The Next Faithful Step

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Academy of Religious Leadership

April 2012 - Seattle, WA

Summary: Teaching leadership is like doing pre-marital counseling. Most engaged couples won't really know what the counselor was telling them until they have been married awhile; someone who has never been married can't really picture what it is like. The same is true for ministry. I am preparing students for something that they won't really understand until they are out of school and in the middle of it. Not only that but the most important lessons students learn involve adaptive change (as opposed to technical learning). The current pedagogical model involves the transfer of knowledge through lectures and readings. But the most important learning usually involves changing a student's mental models and then inviting them to live into that new model. So that creates a problem for the professor.

How does one create a learning environment that:  

  • (a) encourages adaptive as well as technical learning, and  
  • (b) is accessible to the student once they graduate and enter into the throes of ministry?  

I propose to present a preliminary version of my attempts to answer this question at the ARL meeting by showing a prototype of a website called "The Next Faithful Step. This website is designed to do many of the things that the obsolete www.christianleaders.org website (with its "Almond Springs" case studies) was intended to do but failed to do. The following parameters will give you the language for judging the site's success or failure.

The following outline describes the parameters for creating the learning environment. The outline is only three pages long. The rest of the document contains short articles that expound on pieces in the outline. Each time you encounter an underlined idea, that idea is explained further in one of the companion articles. Think of this like a web page, with the articles as hyperlinked explanations of ideas. The opening outline keeps the structure and flow of the ideas clear, while the appended articles explain the ideas more deeply.

Opening thought:

"Learning is dangerous. Learning occurs between a fear and a need. On the one hand, we feel the need to change if we are to accomplish our goals. On the other hand, we feel the anxiety of facing the unknown and unfamiliar. To learn significant things, we must suspend some basic notions about our worlds and our selves. That is one of the most frightening propositions for the ego."
—Peter Senge

The parameters for a learning environment that is formative for studentsand accessible to graduates 

  1. Formation not Information: Emphasize formative rather than informative learning environments
    1. The goal of a formative model of education is to form the student as a person, usually by changing the ways that s/he sees the world.
    2. Learning to lead requires cultivated instincts 
    3. Cultivating new instincts requires new mental models.
    4. Most clergy are looking for "resources" (by which they mean insights and processes that they can implement in their congregations—i.e. technical answers).
    5. I had a youth minister who used to keep on his bulletin board a quote from GF Handel. It said, "Forgive me, Lord, if I only entertained them. I meant to make them better." It's a great quote for a youth minister. But I have translated it into my own work so that I say, "Forgive me, Lord, if I only gave them resources. I meant to make them better."
    6. Information is important, but only so far as it serves formation.
    7. Formation changes the mental models that we use to make sense of our worlds.

  2. Teach Theological Reflection (insights from the Field Education literature are helpful here)
    1. Need for reflection (esp. theological reflection) on specific situations (i.e. case studies), especially situations driven by learner experience 
    2. Do not separate the learner from reflection on the community in which s/he is embedded
    3. Reflection is both a communal and an individua task; so spend time teaching learners to reflect in a community of other religious leaders
    4. Seminaries need to create an arc that starts during Field Ed and continues well into our graduates first years of ministry.  
      • That learning environment will likely rely on the Internet  

  3. Learning Theory to keep in Mind
    1. Donald Schon, The Reflective Practitioner 
      •  "A reflective practitioner regularly "engages in a conversation with a situation." At the same time that the inquirer tries to shape the situation to his frame, he must hold himself open to the situation's back-talk."
      • Stance toward inquiry: "A practitioner's stance toward inquiry is his attitude toward the reality with which he deals." (p. 163)
      • When the inquirer is "stimulatedby surprise," (p. 50) the inquirer becomes open to changing her understanding of reality. That surprise usually comes in the form of some failure or a situation not turning out as a leader had hoped.
        • Note: This is how the formative process makes a leader opened to new mental models
    2. Chris Argyris (esp "Teaching Smart People How to Learn")
    3. Note the importance here of what Craig Dykstra calls "formative assessment" (as opposed to "summative assessment")

Key Question: How do we allow students/graduates to get the negative feedback that enables them to be "stimulated by surprise" (Schon) without inciting in them Argyris's "defensive reasoning"? I think the answer has to do with providing that feedback as part of formative assessment rather than summative assessment.  

    1. Roger Schank:
      • "People need to fail in order to learn."
      • Just-in-time learning provides the immediate solution to a problem at which a learner has just failed to solve.
      • Can we provide an immediate next step (i.e. something to read or learn) rather than a "solution"? (We know that many of our students' case studies deal with adaptive work rather than technical problems; and we know adaptive challenges have no solutions.
    2. David Nygren has shown that the best leaders (as opposed to good-but-not-great leaders) continue their development throughout their lifetimes. They do this because the best leaders focus on their failings more than their successes. Indeed, they are more likely to talk about their failings than to see their successes.
    3. Formative learning requires practice
      1. Learning to lead only comes with practice, especially learning from mistakes
      2. Practice requires making mistakes on real people.
      3. That should create both a humility and a deep commitment to learn from the mistakes that cost someone else so much.

  1. Formative learning is an adaptive process and cannot be pursued using technical means. (Heifetz)
    1. Learning new mental models requires a leader to change their values, their beliefs, or their cherished ways of doing things. According to Ronald Heifetz, "Adaptive work is required when our deeply held beliefs are challenged, when the values that made us successful become less relevant, and when legitimate yet competing perspectives emerge."
    2. Formative learning is adaptive work 
    3. Most education offers technical answers rather than providing an environment to do adaptive work
    4. An expert transferring knowledge is a technical means
      • i.e. Emulating an expert will not yield formation
       
    5. Heifetz: "Fail expectations a rate they can stand"
      1. Students and clergy expect resources and information, but they need formative learning
      2. We must therefore create an environment that appears to provide technical solutions but that in reality draws students in a holding environment.
    6. To enable adaptive work, the learning environment must "build a holding environment"
      1. Holding environment<Part 4 III> 
        1. Uncomfortable enough to push people beyond avoidance behavior
          • cf. Schank: need to fail in order to learn
        2. Safe enough to experiment with new mental models and behaviors
      2. Note: Clergy often come away to a continuing education event as a respite from a taxing situation and the last thing they want is to do painful work.
      3. Learners invited into adaptive environments will try to avoid the painful work of formation
    7. Heifetz: "Put the work back on the learner"

  2. Necessary skills that a learner needs to take from the event in order to replicate the work at home
    1. Self-awareness: ability to see oneself in the moment (i.e. in the present)
    2. Self-reflection: ability to look back without defensive reasoning and engage in formative assessment (i.e. in the past)
    3. Self-discipline: the ability to change one's behavior going forward (i.e. in the future); Senge calls this "self-mastery" (cf. esp. The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for strategies to develop this habit of mind)

Jesus embodied the formative model of education. Jesus changed people's mental models in order to inspire them to new ways of seeing the world—and new ways of acting in that world. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, he repeatedly pushed people to a new understanding of the law and its implications for faithful life.