When Does Real Learning Happen?

By Scott Hughes

Courageous Conversations

What does it mean to learn something? This is a question I've been exploring since I started working at Discipleship Ministries as Director of Adult Discipleship. What factors go into adult learning? And how do we grow as disciples of Jesus Christ? Since the word "disciple" (follower, student) is closely linked to the word, "learning," understanding the dynamics of learning is also about understanding the dynamics of discipleship.

From experience (often the most effective teacher), we can conclude that simply gaining knowledge does not equate with learning. I know that driving faster than the posted speed limit is dangerous, but that does not always stop me from doing so. I know arguing with some people is unproductive and only works to raise my blood pressure, yet I can get sucked into a disagreement rather easily. We could go on endlessly with similar examples.

I've been reading several books on the theme of learning: Jane Regan's Toward an Adult Church, Patricia Cranton's Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning, and James K. A. Smith's Desiring the Kingdom, among others, have been helpful. Cranton's book, in particular, has been insightful about the dynamics of learning.

Before I give you my definition, how would you define learning? Don't peek ahead. Take your time. Write it out. I'm not kidding.

Hurray for those who attempted! It's a difficult task. Here's my definition of learning: Learning occurs when self-reflection or a disruptive event causes us to reassess our assumptions and presuppositions so that they are modified (strengthened or changed). It might seem like a lot, but this act happens more than we are usually aware. If my assumption is that all meat should be cooked low and slow (at a low temperature and for a considerable amount of time) to taste good, I will be disrupted by the taste of lobster cooked at this method (yes, true story).

The difficulty with learning today is that our culture does not foster it. When anxiety is high (just think about any particular issue - terrorism, racism, gun control, etc.), our defenses naturally go up. Instead of being curious and open to reflecting on our assumptions, we become defensive about our perspectives because we feel under attack. A prime example is a political debate. How much learning happens at a political debate? Zero. The setting is defensive, closed, and aggressive.

In a highly anxious setting, I believe the church has an opportunity to be a place where learning happens. Discipleship is more than acquiring facts about the Bible or the seasons of the year or even doing acts of service. Real discipleship takes the hard work of allowing us to be disrupted by God's grace, whose ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). The Courageous Conversations project is about discipleship, about helping us be the adult learners God would have us to be. Do you have the courage? (Follow along and learn more about Courageous Conversations here.)

Reflective Questions:

  • How would you improve upon my definition of learning?
  • How are discipleship and learning related?
  • How is your church equipping participants to grow as disciples?

Learn more about Courageous Conversations»