Lifelong Learning for Existential Learners

Lisa M. Clark The Lifelong Learner Leave a Comment

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Dear readers, it has been a joy exploring ways we learn differently over the past few months. And now it’s time for the last blog post of this series. As we have used Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences as a guide for this blog, I mentioned last week that when Gardner got started, there were only seven: interpersonal, intrapersonal, kinesthetic, visual/spatial, verbal/linguistic, logical/mathematical, and musical. But after these seven came a focus on naturalist learners. Last (for now?) and certainly not least came a recognition of existential learners. Now, I decided to save this one for last in my blog series partially to honor the chronology of the MI development. But there’s another reason for it too. Just like all of these learning categories, there are pros and cons—and potential myths—that come with this way of portraying learners, and I think this particular learning style lends itself to see this tension most clearly. I also believe this post will serve as a nice segue back into my more general focus on lifelong learning and what that means for us as Christians.

I threw all kinds of info into that intro, didn’t I? Let’s try to unpack some of it below:

Let’s contemplate existential learners.

Existential learners have also been connected with the terms “metaphysical” and “spiritual,” which we’ll explore more later. These learners are often intrigued by deep questions involving the meaning of life, why we die, the nature of self, and other ideas that go beyond the tangible here and now. When this person asks “why,” it’s often more than a way to fluster a parent or teacher. The question “why” is often on the mind of this learner as they seek to dig below the surface of everyday life.

Gifts of an existential learner:

These “why” questions very quickly lead to questions about good and evil and—at its best—about Law and Gospel, about sin and grace. When others might shy away from tough questions, we are challenged by these learners to ask them: “Why do bad things happen?” “Who is God?” “Does Jesus love me?” And they don’t just ask the questions. They are more comfortable to answer as well. Some people use the term “God-talk” to describe conversations about faith. For these learners, God-talk is essential, frequent, and even comfortable. And thanks to these people, it is also contagious.

These learners don’t take much for granted. See a beautiful flower? This learner will likely make a comment about its Creator. Having a happy day? You’ll hear someone with this gift say a thank-You prayer as easily as if God were right there—because they know He is. When faced with poverty, hunger, upheaval, or a skinned knee, even the littlest existential learners are prone to voice concepts such as, “This wouldn’t have happened if sin didn’t exist.”

Myths of an existential learner:

Compartmentalization is a problematic myth for all learners. Those who are not prone to embrace music, for example, assume they cannot use music at all or that music is not important. Those who have an aversion to sweat assume that kinesthetic learning can be what others do—not them. The implications here, when applied to the educational concepts of existential learning, can be eternally tragic if the myths are applied to the truths of Scripture. I’d venture to say that the delay in adding “existential” to the intelligence list came from several angles. On one hand, secular educators may have been concerned with giving too much credence to the metaphysical or spiritual, especially in a field that already struggles with qualitative versus quantitative research (as if there must be a preference of one over the other). On the other hand, religious educators were probably equally hesitant to reduce theology to mere “spirituality” or “metaphysics” and faith to a skill some—but not others—are capable to achieve. See the trouble? In other words, you’ll notice that I have not been using the word “faith” when talking about existential learners so far. Why? Not all existential learners have faith. And those gifted with other learning skills most certainly can and do have faith. Sure, existential learners may be more prone to voice their faith in complex ways, but this does not make their faith “stronger” or “more developed” than those whose faith is expressed differently.

So you can see how this post—this intelligence designation—can be tricky. Let’s take this compartmentalization myth the other direction. Going back to other examples, logical/mathematical learners might easily fall into the myth that their skill set is a narrow one and cannot help other facets of education and life. Silly, right? But what happens when existential learners assume they have no place in the world of music or marketing or writing? If our world doesn’t hear the deep questions, we may forget to ask them ourselves. I love that my Internet search of existential learning provided a few suggestions for careers for this group. Philosophers? Sure. Theologians? Without a doubt. Scientists? Aha! Myth busted, to borrow from a popular television show. Of course many of our scientists are people who ask questions about the world around us—even a world that cannot be measured. Of course Christians who wonder about their Creator enjoy exploring His creation. It’s a flip on the myth we unraveled when talking about naturalist and logical/mathematical learners. Faith permeates all facets of life, and those who ask metaphysical questions are also adept at considering physics, number theory, and psychology—to name a few.

Equipping an existential learner:

In the Christian classroom, these students are excellent at keeping the truth focus of religion class. Bible verses are not memorized for the sake of memorization but for the joy of learning Scripture by heart. Encourage these students and their enthusiasm for the Word, and make a point to affirm that the joy of the Lord is strength (Nehemiah 8:10).

In a public-school classroom, opportunities still abound for these big-picture thinkers to consider their place in this world. Let students wrestle with ethics, humanity, quantum physics. I know many faithful teachers with this learning style who are adept at cultivating a safe place for discussion while still respecting the guidelines of their institution.

In the workplace, the setting can greatly impact ways to equip this learner. Again, some fields of work are constantly challenging employees to contemplate their—and God’s—existence. Writers, researchers, thespians, and theologians are able to engage us in these discussions with them.

At home, never underestimate the value of spending time in the Word with your family. Dedicated time for devotions and prayer is priceless. But don’t stop there: when God-talk is commonplace, you’re equipping your existential learner (and all your learners) to talk about faith in a comfortable way.

In the classroom, ever be mindful of equipping leaders in the Church. One of the best ways to encourage future church workers is to—get this—encourage future church workers. Many of your pastors, educators, missionaries, and other leaders are serving the Church because someone else suggested it to them. Help them consider leadership positions in school or suggest that they ask a teacher, pastor, DCE, or deaconess about their careers.

At home, demonstrate that all believers can contemplate God’s creation—seen and unseen—in their daily lives no matter their future career. When watching the news, listening to music, or strolling through a museum, ask questions that exercise these skills as they learn to articulate their faith.

Are you an existential learner? What ways do you love to learn? What tips can you offer those who want to learn more about this learning style? What strategies do you use?

Thanks again for joining me as we have learned together about ourselves and other learners! Whether or not we’re the type to ask deep questions about existence, we’re all lifelong learners who do well to consider this vocation of learning in the context of our faith. So as I move on from this series to another, please let me know what issues of lifelong learning interest you, especially as we continue to learn God’s Word together.


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About the Author

Lisa M. Clark


Lisa M. Clark spends her days reading and writing about God’s love for all people through Jesus Christ. She is a former high school teacher and a current editor for Concordia Publishing House. Her degrees from Concordia University, Nebraska, and the University of Missouri--St. Louis focus on Lutheran doctrine, education, and writing. You can read her latest posts here.

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