Tap Once or Twice

I enjoyed my first trip to Asia and the opportunity to teach research design at the Myanmar Institute of Theology. I have always embraced our ABC “teaching others to fish” philosophy, but never had the opportunity to embrace it internationally until now.

Myanmar students are a beautiful and generous people. They are also insightful and passionate.

I recognize that not everyone shares my love for research, statistics, and analysis, but I have always viewed these subjects as an opportunity for ministry students to learn new techniques that can equip them to address the most compelling needs of their neighbors. The dramatically shifting cultural landscape in Myanmar proved to be a rich space for the interests and passions of the Myanmar students to surface and take shape.

Myanmar Class March 20 2013_Retouched

While the class far exceeded my expectations, I admit that it began a bit sluggishly.  I was tired from the 30 hour flight from Columbus through New York, Germany, and Singapore to get to the Yangon airport in Myanmar that included a snow delay that closed the Germany airport for six hours.  My fatigue was put in perspective when I realized that some students had traveled four days by bus to get to class over dusty, pot hole-ridden roads.  But even greater surprises awaited me in the classroom.

There I found 32 students instead of the 12 that I was expecting as all three cohort groups were invited to take the class (with one of the three groups auditing).  The challenge of the size of the group was overshadowed by perplexities of a different culture.  My life mission statement is “to find creative means of accomplishing God’s age old tasks” and it was certainly put to the test.

Though I had previously taught students of many ethnic backgrounds, I had never been completely immersed in a new culture.  My preparation confirmed that I was in a high-grid, high-group culture as opposed to the low-grid, low-group U.S. culture to which I had been accustomed, which meant that verbal responses to questions posed to the large group were delivered cautiously and intermittently.  Experimenting with various teaching techniques, I eventually found that appreciative inquiry and conversation café approaches helped students respond.  The simple practice of asking the students to “tap once or twice” proved to be an easy way to surface audible group responses in class.

One of the reasons why we thought this research approach might work in a new culture is that it is more conceptually based than theoretically or textbook based.  I strongly emphasize that the best information is gathered when one’s research methods align with one’s clarification of the problem.  What a student chooses to study should dictate how it is studied.  One of the benchmarks in the class is reached when students are able to identify suggested qualitative or quantitative methods from the verbs in various research questions.

Another benchmark is identifying whether a problem statement suggests a “discovery” approach or a “development” approach to research.  American problem statements have typically run 80/20 on the development side but the Myanmar projects carried about a 50/50 orientation which could prove to be very exciting as the students navigate new approaches to their emerging culture.

As I woke up one morning and realized that the students had truly grasped new techniques for collecting data and analyzing their ministry contexts, I was humbled to consider how these new tools might impact the many Myanmar divisions and states for Christ in the future.

While students surfaced sagas of violence and oppression during the context analysis classroom segments, it is clear that transformation is in the air. Many of their emerging project ideas are aimed at framing new cultural identities, forming strategic partnerships and networks, and forging new approaches to evangelism and discipleship.

By the end of the week, as students brought potential research questions, it was evident that each one expressed hope and confidence to make a difference in his or her place of ministry.

Gazing upon the classroom photo, I dream about the next generation of ministry students who may someday reflect upon the foundational nature of this group’s collective research efforts and discoveries.  God is truly at work in this part of the world. It is has been a privilege to teach research design to the first class of DMin students in the exchange program between our ABC Central Baptist Theological Seminary and the Myanmar Institute of Theology.

Jeff Woods