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Fostering Participation in the Adult Learning Process

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The purpose of this section is to outline the basic nature of the problem at hand, the purpose for the paper and the method used throughout the paper to deal with the problems and questions being addressed.

Survey of the Problem

How does one interested in educating adults foster participation on behalf of the adults in the learning process? What kind of relationship should the teacher develop with his/her students in order to stimulate learning among the students? Thompson, in his article entitled Research Summaries, surveys three basic areas in relation to this question. He discusses:

    1. Teacher/learner relationships;

    2. Curriculum design; and

    3. Interactive methodologies.

This paper will focus on one of these, namely, teacher/learner relationships and analyze it from the perspective of an evangelical anthropology.1

Purpose of the Paper

The purpose of this paper is threefold: 1) to present, in brief, an evangelical statement on anthropology; 2) to clearly state three points of view on the relationship of teacher to student in the adult learning process (i.e. as outlined and summarized by J. Allen Thompson) and 3) to interact with the theories of teacher to student relationships in the light of an evangelical anthropology.

Method of the Paper

The paper will first seek to present an evangelical anthropology, describing man as revealed in the Scripture. Then, having established the nature of man from a biblical point of view, the teacher/student theories will be defined and interacted with on the basis of our anthropology.

The Nature of an
Evangelical Anthropology

The purpose of this section is to explain, from a scriptural point of view, who and what man is. First, a brief comment will be offered as to the Scripture as the authority for defining the nature of man. Then the nature of man will be discussed, including his material and immaterial aspects.

Scripture is the Authority

It goes without saying, at least as far as we are concerned as evangelicals, that we live in a time in which there exists more confusion on the nature of man, his origin and purpose than perhaps at any other time in history. Others in the education community may think that the mystery of man is being unraveled with each new scientific study, but as evangelicals committed to the authority of Scripture, we affirm that ultimate truth about the important things concerning man (i.e. life, death, eternal life, etc.) resides in Scripture and cannot be apprehended apart from it. Therefore, we must go to the Scripture to mine what it says about man in order to best understand him and interact with theories about doing education.

The Nature of Man

The purpose of the following section is to describe the nature of man from a biblical perspective.

    Complex Material

Both the Scripture and scientific study have corroborated the fact that man is a complex material creation. The Bible says that God "formed" or "molded" (Heb. rxy) man "from the dust of the earth" (Gen 2:7a). Research in anatomy and biochemistry have revealed that what took place in Genesis 2:7 produced a highly sophisticated, complex physical being. Physically, man is composed of all the essential elements found in the earth: Carbon, Hydrogen, Sulphur, Phosphorus, etc. arranged in a highly technical way.

    Complex Immaterial

Man is a highly complex material being, but he is also a highly complex immaterial2 being as well. The Bible says that he was created (arb & hc[) in the image (mlx) of God (Gen 1:26, 27) and that God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life (Gen 2:7b). The following is a brief statement on the meaning of "image" and what happened to the image when man fell into sin.3

    Made in the Image of God

The image of God is difficult to define since scripture does not explicitly do so (cf. Gen 1:26). We believe it involves certain things such as: 1) dominion over the earth; 2) man's make-up as bearing divine glory (i.e. righteousness and holiness [Ps. 8:6; Eph. 4:22-25]; knowledge [Col. 3:9, 10]); 3) mind, emotions and will and 4) immortality (Jn. 5:28; Rev. 20:10).4

    As a Fallen Being

The fall of man had drastic effects upon his relationship to God and the world around him. He was separated from God (cf. Rom 5:10) relationally and alienated from his fellow man. In the final analysis it could be said that his nature was effaced, but not erased. He still shows forth the marks of one created in God's image (he reasons, emotes, decides and rules, albeit in a sinful way), but his will is tied inextricably to his fallen nature and is bent on evil (Rom. 1:18). Let us turn now to see how a scriptural anthropology might be brought to bear upon the theories of adult education.

The Roles of Teachers/Learners
in the Adult Learning Process and
Their Relation to an Evangelical Anthropology

The purpose of the following section is to briefly define three models for teacher/student relationships (as part of the total picture in fostering participation in adult learning) and then critique them using a biblical anthropology. First, the institutional mode will be considered, then the shared membership mode and finally the learner-centered mode.

The Institutional Mode and an Evangelical Anthropology

    Brief Definition

According to Thompson, this model focuses on content, with the teacher at the center of the process—probably much as a dispenser of information. This is akin to what one would find in a institution—i.e. D.T.S. to some degree. The student is somewhat dependent, but need not be passive.

    Interaction Between Institutional Mode and Anthropology

The teacher assumes the central, directive role in the process. Since we learn by example this can be positive. Also, since this type of education is highly cognitive, one needs an instructor more versed in the field of inquiry in order to be guided along properly (cf. the model of 2 Tim. 2:2; Phil. 3:9). The teacher can provide accountability, motivation, feedback which in light of the students sin nature is a check against laziness and procrastination.

However, since we are fallen by nature we need to be careful of a few things. First, lording it over students; that is, teachers demanding things of them that they themselves are not willing to do. This is really the design to rule and have dominion (as God made us to do over His creation) taken to a sinful end. We were designed to lead others to God, not Lord it over them as god (cf. Matt 20:25-28).

Second, students need to be aware of having an inordinate or antagonistic relationship to the professor or teacher. What we mean is this: Be careful of either worshipping the ground the professor walks on because of his/her knowledge or demonstrating disrespect before the professor for whatever reason (i.e. personality, mannerisms, methods, etc.).

Third, the role of students should never be passive since God has made all of us with a will. There are degrees of activity, but passivity is never an educational ideal. The commands in the N.T. presuppose a will and call for education to be an action oriented process.

Fourth, one of the problems in content-centered learning is the problem of divorcing the material from life and its usefulness there. Because of our fallen nature it is, at one level, much easier to learn something in our head rather than trying to learn it and live it. When one is studying the Bible this way, one is, according to the Bible's own admission, missing the mark. We need to be careful on this one at D.T.S. We need to learn to convert theological abstraction into concrete realities.

The Shared Membership Mode and Anthropology

    Brief Definition

The shared membership mode "places the responsibility for the learning process on the group through a collaborative relationship with the teacher." The role of the teacher in this model, according to Blaney, is critical because she/he is also a facilitator and resource person. The teacher must really listen to the student and treat them as equals with valuable experiences to bring to the task of learning.

    Interaction Between Shared Membership Mode and Anthropology

There are many positive benefits that come to through this model. First, as sinners we tend not to get along with others very well. We do not listen very well or affirm others very well. This is all a result of the fall. Therefore, an educational program, especially a Christian program, must work with this in view. The shared membership model develops our abilities to work with others in a group context, to learn to appreciate their contribution. The content-centered individualistic approach neglects this important truth.

Second, there is the benefit of a community hermeneutic. We are fallen people and do not know all there is to know and the things we do know, we can know better, through interaction with others. Interacting with others helps to protect us from bias and erroneous conclusions; something we do very well as sinners .

Third, we all experience a great loneliness as a result of sin . We have been alienated from God and others. As a result we can often lose motivation to go on learning and growing. The shared membership model puts an individual learner in the context of other people so that he/she may be encouraged to continue to really learn. We need encouragement and this model offers it.

Fourth, this model forces the teacher to be a learner and not just a dispenser of information. Because of our fallen nature we tend not to want to work, and once we have reached a certain level of knowledge to just quit learning and simply dispense information. As Dr. Hendricks has said, "a teacher is a learner in the midst of learners." If an individual really wants to provide an atmosphere of growth and freedom to explore, he needs to be that kind of person himself. He cannot be tired of learning.

Fifth, this model realizes that a learner does not come as a blank slate to the task of learning. Because of sin we carry all sorts of fears, needs problems and pains. The content-centered model does not deal with this adequately because it does not have the personal focus. In the context of a group committed to learning a person can overcome problems and go on to grow and mature. There is another side to this coin as well and that is the fact that we come to the group as divine image bearers. Because we are made in the image of God we have something to contribute. The content-centered model may not take advantage of this as much as the shared membership model.

A few potential weaknesses need to be discussed at this time as well. First, the group facilitator needs to make sure that everyone is learning and that no one is going along for the free ride. As sinners, we are often trying to get something when we have not worked for it. The teacher needs to watch for this.

Second, some learners tend to be quite in a group context out of fear. The leader/teacher needs to be a facilitator in encouraging those kinds of people to participate in the learning process. Sin has made us incredibly ashamed of what and who we are. This can paralyze people. Again, it is one of the primary functions of the teacher to deal with these kinds of situations.

The third and final critique of this model has to do with the facilitator. "According to Knowles 'the behavior of the teacher probably influences the character of the learning climate more than any other single factor.'" Given our propensity to sin, we need to be careful that the teacher is accountable to some team of people outside of the learning context for whom he must give an account of what he does with his class. Being a teacher is a dangerous profession and one needs all the help one can get from other colleagues (cf. James 3:1).

The Learner-Centered Mode and an Evangelical Anthropology

    Brief Definition

The learner centered theory simply states that all responsibility for the planning of one's education should be placed on the individual. This theory does not negate working with others in the learning process, but places emphasis on the individual.

    Interaction Between Learner-Centered Mode and Anthropology

There are some benefits to this approach. First, it emphasizes the responsibility an individual should take for his/her learning. In other words it gives full credence to the truth of man having a will. We can choose what we want to learn.

Second, it realizes that men are sinners and that teachers can lord it over their students in unhealthy ways. This puts some of the power back into the hands of the student and that appears to us to be a good thing. The student may choose to abuse that by treating professors with contempt, but that does not invalidate the freedom given them.

There are also, it would appear, some weaknesses to this approach. First, to some degree it presupposes that individuals know how to go about learning what they want to learn. This is no doubt why Thompson says that "In a learner empowered environment the setting of objectives has been found to be a most common problem." The suggestion we would have would be that this type of education might work well at the doctoral level in an institution.

Second, it does not seem to capitalize on the wisdom of others who have gone before. While it places authority in the hands of the individual for his education, it appears to really leave him/her short-changed as far as interaction with others is concerned. Sin has marred our ability to make good choices in life. We need the wisdom of others on a consistent basis. We believe that this type of educational program might compound the problem if were not careful.


The paper interacted with three ways to foster participation in the adult learning process in the light of an evangelical anthropology. The benefits and drawbacks of each method were discussed with perhaps the shared membership model showing itself most clearly to be the best way to foster learning among adults, given the fact that we are sinners. We would also like to stress the need for the restoration of the divine image in man through Christ in order for true learning to take place, learning that encompasses a complete God-centered world view.

1 This particular topic would lend itself nicely to a discussion as concerns ecclesiology and the whole topic of the process of growth in a community or as a community imperative. However, the purpose of this paper is to deal with learning theories from the perspective of an evangelical anthropology.

2 By immaterial we mean that man is composed also of a substance other than matter. Man has a spirit or soul. This is not the place to debate trichotomous versus dichotomous views. I simply refer to man as complex material and complex immaterial. This, to me, is closer to the scriptural view.

3 It seems that the material aspect is the functional aspect of the immaterial aspect, i.e. the body is the vehicle for the expression of the image of God in us.

4 Dr. Lightner "Soteriology" Unpublished Class Notes, 1992. See also Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago: Moody Press, 1989), 305.

Related Topics: Teaching the Bible