Progressive religious education

A couple of days ago, I wrote about what philosophies might underlie religious education in a liberal religion [Link]. Now I’d like to explore what religious education might look like if we used a truly progressive philosophy of education.

First, a quick definition of progressive educational philosophy. My definition of progressive education is a kind of education that educates for democracy, that aims to help kids be good citizens and able to function in a democractic organization (adult learners, too, but I’m going to focus on children in this essay). Thus progressive education emphasizes social problem solving, since that’s what a democracy involves. Furthermore, progressive education isn’t preparation for life, it’s life itself. That means that the social situation the kids find themselves in (their class, their church, their community) is part of the subject matter for their education.

(There are other possible definitions of progressive education, but this is the definition I use. I do not define progressive education as “letting kids do whatever they want”; to me, that would be a part of an overly individualistic romantic naturalist philosophy of education.)

So if that’s how I define progressive education, what results might that definition provide in a real Sunday school in a real liberal church? Here are some possibilities:

In terms of the social setting of the class (or group) itself, we might expect these kinds of outcomes:

  • Kids would have to solve problems together, and teachers would be as likely (more likely?) to assess the learning of the whole class as that of an individual learner.
  • Kids would have to make some decisions that affected them directly (e.g., what to have for snack, how to deal with problems).
  • Kids would fill leadership roles within their own class (e.g., taking attendance, even leading portions of a class).
  • Kids would have to speak up for their ideas, and verbal expression would be as important (more important?) than the written word.
  • In older age groups, kids would learn how to speak in meetings: when to talk, when to be quiet, how to think on your feet, etc.
  • Kids would learn conflict management skills.
  • Kids would learn how to read simple spread sheets, and how to manage a budget.
  • Etc.

You can read descriptions of actual implementations of these ideas in the book Exploring religion with eight year olds by Helen Firman Sweet and Sophia Blanche Lyon Fahs (New York, H. Holt and Company, 1930). I have personally incorporated all these ideas into Sunday school teaching.

In terms of the wider church, we might expect these kinds of outcomes:

  • Kids would give regular public performances of their learning for the congregation, involving social problem solving (e.g., performing in plays, leading worship, opening their classrooms to adults during an open house, etc.)
  • As a result of the preceding, kids would learn how to speak in public to large groups; and learn skills like using a microphone.
  • Kids would learn how to serve on adult committees, by serving on such committees.
  • Kids would come together several times a year in a business meeting of the entire Sunday school, just as other groups in the church (the Women’s Alliance, CUUPS, etc.) meet periodically for business meetings.
  • Older kids — teens — would be invited to attend Board meetings; teens would have at least one voting representative on the Board.
  • Kids would be allowed to become full voting members (who would also be required to pledge) no later than age fourteen.
  • Over the years, kids would learn how to sit through committee meetings, and how to listen to sermons, so that by the time they are allowed to become full voting members of the church they have the skills needed
  • Etc.

You can read descriptions of some of these ideas in books like Homer Councilor’s Junior Church (New York, Century, 1928), Worship in the Junior Church by Anna and Dan Huntington Fenn (n.d.). I personally have implemented all these ideas in actual church settings.

By now, you should get the general idea, and it should be obvious how to apply this kind of learning to the world beyond the church community. It should also be clear that this kind of progressive education is most emphatically not “letting kids do whatever they want.” Instead, it is a way of educating kids into a specific religious tradition. At the same time, because of the democratic nature of this education, when kids become adults they will also have the ability to think for themselves and to make their own rational decision of whether or not to remain in your religious tradition.

And it should be noted that this progressive approach can be combined with more traditional curriculum-based Sunday school — study of the Bible, of one’s own religious tradition, and of world religions can go hand-in-hand with these progressive educational goals. Indeed, they should go hand-in-hand, since so much of the intellectual background for the kind of democracy that we see in local liberal churches comes right out of Bible study, denominational traditions, and how we interact with world religions. (Actually, this might be an interesting intersection between the progressivist and the perennialist, or Great Books, educational philosophies; but that’s an essay for another day.)

That’s a quickie outline. Any thoughts and reactions from people out there who are involved in local churches?

7 thoughts on “Progressive religious education

  1. Scott Wells

    Question. This is interesting, and certainly better articulated than others have said. Are there some contemporary resources you know that follows this train of thought? Or did the train get derailed somewhere?

  2. turqUUoise

    This seems like a great model to prepare kids to be informed voters, active committee members,
    confident civic leaders, all very good……….but I’m not how this learning process helps to
    nurture a soul or helps children deal with sadness or fear…

  3. Administrator

    Scott — Train got derailed and the track got torn up besides. Sophia Fahs switched to a more essentialist philosophy of education. The Junior Church movement died within Unitarianism in the ’50’s because it was associated in people’s minds with a Christian theology, which was falling out of popularity at that time (don’t know what happened in Universalism, but I think the junior church movement never really took hold in the UCA). By the 1980’s, the so-called “teacher-proof curriculum” was in vogue in UU circles, and that turned out to be pretty much the death of progressivist education.

    And yes, we need new resources because the old books I mention really do sound dated now.

    turqUUoise — If you’re working with the direct experiences of the kids, you should be abel to use their very real experiences of sadness and fear as the subject matter for learning, when those experiences arise. Problem with essentialism (currently in vogue in UU circles) is that you do a unit on sadness at a certain specified time, but what if the kids aren’t experiencing sadness? Then it just becomes an intellectual exercise, and even though you may cover sadness, it’s likely to have no real impact on the kids.

    Whereas if you train the kids to take some leadership for setting the course of the group, they are more able to say, Hey we need to deal with sadness today. In the best youth groups, this is what happens — you train the kids to take responsiblity for their own learning so that when they have needs arising out of specific experiences, they can identify and address those needs. (Note that a progressivist religious education program of the kind I’m describing is a very different model from that which exists in most liberal churches, so it may be a little hard to visualize at first — e.g., it would require better teacher training and support, would be driven by assessment, and would not rely heavily on printed curriculum guides — whereas current practice in Unitarian Universalist circles relies heavily on curriculum, deprecates teacher training, and usually does not include assessment of learning at all. If it still doesn’t make sense, post another comment, or feel free to send me email to ask specific questions.)

  4. Scott Wells

    In my last very Universalist pastorate, there’s evidence of decades-past children’s/junior church: small altars in the classrooms. But who knows.

    So, my interest is still piqued, how would “content” be incorporated in a progressivist classroom? I know I didn’t put that well, but I think you know what I mean. Is there a place for learning goals plans? Ideas about a progressivist curriculum (in the bigger meaning of the word) for the tiniest church schools?

  5. turqUUoise

    This model of progressive education would be wonderful in an academic setting. Now there’s a vision of salvation-The Ballou Channing Academy-a UU Day School, but that’s another discussion.
    We have roughly one hour a week to minister to our young UUs. It’s not always possible to know who is sad, which 6 year old was awake all night with mommy and daddy fighting…
    which 8 year old is afraid she was responsible for her cat’s death…you know ,the stuff of our lives, the religious questions.
    Let’s say there is a story about loss, not all the kids will be experiencing sadness at the moment but they all can remember a loss,wonder why bad things happen and talk about what helps move us from brokenness to wholeness….maybe this is more than an intellectual exercise, maybe this gives at least a few of the kids some spiritual tools to use when the next loss comes.
    Can the effectiveness of this be measured? Important question.

    I need to add that I LOVE parish ministers who are seriously involved with children’s religious programming.

  6. Administrator

    SCott and turqUUoise — I’ve actually seen this model of progressive education implemented in a Sunday school setting, so I know it can work. One of the problems I believe we face right now is that the only model of Sunday school we have is a curriculum-driven approach, where “curriculum” means printed curriculum guides. We have been so locked into this approach, we always think of Sunday school in terms of curriculoum books with a defined content and teacher-proof lesson plans. So first step is to realize that there are plenty of other models out there for doing Sunday school. Take Jerome Berryman’s “Godly Play,” which relies on setting and activity centers as much as on lesson plans to communciate content.

    Next step: educator Howard Gardner points out (in his book The Unschooled Mind) that educational reform has to have at least four “nodes”: curriculum, assessment, teacher training, and community support. We live in a society where public schooling is driven, not by curriculum, but by assessment in the form of high-stakes testing. Sunday school could also be driven, not by curriculum, but by assessment (although testing is not an appropriate assessment genre for Sunday school). Teacher training can also drive what happens in Sunday school — for example, think what could happen if we asked Sunday school teachers to participate in a theology class once a month — and we have a fine example of that in the OWL sexuality education program, where teacher training is an integral part of this successful program. Community support is critical for educational reform in churches — as you point out, turqUUoise, kids are only in Sunday school for an hour a week; that means that every moment of their contact with the church community is critical.

    Now take things yet another step: Maria Harris is well know for saying that the whole church is the curriculum. This ties in to my last point about community support: if the whole church is curriculum, then children are learning a great deal by the way they are treated when they enter the building, by the extent to which they are allowed to be in contact with adults, by how child-friendly the building is, etc. Read her book Fashion Me a People for more on this. (If you want to get really radical in this direction, read Myers and Myers, Engaging in Transcendence: The Church’s Covenant and Ministry with Young Children.)

    So Scott, content should be interpreted far more broadly than just what is printed in the curriculum book — and actually, a progressivist approach is easier in a small church because children tend to be more fully integrated into the life of the church. And turqUUoise, you can do a heck of a lot in an hour a week if you pay attention to all aspects of a child’s experience in church.

    Hope this all makes sense. Hit me with more questions if not.

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