Two Theories of Learning

Two Theories of Learning

I can trace my intrigue with Christian education to one single moment. That moment was when I stumbled upon a statement by Morton Kelsey that went something like this: For Christian education to be authentic, its approaches need to be Christian also. That did it! From then on, the search began to find legitimate methodologies for an authentic Christian education.

Learning and teaching are not identical: either can occur independently of the other, and frequently does! Like when you ask “Define God’s will,” and your junior high student answers, “The document wherein the meek inherit the earth.”

Your approach to instruction will reflect in great measure your assumptions about how the human mind works, about how people learn. As Christian teachers we need to use those instructional methods that will most effectively help our learners incorporate the beliefs, values, and practices of the faith into their minds and hearts.

Part of the artistry of teaching lies in discovering those strategies most appropriate for you as a teacher, your students, and your learning goals. Instructional intent, physical environment, resources–these and many other factors enter into your decision to use a particular teaching approach. Educational research in learning theories can be of great help to us in our work of Christian teaching. Below are two instructional implications based on educational research: task analysis and meaningful learning.



Robert Gagne’, in The Conditions of Learning and Theory of Instruction, argued that different instructional methods should be used according to the demands of varied learning challenges (“A blinding flash of the obvious,” you say. Maybe, but he said it first!). He categorized distinct purposes common to educational endeavors: clarifying desired outcomes should help in the choice of effective methods. Gagne’ listed five distinct “varieties of learned capabilities.” These represent the purposes for which teachers provide instruction:

  1. To impart basic intellectual skills (“procedural knowledge”),
  2. to extend verbal information (“declarative knowledge”),
  3. to facilitate development of cognitive strategies,
  4. to develop attitudes,
  5. to enhance physical motor skills.

Simply put, from clarified objectives you, the teacher, can better select teaching strategies; if you know what you want the learner to learn, you can select the most effective method (the how ).

Cognitive learning, encompassing the first three varieties of learning in Gagne’s list, comprise a hierarchy. At the lowest level, students acquire information by processes similar to those used in classical operant conditioning. Following directions and learning the names of letters and numerals represents what Gagne’ calls “signal learning” in which specific stimuli-response associations form between the visual or aural cue and a specific behavior. Combining or “chaining” several simple actions represents the next level; the result may be either a verbal chain, linking words, or a procedural chain of sequential actions to perform. When you learned to recite the pledge of allegiance and learned to follow a set of instructions to start a car, you learned by chaining. For these simpler levels of learning, teachers find elements of behaviorism, such as drill and reinforcement techniques, appropriate.

Much school learning, and much of what we really want to see happen in Christian teaching, involves more complex demands. Students must be able to classify groups of items or facts; form concepts; deduce rules to link concepts; and apply these rules to solve problems or evaluate issues. Use of demonstration and similar elements of social learning theory prove more effective at this level, and students may begin to initiate their own strategies for achievement.



Many learning theorists often look down on instruction aimed at direct impartation of knowledge. This aversion to “telling as teaching” has empirical grounding; studies indicate material learned by rote is quickly forgotten. David Ausubel’s theory of verbal learning suggests that retention improves when material becomes meaningful to the learner. His strategy stresses the use of “advance organizers” to enhance meaning.

Advance organizers consist of information provided in advance of a lesson to help students store and retrieve learned material. This preliminary information might include definitions for concepts and terms in the lesson; analogies, anecdotes, visual devices, or generalizations to provide a framework for the detail which follows. Advance organizers facilitate both assimilation and accommodation of lesson content, both higher order cognitive levels. In Ausubel’s words:

“If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this: the most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly.”

Learning “facts” has its place in Christian education. Knowing place names, names of countries, names of Bible books, memorizing verses, (and yes, even dates!), are foundational; they are what learners need to build upon. But they become significant only when they have meaning to the learner, or help the learner in making meaning. In your teaching, advance organizers can help you teach foundational information (facts) more effectively and in a way that the learner can value.

Effective teachers incorporate significant learning principles in the artistry of their ministry. But in deciding what to teach as well as how to teach it the Christian teacher relies on a biblical and theological understanding of human personality. Empirically derived theories are appropriate as the teacher applies their constructs within an integrated philosophy of teaching.

The demands of Christian teaching never prove to be easy. Our mandates of discipleship demand the use of maximally effective methods. This is essentially the art of teaching.



SOURCES: Morton Kelsey, Can Christians Be Educated?; Robert Gagne’, The Conditions of Learning and Theory of Instruction; Julian B. Rotter. The Development and Application of Social Learning Theory ; David Ausubel, Joseph Novak, and Helen Hanesian, Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View.

Adapted from The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson),

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 Christian 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).

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