Communication breakdowns: pedagogy, context, and memory

Someone goes to school and they don’t learn anything. They are frustrated. They had a legit dream of being smart or skilled, but it didn’t materialize during their education. The knowledge is real and out there, but it didn’t successfully transfer. This happens all the time. Why?

It’s a communication breakdown, and the chain of transmission has many potential weak spots.

1. The teacher is stupid. They don’t actually know.
2. The teacher’s methods are bad and they couldn’t get the information across well. They know, but can’t effectively articulate it.
3. The student was not listening, not paying attention. They just missed it as if they hadn’t shown up.
4. The student is too young or inexperienced to give the knowledge context and remember it.
5. The student is stupid, not well formed, and doesn’t understand it.

I’d like to elaborate on these just a bit. Students are quick to criticize poor teachers. Their failure could be due to primary (#1) or secondary (#2) problems, but the result is the same. For the student that has a long track record of successful learning in academia, they will assume that points 3, 4, and 5 are OK and that the problem must lie with the presenter. In my experience #1 is actually quite rare. Bad pedagogy is the chief offender. Even someone with only a mild understanding of their subject (perhaps they were a last minute substitute) who is a skilled teacher, will far outperform a brilliant professor with bad lectures, ill-conceived assignments, and limited feedback.

In the world of classical music (this would include academic jazz), many world-class performing musicians are notoriously terrible teachers. Studying under them may allow you to name-drop a famous person on your resume, but you are likely to develop much more as a student under someone you’ve never heard of who is an excellent pedagogue. I assume the same could be said for other fields, but I suspect that it may be more pronounced in the performing arts.

Those on the giving side of the knowledge transfer are of course going to be quicker to criticize the receivers. And they have not shortage of precedent in doing so. How can you not blame students that don’t show up to class, don’t pay attention, don’t read the homework, don’t ask any questions, and appear to come from backgrounds where they barely learned to read in the first place? These problems are all so common as to be completely boring to consider. And yet, because their appearance is ubiquitous, it can in turn encourage lazy pedagogy. If the problem is always “out there”, then why work harder to make our teaching better? It’s good enough already, right? Maybe not.

If I were to have made this communication breakdown list ten years ago, in my twenties, it would have only had 4 items on it, that mirrored each other (Teacher -> Teaching -> Listening -> Student). On closer reflection though, I had to add another link in the chain, in-between the student possibly not listening, or being too stupid to know what he or she heard. This is where things get interesting, at point #4 in the list above.

You can be an excellent student, a strong reader with 14 years of straight As under your belt. You can also be driven and attentive. The teacher can be excellent – very knowledgeable, well organized, interesting, engaging, and sometimes even funny and inspiring. But then, in hindsight, you STILL missed a bunch of important stuff. It sure felt like you were learning something useful at the time, but now you aren’t really sure what it was. Was it anything? What went wrong?

It may be that you could not store the information in your memory in a meaningful way because you were not able to give it enough context. You were young and just simply haven’t had many experiences. Maybe some point the teacher made would have stuck really well if you had grown up with a bunch of siblings, but you were an only child. Some potent analogy that was frequently used went over your head because you grew up in the city instead of around a lot of trees (or vice versa). Maybe some illustration (that you thought you understood and could even repeat accurately on the test) just didn’t carry much weight to a 19-year-old girl, but would now make a ton of sense to a 35-year-old mother. Maybe something else would have stuck if you had been a soldier, but it just couldn’t find a place in your head given your background when you absorbed it. Some key piece of wisdom slipped past you because you didn’t have a shelf to put it on in your head. You were still building the shelves and it got set on the floor and forgotten.


It’s been a few years since I tackled them, but I think THIS region in the communication chain is what Jamie Smith is trying to put his finger on with his spiritual formation and “cultural liturgies” stuff in his Desiring/Imaging the Kingdom books. It also helps to explain why we sometimes fail to communicate the Gospel. The preacher can know the gospel really well and be heavy on grace with zero heresy to be found. He can then articulate the message very clearly in a way that engages the listener. And the listener is really paying attention too. They aren’t distracted. Not only that, but they’re intelligent, and they understand what’s being said. They aren’t confused. Maybe they are even initially (for say, a week or two) fairly excited or interested in all this Jesus stuff. But then it fades away and they don’t remember or seem to care about it anymore. And to their friends, it doesn’t seem as if they are particularly worldly or that cares and stress choked it all out of them in the meantime. They are doing OK, but it just didn’t “stick”. Why?

Insufficient context. Inexperience. They need more shelves in their heads to put valuable things on. The rooms haven’t been built yet. Timing is everything. Mysteriously though, the Holy Spirit can stick around with us and make the sharpness of our sin and the attractiveness of Christ continue to bother us and fascinate us, even though we aren’t quite sure what to do with it. When this is going on (and it must go on!) then the communication breakdown is mended by an outside force.