Discussion and planning for Eduction about Religions Beliefs and Ethics opens the door to dialogue between all members of our society and our school communities, reminding us to consider the meaning of an education that contributes to the full and harmonious development of the human person. In exploring how it can be applied in our schools – as a framework, a distinct subject, part of another subject or one that is integrated with other subjects – we make it possible to see the essential role of ethics, belief systems and ways of thinking and being in people’s lives and in society as a whole.
As a framework, it can act a reminder to those of us engaged with education that we are not simply here to teach a future generation of workers, scientists, athletes, artists and musicians, but to also help our children, people, to be themselves, to grow, to learn and to love. It reminds us to be more nuanced in our approach to things, to give time for thought, for contemplation, for the things that all human beings share but argue over. It also allows for the fact that religion, beliefs and ethics permeates our lives, influences our attitudes and understanding, our teaching methodologies, our use of language and our approach to the arts, to science and to learning. In considering ethics, we are reminded to be aware of our prejudices, our own bias, our own faults and failings and how they may affect our thinking and engagement with others.
However, a framework is not as tangible as a specific curriculum or subject. In the context of a framework aims, objectives and goals can seem more fluid, too broad to be tied to any specific subject or set of targets. It informs teaching and attitudes but does not necessarily give a clear idea of what is to be taught, requiring greater flexibility and imagination on the part of teachers, schools and parents. This, in turn, can lead to a possible devaluing of these very human qualities.
In a curriculum based on Religion, Beliefs and Ethics, we can have clearer goals, tickable targets, clear, specific aims and objectives that can be acted on. By studying and working on the different subject or areas involved, we give them value, acknowledging the role they play in human growth, thought and learning. We allow space and time for dialogue and the skills required for fruitful engagement with others. Learners are given the opportunity to develop self-awareness and practice discernment and critical thinking skills and learning the art of stillness. We acknowledge the human need for quiet reflection in community, either as a group that shares common beliefs, or as one made up of people from different backgrounds and belief systems all engaged in reaching out beyond themselves, finding shared both moments and moments of diversity. As a part of a broader subject such as S0cial, Personal and Health Education, we can reduce the possibility of curriculum overload and allow for proper study of the subject.
Making Education about Belief, Religion and Ethics part of a specific subject or basing a curriculum does come with challenges and shortcomings. A curriculum can lead to overload, while making it part of a specific subject could minimize its value to a holistic education. They could also lead to a compartmentalisation of these ideas, minimising their integral role in human life, while our focus on aims, objectives, targets and goals could lead to less flexibility in our attitudes, methodologies and teaching.
The challenge for educators, schools and planners is to find a balance between giving space for an intangible world of ideas and thought while ensuring we have a specific set of goals, of skills and knowledge that can be easily engaged with and passed on. In deciding on what is to be learned, we must ensure we do not find ourselves using a clinical, overly analytical approach that can lead to restrictive language, rigid ideas and narrow ways of thinking. We need realistic, concrete examples of these abstract ideas that the children can engage with in a way that allows them to develop discipline and self-awareness. By integrating these themes with other subjects, we can, perhaps avoid curriculum overload, allowing us to give life to our words, through the heart, the head and, finally hands, as mentioned by Thomas Groome (Horizons & Hopes: The Future of Religious Education Thomas H. Groome, Harold Daly Horell Paulist Press, 2003)in the context of faith formation. Thomas Groome may have been speaking in the context of Catholic faith formation, but the idea of reaching hearts, engaging with the rational mind and following through with action can be applied to any form of education. Indeed, if we are to allow our children to develop decent critical thinking skills and enable them to discern right from wrong in morally ambiguous situations so they are not open to manipulation, it is vital that we engage with their minds and hearts appropriately.
Education in the areas of religion, belief and ethics gives us the opportunity to examine the role of symbolism and ritual in people’s lives, moving it beyond the sphere of organised religion. We give all our children from the opportunity observe these tangible expressions of the human imagination and it’s desire to make sense of world. In developing their critical thinking skills, we are helping them to work things out for themselves, to question the world around them in a way that allows them to have a better understanding of themselves and their world. In developing their emotional awareness, these abstract yet discernible human, transcendent qualities, we can help our children to develop empathy and give them the skills they need to channel it wisely and express it effectively and compassionately. By engaging with their sense of awe, we introduce them to the possibility of opening up to the transcendent, helping them move confidently yet humbly beyond themselves while remaining grounded in reality and maintaining a healthy sense of self.