In cognitive psychology there’s an interesting phenomenon called anchoring. It means that people will always try to anchor new knowledge, problems or issues to existing knowledge and experiences. This not only helps us to remember things better (example: the same math equations work for math, chemistry and physics), but it’s also a big help in problem solving skills. In short: anchoring is a very important part of the process of learning.
Example: when given a problem (‘How do I open this jar that is stuck’?) we automatically try to recall previous similar knowledge (‘A few weeks ago I managed to open one with a knife’) and experiences (‘I have to be careful to use the knife in the right direction, otherwise I’ll end up cutting myself like I did last time’).
This process of anchoring has some interesting and important consequences for teaching Biblical truths in youth ministry:
1. We should help students with anchoring
A well known problem with anchoring is that we anchor to the wrong information or that we can’t find any related information at all to anchor to. This is especially the case when the new knowledge is abstract or conceptual. This is obviously fairly often the case in teaching Biblical truths.
This means that when we teach, we should help our students anchor the new information we’re teaching them. There are several ways to do that:
1. Ask for previous knowledge: a very simple strategy in helping students anchor is by asking about previous knowledge. It prevents you from telling stuff they already know and it helps you get a clear picture of what their general level of knowledge is. After having determined what they know, you can supplement any knowledge you feel is relevant.
Example: when teaching about Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, ask what they know about the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament. When they’ve shared this, teach whatever you feel is necessary on this topic to facilitate anchoring.
2. Teach the context: you can help students with anchoring by giving them clues to as where your story fits.
Example: when teaching about the friendship between David and Jonathan, explain a little bit about who David was (David and Goliath – a well known story students can anchor to, or David as author of Psalm 23), about the time period (after the Judges, when Israel had its first king) and about the setting (use a map of what Israel looked like at that time, visual aids help anchor).
3. Show the connections: one of the things students find hardest about Biblical stories and topics is to make the right connections to the bigger story. So help them anchor whatever you’re teaching to the bigger story of God’s plan for redemption.
Example: when teaching about being a light to this world (being a witness), show how God wanted the people of Israel to be different from their heathen neighboring peoples, so that everyone would see who God was.
2. We should check students’ existing knowledge
There’s another issue with the process of anchoring. When students anchor new knowledge to existing knowledge, that doesn’t mean the existing knowledge is right. A well known example of this is when certain behaviors of ethnic minorities reinforce an already present attitude of racism for instance. The new knowledge is anchored all right, but the existing knowledge is wrong.
When teaching Biblical truths, anchoring to wrong knowledge can have lasting consequences. Take the difference between linking to a pattern of ‘reward theology’ (‘good people go to heaven’) or ‘grace theology’ (‘we’re saved by the grace of God, not by works’), that’s a difference with everlasting results. It’s important therefore to not only help with anchoring, but also to check the existing knowledge and experiences.
It’s important to always be aware that existing knowledge can be wrong. Even with kids who’ve grown up in church, we can’t automatically assume they’ve got it right. Again, this can be done by asking about previous experiences or knowledge or by explicitly naming what you think the existing knowledge should be.
A big challenge here is that it’s not easy to change existing anchors and knowledge patterns. You may have to challenge well known wrong patterns several times and in different ways to get through.
Example: the Biblical viewpoint on sex before marriage runs counter to every message students hear around them. Especially when students are prone to look at rules (‘thou shalt not steal’) they’ll contend that there no such rule in the Bible (‘thou shalt not have sex before marriage’). You’re up against a deeply ingrained knowledge pattern here and you probably won’t be able to change that at first.
But keep challenging the status quo, the existing knowledge because anchors can be broken and thought processes can be changed, especially since the Holy Spirit plays a powerful role in this and He is able to do far more than we could ever imagine.