Tag Archives: Homer Councilor

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?