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How Teens Learn: Anchoring

Why do teens sometimes decide to tune out when we’re teaching? That’s a question that bugged me when I started doing youth ministry. I’m sure I’m not the only who has experienced being in front of a group and seeing teen’s attention wander, or actually noting certain students ‘switch off’. Why do they do that? Is it because we’re boding? Because they’re not interested in what we’re sharing?

Maybe. But maybe there’s more at play and to explain that, we need to learn a little about how teens learn. There’s one crucial factor in getting teens to listen to you that’s often overlooked. It’s called anchoring.

A factor in the decision to keep listening is whether or not the new information you’re presenting can be tied (anchored) to existing knowledge. The brain can only remember if it has something to anchor the new information to. If what you are saying is completely foreign to your youth group, if they can’t relate it to anything they already know, they will stop listening.

When we moved to the US two years ago, the game of football was relatively new to me. I’m Dutch, so soccer is my game and so are other ‘traditional’ Dutch sports like speed skating or swimming. But as part of my integration, I wanted to understand at least the basics of football. So I started watching games, watched the whole Friday Night Lights Series, googled the rules, even read some books about it. At first, the game made no sense to me. I had nothing to ‘anchor’ it to, because it wasn’t anything like a sports I knew.

But slowly, I started building a ‘database’ of knowledge on football. Friday Night Lights taught me the crucial role of the QB. Watching a college football game live showed me the switch between offense and defense (because maybe you’ve never realized it, but on TV they cut to commercial then, so you never see what happens). Reading up on the rules taught me some important basics. And while I am still a newbie, I can now watch ‘my team’ (Go Patriots!) play and at least understand what’s happening.

If you’re teaching and teens have no previous knowledge to connect your info to, they’ll stop listening. You need to show them connections, ties, and the bigger picture. If you had put me in front of a TV to watch football a few years ago, I would have found it completely boring, because I didn’t understand anything of what I was seeing. Now that I do, it’s way more interesting.


We were doing a small group study once on a passage from Revelation, when suddenly one of our young people interrupted me. He was one of the older guys, a college student by then, who had been going to church his whole life. “Are you serious?” he asked. “Are John the Disciple, John the guy who wrote the Gospel of John, the guy who wrote the letters from John, and the John from Revelation really the same guy? I thought they were four different people who just happened to have the same name!” This guy had four “databases” for the biblical character John, when they really were all the same person. That’s the kind of clue that is helpful to give youth when we teach from the Bible, so they know which database to add the information to.

For adolescents, a complication in anchoring is that their abstract abilities are still under-developed; it’s often a hit and miss thing. Some may be able to “go” fully abstract, while others haven’t even developed that skill. But most will sometimes (unconsciously) turn it on and at other times turn it off. That makes the teaching of abstract concepts like grace, forgiveness, justification, and salvation a huge challenge. These words often have little or no meaning to youth—or a meaning that’s not in line with what we would assume or like it to be. Church language is a major reason why young people stop listening to sermons or even many youth group talks; to them it’s like these are spoken in a foreign language.

storify-cover-c3 (1) copyIt’s one of the reasons why starting a talk with a long, complicated reading from Scripture is rarely an effective approach. Paul’s writings especially, are so full of abstract concepts that youth will tune out after the first sentence, maybe two. We have to introduce these first by tying them to what they do know and what does matter to them, their needs.

If this is all new to you, you’d love my new book Storify: Teaching Teenagers in a Post-Christian World that’s coming out later this month. How teens learn is just one of the topics I tackle in this book to help you develop an effective approach to teaching your students. It’s available now for pre-order from the Youth Cartel!

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