by Bob Bagley
Keys to an effective non-formal training event.
“We sent him to that seminar last year on conflict management. Why does he still have difficulty getting along with the rest of the team?” “Didn’t we have a pre-field seminar for those short-term workers? Why are they still so culturally insensitive?” “After all the effort and money spent to provide that big evangelism seminar, why are our churches still not growing?” “They both attended the same church growth seminar. Why has John’s ministry taken off while George’s is stuck in the same rut?”
Such comments sound familiar, don’t they? Judging by the quantity of non-formal training programs that mission agencies organize or have organized for them, one would think such events would prove highly effective in bringing about change. Despite our high hopes when we plan these programs, rarely do they have significant long-term impact. Nevertheless, with eternal optimism, seminars go on.
While nothing can guarantee a training event will result in lasting improvements, research into effective non-formal adult education offers clues for raising the likelihood that the next seminar we organize will make an impact. For effective non-formal training programs, we must focus on three areas: maximizing the motivation, crafting the content and encouraging implementation.
Perhaps the key factor determining an event’s effectiveness is the type and level of motivation participants bring to the event. A person attending a seminar or training session with eagerness and expectation of learning something valuable will likely benefit even if the teaching is mediocre and generally uninspiring. Similarly, a person with no desire or who sees no need to change is unlikely to remember anything besides the charisma and skill of the teacher.
Non-formal training programs must be carefully designed to connect with and maximize the participants’ own motivations. We must aim to change the attitude of would-be participants from “Oh, no! Not another seminar!” to “I can’t wait for this seminar. It’s just what I need!” Here are four suggestions to help make this happen.
1. Connect with felt needs. Usually we design training events to address needs we perceive others have. But participants will have greater motivation to learn if the event connects with what they see their own needs to be. For example, experienced missionary evangelists might find little attraction in a seminar titled, “Effective Evangelistic Communication in Africa.” Because of their training and experience, they feel they know enough to teach the seminar themselves. But if the same content were packaged as “Overcoming African Resistance to Evangelism,” we might find a more receptive response, simply with a subtle change in focus.
Since non-formal training is usually for those already ministering, rather than those preparing to begin ministry, participants generally won’t see themselves as beginners. Thus “advanced” seminars will more likely connect with individuals’ felt needs than “introductory” seminars. For example, a “Basic Leadership Skills” seminar won’t enthuse me. But I might respond eagerly to “Advanced Leadership Strategies.”
When planning and promoting non-formal training events, we should take a receptor-oriented approach: Ask what potential participants want rather than what they need. Connecting with felt needs raises motivation levels and might offer a chance to address even more significant needs, or at least raise those needs to the level of felt needs.
2. Make participation voluntary. Most mission agencies and church groups regularly schedule mandatory non-formal training events for their workers. Examples include annual pastors’ conferences or missionary retreats. While it may be impossible to do away with mandatory meetings, people generally will be much more motivated to learn when they have chosen to attend than when they attend simply because they have to. The person who comes only because it was required won’t likely come with an open mind and a willingness to change.
If we suspect that people wouldn’t come if participation were voluntary, perhaps we should examine the value of programs we offer. Conversely, if participants believe the program offers significant benefit to their ministry, they will eagerly attend, anticipating to gain something from their participation.
3. Build a sense of credibility. I normally have two questions when considering attending a seminar or conference: a) “What is it about?” (Does it connect with my felt needs?), and b) “Who will be speaking?” (Is the presenter someone I think is competent to deal with the subject matter?)
Building a sense of credibility involves more than ensuring that materials and seminar facilitators are of the highest quality. Credibility is as much a matter of perception as it is of reality. A missionary friend of mine says that in his country of service, an expert is defined as a person with a briefcase who comes from more than 100 miles away. Participants must view the seminar speakers as experts who have something valuable to share.
Although having a speaker with a plethora of degrees behind his or her name may be great, successful practitioners generally carry a greater credibility than academics. Pastors, for example, are more likely to want to hear another pastor who has seen his church grow from 50 to 500, than to listen to the Ph.D. expert in church growth who never has tried out his or her theories in real life. Academics, on the other hand, are more likely to lend credibility to other academics than to practitioners, regardless of their ministry success.
4. Require participants to pay a price. If participation is voluntary, participants are more likely to attach value to the experience if it costs them something. Right or wrong, we tend to look at that which is cheap and easy as having less value than that which is costly and difficult to obtain. The benefit a participant receives from a training event correlates directly with the value he or she attaches to it.
In many missions situations we hesitate to ask training participants to pay for training because of their limited resources and because the training is less for personal benefit than for benefiting the church or community they serve. Subsidizing training events is not ruled out by this principle, but take care not to make it too easy for people to take part. Even in cases where a monetary charge is not made, participants should be expected to expend effort to avail themselves of the opportunity. If a potential participant is unwilling to make a reasonable effort or pay a reasonable price, then the person won’t likely be motivated enough to benefit from the program, anyway.
CRAFT THE CONTENT
In cooking schools, budding chefs are taught to focus on a quality product and a quality presentation. Similarly, in preparing for a seminar or other training event, give attention to delivering top-quality content in a way that inspires and energizes. Even highly motivated individuals will lose heart if the material is irrelevant or redundant or if it is presented in an uninteresting way. The following six ideas may help your content connect with participants.
1. Clarify your aims and objectives. All good teaching begins at the end, that is, with the goals and objectives you hope to achieve as a result of the training experience. Clearly stated objectives guide the selection of the content and the method by which to share it.
2. Vague objectives lead to vague results. For example, if your pastors’ conference aims to help create better pastors, your objective is far too general to be useful. But if your aim is helping them tailor evangelism strategies for their community or helping them counsel people with AIDS, you are way down the road toward knowing what information should be imparted and what methods can best deliver it.
Regularly occurring conferences and retreats can easily fall into the trap of losing focus. Each time such an event is scheduled, planners should determine precisely what they would like to see accomplished. It may be helpful to ask, “What one outcome would be undeniable evidence that this year’s conference has been a success?” Then gear up to make that outcome happen.
3. Focus on practice rather than theory. Educators suggest that learning takes place within three domains: cognitive (knowing), affective (being) and behavioral (doing). Although differing educational modes can aid learning in all domains, formal education is best in enabling cognitive learning. Non-formal education is most effective when it focuses on the behavioral domain. Informal education works best in bringing about change in the affective domain. Non-formal education is most effective when it focuses on its strength: practical ministry.
Therefore, when developing educational objectives for your non-formal training event, the first concern should be setting behavioral objectives. What do you want participants to do as a result of the seminar? Cognitive and affective objectives then follow naturally. That is, the content and attitudes to be nurtured to bring about the desired action should unfold logically.
Of course, non-formal education should not be void of theoretical content, but theory should always be clearly linked to praxis. The practical implications of theoretical content should be obvious and explicit.
4. Make generous use of case studies and real-life examples. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then an account of a ministry experience must be worth an hour of discussion. Presentations must be firmly grounded in the real-life ministry settings from which the seminar participants come.
One benefit of using authentic stories is that the participants can readily grasp the implications of theoretical content. Stories and particularly case studies also help participants work through the process of applying principles to their ministries. Often a well-chosen anecdote turns on the light bulb: “I can see just how that would work where I come from!”
Stories also connect on an emotional level, enhancing the motivation for change. Motivational business speakers know this secret. They realize that captivating success stories have greater power to mobilize workers than dozens of charts, graphs and cleverly designed PowerPoint slides. Stories not only show how something could work, but also communicate the feeling that it really can.
5. Employ interactive and active teaching/learning strategies. “Passive learners” is an oxymoron. Learning only takes place as individuals become involved with the content. The most effective strategy is “learning by doing”—for example, learning to fish by going fishing. When that’s not possible, other means to involve learners in the process must be employed, such as simulations, role-playing and group discussion.
Those of us who teach often shy away from interactive strategies because they are more difficult for us to control and because they are more time-consuming than simple information dumping. This wariness is in part due to expectations from formal education carried into the non-formal setting. Formal education generally demands that specific outcomes be achieved and that a set amount of content be covered. All of us have sat through the last few sessions of a course while the teacher raced through material to “cover the syllabus.” Non-formal education’s strength is that it frees us from such external constraints to focus on strategies that are most likely to bring about growth and development in the learners’ lives and ministries.
Of the dozens of seminars held on our field, including many I have led, one stands above the rest in bringing about substantive change in the life of the church: a week-long seminar on urban evangelism and church planting. Each morning, participants attended traditional-style classes to study urban outreach principles; however, each afternoon, they entered a neighborhood targeted for church planting and sought opportunities to hold evangelistic home Bible studies. I know of no other seminar or training program that has come close to that seminar in stirring up church planting enthusiasm and activity. Then again, no other program has involved such hands-on learning process.
6. Provide resources for implementation, reinforcement and continued learning. Participants are much more likely to change as a result of a training experience if they carry away materials that aid the implementation process and reinforce what they have learned. Therefore, focus on not only what is communicated and what happens during the seminar, but also on to what to give participants to ensure the continuation of the learning process.
In resource-rich parts of the world, this may mean focusing on helping participants know what, where and how to access the most helpful resources. (I rejoice to get a good annotated bibliography.) In places where resources are scarcer, give more emphasis to resource development and provision.
Use teams rather than an individual to facilitate. Solomon said, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work.” (Eccl. 4:9). Although Solomon wasn’t likely thinking of seminar leaders, his advice still applies here. People are more inclined to learn from those with whom they share an affinity. Because of personality and other differences, it is rare (and perhaps impossible) for a speaker or teacher to identify with everyone in a group. Having a team of presenters increases the likelihood that everyone will connect with at least one facilitator.
Using teams to lead training programs also tends to reinforce and buttress what individual leaders are teaching. An accomplished soloist can make a powerful impact, but a choir can blend together even mediocre voices to render a mighty chorus.
The old adage says, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” While that may be true, you can do things to greatly raise the probability that the horse will drink. Similarly, you can put people through seminars and training programs, but you can’t make them implement what you have tried to teach. Still, you can do things to make implementation more likely. Here are four suggestions.
1. Help participants develop concrete action plans. The downfall of many non-formal training programs is that participants often leave “all fired up” but fail to transfer the experience into concrete action. Real change occurs as individuals identify definite steps of action to take. Vague commitments to be a “better” missionary, pastor, evangelist, spouse or parent rarely lead to meaningful long-term change.
Action plans are more likely to be implemented when people develop those plans for themselves rather than have someone dictate them. Thus, we should not be telling participants, “This is what you should do,” but instead we should be asking them, “What specifically will you be doing?”
Too often, the development of action plans is left to chance. We expect that seminar participants will take that step on their own. But without prompting, very few will do so. Consequently, a well-planned training program will deliberately seek to help participants identify and commit themselves to the steps they need to take after the seminar is over.
To be truly effective, action plans should be expressed either in writing or orally. Such expression of intended action helps individuals create concrete, definite plans that help solidify commitment to their plans. As long as the action plans are simply being formulated in people’s minds without external expression, it is much easier for the plans to remain nebulous and later forgotten, neglected or discarded.
2. Personalize action plans. To be meaningful and worthwhile, action plans must be crafted to match each individual’s unique situation. “One size fits all” plans, while helpful for administration and control, are not effective. Broad outlines for future action may be proposed to the group as a whole, but individuals must be encouraged to adapt that broad plan appropriately to their own contexts.
A personalized action plan should be so precise and detailed that it can only fit the person for whom it was designed. Tailoring action plans for individual participants is time-consuming but certainly worth the effort.
3. Include a formal act of commitment to the action plans. Participants will be more committed to an action plan if they have a chance to formalize their commitment. Depending on the situation, the degree of formality might vary from a solemn service of commitment to a small group praying for each other and the plans to which they are committing. Regardless of format, formalization should include seeking God’s help and blessing. It should also include both acceptance of and responsibility for the proposed action.
Proponents of cohabitation argue that a marriage ceremony is unnecessary for a couple to successfully live together in a committed relationship, but studies repeatedly show that relationships have greater sticking power when they have been formalized by wedding rites. Similarly, individuals may carry through with action plans without any act to formalize them; however, more participants implement their plans if their commitment to action has been sealed in a formal way.
4. Devise a system of accountability. Accountability is a natural feature of formal education, but frequently is not included in planning non-formal educational events. But accountability structures can be built into non-formal programs. For example, participation in the next seminar may be based on adequately applying current action plans. Participants could be placed into small accountability groups for follow-up. Seminar leaders could hold individual participants accountable for implementation.
Accountability should not be seen as policing in an effort to get people to do things they don’t really want to do. Rather, it should be a means of encouragement and support for participants as they seek to implement personalized plans of action and address areas of need they have identified in their lives and/or ministries.
TIME FOR ACTION
Here are tips for using these fourteen suggestions:
- Evaluate the non-formal training events in which you have participated. Assess whether links existed between the suggestions (from the above fourteen) that a given event may have applied and the event’s success.
- Make a planning checklist for the next seminar you organize. See how many of the above suggestions you can use. Then assess the impact after the seminar.
Non-formal education can be a powerful tool for equipping Christian workers for more effective ministry. These suggestions will sharpen that tool to help increase its impact in the churches and mission agencies with which we work.
Bob Bagley recently became academic dean of Vennard College in University Park, Iowa, after serving for twenty-three years with Global Partners in southern Africa.
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