A letter about learning and experience

Dear Mark,

In my last letter, I outlined a possible theology that might relate to religious education, and religious experience more broadly. In this letter, I’m going to start with a description of some real-life religious education, and then get into some thoughts about education and experience.


A couple of Sundays ago, I was helping out with our summer Sunday school program. We had a dozen kids ranging in age from not-quite-five to thirteen, as well as four adults. Our plan was to walk over to Mitchell Park, a city park right behind our congregation’s campus, play on the play structures, have snack, and return. This was in service of the first of our four big educational goals: we want children to have fun and feel they are part of a community.

On the walk to the park, Edie, our lead teacher, set off in front and the rest of us followed. We got to the nearest set of play structures in the park, and some children went to the swing set, while others climbed on the oddly shaped climbing structure, and a couple of children stayed next to a large tree. Mitsuru, who is about 8, climbed up the tree a few feet, and when he was close to my height, we chatted for a while until he got bored and climbed back down. (1) Pretty soon all the children were bored, and we all decided to go over to the farther play area, which has many more things to play on and is much more fun.

As we walked over, I fell into conversation with Rose, who is thirteen. Some of the little kids were talking about sports so I asked Rose if she was involved in any sport. She said, “Only if you count horseback riding as a sport.” I said that I did, and that my older sister was an avid horsewoman. She told me how she gets to ride when she visits a cousin who lives far away, but has no place to ride nearby. I told her about a college that has horses, and lets you take horseback riding for physical education credit. And by this time we were at the farther play area.

(By now you might be saying: What a long description of seemingly trivial conversations! But it is experiences of these seemingly trivial conversations that build networks of relationships between people, that help us fulfill our first big educational goal — to have fun and build community. In order to reach this goal, we are not using root-tree model of learning here, we’re using a rhizome model — we’re not trying to nurture one deep tap root, we’re trying to nurture lots on interconnections.)

Most of the children went immediately to the cool climbing structure, and soon eight or ten of our children were climbing around, and talking with each other. Rose was not interested, and sat near Hong (another of us adults) and me, playing a game on her smartphone. Mitsuru looked over her shoulder to see what the game was, and they talked about it briefly before he ran off to the climbing structure.

Pallas, who is not quite five, did not feel quite capable of joining the big kids on the climbing structure, and she wandered over to where Rosemary, who is eight, was swinging on one of two swings. Rosemary wanted to be pushed, and I asked Rose if she would help; she was happy to. I got Pallas settled into the other swing, gave her a few pushes, and then I stood in front of both swinging children with my hands up where — if they really pumped — they could hit my hands. Rose gave them discrete pushes when they needed it. We all had fun!

It was time for snack before we knew it. Two of the older boys got snack, ran off to play on something, came back and talked to me a mile a minute (both at the same time) about what they were doing, ran off again. This happened two or three times; they gave really interesting descriptions of what they were doing!

It was time to walk back. The older children helped Hong round up the younger children. Genie, who is nine, gave Pallas a hug, then came over to walk next to me. Genie and I started talking about sibling rivalry. Genie said her younger sister is “very annoying” — and turned and glared at her sister, who was walking not far away. Sal joined the conversation for a moment, and Genie and I tried to explain to him what it’s like having a sibling.

The Sunday school returned to the main campus, and we all went to social hour. The children all made cups of hot cocoa (hot cocoa consistently scores among the best-loved aspects of congregational life when we do our annual evaluation sessions with children). I talked to a number of different people, one of whom was Pallas’s father. “I don’t know what you’re doing,” he said, “but Pallas loves coming here.” He added that what he likes is the way the older children are friendly to the little children, how they look out for his daughter, and include her in their play.

I told him that, as much as I would like to take credit for his daughter’s love of the congregation, the credit should really be given to our educational goals. When we were setting our educational goals, we knew that our big goal had to be having fun and building community, because if children didn’t have fun and friends, they wouldn’t want to come to Sunday school, and if they didn’t show up we couldn’t teach them anything at all. At the same time, this educational goal has had additional benefits — when we foster community, older children begin looking out for younger children, both younger and older children learn how to have interesting conversations with adults, etc. — we might say that we further nurture the rhizomorphous connections between persons of all ages; or we might say that we reconnect with the Web of Life which might also be called the Kingdom of Heaven and so realize that heaven is happening right now, all around us, if we would only notice it and participate in it.


You may well be asking, Mark, what any of this has to do with what I learned at Ferry Beach this summer; and how what I learned at Ferry Beach has caused me to wonder about (as you phrased it in your post-course assignment) “how religious education is done” in my own congregation, “the goals of religious education” in my congregation, and “the potential of religious education to speak to the faith formation of children, youth and adults” in my congregation.

And to answer this question that you are undoubtedly asking, I have to talk not just about my experiences at Ferry Beach Religious Education Week this past summer, but my experiences at Ferry Beach RE Week for the past fifteen or more years. This is because I have been using my experiences at Ferry Beach RE Week to learn — or more precisely, to grow in a positive direction as John Dewey puts it in Education and Experience — to learn about my own practice as a religious educator and religious learner. For a dozen years or more, I have been consciously using RE Week as a sort of lab school where I can try out something new and then take it back to my own congregation.


(a) The first lab-school-like learning that I have been reflecting on is how I experimented at RE Week in developing experiences that will build intergenerational connections, not just connections between people of the same age.

This was hard work at times. I still remember the first year that Heidi Hertel-Therrinen and I served as the youth advisors for the Ferry Beach RE Week youth group. We inherited a youth group that was infected by the old model of UU youth groups: “youth empowerment” that really meant age segregation and adult abdication of responsibility; this is a model that may seem engaging at the time but which in practice does not foster further religious growth, for it does not strengthen the bonds between persons that allow us to see and realize that the Web of life goes beyond our narrow age group. We gave the youth full input into programming decisions, but we also tried to nurture additional relationships between youth and adults, and between youth and younger kids; this in addition to nurturing relationships relationships between youth and youth. This was tough going! After four years, Heidi and I moved on to working with younger kids, but others carried on the same project; and not just the youth advisors, but the conference coordinators. Now, some 17 years later, a key feature of RE Week is the robust connections between all ages. I was so pleased at this year’s Bridging Ceremony to hear more than one youth mention friendships between youth and younger kids.

(b) The second lab-school-like experience that I have been reflecting on is the way RE Week has provided a metaphorical space (and very real, physical space) where I have been able to engage in fruitful reflecting on the theological shape, or maybe shapes, of our educational experiences; theological shapes that have both shaped my educational practice, and been shaped by what I have done.

One particular day stands out in my memory. In 2006, I signed on as the ecology instructor in the RE Week children’s program. I wanted to experiment with some ideas I had for doing theologically-grounded ecology programs with kids. That particular July had been very wet, and it continued to rain throughout the week. On the second-to-last day of the week — July 13, according to my teaching diary — it was so wet that I had to throw out my carefully prepared lesson plan. Instead, we decided to follow the running water that was draining away from the tent under which we were meeting. We followed it under a culvert, and into a drainage ditch in the woods on the other side of the street. From there, we followed a little brook upstream (pausing to float sticks in the water, and pull out branches that were blocking the brook), deep into the woods, which were mostly flooded. We all learned a lot about the topography of those woods, and a lot about the water cycle. In the middle of the woods we stopped to process the experience a little. I wrote in my teaching diary:

“We stood in a circle, and went over what we had figured out. At the end of that, one child said, ‘I think we should always learn like this — being outdoors, and not having someone just tell us.’ I said that I believed that children could figure things out for themselves (with adult help and direction).” (2)

This was a learning experience for me as well as the children. We all learned, in a visceral way, ways in which we humans are connected through the water cycle with other organisms. And we all experienced some profound intergenerational connections, which helped us all to learn more about the Web of Life as it exists among humans. And I learned a lot about how children learn from experiences.

(c) The third lab-school-like experience that I have been reflecting on is what John Dewey calls “social control.” In the chapter titled “Social Control,” Dewey writes that “in what are called new schools, the primary source of social control resides in the very nature of the work done as a social enterprise in which all individuals have an opportunity to contribute and to which all feel a responsibility.” (3) This is precisely what happened with us when we went into the woods on that wet week in July, 2006. This is precisely what happened in my own congregation’s Sunday school a couple of Sundays ago, which prompted Pallas’s father to tell me how much his daughter is getting out of being in Sunday school.

Dewey contends that education grows out of experience, and that we can shape experiences to promote growth. In religious education, we might characterize the growth that we wish to nurture as the growth that tends towards a greater realization of our interconnectedness in the Web of Life, or Kingdom of Heaven, whichever you prefer to call it. I have been thinking a lot about this characterization since our week together at Ferry Beach this past July.

In the old days of Ferry Beach RE Week, the first year Heidi and I were youth advisors together there, we experienced constant testing of limits by youth; in spite of supposed “youth empowerment,” youth felt they had no responsibility towards, and were allowed no real opportunity to contribute to, the larger community. Over the years, the entire community changed so that the social control resides more in the shared work we do together; and we heard observations to this effect when class members reported on their observations of RE Week during our class sessions. This latter situation not only promotes greater growth (as Dewey would put it), but also seems to me closer to nurturing the Web of Life and realizing the Kingdom of Heaven in the here-and-now.


By now I hope it is obvious how the theology which I described in my first letter to you grew out of the experiences I have had as a religious educator and minister; how I have experimented with different ways of doing religious education, particularly in the lab-school-like setting of Ferry Beach RE Week; and how those experiences have shaped me. I hope I have also showed how close observations of children and other learners are essential for evaluating religious education experiences; and essential for assessing what children and other learners have learned; and how close observations of learners in turn shape goals and theology. It is not just that “the method is the mesRosemary,” as Angus Maclean said, but that the experience is both the means and the goal of education, as John Dewey indicates in the concluding chapter to Experience and Education.

And, as John Dewey points out again and again, the old form of religious education, the classroom model, is easier to manage than religious education that is consciously built upon experiences. I can tell you from my own experience that it is actually more difficult and time-consuming to shape experiences that lead to growth — Dewey speaks of physical, moral, intellectual growth, to which we would add religious growth — than it is to download one of the UUA’s Tapestry of Faith curriculum books and hand it over to a teacher. It is also more risky for the religious educator — taking a mixed age group of children to the park to play on play structures is a tougher sell to parents than sitting children down in a classroom while a teacher follows a denominationally approved curriculum book. But if the religious educator can develop meaningful experiences that lead to growth, then the religious educator can expect to have parents notice, just as Pallas’s father noticed that his daughter was growing in a positive religious direction.

It has been most enjoyable, Mark, to reflect on these learning experiences we had together at Ferry Beach RE Week, and on other learning experiences I have been part of. I look forward to hearing your comments and critiques, and questions for further reflection!

Yours, Dan



(1) All names of children are pseudonyms, to protect the privacy of legal minors.

(2) Dan Harper, “Yet Another Unitarian Universalist” blog, July 13, 2006, https://www.danielharper.org/blog/?p=553 — accessed 15 August 2013 20:36 UTC.

(2) John Dewey, Experience and Education (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1938/1997), p. 56.

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