Helping Learners Grow As Learners

By Israel Galindo, Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning

While learning itself is a natural innate human ability, becoming a good learner is not. In whatever context of learning, whether in a graduate studies classroom, university, or a Sunday school class, effective teachers understand that part of their job is to help students become good learners. This teaching goal is important not just for university and seminary professors, it is just as important for lay religious education teachers in the church. One fundamental reason being that a mature faith is a critical faith–it can reflect critically on its own experience, beliefs, and biases. And if religious education is about anything, it is helping people grow into a mature faith.

Researcher William Perry has identified nine stages of a student’s development. He grouped these stages into four substages:

Received Knowledge
The earliest stages are characterized by either-or thinking (a dualistic taxonomy). At these stages the student will believe that there is a single answer, sees knowledge as a set of truths, and will perceive the teacher as authorities who have the “right answers.” For this student the teacher’s role is to give authoritative explanations. At this stage the student takes a dependent epistemological stance that gives preference to “received knowledge.” This student becomes uncomfortable when they are asked to think independently, draw their own conclusions, or share their own point of view. They can also feel unsure when persons they see as authorities disagree.

Subjective Knowledge
With more experience and challenge students can move on to the next stages. As learners encounter more areas of disagreement among experts and authorities, compare different interpretations, and encounter issues that have no definitive answers they are able to revise their thinking. Knowledge no longer consists of right-or-wrong but a matter of informed opinions and positions of conviction. Typical of this stage some opinions or points of view may be seen as “equally valid.”

Procedural Knowledge
If students are exposed to teachers who challenge them in critical thinking (e.g., asking for evidence to support opinions) and as students are able to distinguish strong and valid arguments from weak and inappropriate ones, they come to appreciate that knowledge is contextual and situational. In other words, what one “knows” is relative and influenced by one’s values, assumptions, prejudices, perspectives, and scope of experience. At this stage learners can accept that ambiguity is a part of life. Students at this stage can come to accept that their teachers and authorities may have expertise in certain areas, but not in everything. And they can accept a narrower role for the teacher—someone who can help them learn certain things in certain areas for certain ends.

Commitment in Relativism
In the final stage students can begin to take their own stands on issues on the basis of their own analysis. They can also appreciate that their interpretation of knowledge—their opinions and beliefs—are reflective of their values, experience, and scope of knowledge. This level manifests a type of constructed knowledge that can integrate knowledge learned personally, from others with knowledge learned from their own self-experience and self-reflection.

Can you see your own intellectual growth and development in that progression? To what degree? Was your development different? Do you have a different schema for intellectual or cognitive development as a learner?

Barbara Davis recommends these strategies for helping your learners grow as learners:

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.

His books on Christian education include The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists (S&H).
Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans and to the Digital Flipchart blog.

SOURCES: W. G. Perry, Jr. Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970. Barbara Gross Davis, Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1993.

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