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:
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:
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.