How Do We Learn?

Yeah… How DO we learn. There are all sorts of talks about Learning Styles and Modes of Learning. But in the end, some sort of “philosophy” or training should be better for nurturing change in a trainee. Our Counseling Center provides Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) and that has gotten me reflecting on how we learn, how we grow, and how we change. Sadly, I have never taken a course in Education Psychology. But I have had enough training, experience, reflection, and eduction (Yes… “Eduction,” NOT “Education”) to have a few thoughts.

Learning Diamond

Think of this Diamond Diagram above as the interaction of two cycles.

Cycle 1 is the Action-Reflection Cycle. It is also the Praxis Model of Theological Contextualization or Development. It is further the process of Pastoral Theology. rutted-road

We like to say that experience is the best teacher. That may be true, but we are not always the best learners. Often, we act without reflection, falling into the same decisions and actions like a vehicle may get stuck in the deep ruts of an old dirt road. With and after action should be thoughtful reflection. This should be done personally, meditatively, and intentionally. However, it is also aided by being doing with peers and mentor. However, this reflective activity should then guide action. The process is cyclic or, better, helical, as one learns and changes over time.

Cycle 2 is the Didactic-Eductive Cycle. The term “Didactic” has many meanings and eod0hnuances. However, it generally involves teaching via imparting knowledge to the trainee from the instructor. The term Eductive, or Eduction is a term promoted by Seward Hiltner. In my Navy days we used eductor pumps to get water out of flooded areas of the ship. The eductor pump has no moving parts and utilizes no electricity, flame, or fuel (at least directly). Water is sent through a firehose at high speed and through the “pump” that is settled in the flooded area. The low pressure, utilizing Bernoulli’s Principle and proper nozzle design, causes water to be sucked into that stream and out of the space.  Eduction then is to draw out. We already know a great deal of things… but that knowledge must be drawn out of us. Eductive learning is common in Rogerian, “client-centered,” counseling, as well as Pastoral counseling. At the same time, one cannot draw out what isn’t there in the first place. Therefore, some input, didactic training is needed as well. However, people commonly don’t change by simply given outside information. Truth needs to also come from inside to be valued and utilized. Ideally, a cycle of input and drawing out can lead to growth and change.

Bringing these two cycles together is especially valuable, and both can lead to consider change and growth. CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) seeks to bring these two cycles together. Good mentoring should as well. The LePSAS method of training (Utilized by Community Health Evangelism/Education (CHE)) also seeks to bring the two cycles together.

In ministry and missions, we seek growth and positive change… so bringing these two cycles together should be valuable to all of us. That means:

  • Trainees (disciples) should be involved in ministry/activities. Don’t fall into the trap of “train them now to minister later.” Training is best done in concert with action.
  • Trainees should not just be doers. The action needs time for reflection, incorporation, and change. Of course to do this means to allow the trainees to diverge from established activity patterns. Reflection that cannot be acted upon is demotivating.
  • Trainees need to be taught. “Throw the child in the water to see if he will sink or swim” may work for some. I have heard on the Internet how an eagle will push its young out of the nest when it is time for it to fly. But that story is false– and appears to express more about the instructor than about what works. Most people need some guidance… some instruction.
  • Trainees need to be helped to learn what they already know. Education should not be paternalistic— assuming that the trainer has all knowledge, and the trainee has only ignorance and misinformation. The trainees are full of valuable trainings, experiences, and reflections that are not synthesized/integrated. In some cases they are nearly forgotten. The trainer can help them draw these out and get them integrated with action, reflection, and new learning.


Three Metaphors for Living

I had to write a Theological Integration paper for my Clinically Trained Minister certification for CPSP a couple of years ago. Looking back at it, I thought I would grab a section of it that spoke of metaphors for life and ministry. It is here below:

Three metaphors for theology are important to me at this time. One is abstract, One is practical. One is personal.

The abstract metaphor is a Bridge. To me, theology bridges the gap between unchanging revelation and the changeable now. Part of the changeable now is me. Sound and effective theology, then, depends on understanding myself well. Since I change and culture changes, theology changes as well… but limited by revelation (like a strange attractor in Chaos Theory). Additionally, Christ provides a bridge from the holiness of God to the imperfections that are part of me in the now.

The practical metaphor is a Path. To me, life is a path… a path of walking with God. Adam and Eve, Enoch were described to walk with God, and writers such as Micah (Micah 6:8) and other passages describe life’s journey as walking with God. Jesus, additionally, described choices in terms of a narrow or wide path. To me this describes several things in a powerful way. Relationship with God is relational (Amos 3:3). It also suggests that life finds meaning in the journey more than the destination. Further, the Christian life finds relevance, in part, in the diverse terrains, diverse challenges, the diverse relationships that come along the way. Finally, change is good. One should change and grow… the Christian life is not a place, a position, but a path.

The personal metaphor is a Tapestry. My life is made up of stories. One can view each story as a thread. There is the story of “Bob the successful” and there is the story of “Bob the failure.” There is “Bob the Hero” and “Bob the Coward.” These different stories all interrelate to each other and to the stories of others. Additionally, all these different story threads interrelate with the grand narrative of God. This interweaving creates a tapestry. As any tapestry has a pattern to it… so does the tapestry of my life. However, because I am too close to it, I am unable to see that pattern. However, I know that there are threads that are important… story threads that must be strengthened, and thickened. There are other story threads and interconnections that should be thinned or even removed.

So where is God in all of this? In the bridge metaphor… God is my foundation… my stability… the one who can be relied upon as everything else changes. In the path metaphor… God is the trailblazer… my guide… the one who knows the way I should go. In the tapestry metaphor… God is the master weaver… the one who brings everything together… making all things beautiful in His time… even if that beauty is obscured by my own perspective.

Looking at these three metaphors… there is a common theme to all of them. The theme is “Connectedness.” A bridge connects two things that are separated. A path connects a starting place with a finishing place. A tapestry is the interweaving or interconnectedness of different discrete elements, creating something new and, often, beautiful. Sin, in its essence, is disconnected… selfishness that causes not only separation with God… but with others… and even within ourselves. The fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace… etc.) are characteristics that typically lead to relationship… to connectedness.

Out of Madness

One of my several unpaid jobs is registrar for a certifying/accrediting organization for Clinical Pastoral Education. Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) or sometimes called Clinical Pastoral Training (CPT) grew, largely, out of the experiences and work of theologian, Anton Boisen, 1876-1965.

Anton Boisen, (ca 1900) Shortly after first psychotic break

(Side thought: Boisen lived to to be almost 89. Looking at other great Christian theologians of the 20th century, most  (unless killed by violence or misadventure) appear to live well beyond normal life expectancy for their time and demographics. Does that mean that theology is good for one’s health? Or does it mean that one can become considered a great theologian if one is able to outlive others?)

Anton Boisen had several psychotic breaks (five I believe) during his lifetime, requiring him to be institutionalized for periods of time. He came to the conclusion that sometimes, particularly if not due to an organic cause, a psychotic break is due to a “problem of the soul.” As such, it may have a religious cause, and a potential religious cure. Now to some this may appear to be… to choose a technical term… gobbledygook. But if you think about it, it actually holds merit.

Religious concerns are tied to issues of:

  • Ethics
  • Meaning
  • Belongingness

Is it possible that some psychotic breaks could the mind’s way of addressing issues of ethics (Is my actions and beliefs consistent or in conflict? Am I, essentially, a good person or an evil person?), meaning (Do I have value as an individual? Does life (or more specifically, my life) have meaning? Am I living the life I am supposed to live, or have I taken a wrong turn?), and belongingness (Am I a loyal child of God? Is God someone I can trust? Do I have a healthy role in church/family/God’s kingdom? Is their ultimate hope?)? If these issues (existential doubts and otherwise) are left undealt with, could a breakdown occur? And if so, is drugs and quarantine the best solution?

Boisen brought in theology students to the hospitals, especially mental hospitals, to learn Clinical (“bedside”) Pastoral Care. .The skills there, and the training process associated with this program have been found useful in a broad range of locations beyond hospitals, mental hospitals, and hospices, including jails, parishes, and communities.

I don’t know about you, but reading Zechariah and Ezekiel, it is not hard to wonder if they were mad. Perhaps the same could be said of John the Baptist. Frankly, if they were mad… would that negate their message, or can God use the illness?. Of course, even if they were 100% certified mentally competent, some of their actions could be seen by outsiders as demonstration of mental illness— and then discounted.

And that’s a shame, I suppose. Mental illness may not have the stigma it used to. People do not think of the mentally ill in terms of rubber rooms and straightjackets anymore (or do they?). The big problem is that the label of mental illness often stigmatizes the individual, sometimes for life, and tends to negate their insights. Dr. Cabot, a medical partner of Boisen, cut ties with him after a psychotic break. Understandable, I am sure… but a sad mistake none the less.

I have never been diagnosed with mental illness. I doubt I drift far enough away from the middle of the Gaussian plot, yet, to be so labelled. As a melancholic I do have depressive periods of my life, but I doubt severe or long enough to meet criteria for the DSM-V (for various forms of depressive episodes or disorders). However, I have also utilized a bit of “Boisenian” logic when I have been down. When I am going through a depressive period, I take time to reflect. I consider whether it was triggered due to a disconnect. I know I should be doing A, but am doing B. I have found such reflection quite useful, frankly.

Three quick thoughts:

  • The mentally ill need God’s love. In fact, sometimes the recognition of the meaning and belongingness before God is the start of their “cure of soul.”
  •  Genius may come from, or be confused with, madness. This is not surprising since both genius and mental illness are defined first of all by their distance from the “normal.” Sometimes, the truth is found in the “voice crying in the wilderness.”
  • Mental illness should not be stigmatized. In fact, as in the case of Boisen, the process of psychotic breaks gave him a perspective that helped him serve God more effectively.