Saturday, February 16, 2013

Evangelization and Instructional Design

My church history professor from Mundelein Seminary, C. Colt Anderson, Ph.D., wrote in his book Christian Eloquence, that St. Augustine evangelized to hostile audiences in a calm style with the aim of education.

That insight comes back to me now as I am in the middle of earning an M.S. in education and instructional technology. This is not the theology degree I thought I always wanted. But in some ways it might be more important. There is fertile ground for questions, here, and the result may have an effect on the way the Church teaches, and evangelizes the faith.

At the moment, I do not see much work being done on the intersection between instructional design and evangelization, or even, for that matter, religious education.

Some materials I've come across Google Scholar:

Of course, all of these deal strictly in formal religious education--not evangelization per se (though if I continue to explore this, I might look more into the British Journal of Religious Education. But the basic notion I have is this: contemporary methods of instructional design have a lot to offer to the classroom. Maybe they can have a lot to offer to the New Evangelization.

In spite of the apocryphal St. Francis quote, "Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words," evangelization is usually described as a verbal practice. Even in Anderson's Christian Eloquence, the presumed context is a speaker addressing listeners. But study after study demonstrates that, especially for novices, verbal instruction is one of the least effective means of imprinting long-term memory. Perhaps there are exceptions among evangelists--modern day Chrysostoms. But in fact, the lion's share of our learning is not verbal.

Is learning the same thing as conversion? No. But they are intertwined. Learning is, perhaps, a necessary but insufficient condition for possibility of conversion. Therefore, barriers to learning are also barriers to conversion. And ineffective pedagogy can be a barrier to learning.

I find it difficult to envision a St. Augustine figure, preaching to a "hostile audience". What kind of hostile audience listens to hours of preaching from an ideological opponent? What did that look like? But again, Augustine's historical context is so far removed from today. Maybe the donatists were bored, like someone watching infomercials on a weekday afternoon.

Today we have the Internet. In America we have paralyzing political polarization. We have the "new atheists" (with the same arguments as the old atheists, just with more bravado and TED talks). How would a Catholic instructional designer construct a context for learning that is accessible, voluntary, and popular among the secular?