This is part two in a series of posts about Becoming Tapestry, Kyle’s dissertation podcast about multimedia learning in faith-adjacent settings. Read part one here.
If you’ve ever participated in teacher effectiveness training, you’ve probably heard about one of the big thorny issues in learning. And I guarantee you that you’ve been on the receiving end of this issue, whatever your walk in life.
It goes by many names. Let’s call it “the expert problem.”
As you gain expertise in some skill or discipline, you develop a kind of repertoire or toolkit. Based on your evolving experience, you gain familiarity with and eventually mastery of specialized vocabulary and tools, the foundational works of your field, efficient solutions to common problems, etc. All that past effort comes to shape your perspective and approach.
It’s common and quite helpful to think about this issue in terms of how your mind and brain change as you practice. Learning literally rewires your neurons.
I study the social and cultural aspects of learning, so my account tends to focus more on interpersonal connections and habits that emerge in the process of becoming a well-integrated member of a community.
These are complementary views of the same problem: Experts and novices are very different. So different, in fact, that an expert can lose touch with what it felt like to be a novice.
Tapestry remixes the Godly Play storytelling format to teach flexible, accessible guiding principles to volunteers who aren’t necessarily familiar with religious ideas or practices of faith.
The novice-expert disconnect
If you’ve ever struggled to understand a specialized explanation of a complex concept or skill, chances are the expert problem had something to do with it. Experts skip steps in their head. Experts use jargon, especially when speaking off the cuff. Experts see and respond to their domain of practice differently from how novices possibly could.
Here’s why all this matters to people who work in churches, seminaries, religious nonprofits, and other faith communities:
A growing percentage of the population in the U.S. and elsewhere are, in this sense, novices in matters of organized religion and formal spirituality.
And with the exception of your current members, even people who have been significantly shaped by religious convictions, spiritual practices, etc. are still novices at being a part of your particular faith community.
In my dissertation study of the nonprofit foster youth mentoring ministry that I call Tapestry, I developed some language for what happens at the connection points between faith communities and the lives of people who don’t have a lot of experience with organized religion. Building on ideas from Bruno Latour, Doreen Massey, and other experts in social theory, I call these areas of intersection “faith-adjacent” spaces.
My colleagues who co-direct Tapestry, and some of their closest collaborators, are religious “insiders,” experts in their own faith traditions. But most of the volunteer mentors who meet weekly with Tapestry youth are people of “no faith or nominal faith.” And their “church that doesn’t look like a church” has a very distinctive take on belonging, ritual, and spirituality.
You would think the expert problem would loom large at Tapestry. It doesn’t.
So how does Tapestry get everyone on the same page about their inclusive but religiously informed mission of loving, caring for, and supporting the healing of marginalized young people? In other words, how do they bridge the relevant expert-novice divides?
By extension, how can you and your organization reach and teach people who are not already connected to your community and your mission? How can you ensure that you’re not talking right past people in the faith-adjacent spaces you frequent?
That’s what episode 2 of my dissertation podcast, Becoming Tapestry, is all about.
Supporting the novice-to-expert journey
I don’t want to spoil too much of the story, but here are a couple principles I picked up from spending time in Tapestry’s thoughtful space of faith-adjacent learning:
Connect with people who are already on a meaning-filled journey. Tapestry recruits mentors in places where religiously affiliated and unaffiliated people engage in practices that are personally meaningful. These spaces include Sunday services at local churches, sure, but also a popular church-hosted yoga night and small lunch-and-learn events in values-driven local businesses.
In places where potential members are grappling with questions of purpose and belonging already, it’s easier to imagine the path weaving its way through a community of people doing likewise.
Change up your teaching modes. One way to accelerate the journey from novice to expert (i.e., from “new recruit” to “active participant”) is to engage learners in many different modes of learning with and in your organization.
At Tapestry volunteer trainings, participants and facilitators alike are invited to draw pictures and diagrams, tell stories, reflect on compelling videos, role play, ask questions, and share food. All of it helps form new associations with what it means to be a part of Tapestry.
Don’t be afraid to use different language in different settings. I noticed that the Tapestry co-directors were very intentional about the words they chose when speaking to different individuals and groups. They might choose a religious word when speaking to me (a fellow priest), a more generally spiritual word when speaking with non-religious West Coast young adults, and a word from the youth-serving nonprofit world when interacting with the apparatuses of the foster system.
They’re also gifted at poking gentle, appropriate fun at “expert” insiders like themselves to signal to “novice” newcomers that their misgivings about religion or the foster system or working with youth are safe to raise and explore in the learning spaces Tapestry convenes.
None of this is antithetical to the co-directors’ identity as religious leaders. It’s about making that identity more understandable and relatable to people who don’t share many aspects of it.
Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Tapestry uses the Montessori-inspired approach of Godly Play to introduce their faith-adjacent group values in a story-based format. I love that they remix this religious ritual for their faith-adjacent space. And I love that the words they choose for their guiding principles—hope, presence, recreation, communion—are authentically religious ideas that “novices” can nevertheless understand and relate to on their own terms.
I hope you’ll have a listen and share with Learning Forte other ways you’ve learned to reach and teach people who are just beginning the novice-to-expert journey—especially in religious communities and the rich, ambiguous faith-adjacent settings that surround them.
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