Teaching kids how to be religious, part seven: Distributed cognition

In an earlier installment in this essay, I already discussed that distributed cognition shows how children can perform beyond their expected level of competency by being placed in social situations that contain distributed cognition. To put it more simply, a human institution like a congregation has in it the wisdom of the ages, which is made accessible to anyone who is a part of that human institution.

In terms of practical application, I think of distributed cognition as creating healthy congregations as a container in which formal and informal teaching and learning becomes far more effective. To put it another way, religious education theorist Maria Harris has said that the whole congregation is the curriculum. Thus at a practical level, what we want to do is to tweak the congregation so that we allow distributed cognition to happen — we allow children to soak up the wisdom of the ages.

This kind of thing happens in the best schools and universities. We all know of schools where children seem to soak up learning from the moment they walk in the door; and we all know about other schools where even good teachers can’t seem to teach children anything. The same is true of universities, some of which seem far more effective at teaching their students, regardless of the efforts of individual professors.

You can watch this happen in healthy congregations that have the children in for all or part of the worship service. For example, in 2004-2005 I served as the interim associate minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva, Illinois. When I arrived, we decided that children would attend the first twenty minutes of every worship service with their families. Prior to that, children had not attended worship in that congregation. Generally speaking, I felt that children learned as much or more about how to be religious in those twenty minutes, than they learned in fifty minutes of their closely-graded traditional Sunday school classes.

In the spring of 2005, we tried a different experiment in that Geneva congregation. Rather than offering traditional Sunday school classes, we offered a program loosely based on the “workshop rotation” model of Sunday school. We rotated mixed-aged groups through the various workshops, in order that children of different ages could learn from one another. In another experiment, during the Saturday evening worship service, when there were very few children present, we had one group that included children from age four to age eleven. In both these experiments, younger children were able to perform beyond their level of expected competency, because of the influence of the older children. At the same time, because the older children wound up mentoring and even teaching younger children, they, too, performed beyond their expected level of competency.

From these and other real-life experiments, I conclude that relying solely on closely-graded classes (e.g., classes containing only eight-year-olds or only eleven-year-olds) places real limits on how much religious competency children can gain. So here are some suggestions for incorporating distributed cognition into

For school-aged children, the mix of programs might include multi-generational activities (common worship experiences, social events, intergenerational choirs) along with mixed-age programs for children (workshop rotation, and special projects such as young people’s choir and plays) in addition to closely graded classes containing only one age group.

For teens, a mix of programs might include multi-generational activities (common worship experiences, social events), chances to mentor younger kids (teaching Sunday school), opportunities to be mentored by adults (formal mentoring programs), and opportunities to participate fully in the adult community (serving on committees and boards, helping run programs) in addition to closely graded programs such as youth groups.

Next: The limits of psychology

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