Ignatian Pedagogy

By Dr. Susan Mountin

Imagine two students in a classroom.

One was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. He grew up in a nice suburb. He has had just about anything he wanted from video games to clothes to the latest iPad and iPhone. Summers were filled with great soccer and basketball camps. By the time he was in high school his dad’s friends in business gave him summer jobs that provided training and a good income. His home was filled with books and family dinner time conversation was lively and dealt with current issues, political discussions, and strategies for solving world crises.

The other was raised by a single parent who struggled to make ends meet. This student’s home had few books beyond tattered school books. Her dad was often not home at dinner because he worked two minimum wage jobs to support his children. This student had responsibility at night for her two siblings: homework, bedtime preparations, as well as laundry, meals and cleaning. She found it hard to find time to study since she had her own 15 hour a week job along with school work to manage.

Many college classrooms today are populated by students just like these two from extremely different backgrounds and contexts. And there are scores of students who fall somewhere between in terms of privilege and preparation for college. Contemporary Ignatian pedagogy encourages the faculty to consider the “context” of the students in the classrooms as one prepares to “teach.” But the context of students’ experience reaches far beyond their individual personal histories. It reaches into the “context” of the known world: its economics, political structures, conflicts, global issues, and local and community struggles all of which influence the educational environment and provide the “grist” for a good education.

When the companions of St. Ignatius opened their first schools in the late 1500s, the backgrounds of the students they taught had a similar diverse character, some very wealthy and some quite poor. The early Jesuits developed the Ratio Studiorum, published in 1599, which provided a “plan of studies” to coordinate the education of lay students (all male at this point) as well as young men studying to become Jesuits.

The Ratio set down both a philosophy of education as well as some methods that became perennial characteristics of Jesuit or Ignatian pedagogy…things like a sequence of courses in which students progressed from foundational knowledge to more complex learning (think of “scaffolding”). The Jesuit founders added an emphasis on the humanities (literature, history, mathematics, science, music, the arts) important in developing a well-educated person. They included the traditional studies to prepare clerics: philosophy and theology. Early Ignatian teachers believed in repetition and active learning in the form of disputations, debates, and dramatic presentations as ways to help students appropriate what they were learning. They taught rhetorical skills and students were expected to present what they had learned to others. A good deal of the methodology was modeled after the Modus ParisienneIgnatius learned at the University of Paris.

The other source document for Ignatian education is The Spiritual Exercises which mirror Ignatius’ own spiritual journey and became part of the “formation” of students in Jesuit schools. In the “exercises” participants practice (exercise) deep reflection on their human experiences with the goal of becoming more attentive to the movements of desolation and consolation in their lives that leads them closer to God and being “good persons” focused on others before themselves. The Exercises are a series of meditations cultivating key practices of Ignatian spirituality: imagination, reflection, awe, reverence, devotion (moving toward God, the transcendent or what is other). The Exercises assist the participant in everyday discernment or choosing what is right, good, and is of service to God and the community.

So incorporating these time proven elements into Ignatian pedagogy in a contemporary college class will mean adding assignments, readings, reflection, opportunities, and service learning that enhance a student’s ability to “chew on the meat” of the object of their education. Through these myriad approaches, students are better able to appropriate what they are learning into the development of moral character, vocation, and developing purpose and meaning for their lives. Faculty can develop a wide variety of learning experiences related to the content of their own disciplines.

In December 1985 the Jesuits published The Characteristics of a Jesuit Education not as a new Ratio Studiorum but as a tool to approach contemporary Jesuit/Ignatian education, according to Rev. Peter Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., then Father General of the Jesuits who said, “The Ignatian Peda­gogical Paradigm presents a frame­work to incorporate the crucial element of re­flection into learning. Reflection can provide the opportunity for students them­selves to consider the human meaning and the implications of what they study.” (Address at the Ignatian Pedagogy: a Practical Approach Conference, April 29, 1993)

The Ignatian pedagogical paradigm (which predates John Dewey’s work that incorporates many of the same elements by centuries) starts with these themes: context, experience, reflection, action, evaluation. It uniquely characterizes the relationship the faculty member has with the student he/she attempts to create a teaching/learning environment

Starting with EXPERIENCE, the teacher creates the conditions whereby students gather and recollect the material of their own experience in order to distill what they understand already in terms of facts, feelings, values, insights and intuitions they bring to the subject matter at hand. Later the teacher guides the students in assimilating new information and further experience so that their knowledge will grow in completeness and truth. The teacher lays the foundations for learning how to learn by engaging students in skills and techniques of REFLECTION. Here memory, understanding, imagination and feelings are used to grasp the essential meaning and value of what is being studied, to discover its relationship to other facets of human knowledge and activity, and to appreciate its implications in the continuing search for truth. Reflection should be a formative and liberating process that so shapes the consciousness of students --their habitual attitudes, values and beliefs as well as ways of thinking-- that they are impelled to move beyond knowing to ACTION. It is then the role of the teacher to see that the opportunities are provided that will challenge the imagination and exercise the will of the students to choose the best possible course of action to flow from and follow up on what they have learned. What they do as a result under the teacher's direction, while it may not immediately transform the world into a global community of justice, peace and love, should at least be an educational step in that direction and toward that goal even if it merely leads to new experiences, further reflections and consequent actions within the subject area under consideration.

The continual interplay, then, of EXPERIENCE, REFLECTION and ACTION in the dynamic of the classroom lies at the heart of an Ignatian pedagogy. It is our way of proceeding in Jesuit schools as we accompany the learner on his or her journey of becoming a fully human person. It is an Ignatian pedagogical paradigm which each of us can bring to the subjects we teach and programs we run, knowing that it needs to be adapted and applied to our own specific situations.

Rev. Pedro Arrupe, S.J. a former Superior General of the Jesuits desired that Jesuit education form “men and women for (and with) others.” This mantra describes the direction of contemporary Ignatian education. Father Kolvenbach expanded this vision of transformative education:

When the heart is touched by direct experience, the mind may be challenged to change. Personal involvement with innocent suffering, with the injustice others suffer, is the catalyst for solidarity which then gives rise to intellectual inquiry and moral reflection.

Students, in the course of their formation, must let the gritty reality of this world into their lives, so they can learn to feel it, think about it critically, respond to its suffering and engage it constructively. It is no surprise then that many equate Ignatian pedagogy with education for justice, but there is more.

Students today are bombarded by sounds and activity. Ignatian pedagogy encourages the teacher to slow down the activity and quell the noise in the student’s life. Perhaps then fewer things covered in the syllabus and opportunities to go deeper are in order. This pedagogy can cut across disciplines from the sciences to the arts by inviting students to deeper guided reflection on what they experience in the classroom, in service learning, in international study and in outside the classroom activities, ultimately forming men and women for (and with) others.