Conceptions of learning in the preacher's progress

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Conceptions of learning in the preacher's progress
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  EHS Conference October 20031 Geoffrey Stevenson Conceptions of learning in the preacher's progress Paper for Evangelical Homiletics Society October, 2003 Geoffrey StevensonCentre for Christian CommunicationSt John's CollegeDurham, England  EHS Conference October 2003 Geoffrey Stevenson Conceptions of learning in the preacher's progress Whatever skills the preacher possesses, however extensive the preacher’s education,the ultimate validation of the enterprise remains with God. As Haddon Robinson put it, The proper response to biblical preaching does not lie in pronouncing the pastor a skilled communicator but rather in determining whether God has spoken and whether or not He will be trusted and obeyed. We try to teach – or at least put students into the way of learning – with an essentialdifficulty. Mike Booker at Ridley Hall, Cambridge:  Here we are with a semi-academic purpose sitting in on a genuine act of someonetrying to communicate the love of God to the lives of people in the church. So I am more than well aware of the dangers of rationalistic analysis and reductionism,and of focussing on human enterprise which can never box in, channel or guarantee todeliver the grace of God. None of what I say should be taken to foreclose the possible,indeed necessary action of God in breathing on a sermon as it is preached, and creatinglife from bare bones.In this paper I will consider some insights into the teaching of preaching that may begained from a review of some approaches to adult and higher education in the US andthe UK, focussing on cognitive development, learning styles and strategies, multipleintelligences, mentoring and coaching, and peer group learning, and drawing from arange of research literature in the field of education. These insights will be illustrated,if not validated, by references to student perceptions and tutor observations, derivedfrom interviews with Methodist and Anglican students in full-time training in England,as well as structured conversations with teachers of preaching in the UK and the US.Finally I want to make recommendations and suggest changes to enhance and improvethe way preaching is taught in our seminaries and in-service. Conceptions of Learning  Initially I approached the process of learning to preach with a basic conceptualframework of learning, suggesting that learning can be accumulative or transformative.To accumulate knowledge , be it a database of facts or increasingly sophisticatedconceptual understandings, passes for learning in many fields, and is the model of learning for many graduates of our education systems. To be transformed in the waythe self is viewed in relation to the world and to God points to a different, and deeper kind of learning.Preaching – on the human side - involves the practical application of what has beenlearned (about preaching), in an effort to exhort, persuade and to transmitunderstanding that has been acquired through knowledge, experience and personaltransformation, set in a complex of behavioural activity (mental/ physical/communication / relational). It is difficult to see it as involving an accumulative conception of learning except in a minor way. Very few students interviewed valuedan increase in knowledge that is recalled and regurgitated at some future date ascontributing to preaching ability, though at its most positive perhaps it was expressed: Yes, the scope of knowledge now is so huge and wide and diverse compared towhat I knew before I came here, I was blinkered and had a very narrow view of the church and knew very little church history. …I can bring in a lot of tools intomy preaching which weren’t there 2_ years ago, I’ve been given a huge tool kit. i  EHS Conference October 2003 Geoffrey Stevenson However a transformative   conception of learning seems to apply (a little) moreaccurately. Derivation of personal meaning, seeing things differently, and changing asa person are all experiences that arise out of the process of learning to preach for theseinterviewees…  I’m much freer now than I was 3_-4 years ago and part of that freedom isconfidence as well. …suddenly it was one of those occasions when the message came together, thespirit seems to move and the whole sermon came together. The sermon was perhaps one of the best that I’ve preached although it was still fairly early on, Ifeel it was presented well and it was received well and it made a difference, and people were ministered to through it, that was the defining moment in terms of mycall to preach, as well as learning to preach.Bloom’s taxonomy of learning, ranged hierarchically into cognitive, affective and psycho-motor skills, seems deficient as a model for theological education in generaland preaching in particular. The relationship of cognition to application is brought out by Kenneth Gangel (Gangel, 1997) but still the preacher would say s/he has learnedmore and in different ways.The more nuanced progressive list of categories of conceptions of learning (Marton, etal., 1993), i.e.A.   Increasing one's knowledgeB.   Memorising and reproducingC.   ApplyingD.   UnderstandingE.   See something in a different wayF.   Changing as a persondoes not capture the dynamic of living in and with a sermon, of delivering it yet seeingit changing (though the words remain as planned) the listeners who are dynamicallyinvolved in the communication act.A refinement of the hierarchical approach is to ask ‘what is the dominant or  coreconception ?’ The core conception seems to be something of a dialectic revolvingaround Application arising out of  Understanding . The understanding is gainedthrough observation of examples, mediated by intuition and critique. This then leads toincreasingly successful application, in turn increasing the understanding. Not surprisingly the experienced  preachers pointed repeatedly to the importance of  learning through doing , through experience, through testing theory in practice, andthrough reflecting on practice. We begin to see here of course the near universal cycleof human learning that has been developed in a number of different but complementarymodels. Cognitive Styles and Learning Cycles There is a large body of literature where the fields of psychology and educationoverlap that attempt to analyse individual learning patterns and to discern discrete andobjective if not quantifiable learning aptitudes. These aptitudes are seen as relating tocognitive styles, or the different ways individuals organise and process mental phenomena. Certainly early psychological study, from the 1880’s onwards, began totake note that some people have a predominately verbal way of representinginformation in thought while others are more visual or imaginal (sic). (Riding andRayner, 2000)  EHS Conference October 2003 Geoffrey Stevenson Thus Riding and Rayner present four learning style constructs based on two polar modalities: analytic - wholist and verbaliser - imager. Setting linear gradations of theseout on 2 axes, gives four base cognitive styles: analytic/verbaliser, analytic/imager,wholist/verbaliser, and wholist/imager. Individual variations within each quadrant canalso be accounted for, to a greater or lesser degree.Honey and Mumford, in their 1982 work, revised and updated in 1992 (Honey andMumford, 1992) describe a learning cycle for individuals based on David Kolb’s work on Experiential Learning. Learning is a continuous process that moves from having anexperience, to reviewing the experience, to concluding from the experience, to planning the next steps, and moves like a spiral into the next cycle of experience,review, concluding, planning. Each cycle feeds into the next, and the learner can enter at any stage. One important insight is that no stage is fully effective on its own as alearning procedure.They postulate learning types that respond more or less favourably to each stage. Theseare: Activist , Reflector , Theorist , and Pragmatist . Their Learning StylesQuestionnaire is in circulation widely in the literature on educational theory, and can be found easily on the Internet, not least of all at Peter Honey’s own website:http://www.peterhoney.com.Similar to this construct, and beginning to influence a generation of Christian educatorsis Marlene LeFever’s  Learning Styles (LeFever, 1998). She also refers to David Kolb, but draws particularly on the work of Bernice McCarthy and her 4MAT system(McCarthy, 1987) McCarthy bases her learning aptitudes and teaching styles on atheory of brain hemispheres- a sophisticated development of the left brain – right brainschema of popular psychology. LeFever’s four basic learning styles also relate, as inthe work of Honey and Mumford, to four stages of a natural learning cycle. This cycleis described as: situated experience, conceptual analysis, rational testing of theory, and planning to implement and develop theory. The aptitudes or learning styles of thosewho fit most comfortably into each particular stage (but who will neverthelessexperience all stages as part of their learning), are described, respectively, as Imaginative , Analytic , Common Sense , and Dynamic .Let’s describe these and reflect on what they might mean for the student preacher.The Imaginative learner , who relates most immediately to the learning stagedescribed as “situated experience”, will be characterised by a stance towards preachingin which they ask, “Why do I need this?” They want to work from their experience of  preaching and the perceived need for it. Their prior knowledge and experience of  preaching must be valued by the tutor to engage them most effectively.The Analytic Learner will be happiest at the learning stage marked by conceptualanalysis. Most important and empowering for them is acquiring knowledge anddeveloping concepts that answer the question, “what do I need to know in order to preach?” The theology of preaching, theories of communication and rhetoric, what theBible and the pre-eminent preachers of the Church have to say about preaching, willmean the most to them.The Common Sense Learner asks, “How does it actually work? Let’s try it, let’s seeif these theories are rational and workable.” They want to test what they are learning inthe real world, the sooner the better. Vast schematisations, hours of class time onsystematics, exegesis and the wisdom of the Fathers will wither on the vine if not picked, as it were, if they are not given the opportunity to apply some of what theyknow and preach it.  EHS Conference October 2003 Geoffrey Stevenson The Dynamic Learner wants to know, “What can this become?” This learner has a practical side, but can also be extremely creative. He / she needs to take the theory andknowledge into the real world and imaginatively expand it, to see what they can add toit, to develop it, perhaps to teach it to others. They already anticipate the next stages of situated experience and conceptual analysis and are impatient to move on. The drive toradical experimentation and creative brilliance carries with it the danger, in homiletics,that the basics are not fully covered. This can result in communication failures,inadequate attention to the text, failure to synthesize and learn from experience.LeFever’s Learning Styles theory is further nuanced by the recognition of modalities of information / experience processing: auditory,   visual, and tactile / kinaesthetic .Applying these three to each of the four learning styles then gives her twelveapproaches to teaching any one subject. Her examples are inspiring – it is not hard tosee the value for students of all ages in working with pictures, shapes in cardboard, pieces of clay, or even movement – though the mind boggles at the challenge this givesto the overworked practitioner planning lessons with limited time and stretchedresources.Perhaps a degree of scepticism is in order here – Gregory Yates of University of SouthAustralia writes “People do not clearly fit into categories that accurately predict their  behaviour across diverse situations” (Yates in Riding and Rayner, 2000)He asks whether we can justifiably create instructional programmes that somehowmatch cognitive style characteristics. This is to miss the points made by LearningStyles advocates, who use the fundamental learning cycle to argue for the provision of different kinds of learning experience in order that all  students may benefit, whatever their preferred style at that time in their lives (or time of day).The application to homiletics, while not profound, could nevertheless be mildlyrevolutionary for many of our training institutions. The predominance of a single style of teaching – whether it be by examining preached sermons, inculcating theory andtheology by means of the lecture, creating and delivering sermons, assessing andgiving feedback on practice – will be to the detriment of the course and willdisadvantage those students who do not by nature respond to a single method if that isall that is employed by the tutor. Multiple Intelligences Running alongside this in the world of educational psychology is Howard Gardner’stheory of Multiple Intelligences. This is particularly well represented by ThomasArmstrong in his  Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom (Armstrong, 2000). There areeight intelligences that Gardner eventually refined and distilled from his 1982 work   Frames of Mind  : Linguistic, Logical- Mathematical, Spatial, Bodily – Kinaesthetic,Musical, Interpersonal (understanding others), Intrapersonal (understanding oneself),and Naturalist. (The last is a late entry, not very convincing to me, but that may well be because, as my wife will testify, I am particularly deficient in that intelligence.)Though later critics have suggested that talents would be a better term, and attempt toundercut the presumed objective reality of these cognitive/behavioural complexes,Gardner has worked to demonstrate that each has a different underlying cognitive process, and can even be associated with particular areas of the brain.On any reasonably close reading of the theories, preaching clearly draws most particularly on the linguistic intelligence , described as the capacity to use wordseffectively, whether orally or in writing. Such intelligence is marked by semanticunderstanding of how words carry meaning, as well as structural understanding of 
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