Laughter and learning

This month’s reflection is from John Proctor, General Secretary of the URC, who previously taught New Testament studies at Westminster College, Cambridge.

My one musical accomplishment has been learning the descant recorder, aged ten. Yet decades later this rather modest skill came back into play, in the service of the Church. ‘You were the only person,’ said your editor, ‘who regularly used music to teach us theology.’

It was the class in New Testament Greek, in theological college at Cambridge. Language of heaven it might be, but New Testament Greek can be pretty hard going on earth, as weary cohorts of aspiring ministers have found. So the challenge of teaching it invites a blend of serious purpose and lightness of method.

Which is where the long-lost descant recorder skills came in. You can sing in Greek. I lifted the idea from the late John Dobson, a teacher of international repute, a generation ahead of me. You can arrange snatches of John’s Gospel to metrical hymn tunes. Some simple Christian songs will translate into Greek. Kum-ba-yah, for example: erchou hode, kyrie … Grammatical rules can be set to rhythms known from childhood: the subtleties of the Greek noun system go very well to ‘Ten green bottles’.

We did this for quite a few years. Did it work? Perhaps one never really knows. But when different sorts of learning aptitude are present in the class, variety has more chance than monotony of connecting with these. In language work of any kind, it can help to sound the words out, and get beyond the hieroglyphics on the page. Not least, laughter, smiling, teamwork and togetherness make a contribution. These have an anaesthetic quality; they dull the pain of difficult learning, and set people free to stretch their minds without fear.

For all of these reasons, music appeared to help. Its changes of pace, tone and mood, with the lively use of voice and even the matching movement of body, touched fresh portions of the brain and got to places that wordy explanations would never reach. My recorder skills were neither great nor recent. Yet they seemed to help a large company of people get to grips with a tricky subject, perhaps in ways that will enrich and support some of their work for decades still to come. A little music can reach a long way.