Learning takes place in all aspects of our lives, but often we confine learning to formal institutional educational settings. As an avid adult educator, Pierre Domincé developed a method to encourage adult learners to reflect on how they have learned throughout their lives. He uses his method in a university setting to acquaint students with the way “they learn through the vehicles of informal education and experiential learning.”1 I have adapted his method for use in small-group settings as a process of developing a learning narrative, a story of our life learning.

A learning narrative is one method to help adults look at their entire lives as a locus for learning. In church life, we use the language of storytelling. We listen to the stories of the Old and New Testaments and attempt to connect the biblical story with the stories of our lives. Some of the benefits of creating and telling the story of our learning include:

  • Becoming aware of how interconnected we are
  • Understanding connections between our personal story and societal movements
  • Appreciating the different ways we each learn and organize our lives
  • Valuing each life as unique

None of us lives in isolation. We are shaped by many people and events. Self-awareness is raised when we become more conscious of the intricate web of living. A learning narrative offers a tool to learn about how we learn, when we have learned, and what we have learned, to shed light on what has shaped our beliefs and ways of being. Whether working in a small group, engaging in a pastoral conversation, or reflecting in a supervisory conversation, understanding how and what we learn can encourage openness to learning from our lives.

Step 1: Introduction

A first meeting can be a time of sharing food, getting to know one another, and introducing the notion of a learning narrative. Distribute the questions outlined below as a guide for reflecting on learning in general. The questions are designed to stimulate reflection on significant learning moments. In subsequent sessions, participants can take turns offering oral responses to the questions, and then deepen the experience through written work as described below.

Step 2: Oral Narratives

Participants will reflect on the questions below individually; then, with a supervisor or in a small group, participants will share aloud what insights arose from that reflection. Participants may find it helpful to make notes in the reflection time to assist memory. As facilitator, you may choose to offer your presentation first, unless someone else is eager to begin. Give each person 20 to 30 minutes to present, with an additional 10 minutes for clarifying questions and constructive comments from the group. As many as three people might present at each gathering. Or the whole group can share thoughts about one chosen question.

Learning Narrative Questions

Use the following list as a guideline for your oral and written narratives. Do not be restricted by these questions. Rather, use them as a jumping-off point to dive into the pool of your narrative.

  • Education is . . . ? Learning is . . . ?
  • What is the learning history of my family (education, attitudes toward education, learning aptitudes, etc.)? What attitude toward education has been passed on to me?
  • What is my learning history? (Formal: public school, high school, university. Informal: family, friends, work, community, church.)
  • What is my attitude toward formal and informal learning?
  • What kind of experience did I have at school?
  • What do I believe about myself as a learner? What has shaped this belief? What do I want to change?
  • How have family life, formal schooling, and life events influenced my attitude toward learning?
  • What have been several transformational moments in my life? Describe the impact of several traumas. What learning arose from these experiences?
  • What kind of learning attracts me most? What learning is challenging?
  • What image or metaphor describes my self-identity as learner?
  • Am I a confident learner? Or am I afraid of learning?
  • What excites me as I anticipate new learning opportunities? What challenges do I anticipate? What gaps in my learning do I want to address?

Step 3: Written Narratives

After sharing aloud with the group or with your supervisor, take time to reflect further by writing a reflection on your learning narrative. The following questions may assist your writing: What surprised you? Where were you challenged? What discoveries did you make? What do you want to explore further?

Step 4: Presenting Written Narratives

In a subsequent meeting, share written narratives with one another. Engage in discussion about each person’s presentation to draw out central themes and affirm the ongoing learning journey.

Adapted from Shaping Spiritual Leaders: Supervision and Formation in Congregations, copyright © 2007 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
1Pierre Domincé, Learning from Our Lives (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), xv.

We encourage you to share Alban Weekly articles with your congregation. We gladly allow permission to reprint articles from the Alban Weekly for one-time use by congregations and their leaders when the material is offered free of charge. All we ask is that you write to us at alban@div.duke.edu and let us know how Alban Weekly is making an impact in your congregation. If you would like to use any other Alban material, or if your intended use of Alban Weekly does not fall within this scope, please submit our reprint permission request form.

Photo by Johnny Baker


AL340_SMShaping Spiritual Leaders: Supervision and Formation in Congregations by Abigail Johnson

Supervision—the shaping of spiritual leaders—occurs formally and informally in many aspects of congregational life. While supervision enhances the work of all concerned, it is rarely explicitly addressed in congregations. Johnson views supervision as a ministry and shows how leaders can use their own innate gifts to enhance their supervision skills. By shaping the supervision relationship based on the gifts of the people involved as well as the context in which the relationship occurs, supervision can become an opportunity for mutual growth and learning that strengthens all other areas of ministry. 

AL282_SMReflecting with God: Connecting Faith and Daily Life in Small Groups by Abigail Johnson

Abigail Johnson offers a structured process for engaging in theological reflection by looking at a situation or event through a series of questions that are designed to help individuals and small groups to think through situations with the eyes of faith. She provides detailed instructions for group facilitators, making this book a valuable resource for any theological reflection leader.  

AL294_SMThe Competent Pastor: Skills and Self-Knowledge for Serving Well by Ronald D. Sisk

Competence in ministry is a moving target. Competence, defined by author Ronald Sisk as “the ability to do what needs to be done,” requires ministers to understand themselves and others and to keep a realistic perspective on their lives. This book is intended to help pastors, seminarians, and lay people who work with pastors move toward this kind of understanding and perspective.