‘Curriculum overload!’ the disgruntled mutterings of fed-up educators slope off across the ether. ‘They’re adding layer upon teetering layer to the pile of documents, programmes, plans and schemes that make up the Irish primary school curriculum!’
‘What shall we do?’ We hear them say. ‘There’s no more time left in the day!’ (No, we can’t make it longer, there’s only so much any child can take.) ‘The children will have information overload, they’ll be confused, we’ll be planning and reshaping and adapting night noon and day, something has to give!’ ‘We’ve already been told to use this book and that book. We’re covering most of this already, but last time, we were told that, no, we can’t use this book or that programme and cover more things at the same time, or mention that, even if we deal with bias and adapt things to suit the needs of all the children and the whims of petulant parents because it might mention God or be written from a certain perspective!’
‘What shall we do?’
If this current round of curriculum reorganisation entails yet another series to follow, another booklet to cover and more goals to achieve on top of the myriad of aims and objectives already there, then we have a problem.
‘What should we drop?’
If we are told that no, we cannot use certain programmes or materials, even if we do it in a way that integrates shared aims and objectives, even if adaptations and allowances are made so that bias and the lens of faith is addressed, differences are acknowledged, gaps filled in and diverse needs are met, then we have a problem. If, in the case of Education about Religions, Beliefs and Ethics, schools are barred form using certain programmes to cover duplicate goals even if they satisfy further criteria and use additional material and resources that reflect different perspectives and diverse backgrounds, then we have a problem.
Would it really make sense for a teacher to use one set of materials to cover a topic, only to cover the topic again with a different set of materials? Wouldn’t the teacher simply use the state appointed one?
What will be lost?
This may ensure all our children are learning the same thing, in the same way. However, what happens to variety of ethos, to choice? What of our commitment to diversity, of the uniqueness of identity? What of a system that reflects different ways of being, of learning? What of a system that celebrates difference while acknowledging common ideals, hopes and aspirations, one that acknowledges our shared commitment to that most elusive of things, Universal Truth?
What shall we do?
What if we do it differently this time, learn from the mistakes of the past? What if we move on from them instead of repeating them? What if intelligent integration is encouraged, if it’s clear that more than one objective can be achieved, more than one subject covered in the teaching of one lesson? What if it’s not necessarily follow this book, this scheme, but, rather, respond to these needs, be aware of bias, of perspective when planning? In ERB and Ethics, that most controversial and tricky of subjects, what if we are aware of and responsive to the perspective of the lenses of faith and non-faith, of the attitudes and understandings of each denomination, belief system and world-view?
‘That’s all fine and dandy,’ our world-weary pedagogues counter, ‘but how is that supposed to be put into practice in the classroom? It all sounds a bit too airy-fairy and lacking in substance to us!Integration is straight forward enough’, they say, ‘but we’re not talking about the subjects where difference comes from types of intelligence, culture and taste. We’ve wandered into one of humanity’s points of conflict. It’s hard enough to do in ERB and Ethics when all are believers from different traditions, but non-belief can complicate things further.’
They consider others, groups and individuals within our communities who have so many ways of expressing their difference and avoid the usual words associated with this subject.
‘Every word we use can become a cause of controversy. Even before we begin to contemplate content, we must consider the thorny issue of language and inclusion. The census form triggered plenty of complaints because the words weren’t nuanced enough and were in the wrong place. Which words do we use? What are we talking about? If we say ‘faith’, must we always add ‘non-faith’? I we say ‘belief’, must we always say ‘non-belief’? Do I say people who believe that that there is no g/God, people who do not believe in g/God, who live without faith, without religion (….but faith and religion mean more than beliefs about the Divine…), uncertainty about belief in a God, free thinkers, Atheism, Agnosticism, …..if I exclude a word or phrase, will someone feel excluded, will a parent be offended and harass me??’
Slowly, their brains begin to melt.
‘What of words like religion, prayer, spirituality, belief – words whose meaning can be reflected and expressed by human experience, but which may seem irrelevant to the Atheist or Agnostic who hears them and thinks only of theology and the world of believers. ‘It becomes tricky, too, when believers see them in purely theological terms and use language that makes sense to people of faith, but is meaningless, and perhaps perceived as insulting to the non-believer who inadvertently misinterprets the meaning behind the words. We’ll be so caught up in finding the right words that tick all the right boxes that we’ll forget the point of the lesson and our language will become more and more convoluted and long-winded. Overload!! Overload!!’
(If word count is a problem here, try using ‘inclusive language’ with as few words as possible in the classroom.)
‘What of content, especially if a school’s programme engages in faith formation? How do we approach talk of family prayer spaces, of places where people gather to be in community, to celebrate, to pray, to listen, to worship, particularly when there are non-believers in the room? How does integration work then?
What’s to be done?
One could, perhaps, send those involved in faith formation on their merry way, say thanks, but no thanks, do it our way, not your way, you might indoctrinate our children. Perhaps those involved in faith formation will insist that this form of ERB and Ethics is impossible, that we’ll confuse our children, that The Way becomes merely a way, that there’ll be imbalances, conflict.
Or, we could try a different tack.
We could try constructive dialogue, look at compromises, see what’s shared and what actually differentiates various forms of teaching, be they denominational or not. Add a bit more to what we say, ensure certain things are presented from a more neutral perspective, use what we already have, adapting when we need to. This doesn’t mean we do away with denominational programs. This doesn’t mean we ‘neutralise’ or secularise them, as it were. It simply means we make space and offer alternatives when we need to, allowing patrons the freedom to use their programs appropriately while they ensure the secular, state curriculum is covered properly. Our children can be helped to see what we share and what differentiates us as they learn alongside each other, many growing in faith while taking ownership of their own traditions, belief systems and faiths/non-faith, discerning what is good in this life and reshaping or leaving aside what is not.
Perhaps there are no moaning múinteoirí1 muttering in staffrooms, that Granny has just been taught how to suck eggs. Maybe everyone in teaching know and appreciate this, but are wary of what planners will produce, that yet another compulsory programme with content they’re already covering will be introduced for them to follow. Maybe they’re concerned that they’ll have ridiculous levels of paperwork, instead of a few templates that give structure and keep things on track, that the expectations of cigirí2 will be dependant on the figaries of each individual.
So, shall we be left with muttering múinteoirí stymied by an overloaded system that’s trying too hard and devalues denominational schooling, or will our múinteoirí be working with a well-planned, well-balanced, holistic Primary School Curriculum cover everything from Science to Religion and values diversity? Let’s hope for the latter.
1Muinteoiri – Irish for teachers
2Cigiri – irish for inspectors form the Department of Education who ensure schools are up to standard.