3 God-given principles of learning (AKA New Church education in a nutshell)

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Tomorrow my wife Anne and I will be taking a short flight to Boston for the annual American Academy of Religion / Society of Biblical Literature (AAR/SBL) conference. Over the course of five days, we will soak in as much theology, spirituality, and pedagogy as our brains can handle. I’m excited.

Tomorrow afternoon I’ll be attending a workshop on teaching methods, based on cognitive science research into how learning really works. I love digging into this research and looking for ways to be a more effective teacher. And I love seeing how it connects to my underlying beliefs about human learning, beliefs based on the doctrine of the New Church.

As a faith that focuses intensely on human development, the organized New Church has always put a high value on education. Volumes have been filled with insights into teaching and learning based on Swedenborg’s theological works (works that I hold to be divinely inspired). If I had to boil all this voluminous philosophy of New Church education down into three points, they would be these:

1. Effective learning is attached to love, affections, and delight

“The things that enter the memory without affection fall into its shade; but those which enter with affection come into light.” (Arcana Coelestia §4018).

There is a huge emphasis in New Church theology on the connection between wisdom and love, knowledge and affection, truth and good (hence this blog’s title). The human mind is not a calculating machine, and our affections and emotions have a huge effect on whether we’ll retain information that we learn.

The most effective learning comes from intrinsic motivations. At every stage in human development, there is something in a person that desires to learn. The challenge for a teacher is to find and tap into that particular affection for any given student. In early ages, for example, there’s an affection for knowing things simply for the sake of knowing things:

“An affection for knowing exists in childhood. It is in consequence of this affection that a young child learns to speak, learns to read, and afterward progressively learns intellectual things.” (Divine Love and Wisdom §404)

The emphasis there on progression is important, too. It is the challenge of a teacher to find the chain of intrinsic delights that will lead from previous learning into new frontiers.

2. Effective learning comes from a sense of freedom and self-efficacy

“What is planted in freedom remains, but what is planted in a state of compulsion does not remain” (The New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine §143)

It is a key tenet of New Church doctrine that compelling others through threats and punishments does not bring about deep and lasting change in them. It is when a person freely chooses something, and makes it their own, that it actually sticks with them and effects change.

There need to be boundaries and limits, of course – if I’m teaching a class on physics I need to require my students to learn something about physics rather than say, history. But the more opportunities there are for freedom – for letting a history-loving student delve into the history of scientific discoveries, for example – the more likely it is that what a student learns will actually put down deep roots in their mind.

3. Effective learning comes from asking, “How can I make this useful?”

“It is by no means proper for a person who desires to be wise, to halt in knowledges alone, because these are only instrumental causes, intended to serve in the search for uses” (Arcana Coelestia §6815).

Despite the emphasis on good and truth, love and wisdom, charity and faith, etc. in the New Church, all of these actually require a third component for them to mean anything: use, life, works. Throughout the doctrine of the New Church, this might be the clearest teaching: all the love and wisdom in the world mean nothing if you don’t actually live by it.

To be fair, it’s not always obvious how something we learn in school will be useful – subjects like philosophy don’t have the same immediate applicability as something like shop class. But if students and teachers alike approach all subjects with the question of, “How can this affect the way I actually live?” then even abstract subjects can take on real meaning. There is no such thing as learning for the sake of learning – all learning is ultimately for the sake of a life better lived.

(Image copyright: oksun70 / 123RF Stock Photo)

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