Saturday, May 26, 2012

What do you teach?

Last Sunday, I delivered my first-ever sermon.  I learned a lot from the experience, and it went well.  Folks were very kind and complimentary, and my assessment from my minister was good, with just enough critique to be helpful but enough praise to make me want to do it again someday.  :) I should have defined pedagogy for folks though, so here is what I should have put in there:

Pedagogy (play /ˈpɛdəɡɒi/ or /ˈpɛdəɡi/)[1][2] is the holistic science of education. It may be implemented in practice as a personal, and holistic approach of socialising and upbringing children and young people.[3][4] The term is not to be confused with social pedagogy, where society (represented by social pedagogues) holds a bigger part of the responsibility of the citizen's (often with mental or physical disabilities) well-being.[5][6]
Pedagogy is also occasionally referred to as the correct use of instructive strategies (see instructional theory). For example, Paulo Freire referred to his method of teaching adult humans as "critical pedagogy". In correlation with those instructive strategies the instructor's own philosophical beliefs of instruction are harbored and governed by the pupil's background knowledge and experience, situation, and environment, as well as learning goals set by the student and teacher. One example would be the Socratic schools of thought.[7]

Teaching as a Theologically Rooted Act

A Sermon by Sara Lewis

As a religious educator in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, I am asked fairly frequently “what do you teach them?”.  After four years of this work, I have begun to have a good simple answer to that question, but in reality it’s not a silly question.  We include in our curriculum a dizzying array of topics and ideas and have no core doctrine to, well, indoctrinate our young with.  So the What? Is not simple.  But I believe that the What is less important than the How, and that for us, the How of religious education is what reveals our true core theology.

Sophia Lyon Fahs was born in 1876, in Hangchow, China where both her parents were Lutheran missionaries.   She married a man she met through the missionary movement, and he became a Methodist minister.  The young couple initially intended to become missionaries themselves, but a bout of illness kept them from beginning that work.  Mr. Fahs instead went to work for the Missionary Board and spent the rest of his professional life promoting Christian Mission work around the world.
From this early religious background, Sophia Lyon Fahs would go on to become one of the most important religious educators of the 20th century, influence Unitarian Universalist religious education to this day, and eventually accept honorary ordination as a Unitarian minister while in her 80’s.   She advocated many controversial ideas, such as that religious instruction should be based around the actual experiences of children rather than in the text of the Bible, and even that young children were not developmentally ready to have a mature concept of God and therefore the subject should be avoided.

How did she go from planning a life as a Christian missionary to creating religious education curricula for children that didn’t even mention Christ at all?  In the biography of Fahs written by Edith Hunter, who knew her during her life, Hunter writes that despite Fahs’ interest in Biblical scholarship and exposure to new methods of Biblical criticism that were shifting theology for some at the time, it was actually in the area of teaching and pedagogy that Fahs had her conversion experience.

The late nineteenth century was a time of large shifts in education.  While the industrial model of graded classrooms was a product of new goals for education in an industrial society, the influences of the theory of evolution and the new field of psychology also came to be felt in education.  Progressive educators imagined the essential nature of children and the process of learning differently than previous educators had done.  That children are essentially different from adults and go through stages of development was established, and that learning is a process that occurs within the learner was also emphasized.   These changes were felt in secular education, but also in religious education.   As the Christian Education professor Harold Burgess writes: “the resulting model prescribed monumental changes in how religious education might best be pursued.  Perhaps the single most important change was that an almost complete reliance upon revealed truth was superceded by a characteristic commitment to discover, and to test, truth through rigorous application of the scientific method”.  It was a time of shifting understandings about the nature of mankind, of childhood, the process of learning, and even the ultimate goal of a human life.  This was the atmosphere that Fahs encountered when she attended Teachers College.

Professors such as Edward Lee Thorndike, an early behavioralist, opened her eyes to new scientific ideas of learning.  The progressive educator, John Dewey, an advocate of hands on experiential learning for children, was on staff at Teachers College.  But it was another professor, Dr. Frank McMurry, who would push her toward storytelling, a pedagogy that she would become well-known for. 

McMurry was interested in both secular and religious education, and he was part of an effort by Teachers College to run an experimental Sunday School program.  Fahs taught a class in that school, which she described as “a year’s revolutionizing experience for me.  I had an opportunity to acquire an entirely new outlook on what religious education might mean”.

I can relate to the sentiment, and I imagine that the atmosphere in that experimental school must have been energizing.  Theory can be fascinating and useful, but nothing I ever read in a book about teaching could match the experience of actually engaging with children with an open mind or an experimental and fresh method or idea.  As Mrs. Fahs illustrated so wonderfully in the Reading we shared today, children can experience the extraordinary in simple things that we adults may overlook.  I love the simple wonder and awe or profound sense of connection that I’ve seen children express during religious education classes.

It would be through her years of wrestling with two questions, namely how children should be taught about religion and what they should be taught, that Fahs’ educational philosophy led to personal theological change.  Her early struggle is illustrated in her first published article, titled “Missionary Biography in the Sunday School”, in which she wrote “although the Bible must ever remain the textbook norm for Sunday School instruction, it is quite generally recognized that, in the form in which we have it, it is not a children’s book”.  Over time, the struggle with that inconsistency would lead to the idea that the Bible did not need to be the textbook norm for the Sunday School, and an increasingly naturalistic religious theology.

Fahs became a mother in 1905, and later described her child-raising years as a “period of internship education in the most dynamic educational institution in our culture – namely, the home”.  As a mother, Fahs read the works of Dr. Montesorri and John Dewey, and found herself greatly dissatisfied with the quality of education, both secular but particularly religious, that her children received in the various schools and churches they tried.  She felt that the religious education she provided the children at home was superior to what she could find in any church in the area, and she reported in many letters to her husband conversations she had with the children about God and theology.  She came to believe that “every child in every culture is confronted by the same basic forces, both outside of himself and within himself”.

During those mothering years, Fahs learned from her children and from experiences with illness and death (two of her children died, one in infancy and another as an adolescent) and also found time to study, write, and teach both children and adults.  But she struggled with feeling that there was not enough time to pursue her passion for religious education with all the homely domestic duties, and in 1923 she was happy to write to her mother that she had registered at Union Theological Seminary, to work toward the Bachelor of Divinity degree.  

As a religious educator in this tradition, I have found it very inspirational that Fahs’ methods and theories were founded on observation of real children over a long period of time.  In order to teach with intention, a teacher needs to have a notion of the nature of the one who will be learning, of how they will learn, and what the ultimate goal of the learning is.  Prior to the sweeping changes that progressive education brought with it, Christian education had been scripturally based.  This meant that our understanding of the nature of children was informed by the doctrine of original sin, that our understanding of how learning happened was that transmission of the revealed truths in the Bible could be accomplished by memorizing them, and that the ultimate goal was that the learner would be a good Christian and be granted salvation after death.

What Fahs, and other progressive educators, did was to look to the children themselves, rather than the old authorities, for the answers to those questions of Who is learning, How do they learn, and Why do they learn?  Fahs answered those questions with the new ideas of evolution and psychology, and she saw in children a natural impulse toward religion.  This was different than a natural impulse toward wanting to memorize the Bible.  A natural impulse toward religion is the impulse to look at the natural world around us with awe and wonder, to see connections between different beings and ideas, to ask questions and to frame life with meaning.  It is the way human beings make meaning and understand their lives.  It is present when children ask questions such as “where did I come from”, “why am I me?”, or “why do people die?”. 

Ideas like these prompted Reinhold Niebuhr in 1928 to write that “I have a dark suspicion that some of these modern religious educators do not really know what religion is about”.  But there were others who read her words with interest, and one was The Rev. Albert C Dieffenbach, the editor of the Christian Register, the official denominational paper of the Unitarians.

The Unitarians, although they had the open-minded theology that Fahs was looking for, did not have a great history of progressive methods in their religious education programs.  Almost a hundred years before, William Ellery Channing had called for such a progressive approach when he wrote the oft quoted aim of religious education as being “not to stamp our minds irresistibly on the young, but to stir up their own …”, but his inspiring words had largely been ignored and the Unitarians continued to rely on catechism memorization in their Sunday Schools.  They did introduce graded materials around the turn of the century, and in 1909 The Beacon Series was introduced under the leadership of Dr. Edward A. Horton, who urged the churches to adopt the best of the new methods of the secular educators.  By 1935, the Commission of Appraisal was at work, and a new curriculum study committee was formed.

And so it was that Sophia Lyon Fahs began work as Editor of Children’s Materials in 1937, at the age of 61, and took on the task of revising The Beacon Series.  She brought a remarkable passion and viewpoint to her work there.  As David B. Parke writes in The Children Were My Teachers, “Sixty years old and a mature educator at the time of her appointment, she was a teacher in search of an audience at the very moment when American Unitarianism was an audience in search of a teacher.  The contact which they made with each other was to have momentous consequences for the denomination and for Mrs. Fahs herself”

Meanwhile, there was increasing reaction to these new methods of religious education.  More and more, mainline Christians were calling for a rejection of the new educational methods and theories, and Neo-orthodoxy was pushing liberal theology aside.  A conflict between method, and its related assumptions about the nature of man and our history on this world, and the message of a received revelation, had reached loggerheads.  One defender of the liberal methods, Professor Harrison Elliot, wrote a book titled Can Religious Education be Christian?, in which he defended the experiential learning theories,  “learning in and through experience is not a pedagogical slogan, invented by progressive educators.  It is rather a statement of the way mankind has found out everything which is known and has made whatever progress has been attained.  All knowledge has grown out of his reflections … God did not become known by some single and complete revelation”.

Fahs reacted to this new intensity of debate by calling for a nobler religion, “I believe that the coming generation should build a nobler religion than has as yet been embodied in any tradition … A liberal’s child should come to realize that finding God is his own job and not one which he may relinquish to any adult or to any traditional revelation”.  Her pedagogy and her understanding of the nature of child and of humanity had led naturally to a break with traditional theology and an embrace of Unitarianism.  She had some concerns with the denomination’s willingness to try the new methods, however, and found some associates more conservative than she had expected.  Nevertheless, for the next 27 years she helped steer the publication of a whole mini-library of resource books that were based around a child’s real-life experiences and stories from many cultures and religions.  Even after retirement, Fahs continued to champion continued improvement in the field of religious education.

First and foremost, Sophia Lyon Fahs was a teacher.  She looked to the children, and in the process she saw them and their religious needs in a new way.  She ranks among the great thinkers in pedagogy and was also a creative and practical teacher of real children and adults.   Through her life story, we can see how the educational philosophy came first and naturally led to the liberal theology.  The method became the message, and when both method and message are in agreement our highest ideals in both pedagogy and theology come alive in our religious education classrooms.             

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