Home Youth Leaders Articles for Youth Leaders Half of Effective Teaching Is Getting Rid of THIS

Half of Effective Teaching Is Getting Rid of THIS

OK, so I don’t know if I totally agree with the statement I made in my own headline.

Effective teaching is about Spirit-anointed truth presented in thoughtful and engaging ways.

That part has always been the most important part.

But when I visit a youth group and hear a speaker who’s really good at those things and then notice that the students still aren’t paying attention?

It’s usually not because the talk was bad or ineffective or boring; not even because students are apathetic or disinterested.

It’s because almost every teenager is prone to distractions, and sometimes our ministry environments are full of them.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much to derail a 14-year-old’s attention span. AdWeek estimates that the average actual attention span is about five minutes. Other sources put that number somewhere between seven and 10 minutes.

This isn’t the result of a boring presentation on your part. It’s not even the result of disinterest on the part of your students. It’s an effect of the way that lightning-fast Internet connections, streaming video and micro-Tweets have rewired all of our brains—not just the brains of your teenagers.

And while you should absolutely prune your teaching of fluff—the paragraphs that add length without adding meaning—it’s unrealistic to expect that you’re going to be able to effectively teach on Nehemiah, for example, in five minutes or less.

We need to help our students focus on what we have to say, and given that most youth workers are presenting pretty good messages already, it’s usually not as simple as just thinking up more engaging things to say.

It’s about eliminating the distractions that keep students from hearing us.

Let’s start with the bad news. There are dozens of distractions that you have almost no control over. Light bulbs flicker. Microphones feedback. Someone farts and a dozen teenagers vying to be the center of attention display exaggerated reactions to the fart.

There’s never going to be a way to make 100 percent of distractions go away, and that’s not the goal here. What we’re trying to do is identify the things we can deal with and get rid of whatever distractions we can. Let’s get started:

Smart Phones
I’m just guessing here, but I’d say that 80 percent of your phone-related distractions are caused by less than 20 percent of your students. It’s less about the kid playing FIFA on his phone and more about the 11 kids around him who were paying attention to the message until they caught the light from the iPhone in their peripheral vision and now they’re hypnotized into watching him play FIFA instead of listening to you.

For me, there’s no better solution to this problem than having an adequate number of adult volunteers. If students know they’re always in the sightline and reach of an adult, they may still become distracted, but they’re less likely to become a distraction.

My friend Chris Wesley dropped this brilliant tweet:

“The only thing more annoying than teens talking while you speak are the people going SHHHHHHHH! while you speak.”

Again, if you’re running on minimal volunteers, this is a tough problem to handle. But put plenty of adults in the room, and you’re in better shape. Beyond that, you should talk with repeat offenders.

But if a boy on one side of the room can be distracted by someone whispering on the other side of the room, then you might need to do something about your own volume. It shouldn’t be hard for someone with a microphone to project over the whispers.

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Aaron Helman is on a mission to help end the epidemic of youth worker burnout. He writes at Smarter Youth Ministry to help youth workers with their biggest frustrations—things like leading volunteers, managing money, and communicating effectively. He is also the youth minister at Firehouse Youth Ministries in South Bend, Indiana.