Engaging this module

You are invited to explore this module by reading the content, watching the presentations and videos and responding to the suggested exercises and activities. You are encouraged to have a Bible and journaling materials nearby to take notes.

Defining Learning 

In this module, Professor Cindy Kissel-Ito from Union Presbyterian Seminary will be your guide as you learn how to define learning and explore different approaches to learning. To get the most out of this module, we recommend following the lesson as it is laid out.

What is Learning? 

The way that learning is understood and described varies between disciplines, cultures, languages, and social groups. Even amongst teaching and learning practitioners in North America, there are many different perspectives on learning. 

As Christian educators, part of our role is to figure out what learning means in the unique contexts of the congregations in which we serve. To figure this out, we need to know the basics of commonly accepted definitions of learning AND reflect on where and how learning takes place in our congregations. 


Watch this short video to hear Professor Kissel-Ito talk about the definition of learning:

Reflection Exercises

    • Thinking about the ministry context in which you serve, what three words would you use to describe learning? 
    • Thinking about what you know about how Jesus taught, what three words would you use to describe learning?

In the video, Professor Kissel-Ito mentions 3 types of learning:

    • Formal – takes place within a formal learning environment (e.g., Sunday school classroom) with a well-structured and intentional learning program (e.g., curriculum). 
    • Informal – takes place outside formal learning environments but often within organizational framework (e.g., community or church groups); it normally does not involve evaluation or certification (e.g., prayer groups, discipleship small groups).
    • Non-Formal – non-targeted learning that takes place naturally in life (e.g., learning a certain grace because your family always says it before dinner). It arises from daily experience and is shaped by the environment the learner finds themselves in.

Create a chart like the one below and list all the ways that these 3 types of learning take place in your ministry context. Alternatively, you can print one here.

Sunday School Discipleship group that meets once per week to try different spiritual practicesEquipping parents to pray with their children regularly at home.
Course on Old Testament offered as an adult education opportunityPrayer groups that meet regularly. Building intergenerational connections at church so that children learn from the faith of the elders.
Worship Mentorship program where youth are paired up with older members of the congregation.Learning the lyrics to worship music because you play it regularly in the car.

Schunk’s Definition of Learning

Dr. Dale Schunk – professor in the Department of Teacher Education and Higher Education at The University of North Carolina – has come up with a definition of learning that will be useful for us as we explore what learning means in educational ministry. 

“Learning is an enduring change in behavior, or in the capacity to behave in a given fashion, which results from practice or other forms of experience.”

Schunk, D. H. (2019). Learning Theories (8th Edition). Pearson Education (US)


Watch this short video to hear Professor Kissel-Ito talk about Schunk’s definition of learning:

Reflection Exercise

The criteria that Schunk uses to define learning are present in the stories of Jesus’ teaching: 

    • People are changed when they learn from Jesus.
    • The learning happens through experience (often an encounter with Jesus in daily life).
    • What they learn from Jesus endures over time

Choose one of the following passages from scripture to read. Identify the three criteria of learning within the stories.

    • The Woman at the Well: John 4: 4-26, 39-42 
    • Nicodemus: John 3:1-21 & 7:45-52 & 19: 48-42 

Learning Involves Change

When people learn, they become capable of doing something differently. They demonstrate a changed capacity. They have new skills, knowledge, belief, and/or behaviors. 

Watch this video to hear Professor Kissel-Ito tell a story about a time that she witnessed the “change” part of learning in a children’s ministry setting.

In the video, Professor Kissel-Ito mentioned the story of the Good Samaritan. To watch a video of the Godly Play version of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, please click here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuBNEQq8zOk

Reflection Exercise

As we grow as disciples of Christ in community, we are changed. Sometimes the change is a result of formal learning and other times it is the result of informal or non-formal learning. Think about your own spiritual journey: 

    • How have you been changed by what you’ve learned as part of your church community?
    • Would you categorize the changes in your life as spiritual, intellectual, emotional, behavioral, or social? 
    • Were the changes a result of formal, informal, or non-formal learning? 

Learning Endures Over Time

Learning does not need to last forever to be true learning. Forgetting is, after all, a normal part of human life! Learning does, however, need to endure long enough for change to be evident in a learner’s life. The type of learning that people do in church communities, which is not just intellectual but also spiritual and social, has the potential to last a lifetime. 

Watch this video to hear Professor Kissel-Ito tell a story about a woman whose religious education as a child continued to benefit her into old age.

Reflection Exercise

Take a moment to think of the children and teens in your church community. Imagine them 10 years from now. 

    • What learnings do you hope they have carried with them from your ministry? 
    • How have their lives been changed by what they learned at your church? 

Pray for them. Ask God to give your educational team the vision, resources, energy, love, and joy to share faith to the children God has entrusted to your ministry.

Learning Occurs Through Experience

Learning happens as a result of both engaging with the world around us and reflecting on / analyzing our engagement. As Christian educators, we are called to both facilitate learning experiences and help learners reflect on their experiences. 

Including children in leading Sunday services is a good way for them to learn about worshiping God through experience. People of all ages can hand out bulletins and greet people as they enter the sanctuary. Children can carry candles, crosses, bread and cup, or the Bible into the sanctuary in processionals. Older children can read scripture and say some of the prayers. With the help of an adult, children can also pass offering plates. 

Christian educators should not only arrange for these opportunities for children, but also help the children to prepare ahead of time (e.g., through practice, mentorship, and explanation of why we worship the way we do) and debrief with them afterwards (inviting them to reflect on their experience and offer additional support if necessary). 

Mission and service opportunities are also good examples of learning through experience. Watch this video to hear Professor Kissel-Ito tells the story of a youth group that learned about alleviating hunger through Presbyterian Church USA’s Hunger Action Congregations program.

In the video, Professor Kissel-Ito talks about Presbyterian Church USA’s Hunger Action Congregations. For more information or to get involved, please visit: https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/compassion-peace-justice/hunger/nationaldevelopment/hunger-action-congregations/

Reflection Exercise

Create a list of all the opportunities for experiential learning that are being offered as part of the educational ministries in which you serve. Alternatively, you can print one here.

Experiential Learning OpportunityOpportunity to Reflect on Experience
Meal program for people on the margins that teens from the youth group help out with once per month. After serving at the meal program, we meet with the youth to read scripture and discuss our experience.
Once per year, the youth group leads the whole worship service. We spend several weeks preparing for the worship service. We have a formal lesson about why we worship and the different elements of worship. We invite seasoned worship leaders to mentor the youth as they create the different parts of the service. After the service, we gather to celebrate and debrief.

After you complete your list, consider:

    • What opportunities are working well?
    • Which opportunities need to be adapted, changed, or let go of? 
    • What new opportunities for experiential learning might God be calling your educational ministry team to explore? 

Closing Blessing

May the teaching God bless you and keep you as you seek to nurture lifelong faith in your context. May you know God’s love deeply and share it widely as you serve. Amen.