Monday, March 2, 2015

Educational Imprinting (In the Church)

Educational Imprinting


How can someone believe in Jesus if they have never heard of him? How can they keep his commands if they have never learned them? Part of being a Christian is meditating, studying, and growing in the Word of God. In fact, one of Jesus’ final commands to his apostles is to teach. After gathering them up on a mountaintop, he says, “Go… and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”[1]

Teaching has become a crucial factor in the Church. We sermonize and attend Bible study. We memorize verses and teach Sunday school. We explain what the Gospel means to us and open our doors to children who hope to experience parochial school. The Church without teaching is hardly the Church at all.

 As we pass on the pursuit of knowledge, we may be teaching more than we realize. What the student observes is much more than rope memorization or brute facts, but also the different styles, influences, manners, and biases of their teachers. There is a complete “cultural heritage” included in the way we speak.[2] As you think about some of your favorite teachers, those who stick out probably stick out because of the way they taught rather than the subject of what they had been teaching. This study hopes to analyze the importance of the imprinting that may be shared between a tutor and their pupil as well as the ramifications for the Church as a whole.


Case Studies

Imprinting is a rapid learning characteristic common in nature, specifically with goslings, ducklings, chicks, etc. During this stage of development, the young of the species remain with their mothers. If they did not, it would hinder their chances of long-term survival. While imprinting, the young naturally begins to follow its parent, building a bond with them, and imitating the way in which they act. To be clear, this is completely instinctive, without any training or coercion apart from natural disposition. [3]

 In the case study of chickens, it was observed that as they grow old enough to walk, they will “follow any moving object. And, when guided by sight alone, they seem to have no more disposition to follow a hen than to follow a duck or human being.” They happily and organically learn from those closest around them at their birth.[4]

 Yet, if the time needed to fulfill the early stages of imprinting passes without the influence of a mother-figure, the chick becomes indifferent to her. Here is an example:

 [After being reintroduced to the chick after its time of imprinting was over,] ‘The hen followed it, and tried to entice it in every way; still it continually left her and ran to the house or to any person of whom it caught sight. This it persisted in doing, though beaten back with a small branch dozens of times, and indeed cruelly maltreated. It was also placed under the mother at night, but it again left her in the morning.’

 The implication of such observations could simply be that an instinctive act can occur at some periods of the animal’s life but not at others… At an early age the chick approaches and follows moving objects. Later, it flees from moving objects… If during such a critical period the chick did not experience the proximity of its mother, then the chick could never subsequently develop a lasting attachment to her. More generally, certain forms of behaviour must be acquired during the critical period, or thy will not be acquired at all.[5]

 During the age of imprinting, the creature forms habits. This includes the most basic of traits such as walking and interaction. As these traits are put into practice, the habit of utilizing them is formed. But, if the time of imprinting has passed, not only is the habit no longer formed, but the animal fails to instinctively react to an imprinter altogether.[6]

 It is also observed that a distinct type of attraction is formed between the imprinter and imprintee. This sort of attachment “can be gauged by means of either (1) tests of recognition, or (2) tests of discrimination.” In the prior case study, the imprintee is repeatedly presented with the imprinting figure and the intensity of the creature’s reaction is monitored. In the latter, the subject is presented with a figure it had previously encountered alongside a new one. Imprinting is exemplified “if the animal approaches and follows the original figure rather than the new one.”[7]

 These traits do not belong to the animal kingdom alone. Konrad Lorenz, the Nobel Prize winning zoologist, “maintained that his views about the role of instincts in social behavior [such as those witnessed above] applied to humans as well as to animals.”[8] He also believed that these instincts were innate, naturally guiding the social behavior of both animal and mankind.[9]

 Daniel Lehrman, a leading psychologist of his time, respectfully disagreed with Lorenz’ “innate” stance. He said, “Calling behavior instinctive… does not explain anything about it.”[10] Lehrman “saw behavior as the result of a developmental process in which interactions between an organism and its environment affect the course of the process at all stages” and “doubted that researchers could separate the innate components of behavior from the learned ones.”[11]

 W. Sluckin, another psychologist, agrees with Lehrman’s stance explaining that, “These features of the development of behaviour may be characteristic of all learning… any acquired behaviour is… acquired at some critical stage of the individual’s life.”[12] In many ways, our own knowledge is merely the reflection of the knowledge that has been passed down to us. Even in the way we think and speak, handle ourselves and reveal personal mannerisms, we have been influenced by those who taught us these things. Some simple examples are sayings and accents. It is obvious when siblings react in similar ways or generally interact with similar demeanors.

 This debate continues to this day under the term “Nature versus Nurture.” Yet, for the purpose of this report, it may be assumed that both parties are correct. “Nature and nurture are not opposites-rather, they interact and work together to effect who we are.”[13] There may be knowledge which is both learned and instinctual. The learned knowledge may be contrasted with revealed knowledge while instinctual may relate to natural knowledge known to man. The knowledge shared by pupil and mentor is revealed while the subconsciously learned mannerisms may be in both parties.


 It may seem absurd to relate oneself to a chicken. But, many aspects of the imprinting study may become tools to better understand our own nature and its implications to practical ministry. At the seminary, many students are drawn to the same professors time and again, in the parish everyone has their favorite pastor, even in secular relationships we find ourselves drawn to some people and not others. Many of the psychologists above may relate this to some sort of formative time in the individual’s past. Perhaps, it has to do with common interests or cultural backgrounds. Whatever the reason is that people are naturally drawn to each other, the crucial fact is that they are. We were not built to live alone.[14]

In this interaction, bonds are formed. There is a high influence level and attachment that becomes evident. Friends begin to pick each other out in a crowd. Cliques are made. We begin to imprint on each other. This sort of relational living is crucial for new lifeblood in the Church.

Just as the hen imprinted her children, the Church was meant to imprint her own. If brought up in a household where a child is taught the Word of God, in the way he should go, it will stay with him.[15] His habits are formed. In a scientific view, habits become a neural basis in the brain created by “behavioural or physiological response to a repeatedly applied stimulus.” Without this stimulus, the habitual pattern cannot be formed.[16]

Maybe there is a reason that Jesus called the little children to come to him and used them in his parables.[17] It is crucial to reach the Church’s children as they develop. If the culture trains us to let them wait, they may not even recognize their own mother. Just like the chick who had missed the imprinting above, they may run away to any other figure in the area, being imprinted by a wolf instead of the shepherd even though their mother, the Church, may be the best and most well-suited to take care of her children. Then, even if we persistently beat them with rods of the law and force them to return, they will only witness a malicious intent and leave their mother hen in the morning. They struggle with being transformed by Christ because they had begun the habit of conforming to the world. With this in view, the seriousness of relational imprinting goes even further:

Imprinting has clear characteristics. First, it takes place during an early critical period. Afterward the brain, like hardened wax, cannot be molded. Second, the bird has an innate urge to acquire the imprint of its species and will do so through a single impression, without conditioning, trial and error, or any learning period. As Lorenz put it, imprinting ‘has nothing to do with learning.’ Third, it is irreversible.[18]

It seems, at least in the view of Lorenz, that imprinting is a permanent matter. It becomes a part of the young’s worldview and identity. It forms their recognition and their discrimination. This imprinting would include both the imprinting of the Church and the imprinting of the world. We are even more dependent on the Spirit than we could have ever thought possible, especially towards those who have never heard the good news of Jesus Christ.

As suggested above, there is an element of imprinting that survives through-out our lives. Not only are our basic functions learned and formed at a young age, but we continue to shape ourselves by those around us. It may lie under the category of a survival instinct and may not quite be as crucial or formative as the imprinting at an earlier stage in life. But, it exists and it molds who we are into who we will be.

Teaching Styles

Teacher Behavior

This remains true within the classroom as well as the pulpit. In fact, anywhere we are, we have the ability of influence. The more time spent and the younger the lives around us are, it seems as though there is even a heavier imprinting factor. So, how do we teach knowing that God is using us to mold the lives around us?

Teacher behavior is a stronger power than one may think. In a study to understand the priorities of “good” teachers, focus on the student was key. If the teacher monitors the student’s reaction to the material in order to improve their own lesson plans, diagnosing their needs, and creating a “student-centered classroom” then a healthier environment is formed. Secondarily, the student will only be in as much awe and respect towards the subject matter as the teacher is. Lastly, a focus must be put on relating the world the student lives with the classroom’s subject matter, creating a practical application. As you can see, if the teacher relates the subject as an important aspect of the world around them, the student is bound to do the same.[19]

Christian Application

This is reflected within the way we worship, it “encompasses all the ways we structure and order our lives… all around us, all of the time.”[20] It includes all of our being and senses, both what we receive and what we project. It is fundamentally experiential. It is one thing to be imprinted in the ideal and a completely different thing to be imprinted in the real.

How much more-so should we attempt to reflect Scripture, our serving Christ, and our benevolent Creator than that of the secular world surrounding us? Above all, He is our teacher. What if He was also our imprinter? What if we loved as He loved, just because He is the one we instinctively learned it from? And, in His love and His life-saving Gospel we have received from our Lord, ought we not teach those around us?[21]


Horn, Gabriel. 1985. Memory, Imprinting, and the Brain: An inquiry into mechanisms. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

iMinds, Knowledge for Inquisitive Minds. n.d. "Ideas & Concepts: Nature Vs Nurture."

Lorenz, Konrad. 1950. The Comparative Method in Studying Innate Behaviour Patterns.

Price, Nick. 2015. Worship as Re-Formation. February 5. Accessed February 5, 2015.

 Sluckin, W. 1965. Imprinting and Early Learning. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company.

Solomon, Daniel, and Harry L. Miller. 1961. Exploring in Teaching Styles: Report of Preliminary Investigations and Development of Categories. Chicago: The Center for the Study of Liberal Education for Adults.

Vicedo, Marga. 2013. The Nature & Nurture of Love: From Imprinting to Attachment in Cold War America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

[1] Matt. 28:19-20 (ESV).
[2] (Solomon and Miller 1961, 1)
[3] (Sluckin 1965, vix, 1)
[4] (Sluckin 1965, 2) “A young bird does not instinctively recognize adult members of its own species. Its instinctive endowment merely predisposes it to follow the first moving thing it encounters… After having had some little experience of its mother, or of some other animal… the young animal forms a lasting attachment to the individual, or the class of individual, it has initially followed,” page 6. 

This has been further analyzed with the example of lambs following those who had weaned them; buffalo calves who had followed huntsmen’s horses when separated from their mothers; and even a new-born zebra who had attached itself to a moving car, “running behind it and refusing to be chased away,” page 13.

 [5] (Sluckin 1965, 4)
[6] (Sluckin 1965, 5)
[7] (Sluckin 1965, 39)
[8] “Elaborating on those views… [he] claimed that the existence of human instincts was proved by the existence of human emotions.” (Vicedo 2013, 58-59) “It is a distinct and indubitably sensuous pleasure to fondle a nice plump, appetizing human baby… In this case, the existence of a true innate releasing mechanism in man has been clearly proven… the objective and subjective reactions activated by the mechanism are clearly distinguishable. A normal man—let alone a woman—will find it exceedingly difficult to leave to its fate even a puppy, after he or she has enjoyed fondling and petting it. A very distinct ‘mood,’ a readiness to take care of the object in a specific manner, is brought about with the predictability of an unconditional response,” (Lorenz 1950, 265) (Vicedo 2013, 60).
[9] (Vicedo 2013, 67)
[10] (Vicedo 2013, 96-98)
[11] (Vicedo 2013, 99)
[12] (Sluckin 1965, 8)
[13] (iMinds n.d., Loc 40)
[14] Gen. 2:18.
[15] Prov. 22:6.
[16] (Horn 1985, 27-28)
[17] Matt. 19:14.
[18] (Vicedo 2013, 56)
[19] (Solomon and Miller 1961, 6-7)
[20] (Price 2015)
[21]Gen. 1:27, 1 John 4:7-19.

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