A Biblical View of Human Development


How do people grow? How do they develop? We grow bigger and taller. We grow smarter. Those are two obvious dimensions of growth. What about emotionally and socially? We don’t talk about that as much, but yes, we grow emotionally and socially, too. When it comes to human development, is it enough to consider intellectual, physical, emotional, and social growth? No. There is indeed more!

Up to this point in my exploration of the message presented in How Learning Works1, I have been able to heartily agree with the researchers and authors. Here, at chapter 6, which addresses student development and course climate, I must offer some collegial criticism because they miss perhaps the most important element of learning. Ambrose et al. (2010) offered insightful comments based on solid research about the intellectual, social, and emotional development of students, but ignored entirely the spiritual dimension of people.

Of course, it is important to discuss how people learn (as we’ve been doing in this entire series). I also agree it is important to understand how the social and emotional development of people influences learning (especially among young adults). (Indeed, it is widely agreed that emotional intelligence has more impact on a leader’s effectiveness than does intellectual intelligence. Therefore, it is also critical to consider emotional and social development in learning.) It is not enough, though, to discuss the intellectual, social, and emotional dimensions of people.

We cannot ignore the spiritual dimension of people.

To be fair, I understand why Ambrose et al. (2010) offered no recognition of the spiritual nature of students. The research that they accessed spans a few decades of time and in the context of public and for profit education, only recently has it become acceptable to even mention the spiritual dimension of human life. In addition, it is certainly unpopular, even dangerous, to express a decidedly Christian perspective. (As I write and post this, I feel compelled to remind readers that the views I express in this blog are mine and do not necessarily represent the views of any organizations with which I am connected.)

In chapter 6 of How Learning Works, the core of the discussion on student development focused on the Chickering model. Below, I summarize the Chickering model as presented by Ambrose et al. (2010), along with my comments about the spiritual dimension.

Ambrose et al. (2010) described the Chickering model as one that “tries to systematically account for all the developmental changes students experience through the college years.”2 Most of my readers are not educators of college students. That’s alright. As you read the summary below, you’ll see that the model is nevertheless applicable to adults of any age because we tend to move in an out of these stages and revisit the stages at various points in life.

Developmental competence

The competencies noted by Ambrose et al. (2010) include intellectual, physical, and interpersonal competence (but not spiritual). They described intellectual competence as study skills that build critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Physical competence includes athletic as well as general health and well-being skills. Interpersonal competence is described as communication, group, and leadership skills. Notably, Ambrose et al. (2010) summarized developmental competence in this way: “These three competences together give the individual a general sense of confidence that she can successfully deal with challenges that come her way.”

No, that’s not enough. Ask almost anyone working with college students and you’ll quickly find out that students also have deep questions about their personal purpose, how they fit into the “big picture,” whether there is a God and how they relate to this unseen being, and so on. (Adults are asking the same questions.) The answers to these questions are what provide the foundation required to deal with the other developmental competencies, and thus be effective and fulfilled in life.

Managing emotions

This was described as “being aware of one’s own emotions … as well as expressing them appropriately.” Yes, that is indeed a critical skill for effective learning. However, the healthiest emotional development is achieved with a perspective larger than the self and one that is fixed and unchangeable. This is what a Biblical perspective of life and self achieves.

Developmental autonomy

Ambrose et al. (2010) described developmental autonomy as “disengaging from one’s parents, relying more on peers, and finally developing personal autonomy.” While this is true to some degree, it is dangerous for people of any age to attempt a Lone-Ranger approach to autonomy. Godly parents, pastors, teachers, mentors, and friends should play an ongoing, life-long role in the development of loving relationships not autonomy.

Establishing identity

In the Chickering model, the establishment of identity is an integration of the above stages and “culminates in the development of a sense of self.” Humans are the only creatures on earth with a sense of individual identity. We are, by design, social creatures and individual identity plays an intricate and critical role in our social life. However, if this identity/social connection complex is developed outside an understanding of who our Creator is and what He says about us, that “sense of self” is flawed or incomplete.

Freeing interpersonal relationships

As suggested in the previous point, the development of a sense of self is followed by the development of interpersonal relationships. Very importantly, this involves the ability to recognize and appreciate differences among people. Even more importantly, this is best accomplished with a proper understanding of God’s view of people (unconditional love) and how He asks us to respond to people who are different than ourselves (unconditional love). (Note: love, tolerance, and acceptance are not the same thing and should not be confused with one another.)

Developing purpose

I’m sure you can see the building-block nature of these developmental stages. At this point in the process the individual integrates their sense of self and his healthy relationships and is able to focus on life purpose. While many people have successfully and effectively navigated the question of “What do I want to do with my life?” without a Biblical perspective, I posit that a better question is “What does God want me to do with my life?” This is simultaneously both a harder and a simpler question. It is harder because God does not send emails or make phone calls to tell us the answer. It is also a simpler question because the answer is found in a book that describes what is important to Him and what should therefore be important to us. (It’s the Bible.) The answers are indeed there, but finding them requires the surrender of self. Read on …

Developing integrity

The explanation of “developing integrity” offered by Ambrose et al. (2010) is interesting. It reads, “This dimension speaks to the tension between self-interest and social responsibility.” We absolutely must stop and ask these questions:

Why is self-interest at odds with social responsibility?
Why is this a crisis of integrity?

The answer is simple and forces us to acknowledge that solutions much bigger than ourselves (and our clever developmental models) are needed. The answer is:

People are prideful and selfish.

Left to our own devices, we will indeed do what is best for ourselves. So the issue of developing integrity is resolved by understanding that on my own I cannot possibly “solve” the need for integrity and trusting relationships. I need a God and a savior that loves me even though I don’t deserve it. You do, too.

Closing Comments

So what has all of this to do with learning and leadership? Not nearly as much directly as indirectly, but that indirect connection is far more important than any direct link.

If you’ll re-read this post and focus on what it tells you about yourself and all people (don’t worry about your leadership or your organizational strategies or your next earnings report), you’ll find that it is telling you about human nature. It is reminding you that all people have two essential needs: To be loved and to have hope.

Knowing this is essential to leadership.


Other Articles In This Series

Learn. Grow. Change.
How Does Learning Work?
Assess What You Know
Knowledge Webs
Why Learn?
Why Learn? (Part II)
4 Tips for Skill Mastery
4 Tips for Skill Mastery (Part II)
The Practice Feedback Goals Link

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.

Photo “Finding Endor” by Jason Jenkins. Available at Flickr.com.

1: Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Marsha C. Lovett, Michele DiPietro, and Marie K. Norman. How Learning Works: 7 Research-based Principles for Smart Thinking (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010).
2: Ambrose et al. (2010), p. 160.

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