Church, Donald Miller and Learning Styles

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Donald Miller’s recent compositions about why he doesn’t go to church have clearly struck a nerve within the Christian blogosphere. A flood of responses, most of them feverishly trying to explain why it’s actually a good idea to go to church, have poured forth.

It’s been a pretty interesting conversation.  For the record, I like Donald Miller’s work. I’ve used and recommended a couple of his books. I think he writes well, tends to think outside the box, and generally has been a blessing to those who read him.  I also think some of his ideas about how church could look, for those who don’t like its current manifestation, are pretty good.  All of that said, however, I do take issue with a basic premise in his discussion…that his “learning style” is the leading rationale behind his decision not to go to church. He has even answered some of his critics by asserting that they’ve ignored that “learning styles” is what his original blog is really about.

A major part of my life’s mission as a psychologist is to try to help educate people about the extent to which they’re exposed to loads of pure baloney masquerading as science.  Many of these wolves-in-lab-coat-clothing notions just seem so commonsensical that we easily presume that there must be some good science behind them.  Along with this dangerous presumption, whether we would admit it or not, virtually everyone considers herself or himself to be an expert in human behavior and mental functioning. We’re all self-styled personality, emotional, and cognitive theorists and have become such just simply by living and observing people every day. Just pay attention and you’ll figure out how people tick, right? Further, once we’ve decided how things really work, we proceed to see the world with a biased perspective in favor of evidence that supports our preconceived conclusions, and ignores or undermines evidence to the contrary.

Added to this problem is the tendency of paper never to refuse ink (and word processors never to refuse a keystroke.)  Much of what is written, blogged, or otherwise published calling itself behavioral science is bunk, but plays on our common sense, appeals to our inflated sense of our own expertise about how the human psyche works, and thus masquerades as good science or good reasoning.  Mix all of this together and you end up with a pretty sophisticated mythology of human thought and behavior that often bears little resemblance to how people actually think and behave. A prime case in point is the “learning styles” understanding of how the mind works. It seems right, but really isn’t.  I think this issue is an important part of the ongoing discussion of Miller’s blog, since he has made learning styles the real basis for the entire case he makes.

The idea of a “learning style” has been floating around educational circles for a few decades. In many circles, it has achieved the status of canonical wisdom. Most teachers subscribe to it in some form.  Many believe they intuitively know and understand that some people just learn visually, while others require auditory methods, and others (particularly those who have been subjected to the ubiquitous diagnosis of ADHD) are kinesthetic learners.  Miller says he’s one of the latter. So, since church doesn’t let us move around much (with the exception of occasional standing or some kneeling if you’re Catholic or Anglican) we don’t really learn by doing much in church. So, it follows that kinesthetic learners can’t really benefit from being there. They’re just not wired up for church the way it’s typically done.  It’s a brain thing, you see? Neurophysiology is destiny.  God made each of us to learn and function best using particular sensory modalities, so we should seek our spiritual experiences and connections with God through the modalities with which God made each of us to uniquely function best.  Miller is far from alone in this perspective.

This notion has some huge problems.  First of all, the whole idea that we each have a specific learning style that is wired into our brain and we must seek to learn through that style if we’re going to learn effectively is probably a fiction.  The good science to support it is simply not there.  In 2009, the American Psychological Society drew this conclusion after extensively reviewing the literature, and there’s a growing body of empirical work supporting my assertion (e.g. Dan Willingham, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia has a short YouTube clip that debunks the learning styles concept pretty well).  The idea of learning styles appeals to our common sense. It also appeals to the current tendency to try to reduce every complex human function or characteristic to some neuroanatomical or neurochemical process – another notion that crumbles under the weight of either a thorough scientific or logical analysis. It just doesn’t hold up well to scientific scrutiny.

What’s probably true is that many of us have an impression of how we learn best that’s based on our subjective and biased self-observation and that impression doesn’t match the reality of how we actually experience the world and learn. What the predominance of current evidence suggests is that we all learn some things best by seeing, some other things best by hearing, and some other things by doing.  Whichever of these categories of things happens to best fit our preferences, our personalities, the mood we’re in at the time, and a bunch of other individual variables becomes what we label as our “learning style.”  We tend to make life choices that indulge those individual proclivities and preferences and reinforce our notions of our own styles of learning, thinking, and doing.

How all of this relates to Miller’s reflections on church is that he and others who use similar arguments have found a sophisticated, psycho-educational (and by implication neurobiological) jargon to explain their personal preferences and proclivities.  It’s all a kind of pseudoscientific facade for the reality that church, the way it is typically done, is just not his cup of tea.

Believe me… I get that.  I often feel it and I strongly identify with much of what Miller says.  What I try not to do, however, is to dress it up by implying that the reason for all of it is some sort of hard-wired cognitive and behavioral way of being that God made me.  Let’s not have this conversation based on those false premises, but rather accept that our styles, preferences, and choices are just that. From what Miller has written, I think it’s perfectly safe to say that he simply doesn’t like going to church.  (He compares it to self-mutilation at one point.) Okay, so he has honestly and courageously expressed what many people feel.

I think Miller is using the learning styles idea as convenient intellectual cover for an issue that most churches are facing.  Many people don’t come to church because they’re bored with it.  They just don’t like it.  And, in the consumer-driven culture to which we have become so thoroughly assimilated, we can all just exercise other options to get our experience of God.  That’s not really news. But it is really important.

There is one thing that the learning styles research can help us with in this conversation.  In looking into the process of learning, what we’ve discovered is that what really gets a point home is a good example or illustration, whether it’s visual, auditory, or kinesthetic.  In other words, what matters most is the quality of the presentation, not the sensory mode in which it’s offered.  A lot of people don’t come to church because they’re simply tired of hearing bad sermons, songs they don’t like, or being in an atmosphere where they just aren’t comfortable.  Churches need to own up to that.

So, here’s a modest proposal about some ground rules for the ongoing conversation. How about we say – It’s not fair for people who simply don’t like to go to church to try to justify it by calling it a neurological condition.  And, it’s not fair for churches to justify doing a poor job of connecting with those disinterested and bored multitudes by blaming them for not making enough of an effort. Maybe if we start with those premises, we can proceed with a healthy discussion of how we can all better accept the mutual and shared responsibility of doing and being church.

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