Tag Archives: educational philosophy

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?

No child left behind & the tapestry of faith

While I was driving today, I was feeling a little sleepy so I listened to a talk radio show — a sure way to raise my blood pressure and wake myself up. They were talking about the “No Child Left Behind” act, and as I listened I realized that the requirements of “No Child Left Behind” closely resemble the educational reform movement going on within the religious education department of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). But first I have to tell you more about the talk radio show.

The show focused on a new survey released this week by the Center on Educational Policy (CEP) which assessed the effects of year four of the “No Child Left Behind” act. In order to meet the reading and math requirements of “No Child Left Behind,” according to CEP, many school systems are having to cut back on other subjects. In the words of the report:

71% of school districts reported that they have reduced instructional time in at least one other subject to make more time for reading and mathematics — the subjects tested for NCLB purposes. In some districts, struggling students receive double periods of reading or math or both—sometimes missing certain subjects altogether. Some districts view this extra time for reading and math as necessaryto help low-achieving students catch up. Others pointed to negative effects, such as short changing students from learning important subjects, squelching creativity in teaching and learning, or diminishing activities that might keep children interested in school. [Link to this passage; scroll down to page vii]

As usual, the show had people who liked “No Child Left Behind” and people who didn’t, and they heaved fairly shrill arguments at each other. But no one got into the deeper issues of “No Child Left Behind.”

At a deeper level, “No Child Left Behind” uses an essentialist philosophy of education — that is, there are certain essential things that people need to know. Essentialism often stresses a “back-to-basics” approach, with a closely defined body of knowledge and facts that must be mastered by all persons. CEP’s report also assumes an essentialist approach, CEP just defines the essential body of knowledge a little more broadly. And on the talk radio show, the argument centered around what should and should not be included in mandated tests. But what if you doubt the validity of the essentialist philosophy?

Just like “No Child Left Behind,” the UUA’s new Tapestry of Faith curriculum plan takes an essentialist philosophy of education. Instead of reading and writing, “Tapestry of Faith” focuses on:

Unitarian Universalist religious identity development, faith development, ethical development, and spiritual development. Big questions, central stories, spiritual practices, sustained anti-bias foci, and UU Principles and Sources….

But the overall philosophy appears to be the same: learners have to learn a few essential things. And the debate over “Tapestry of Faith” has so far ignored the issue of educational philosophy.

What might be alternative educational philosophies? A progressive educational philosophy would emphasize social problem solving, “educating for democracy,” and learning based on the direct experiences of the learners (think John Dewey). A romantic naturalist philosophy would say that we don’t need school at all (think of the “unschooling” movement). A reconstructionist educational philosophy would have learners working towards building a new social order as a part of their learning (think Paolo Friere, or Greg Stewart’s “Way Cool Sunday School”). More possible educational philosophies here.

I’ve been committed to progressive education, in the sense of “educating for democracy,” for many years now. As someone deeply committed to democracy, I find essentialism lends itself too easily to authoritarianism. And the educational debate I want to have would ask which educational philosophy will best support democracy (either in our nation, or in our denomination). But so far, all the educational debate I have heard has stayed at the level of talk radio — it never gets to the deeper philosophical issues.