Director of D.Min. Program
Canadian Theological Seminary

The last exam has been marked, grades turned in to the Registrar's Office, and you sit in your now quiet office wondering, "Just how effective was I this term?" You visualize one student who was present at every class session but who sat off to the side and did not speak throughout the entire course. You recall another vociferous learner who queried you repeatedly to the point of vexation. Then there were those who pled for more opportunities to integrate course content through class discussion while others disapproved of hearing anyone's thoughts or opinions but your own.

The educator frequently feels squeezed in a vise of conflicting values regarding the teaching-learning process. The values which society, the institution, the professor, and the learner affirm either explicitly or implicitly regarding this process shape the educational outcomes. The focus here will be on the particular choices which the classroom educator makes and the consequences those choices produce in the student.

Elliot W. Eisner, in The Educational Imagination, provides a workable paradigm for examining the particular stances which an educator may assume toward educational issues. Each of the five stances will be explained and the praxis issue within the context of postsecondary theological education elaborated in view of the Eisner orientations.

Educational Stances

A theological educator may assume one of five stances toward the educational process, or some combination of the five. These five, as defined by Eisner, reflect a preference either for process, content, relevance, society, or means-end approaches in the classroom.

1. Cognitive Process Development

An educator committed to cognitive process development has two basic objectives: to help students learn how to learn and to provide opportunities which strengthen their rational powers. The mind, it is thought, is a collection of independent abilities and aptitudes which require tough and demanding study for their development.

The process view of the mind is rooted in the work of 19th-century phrenologists and faculty psychologists. Thorndike and Woodworth challenged the notion of general transfer of learning, however, when they concluded that learning was specific and did not transfer unless the same set of factors was given a second time.

The attractiveness of cognitive process development reemerged in the 20th century as a result of the work of J. P. Guilford and Benjamin Bloom. Guilford proposed a "structure-of-the-intellect" model, which contains over 100 different intellectual functions. The task of education is to provide activities which will develop the desired functions. Benjamin Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives identified six levels of cognitive reasoning: information, understanding, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. An important key to teaching is to develop questions which range across the six levels of reasoning to insure adequate development at all six levels.

Specific "content" in the process stance is not critical. The question, rather, is which subjects will produce the most rigorous opportunities for developing a person's mental capabilities. Facts and theories, so it is argued, change across time. Therefore, it is imperative that students be able to think well and use as many of their cognitive abilities as possible.

Because relatively few subjects are required to develop rational power, the cognitive process viewpoint is economical. Methodologically, posing problems that are intellectually challenging will facilitate the development of reasoning in individuals. Process, not content, matters ultimately.


As has already been suggested, the process stance is economical both from personnel and environmental perspectives. Assuming professors are adequately trained in the method of problem-posing, little else by way of resources may be required.

A further advantage is that the process stance could coordinate the integration of other subjects. For instance, suppose the question were posed in a pastoral methods class, "How would you respond if a couple came to you seeking advice on an abortion in view of the woman's age and the possibility of a birth defect after having conferred with a physician?

A variety of disciplines could be brought to bear on the problem. What does Scripture say about creation, human life and its sacredness? What have theologians and church historians down through the years thought? What are the ethical dilemmas involved and possible ways to resolve them? What insight can the medical profession offer? Either professor or student could pose the problem, and various means could be utilized to resolve it.


A potentially serious question with this stance relates to its purpose of helping students learn how to learn. Is that an adequate purpose for postsecondary theological education? If that were the guiding orientation, presumably content could range far and wide beyond the typical curriculum of the Bible college or seminary.

 A methodological problem would be the challenge of integrating the different disciplines. How does a professor educated in one discipline effectively utilize the resources of the other disciplines? How can team teaching be financed in order to bridge between disciplines? To do so might very well break down some of the artificial barriers between theory and practice. Certainly, however, it would potentially remove any propensity to esoteric teaching, assuming the problems posed were legitimate concerns for the student and the society in which he/she ministers.


The classroom environment when governed by a professor's commitment to "process," would be charged with dynamic interactions between professor and student, and between student and student. Different students might be assigned a problem to be researched from the perspective of other disciplines.

The professor would function as coordinator and utilize the content of his/her own discipline to integrate student findings. While the amount of content covered in the course would be more restricted, what was taught would be more thoroughly related to a broader world-life view. At the same time the learning process would maximize the student's capacity to reason and think for himself or herself. A professor with this stance must be cautious, however, not to minimize truth-in-content in his/her quest for strength-of-mind.

2. Academic Rationalism

Academic rationalists seek to develop intellectual power through the specific subjects which they teach. "Is one subject intrinsically superior to another?" Of course! Some subjects deal with the great issues of being, truth, beauty, and duty in a grand way. These are the issues which humankind of all ages must struggle with and, therefore, these are the subjects most worthy of study.

Theological schools are special places, and professors are not there to pacify the shifting whims of students. To do so is to dilute their purpose of developing great thinkers for the Church.

Should all students be exposed to the same subjects? Yes. Without such exposure there is no common base for dialogue in the Church. It is true that there are differences in individual capabilities, but without exposure to a wide array of thought how will students discern their

true aptitudes and interests? Above all else, learners must be exposed to the great theological ideas of the centuries in order to facilitate the development of their rational potential.


As with cognitive process development, there are both advantages and disadvantages to this stance. A major strength is its compatibility with the current practice of most theological education where great emphasis is placed on study in languages (Hebrew and Greek), biblical/theological, and historical/ethical areas.

Academic rationalism is compatible with the commitment to special revelation and its uniqueness in the canons of literature. It is consistent with the idea that to do right one must think right. Presumably people who know and understand possess greater power for leadership than those who do not.


There are disadvantages, however. Academic rationalism reflects an elitist view of education, "the best for the best." The educator who adheres to this stance may fail to recognize that God did not commend intellectual superiority as a basic criterion for leadership in his Church.

The academic rationalist presupposes that knowing is doing, which cannot be empirically verified as necessarily so. Furthermore, he or she fails to account for other than rational forms of knowing. Even where lip service may be paid to non-rational forms of learning, differences in cognitive style and subsequent fit between professor and student may be ignored.

Whereas cognitive process development tends to deify process, academic rationalism tends to deify reason. Frequently the two are viewed in tandem and as such reflect a powerful paradigm for learning. To the degree, however, that they fail to account for other forms of knowing and fail to consider the individual learner's natural capacities they are weak.

Finally, there are forms of ministry which can never by adequately prepared for in either the process or rationalist modes because certain ministries are simply not a function of power and reason.


An educator wedded to academic rationalism as a primary stance toward the educational process might capitalize on this commitment in several ways. Rather than depositing more and more content to the student's mental bank under the assumption that "more is better," he or she might develop a spiral approach to the communication of great ideas and truths.

In the spiral approach, the core truths of a discipline are identified. These core truths are then repeated throughout the course in an ever-widening spiral-like fashion. Rather than many different ideas being taught, lecturers will select a few which they develop through repetition and elaboration. Professors must be scintillating lecturers in order to capture and inspire their students with the great ideas they teach.

Evaluation, then, for the academic rationalist measures the degree to which the learner is able to relate the few great truths or principles taught in the course to a wide array of supporting evidence and applications. All students, though, will know and be able to think, with  varying degrees of strength to be sure, about those things which matter most. Since "knowing" is equated with "doing," the student bears the onus of responsibility for transfer of meaning and usefulness of the ideas which he or she is absorbing.

3. Personal Relevance

Personal meaning constitutes the aim of education for the professor whose educational stance is personal relevance. People are motivated to learn, it is assumed, when they see the value of what is being studied from their individual perspectives.

Because people are stimulus-seeking rather than stimulus-reducing organisms, an environment is sought which is rich in resources for exploration. Student and teacher together plan for the learning which is to occur. Subjects are chosen because of their relevance to the interests of the student, and the amount of time and energy invested in any one is determined by the demands of the subject and the interest of the student. Motivation to learn is keyed in part to the external array of options presented by the learning environment.

The personal relevance stance further assumes that where there are not real options there can be no real freedom. The dignity of the individual is affirmed by providing him/her with options which allow the exercise of freedom. A gap theory in education is assumed in which there is a deficiency between the ideal and the reality of the learner. The professor is responsible for helping to bridge this gap between the ideal and the actual.


The relevance stance builds upon the natural interests of the student. It encourages the cultivation of individual responsibility for one's learning through discriminating choice among the variety of options presented by the environment. It accounts for the very real differences in individuals.

Within theological education the personal relevance stance permits greater utilization of life experiences which adults bring to the learning market. The action-reflection processes of praxis are viable with this approach, as for instance when learners are invited to write case studies for analysis based on their ministry experiences.


Difficulties do exist, however. If the two previous orientations were economical to implement, personal relevance is more costly. A resource rich environment requires considerable investment for the provision of multiple options among students with divergent interests.

The personal relevance stance requires considerably more of the professor in coordinating and facilitating the cultivation of individual interests of his/her students, not only in time but also in skill.

 This stance presumes that students know what is best for them, i.e. their interests define what they will do. However, it may be they lack sufficient exposure to the possibilities and needs of the future to make informed choices. There may also be options which they would choose if they knew more about them. So the question remains as to who should actually be responsible for making curricular decisions and how the decisions should be made.

A still more serious issue is the primacy of individual choice. Whereas the first two stances deified process and reason, personal relevance deifies human interest. Theological educators strongly affirm the dignity and worth and freedom of the individual. But they also affirm a more ultimate Reality than the individual human--existence is defined in reference to this more ultimate Being. In other words, resolution of a paradox between ultimate and immediate realities, which may or may not be congruent, must be negotiated.


A contractual agreement between student and professor in which both agree to certain conditions may be established. Such arrangements permit the student to study within the scope of his/her interests while at the same time meeting the minimum objectives of the course. A major difficulty with this approach is evaluation if norm-referenced grading is desired.

Still another possibility is to invite student participation in the devising of course goals. Since this is a "give-and-take" procedure, the professor maintains the prerogative to include those elements which he/she deems crucial to the course purpose. Students who have not exercised this kind of freedom and responsibility, however, may exhibit anxiety about their role and may resent the professor's seeming abdication of responsibility for the course.

4. Social Adaptation and Social Reconstruction

A social adaptation and social reconstruction stance seeks to equip the student to fit into society and to make a good citizen of him or her. The needs of society, therefore, determine the purposes of education.

Once pressing social issues are discovered, curriculum may be designed to meet the needs deriving from those issues. An educator with a radical posture would seek to confront and to transform the social ills, whereas an educator with a relevant posture would try to adapt to society's problems.

Schools should be places whose form conforms to the reality of society. Form, then, is a medium for shaping the student into the particular person needed for the given society. The issue of the "hidden curriculum" bears prominently in this stance. If good citizens are required for a democracy, then the form of the school should be  democratic in nature, since authoritarian structures tend to produce authoritarian personalities. If churches are to be communities of care and cooperation, then theological institutions need to be caring and cooperating communities as well.


Where objectives derive from an analysis of the needs of the society being served, there is greater ownership of its educational institutions by the society. Also, where the form of the educational institution matches the structure of the society, there is greater correspondence between the realities of the society and the institution and, therefore, less dissonance between the two.


A dilemma in this stance relates to the purpose of the institution. Do educational institutions exist primarily as transmissive or transformative institutions? In what sense to educators lead as creators and purveyors of new knowledge? If they have been established by and for the interest of the society in which they exist, to what extent can they legitimate doing more than what society requires of them?

Theological institutions clearly parallel public institutions in this regard. Most, though not all, have been established by a "parent society," or denominational and/or religious group.


To what extent is the theological educator's task to define the needs of the denomination ("society") he or she serves and to design a curriculum responsive to those needs? Or, based upon the collective scholarship of the academic community, to what extent is it reasonable for theological educators to be expected to analyze the needs of the denomination and to assess those needs in view of other priorities derived from their scholarly pursuits? A third problem with this stance is that the individual is defined in terms of the society and, consequently, may suffer underdevelopment of his/her unique potential. Furthermore, as in the personal relevance orientation, the possibility of a higher Reality is subordinated to present exigencies. What is of educational merit is always "out there," rather than having intrinsic worth.


The social adaptation and social reconstruction stance is, nevertheless, rich in possibilities for some educators, particularly for professors who teach such courses as ethics, homiletics, education, and counselling in the theological institution.

Church members "need" to hear the historic tenets of their religious faith reinterpreted and communicated in ways that are fresh and vital for them. The use of social science research methodologies, for instance, as a means for describing and understanding the communicator's "audience" could increase his or her ability to articulate religious faith for members of his/her church. The educator adhering  to this stance will, furthermore, be continuously utilizing the resources of the church in order to build bridges between the theological institution and the society it serves.

5. Curriculum as Technology

The final stance, curriculum as technology, focuses on the efficiency concerns of education. Once "ends" have been determined, the educator must identify terminal behavior consistent with those ends. "Means" are then created to achieve the observed behavior identified as representative of the desired ends. This approach reflects a highly precise, scientific view of education. The tacit image of the school is that of the finely tuned machine. Standardization and routine are normative.


Theological education does involve certain training components, such as exegesis, preaching, teaching, and counselling. Where training concerns prevail, then the technological orientation is helpful in defining the steps necessary for mastery of certain skills.

If those skills are the only focus, however, the question remains regarding the individual's ability to function beyond the arena for which those skills were developed. The student may become little more than a highly educated technician. Theological education does contain specific training components. But by itself, the technological stance would fail miserably in producing ministers who can think and feel and serve with sensitive insight and compassion.


Of major concern with this stance are the values inherent within it. Its view of the individual is a highly mechanistic one. Human worth, dignity, freedom, interest, and divergent learning patterns are all subsumed to efficiency values. The possibility of learning goals emerging from the learning environment and process itself is nonexistent.


Computer programmed instruction in language illustrates the positive application of the technological stance. Videotaping for later self-observation and evaluation by student-teachers and preachers is another example. Remedial work through programmed instruction in heavily content-oriented courses to bring students with information deficits up to a minimum competency level would increase the opportunity for spending a greater percentage of actual class time on discussion and integration of content.

Praxis Logic in Theological Education

The question still remains as to which of the preceding stances one would expect to be more or less hospitable to the praxis logic in professions education. Each stance offers something of value. Each has weaknesses. The synthesist would prefer to articulate a sixth orientation which embraces the best from all five!

Several criteria are suggested here to guide educators in the deliberative process when making curricular decisions. They are not suggested in any logical or prioritized way.


Assuming that Whitehead was correct when he said that education should prepare a person with something he knows well and something he does well, what balance proportionately should be sought between the amount of time devoted to theoretical concerns and applied concerns? Should some be "thinkers" and others "doers" primarily? Or should all professions educators be evaluated on their ability to integrate theory and practice?

At what point, for instance, would a church historian cease reviewing decisions of previous church councils and take up a contemporary doctrinal issue to demonstrate how to apply previous discoveries to the prevailing debate? When would an historian digress from "history" and focus on "historiography"?

Time Orientation

Is theological education presumed to prepare a person for a lifetime of practice or to equip him/her with entry level skills? If it is the latter, then the resolution of theory-practice components of the curriculum becomes more realistic. If it is the former, then a commitment to developing theoreticians or practitioners may be more appropriate.

View of Learner

What is the educator's stance toward the learner? Is the learner viewed as an adult who is motivated and willing to take responsibility for his/her own learning? Is the learner viewed as a co-equal with the teacher and, therefore, as a person to be respected as a contributing member to the teaching-learning enterprise? (Co-equal is not to be confused with "same as." Equal-but-different does not affect attitudes of teacher and learner!).

Most theological students have spent a lifetime in educational relationships which foster dependency between student and teacher. Consequently, the professor may need to build into his/her course requirements assignments which facilitate the gradual assumption of responsibility for one's learning and growth toward self-initiated learning. This includes willingness to tolerate ambiguity by both professor and student.

View of Teacher

How does the educator see himself or herself as teacher? Is he or she a dispenser of the "funded wisdom of the past"? Is he or she a director, facilitator, collaborator, supporter or some combination of the four in the teaching-learning enterprise? What preparation does he or she have in his or her own background for leading in the reflection-action process of professions praxis? Is he or she willing to adjust his or her style or does the professor hold philosophical commitments which function as constraints on the kind of teaching role he or she plays?


Where should professions education take place? In the classroom? In the church? In the community? What financial resources are available for enriching options for the learner? If form does affect practice, is it possible to teach professional students apart from exposure to the "marketplace" of their profession?


To whom is the educator ultimately accountable? Are there clear channels of communication for negotiating differences in philosophical approaches to the educational task? What constraints must be accepted by virtue of this line of accountability?


What value system does the educator(s) operate within? What are his or her tacit assumptions about human nature, truth, goodness, etc.? How are these reflected in his or her educational practices?

Learning Process

How do people learn and change? Are there universal principles of learning? Are adults different from children in the way in which they learn? If so, does this warrant special attention to the faculties of professions education and the preparation they receive for their task as educators? Do people develop from the inside out, or the outside in? How does this affect the way in which they learn?


If the above suggested questions were applied to each of Eisner's stances, they would help to resolve the educator's degree of commitment to each one and to highlight areas of agreement in each for possible synthesis in practice. The boundaries between the orientations are descriptive but not prescriptive, with the possible exception of the technological stance.

Theological education does need to be undergirded with sound theory and right understanding. Theological students do need to be people who can think and reason, for the practice of ministry is both art and science. But theological students are also adults who have unique combinations of skills, interests, attitudes, and experiences which they bring to bear on the educational process. It is important that they sense the relevance of what they study, either through a good understanding of the role of theory for practice or the immediacy of application. And theological students are people who by virtue of being

professional are preparing themselves to serve society. It is inconceivable that there could be educational institutions without educators. Therefore, the role of the educator as person with special expertise must also be taken seriously in the learning enterprise.

Each of the five stances carried to its logical conclusion has weaknesses. But each is an orientation because of value commitments educators hold. Ultimately curriculum decision-making is a process of deciding what to teach, why to teach, to whom to teach it, and under what conditions it should be taught. The foregoing stances and suggested criteria are aids to the educator in processing answers to those fundamental questions.