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Surfing the Tsunami Wave of Change:

Problem based Learning (PBL) for Ministerial Development in Theological Education in Asia

Dr Alex Tang



Asia is in a constant flux of rapid socio-economic changes. The church is growing rapidly and there is a need for competent, confident and spiritually matured pastors and leaders. The curriculum for theological education in Asian seminaries is often based on the traditional classic fourfold content of biblical studies, systematic theology, church history, and practical theology. There is a tendency for these institutions to focus strongly on content in their curriculums. Their approach to teaching is usually instructional schooling which is the proven pedagogy for content transmission.  Unfortunately instructional schooling has been proven not effective in producing graduates capable of complex decision making, creative thinking, reflective in actions, and life long learning. These are essential qualities for spiritual leadership in the information age. Problem based learning (PBL) with its track record in medical education offers the pedagogy to develop these qualities. Seminaries in Asia should seriously consider a radical paradigm shift in curriculum redesign following the Problem based Learning (PBL) pedagogy.



Are theological schools in Asia educating their students for a real church, or a non-existent church; one which is incompatible with the reality of a church in a society that is multicultural, multiethnic, pluralistic, and often antagonistic to Christianity? Do most churches in Asia need their pastors to be experts in ancient Greek and Hebrew, systemic theology, church history, and ministry skills but are ill equipped in dealing with the “real world” day to day challenges of their congregations? These are important questions for theological educators in Asia today to consider. There is a great demand for pastors in the global south as the bulk of “Christendom” has shifted to Asia, Africa and Latin America (Jenkins 2002, 1-6). The first part of this paper will examine the state theological education pedagogy in Asia and seek to answer whether the current approach is producing the right type of pastors who are equipped to pastor the Asian churches in thee challenging times.

Asia is changing rapidly. The rapid rise of China and India as economic, social and political superpowers is impacting the churches directly and indirectly. In North America, Episcopal educator Donn Morgan notes that theological education has underwent two major and distinct waves in the last forty years. He observes that “the first wave dealt primarily with the church’s role in a changing culture, while the second is addressing the shape of ministry in light of a changing church” (2008, 256-257). The first wave challenged theological education to adapt to fundamental shifts in contemporary society and culture. The second wave however threatened the very structure of the church and theological education. This second wave is still ongoing. In Asia, the first and second waves seem to have arrived together and the resulting tsunami calls into question the way theological education is being done in Asia. The second part of this paper will try to answer how a “post tsunami theological education” may look like.

In this article I will narrow my focus to Asian evangelical Protestant centers of theological education such as bible seminaries, bible schools, bible and theological colleges, and schools of theology (all of which I will refer to as seminaries) which offers at least a Masters of Divinity (MDiv) degree which is accredited by the Asian Theological Association (ATA) or the Association for Theological Education in South East Asia (ATESEA). This will exclude smaller centers and also some church based facilities that offer some form of theological training. These smaller centers usually have the same theological curriculums as their larger counterparts so this discussion concerns them too. Unlike the West, Asia does not have ‘secular’ universities offering Christian theological studies. In the United States and elsewhere, an MDiv is commonly regarded as a minimal requirement for a pastoral candidate. This is not the case in Asia where a certificate, diploma, bachelor, MDiv or no degree at all is acceptable for consideration for ordination in some churches. For the purpose of this paper, I will focus on the MDiv curriculum so than comparisons may be made with different seminaries in Asia and the United States.


  1. The Current State of Theological Education in Asia

The Association of Theological Schools (ATS) in the United States, which includes a majority of centers offering theological education, conducted two MDiv curriculum revision consultations in 2003 and 2007 respectively (ATS 2003; O'Gorman 2007). The association had adopted an ATS standard that all MDiv curriculum should include these four major program content areas; (1) religious heritage, (2) cultural context, (3) personal and spiritual formation, and (4) capacity for ministerial and public leadership in June 1996.  The ATS standard curriculum is outcome-based rather than content-based. Individual schools are to work out their expected outcomes based on these four content areas.

Firstly, religious heritage includes the teaching and understanding of theology, traditions, and languages. In the fourfold classic theological education[1], which I will refer to in this article as the traditional curriculum, religious heritage will encompass biblical studies, systematic theology, church history and some aspects of practical theology. The rest of practical theology will be included in the other three content areas.

Secondly, the content area of cultural context includes the understanding the culture of the church and the local context or cultural realities in which the church is in. This is particularly relevant in Asia which is struggling to break out of the Western “theological categories shaped by the Greek culture; its educational pattern shaped by the university model; its attitudes influenced by modernity, industrialism, colonialism, and individualism” (Wanak 2001, 3). The Critical Asian Principle (CAP) projects spearheaded by Association for Theological Education in South East Asia (ATESEA, 2008) and the publication of commentaries on the books of the Bible written by Asians by the Asia Theological Association (ATA) is a step in the right direction

Thirdly, personal and spiritual formation content area involves the intentional development in personal faith, spiritual maturity, moral integrity, and public witness organised by the theological education centers as part of their formative programs. There has been renewed interest in spiritual formation in the theological schools in the last few decades, both as an academic discipline and as a way of life (Edwards 1980; Jones 1987, 25-28)

Finally, the fourth content area is the capacity for ministerial and public leadership. It involves development of skills for leadership and ability to do theological reflection on their ministries. The action/reflection is a vital process for the integration of learning (Schon 1983;1987). Theological reflections which translate into action are important attributes of leadership, both inside and outside of the church context.

These four content areas for theological education are similar in some ways to the four domains of ministerial formation as suggested by New Zealand educator, Allan Harkness. He identifies four domains essential in ministerial formation: appropriate knowledge, ministry skills, character development, and emotional maturity, which must be integrated in order that the desired outcomes are “credible minister-leaders who are competent, confident and compassionate (2001, 142, 148-149).

The ATS standard of content areas may be a good starting point to evaluate the MDiv programs in Malaysia and Singapore. Examining the MDiv curriculums will give a better impression on the seminaries’ emphasis compared to their declared desired outcomes. The proportion of teaching time and credits given to each subject gives a rough indication of its relative importance to the underlying philosophy of the seminary. A simple survey was done using information from their websites about their MDiv program with their course credits as a rough indicator. It must be noted that I am just looking at the formal curriculum and not the informal and null curriculum of these schools. These are established theological schools in Malaysia and Singapore.  I have limited this brief survey to seminaries in Malaysia and Singapore because these two countries are homogenous as compared to the rest of Asia.

Table 1: Weightage given to Four ATS Content Areas in Three Seminaries in Malaysia and Singapore


School A has an MDiv program that requires 98 credits to graduate, School B (90) and School C (114). School A offers four majors (A-1 Christian education, A-2 Biblical studies, A-3 Intercultural studies, A-4 Pastoral ministry). School C offers four majors (Pastoral, Missions, Child Development, Youth) but the core syllabus are common. Table One gives the proportion of credits given to each of ATS content areas.

It may be observed that in school A the major emphasis in the "religious heritage" content area is balanced by "capacity for ministerial and public leadership." "Religious heritage" will include core studies in Old Testament, New Testament, biblical languages, historical and theological foundations. School B seems to weigh heavily in the "religious heritage" content area. School C manages to reduce the "religious heritage" content area and makes more time for cultural context and spiritual formation. In all three seminaries, the major contribution to the category "cultural context" comes from practicum and internship programs with participating churches.

There are very little formal programs for personal and spiritual formation in these curriculums with the exception of school C. While it must be acknowledged that all three schools are aware of the importance of spiritual formation of their students, not being in the formal curriculum means that it is often not given priority or treated as an optional add-on. It also means that there is no attempt to evaluate or assess its learning outcomes.

Somehow the impression from this simple survey seem to indicate that these three local theological curriculum have a strong focus on cognitive and skills development but weak in their focus on personal growth and developing relevance for the local churches. This has important implications in the type of graduates they produced. Further studies are needed to confirm this initial impression.

When a large portion of a curriculum is content based, the students are usually overwhelmed by the requirements of their courses. Also the content is usually delivered by instructional-schooling as this pedagogy has proven to be most effective in content transmission. However there has been much criticism of this pedagogy. Australia educator Brian Hill has highlighted that instructional-schooling is effective for the nineteenth and early twentieth century because of the industrial revolution. Instructional-schooling is effective in training people to work in the industries (1985, 42). However when the economies move from industrialism to a knowledge based one, instructional-schooling is no longer an effective pedagogy. Content is not longer the key but the capability to use the content in creative ways is. The ability to do critical and reflective thinking is essential to the new economy (Brookfield 1987; Schon 1987). Theological educations in Asia remains locked into an instructional-schooling mode even though there have been attempts to twitch the system. In any teaching institution, there is always the tension between content and pedagogy. Content expert, by the nature of their training and interest, often rarely give importance to pedagogy.

Further concerns about the North American theological education program (MDiv curriculum) comes from internationally recognized theological educator, Linda Cannell and medically trained Hans Madueme who have identified five areas of concerns (2007)[2]. These concerns may similarly be present in Asia as most of the Asian seminaries are modeled after the Western ones.

Firstly, the fragmentation of the traditional curriculum due to specialisation and sub specialisation. Students are exposed to many academic content specialists who teach only in their areas of specialty. The result is a lack of integration and congruence of their content base, with students catching pieces and bits of content piecemeal. There is an increasing tendency for Asia seminaries to bring in more specialists and subspecialists rather than generalists. What is not often recognized is that fragmentation of our knowledge does violence to our way of knowing or as Parker Palmer (1993) puts it, “every epistemiology become an ethic.” The fragmented traditional curriculum to specialties may be an obstacle to spiritual formation of the students as it prevents the integration of the person.

Secondly, the fragmentation is further enhanced by the various seminaries’ curriculum being designed around the traditional fourfold curriculum (biblical, systematic, historical, and practical theology). Inherent with the traditional curriculum is the perception that biblical studies or systematic theology is at the top in importance while practical theology seems to be at the bottom. This is revealed in the curriculum of seminary A and B shown earlier where biblical studies and systematic theology which falls within the religious heritage content area seems to receive more emphasis. Unfortunately, practical theology which is what the students will need more after they graduate and work in churches, are given the least priority.

Thirdly, much of the content taught in the seminaries is theoretical rather than practical. This is a real problem as the majority of students will graduate to serve in churches rather than training further in the academia. The structure of the traditional curriculum makes it difficult to “synthesis knowledge learned and make it good for pastoral work” (2007, 50 italic authors’).  While it may be argued that a developing a depth of knowledge is important, it must be acknowledged that students will need only a small fraction of what they learn in the seminaries to be able to function effectively in their churches.

Fourthly, this concern involves the relationship between the seminaries and the churches. The churches expect seminary graduates to be competent to function as pastors. Some seminaries believe their purpose is to increase the knowledge content rather than ministry skills and spiritual formation.  This mismatch of perception is further aggravated by the communication between churches and seminaries. The only source of information some churches receive about their seminaries is when these seminaries send out their newsletters, request for donation, and an occasional deputation preaching from one of their faculty members. Otherwise there are very little interactions between seminaries and churches. In Asia, most of the seminaries are supported financially by churches and individuals. If some individuals or churches are unhappy with the competence of the seminary graduates, they are more likely to reduce their financial support of these seminaries.

The fifth and final concern is about theological educators. There are those who believe that “content is not a commodity to be delivered” but that “knowledge is a thing in itself.”  (Madueme and Cannell 2007, 50). These theological educators are very concerned about their disciplines and the transfer of content. There is another group of theological educators who sees themselves as “facilitators of learning” and that “knowledge is only effective when connected to something else – be it virtue, piety, wisdom, practice, or love for God and neighbor” (Madueme and Cannell 2007, 50). The former will seek for status quo in theological education in Asia while the latter will look for a paradigm shift. Concerning the teaching roles of educators as “knowledge dispenser” and “guide”, Asian educator Wanak gives a reminder that “[L]earning how to learn is a more basic knowledge than the specifics of what to learn” (2000, 8).


  1. The Need for a Paradigm Shift in Theological Education in Asia

“Does a student’s degree/diploma from a seminary represent a course of study successfully completed, or is it a commendation for ministry?” asks Harkness (2008, 189). While Harkness is writing in the context of assessment instruments and theological values, this question has important ramifications for the underlying philosophy of theological education in Asia. In the “paper-chase” culture of Asians, a degree/diploma is often seen as a “union card” to work in a specific vocation rather than as a mark of competence.

Asian Christian educator Lee. C. Wanak suggests at the beginning of the 21st century that an effective theological education paradigm for ministerial training in the Asia Pacific region for the new century should offer the affirmative to these seven principle questions,

1)      Do students have adequate contact with faculty or, because of financial and ministerial pressures, are faculty uninvolved in the lives of students?

2)      Are students involved in cooperative learning in courses and extra-curricular activities or are many solo students, uninvolved in the learning community?

3)      Do we bore our students with unimaginative lectures or are we using discovery/inquiry methods to create active, self-directed learners?

4)      Are we afraid to give feedback either because we fear damaging smooth interpersonal relations or because we do not want to spoil people with praise?

5)      Do we spend adequate time on the teaching-learning process or is a good deal of time lost due to lateness and lack of preparation?

6)      Do we communicate high (but realistic) expectations regarding what students will learn, or do they see the course as an easy mark?

7)      Does our teaching appeal to a variety of learning styles or do we maintain a lecture/test approach to teaching? (2000, 16)

These seven principles are significant and relevant to the improvement of the theological education in Asia. With the exception of the first principle which deals with the financial and ministerial demands on the educator, the rest deals with effective learning teaching principles. With the exception of the first principle question, Problem based learning (PBL) gives an affirmative to all the other questions. Citing the benefits of Problem based learning (PBL), James Rhema, executive editor of the National Teaching & Learning Forum in the United States notes,

Problem-based learning (PBL) ends up orienting students towards meaning-making over fact-collecting. They learn via contextualized problem sets and situations. Because of that, and all that that goes with that, namely the dynamics of group work and independent investigations, they achieve higher levels of comprehension, develop more learning and knowledge-forming skills and more social skills as well. This approach to teaching brings prior knowledge into play more rapidly and ends up fostering learning that adapts to new situations and related domains as quickly and with the same joyous magic as a stone skipped over a body of water (1998, 1-4).

There are similarities between theological education and medical education. Both have years of traditions in their pedagogy, and have a large content load. The students are expected to memorise and remember this content load, thereby forming a content/knowledge scaffolding for subsequent decision making in their professional lives. Both have embedded the enculturation of values, and character formation in their curriculums. Unlike theological education, the content base of medical education is changing rapidly due to the exponential advances in medical sciences in recent years. Often, what is taught in year one is obsolete in year five. Medical education has always regarded apprenticeship as its underlying pedagogy model.  However it uses instruction-schooling mainly because of the large amount of content that needed to be transmitted. While the pedagogy appears sound, senior doctors have always noted that newly graduated medical students have problems correlating their content scaffolding with their patients’ data, and thus are not competent in their medical management decision making. These problems have become more acute in the last few decades with the increase in content load. Theological education, though not faced with a rapid changing content as medical education, has been receiving similar feedbacks about their graduates.

In 1969, McMaster University started a new medical school and the medical educators took a bold step in designing a completely new curriculum which borrowed heavily from the learning theories of other disciplines, thus breaking with tradition. The result is Problem based learning (PBL). PBL is a pedagogy that uses specific patient problems as a context so that the students will be empowered to learn about basic and medical sciences. According to one of its originators, Howard Barrows, “[t]he basic outline of the problem based learning process is: encountering the problem first, problem solving with clinical reasoning skills and identifying learning needs in an interactive process, self study, applying newly gained knowledge to the problem, and summarizing what has been learned”  (Albanese 2007, 1; Barrows 1996).

In a typical PBL session in the University of Monash in Malaysia which I facilitate:

  • The process begins with a short medical history in which is embedded one or more problems depending on the learning objectives. Resources accompanying the printed medical history may include detailed learning objectives, computer picture or video files, Internet links, and recommended reading lists
  • Students come together in small groups of no more than eight called PBL groups (focus on basic and medical sciences) or Index Case groups (focus on PBL plus social, cultural and globalization issues). These groups are pre-assigned and the students remain in the same group for the whole year.
  • Each session is moderated by a tutor who may not necessarily be a content expert
  • At the beginning of each study, the students appoint amongst themselves a leader who will lead the study and a scribe who will record the discussion
  • The students ‘brainstorm’ to identify the problem(s) in the scenarios and decide on their own learning needs to address the problem(s), divide the various tasks amongst themselves to obtain information, and email each other (and the tutor) the results of their research, reviews and comments, and continue to search out more information. Some students have started “closed blogs”[3] on the Internet for these discussions. The initial ‘brainstorming’ and the discussion of learning objectives and division of tasks will take about one hour. The rest of the research and discussion takes place during the week.
  • The group meets again one week later to discuss their findings and address the problem(s) and its solution(s). Each student is to present their findings in not more than 10 minutes and be prepared to answer questions and receive feedback from his/her peers. The second session should not exceed one hour.
  • The tutor is involved in guiding the discussion or provides more insight when necessary. The tutor also gives a feedback to the students
  • Student evaluation and feedback on the small groups are done on self, peers and tutor every quarter.

The University of Monash medical curriculum is a specially designed integrated five year curriculum incorporating the four content areas; (1) personal and professional development, (2) population, society, health and illness, (3) scientific basis of clinical practice, and (4) clinical skills (Monash 2009a). The focus is outcome based; thus every educational activity incorporates all the four content areas. These four content areas may be compared with the ATS MDiv standard of four content areas which are (1) personal and spiritual formation, (2) cultural context, (3) religious heritage, and (4) capacity for ministerial and public leadership. It is not surprising that the content areas align so well because both are professional degrees designed to produce competent practitioners as the desired outcome.

In the PBL curriculum, aside from PBL small group sessions, the students are involved in structured community projects, skill laboratories, workshops, directed activities, syndicate presentations/ seminars, oral and written case presentations (triple jump exercise[4]), and bed-side teaching in the hospitals. The students do most of their research online – either by searching the Internet or via access to an incredibly well stocked virtual university library (with links to other databases) accessible from anywhere in the world. My students who are in Johor Bahru, Malaysia are able to access the library which resides on servers in the University of Monash in Melbourne, Australia.

Evaluations and assessments are important components of the curriculum. These are frequently performed on learning activities, educators, students and their peers. Assessment is formative and summative. This pedagogy has been shown to “encourage[s] effective and self-directed learning, critical thinking, teamwork, understanding rather than memorization, and facility with professional language” (Sefton 2005, 143). In 2008, this curriculum was ranked first among all other Australian medical schools (Monash 2009b).

The process of learning underlying PBL has been well studied.[5] North American medical educator Mark Albanese suggests four possible theories which may explain the PBL process. These include information-processing theory, co-operative theory, self-determination theory, and control theory (2007, 14-16).  Dohmans et al (2005) suggest that the PBL process itself is made up of four processes. These are: (1) constructive process, (2) self-directed process, (3) collaborative process, and (4) contextual process. The constructive process is when the students construct and deconstruct his/her content/knowledge scaffolding using new available content or a new perspective on old content. PBL learning depends on building upon prior content. The self directing process is when the student feels motivated to seek answers and then plan and execute avenues to obtain these answers. Collaboration occurs in a small group where there is mutual dependency, shared responsibilities, social interaction, and need the ability to accept a shared consensus. The contextual process exposes the student to the fact that there are different perspectives to a single problem and all perspectives need to be considered.

Within a short period of thirty years, many medical schools have converted or are converting their curriculums to PBL. It has also expanded to a wide variety of different disciplines such as business studies, sciences, leadership education, engineering, education, and social sciences (Wilkerson and Gijselaers 1996). A notable exception has been theological education.


  1. Is there a need for Problem-based learning (PBL) in Theological Education in Asia?

Howard Worsley, an Anglican Director of Education, was impressed by  the Problem based Learning (PBL) course in the University of Nottingham when he visited and investigated the course in 2004. The curriculum change to PBL was introduced to the University in 2003. In his reflection on how a similar approach may be used in Anglican residential ministerial theological training for ordination, Worsley writes,

Such contextual learning would focus theology onto the task of actioning God’s love in the world rather than in merely reflecting on it, away from the situation…To conclude, it seems that the time is ripe to experiment and try out new ways of learning that empower and engage. (2005, 80)

Worsley echoes the concern of many theological educators that the current theological education process is not producing students with the correct attitudes and aptitudes for ministry. Feedback from churches to seminaries about the ability of their students to do pastoral care is often discouraging. John Frame notes in 1984; “It seems to me that most seminary graduates are not spiritually ready for the challenges of the ministry. Seminaries not only frequently ‘refuse to do the work of the church’; they also tend to undo it” (1984, 371 emphasis author’s). The current instructional-schooling approach of theological education with its emphasis on cognitive content may be the cause. In some way, this is similar to the challenges medical education was facing before their decision to convert to a PBL curriculum. Medical education was not producing competent doctors who are quipped to interact with the complexity of modern medical treatment modalities and technologies.

A PBL module is often structured as a case history involving a patients and his/her family. The key to an effective PBL module is the PBL problem. Albanese identifies seven qualities of an appropriate PBL problem. These are:

·         present a common problem that graduates would be expected to be able to handle, and be prototypical of that problem

·         be serious or potentially serious – where appropriate management might affect the outcome

·         have implications for prevention

·         provide interdisciplinary input or cover a broad content area

·         lead to an encounter of faculty members’ objectives

·         present an actual (concrete) task

·         have a degree of complexity appropriate for the students; prior knowledge (2007, 3)


This is written for the medical education context. The advantage for the medical curriculum is that it may be “organ” based. The organs of the body (such as the heart, lungs, brain, for example) make it easy to organise the designing of PBL problems. Other disciplines who have adopted the PBL curriculum are able to come out with their own criteria for the PBL problem. Similarly it may not be difficult for theological educators to formulate their PBL problems. It may be centered upon systematic theology, the workings of the church, Asian cultural heritage, post colonialism, the needs of the congregation, or being church in a multicultural, multiethnic and pluralistic society. Being church in a multicultural, multiethnic and pluralistic society is a very important challenge in Asia and seminary graduates need to be equipped to meet this challenge (Johnson 1993; Foster 2004; Johnson 2004; Foster 2007). The advantage of a PBL curriculum is that it is easier to structure to the Asian context than the traditional instructional schooling which is not so flexible in contextualisation.

Asia, as does the rest of the world, needs pastors who are well developed cognitively and well versed with theological knowledge content, but also has “soft” skills to deal with their increasing complex congregations. A meta analysis done on medical students who graduated from PBL curriculums finds that these students rated higher in these four competencies: coping with uncertainty, appreciation of legal and ethical aspects of healthcare, communication skills, and self directed continuing learning (Koh, Khoo et al. 2008). These same competencies are equally useful in a pastor in Asia.

A PBL curriculum in theological education in Asia will demands a rethink on the nature of education and pedagogy in Asian seminaries. It is not a new fad which may be dove-tailed into the existing traditional curriculum. It demands the loosening of the traditional boundaries of disciplines (biblical studies, systematic theology, church history, practical theology, ministry skills) so that an integrated self directed way of learning is enhanced, and educators takes on the role of facilitator rather than dispensers. It also involves respecting the students as adult learners with different learning styles, multiple intelligences, and learning needs.[6] In other words, it is turning the traditional theological education upside down. As has been noted, “PBL is not a replacement curriculum but an alternative design employed for sound reasons” ( Madueme and Cannell 2007, 53).


  1. Embracing the Paradigm Shift to Problem based Learning (PBL) in Theological Education in Asia

Being involved in a paradigm shift is hard work. As medical educator Albanese comments from his vast experience, “[b]eginning a PBL curriculum is not for the faint hearted” (2007, 25). However, as we have seen in the challenges as issued by Wanak, a paradigm shift is needed if theological education in Asia is to meet the needs of a growing, dynamic church. There are four areas in which a paradigm shift will need to occur if the Asian seminaries is to adopt a PBL curriculum. These areas are (1) theological educators, (2) curriculum planning, (3) students and churches as stakeholders, and (4) spiritual formation in theological education.

Firstly, the paradigm shift has to start with theological educators. The key to a successful implementation of a PBL curriculum in theological education is that the policy making upper echelon leadership of theological education centers catch the vision of a need for an integrated outcome based curriculum ( Barrows 1996, 8). Without the support of the president, board of directors and academic deans of these seminaries, it will be very difficult to change the status quo. A PBL curriculum will require theological educators who are trained and developed in their careers as “knowledge dispensers” to be willing to be transformed to become  “knowledge guide or facilitators.” They will be required to receive additional training as PBL facilitators. Sometimes, they may be expected to teach outside their expertise. Theological content experts who are used to teaching in a compartmentalized “box” in the curriculum will be asked to work in a more nebulous “boxless” integrated outcome based curriculum. They will be expected to develop PBL problems that are multidisciplinary and thus require interactions with experts from other disciplines. The nature of the PBL curriculum will require more evaluations and assessments which many content experts are not comfortable with.

Secondly, there have to be a paradigm shift in curriculum planning. The PBL curriculum planning has to be done from the outcome based perspective. The curriculum will have to be designed with the three to four years MDiv program as a whole using, perhaps, the four content areas (religious legacy, cultural context, personal and spiritual formation, capacity for ministerial and public leadership) of the ATS recommendation as a guide. PBL question modules will have to be written, taking into consideration the level of the students’ content base. PBL question modules build on prior content. Other learning activities that are planned may be structured community projects, ministerial skill laboratories, linguistic workshops, directed activities, syndicate presentations/ seminars, and attachment/internship in churches and parachurch organisations. The challenge is for theological educators to resist giving too much content but instead training the students on how to find, assimilate and develop contents of their own. This will involve the learning processes of construction, self directed learning, collaboration and contextualisation (Dolmans, Willem  De Grave et al. 2005).

Access to resources is an important consideration in a PBL curriculum. Students often need access to more resources than is available in a traditional print seminary library. There are more and more creditable resources available online. Asian seminaries may have to come together to jointly develop a virtual online theological library with an extensive collection of digital books, multimedia, journal collections and access to other databases. The advantage of such a library is that it may be shared by many seminaries. Even students from smaller seminaries will have access to this extensive theological resource. They just need an internet connection.

Thirdly, the paradigm shift also involves students and churches who are stakeholders. Students and their sponsoring churches will have to develop a paradigm shift in their thinking. National education in Asia has always been instructional schooling which is mainly content transmission. This is especially true in the Confucian ethos where content is the goal of education. Students expect to be “spoon fed” their contents. When forced to be self directed learners, many students find themselves lost and confused. Once they get over the “shock” of being a self directed learner, most students enjoy the PBL curriculum. One of the reasons is that they have more personal contacts with their professors/lecturers. Studies have shown that student contact hours are 3-4 times greater for educators in the PBL curriculum compared to the traditional curriculum (Koh, Khoo et al. 2008). This increased contact time may reduce the various fears that may block students from effective learning  (Shults 1999). Churches whose leaders have been trained in the traditional foursome curriculum will need convincing that they will benefit from this new curriculum. The resistance from students and their churches will only be resolved when they come into contact with graduates of the PBL curriculum.

Finally, the paradigm shift brings spiritual formation to the forefront in theological education. Spiritual formation is often an unstructured component and receives little time in the traditional curriculum. I define spiritual formation as a person growing into the character of Christ in the context of a community of faith. Most of the teaching time has been given to biblical studies, systematic theology, languages, and church history. Seminaries are expected to be centers for Christian spiritual formation and transformation. Unfortunately under the present traditional curriculum, the students are so overloaded with content work that they have little time for spiritual formation. Cheesman reports that some educators think of the traditional curriculum as a “ ‘frentic paper chase’ we set our students rather than ‘cultivation of spiritually sensitive souls’” (n.d., 5). In the PBL curriculum, spiritual formation as one of the four major content areas will receive greater priority.

Madeume and Cannell,  writing from the North American theological education perspective, have made some suggestions about implementation of the PBL in the MDiv program:

1. Develop two parallel tracks for the MDiv: the conventional program and a problem-based learning track. In some cases PBL experiences could overlap with traditional classes.

2. Develop one class that runs throughout the MDiv curriculum in both semesters.

3. Create one or more prerequisite classes that present the technical information and/or content required for particular PBL experiences.

4. Develop PBL problems that lead students through content acquisition and conceptual understanding.

5. Design an experimental PBL course that parallels the MDiv internship experience.

6. Organize a cohort that moves through one or two years of the MDiv program together using PBL as their primary experience.

7. Organize cohorts that change each semester and that are involved in PBL for at least two semesters of their program. (2007, 54)


While these suggestions are worthwhile to consider, it seem to miss the whole point of the PBL curriculum. Though different schools may do PBL differently, PBL as pedagogy will not be effective if it is married to traditional curriculum. The PBL curriculum needs to be the whole program or not at all[7].

In the last few decades, there has been various modifications of the PBL curriculum. One of the most effective modification is the allowing of some lectures to be delivered. This hybridrisation comes from studies which show that not all students are independent learners, and that some may need help to build up a content base faster (Wilkerson and Gijselaers 1996; Kirschner 2006; Albanese 2007, 21-25).

The hybridisation curriculum which is a pure PBL curriculum that allows some lectures may be just ideal for Asia seminaries. Lecture or didactic teaching is part of the Asian cultural heritage. It allows the theological educators and students to feel comfortable with the curriculum while building a content base. The main aspect of the curriculum comes from self directed learning and small group dynamics. It is still an integrated outcome based curriculum as long as lectures are kept to a predetermined minimal.


  1. Conclusion

Asia is experiencing a flux of rapid changes and growth. The church is growing rapidly and there is a need for competent, confident and spiritually matured pastors and leaders. The traditional theological education curriculum with its emphasis on content will not be able to produce graduates who are capable complex decision makers, creative thinkers, reflective practitioners and life long learners. These are essential qualities for spiritual leadership in the information age. Problem based learning (PBL) with its track record in medical education offers the pedagogy to develop these qualities. Asian seminaries should seriously consider a radical curriculum redesign for a PBL paradigm.  A “post tsunami theological education” will need to be a PBL or a hybridised PBL curriculum.



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[1] The classic four-fold theological education will include biblical studies, systematic theology, church history and practical theology. Farley (2001) traces the history of theological education to discover the roots of the four-fold division.

[2] There are also others who expressed concerns. Carroll (2006) questions whether clergy training should follow the “professional” model. On the other hand, Robert Banks (1999) thinks that theological education should be “missional” and suggests that it should include more praxis and outside the academia.  

[3] “Closed blogs” are blogs on the Internet with restricted access. The students commonly create these blogs which are free, with Bloggers or Wordpress.

[4] The objective of a triple jump exercise is to assess self directed learning and clinical problem solving skills. The students will have to choose clerk a patient each and present the case histories while identifying the related problems (learning goals). They then have to read up or research their learning goals, come back later (usually one week), and discuss their conclusions. Then they will receive debriefing from their facilitators and evaluate their own performance. More comments on this from Mark Albanese (2007) p.19.

[5] It is interesting to that many studies on the effectiveness of PBL gives conflicting results. Albanese (2007) attributes this may be due to “its differential effect for differing students”(p.25). For a comprehensive review on the different studies, see his review on p.21-26. Wilkerson and Gijselaers (1996) present a different perspective from non medical disciplines. A negative perspective is from Kirschner (2006).

[6] A good theological curriculum must take into account that the students are adult independent, self-motivated learners (Knowles, F. Holton III et al. 2005), with multiple intelligences (Gardner 1999), have different learning styles (LeFever 2004), and need to becme reflective practitioners (Schon 1987).

[7] Our discussion is about MDiv and training of persons for pastoral ministries. There is a case to be made for generalists. Those who desire to study further may proceed to their MTh and PhD which will require a different pedagogy.




Alex Tang is a senior consultant paediatrician in the Johor Specialist Hospital in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. He is an adjunct faculty of the Monash University School of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, Australia and teaches at the Clinical School campus in Johor Bharu. He also teaches theological courses on biomedical ethics and spiritual formation to seminaries and churches. He is the director of the Spiritual Formation Institute, Holy Light Church (English), and also the director of Kairos Spiritual Formation Ministries. Alex is a PhD candidate for AGST Alliance. He can be contacted at


Soli Deo Gloria


18 November 2009


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