The Theory of Instruction
In Toward a Theory of Instruction, educational theorist Jerome Bruner insists that a theory of development must be linked both to a theory of knowledge and to a theory of instruction, “or be doomed to triviality.” (Bruner p. 21)
I have long felt the lack of a linkage of theory to practice is partly the reason so much of what passes for Christian education is at best benign, and that at worst, it has a tendency to trivialize faith.
Providing “interesting” learning experiences may provide enough impetus to keep people coming back to participate in church religious education for a while, but ultimately, there are more “interesting” things in the world to capture and hold our attention if entertainment is our vehicle for retaining people’s interest.
An effective Christian education program must (1) give rigorous attention to the developmental dynamics and processes of its subjects (learners), (2) hold to an epistemological philosophy of how learners learn (including an answer to the question, “how learners learn faith”), and (3) apply and practice a theory of learning related to how to teach, be it instruction, nurture, education, mentoring, etc.
Bruner suggests that mental growth “is in very considerable measure dependent on growth from the outside in—a mastering of [the ways] that are embodied in the culture and that are passed on in a contingent dialogue by agents of the culture.” (p. 21). He claims that this is the case when language and the symbolic systems of the culture are involved. Those three elements—language, symbolic systems, and culture—are foundational elements to spiritual and faith formation.
Does Bruner’s educational framework have something to say about how we go about faith development in the church? Perhaps it’s helpful to consider that while faith is a (universal) human potential, it is dependent on influences for growth from the outside in—a mastering of the ways the practices of faith are embodied in the faith community’s culture that are passed on, as Bruner says, “in a contingent dialogue by agents of the culture.” That strikes me as a more helpful and promising start at understanding how faith develops than fuzzy devotional notions, individualistic, or “magical thinking” related to how faith comes about and grows.
Further, Bruner’s statement that “much of the growth starts out by our turning around on our own traces and recoding in new forms, with the aid of adult tutors, what we have been doing or seeing, then going on to new modes of organization with the new products that have been formed by these recodings” (p. 21) suggests three things.
- First, the necessity of a core curriculum structured in a spiral or holographic framework. This allows for intentionality on creating opportunity for re-tracing and “recoding in new forms” the fundamental concepts of faith (this may be a good rationale for the power of the observance of liturgical cycles in worship and educational programming).
2. Second, it highlights the necessity of mediating relationships for growth in understanding—teachers, mentors, spiritual friends.
3. Third, the constructivist understanding of epistemology (knowing) through which the learner creates knowledge, insight, and meaning through the experiences of faith and relationships. Or, as Bruner puts it, “…the heart of the educational process consists of providing aids and dialogues for translating experience into more powerful systems of notation and ordering.” (p. 21).
- Do you have a theory of faith development that is linked to a theory of knowledge?
- Do you have a theory of learning that consistently informs your practice of teaching?
- Is your church’s Christian education program characterized by an informed integrated theory of practice for faith formation?
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. 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 & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.
His books on education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).