The Ratio Studiorum and Ignatian Pedagogy

Kirk Peck

When the Society of Jesus was founded in 1540, the goal of formalizing education with Jesuit involvement was not part of its mission. In fact, only after the first Jesuit college, located in Messina Sicily, succeeded did Ignatius of Loyola recognize how an organized system of education might contribute to the Society’s endeavors. Little did he realize that the philosophy of learning incorporated into early Jesuit education would remain a powerful pedagogical influence more than four hundred fifty years later.

In the course of organizing a new order of the Roman Catholic Church, Ignatius of Loyola and nine companions, who supported his efforts to found the order, wrote a document detailing their primary role and functions. The result concluded in a short text entitled the Formula of the Institute,1540. The document outlined a list of ministries to be conducted specifically by members of the Society, thus differentiating the functions to be carried out by priests from other diocese and religious orders. Although the Formula essentially remained the primary charter of the order, the Society soon recognized the need for a more detailed document. What resulted became known as the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, which Ignatius tirelessly revised until his death in 1556.

Divided into ten sections, the Constitutions served as a guide book for the Society, and treated such topics as administrative governance, Ignatian philosophy, and the guiding principles for the Jesuit system of education. Part IV of the Constitutions, for example, stressed specifically the importance of an educational emphasis on the humanities, philosophy, and theology. Ignatius had hoped to create a specific set of rules to govern Jesuit schools, such as those instituted at the Roman College, but failed to achieve this goal during his lifetime. Forty-three years after his death, however, a more elaborate document was eventually conceived by the Society, and became known as the Ratio Studiorum, or simply a “plan of studies.”1

Ratio Studiorum
The Ratio Studiorum was completed in 1599 under the guidance of Fr. Claudio Aquaviva, the fifth Superior General of the Society. The document characterized the four underlying principles of Jesuit education. First, students were required to learn the rudiments of Greek language and rhetoric. Second, instructors were to educate students about values and attitudes reflective of Jesuit thought. Third, students were to engage in the learning process along with a rigorous evaluation of their progress. And fourth, it was expected that students obtained a certain level of knowledge and ability before they were allowed to progress in their studies. Implicit in these tenets was the primary purpose of the Ratio, which was “to instill knowledge and love of the creator and redeemer of humanity.”2

 The Ratio Studiorum signified Ignatius’ vision that Jesuit education be characterized as a highly structured plan of studies, and has remained an outstanding example of a well organized set of principles for use in formalized education. The structure and organization of the Ratio’s curriculum were also instrumental in the development of Jesuit educational institutions during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Unfortunately, a papal order suppressed the Society in1773, forcing Jesuit schools in Europe and elsewhere to close. Only in a few surviving schools in Prussia and Russia would the Ratio continue to exist, thanks to the intercession of Frederic II and Catherine II, respectively. The Society was eventually restored through a Papal bull in 1814, but it required several years to rebuild the schools and recruit new Jesuits to the order. As a result of the forty-one year loss of continuity in Jesuit education the Ratio Studiorum never regained its former glory.

Vatican II
After the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), popularly known as the Vatican II, scholars began questioning how modern-day Jesuit education might benefit from the original vision outlined in the Ratio Studiorum. In an effort to reestablish a distinct identity for Jesuit education, the Society focused on creating unique methods of teaching, as opposed to developing specific content of courses offered in the schools. To accomplish this goal a list of unifying characteristics was created to serve as a more formal document for contemporary Jesuit identity and ultimately a source of inspiration for devising a more distinct pedagogical model rooted in Ignatian spirituality.

Characteristics of Jesuit Education
In 1980, Fr. General Pedro Arrupe formed the International Commission on the Apostolate of Jesuit Education out of concern for bringing a contemporary vision of Jesuit mission and identity to light in schools of secondary education. Four years later, this deliberative body introduced one of the most widely distributed documents in the Society’s history, The Characteristics of Jesuit Education. Translated into thirteen languages and made available to teachers, administrators, and governing boards in Jesuit institutions, it identified and provided extensive commentary on the nine essential features of Jesuit education. As defined in the Characteristics, Jesuit education: is world-affirming; insists on individual care and concern for each person; is value-oriented; proposes Christ as the model of human life; serves the faith that does justice; is an apostolic instrument (in service of the church as it serves human society); pursues excellence in its work of formation and witnesses to excellence; stresses lay-Jesuit collaboration; and adapts means and methods in order to achieve its purposes most effectively. The Characteristics emphasize that part of the Society’s identity depends upon the value it places on the tradition of education.3

Acknowledging that the document was not to be considered a new Ratio Studiorum, Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, Fr. Arrupe’s successor as Superior General, stated that the Characteristics “can give us a common vision and a common sense of purpose; it can be a standard against which we measure ourselves.” 4 On the other hand, the document failed to answer one of the most perplexing questions posed by Jesuit educators: How can the core characteristics become successfully incorporated in Jesuit schools as a form of pedagogy? Three years after issuing the Characteristics, the International Commission began to consider that question, and in 1993 it created a new document entitled, Ignatian Pedagogy: A Practical Approach. This new document enabled educators and administrators to logically apply the Characteristics to academic instruction.

Ignatian Pedagogy: A Practical Approach
 Ignatian Pedagogy: A Practical Approach is a document effectively regarded as part 10 of the original Characteristics of Jesuit Education. It was developed as a teaching philosophy to be used in Jesuit institutions, and resulted from scholars who wanted a more direct application of the Characteristics. Initially, experience, reflection, and action were the three hallmarks of Ignatian Pedagogy. Two additional concepts—context and evaluation—were later incorporated to comprise the present-day pedagogical paradigm such that context comes before experience and evaluation falls after action. Combined, the five elements constitute what the document’s authors framed as the “Pedagogy of the Spiritual Exercises.5

According to the authors of Ignatian Pedagogy, the dynamic relationship between experience, reflection, and action is the heart of what the first decree of the 33rd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus intended to accomplish in terms of incorporating the Characteristics into a practical model for Jesuit teachers. It was a model of educational philosophy framed upon a teacher-learner relationship.

The new model of education was unique in that, although not formally published as a distinct document of Jesuit pedagogy until 1993, the philosophical principles underlying its foundation had originated more than four hundred fifty years earlier with Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, and several decades later, with the Ratio Studiorum.

The Five Elements of Ignatian Pedagogy

I. Context. Instructors must become familiar with the context of students before commencing a teaching relationship. They must achieve this familiarity by collaborating with students and reflecting upon personal context by questioning how the students’ world view influences their “attitudes, values, and beliefs,” and shapes their “perceptions, judgments and choices.”6 In addition, instructors should consider the background of each student in relation to family, friends, culture, socioeconomic status, religious beliefs, and other past learning experiences—in other words, his or her personal context.

II. Experience. Ignatius sought to engage the whole person in the learning experience, which included more than simple acquisition of knowledge and facts. The key to experience, according to Ignatian pedagogical methodology, was to ignite an emotional response to learning that would motivate a student to action. Structured classroom dialogue, laboratory explorations, community engagement, service requirements, and sports participation are examples of ways to incorporate direct experiences as opposed to vicarious ones including reading, listening to  ectures, or discussing how certain events and individuals have shaped the course of history. Ignatian pedagogy emphasizes the need for students to advance beyond mere memorization of facts, to more affective ways of processing information. Only when a student responds emotionally to learning does the experience—whether direct or vicarious—inspire a person to action.

III. Reflection. As Fr. Kolvenbach once stated, “We must exercise discernment, which implies asking questions, searching for solutions, learning from experience and research”7 if we are to differentiate between good and bad. In the context of Ignatian pedagogy, discernment means to “clarify internal motivation.”8 For learning to therefore be meaningful students must contemplate their emotional reactions to life experiences to fully grasp the value of their education. “Mentoring, student journals, Ignatian style ‘repetition,’ case studies, debates/role playing, and integrating seminars,” are a few examples of how teachers might incorporate reflection into the curriculum.9

IV. Action. In terms of Ignatian pedagogy, action refers to the integration of cognitive and affective reactions to experiences and the values extrapolated from those experiences through the process of reflection. Ignatian pedagogy defines two types of action: interiorized choices and choices externally manifested. The former occurs when students contemplate past experiences, and personal reflections, and then develop their own personal convictions about truth. Eventually, students must choose whether or not to incorporate the truth as part of their reality and yet remain receptive to where the truth might lead.

 In time, interiorized choices might become externally manifested if they motivate the student to develop habits of new behavior. Jesuit educators might witness a student called to action in response to structured curricular activities such as organized course debates, participation in meaningful community engagement, essay compositions, and personal communications through faculty advisement.

V. Evaluation. Although not part of the original philosophy expressed in the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatian pedagogy recognizes periodic evaluation of personal learning as essential to student growth. According to the authors of the document, “A perennial characteristic of Ignatian pedagogy is the ongoing systematic incorporation of methods from a variety of sources which better contribute to the intellectual, social, moral, and religiousformation of the whole person.”10 Faculty mentoring, student journals, portfolio evaluations, as well as systematic assessments of time management and service to others are among several examples of how students might be evaluated by Jesuit educators.


The elements of context, experience, reflection, action, and evaluation comprise the modern day philosophy of Jesuit education. The integration of these elements into structured learning activities and teacher-student relationships is what distinguishes Jesuit education, and provides a unique perspective on a purpose to instill a greater love for God both as truth and creator. Ignatian pedagogy also provides a structured framework for Jesuit institutions to address components of academic mission. Even secular institutions can benefit from its precepts because the pedagogy, as inspired by St. Ignatius, is “profoundly human and consequently universal.11

Jesuit education has shown itself to be adaptable through many generations and is therefore strategically positioned for continued success during the twenty-first century. What began as one man’s pilgrimage of personal transformation and a quest to benefit humanity lives on, representing more than four hundred fifty years of history, tradition, and spiritual growth.

1. Pavur, C. The Document That Got Specific About Jesuit Education: The Great Ratio at Jesuit Bulletin. 1: 1999. Retrieved December 3, 2002 from

2. Maher, M., Shore, P., & Parker, K. From 1599–1999: Celebrating the Ratio Studiorum at Saint Louis University. Conversations, 16, 50, 1999.

3. Duminuco, V. A New Ratio for a New Millennium. In: V. Duminuco (Ed.). The Jesuit Ratio Studiorum: 400th Anniversary Perspectives. (p.145–160). New York: Fordham University Press, 2000.

4. Ibid., 152.

5. Ignatian Pedagogy: A Practical Approach, 1993. Retrieved August 1, 2002 from, par. 23.

6. Ibid., par. 35.

7. Kolvenbach, P. The Jesuit University in the Light of the Ignatian Charism. Address of Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, Superior General of the Society of Jesus to the International Meeting of Jesuit Higher Education Rome (Monte Cucco, 2001). Retrieved October 24, 2002 from

8. Ibid., 4.

9. Ignatian Pedagogy, Appendix #3.

10. Ibid., par. 8.

11. Ibid., par. 6.

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