Can Fish Climb Trees?

“If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that its stupid.” – Einstein

We have come to understand that people do not all learn the same way. Through trial, error, and observation educational theorists have concluded that people learn through a variety of means and our personal experience as both students and teachers confirms that to be true – different people learn best through engagement of different learning styles (hear it, see it, touch it, explore it) and different instructional formats. We also know that different people learn best in a variety of environments and conditions – supposedly girls learn best in a room that is yellow while boys learn best in a room that is blue for example. Howard Gardner also suggested that there is not one measurement of intelligence but “multiple intelligences” that include spatial, bodily kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic, logical-mathematical, naturalistic, and existential. Each modality relates to certain skill sets or abilities and being “smart” in one of the intelligences does not necessarily mean you will be “smart” in all just like being “not so smart” in one does not necessarily mean you will be “not so smart” in all.

We could spend a lifetime analyzing how people learn and continue to be amazed at the complexity and individualism involved in the learning process – we truly are “wonderfully made”.

Unfortunately what we know to be true does not always impact our practice, which is why many people experience educational failure. Our educational systems, although fully aware of varied needs in learning, often provide an educational experience for a few while ignoring and thus frustrating many. We have all seen the child, teen, or young adult come home from their failed educational experience and refer to themselves as “stupid” – frustrated at their lack of ability to learn perhaps due to an educational system that did not understand their learning style needs; an educational system that expected the “fish to climb a tree”.

It is easy to “throw stones” at educational institutions, especially public education, and their inability to adapt to the needs of their students, but do our own Christian “educational systems” also ask fish to climb trees? Do we truly function in a way that demonstrates we fully understand God’s unique creation and individual learning needs or does our approach seem to suggest in faith formation “one size fits all”?

Think in your mind to the last small group you facilitated, Sunday school class you taught, worship service you led, or sermon you preached and ask yourself – was everyone in the room engaged? Could you see by their expression, eye contact, and reactions that they were engaged, excited, learning, and growing? If your answer is a resounding “YES!” awesome – keep investing in your people and seeing great reward. If you are not quite as confident, below are a few things to try:
• Vary your style of “delivery” (how predictable are you?)
• Incorporate their sense of smell (women are more likely to remember when the “lesson” is tied to a smell)
• Give them a chance to move or at least use their hands
• Help them become a part of the story and truly experience it
• Give them a chance to talk
• Connect the main point to an image, icon, picture, or video (give them a picture in their mind to remember)
• Get out of the room and change the environment
• Put music to it
• Let them create something
• Pay attention to who is bored, asleep, disengaged and make it your mission to find out what they need in order to learn

Learning plays a significant role in formation, and Christian education experiences should result in spiritual growth. How well are your people learning and growing?   No one should think they are “stupid” when it comes to faith formation.  Provide experiences that engage all of your people and please provide an opportunity for your “fish” to swim!

Rev. Colleen Derr, Ed. D.

Assistant Professor of Congregational Spiritual Formation and Christian Ministries

  • Yay! And well stated.
    1. Over my many years spent in public education, I have heard all of these things. That’s why it is so important to use good children’s ministry curriculum and be willing to modify and add to the curriculum when necessary (which is almost always).
    2. We often are under the assumption that just because a person is in high school or is an adult and have a longer attention span that they learn differently. Wrong! People still learn best in a variety of ways.

    Thanks, Colleen!