Grace & Gigabytes Blog

Perspectives on leadership, learning, and technology for a time of rapid change

The way we're learning isn't working.

And conventional wisdom about learning is wasting our time.

Whether we're a student, a business professional, or a lifelong learner, we likely aren't succeeding at the type of intentional skill development that will lead to lasting impact, at school, in the workplace, or in our personal lives. Cramming for a test might make us feel as though we've mastered something. Attending an expert presentation at a conference might help us to feel more adept at a career-related skill. Even reading a book may lead us to feel more intelligent in a particular domain. These sentiments are common, but they are illusory. We feel like we are learning, but in actuality, we are wasting our time. New advances in neuroscience and psychology, the subject of "Make it Stick," reveal that true learning requires a different tact from what is commonly practiced in our schools, workplaces, and organizations.

In "Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning," Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel dispel the most pervasive "learning myths" of our time. Seeking to disprove the patently false assertions that we have come to believe, Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel tactfully deconstruct learning myths so that we might become more wiser, more skilled, more adept at the art of learning.

The book begins with a blistering attack on the notion that learning ought to be "easy." Citing numerous peer-reviewed studies alongside compelling anecdotes from real-life learners, Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel establish that all learning is effortful. Through science and story, the authors describe how most information only makes it into our short-term memory. When learning is easy, the brain doesn't encode information into longterm memory for future retrieval and application. When learning doesn't include "desirable difficulty," it is quickly forgotten. Easy learning, though desirable to some learners, is in fact not learning at all.

After deconstructing "easy" learning, Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel proceed to establish a framework for learning with "desirable difficulty," the level of challenge needed to transfer information in short-term memory to long-term intelligence. While the book introduces several strategies that are specific to schools, organizations, and life-long learners, their framework consists of three insights that scale to any learning exercise: quizzing, spacing, and reflection.

Of the three, quizzing (a.k.a. self-testing) is perhaps viewed as the least favorable in today's learning communities. Still, the authors convincingly argue that recalling information in response to a topical question is the surest way to encode information in long-term memory. While corporate trainers (myself included) tend to view quizzing at times as somewhat juvenile, the research data proves that no method is so effective at cementing skills for future application. Today's instructors have an obligation to quiz their learners and to quiz them frequently, but the authors don't leave the burden for learning with the instructor. They argue instead that learners ought to take responsibility for their own learning, committing to self-quizzing after readings, lectures, conferences, and meetings if they want time spent learning to turn to be time well-invested.

The spacing of learning material, specifically the spacing of quizzes and effortful recall activities, is also critical to crystallizing our knowledge as intelligence. When we effectively space learning materials, we repeatedly return to review important subject matter. The authors contend that learning is never a one-time event. If we want to teach a skill in a college lecture or a corporate classroom, it ought not to be a one-time event. We need to follow-up on the event with micro-learnings and quizzes so as to eliminate the "forgetting curve." Similarly, today's learner is most efficient when they study multiple subjects simultaneously, so as to "interleave" study materials. When we explore multiple topics at the same time we naturally space out our study, and we remember more of what we sought to learn. For example, if we want to teach computer programming, we would do well not to teach programming languages in bulk, but to trade-off between content areas. Rather than teaching all of HTML before teaching CSS, we would teach some HTML, then some CSS, then quiz on and learn more HTML, before returning to CSS and beginning the cycle anew.

Of the ideas in the book, I found their thoughts on reflection to be the most compelling, particularly for adult learners. Reflection is a process of elaborating on experience that asks us to remember what happened, evaluate what happened, and plan for improvement during subsequent experiences. While reflection is important to all learners, it may be especially critical to busy workplace professionals, who likely need fewer lectures and conferences and more opportunities to debrief and discuss.

The book isn't perfectly applicable to life in 2020. It avoids the subject of equity in education. If quizzes and test are so important in our schools, the authors should have suggested how to use them in a way that does not disadvantage those with less frequent access to technology or study materials. The book also describes a case study in which police learn to use lethal force to stop perpetrators, a passage that comes off as callous and upsetting after a summer of racial injustice. Future editions of the book would do well to omit this example, focusing instead on how we can learn to make our organizations more inclusive and equitable.

Still, the book offers an approachable, science-based framework for learning more effectively. Whether we are a student or someone who makes their living teaching others, we would do well to read "Make It Stick" closely and carefully. We would do even better to quiz ourself on its subject matter, read it alongside other books on learning, and reflect on how we might transfer its contents to our daily practice.

This is the latest in an ongoing series on digital marketing for church leaders - be sure to check out the companion post on advertising with Google!

In the first post, we looked at why and how church leaders should advertise on Google. But Google Ads are only one-side of the digital advertising coin. Google provides the ability to advertise to those looking for a church right here, right now.

But Facebook provides the tools to advertise to those looking for a church before they know they even know they are looking for a church! Google helps advertisers to meet the demand of customers seeking a specific product or service. That's helpful when the service you offer, whether it is facemasks or virtual school support, is growing in search interest. It's only somewhat useful to churches, where search interest has stagnated and even declined in the last five years. As a church leader, you should be advertising on Facebook because you're called to bring the Gospel story to your community even if they're not specifically looking for it.

The importance of audience-based advertising

Facebook Ads succeed because they put your message in front of users whose online interests align to the goals of an organization. They work for churches because they introduce your ministry to like-minded community members who are unfamiliar with the work of your Christian community. Within your context, there are more Facebook users interested in faith, spirituality, and social justice than there are Google searches for those specifically looking for a new church home.

Over one-third of American Millennials identify within the "spiritual but not religious" category. This audience of approximately twenty-four million Americans may not have a church home, but they believe in God, pray, and read scripture at a rate that is nearly identical to church-affiliated Christians.

The spiritual but not religious group also uses Facebook extensively (despite the rumors you might have heard, Facebook remains by far world's most popular social network). 77% of Millennials use Facebook daily. This group shares countless affinities with the work of your ministry, their spiritual practices are similar, their hunger for justice is near identical, they even share many of the core theological convictions that define your ministry. They just lack an invitation to involvement, an opportunity to hear the story of what God is up to with your ministry. That's why it's so important to combine Facebook's powerful audience-based advertising with Google's search engine marketing.

Facebook Ads share in common many of the same advertising settings as their competitor, Google Ads. There's still an opportunity to target ads to a specific community, focusing on a tight radius around your church building. There's still an ability to pay only for clicks that drive new traffic to your website. And there's still the reality of these clicks costing mere cents on the dollar, a fraction of the cost of marketing in print, within publications, or on television or radio. I suggested in my post on Google Ads that a church could generate hundreds of new site visitors for less than the cost of a pastor's mileage reimbursement. With Facebook Ads, a church could generate hundreds of visits from community members who have never heard of the congregation, for less than the cost of coffee and donuts during pre-Covid coffee hours.

Set up for success

As with Google Ads, there are some settings you'll want to get right from the start of your advertising test. I'll list a few of them here, but you'll want to consult two other resources before you activate your campaigns. First, offers an approachable and free startup guide to any church leader who is trying Facebook Ads for the first time. Facebook also offers a free online course to any first-time advertiser.

There are two settings you'll want to get right from the start. The first is your ad "copy." You don't need to be Don Draper to write good ad copy for Facebook. Just write a compelling call to action. It can be as simple as "Experience grace and restoration - join for online worship Sunday at 9!" Be clear about how, where, and when post viewers can connect with your ministry. And don't forget a high-resolution image. Image-based ads are viewed more, clicked more, and noticed more!

The second setting you'll want to get right is your ad targeting. Facebook builds its advertising campaigns around location and other audience characteristics. As with Google Ads, you'll want to set a target radius around your congregation. But don't stop there. Narrow your ads so that they display for those who have a demonstrated interest in faith and spirituality. This is done through Facebook's Detailed Targeting settings. In the following screenshot, you'll see example settings for a Madison, WI, Millennial-focused ad campaign targeting ads to those who are interested in faith, prayer, social justice, or Lutheranism.

Once you set your targeting criteria, Facebook will ask you whether you want to run the ad continuously or for a set timeframe. For most churches, I suggest running a 30-day test with a $5/day investment.

Ethics and privacy concerns

It's no secret that Facebook has been scrutinized over its handling of user data. Their business model bundles and anonymizes user data, then sells that data to advertisers in the form of ad targeting. This should raise ethical questions for the church leader. But the keywords here are bundling and anonymity. You'll never be able to target ads to specific users. You'll never even have access to data on specific users, or even on specific groups of Facebook users (want to see how Facebook characterizes your interests? Check out this page). And as a Facebook advertiser, you are not given any special access to protected information about consumers.

Still, some will question whether it is ethical to advertise on a platform that makes its money targeting ads based on user internet behavior. I would advise church leaders working through this quandary to perform a simple ethical calculation. Weigh the opportunities from bringing the Gospel message to unchurched and unheard audiences against any concerns you might have about Facebook's ad targeting. Does the good of engaging new segments of your community in God's graceful and restorative work in the world outweigh the misgivings you may have about how Facebook makes its money?

For more on the ethics of Facebook advertising, check out this blog post from Rebel Interactive.

Facebook Ads for churches during COVID

Some church leaders may hesitate to advertise on Facebook, due to the uncertainty of being a church navigating a global pandemic. While it may be true that we don't know when our buildings will reopen and when in-person gatherings will resume, we do know that 2020 has been hard on us all. We also know that social media sites have become the most contentious platforms on the web. Those using social media are wandering through a landscape defined by cancel culture, mudslinging, hyperpartisanship, and trolling. They need an oasis of grace. They need an escape to Sabbath rest and togetherness. Your ministry offers this oasis, it provides this escape, even if your worship service is held on YouTube or Zoom or Facebook Live. Your church may have left the building, but it still provides exactly what our world needs: a restorative word for a divided team, a word of healing in an era of pandemic illness, a word of rest during a year that has shocked and exhausted us all.

The world needs to hear from you. Facebook will help you get the word out. Please don't hesitate.

  • Ryan Panzer

This is the sixth post in the Training in Turbulence series, insights on developing talent amidst the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Accelerating coaching through communities of practice

In a time of crisis, a combination of microlearning and nudges will prove to be the most efficient way to teach coaching skills. But it's not enough to teach these skills. As talent developers, we must also look at how to catalyze continuous skill improvement, which can only be achieved through consistent practice.

To consistently practice coaching, we would do well to join a community of coaches, known in the talent development industry as “coaching circles." In a coaching circle, a peer group gathers on a semi-regular basis for a facilitated meetup.

A coaching circle is a “meta-coaching” exercise - a fast-paced discussion to coach about coaching. While ICF suggests an hour for such conversations, I’ve facilitated coaching circles that move the proverbial skill development needle in as little as 15 minutes. The purpose of this brief meetup is to collaboratively determine the best way to leverage coaching in highly specific circumstances.

Running a coaching circle

Each coaching circle consists of a "coaches," a "coachee," and a "facilitator."

Whether in-person, on the phone, or in an online setting, a coaching circle typically begins with one individual, the “coachee” for the day, sharing a coaching challenge. The coaching challenge could be scenario-based, such as trying to keep their team productive during a time of layoffs or trying to keep their team collaborating effectively after the departure of a key contributor. The challenge could be individual-based, such as an anonymous individual who needs to bring their productivity up to match expectations or an individual who needs to improve their presence. The “coachee” who supplies the coaching challenge describes their scenario in detail, providing contextually-relevant data and insight into their past coaching efforts. Whoever supplies the coaching challenge initiates the next step of the meetup either by explaining their ideal end-state, or what they would like to achieve from their coaching efforts.

Next begins the facilitated group discussion. Here, one member of the coaching circle takes the role of discussion facilitator. Their responsibilities are simple - keep the questions circulating, maintain privacy, and keep a record of action items. All others take the role of coaches, who are obligated not to provide advice or statements on “what I would do if I were you,” but to ask powerful coaching questions. This format has three primary benefits - first, it provides a setting in which we all can practice our coaching skills, integrating what’s working for others in our group. Second, it gives us practice at limiting the advice we offer and increasing the questions we ask. Third, it ensures that the “coachee” is empowered to determine their way forward, building their confidence, and increasing the likelihood that they will act on the next steps. The conversation adjourns whenever the coaches and “coachee” have agreed on and documented the next steps.

As an L&D employee at both Google and Zendesk, I have seen many different coaching circle formats, applications, and success stories. I’ve seen especially strong engagement in coaching circles amongst new people leaders, who are often more proactive in developing their managerial skills. To keep the conversation grounded in plausible scenarios, the coaching circles should focus on bringing together peers at approximately the same level within the org chart.

Global businesses should aspire towards cross-regional representation in a coaching circle, as this promotes global alignment and mitigates groupthink. From what I have observed, the most engaged coaching circles at the executive level tend to be gatherings of peers from several different organizations, which ensures a level of candor that may not be possible for an internal coaching circle. Just as talent developers have long-supported pairing senior leaders with external coaches, the talent developer in a time of turbulence should work to convene senior-level coaching circles that bring several organizations together.

However, we should not think of coaching circles merely as manager meetings.

Organizations that create a coaching culture will have many peer-to-peer coaching circles. A peer-to-peer coaching circle provides individual contributors with the space to develop their coaching practice, though the format may differ from that of their management counterparts. While “meta-coaching” or coaching about coaching, is a useful format for leader-level meetups, few individual contributors will have “coaching challenges” that they feel called to discuss in a group context. Talent developers should pivot these coaching circles away from “meta-coaching” and towards group coaching interactions. In an individual contributor coaching circle, members bring a workplace challenge on a rotating basis - something that is inhibiting peak performance. The talent developer facilitates a question-driven dialogue, tamping down “advice” when needed. All other participants serve as “coaches,” asking thoughtful questions to help the “coachee” discover their next steps. As a caution to L&D professionals, my experience suggests that peer-to-peer coaching circles can, at times, devolve into senseless complaining, or what my high-school physical education teacher referred to as “pity parties.” These meetups don’t need to have “supervision,” but they do need to have a trained coaching expert who can recognize and course-correct when the conversation becomes counterproductive.

Coaching circles, but faster

In a crisis-laden workplace, not everyone has a spare 15 minutes to gather for a CoP. Here are some efficient ideas for such organizations:

Training in turbulence begins with coaching. It’s the foundation upon which we build the critical capacities of critical thinking and change resilience. With certain changes on the horizon, it’s time to pull coaching from the exclusive grip of coaching practitioners (no offense to coaching practitioners). It’s time to stop imagining coaching as the exclusive domain of managers and executives. We need a revolution in talent development that ensures that 100% of our organization can achieve meaningful progress through coaching. Once established, we can turn to our second pillar of training in turbulence, our second core capacity in the recession-ready workplace: critical thinking.


Leadership developer for digital culture. Author of "Grace and Gigabytes," now available wherever books are sold.

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