Teaching kids how to be religious, part two

Part one: Link

Here in North America and Western Europe, we have been wholly seduced by Jean Piaget’s understanding of persons. Piaget saw children as little scientists, investigating their worlds as solitary researchers, gradually building up adequate models of how the world works. One of Piaget’s insights is that children develop their little models according to a timetable that is more or less the same for every child. Thus the role of adults is to help children work through the standard development schedule.

Piaget’s insights are extraordinarily useful in classroom settings (although it should be noted that classrooms have been set up according to Piaget’s notions, so there may be something of a tautology here). But in Eastern Europe, Lev Vygotsky came up with another possible insight into how children learn and “develop.”

Living in Russia in the early 20th C., Vygotsky was deeply affected by ideas of collective human endeavor. The West reviled Karl Marx and glorified the extreme individualism of free market capitalism; Eastern Europe and Russia reviled capitalism and glorified collectivism. Unlike Piaget, who was from Western Europe and saw human beings as disparate individuals, Vygotsky saw human beings as part of a collective.

Needless to say, Vygotsky’s research was utterly rejected by the West until the fall of Marxism in Eastern Europe. This was unfortunate, because while much of Vygotsky’s research is now outdated, he did discover one very important thing:– children can perform above their expected level of competence in certain social settings.

In my own work as a religious educator, I have found both Piaget and Vygotsky help me to understand how children learn to be religious. Children do change and develop in certain fairly predictable patterns as they grow older, just as Piaget’s model predicts. At the same time, when you put together a group of children of mixed ages, the younger children can perform above their developmental stage, due to the influence of the older children. The same is true for children who are in a multi-generational setting, such as in all-ages worship services (for example, school age children in certain unprogrammed Quaker meetings can and will sit in silence for the first twenty minutes of meeting for worship).

In the past twenty years, some psychologists in the West have gone beyond Vygotsky’s work, and developed a theory of “distributed cognition.” In this theory, cognition or thinking is distributed through out socially-created objects and institutions. A concrete example of a distributed cognition is an axe:– when you pick up an axe, you are holding the accumulated cognitive insights into how to cut down trees, accumulated by generations of human beings. Yes, someone has to teach you how to use that axe, but there’s a sense in which the axe also teaches you; there’s a sense in which as you learn to use the axe, you gain access to the accumulated wisdom of generations of thinkers.

I still use Piaget’s insights into human beings. But when it comes to teaching kids how to be religion, I also use the insights of distributed cognition. Like an axe, a congregation represents the accumulated wisdom of a certain religious tradition. This is another way of getting at what religious educator Maria Harris said:– curriculum isn’t just what’s written in the text books in the Sunday school, the whole congregation is the curriculum.

To be continued…

13 thoughts on “Teaching kids how to be religious, part two

  1. ms. m

    ok, so how about I take your writing and make it into the stand alone chapters, woven with rantings from me in between?

    thank you again for putting this out “in public.”

    Stay cool, my friend. And watch for us behind the sox bullpen this week! We’ll be the ones waving at the NESN cameras.

  2. h sofia

    I’ve never heard of Vygotsky, but his idea that you put here is quite familiar to me. As a former homeschooled/unschooled child, one of the arguments I heard often from homeschooling parents was that exposing their kids to more than just an “age appropriate” setting – essentially, broadening their learning pool to more than just designated adult “teachers” and same-age peers – allowed the kids a better learning experience. They learned how to do more than just what was “age appropriate.”

  3. Jess

    To build on the specific example of children learning how one should behave in worship settings, I am a firm believer in children being in at least part of a congregation’s worship service every single week, all the way up through the high school groups. Everybody learns from the experience, not just the kids!

    Since the beginning of John’s seminary program, we have brought our two to the Wednesday night Vespers services, and while it was difficult the first couple of weeks, they soon learned how the routine went and how to be still and respectful of the people around them. Nora was barely three when we started, and she would snuggle on my lap and sometimes fall asleep. Brandon was six, and aside from the occasionally quietly whispered “this is boring” he soon got the hang of sitting through an hour before getting to socialize and eat snacks afterwards.

    Now, at almost six and almost nine, church is old hat to these two. They love to sing the hymns, and do so with gusto, and they know how to compose themselves during prayer and times of silence.

    They may not understand everything that happens during the worship service, but they know the rhythms of worship, and what is supposed to happen when, and that it’s an important ritual in our lives once or twice a week. As they get older, they pick up more of the content of a service, and we talk about the ideas presented afterwards. That gives me the wonderful opportunity to talk about our religion and how it affects the ways we choose to live our lives with them, and to learn from their own experiences and perspectives.

    I wish more UU churches in particular would emphasize the importance of bringing the whole community together in worship more often, instead of shipping the young’uns down into the basement so that the adults can do “real” worship. We wonder why our high schoolers leave us, when we encourage them to develop their own forms of worship and then to abandon those practices when they become adults?

    But this is your blog, not mine. :-)

  4. chutney

    Has there been any work on Vygotsky and faith development theory? It would be interesting to read.

    Jess, looks like we’re on the same wave length. I just wrote a post saying much the same.

    I still the think the main reason we don’t have children in worship is because parents find it inconvenient.

  5. Jean

    Dan’s postings and these comments made me realize one of the beautiful benefits of teaching at an
    institution with a large percentage of “non-traditional” students, that is students over the age of
    25. In any given classroom, there are 18 year olds, 28 year olds, and a handful of folks in their
    30s, 40s, 50s, and even sometimes 60s. Our conversations are richer, more layered, and the
    community of learners has a much more dynamic (in the sense of lively) experience.
    Perhaps this is another example of “distributed cognition”…the accumulated wisdoms coming together,
    and from that we learn or something like that. I don’t know…think so Dan?

  6. Steve Caldwell

    I would also suggest the flip-side of Jess’ comments. We should look at more than just children and youth learning about worship as it happens in a Sunday morning or mid-week vespers worship context.

    Older adults should experience how worship happens in youth and young adult settings (e.g. camps and conferences, local youth groups, etc). Otherwise, we’ll just reinforce the idea that one form of worship (sitting in rows facing a pulpit where one person speaks) is the normative experience for all worship.

    There’s an excellent critical exploration of the “sitting in pews facing a pulpit” worship style written by a 2005 Meadville-Lombard M. Div. graduate, available on the UUA’s Young Adult and Campus Ministry web pages:

    “Cresting From The Ocean: Creating Profound Worship” by Elisabeth Frauzel Bailey

  7. kim

    Jean — Your comment made me think of my schooling in a setting where we also had people of
    all college ages: 18 to 60s at least. But I was a student, not a teacher. The thing that
    kept jumping out at me was the male teachers who gave way way more attention to the young
    blonde female students — to the point of sometimes not getting to the rest of us at all.
    I especially remember that in an architectural drawing class. I often had to stay late to
    get the teacher to look at my drawings or answer questions.
    One of my bosses, a dentist, does the same thing — he talks longer to attractive young
    females and won’t believe me when i say they have gum disease.

  8. UU Jester

    Not only do Jess’s kids “get” worship, they are often participants in the service.
    And they are wonderful at it– engaged, enthuisastic, and worshipful.
    I hope I have kids like that in my congregation.
    The worship services will be so much richer if there are.

  9. Administrator

    ms. m — Sounds like a good idea, or maybe we should just collaborate on writing a book together — send me email, we’ll talk.

    h sofia — Glad to hear that the homeschooling crowd was saying those kinds of things, as it’s a great justification for what they do.

    Jess — Hope you realize how radical that last paragraph is — if you’re a DRE in many congregations, to say that sort of thing would be to risk your job. One slight disagreement with you, when you say that we encourage highschoolers to develop their own forms of worship — in my experience, youth worship basically hasn’t changed in the dozen years I’ve been doing youth ministry, and may be more conservative (in its own way) than “regular” worship.

    Jean — Mixing age groups in of itself is not an example of a distributed cognition. I’d argue that any university is in a sense a distributed cognition, in that the institution carries within itself 800 years worth of accumulated, implicit knowledge and wisdom on how to learn (or at least, how to do academia). Part of the accumulated knowledge and wisdom in any university is that it draws together disparate people to learn together. Your university is a special instance of university that happens to find its diversity in combining age groups. –That would be my rough analysis of your situation.

    Chutney — I believe there has been some work done about trying to reconcile Vygotskian and Piagetian theories. But as for faith development: it’s hard to imagine that anyone takes that stuff seriously enough nowadays to bother doing any research on it.

    kim — Boy, have you hit on a big issue. Huge problem in Sunday schools, as well as in all educational settings. Anyone who thinks the feminist battle has been won should sit in and observe any classroom and watch how the boys get preferential treatment, even by avowedly feminist women teachers. It’s scary.

    Steve — You’ve raised some points that I’ll treat in a separate comment.

  10. Administrator

    Steve — I’d like to address the issues you raise in the context of religious education. So the questions I’d like to ask are these: What would circle worship teach that’s different from standard Unitarian Universalist worship? Do we in fact want to teach children that which youth and young adult worship can offer? And do we want to teach older adults what youth and young adult worship has to offer?

    I’ll take on the last question first. You write: “Older adults should experience how worship happens in youth and young adult settings.” In the context of religious education, presumably you believe that older adults have something to learn from today’s youth and young adult worship. Actually, I do not believe that is true. Indeed, some of the older adults have done and are doing worship that is more radically different than anything the youth and young adults do today. Most current youth and young adult worship in our denomination seems frozen in time, drawing on worship experiments down by second-wave feminists in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Some of those older Unitarian Universalist adults you’re talking about were the ones who pioneered that stuff thirty or forty years ago, and so would learn nothing from the circle worship put on by today’s youth and young adults, which still hasn’t moved beyond those innovations.

    Next question: do we want to teach that which youth and young adult worship can offer? You write: “Otherwise, we’ll just reinforce the idea that one form of worship (sitting in rows facing a pulpit where one person speaks) is the normative experience for all worship.” Actually, for our tradition, that is normative, and it teaches us some very important values. We come out of the radical worship experiments of the left wing of Protestantism, where the main concern was to fully involve everyone in the worship experience. To fully involve everyone, the Protestant reformers built new buildings that allowed everyone to see and hear clearly, often with two levels of balconies around three sides of the building (which, by the way, meant that some of the worshippers would face each other).

    I also think you mistake the reason why those old reformers set things up so that everyone could see and hear what was happening at the pulpit, and at the altar table in front of it. The pulpit represented the Word of God — today, the non-theists among us might say the pulpit represents the highest ideals of the community. So of course you want to face that. Furthermore, this represents one of the highest ideals of our faith tradition. Remember that in the old medieval churches the worshippers weren’t even allowed to see and hear much of the worship service ; thus, facing the pulpit meant you, too, have unmediated personal access to God’s Word (or if you prefer, you have unmediated personal access to the revelations and wisdom of the ages). I should add that having the altar where everyone could see it, and where everyone could have access to communion, was also important to those old reformers — no one was going to be shut out of communion.

    Some of the proponents of circle worship say that they are promoting more inclusive, more participatory worship, so maybe these are just today’s manifestation of 400 year old Protestant worship reforms. Yet I believe that in fact most UU attempts at circle worship are less inclusive and more exclusive than standard worship. Those old Protestant reformers were packing 700-800 people into their participatory worship services, whereas most of today’s circle worship services are lucky to get 100 people participating. Could it be that the upper middle class worshippers promoting circle worship are unconsciously trying to keep people out? If we go back, we find that most or all of the innovations of today’s youth and young adult circle worship come out of second wave feminism of the 1960’s-70’s (and to a lesser extent out of the human potential movement of the same era). Second-wave feminism has been rightly criticized for being an upper middle class white movement that was not welcoming to women of color, or women from the lower-middle and working classes (the human potential movement was even worse).

    Interestingly, based on the eight congregations I’ve served in over the past dozen years, less than a half of all Unitarian Universalist youth participate regularly in circle worship, or even like it — I’d guess it’s less than a quarter of all UU youth. Worship that takes place in camps and conferences tends to be even more exclusive, since many lower-middle and working class youth cannot take the time off from work to attend these expensive events.

    Getting back to the question at hand: Do we want to teach what today’s youth and young adult circle worship has to offer? –that is, do we want to continue teaching the lessons of second-wave feminism? My answer: Absolutely not. I have come to believe that most of today’s UU circle worship is riddled with unexamined class bias, and an unexamined desire to keep people out who aren’t quite like us — the standard critiques against all the experiments of second-wave feminism. If we’re going to do circle worship, or any kind of alternative worship, we need to rethink what we’re doing.

    Now let’s go back to the first question I asked: What would today’s youth and young adult worship teach that’s different from standard Unitarian Universalist worship? My answer: Not much. I would agree with you, however, if you said that Unitarian Universalist adults should be checking out Emergent Church worship, Taize-style worship, some of the Pagan groups, Matthew Fox’s innovative worship services, or one of the many other alternative worship groups. Those forms of alternative worship have gone far beyond anything we’ve done in Unitarian Universalism, and we might find much of value there.

    Personally, I’m a strong advocate of alternative worship, but I no longer bother looking to UU youth and young adult worship, frozen as it is in a 1970 upper middle class white ethos. We’ve learned what we can from it, and it’s time to move on.

  11. chutney

    Well, I think it would be more fair to say that no one does stage-based faith theory anymore. I know they had a global conference on it a couple or three years back.

    To all,
    What’s a quick definition of circle worship?

  12. Jess

    I can’t stand circle “worship” – to the point where I don’t consider it worship at all. I love alternative forms of worship, but they have to be done worshipfully – adding some drums and clapping doesn’t quite cut it for me. Most youth services I’ve attended had no sense of through-line, no centering thread that brought the whole service together. While each element in and of itself might be valuable, the haphazard way they are strung together just leaves me cold. Same with Soulful Sundowns – I’ve just never seen one done well.

    I’m really not enamoured with the Youth/Young Adult con “culture,” either, because of that sense of exclusivity that Dan so eloquently addressed. If you don’t have the resources to go, you don’t speak the same language as those people, and it’s frustrating. Hang out on FUUSE.com for awhile and see what I mean. And I’m supposed to be a member of the target audience – 18-35 – but sorry, I’d rather worship in the sanctuary with the whole congregation.

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