April 13, 2024

Two great books on teaching and learning have been published in the last two years. They complement each other well. In 2020, Duane and Muriel Elmer’s The Learning Cycle: Insights for Faithful Teaching from Neuroscience and the Social Sciences was published by IVP. And this year (2021), Baker published Craig Ott’s Teaching and Learning Across Cultures: A Guide to Theory and Practice. The authors bring both extensive research and experience to the discussion of teaching and learning.

The Learning Cycle by Duane and Muriel Elmer

The Learning Cycle book

In a sense, this book is a capstone of Duane and Muriel Elmer’s writings and ministry.1 Many of Duane Elmer’s books have been foundational training materials for cross-cultural missionary service. See a review on this blog of one of his books, Cross-Cultural Servanthood. Duane created “the learning cycle” as part of his doctoral research at Michigan State University (p. 6). Subsequently, Muriel added the “barriers to change” to the cycle. Furthermore, they have both practiced the model throughout their teaching careers in various contexts. The insights from neuroscience do not dominate the text and come from “the more stable insights from the brain literature.” (p.11)

The Learning Cycle Model

The Learning Cycle

This model puts content as the “driving force for learning.” (p. 9). Note that “Recall is repeated at each level simply because our Christian faith rests on content: the Scriptures, the revelation of God. Thus, Scripture becomes the recurring reference point for knowing, feeling, and doing.” (p. 9)

Level 1: Recall the Information

Chapters 3 and 4 explain the process of recall, rehearsal, and retention. Throughout, the Elmers provide examples of learning tasks designed to move the information from short-term memory to working memory to long-term memory. Additionally, they give suggestions for integrating learning tasks with lectures.

Level 2: Recall with Appreciation

Chapter 5 explores the role of emotion in learning. With this in mind, the authors point out the compelling insight of brain science:

Emotion, once thought to be located in one area of the brain, is actually distributed across seven areas. Interestingly, each of these areas is activated during learning sessions, meaning that emotions and learning are closely tied.

Elmer, p. 59.

Essentially, negative feelings close the door to learning and positive feelings open the door to learning. (p. 71).

Level 3: Recall with Speculation

At this level, the learner moves from content to experience (chapter 6). That is, they think about how to use the information. The authors illustrate how learning tasks stimulate speculation. For instance, conflicts in our lives produce cognitive dissonance that further spurs speculation about relating new information to life.

Barriers to Change

It is at this point in the learning cycle that resistance often appears. So, the authors provide guidance for identifying barriers (chapter 8) and overcoming barriers (chapter 9).

Level 4: Recall with Practice

This is the point where behavior begins to change. Consequently, chapter 10 is titled “Transformative Learning.” Interestingly, the authors put emphasis on practice in a learning community (p.137-144).

Learners need a community of colearners who engage each other as they work through the necessary skills and adjustments required to make major perspective and behavior shifts. By the term “learning community,” we suggest the formation of intentional discussion groups in which both teacher and learners participate.

Elmer, p. 138.

Helpfully, chapter 11 provides practical suggestions of various learning tasks that lead to practice.

Level 5: Recall with Habit

Chapters 12 and 13 discuss effective ways of building and sustaining habits. As in all other chapters, there are examples from different contexts.


The last chapter wraps up the learning cycle culminating in Christlikeness. The cycle continues to repeat as we grow closer to the character, integrity, and wisdom of Christ. Duane and Muriel sum up the book as follows:

This book attempts to set forth a way in which knowledge of the truth can be the beginning of a process whereby people (1) remember the truth, (2) value the truth, (3) commit to doing the truth, (4) overcome obstacles, (5) begin acting upon the truth, and (6) make truth a sustainable habit in daily life.

Elmer, p. 189.

Teaching and Learning Across Cultures by Craig Ott

As the title implies, Craig Ott explores teaching and learning in the context of crossing cultures. In his own words, “I offer here a modest, but comprehensive, survey of the challenges and approaches to teaching across cultures.” (p. 23). Specifically, his primary audience is “the teacher who has traveled to another country or location to teach students of a single culture significantly different from her own.” (p. 3). The text is augmented by 47 sidebars that illustrate the topics discussed. Indeed, these sidebars serve as prompts for group discussion.

Teaching and Learning Across Cultures

The first three chapters survey the landscape of cross-cultural teaching. Chapter 1 effectively outlines the challenges. Then, the author encourages the cross-cultural teacher to enter as a learner. Next, chapter 2 contains helpful reminders about the nature of culture. Specifically, he warns about stereotyping and ethnocentrism. Following that, Ott discusses learning and teaching styles in chapter 3. However, he views them as preferences rather than static fixed styles. Additionally, he concludes that diversity of learning preferences calls for diversity in teaching methods.

Five Dimensions of Culture’s Influence

The rest of the book focuses on five cultural influences on the teaching and learning process. As we see in Figure 1.1 below, the five dimensions “overlap and influence each other.”(p 24).

5 dimensions of culture's influence on teaching and learning

The Cognitive Dimension

Ott begins this section with these words:

Perhaps the most fundamental aspect of how people learn relates to how they think: how they perceive, process, and structure information; how they conceptualize and categorize their world; and how they craft arguments.

Ott, p. 65.

Consequently, he discusses how concrete and abstract thinking (chapter 4) provides a foundation for teaching concrete thinkers (chapter 5). Furthermore, the author’s discussion of holistic and analytic styles (chapter 6) provides insight into these different styles. Particularly helpful is his discussion of “Field Dependence and Field Independence” (p.115-129).

The Worldview Dimension

The author deals with worldview in two chapters. First, the influence of worldview on learning is described in chapter 7. Then, he acknowledges that teaching changes worldviews. In fact, Christian teaching aims to change one’s worldview to conform to biblical revelation.

The Social Dimension

Navigating relationships between teacher and student is perhaps the most essential skill the cross-cultural teacher needs to be effective.

Ott, p. 177.

Specifically, understanding status and power distance in the local social hierarchy (chapter 9) is important to avoid offense. Additionally, chapter 10 provides guidance dealing with the individualism-collectivism continuum.

The Media Dimension

This section of the book contains insightful discussions on instructional methods (chapter 11) and online learning (chapter 12). In particular, Ott advocates using both local traditional methods along with carefully introducing other methods. Yet, he cautions us in the use of visual media because charts and pictures do not signify the same things in a different culture. Furthermore, his discussion of the advantages and limitations of online learning is insightful and hopeful.

The Environmental Dimension

This last chapter explores the physical, social, and institutional environmental factors in teaching across cultures. Specifically, flexibility is key to functioning well in the environmental dimension. Ott writes:

The ability to adapt, cope, and endure under less than ideal circumstances will have much to do with the effectiveness, longevity in service, and satisfaction of the cross-cultural teacher.

Ott, p. 279.

Why Two Books on Teaching and Learning?

First, teaching is fundamental to fulfilling the Great Commission. Secondly, both these books provide important insight into the teaching and learning process. Thirdly, the authors have extensive experience teaching in various cultures. Furthermore, they have done extensive research.

Above all, teachers must also be learners. And teachers must study the process of teaching and learning as well as their subject matter. Both of these books lend themselves to group discussion among faculty and teams involved in teaching and learning. In short, group discussion of these books would be excellent continuing education for teachers.

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