Alex Tang, (see his photo at this link) doctor and theologian from Johor Bahru in Malaysia, has sent these thoughts and question:

I was reading and thinking through some of your postings in creativity in theological education on your blog, Theologians Without Borders. I wonder whether any seminary is using Problem based learning (PBL) as a pedagogy. I know medical education has been changed in a big way by PBL.

When I asked Alex to elaborate on this approach, he directed me to an article (21 January 2007) on his Random Musings from a Doctor’s Chair site, which I have reposted (with thanks) on this site. Alex writes:

Attended a two days problem based learning (PBL) workshop organised by Monash University School of Medicine in Malaysia.

Problem based learning is a new way of teaching medicine which involved a paradigm shift in thinking about medical education. The traditional way of teaching medicine involves the first two years of classroom based lectures on basic medical sciences (preclinical) and then three years of rotations in the wards of the various medical disciplines (clinical). Problem based learning curriculum integrates all learning so that instead of dividing the curriculum into preclinical and clinical, it integrates the preclinical and clinical together.

What is innovative is that instead of approaching medical education from the basic sciences, PBL approaches from a set of clinical problems. This is more akin to the real world when the new doctors face patients who come to see them with a set of problems rather than medical science issues. That the ultraconservative medical education did reinvent itself is very impressive and worth noting.

The basis of this change is because of new development in adult learning theories. In essence it was found that adult learning was found to be:

(1) independent and self directing
(2) accumulated experience- a rich resource for learning
(3) learning by integrating with demands of everyday life
(4) interested in immediate, problem centered approaches more than subject centered ones
(5) motivated to learn by internal drives, rather than external ones

I wonder whether problem based learning can be implemented in the Christian education and the pulpit ministry of our churches. In a sense problem based learning is not something new to the Bible and church traditions. Most of the New Testament and church doctrines were written because of problems created by the Judiazers, agnostics, syncretism in churches, Marcion and others. Problems were what stimulated discussions and the formulation of the gospels, epistles and church creeds.

In one sense, Christian education is still preclinical and clinical (systematic theology/propositions). Yet, all Christians struggle with how to live a Christian life in un-Christian/post Christian, multicultural, pluralistic society. Would it not make sense to approach church teaching through problems (how to do business in a culture where bribery is considered normal, how to be good parents, how not to be a consumer driven church) rather than through propositions (what is the Trinity, what is the importance of the cross, what is a church)?

I am not saying that propositions are not important but that it is the way we teach them so that the teaching be relevant to the learners. One of my observations is that many Christians are discouraged because they find what is preached and taught in churches are not relevant to their lives. Seminary graduates enter church ministries with “the right answers, but to the wrong questions.”

I believe that theological institutions and churches need to consider a paradigm shift in their education strategies and one of the possibilities is to adopt a problem based approach.

It is good to catch a glimpse of changing educational practice from another sphere. From what Alex writes, it seems that learning by the case study method and Supervised Field Education (SFE) or what is now called Supervised Theological Field Education (STFE), is probably closest to the PBL method.

STFE begins with a pastoral encounter (or problem) and proceeds in the way of theological reflection and practice. It is being used extensively around the world and students often say that it is the most integrating subject that they do in their seminary education.

STFE is described in this Resource Manual, written by my friend and former colleague, Colin Hunter, who is one of the leaders in this discipline.

In a Comment on Alex’s blog Alwyn catches the possibilities of a new way of education in the church and seminaries when he writes enthusiastically:

“Excellent! I REALLY think our ‘normal’ ways of conducting bible-study, cell-groups, (sermons?), could do with a huge dose of PBL-ism…the church is waaaaaay too ‘passive’ in our education methods, don’tcha think? It’s all absorb absorb absorb, whilst all around us the world is innovating in so many learning areas.”

Thanks to Alex for sharing these insights. Do keep on posting your Comments.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: Medical students and teacher engaging in Problem Based Learning. (Courtesy of Alex Tang).