Tag Archives: learning goals

Small RE programs, pt. 6

Read the whole series.


This session, we opened with a reading from an old Unitarian book titled The Little Child at the Breakfast Table, a collection of 31 daily readings for Unitarian parents to read to their children at the breakfast table. (You can download the entire book, or read it online, here.) I read the introduction by the editors, William and Mary Gannett, where they explain the purpose of the book. They say in part:

Are not many mothers and fathers today vaguely longing for some kind of “household altar,” fitted to our own time and feeling? A few of these may like to try our simple way. Not a return to the old form of “family prayers,” but some custom akin to it is needed, — greatly needed, if conscious reverence be a quality as worthy of culture in ourselves and in our children as truthfulness and kindness.

While many of the readings now sound dated to our Unitarian Universalist ears, some of the readings could still be read aloud by parents to their children between age 5 and 10 (see, e.g., p. 16). I suggested that this kind of resource would be a great help in trying to reach some of the big outcomes we identified. For example, if one of our desired outcomes is to help UU kids become UU adults, this kind of simple activity could help move towards this outcome by making Unitarian Universalism and UU values become a part of everyday life. Unfortunately, The Little Child at the Breakfast Table was put together in 1915, and it won’t work for us today. But if enough of us start thinking about it, I’ll bet we could assemble a similar book for 2009 UU kids. (I’ve collected a few such readings here, but this is a bare beginning.) Continue reading

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.

Religious education for adults

Trying to plan out an integrated religious education curriculum across the life span raises a difficult questions: what are the learning goals for Unitarian Universalist adults?

Most UU congregations have the start of a pretty good curriculum for newcomers — the “New UU” class (it’s known under different names in different congregations). But when newcomers get beyond that, what then? Do they need more education, or do we just let them go?

In general, our UU congregations put together a miscellaneous or random collection of offerings for adults. Usually, it’s based on the time-worn”Open University” approach — if you can get someone to lead it, and you can get someone to teach it, then offer it. This is the easy way out — but is it the best way? If that’s what we’re doing, how is adult religious education offered at church any different than the adult education courses offered at the local community college?

If you read my post from yesterday, you’ll know I’m moving towards setting learning goals first, then coming up with acceptable evidence to determine if the learning goals have been met, and only then planning specific activities and instructional methods. If that’s the approach, my first question has to be — what are the learning goals we have for Unitarian Universalist adults?

I don’t really know. I have a pretty good idea of learning goals for adults who are new to Unitarian Universalism, but what about those of us who have been around for a long time?

Trying to plan religious education

Yesterday, I met with Elba and Jen from the Lifespan Religious Education Committee to come up with a curriculum plan for next church year. We were all a little apprehensive, but it turned out to be a relatively painless process. Partly I think it was painless because we had done the hard work ahead of time. In the last meeting of the Lifespan Religious Education Committee, we spent an hour going over the learning goals for the coming year, and that was the hard work.

More and more, I am convinced that the right way to go about planning curriculum is to start with the overall goals for our learners. And recently, I have been reading “Understanding by Design” by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, a book donated by Audris G., one of our church school teachers. Wiggins and McTighe confirm what I’ve been thinking. They say to begin by identifying the desired results. Then they contend the next step is to determine what the acceptable evidence will be that learners have reached the desired results. Only after that should we plan learning experiences and instructional methods.

But the way we usually go about things in a church school is that we pick curriculum books or programs that we like, and use them. For example, the most recent conference of the Liberal Religious Educators Association, the professional association of Unitarian Universalist religious educators, presented four different ways you can plan learning experiences. In other words, they were starting with the learning experiences and instructional methods, and skipping right over setting goals and determining how we know learners have learned anything. The way I see it now, that’s really all backwards. But that’s the way we’ve always done it.

Here in our church, I think we’re moving towards a better approach. The Lifespan Religious Education Committee is working at further refining the learning goals for all ages. We have begun to figure out good ways to determine if anyone is actually learning anything. We’re slowly breaking the old habits of planning things backwards. And it’s starting to pay off for us — curriculum planning was much easier than we had expected this year.

For more about “Understanding by Design,” visit the Web site of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum design at: