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Dan Harper | Learning Types and Their Needs

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I presented this essay at the first Essex Conversations colloquium held in March, 1999. It has held up surprisingly well in a number of areas, especially in its critique of the limitations of developmentalism, and in its insistence on talking about real live learners. All the learners portrayed in this essay are real people, though of course I changed their names and identifying features. One of the pleasures for me in re-reading this essay is remembering children and teens that I knew all those years ago. I wish I knew what became of them, but I've lost touch with all of them.

It's also fun to re-read this essay to find all the things I no longer agree with. First, and perhaps most importantly, the essay doesn't adequately address how it is that learning and individual development depend on social interaction (I read Vygotsky a year or so after writing this essay). Second, the world has changed a great deal in the intervening years, and Unitarian Universalist (UU) religious education faces new challenges, including the ongoing decline of religious education enrollment in UU congregations, and the rise of religious disaffiliation, two linked trends that have been accelerated by the COVID pandemic. Third, over the past decade I've become increasingly aware of just how religiously illiterate most North Americans are, and I've seen the research showing how religious literacy improves cross-cultural understanding, and how improved cross-cultural understanding can reduce violence and conflict in our communities; I wish now I'd made religious literacy integral to the essay. Finally, I'm less critical of schooling than I used to be; some of the favored alternatives to schooling promoted in UU circle now appear to me to be artifacts of upper middle class culture; while because the vast majority of children in the U.S. and Canada attend school, schooling has broader acceptance across cultures.

A revised version of this essay was published in the book Essex Conversations: Visions for Lifespan Religious Education (Skinner House: Boston, 2001); a book which, somewhat to my astonishment, is still in print. I think it's past time for another generation of UU religious educators to write new essays about the future of religious education — unfortunately, I suspect the declining financial health of the entire denomination means we won't see another gathering that will produce a collection of essays like the Essex Conversations.

— Dan Harper, August, 2021

A low resolution photo of 12 people posing

The low-resolution photo above is the only photo I have of the participants in the 1999 Essex Conversations colloquium. Standing, left to right: Lena Breen, Ginger Luke, Jeanellen Ryan, Frances Manly, Tom Yondorf, Susan Davison Archer, Susan Suchocki Brown, Susan Harlow. Seated, left to right: John Marsh, ???, Dan Harper, Tom Owen-Towle. According to the online UUA directory, Lena, Ginger, Jeanellen, Frances, Susan D-A., Susan S-B., and Tom O-T. are either retired or no longer active. Tom Y. left the ministry in 2000 to become a schoolteacher; Susan H. recently retired as senior pastor at the People's Church in Chicago; and John Marsh, sadly, died in June, 2021. Three things strike me: everyone is white; at age 38, I was the younger person there; I'm the only one in this photo who is still actively working as a UU religious professional. These three things help show how dated the Essex Conversations material is today.


Learning Types and Their Needs

We usually reckon a generation lasts about twenty years. Generations tend to have their own identity, and face challenges specific to them. I've been a religious educator for less than five years, while most of my mentors and role models in religious education have been working in the field for fifteen, twenty, even forty or more years. Since I have been a director of religious education for less than five years, I guess I am a part of a new generation of religious educators. And I am beginning to see some of the new tasks that face religious educators of my generation. One challenge in particular looms large for me — the way we religious educators are isolated from (and perhaps "have isolated ourselves from") parish ministers, theologians, and scholars of religion.

Most of you know your Unitarian Universalist (UU) religious education (RE) history far better than do I. You know that Sophia Fahs turned to some of the finest scholars for help in writing her curriculum. Dorothy Spoerl and others worked towards an accreditation program for religious educators so we could work with parish ministers as colleagues. Hugo Holleroth turned to the insights of Paul Tillich and other theologians to help him ground such classic curricula as "The Haunting House" and "About Your Sexuality." But in my generation of UU RE, it feels like we don't talk to parish ministers, we don't listen to theologians, and we don't pay attention to scholars.

A funny thing: these groups of people all share a common concern for the religious growth and learning of individuals in our congregations. So how can we religious educators begin a constructive dialogue with parish ministers, theologians, and others? I believe a new way of describing learners can help reopen the conversation with these colleagues of ours.

Consider this: religious educators rely heavily on developmental psychology to describe individuals. Developmental psychology is a well-developed and useful tool, but if that's all we use to describe learners, then in my opinion we take the "religious" out of "RE," and turn it into a social science. Maybe that's one way we have isolated ourselves — we talk a language the others can't really follow.

While James Michael Lee and others have argued that religious education is nothing but social science, in my observations of individual learners, I find I need other concepts for an adequate description of learners. For example, using just developmental psychology, I should observe a fairly clear progression of educational tasks based primarily on the age of the learner. What I find in my work is adults who come into Unitarian Universalism from unchurched backgrounds face many of the same educational tasks as young children. I have found it useful to consider not only developmental stage, but also what we can call "depth of faith" within a given faith tradition. Note that while developmental stage is closely related to chronological age, depth of faith may not be. I now prefer an approach where developmental psychology is one dimension of my description of learners, and depth of faith (certainly not a term allowed in any social science) is another dimension — like the x-axis and the y-axis of a graph.

Using this descriptive method, I can identify several different types of learners. I can further identify at least five discrete educational tasks faced by these learners. It then becomes clear which tasks demand the expertise of which experts — theologians, parish ministers, scholars — and yes, even parents. I'd like to introduce you to this descriptive method by presenting short portraits of individuals who are characteristic of the different types of learners.


Mei is a bright, complex girl who has just turned five. She comes to church with her parents nearly every week, and attends the first fifteen minutes of Sunday morning worship as do all children. Mei used to have trouble sitting through those fifteen minutes, but lately she has made real progress in learning how to sit still and be attentive. Her parents tell me that now she really gets something out of those fifteen minutes. Mei exemplifies a type we can call young children.

Young children have to learn all the little things we take for granted: how to come to church once a week, how to sit still, how to be respectful of older people (“no running in coffee hour!”). They have to learn what to do when it's time to sing a hymn (and what a hymn is), when it's time to pray or meditate, when it's time to go to Sunday school classes. Basically, young children have to learn how to do religion.

Gabriella and Emily are best buddies. They started coming to the church when they were each eight, and quickly learned where to go and what to do when you got there. By the time they were ten, they often sat with each other, and apart from their parents, when they were in church. They knew lots of stuff about Unitarian Universalism, and about Bible times, and about world religions, and so on, and they liked to share their knowledge. By the time they were ten, they were just beginning to find out that they had individual religious identities, separate from their families and the church (and from each other). Call this type of learner children.

Children face two main educational tasks. First, they must continue to learn how to do religion — for example, how to sit through a whole sermon and maybe even get a little something out of it. Second, they are ready to learn about our heritage and the sources we draw inspiration from: — what was it like to live in Biblical times? — if we traveled back in time to meet great Unitarians and Universalists, what would they be like? Some older children, like Gabriella and Emily, face a third educational task: discerning who they are as religious individuals. But children concentrate on learning about our heritage, and on learning how to do religion.

Kyle, tall, quiet, and thoughtful, grew up in his church; he recently turned fifteen. He knows a fair amount about our faith heritage. He has begun to discern his religious identity: his individual religious identity; who he is in the faith community; and his role as a religious individual in the wider world. He has just begun to question why we do religion the way we do it, and he is struggling to find words that are adequate to this task. Kyle exemplifies long-term youth, youth who have been a part of a UU faith community for some time.

Long-term youth have one main educational task: they have to figure out who they are. This task has at least three parts. You have to figure out who you are as a religious individual; who you are as a part of a faith community; and who you are as a religious person in the wider world. As long-term youth wrestle with these questions, they often need to go back and learn more about our heritage. Like Kyle, long-term youth may begin theological reflection as they grow into their UU faith, or they may discern that they really don't belong in the UU faith community. But discernment remains the chief task of long-term youth.

Jermaine is seventeen, already a gifted teacher, indeed one of the best Sunday school teachers in his church. He has already made a preliminary reckoning about who he is as a religious being. This year, he has been teaching the course Why Do Bad Things Happen to 5th and 6th graders. While teaching this course, he has begun to reflect on why we UU's do religion the way we do, and he has had to come up with words to talk about what he's been reflecting on. This reflection is leading him to a deeper understanding of himself as a religious being, and of his role in the wider world. I call young people like Jermaine deep youth — the “deep” indicates the depth of their growing faith.

Deep youth face new educational tasks. Long-term youth may have begun theological reflection, but deep youth have started to apply their beginning theological reflection to their lives. Appropriately nurtured, this in turn will lead to further theological reflection, and further application.

In addition to long-term and deep youth, there are youth who are new to Unitarian Universalism. Sara, a friend of Jermaine's, began coming to youth group a few months ago. She hasn't come to a Sunday morning worship service yet. She's beginning to have some idea what this faith tradition stands for, but for now, she's concentrating on finding her place within the small community of the youth group. Call Sara and those like her new youth.

New youth, while developmentally different, face much the same tasks that young children and children face. New youth have to figure out how this community works and how to do religion, and they have to learn something about the faith tradition and its heritage. I note in passing that while we religious educators often do not adequately help new youth and long-term youth with the educational tasks that immediately face them, the youth themselves often do a stunning job of helping each other.

Just as there are three types of youth, there are three types of adults: new, long-term, and deep adults. Again, there are distinct developmental differences, but in terms of the dimension of depth of faith, there are marked similarities between long-term youth and long-term adults, deep youth and deep adults.

New adults come in at least three different varieties. “Come-inners” weren't part of any faith tradition and have come in to Unitarian Universalism. Like young children, children, and new youth, they must first learn how to do religion; then they can go on to learn about our heritage. Marny is a come-inner. She likes the idea of church pretty well, but still doesn't quite understand why you'd waste a perfectly good sunny Sunday morning listening to a sermon — I would say, she doesn't yet know how to do our kind of religion.

“Come-outers” have come out of another faith tradition into Unitarian Universalism. They probably know how to do religion in some form, but still need to learn about our heritage. They also must discern if they really belong in a UU congregation, which brings us to the next category. “Pass-throughers” stay for a time in a UU congregation, but wind up moving on to another faith tradition. Robert had been raised a mainline Protestant, discovered a UU congregation, and became very active there for a couple of years. But as he better discerned who he was as a religious being, he came to see that he was not a UU. He went on to help found an evangelical Christian congregation. Pass-throughers need to discern their religious identity.

Long-term adults are quite similar to long-term youth. Note that they may become deep adults, but often they just remain long-term adults, staying relatively active in their congregation but avoiding discernment or theological reflection. Edward goes to worship services, volunteers about once a month, gives money each year, and that's all he wants. He neither demands much from his church nor wants his church to demand much from him. Long-term adults like Edward should be of concern to parish ministers and religious educators together.

Deep adults next. When I knew Sue Anne, she worked as the director of a child care center. She taught the preschool group in the Sunday school, served on the congregation's board, and had served on several committees. Worship services and sermons fed her soul, and she would only teach every other week so she could attend worship services. She was deeply committed to promoting non-violence, and to multiculturalism, and saw these stances as outgrowths of her faith as a UU. She told me that the conversations she frequently had with others in the congregation — about death, the meaning of life, deep conversations about everything under the sun — were in some sense life-altering, and were what kept her so involved in the congregation. Like Jermaine, the deep youth, Sue Anne practiced her religion in various ways, which led her to reflect on who she was as a person of faith, and that reflection led back to further involvement in the faith community and the world. As you would guess, deep adults face essentially the same educational tasks as do deep youth.

This typology of learners, while not finished or perhaps even complete, nevertheless brings out some of the educational tasks faced by individual learners in our congregations. At least five tasks are fairly obvious to me, although you might well find additional ones.

Types of learners and their main educational tasks

Young children: How to do religion
Children: How to do religion, our religious heritage
New youth: How to do religion, our religious heritage
Long-term youth: Discernment
Deep youth: Theological reflection, refining practice, discernment again
New adults: How to do religion, our religious heritage
Long-term adults: Our religious heritage, discernment
Deep adults: Theological reflection, refining practice, discernment again

The first task: individuals have to learn how to do religion. Mei has learned how to come to church once a week, what a worship service is, what a hymn is, that we get religious inspiration from certain books and certain sets of words, and so on.

Next: learn and explore our faith tradition. Gabriella and Emily learned lots of stuff about our Jewish and Christian heritages, other world religions we draw inspiration from, and our own UU tradition. Probably this task comes to mind first when thinking of the tasks of religious education.

The third task is to learn to discern who they are as religious beings. This task consists of at least three parts: discerning your religious identity as an individual member of this faith community; discerning your role within your faith community (which will change over time); and discerning your role in the wider world as a faithful person.

Fourth: individuals engage in theological reflection, learning how to think about how they do religion, and how to find the words to talk about what they think. We often cede this educational task to the theological schools.

Having discerned who you are as a religious being and gone on to theological reflection, you face a fifth task: establishing and refining religious practices. You might learn new techniques of prayer or meditation, learn a new role in the local congregation, engage in social action or learn how to find a job consistent with your faith.


As we religious educators assist learners to face each of these five educational tasks, we can begin to see whom we can consult for help. Parents and parish ministers can help us as we assist learners facing the task of learning how to do religion. Historians and other scholars of religion will give us invaluable aid as we plan to teach our religious heritage. Parish ministers and lay ministers can help as we assist learners with discerning who they are as religious individuals; theologians, parish ministers, and lay leaders can help with learners who are discerning their roles in the faith community and the wider world. And obviously theologians will be a great help as we help people learn to engage in theological reflection.

In addition, we religious educators can fine-tune our own educational practice. Most UU RE programs rely heavily on the technique of schooling for educating children and adults. But a person facing the task of discerning who they are as a religious individual will not be well served by yet another class — a retreat would be a better option, or perhaps the RE department and the parish minister could sponsor “discernment committees,” similar to what the clearness committees some Quakers use, or the mid-program review committees used in some theological schools. As individuals discern their roles within a faith community, schools and classes may help, but an apprenticeship or mentoring program might also work well. We may find that closely-graded schools are not the be-all and end-all of religious education.

Even within the context of schooling, we religious educators can take a hard look at our curricula. Are they based in the finest scholarship available? Have they benefitted from the insights of the best liberal theologians? Do the curricula allow us to work cooperatively with parish ministers (not presupposing that schooling within the congregation is utterly separate from every other congregational function)? If we answer “no” to any of these questions, the curriculum in question moves us towards isolation and away from conversation. Furthermore, we must ask ourselves if the curriculum in question really meets the needs of learners: How does this curriculum help learners as they face educational tasks?

I like to think that cooperation, interdependency, and community lie at the core of our UU faith tradition along with individual conscience and freedom. If this were my dream, in this next generation of UU religious education we religious educators will reach out to — and deepen our cooperation with — learners, parish ministers, theologians, scholars, parents and guardians, and the wider faith community. By so doing, we can only get better at helping learners meet the challenges of their educational tasks, which is to say: to help learners in their religious growth, to help them as they deepen their faith. And that, after all, is the whole purpose behind what we do.