The last of my general assembly reporting

A few last posts by me on the GA blog:

Scholars of color assess UU history, report on brief talks by Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, Rev. Monica Cummings, and Rev. Patricia Jimenez.
Music and cultural change in UUism, interviews with UU musicians Nick Page and Jeannie Gagne.
Commission on Appraisal continues study of ministry and authority, covering the Commission on Appraisal’s report to GA, and brief interview with Megan Dowdell of the Commission.
Moderator’s report: All of us working together, covering Gini Courter’s report to GA.

As before, comment here, or comment on the posts themselves.

(Earlier links to my reporting are here, and here.)

Chalice edge matching puzzle

Most children’s programs in congregations are pretty touchy-feely, which means that kids (and adults) who love logical/mathematical thinking can feel a little left out. So here’s an edge matching puzzle, with obligatory flaming chalice designs so it can masquerade as religiously educational, which can be fun for both children and adults (since this type of puzzle is NP-complete, there is no fast and easy solution). The image below links to a PDF, with instructions for cutting out the nine puzzle pieces and solving the puzzle.

PDF of Chalice Edge Matching Puzzle, 13 May 2011

P.S. No, I’m not going to give you the solution, because I know you don’t really want it.

Visiting a Judean village, and “Act out the story!”

A couple of interesting things came up while I was teaching Sunday school yesterday.

1. At the 9:30 service, we’re doing a program based on the old Marketplace 29 A.D. curriculum by Betty Goetz; we’re calling our version “Judean Village 29 C.E.” The idea is that we have gone back in time to a Judean village in the year 29. The adult leaders are mostly “shopkeepers,” or artisans: we have a potter, a scribe, a candymaker, a baker, a musical instrument maker, a spice and herb shop, a maker of fishing nets, and a trainer of athletes. Not all shopkeepers are present each week; sometimes they’re off visiting another village, or visiting the nearby city of Jerusalem. There’s also a tax collector and a Roman soldier who roam around our village, shaking down the villagers for taxes. All the adults are in costume, which makes it a little easier to pretend we’re actually back in the year 29. Continue reading “Visiting a Judean village, and “Act out the story!””

A list of curriculum books in the New Beacon Series

The best organized series of Unitarian Universalist religious education curriculum, and certainly the series which maintains the highest quality overall, was the New Beacon Series in Religious Education, produced from 1937 to c. 1957 under the editorship of Sophia Lyon Fahs by the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. Ask someone who went to a Unitarian or Universalist Sunday school in the 1950s, and they’re almost certain to remember Beginnings and How Miracles Abound and The Church across the Street. Ask someone whose children went through a Unitarian or Universalist Sunday school in those days, and they would probably add the Martin and Judy books for preschoolers.

In the Palo Alto church’s Sunday school this year, we used the book From Long Ago and Many Lands from the New Beacon Series. It has been so successful that I’m thinking of continuing on with the next book in the series. I searched the Web for a complete listing of the New Beacon series arranged in order of the age of the students, but could find nothing. Below find just such a listing. Please leave corrections in the comments.

  Continue reading “A list of curriculum books in the New Beacon Series”

“Stencil-style writing” and zone of proximal development

Notes from my teaching diary, dated Sunday 20 February:

Paul was the lead teacher in the 11:00 a.m. Sunday school class this morning. Paul brought in a lovely picture book that a friend of his had given him. It was very attractive, and a couple of the children looked at it curiously. After everyone checked in, and the two new children got more comfortable, Paul started the lesson proper. “I brought in this picture book,” he said, “and I also have a story from our regular book [From Long Ago and Many Lands by Sophia Fahs]. I thought you could choose which story you wanted to hear.” I was sure the children would want to hear the story in the attractive picture book, but they wanted to hear the story from the regular book — it was obvious that they really like the regular book.

After Paul read the story to us (it was the story of “The Wee, Wise Bird” on p. 146), we talked a little about the story, and then Paul asked us to draw scenes from the story. Billy* was having a hard time settling down, so as the assistant teacher I asked him to come sit beside me; he enjoys himself more when an adult can help keep him focused. We talked about what he might want to draw, and he said he didn’t really want to draw, but he might like to write down the three lessons the wee, wise bird tried to teach the dim-witted gardener. He began to write the first one, very neatly and carefully. I told him that he had very neat handwriting, and admired the special way he was writing. “That’s stencil-style writing,” he said with pride.

Across the table, Jack* drew very quickly: first a giant bulldozer, then a plane about to drop a bomb. Paul suggested that Jack might want to draw a picture of what the wee, wise bird might look like if it really could have had a pearl bigger than itself inside its body. Jack took great pleasure in dashing off another drawing showing exactly that.

When it came time for everyone to show their drawings, Isaac,* who was the youngest child there at age 6, showed his drawing. “I drew what he drew,” he said a little shyly, pointing to the 8 year old next to him. He had done a good copy of his neighbor’s drawing. I couldn’t help thinking to myself that this was a very visual example of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, and a good reminder of how much the children are learning from each other, and from us adults, not through the explicit lesson but simply by watching each other and us. Along those lines, the class always seems to go well when Paul is teaching: the children come away from class feeling they have learned something concrete and memorable, we have all had time to chat (there was a lot of informal chatting while we were drawing).

At noon I checked the Main Hall and found that the main worship service was running a little late, as usual. So Paul asked if the children wanted to hear the story from the picture book he had brought with him, and they did. A couple of parents came in in the middle of this story, but none of the children took this as a cue to get up and scramble out of class: they all stayed and listened to the whole of Paul’s picture book. In another testimonial to the approach we are taking, about a half hour after class had let out, one of Billy’s parents came up to me and said that Billy didn’t really want to leave the house to go to Sunday school this morning, but once he was in the car he remembered that he really liked the 11:00 Sunday school class.

* Pseudonyms, of course.

Notes from study leave, pt. 3: small group management software

I’ve been thinking about ways to improve administration of Sunday school, and I’ve been dreaming of software that would allow me to track attendance and visitors, get reports from teachers online or via email, allow parents/guardians to see what Sunday school classes have been doing, etc.

I started out looking at Sunday school management software, but it all seems to be focused on merely tracking attendance and providing Bible lesson plans. Blah. Then I began to realize that my Sunday school classes are really more like small groups than traditional Sunday school classes. (When I say “small groups,” I don’t mean the usual Unitarian Universalist interpretation of small groups:– closed groups with the goal of deep intimate sharing. What I mean by small groups has more in common with evangelical Christian small groups:– open, welcoming groups with leaders who are actively encouraged to expand the group; groups which aim to bring persons towards a Unitarian Universalist way of life through learning and doing; groups which aim to encourage leadership growth in both current leaders and participants.)

So I began to look at some of the software packages that help churches manage growth-oriented small groups.

A typical software package

A typical example of such software is ChurchTeams Web-based small group software. ChurchTeams software is Web-based, that is, it’s hosted on their servers. You provide a link to this service through your Web site.

ChurchTeams allows visitors and guests to browse through small groups on your Web site — you can browse by interest topic, meeting location, etc. Guests can sign up for a small group online.

Small group leaders can manage their small group online. They can write meeting summaries (ChurchTeams claims their easy-to-use software gets over 80% weekly return rate on meeting reports). They can update member information in the online database; when they do so, the ChurchTeams software sends an email notification of this new information to a church administrator, who can then input the information into the main congregational database. Small group leaders can also make sure group participants get email notification such as meeting reminders, and copies of meeting reports. If I think about Sunday school teachers and youth advisors as small group leaders, I would think about sending email reminders to parents about Sunday school class, and then sending out meeting reports so the parents can know what went on in Sunday school.

ChurchTeams software also supports children’s check-in kiosks — you know, those things megachurches use where you check in your child at a terminal that takes your photo and prints out a security label that matches the child with the parent/guardian. ChurchTeams also allows teachers to text parents, so that if your kid melts down in the middle of the megachurch worship service where there are 3,000 people in attendance, you get a text telling you to come down right away. Not really a feature I’d need to use very much, but it would be a neat feature to have for our nursery staff.

This sounds like a real topnotch premium product, right? And it comes with a topnotch price, too. For a database of 151-500 people, the annual subscription is $400 plus a one time startup fee of 6-month subscription. That would be $600 for the first year — which is way too much for me to want to pay out of our small religious education budget, considering the limited number of functions I would actually use. Having said that, if my congregation were truly committed to growth through small groups, I could probably convince people that this would be an excellent investment for the whole congregation. But since my church is following a classic mainline Protestant model of church growth — advertising, putting people on committees, doing satisfaction surveys, etc. — I don’t think I’m going to convince anyone else to spring for this big an annual fee.

Other packages

Of course there are lots of basically equivalent products out there. I looked at ConnectionPower, which apparently offers similar functionality in their Web-based church management software, butI couldn’t easily find pricing information on their Web site, so I don’t know how competitive they are. CongregationBuilder appears to have fewer features than ChurchTeams (no online reports, less flexibility about contacting members, etc.); it’s also a lot less expensive — about $240 a year for our size congregation — but the lack of online reporting just wouldn’t make it worth my while.

I also looked at a non-Web-based software package, Excellerate church management software. You buy this software package and install it on your own server — it’s not hosted on their server. Small group leaders (or Sunday school teachers) can still do online reports, though — they simply log in remotely to the server you set up, through a link you place on your congregation’s Web site. Excellerate does show some nice graphing functions that allow you to track growth (or decline) in your small groups. Like most of this type of software, “Excellerate small group software can track all of your group details including meeting attendance, topics, comments, number of visitors, and much more”; all of which would of course be incredibly useful for a Sunday school. This database is priced by the number of records you’d use, so for our Sunday school we’d probably pay about $295 — that’s a one time fee, though, not an annual subscription fee as for the Web-based software.

Downsides and problems

The big drawback to using any of theses software packages is that I’d basically have to set up my own database running parallel to the main congregational database. I’m a big believer in nonproliferation of databases; more than one database means that you’re not sharing information the way you should be doing (although the ChurchTeams software does get around this problem by automatically sending that email update to the congregational administrator for inclusion in the main database).

In the past, I’ve run separate databases for my Sunday school programs, and of course I had much better data for my own use, and I also could get exactly the kinds of reports and analysis that I needed. But I finally realized that maintaining my own database for Sunday school meant that I was crippling the overall efforts of the congregation. Perhaps someday I can convince my congregation to switch to a more aggressive data-driven and results-oriented approach to growth; and if I do that, I’ll immediately try to talk the rest of the leadership into using one of these software packages to track small groups (and then of course I’d start using the same software package to pump up my Sunday school programs). Until such a day, however, I’ll be sticking with the same old mainline Protestant approaches to congregational growth and Sunday school management.

Notes from study leave, pt. 2: Web-based education

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how to do more religious education online. I’ve been imagining a kid-oriented Web site that encourages kids (aged 5 through 18) to do religious education outside of that one lone Sunday morning hour of Sunday school. I’ve been dreaming of an interactive teaching/learning Web site that got kids excited about religious education, and drew in their parents as well. What might such a site look like? I decided to do a little exploring and see what was currently available on the Web — are there any Web sites that get me excited and interested?

First of all, if I’m going to do online religious education, I want stuff that is at least as cool and engaging as the Exploratorium’s series of videos on dissecting a cow’s eye — of for that matter, almost anything else on the Exploratorium’s Web site. The best part about the Exploratorium’s Web site is that if you live in the Bay area, you know you can go to San Francisco, visit the Exploratorium, and see that cool stuff in person. The downside to the Exploratorium is that it’s not a place that you want to go every week, so it’s not entirely analogous to what I want to do in religious education. All the Exploratorium really does is to provide a supplement to other educational opportunities; it serves primarily to get kids jazzed up to do science in other venues beyond its walls.

Another great learning Web site is Bre Pettis’ “I Make Things.” Pettis is known online for his short how-to videos, and when I look at the latest topics in his online video podcast, I see that I can learn how to make a robot that will make me a sandwich if I type “Sudo make me a sandwich” into my computer; and I can learn how to count in binary on my fingers (a skill I’ve always wanted to possess though I never knew it until now). Unfortunately, it looks like Pettis has stopped making his video podcasts; the most recent entry is dated March 23, 2009. Pettis’ site interests me because he pretty much does what he does on his own — he’s not a huge educational institution like the Exploratorium — and I think an individual Unitarian Universalist congregation could do something almost as good.

Turning to Web sites that are specifically designed for doing religious education online, most (not all) of the Web sites I’m finding are far less interesting. The best one I’ve found so far (and it’s pretty darned good) is TMC Youth. “TMC” stands for “The Mother Church,” the central church for Christian Scientists. Like many religious groups based in the United States, the Christian Scientists have seen their revenues shrink in the past few years; nevertheless, they still have pretty deep pockets and it shows in this Web site. It’s a well-designed site, with a variety of media — audio podcasts, videos, online Sunday school lessons, online student chats, and more.

I expected some of the big megachurches to have Web material aimed at kids, and they do. Saddleback Church, for example, has fairly extensive resources for junior high kids on their Wildside: Church for Junior Highers Media Center. There’s not a lot there, though — a registration form for camp, a few videos (including one titled “Exposed! Understand God’s Plan For Sex”), and that’s about it. Not nearly as interesting or deep as the Christian Science site. (Their page for children has almost no material, and is not worth visiting.)

Willow Creek Community Church has more interesting online material for kids. Their site for junior youth, Elevate: Church for Jr. Highers, is obviously focused on convincing kids to participate in small groups, but it’s done well, with interesting videos and references to dodgeball and mission trips and so on. This isn’t exactly online religious education, but it does what it’s designed to do — make you want to be a part of this church community. I was pretty impressed.

Obviously, megachurches are focused on serving their own church community; equally obviously, they have the will and the resources to do things that our entire UU denomination can’t take on. But creating a Web site like TMC Youth for Unitarian Universalism is well within our reach, even with the scanty financial and human resources we have in our tiny little denomination. Seeing the TMC site makes me wish that we had taken the money and effort that went into the “Tapestry of Faith” curriculum, and put it into something like this truly kick-ass religious education Web site. Oh well.

It did make me feel better when I took a look at other online Sunday school Web sites that are less well done. Take, for example, Simply Christian’s Online Sunday School — after fighting the clunky interface and looking at the old-fashioned stuff they have, it’s hard to believe they want me to pay to subscribe to their service.

Somewhat more interesting is Sunday School Sources: Free Bible Lessons. There’s some pretty cool resources here — but this is not a site that is aimed at kids, it’s aimed at Sunday school teachers who need lesson plans, bible trading cards, and things like that. (Take a look at this printable page of Bible trading cards — dude, I so want the Satan trading card — and check this out, Cain is about to bash Abel’s head in!) This is still pretty low-budget, and something like could have been well within the reach of Unitarian Universalism. But here again, like the “Tapestry of Faith” curriculum, this site is nothing more than old-school Sunday school resources placed online.

Other cool-looking Sunday school Web sites are hidden behind a pay wall. I liked the look of Spark Online. If you’re going to do old-school Sunday school, something like this would be fabulous: teacher scheduling takes place online, teachers can download lesson plans and resource materials, and they can even watch short videos on how to prepare a given lesson. Parents can stay in touch by looking at what their children learn online, and they can register their children online. (Their program can be adapted to a workshop rotation model of Sunday school, and if I were going to administer a workshop rotation Sunday school, with its high administrative load, I can’t imagine doing it without something like this.) This isn’t a kid-oriented interactive site, but it looks pretty good nonetheless.

Another Web site that combines a more traditional approach to learning with some pretty good online resources is REonline, a site based in the United Kingdom. In the U.K., “religious education” doesn’t necessarily mean Sunday school, it can also mean passing on knowledge about religion and educating for religious literacy; in the U.K., religious education can and often does take place in the regular school system. Though they are traditional and not interactive, I like REonline’s resources for students, which provides a curated set of links to other informational Web sites. Through REonline, I discovered the BBC’s Web pages on religious questions aimed at children — like this BBC page that’s a kid-level FAQ on Buddhism. REonline’s teacher resources page is also excellent, and I’m going to be passing it along to my Sunday school teachers at the Palo Alto church.

Summary: I found a few good interactive Web sites devoted to religious education. But most religious education Web sites seem to be devoted to supporting old-school Sunday school with lesson plans, teacher resources, etc. The only religious education Web site I’ve found that approaches the coolness factor of the Exploratorium’s Web site is the TMC Web site. The best kid-oriented religious education Web site, however, was probably Willow Creek Community Church’s Web site — fun, interactive, and designed to draw kids into actually coming to church.

Notes from a week of study leave, pt. 1

I’m re-reading the Gospel of Mark, in preparation for developing some curriculum materials for upper elementary school. When I can break away from the over-familiarity of the text, it seems like a strange and alien book to my postmodern sensibilities. If I try to read Mark as nonfiction or history I expect plot and rich characterizations; but there is little in the way of a coherent narrative, and the characters are often flat and not entirely believable. If I try to read Mark as a book of religion, that doesn’t work either, because I have come to expect religious books to read like platitude-filled self-help books; but Mark does not sound in the least like Eckhardt Tolle, or the Dalai Lama. If I try to read Mark as a book of theology, I’m also baffled, because I’ve become accustomed to theology written in boring academic prose with lots of footnotes and bizarre quasi-Germanic grammar. So I’m trying to let go of my preconceptions (or at least not cling so tightly to my preconceptions), accept the strangeness of the book, and decide what might be appropriate to present to fourth and fifth graders.

For example, do I want to tell them the story of the dead girl and the sick woman (Mark 5.21-43)? — Jesus is prevailed upon by some grieving parents to restore their dead daughter to life; on his way to see the dead girl, a woman who has been bleeding for fourteen years touches his robe and is healed; Jesus feels the power going out of him when she touches him, and turns around to confront her; then they eventually get to see the dead girl, and she comes back to life.

On the scale of supernatural occurences, this is no stranger than Grimm’s fairy tales and Harry Potter. Certainly it would be great fun to present this story to upper elementary children, compare it to fantastic stories with which they’re familiar, and then decide in what way the story is true. Upper elementary children are still concrete thinkers, but they are able to understand the difference between journalism, myth, fantastic fiction, and other types of stories. Children in this age group would also be able to understand that the moral or message in this story is not simple: the story wants to show us that Jesus is a miracle worker, but then Jesus tells the woman that it is her faith, not him, that has healed her. There’s a purpose behind these miracles, and today’s orthodox Christians will tell us that the purpose is to prove God’s existence to an unbelieving populace, but I think children could also understand that these stories are telling us something about the nature of subjectivity. I’m not sure how the parents of the children I teach would react to this story; many of them understand religion to be something that exists entirely in a plane of objective reality that can be proved or disproved scientifically; explorations of the subjective side of religion can be very touchy in Unitarian Universalist circles.

The story of the rich man (Mark 10.17-31) offers a critique of materialism; in today’s world, it can be understood as a critique of consumer capitalism. The rich man says that he keeps all of the ethical commandments, and asks Jesus what else he needs to do. Jesus replies that he must sell everything and give it to the poor, and then he will have “treasure in heaven.” I would love to present this story to children in the context of an interpretation of Jesus’s teachings in which the “Kingdom of Heaven” is the same thing as the “Web of Life” (this is Bernard Loomer’s interpretation in his booklet Unfoldings); if you are well-to-do, you are doing damage to the interdependent web of all life (human and non-human life), because you are taking more than your share. But this could get uncomfortable if I were to take the next step, which would be to point out that most Americans are rich by world standards; we are not going to have “treasure in heaven,” that is, we are currently doing damage to the Web of Life, simply by being rich by world standards.

In short, Mark is a very challenging book. To present it honestly, so that I’m not doing violence to the text, might be more than I want to do with upper elementary children. That being the case, do I simply say that I’m not going to present stories from Mark to upper elementary children? Or do I present a watered-down version that removes the most challenging bits of the book?

Congregations as learning communities: historical perspective and a possible path forward

Below is a lecture that I gave today at Starr King School for the Ministry, at the invitation of Rev. Michelle Favreault, visiting core faculty member, for her course “Between Sundays: Parish Life.” As you will see below, my title for the lecture is long and, as is necessary in academia, includes a colon. For the rest of the class, I spent much of the time focusing on how you can use a congregation’s physical plant as a teaching tool, using the concepts of implicit curriculum and distributed intelligence.

It was a good group of seminarians, who brought lots of good insights and experience to today’s session. I enjoyed meeting them, and if they are representative of the high quality of people going into Unitarian Universalist ministry, I have lots more hope for the future of our religious institutions.

Congregations as learning communities: historical perspective and a possible path forward.

The broken ecology of religious education

Religious education theorist John Westerhoff talks about the “broken ecology” of religious education; in this he is drawing on the work of Lawrence Cremin, a distinguished historian of education in the U.S.(1) The following handout summarizes Westerhoffs argument:

“Broken Ecology of Religious Education” handout (PDF)

On the handout, you can see that in the first third of the twentieth century, religious education of the individual was supported by a robust interconnected “ecology” of institutions and social contexts. That ecology is in large part broken today; this is graphically depicted in the lower part of the handout.

In the 1950s, the heyday of US religious education, while things were changing rapidly, a good bit of that earlier robust ecology was intact: prayers in public schools; a dominant Protestant ethos in many cities and towns; most churches were neighborhood churches; high participation in Sunday school; popular media still mining religion as a topic (think Charlton Heston); the family was more mobile and less likely to live near extended family but many women still at home.

Today, almost none of that religious education ecology remains in place. All we have left is the family and the Sunday school. The family is more and more likely to have little or no religious background, and may be seriously struggling to provide decent religious education to children and teens. The Sunday school is lucky to get children attending 30 weeks a year, which is less 30 hours a year, which is less time than many kids spend watching TV and playing video games each week. The church is removed from the neighborhood; popular media either ignores religion, makes fun of it, misunderstands it, or provides a fundamentalist or strict evangelical slant to it.

Forget nostalgia, let’s use what we have

We can bemoan this situation while indulging in nostalgia for a golden mythical past, or we can do something else.

If you wish to indulge in nostalgia, please remember that the old ecology of religious education was embedded in a society in which women and blacks could not vote, in which there were few if any social safety nets, in which there was extreme racism towards blacks, Chinese, Japanese, and other racial groups, in which homosexuality was illegal and socially unacceptable, and so on. Furthermore, this ecology depended on Protestant domination of the United States — what we now call mainline Protestants, including Unitarians, Universalists, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, etc., ran government and society to please themselves. If you want to indulge in nostalgia for that social system, you and I have very different notions of what constitutes a good world.

So let’s recognize that broken ecology of the past, and figure out how to move on. What can we do to maximize the potential of our present situation?

Vygotsky and distributed cognition

Let me begin by offering one possible theoretical background for moving forward.

First, I’d like to turn to the work of the developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky worked in Soviet Russia, so his work was essentially ignored in the United States until the fall of the Soviet Union. Instead, we in the U.S. went with the highly individualistic developmental psychology of Jean Piaget. For religious education’s purposes, Piaget worked pretty well through the 1960s, because all society supported Protestant values, so it could seem like little kids were like little individual scientists, figuring out religion on their own through immutable developmental stages. It is no longer clear to me that we can rely exclusively on Piaget, or other structuralist developmental psychologies including so-called “faith development” derived from James Fowler, for our understanding of how children learn about religion, and learn to do religion.

Vygotsky, true to his Soviet context, emphasized the social aspects of human development. He demonstrated that children could perform beyond their expected level of context if placed in a social situation with others — peers, older children, or adults — who knew more than the individual (“zone of proximal development”).(2)

In the West in the 1990s, Vygotsky’s work inspired other psychologists to develop theories of distributed cognition. A simple and direct example of distributed cognition is an axe; the thing lumberjacks use to cut down trees. If you look at it one way, an axe contains in itself accumulated learnings about trees and cutting them down, and learnings about wood as a material, and the way to work with it. There is a whole bunch of accumulated human cognition that winds up in that axe. So take that a step further: maybe cognition doesn’t happen just inside one individual’s brain, as Piaget seems to assume — maybe cognition is distributed socially across many people and across things and organizations.(3)

Here I’m interpreting distributed cognition (or “distributed intelligence” as Roy D. Pea prefers to call it), and Vygotsky, to suit my own ends. If you really want to know about these topics, you should go out and learn about them yourselves. But here’s where I’m headed: what if we think about a congregation as a form of distributed intelligence?

I’ve already pointed out that in the U.S. religious education used permeate the entire social setting in the first third of the twentieth century (at least, it did so if you were Protestant). Now the social setting has changed, but we can still try to understand religious education as much, much more than the short time kids spend in Sunday school. I would argue that as soon as a child enters the building that houses the congregation is when they start learning — for some kids, as soon as they start getting dressed to go to Sunday school or youth group, as soon as they get in the car, is when they start learning. And they don’t stop learning until they get home again. (Nor is this limited to children: all this applies as well to teenagers and adults.)

This would suggest that we need to maximize every moment the child is in contact with the congregation. Every aspect of the congregation’s physical plant should teach the child something; every aspect of the congregation’s physical plant should accurately reflect the values and the knowledge of that congregation. One possible metaphor is this: when you think of a congregation as a learning institution, it is like a children’s museum or a science museum where the displays start on the outside of the museum’s building (i.e., the learning and excitement starts as soon as you see the building), and it continues in a variety of interactive experiences throughout your stay in the building.(4) Note for this blog post: these days, a really good science museum extends learning into their Web site, like the Exploratorium in San Francisco.

This would also suggest that we need to train the members of our congregation that they are teaching every moment they are on site — they are like the staff of a good children’s museum or science museum, constantly leading interactive experiences. Moreover, just as a good children’s museum or science museum teaches adults just as much or more as it teaches children, so too with a congregation. In fact, since so many of our adult newcomers are completely unchurched when they arrive in our parking lots, they too are learning about religion the moment they catch sight of our buildings and grounds.

(By the way, insights from cognitive scientist and neuroscientists are changing the way we understand how people learn, and every religious educator should be paying close attention to this. The next annual conference of the Religious Education Association will be on precisely this topic, and will be held in Toronto this fall, November 4-6. This conference should be a high priority for anyone with an interest in educational ministries.)

Implicit, explicit, and null curriculum

This brings us to a lovely concept set forth in the 1979 by curriculum theorist Elliot Eisner.(5) We all know what curriculum is: it is a series of structured learning episodes designed to pass along an established body of knowledge and/or wisdom. And we all know that curriculum is contained in textbooks, printed curriculum guides, lesson plans, and teaching that we provide, right? Well, Eisner points out that this is merely the explicit curriculum, the curriculum that we say we’re teaching, the curriculum that we deliberately set out to implement.

However, there is also an implicit curriculum. The implicit curriculum is described thusly by religious educator Maria Harris: “the patterns or organizations or procedures that frame the explicit curriculum: things like attitudes or time spent or even the design of the room; things like the presence or absence of teenagers on our [governing boards]; or things like the percentages of church revenues we do or do not give to persons less fortunate than ourselves.”(6) In my experience as a practicing religious educator, the implicit curriculum is more powerful than the explicit curriculum. As an obvious example, if you are presenting a curriculum to children that teaches how much the children are valued by your religion, and that curriculum is being taught in a room that is not child-friendly, the kids are going to pay more attention to the poor ventilation, the lack of child-sized furniture, and the dirt and grime than they are going to pay to the lesson. And if you are trying to teach children to grow up to be part of your religious movement when they are adults — that’s the explicit curriculum — and you shunt them off to a less desirable space far from the adult community, they’ll learn that they aren’t really welcomed and they won’t come back as adults.

All too often, we educators ignore the implicit curriculum, and it subverts our explicit curriculum. I’m sure you can see that you can use the implicit curriculum positively, if you are intentional about it. So when I arrived at the church I’m now serving, and discovered that a major learning goal for them was to teach young people how to be Unitarian Universalist adults, the first thing I did was to arrange with the senior minister that the children would be in the first ten minutes of the worship service each week — she completely understands this idea, and is fully behind it — and we talk quite a bit about how to structure that first ten minutes so that the children are learning what we want them to learn.

In addition to the explicit and implicit curriculums, there is the null curriculum. Those are the things that you don’t teach at all. Sometimes these things are positive — as a Universalist, I try to keep the concept of hell in the null curriculum at my church. Sometime these things are negative — my church is in the middle of an area that’s full of Hispanic people, and there is little or no Spanish spoken except by a couple of the child care workers; so maybe what we’re teaching children is that a huge portion of the surrounding population simply doesn’t exist in our eyes? Anyway, the null curriculum is very tricky because often you aren’t even aware that it is there.

To sum up:

  1. Many congregations are still doing religious education like it’s 1950, or maybe even like it’s 1930; not a bright idea, since that old ecology of religious education is broken.
  2. Many congregations treat learners as individuals removed from social context; but there are social models of learning out there, such as Vygotsky’s model and distributed cognition. (And remember that neuroscience may change many things we now take for granted about education.)
  3. The whole congregation — physical plant, social structure, worship services, governance, etc., as well as formal classes — is the curriculum. It consists of explicit, implicit, and null curriculum, of which the latter two are just powerful as, or more powerful than, the explicit curriculum.

1 John Westerhoff, Will Our Children Have Faith?, revised edition (Seabury Press, 1976 / Harrisburg, Penna.: Morehouse, 2000), pp. 10-13.

2 A good place to start learning about Vygotsky is: Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, ed. Michael Cole et al. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1978). The Introduction and Biographical Note are useful brief summaries. The sixth chapter of this book, “Interaction between learning and Development,” introduces the concept of the “zone of proximal development” in Vygotsky’s own words.

3 Concepts in this and succeeding paragraphs draw in large part from Distributed Cognitions, ed. Gavriel Salomon [Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge Univ., 1993], esp. “Practices of distributed intelligence and designs for education” by Roy D. Pea, pp. 47-87.

4 This idea comes in large part from Howard Gardner, The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach (New York: Basic Books, 1991). In this book, Gardner several times mentions the potentials of museums as educational institutions; see, e.g., pp. 200-203.

5 Eliot Eisner, The Educational Imagination (New York: Macmillan, 1979), pp. 75 ff.

6 Maria Harris, Fashion Me a People: Curriculum in the Church (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), pp. 68-70.