Ignatian Pedagogy

Most professors want students to leave their classes with more than just a heap of information; ideally the student has also been transformed in some way, has become more complex in thought and intention, has an understanding of the significance of what’s been learned, and has made some progress on a larger life path. As a Jesuit institution, Georgetown embraces these possibilities, all of which can be traced to the practice of Ignatian Pedagogy.

Some History

Ignatian Pedagogy is rooted in spiritual exercises devised in the 16th century by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, a community also known as the Jesuits. These exercises called for a cycle of experience, reflection, and action to help an individual uncover truth, grow closer to God, and take steps toward bettering the world. Although Saint Ignatius did not create the exercises with an intention of founding schools, his approach to pursuing truth has long been applied in Jesuit education in a form known as the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm. The idea in this paradigm is not to limit this kind of learning to special “Ignatian courses” but to consider the possibility that it might be relevant across a wide range of disciplines and classes.

The Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm

The Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm is founded on the belief that education has to go beyond the mere transmission of information from professor to student. More than an exercise in memorization or a purely cognitive transaction, education is meant to be a transformational experience that affects the students on all levels—cognitive, certainly, but also emotional and behavioral. The student who has been through this kind of experience will have had old ideas unsettled in the service of developing a fuller understanding of self and the world, and in service of helping that world.

The process operates through a cycle, which, in its simplest form, works like this:

Flow chart using circles and arrows to illustrate the steps of the cycle of the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm. The steps are described in detail in the following paragraphs.'

  1. Ignatian pedagogy begins with context; if the teaching experience is going to be productive, the teacher needs to let that experience be shaped and driven by the individuality and complexity of the learners, taking into account their background, skills, goals, and anything else that might be relevant.
  2. The next step is experience; whether students are doing community-based learning or completing a math problem set or analyzing a text, they are meant to do more than absorb the facts surrounding what’s in front of them; they are meant to engage the material in a way that fully involves them. This means both cognitive and emotional involvement; personal investment; societal engagement; and behavioral investment. In this paradigm, the process of learning is as important as the content of learning, or perhaps even more so.
  3. The process continues when the experience ends, as the student engages in a process of reflection on the experiences and all the reactions it caused, again across a range of involvement: cognitive and emotional (what is this and how do I feel about it?); personal (what does this mean to me?); societal (what does this mean to the world?); and behavioral (what does this tell me about what I should do?). This is an opportunity for deeper meaning to arise, and for the student to see which reactions were fleeting and which ones endure.
  4. This is not reflection solely for reflection’s sake, however; the introspection is meant to lead to action. This “action” can involve choices about a variety of domains: the learning experience itself (e.g., picking an essay topic, taking on a certain issue to study further, etc.), the student’s personal life (e.g., implementing a solution for a personal problem, taking up an extracurricular activity, etc.), the student’s professional future (e.g., signing up for a related class, applying for a particular internship, seeking out information about one career or another, etc.), and, ideally—this is crucial in Ignatian pedagogy—the larger world. Specifically, it is hoped that real education will lead the student to take actions, large and small, to make the world a better place for all, and particularly those most in need.
  5. Because this is a complex process, we can’t just assume that it’s clicking along productively—not without taking the time to thoughtfully evaluate the learning. In what ways has the student grown? What changes are happening? Where is the student stuck? The teacher is certainly in a good position to do much of this evaluation, but the student, increasingly expert at reflection, may be as well.

None of the actions taken in this paradigm have to be permanent commitments, and none of the conclusions will be immutable. Indeed, each choice will of course produce an experience of its own—positive, negative, or (probably) more complicated—and after action the student is meant to seek out yet more experiences, which will in turn provoke reflection and further action, and so on, in an ongoing cycle of growth.

And it’s important to emphasize that the teacher has a crucial role in the process, getting to know students, calling on students to dive into the experience, to reflect, to take action; giving them opportunities to do all three, and modeling a serious engagement with the exercises.

Ignatian Pedagogy in Practice

How might these principles manifest themselves in a course?

  • Find out who your students are, perhaps through in-class surveys or required office hours meetings or just through informal conversation at the beginning and end of class—not just their academic performance in the class but their larger interests and life situation—and invite their previous experiences into class;
  • Make class experiential by promoting active learning and also by asking students to engage with the material on an emotional and personal level, asking how they feel about what they’re learning and how it might be relevant to them;
  • Build opportunities for reflection into the course, whether through student journals, mid-semester course evaluations, reflective papers, group discussions and debriefs, or any other method that asks them to think about what they’ve learned and what it means to them;
  • Assess student learning regularly and with a focus on the specific areas of growth you believe are most important.
Example: Reflection questions from the courses of Georgetown’s Matthew Carnes, S.J.
  • Allow students to articulate possibilities for action based on course material or even to take actions in class, including community engagements, designing projects, guiding discussions, and more;
  • Consider that you influence students not only through what you teach them and what they learn but also through the humanity you model for them—if you demonstrate an interest in the meaning of the course material and the process of uncovering it, they are more likely to follow suit.

Additional Resources

Please reach out to us at cndls@georgetown.edu if you'd like to have a conversation with someone at CNDLS about these or other teaching issues.