Friday, December 18, 2015

Some Thoughts On Greek Pedagogy

I was asked to share what I'm doing in my Greek classes yesterday in Lancaster, which was important because not everyone in the Bible and Theology department had been exposed to what we do in our language courses on the seminary level. We require two Hebrew and two Greek courses for our MABS and MDiv programs. What we've tried to do is build a course that doesn't postpone exegesis in the lives of our students, but fronts it in our courses. We want to give our students an exegetical method and build Greek studies around exegesis, which basically situates their learning in the context of what they are going to be doing for the rest of their lives, not around exercises (i.e., reproducing paradigms, listing off never-ending categories for the genitive, etc.) that they will never do once they finish a typical Greek course. 

Mike Heiser asked the following question about three years ago:
"What discipline in the world embraces a 90 percent failure rate and calls it a success and the right course to follow? Swimming instruction? (90 percent drown, but at least somebody’s using that skill). Explosives training? Emergency medicine? Construction engineers? Good guesses, but the answer is: seminary language training. . . . We’re trying to improve what happens in the pulpit; to fix the failure in some small way. We don’t think the strategy of trying to turn people into translators can provide evidence that it’s actually working for the mass of seminary graduates. . . . Our concern is with the great majority of *seminary graduates* who just don’t use what they were taught in their language classes. We think perhaps a tool-based approach that front-loads the payoff will work better. At the very least we could try it instead of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” 
Here at Capital Seminary and Graduate School, I believe we have tried our best to balance these two worlds. On the one hand, we want to do more than just teach people how to use a Bible software. We understand that students need a foundational understanding of the biblical languages, that's why we go through Dave Black's beginning Greek grammar. We also understand that students are preparing for ministry, and what they are learning needs to have carry over into the ministries in which they serve, sooner rather than later. And we also understand that programs of study are never meant to be exhaustive. 

The goal is use in ministry, not the recitation or regurgitation of paradigms. There is no question about that, regardless of one’s pedagogical preferences or educational philosophy when it comes to the biblical languages. The goal of Rod Decker (who is now with the Lord), to whom Mike Heiser was responding with his comments above, was always to get his students to use Greek in ministry. Mike Heiser’s goal with the Learn to Use Biblical Greek and Hebrew DVDs, the same. It's also the reason why Daniel Streett, for example, moved away from the traditional model for teaching and studying Greek and champions what's known as the living-language approach. Here's what Daniel has said:
"I think the grammar-translation method has gotten a free pass when it comes to accountability. From the G-T classes I have taken (about 8 years worth in 4-5 different institutions) the following hold true: a) Exams test rote memory of forms, vocab glosses, or entire paragraphs of 'translations,' b) Students are told almost exactly what will be on the exams so that the content is utterly predictable and requires no real understanding or comprehension of the language, merely a surface mastery of the metalanguage. c) If the student fails, it is his/her fault, not the professor’s and surely not the method itself. d) Some professors have an almost infinite capacity for self-deception when it comes to how much their students are retaining. The assumption is often, 'If I covered it in class, the students *got* it,' or 'If the student did well on the exam, he learned the material.' But, at my institution we tested students 1-2 years after they had taken Greek, and their performance on even the most basic parsings and translations was abysmal. They retained virtually nothing."
All three of those men–Rod, Mike, and Daniel–from what I can tell, have three significantly different pedagogies when it comes to teaching the biblical languages. Everyone has to ask two questions, “What is best for our students?” and “What will keep more of our students using Greek for the rest of their lives in the ministries where God places them?” That's the question. It's a shame we can't get all of the seminaries together, or at least the top ten, and do some Christian-Smith-quality research on what's going on with the biblical languages. Maybe then we could stop advocating for pedagogical preferences on the basis of what's theory, and maybe then we might be able to start adjusting and pruning language instruction for those practices that verifiably carry the biblical languages with graduates into their ministries with accuracy, effectiveness, and efficiency. That's why Con Campbell concludes his most recent book Advances in the Study of Greek with this statement on pedagogy:
"As fewer and fewer students elect to study Greek, as more institutions lessen their emphasis on languages, and as nearly all students struggle to retain what they've learned, Greek pedagogy has probably never been more important. It is essential that Greek instructors and professors everywhere consider how to teach Greek in the most effective manner possible. This may mean tweaking long-held practices. It may mean completely rethinking one's pedagogical approach. While we tend to cling to methods we know–which may be comfortable and safe–good teachers ought to be willing to adapt and change for the sake of their students. Ultimately, what is good for Greek students will be good for Greek, and good for the exegesis, teaching, and preaching of the Greek New Testament." (22)

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