As part of their research into the development of a state’s approach to education about religion, beliefs and ethics, the national Council for Curriculum and Assessment in Ireland examined the approaches to religious education taken by the various patrons of Ireland’s primary or elementary schools, see here. While the merits of the Community National Schools, the John Scottus Educational Trust and Educate Together programs are acknowledged the programs of denominational patrons do not fare so well.
In fact, their child-centred approaches that focus on human experience and philosophical thinking receive very little recognition and, perhaps in attempt to maintain the neutral, secular approach required by the state, are seen to have very little to offer. This is at odds with the reality of these programs which, though written from a specific faith perspective using language that reflect tradition and identity and containing many doctrinal elements do engage with the world beyond their own tradition and endeavour to address the needs of children from diverse backgrounds.
In exploring pluralist language and approaches in the Follow Me program and The Catholic Preschool and Primary Religious Education Curriculum for Ireland, the report does the latter a disservice in suggesting that, as it only refers to religious traditions in its general aims and outcomes, one could infer ‘that the curriculum may not facilitate the exploration of belief systems other than those of a religious nature‘(p25). This is a curriculum written in a format that reflects the language, practices and belief system of a particular large, (almost) 2,000 year-old institution whose evolutionary process is gradual, occasionally spurred on by the actions and words of passionate people acting as progressive agents of change, where meaning can be nuanced and multi-layered with words such as ‘Religion’ and ‘religious traditions’ sometimes referring to more than one would expect. Creating documents that merge renewed or recently evolved ways of thinking, contemporary language and teaching methodologies with tradition is a complex process where even the smallest of words and the simplest of changes can have complications.
Diversity in the classroom is acknowledged in other programs, and teachers are reminded to adapt their language and approaches to suit the needs of all children present. Given that the introduction to The Catholic Preschool and Primary School Curriculum for Ireland acknowledges the possibility of diverse backgrounds in the classroom and the need for teachers to enable all children to grow according to their own world-view, a commitment to and an exploration of diversity seems evident here, as it may be in other programs. The Catholic Church’s Grow in Love series also allows for the possibility that there may be non-Catholic children in the classroom, with suggestions for teachers on how to engage them, one example being on page 14 of the Teacher’s Manual where there is a suggestion that teachers may wish to invite any non-Christian children in the class to talk about the places they go to pray to God.
There also seems to be some criticism of its approach to introducing children as a whole to other belief systems. Leaving aside the nuances of language and the role of traditions, religious or otherwise, in people’s lives, delaying a deeper engagement with other systems of belief and non-belief can allow for children’s development and engagement with the wider world.
Where one or two children at the more junior end of the school may seriously contemplate these differences, contemplating and critically examining these issues at a deeper level would be more likely to have more relevance for the majority of children at the senior end of the school.
This is quite possibly why the Grow in Love series‘ initial primary focus is on the Christian story, and, following on from that, the story of Judaism and Islam, all of which share the same roots, gradually broadening its scope as the children grow and interact more and more with the wider world.As this program draws on child-centred methods grounded in human experience and acknowledges the possibility of diversity in the classroom, a form of teaching and learning that reflects this encounter with different belief systems is possible.
In a classroom where there are children from different traditions and systems of belief or none, teachers are encouraged to involve them in the religion class by asking them how various themes may, or may not be reflected in their own experience and traditions. It is also worth noting that the Dublin Diocesan’s education secretariat suggests educators consider the needs of non-Catholic and non-believing children in the school in its advice on developing a school plan for religious education and to engage with their parents to find ways to cater to their needs and allow them to learn according to their own world-view.
The implication that the Catholic School’s Curriculum and denominational programmes are limited in their features and approaches is also quite surprising. Both the Catholic curriculum and program, and Follow Me series, which draws from the Alive-O series, are strongly influenced by the child and person centred approaches of Sofia Caveletti’s Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, and Jerome Berriman’s Godly Play which began with the work of Maria Montessori, and Thomas Groome’s Shared Praxis which requires a holistic engagement with one’s lived experience involving critical reflection and responding out of love to choose to do good in the world.
The similarities between the Socratic approach of the John Scottus School in Dublin and Bernard Lonergan’s Method in theology which influences Catholic Religious Education are not noted. This approach to learning and religious education requires a critical engagement with one’s faith and an awareness of the role of personal bias, perspective and human experience in learning, decision making and the development of understanding. It is dependant on a very specific form of questioning where one evaluates responses to experience, engages in a discerning critique of prior understanding and the input of others in order to come to new, possibly deeper understandings of the self, of others, of the world, of belief and the nature of things and, dare I say it, of God.
While the language used to describe this method may make one think this is a process beyond the scope of a child in primary school, it is, in reality, a simple process but one that must be done while following specific guidelines. Though Bernard Lonergan was a Catholic Theologian, his work draws on the ideas of Thomas Aquinas and through him, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, much as the John Scottus School (http://www.johnscottus.ie/about-us/) is influenced by John Scottus Eriugena whose Christian teaching drew on Platonic thought and who, it would seem, had an impact on the work of Thomas Aquinas.
In the context of a Catholic, or possibly Christian school, where Jesus’ Way and the faith of Christians who believe in a loving, living God inspires the life of the school, it may also act as a form of either Catechesis for Christian children or faith formation for children of different faiths or none as they learn alongside each other, aware of the things that divide them and unite them. A quick glance at the John Scottus school’s website would also encourage one to think that children of different backgrounds could also be formed in their own faiths through engagement with a program that is not necessarily designed as a form of specific faith formation but which takes their experience and traditions into account.
Clearly, state curricula and programs cannot be presented through the lens of any particular faith. However, a lot can be learned from catechists’ approaches and attitudes while ensuring a more secular, pluralist system that that may allow for appropriate, sensitive integration of denominational programs where they are in use. This is, of course, but one example of the potential of denominational programs and curricula to contribute, in a neutral way, to the proposed curriculum.