Is it appropriate to use the insights of developmental theorists in the design and practice of Christian Education?


The appropriateness of using the insights of developmental theory in the design and practice of Christian Education can be defended through looking at the unique contribution of Piaget; Kohlberg; Perry; Valadium; Erikson; Gilligan; Fowler; Helminiak and Goldburg.

Each of these developmentalists have studied one aspect or element of human development.  Although none tell the whole story of a person, each gives significant insight into how a person may function and develop in one area.

Piaget studied the cognitive development of children.  His research shows that a child's cognitive development has two main aspects:  Assimilation and Accommodation.  He found that a person is born with an active mind.  Intelligence, although limited by its genetic propensity, grows and develops through interaction with the environment.  Assimilation refers to taking into itself material, facts, information, internalizing the data.

Accommodation refers to how the mind accommodates new data.  Piaget shows there is no accommodation/assimilation without experience.  Through experiences we receive new data.  This new data creates tension, or a state of disequilibrium, as the mind has to now readjust to new information, process it, assimilate it, and if it is to use it, relate it to previous knowledge or concepts.  This process then creates a state of equilibrium.

Piaget found that unless new data can be conceptually related to previous information, the person really does not learn anything.  There is no real assimilation, the material is not accommodated.

The importance of using his work for Christian Education, preaching/teaching, is that it is better to teach conceptually than through mass information.  Concepts need to be appropriate for the level of the person's development.  Such concepts must be faithful to the facts.  In the design and practice of Christian Education the Teacher can then seek to teach concepts rather than just facts.  He can help the learner relate new concepts to previous ones.

For example the concept of God being everywhere and seeing or observing everything can be taught to a child of 3-6 years by speaking about God always seeing us.  To do this a picture of an eye can be used.  The child can take home three or four pictures of eyes to remind them that God always sees them.  One can be stuck on the bathroom mirror - God sees me when I wash and brush my teeth.  One can be placed beside the night light - God sees me in the dark and therefore I do not need to be scared in the dark.  Another can be placed on a child's school bag - God sees me at school.

Taught a concept this way - the child never has to unlearn wrong or distorted information.  Later elements can build on this basic concept of the "eye."  To teach this way is to use the results of Piaget and apply them to teaching methods.

Another developmentalist, Kohlberg, focused on the moral development of people.  Faced with moral dilemmas he wanted to see how people would conceive what was just/justice.  His work used the finding of Piaget but applied Piaget's theory to moral development.

Kohlberg's research found people move through three stages of moral development - pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional.  At each level the way they conceived what was just, was very much related to the level of their cognitive development.

One of the tasks of Christian Education is to teach people how to resolve moral issues, to know and do what is just.  Kohlberg's findings can help a Christian Educator structure lessons and sermons in a way that takes into account the different levels of a person's moral development and where the locus of authority is for that level.

For example - teenagers who may be moving from concrete to formal cognitive levels, in their moral development will probably be at level II, stages 3 or 4 in Kohlberg's scheme.  This means that what is just for a teenager will likely be determined by either what their peers or what the authoritative figures in their lives who they deeply respect, feel.  The youth worker, knowing this can use a passage like Joseph confronting his three brothers as a moral dilemma and ask them to decide what is just.  Or in Adult Education with business managers, the Christian Education Teacher can use the parable of the wages paid for workers who worked all, or half a day or even an hour, to decide what is just.

Doing this they are using the research of Kohlberg but applying it to Christian Education.  This does not make Christian Education humanistic - i.e. man centered.  It is utilizing research in moral development, and helping people discover what is good.

However, Kohlberg's research needs to be supplemented.  While he shows how a person may conceive what is just, that does not guarantee how he will behave.  For example, King David operated at stage 2 in taking Bathsheba, may be at stages 3 or 4 when dealing with her husband, but at stage 6 in confronting Goliath.

Therefore Kohlberg's stages, seen as a continuum rather than hierarchical discrete stages, gives insight into ways people may conceptually resolve moral dilemmas.

William Perry recorded College students over a period of fourteen years in order to understand how they moved from a dualistic approach to ethics and truth to a relativistic approach.  His map of this movement consisted of nine points on a continuum.

Dualistic                        Multiplicity                                         Relativity            Commitment


His nine points of the continuum can be reduced to 3 or 4 categories, dualistic, multiplicity, relativity, commitment within relativity.  Writers like Daloz see Perry describing the goal of a liberal education.

The importance of Perry's findings lies in the fact that he gives a picture of the likely transition a college student may make between his first year at university/college and final years.  Perry has also maped how older adults, deprived of a university education, may also develop when they become students in adult education programs.

The Christian Education college worker cannot afford to neglect the work of Perry.  Although Perry says students can halt or retreat this transition from a dualistic approach to a relativistic approach, generally this transition is true of the majority of university students.  Coming into university as a first year student, the student usually sees ethical issues and questions of truth in black and white categories, with very few grey areas.  But does not take very long before the new university student will acknowledge the right for a multiplicity of views - everyone is entitled to their opinion.

Disagreement is explained on the basis that those in authority have just not found an answer yet.  Then as they move to being able to accept a diversity of views on ethical and epistemological issues, they can critically assess them, and see what is good and bad in each.  Next, they commit themselves to what is true and ethical for them. Not in a naive or simplistic way, or as something they believe because that is what they were always taught, but in full awareness of the alternatives.  In commitment amidst relativity the student is aware of ongoing refinement and growth.

It is during university student years that many  students from conservative and authoritarian backgrounds jettison the beliefs and ethical standards of their parents.  Especially Christian students from such backgrounds. They never really develop the ability to assess conflicting values and then make their own independent choices. Alternatively, they'll retreat to their original categories, often blindly accepted, and hang on to those values and views, but without understanding why they affirm them for themselves. That's a dangerous position.

The Christian Education worker, aware of this dynamic through familiarity with Perry's research, is in an ideal position to raise these hidden agendas struggles to open discussion.  Christian Education workers, youth leaders, preachers, can show that in a relativistic world a Christian can have constants, absolutes, but absolutes that have not been naively or simplistically chosen.

An absolute like, "God is love," is a universal truth, valid for all time in all places.  However, how one understands that absolute needs constant revision.  Or for example, "Love your neighbor," "Do good to your enemy," are absolute injunctions.  But how they are to be applied in different settings/cultures is relative.  The Christian Educator can be a great source of encouragement when a student's previous worldview, absolutes, etc. is in shambles.  He can allow them the freedom to examine their faith, ethics, views, and help them make commitments that are well informed.

Erikson is a psychosocial developmentalist.  Using the work of Freud and Piaget he traces the psychosocial development of a person through eight stages.  For each he has a dichotomous pair of words that characterizes that level - i.e. trust - mistrust (0-2 years), generativity vs despair (60 plus years).

Erikson shows the significant impact relationships have on a person's ability to trust, their self image, their role identity, their autonomy etc.  The importance for Christian Education and for the Christian home is the necessity of providing adequate love and care for a person.  Deprived of the loving nurture of parents and significant others, a person grows up as a social mis-fit.  They are unable maturely to relate to others, to themselves, to the world, to society, or to God.

The task of Christian Education can be informed by Erikson as to the different psychosocial needs a person has as they move through life.  If we take identity versus role confusion, Christian youth workers can help teenagers understand what it means to be made in the image of God, who they are to God, to themselves etc.  Guiding youth through adolescence/pubity, with this awareness, means Christian Education can speak accurately to the issues teenagers face.

Valadium highlights physical or biological maturation.  If a person is young, that affects their attention span.  Physical age affects every dimension of development.  Graded Sunday School lessons, different activities and crafts for various age levels, all grow out of taking human maturation into account.  This is common sense, not humanism.

Gilligan, "In a different voice" makes us aware that women are very influenced by a web of relationships when faced with moral dilemmas.  Ronald Joy found that because Sunday Schools were more geared to girls than boy's interests, mainly taught by women, that boys dropped out of Sunday School earlier than girls.  These two researchers show that necessity of taking gender into account when planning a Sunday School curriculum, choosing who will teach Sunday School, and designing activities.

The Apostle Peter also addressed the issue of gender differences when speaking of husbands and wives (I Pet. 3:1-7).  Husbands must take into account these differences based on gender.  Christian Education must design its practice around these teachings.

Perhaps the most devastating person to use against our naive accuser, would be Helminiak.  He saw spiritual development as being the same as human development.  In other words, spiritual development is very much locked into genetic potential, and normal human maturation in every sphere - cognitive, affective, psychosocial, behavioral, physical, intellectual etc.

Fowler has shown how people's conception of faith develops.  Faith is not just a body of belief - the faith.  For the Christian it is also something in which a person is to grow (2 Pet. 1:5-11).  The research of Fowler indicates how a person's conception of faith will/can change.

This summary survey of some developmentalists and their theories shows that each gives significant insights into different areas of human development.  These insights make a Christian Educator aware of the dynamics and issues people face as they develop.  They highlight their needs. 

Although no one theory tells the whole story - each can be used by Christian Education to know where people are at, what issues to address, what help and guidance is needed, which methods of teaching are more productive.  This does not reduce Christian Education to "humanistic" education.  Rather it makes sanctified use of what has been generally learnt about how people develop.  This means Christian Education can be made more relevant to people's ages, stages, and levels of development, helping them all mature in the faith and in the knowledge of the Spirit of God, attaining to the whole measure of the Fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:12-13).

Keith Graham

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