Over this past term I have been back as a student studying a course in academic practice and it is odd to be on the other side of the classroom. Professionally it is an opportunity to develop further knowledge about teaching practices and strategies. The class encourages its participants to reflect on their own teaching in light of good practice and pedagogical insights.  Personally, however, I’ve found it fascinating to see the links between education, theology, and theological education.

One such link stems from the question “what is the purpose of higher education?” Perhaps, the obvious answer is to grow in knowledge, but the obvious answer is not always the best one! In our seminar we were thought about education as ‘inspiring individuals to develop . . . to the highest potential’ and ‘to help build a fairer, more just society.’ This immediately takes us beyond education as simply learning information to education as personally formational and socially constructive. It also brings us closer to the purposes of theology – a transformative personal encounter with God who engages us in His on-going re-construction of creation.

Underneath this approach to education is a shift from education as knowledge transfer to education as conceptual change. In an extended quote from Biggs, he observes that ‘learning is a way of interacting with the world. As we learn, our conceptions of phenomena change, and we see the world differently. The acquisition of information in itself does not bring about such a change, but the way we structure that information and think with it does. Thus, education is about conceptual change, not just the acquisition of information.’[1] Biggs encourages educators to consider “learning activities” as the key teaching process i.e. it is not just a transfer of information but it is student participation in the activity of learning which is transformational. Pedagogically there has been an evolution in the education process from a didactic transfer of information between teacher and student (e.g. where the student learns by rote) to a constructivist approach where knowledge is created by the student and therefore takes root within their consciousness.[2] Students develop as critical thinkers and problem solvers with curious minds and with the ability to see how knowledge connects with their context. Educationally this puts the emphasis on student development rather than on the outcomes of performing under test conditions. The real measure of good education is the transformation that a student undergoes rather than on how well they can replicate the knowledge transfer in an exam. The former brings long-term personal change rather than the latter’s short-term memory games.

In the first instance, I wonder if this approach to education can be helpful when we think about church practices. Many church leaders want to know how they can help their congregations be more engaged in church services. Building upon education as engagement in learning activities not just the acquisition of information, it challenges churches to consider the active learning that takes place when they gather. In particular, sermons often treat the transfer of information as learning by rote. Yet, I suspect the reality is that we struggle to recall many sermons a week later never mind attribute them with significant personal transformation. Instead, the formative effect of life in community seems to be more effective.  We create knowledge when we learn from one another and seek answers to the questions that resonate most with our own context. The time spent reflecting upon the activity of communion or the times of hospitality when we break down barriers between one another are often more transformational than our sermons.

Second, it has been interesting to connect the change in pedagogy in higher education with Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire weaved together the disciplines of education and theology when he developed his liberation pedagogy. Taking his lead from the biblical emphasis on liberation in stories such as the Israelite exodus or the cross of Christ freeing humanity from sin, Freire sets out to show how education can be a tool of liberation. He makes a sobering assessment of the simple transfer of information or what he terms “the banking concept of education.”[3] For Freire, the idea that education merely fills the student with knowledge, as if an empty vessel, is dehumanizing and oppressive. This sort of learning merely inscribes the ideas of the powerful onto the powerless. Freire writes that ‘those truly committed to liberation must reject the banking concept in its entirety’[4] and instead replace it with a process of conscientiazation which is by way of ‘reflection and action.’[5] In short, Freire advocates for a type of personal and social transformation through shifting education away from a simple transfer of information to a process where students are ‘critical co-investigators in dialogue.’[6]  As well as challenging our church practice, considering pedagogy should cause us to reflect upon the structures of society and ask how we can create fairer and more just societies.

For both these reasons, there is great value to a renewed approach to theological education. As Migliore says, salvation is not a question of ignorance: ‘in the Bible people do not ask, “What must I know?” but “Who must I be and what must I do to be saved?”’[7] If we think education is simply the transfer of information – both in theological education and in churches – then we face reducing our most fundamental questions of salvation to “what must I know?” Instead, just as good education should not lead to a performance-based memory test, neither should theology be about how much information we accumulate. In the same way that good education is a measure of transformation and development, theology and the Christian faith also value transformation and growth through discipleship. We do a disservice when we arbitrarily split the academic from the practical, thinking that one is about the transfer of knowledge and the other about living a transformed life. Rather theological education should be the transformational process of personally encountering God in a community of learning and engaging in His on-going reconstruction of a fairer and more just world.  

These thoughts are not necessarily the views of the College, but hopefully a way to provoke deeper thought. Please feel free to engage in helpful dialogue with me using graham.meiklejohn@uws.ac.uk or through social media if that’s where you see it!

[1] John Biggs, “What the Student Does: teaching for enhanced learning.” Higher Education Research and Development, 1999.

[2] Denise Kay and Jonathan Kibble, “Learning theories 101: application to everyday teaching and scholarship.” Advances in Physiology Education, 2016.

[3] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 45.

[4] Freire, Pedagogy, 52.

[5] Freire, Pedagogy, 41.

[6] Freire, Pedagogy, 54.

[7] Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 23.