.

Routines are a key factor in learning as it creates stability and a sense of worthwhileness to the activity. For example: Once a month for Sunday School we go outside for a time of individual reflection on the monthly theme (Daily Examin and Lectio Devina formats are helpful…FYI: we’re Baptist, and it doesn’t matter). In addition, once a month on a Wednesday night the students have the opportunity to submit anonymous questions through our website to discuss during youth group.

4) Room Dynamics: how you organize and decorate your youth room communicates what you want to transpire in that room.
When I first started teaching, I approached my classroom much like I would a youth-room: filled it with fun and distracting things. Is your place of worship a confusing place for your students? It can’t be a carnival and a thoughtful place at the same time. Utilizing the concept of learning centers in a youth space is critical. Creating an accessible and fun environment for new students is important, but consider segmenting the fun away from where you want them to focus on God. Our Youth have a fun space, but we also have a chill space as well, so that our students can focus on building relationships. We went with a coffee shop vibe and the décor is modern, but it doesn’t feel childish as we wanted to subtly raise the bar in terms of our expectations for them.

Beyond the physical aspect of room dynamics, the principle of teacher proximity is key. In the classroom, students focus better when the teacher walks around the room as they do group learning. In the context of youth ministry, this looks more like volunteers sitting amongst the students, instead of hanging in the back.

5) Learning styles: fashion your teaching to the various needs of your students.
You are probably pretty aware of this, but in all honesty, it’s the one that is hardest to implement. We tend to teach how we like to learn, but taking in the different learning styles to mix it up keeps the students and engaged and on their toes. The Neil Fleming’s VARK model for learning styles are: kinesthetic, auditory, visual, and reading/writing. For more learning styles, check out: Wikipedia.

Youth ministry truly is a beautiful mess, and as much as I like to formulate ministry, making room for the Holy Spirit to work and move is the trump card. Feel free to offer suggestions and practical ideas to flesh these concepts out. My students are growing weary of playing my guinea pigs.

Daniel McGinty is currently the Youth Pastor for {Pipeline} Student Ministries at First Baptist Church Dripping Springs. He is married to the amazing Brooke, and loves playing with his 6 month old daughter Hanalei.