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David J. A. Clines, a native of Australia who lives and works in England, is the first president of the Society of Biblical Literature from outside of North America. His presidential address to the annual meeting, held this year in New Orleans, was something of a surprise.

Clines, a prolific author and publisher who spent his entire career in the Bible studies department of the University of Sheffield, entitled his address “Learning, Teaching, and Researching Biblical Studies, Today and Tomorrow.”

One might have expected a stuffy sort of speech regarding the need for greater academic rigor. Instead, Clines devoted 45 minutes to a promotion of student centered learning, an intuitive, constructivist method that tries to move beyond the idea of a professor imparting knowledge to one in which the teacher helps students learn and construct knowledge for themselves. Citing Plutarch, from On Learning, he said “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”

For many years, Clines said, he relied on dog-eared and constantly updated lecture notes designed to impart the latest developments in biblical knowledge. But there came a day when “I realized that I needed to stop teaching biblical studies and start teaching students.”

Clines said professors should resolve not to teach students anything they can forget, focusing on imparting skills rather than knowledge. This, he added, requires sensitivity to different learning styles.

I could belabor more of Clines’ 20 (count ’em, 20) points of emphasis (his lecture was not an example of student centered learning), but I’ll add just one more.

Professors should teach their students to think like a critical scholar he said, meaning that they should be able to approach a subject from the standpoint of critical distance, be respectful of rationality while remaining open to the subjective, be scrupulous about evidenced-based argumentation, and be committed to fairness and courtesy.

This was not the first time I’ve heard someone appeal to the need for more student centered learning, but it was the first time I’ve heard it in such a setting, with a thousand or more biblical scholars listening in.

Teaching students, rather than subjects. Now there’s a thought worth considerably more thinking.

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