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Teaching Theology to Children

Chaplain and students of St. Hilda's discussing mortality and history

There's quite a bit of discussion in our Anglican schools about how you teach Religious subjects to children. It used to be a matter of preparing children for confirmation and making them all into good little Anglicans, but things are no longer quite so simple. Whereas once our schools were filled, by and large, with kids from Anglican homes who had a basic Sunday School understanding of the faith and a local parish church with which they could readily identify, pupils like that are now more the exception than the rule. In most schools,  parents sending their children have signed a statement that they are supportive of the school's special character, but what, exactly, "supportive" means varies widely - from deep and long-standing commitment to the faith, through the spectrum to vague agreement that perhaps a little bit of this religious stuff may not be such a bad thing. 

In our schools the students, parents, school boards and staff vary as widely in their religious beliefs and practices as does the rest of New Zealand society but our schools' very reason for existence is the providing of an education that has "special character", that is, it is based on Anglican Christianity. Each school deals with this dilemma in a different way, providing a unique blend of chapel worship, service projects and religious instruction that fits itself around a demanding academic curriculum and, in most cases, a weighty programme of cultural, social and sporting activities. 

The aims of the Religious Education (RE) component of the school's life also varies from school to school. In some there is a definite evangelical or catechetical agenda aimed at the conversion of pupils and their incorporation in the body of Christ. For some  there is a broader academic teaching of religious studies which deals with the variety of religious understanding as one subject amongst many others. In some schools what is provided is Bible study, little different from what may be found in our remaining Sunday Schools and Youth Groups. Some chaplains and RE teachers forge their own amalgam of these components. In  many of our schools the Christian faith is regarded as central to the school's life, but elsewhere it is more peripheral. Because it is not an examined subject and doesn't count towards NCEA, there is a temptation to give it the fag end of timetabling slots and it can be regarded by students and staff alike as a sort of spare space if time needs to be poached for extra studies, or something more important such as a sporting fixture. The teaching of RE, in other words, seems to have the same sorts of problems as are faced by our declining churches throughout the country.

But although our churches are declining, and although our school RE sometimes seems gripped by an identity crisis, there is something that has never dimmed, and that is people's fascination with religious questions. Start a discussion on ghosts, or life after death, or fate, or ESP, or synchronicity, or any of the other popular manifestations of the supernatural and all other conversations in the room cease and people gather round. The great questions of life: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why am I here? Where am I going? Is the world accidental or purposed? are as compelling as ever. And this ongoing fascination with life's big issues is why our Anglican Schools Office, in partnership with the Presbyterian Church is in the process of developing a curriculum for teaching theology in the middle school , that is to years 6-9. 

The curriculum began with a widespread survey of pupils, asking them for the questions they would like discussed. The sorts of question they came up with was not surprising. The enthusiasm with which they responded to the survey was. Based on the questions provided by students a group of chaplains, theologians and and RE teachers met and devised a curriculum of, to date, 16 subjects (for example, Is anybody Out There? What Makes Me "Me"? How Do I Listen to God?  How Do I Know What is True?... ) around each of which a teaching unit of 7-10 lessons is being written. About half a dozen of the units have been developed to the stage where they can be used and a dozen or so schools are trialing the curriculum.

The results so far have been extraordinary. Teachers are reporting that children are engaged with RE in a way they have never been before. I spoke today to a chaplain who has been in her job for only a short time, but for whom the whole attitude of the senior school has been transformed towards RE, chapel, and even towards life in general by the theology lessons. A few months ago I sat in on an RE class and watched as the boys tumbled out of the classroom afterwards and walked off towards their sports practice still talking animatedly about the subject of their lesson. Talk about engagement! But why should this be surprising? A yearning for the infinite seems to be a universal human trait and the new curriculum is allowing it to be expressed and given a vocabulary. Interest in the course is spreading. We have already had enquiries about the use of the curriculum from schools in Australia and the UK.  

A benefit of this new approach is that RE no longer seen as peripheral to a whole education but takes a more central role. The topics are sometimes broadly philosophical, (how do I know what is true? What do I do with failure? ), so of course are pivotal to everything else that is learned. Students are developing tools for critical thinking and the integration of ideas which make them better students, and, I would expect, better people.

This weekend past I was in Wellington at a small workshop writing units for the Theology Curriculum. Anne Van Gend, the head of the Anglican Schools Office and the brains and the driving force behind the project was there of course, and her Presbyterian equivalent, Sharon Ross Ensor. The other 5 people present were all RE teachers who were using the new material. We met in the Home of Compassion in Island Bay and together produced 3 more units. It was a busy weekend, but it wasn't a chore, as all of us so enjoyed what we were doing. It was helpful to me to have the input of experienced teachers. A similar group will meet again sometime next year and the work of development will continue. This is a project which has the potential to be transformative for our schools and for the church. It is already being transformative for some of our children.


Jennie Lewis said…
Can we have some of the lessons/units for our Youth Groups in churches too, please? How would we access a chance to trial them?
Kelvin Wright said…
Hi Jennie. I have a great deal of sympathy for your request, but I’m sorry to say we won’t be able to release units or individual lesson plans for while yet. The reasons for this are that the curriculum is, as yet, only about half written. Even after writing we are being diligent about monitoring, gaining feedback and revising. We are trying to be as supportive to those who are teaching it as we can, and this is possible when they are all part of our quite well developed network of chaplains, principals and RE teachers. In a small number of the lessons there is copyright material kindly gifted to us by other organisations. The development of the curriculum does of course come at a cost, and this is being borne by the Anglican Schools Office, which in turn is funded by the Anglican schools, who therefore own the material. The material isn’t just a bunch of lessons but it is a curriculum in which the various parts build on each other, and will, when finished form a coherent pattern of teaching stretching over 4 years and designed to fit within a New Zealand secondary educational framework. Those overseas schools who plan to use it are expecting to pay us royalties in recognition of the costs of development. For these reasons we would be reluctant to let parts of it out into the public domain. Perhaps when it is finished, a version for use in churches could be considered.

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