Learning Theory and Christian Leadership: navldr.gif (4597 bytes)

By Dennis McCallum


Christian leadership involves influencing others. We want to be able to influence people to do God's will, much of which requires a certain level of expertise in order to be effective (witnessing, teaching, discipling, etc.). This means that in the first place, the leader is concerned with the learning process, and how to bring about rapid and permanent learning.

Also, when psychologists refer to learning, they mean not only learning facts about a subject, but learning behaviors. A child must learn to walk, talk, and feed herself. Christians must learn to pray, study, love others, admit sin etc. The leader not only must demonstrate and explain how these and other things are done, she must also cause the learner to desire to do such things. Learning has occurred when the learner exhibits the learned behavior regularly and without prompting from others.

Erickson reports that an amazing 94% of college teachers studied in one scientific survey rate themselves above average as teachers. Yet obviously only less than half are really above average. The others are self-deceived. This may also be the case with us.

To prevent such a fate, we will enter into a study of learning theory as it relates to leadership. We will focus on two of the major schools of thought in this area--Behaviorism-Social Learning, and Cognitive-Discovery approaches. Both have much to offer the thoughtful Christian leader.


Important names in Behaviorism


Insight: Thorndike—Three Laws of Learning

Edward L. Thorndike formulated three primary laws of learning: readiness, exercise, and effect.

1. The Law of Readiness. This law simply means that an organism will learn more quickly if it is ready to learn. For example, if you are hungry, not having eaten all day long, and someone invites you to go to a hamburger stand, you are going to respond immediately because of your readiness to do so. In your classroom, if you conduct the class in such a manner as to have the children anticipating with excitement the particular item or principle or event about which they are going to learn, they will be much more apt to learn it.

2. The Law of Exercise. This law, by its very title, gives itself away. Exercise strengthens the bond between stimulus and response. To put it another way, the more one practices a certain response, the more apt it is to be retained. In your classroom, if your students are learning the numbers to be multiplied, such as two times two, or four times four, and then the appropriate answer, the more times this is gone over, the more probable it is your students will retain the results.

3. The Law of Effect. A response (behavior) is strengthened if it is followed by pleasure and weakened if followed by displeasure. That is, of course, the forerunner of B.F. Skinner's reinforcement theory. It is the idea of a reward's strengthening any particular behavior.

Critics of Thorndike's laws of learning emphasize that they appear to be quite mechanical, they do not appear to leave room for any sort of cognitive processing on the part of the student and they do not require that there be any kind of purposiveness in humankind.

Important Terms in Behaviorism


Strict Behaviorism focuses on contingent reinforcement learning. There can be little doubt that conditioning of the kind demonstrated by behaviorists is a real fact of life. They have merely dissected and analyzed a process that we are all familiar with anyway, and they have subjected it to extensive laboratory testing. Their experiments with learning in animals have made it possible to draw important conclusions about how learning occurs. These findings have also been confirmed to a great extent in experiments with humans.

However, some of the philosophical and experimental claims made by behaviorists are open to question. Their basic "S-R" (stimulus-response) approach to behavior leaves much in human behavior unexplained. We will consider some of the important implications of behaviorist research for Christian leadership later. For now, I suggest we acknowledge that operant and classical conditioning account for some, but not all learning in humans. Classic behaviorism is an oversimplified understanding of human behavior.

Social Learning theory

In the social learning model, we have a more complete and palatable framework for understanding learning. Social learning theory fills many of the gaps in sophisticated human learning that pure (or "radical") behaviorism has failed to explain.

Albert Bandura, a professor at Stanford University, is considered the father of social learning theory. Social learning theory is based on behaviorism, but different in four ways:

1. The way a child acquires a novel behavior can come from imitation of others as well as chance happening onto a behavior followed by reinforcement. Therefore, new behaviors are not "lucky hits" but the result of actual attempts to reproduce what they observe. This amounts to vicarious conditioning. It is not necessary for the person to experience the reinforcement himself, he can watch another's experience, and embrace the other's conditioning as his own.

2. The manner in which one learns from models Five distinct steps to this kind of learning are detailed by Bandura. See the insight box on "Learning from Models" (Fig. 2).

Insight: Learning from Models

The process of learning from models consists of five main functions:

1. The child must attend to the pertinent clues. The child may misdirect her attention at the time the model is observed, and therefore fail to perform the behavior properly later. A teacher can help by directing the child's attention to those parts of the model's performance that are most important.

2. The child must code for memory. That is, a visual image must be stored in the memory for the particular behavior that the child has witnessed. Older children learn more readily from looking at others' performances than do younger children, because of the cumulative effect of the storage in the memory. The development of language, and of schemes for coding the observations, improves the child's ability to profit from watching models.

3. The child must be able to retain in her memory that which she has observed, so that it will be available when needed. Memories do fade or disappear with time, so memory-aiding techniques such as rehearsal or review or practice help to maintain the image in the child's memory.

4. The child must reproduce the observed motor activities accurately. The child must not only get the idea of the behaviors to perform but she must also get the muscular feel of behavior. According to Bandura, usually the child cannot do this perfectly on the first trial, and thus the child needs a number of trials in which she seeks to approximate the behavior. The older child will probably perform the model activities better, because her muscular development is better advanced than the younger child's.

5. The child must be motivated to carry through all the steps in the process of learning from models. The crucial role of the consequences of the behavior enter the picture at this point. The child must understand that in the future this would be a good way to behave under particular sets of circumstances.

  Insight: Which Models are Children Likely to Follow?

Experimental studies show that:

1. Children are more likely to model their own behavior after the actions of people they look upon as important, than after people whom they do not look upon as important.

2. Children are more likely to adopt behavior patterns from models of their own sex than from models of the opposite sex.

3. Models who receive rewards such as fame, high society status, or money are more influential with children than those who do not have these kinds of rewards.

4. Models who are punished for their behavior are usually not followed by the children.

5. Children follow models who are more similar to themselves in age or social status than those who appear to the child to be quite different from himself or herself.

6. Through the observation of models, Bandura believes that children can add new options to their repertoire of possible behaviors, and figure out under which circumstances these options should be used.

From A. Bandura and R.H. Walters, Social Learning and Personality Development (New York Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1963). pp. 10-11, 50, 84, 94-100.

Social learning theorists call Skinner's view "radical behaviorism." One of the main advantages to social learning theory is that it makes room for the affective and intuitive aspects of learning. As Barlow argues,


Behaviorism has been vigorously denounced by evangelical authors and preachers. While most of this criticism is deserved from the theistic perspective, Christian leaders and educators may overlook the positive contributions from behaviorism to a Christian understanding of human motivation and learning. The fact is that God resorts to operant conditioning in dealing with people, even though without the mechanistic overtones implied in radical behaviorism. Also, instrumental, or operant conditioning is apparently called for in the rearing of children (Prov. 6:23; 10:13; 13:24; 15:10; 19:18; 22:15; 22:13; 23:14; 26:3). Rewards and punishments are evident in both the Old and New testaments. Can you name any examples?

Skinner's over-all approach is expressly anti-biblical because it is based on monistic materialism (i.e. that there is nothing but matter in the universe-atheism). He argues,

Clearly, this position is objectionable at least part of the time. The question is, can we benefit from a perspective that grows out of an unacceptable philosophical base? Here the answer should be, "yes." Skinner's efforts to explain everything on the basis of contingent reinforcement fail, but this does not mean he fails to explain some things. Even in the field of religion, how would the Christian best explain devotion in another religious complex that is unbiblical? Why is the Muslim devoted? Indeed, why do nominal Christians practice their liturgies? In many of these cases, the best answer is probably to be found in the area of contingent reinforcement.

Behavioral engineering is myopic and simplistic in its understanding of human behavior, but it does seem to account for many behavioral patterns. It also makes no distinction between legitimate training and manipulation.


Behaviorists criticize the typical classroom for failure to provide positive reinforcement in learning. Extra homework, scolding, withdrawal of privileges, and spanking (all in the punishment category) tend to be the main tools of motivation in ineffective classrooms.

Notice that punishment is different than negative reinforcement, both in intent and effect. Negative reinforcement directly reinforces desired behavior (by the reward of drive abatement or reduction of irritating stimuli) while punishment relates not to desired behavior, but to undesirable behavior. The hope is, of course, that terminating negative behavior will leave only desired behavior, but this is not necessarily the result. For this reason, punishment has severe limitations on its ability to encourage behavior or learning. Barlow explains:

Ericksen agrees,

The application for the Christian leader seems to be that positive reinforcers that are appreciated by the learner need to be devised and employed in connection with learning. We may foolishly neglect to use positive reinforcement, which accounts for reduced effectiveness in our attempts to motivate others.

Improper Reinforcement

Another possible error would be to accidentally apply reinforcement (either positive or negative) to undesirable rather than desired behavior. For instance, a member may be irritated by the lack of attention shown by a leader. Then, as spiritual problems and grumbling surface in the member's life, the leader rushes in to avoid crisis. The result is that the undesirable behavior is accidentally reinforced.

Schedules of reinforcement need to be carefully considered in leadership as well. Improper schedule of reinforcement can result in a complete breakdown in learning.

For example, ultimate rewards from education (e.g. that the student can get a good job, that she can become a Bible teacher, etc.) are not effective as positive reinforcers because they are ultimate--they are not experienced until the end of the educational process which is far too long an interval for effective reinforcement. A student may really want to be a teacher, but does this help when he is trying to concentrate on his studies on a weekday night? We need to consider what would constitute good immediate reinforcement in a learning situation.

Interestingly, intermittent schedules of reinforcement are far more effective in eliciting academic learning behavior than a continuous schedule. Ericksen says,

[At this point, we have students read Robert F. Mager, Developing Attitude Toward Learning. (Palo Alto, CA: Fearon Publishers. 1968) chapters 5-7 on closed reserve at the study center. Mager explains how to recognize an approach response toward the subject matter in education and how to reinforce it.]

In the case where no approach response is being exhibited by members, reinforcement cannot have effect. It is only after a desired behavior is seen that reinforcement can be used. However, if only part of the desired response is seen, that part can be reinforced and later chained together with the other parts to result in the full behavior.

In order to provoke an approach response toward learning, vicarious learning might be the solution. Modeling and reinforcing those who do demonstrate approach response in the presence of those who do not may result in movement in this area.

In the case where a desirable behavior is identified (such as an approach response to the subject matter being studied), the next step is to reinforce that behavior appropriately.

Questions for Study

1. Name 4 kinds of positive reinforcement you can use for members in your cell group. Give examples.

2. Name 2 kinds of negative reinforcement available for your cell members. Give examples.

3. Name 2 kinds of punishing stimuli and situations where they might legitimately appear. Avoid extreme examples.

4. Skinner says, ". . . the careless teacher will reinforce the attention-getter and the showoff." It would be equally easy to accidentally reinforce self-centeredness, gloominess, or neurotic behavior. Can you name occasions where you have done this, or have seen it done?

5. A child asks, "What is wrong with stealing, if it doesn't hurt somebody?" Considering that stealing is a behavior, how would you explain this behavior in behavioristic terms? Wrong reinforcers used? Wrong schedule of reinforcement?

6. Should a token economy be used in a classroom? What are the advantages or disadvantages?

7. According to Bandura's list of factors in modeling (Fig. 2 p. 5), models who are punished for their behavior are usually not followed by the children. If you, as a leader, complain about the burden you feel, would this affect your modeling ability?

8. Based on principle #1 on modeling (Fig. 3 p. 6) how can Home Church leaders affect the perception of their members in the area of leader importance?

9. Lack of reinforcement weakens a given behavior. How does this fact apply to Home Church work? Can you identify some times when lack of reinforcement was employed to good effect in weakening undesirable behavior? What types of behavior might merit lack of reinforcement?

10. A child of 2 and his mother are in a room with a stairway adjoining. She forbids him to climb the steps, but he begins to do so anyway. She threatens him with spanking, but he continues. She advances and swats him on the rear and brings him back into the middle of the room. He not only doesn't cry, but promptly returns to the steps and begins to climb. After 5 returns with swats, the child seems undeterred. Mom finally picks him up screaming and holds him, so he cannot repeat the behavior. What is wrong in this scenario from a behaviorist perspective?

11. Where might you need to change your habits in the area of schedule of reinforcement? If reinforcement is used too often, it loses its effectiveness. Variable interval reinforcement is best for academic learning. How does this apply?

Cognitive-Discovery Learning Theory

Four schools of learning theory that differ from behaviorism are Gestalt Psychology, Field theory of Learning, Cognitive Structure Learning Theory, and Discovery Learning theory. All of these are similar to each other, because they stress the importance of understanding patterns or relationships between particulars in a field of knowledge.

Gestalt Psychology

Gestalt is a German word usually translated "form" or "pattern." The heart of gestalt theory as it applies to learning is that "meaningful configurations are greater than the mere sum of their parts." Gestalt theorists argue that learning occurs when the learner attains insight. Insight, in this framework means the discovery of new relationships between particulars by an individual. An important difference can be seen between rote memorization on one hand, and on the other hand, understanding interrelationships between various facts in a field of knowledge. "The gestalt view calls attention to the fact that many things are learned when we arrange ideas into patterns. We do not just add together impressions; we grasp how they are related."

In 1916, Wolfgang Kohler demonstrated that learning is by "insight" by which he meant perceiving relationships. A chimpanzee had learned to use short sticks in his cage to pull things toward himself. Kohler placed a longer stick just out of reach outside the cage, and a banana even farther away. After trying to reach the banana with the shorter stick, the chimp went and sat in the corner for some time. Finally, he got up and used the shorter stick to drag the longer stick in, and then used the longer stick to drag in the banana. Kohler argued that the chimp had gained insight into (or learned) the relationship between the two sticks and the banana.

Insight develops when perceptions are suddenly organized. We see that this sort of learning does not clearly fit into a behaviorist scenario. The sequence was too complex to be an accident, and since it had not been trained or modeled before, it seems likely that insight was in fact arrived at as a result of some cognitive process.

Field Theory

Kurt Lewin has developed a terminology based on comparing a human's field of knowledge and experience to magnetic fields. This issues in the field theory of learning. Both of these kinds of theories call attention to the fact that behavioral and cognitive elements are interrelated and that the development of the current relationship of these particulars is crucial to a correct understanding both of the current state of person's thinking, and of the needs for further development. One of the values of cognitive-discovery approaches is that they give credit to the complexity of thinking necessary to move beyond simple cataloguing of material.

Cognitive Structure Theories

Jerome Bruner is another noted psychologist who has written on the need for a cognitive structure approach to learning. Like the Gestalt theorists, he insists that students should be assisted in grasping the overall structure of a given field of study. Structure again stresses the importance of relationships within the field. Bruner argues that too much learning occurs as step-by-step study of statements or formulas to be reproduced by the student on cue. The result of such programmed materials is that the student cannot use the material outside of the class room. See Bruner's principles summarized in Fig. 4

Insight: Features of a Theory of Instruction (Bruner)

Jerome Bruner, in his book Toward a Theory of Instruction, outlines four features he believes should be included within a theory of instruction.

1. The theory should make clean and precise the conditions that predispose individuals toward learning. Bruner believes that the experiences that contribute to an individual's desire to learn, not only in general but to master particular material, should be stated clearly.

2. Bruner emphasizes that a theory of instruction should describe precisely the ways in which a particular body of knowledge is to be structured so that the students can most readily grasp it and use it. Bruner believes that no matter what the content of the learning, if that material is organized appropriately, it can be presented in a form that is simple enough for any learner to understand.

3. The third feature in a theory of instruction, according to Bruner, should be a detailing of the most effective sequences by which that material may be presented, taking into account the learner, the difficulty of the material, and the logical sequencing of its ideas and content. Bruner's thrust is that the process of instruction should increase the learner's ability to "grasp, transform, and transfer what he is learning."

4. Bruner stresses that a theory of instruction should make very clear the nature and the pacing of the rewards. Bruner stresses that, ideally, educators should move gradually from rewarding extrinsically to helping the student is grasp intrinsic satisfaction. This is, of course, a part of the cognitive view, that the student should become less dependent upon the teacher's rewarding behavior and more dependent upon his own intrinsic satisfaction in seeking to work through to a solution of the learning task itself. Bruner stresses in this regard that the timing of when the rewards are given is of great importance. If the student gets rewarded too early, he may not be interested in exploring any further. If he gets rewarded or feedback comes too late, it may not really be relevant or helpful. In effect, Bruner is adding what we might term "sensitive timing" to the already great responsibility of the teacher in the teaching-learning process.

Jerome Bruner, Toward a Theory of Instruction (Cambridge Harvard U. Belknap) Copyright 1966 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Fig. 3 Bruner on Learning

Bruner stresses that teaching a discipline, ". . .is not a matter of getting [one] to commit results to mind. Rather it is to teach him to participate in the process that makes possible the establishment of knowledge. . .to get a student to think mathematically for himself, to consider matters as an historian does. . . knowledge is a process, not a product."

Of course here is where he can be criticized as well. Teaching is more than a process, it is also a product. We want both to impart the facts of the situation and the ability to think about it in the proper way. The unstructured classrooms and new math approaches based on Bruner's theories have come under criticism because they went to the opposite extreme from rote memory--completely unstructured and undisciplined inquiry. Such a creative stage of learning should probably follow after a more simple type of learning based in part on instrumental conditioning and rote memory. Ericksen argues correctly that,

Also, not every person is self motivated to learn. A refusal to diligently apply contingent reinforcements, especially in the early phases of learning can lead to chaos in the learning environment. Thus, both Cognitive-Discovery theory and elements of behavioristic learning theory probably need to be used together. Simple reinforcement and modeling are most effective in the earlier phases of teaching, and discovery comes to prominence in the more advanced stages. Of course both are used to some degree throughout.

Ausubel's Stages of Learning

Gestaltists believe that they are not like behaviorists--viewing learners as passive organisms, focusing on how they can be manipulated by the environment. Gestaltists claim to view organisms as active processors of the stimuli in their environment. One who has spelled out practical stages in cognitive development is David Ausubel. He identifies four stages needed in a complete learning sequence.

Questions for Study


Although some teachers and leaders may claim that they refuse to use conditioning in their work, this is not possible. We are always reinforcing, punishing, or ignoring behavior responses of those around us. The choice is not whether to use contingent response teaching techniques, but whether to use them effectively.

In the case of Cognitive-Structure theory, on the other hand, it is not so clear that we are necessarily applying these principles of learning at all. Serious creative thought needs to be invested into the question of how we intend to develop the ability to think, rather than merely imparting what to think.


Return to Introduction to Christian Leadership