A Reconceptualist Approach to the Religion Curriculum P-12
Since 2008, the classroom learning and teaching of religion in the Archdiocese of Brisbane has been characterised by a reconceptualist approach. In short, it operates from an educational framework rather than from a catechetical or ‘shared Christian praxis’ framework. The most prominent proponent of the reconceptualist approach has been Gabriel Moran upon whose work the Brisbane Catholic Education Model for Religious Education is based.
In a reconceptualist approach, the classroom religion program becomes a primary arena for dealing with the critical religious issues and concerns of life. There are three key considerations for teachers using this approach: the Avoidance of Presumptive Language, Teaching ‘about’ the Tradition and Powerful Pedagogies.
Avoidance of Presumptive Language
Religious Education curriculum documents have commonly used language that is presumptive of the students’ association with the Catholic tradition. Brennan and Ryan (2011) have observed that when presumptive language is used by teachers in classroom settings some students can experience that language as alienating and judgemental.
In a reconceptualist approach, teachers avoid using presumptive language and do not start with assumptions about students’ faith development based upon their particular religious affiliation. It is preferable that teachers use language that is invitational and educational to better engage students in the religion classroom. Students who can readily identify themselves as Catholics are affirmed by this approach. Further, when using non-presumptive language, teachers provide students with the freedom to respond in ways that do not assume a programmed response (Brennan and Ryan, 1996).
Teaching ‘about’ the Tradition
A reconceptualist approach to teaching religion entails “exploring the meaning of one’s own religious life in relation to both those who share that life and those who do not” (Scott, 1984, p.334). This educational focus requires a critical appreciation of one’s own religious tradition and an empathetic understanding of the religious beliefs and practices of others. A reconceptualist classroom is not simply a place for transferring facts and knowledge. Nor is it merely a phenomenology or a values driven philosophy of religion.
In teaching about the Catholic Christian tradition, teachers of religion give witness to the value they place on their personal religious beliefs as much by the authenticity of the teaching processes they employ, as by who they are as people of faith.
A reconceptualist approach keeps the end in mind. It is a way of learning to live intelligently and religiously in a religiously diverse world. In short, it tries to make students feel at home in this world but discontent with its limits. There is a fundamental truth in a reconceptualised Religious Education; it functions as a vital reminder that there is no way to know who we are except in some kind of contrast with things we are not. Teachers are challenged to build critical distance between themselves and the content they are teaching; to make available space for authentic dialogue; to allow students the freedom to investigate, to inquire and to use their religious imagination. Then, both teachers and students can return to their religious tradition with enhanced understanding.
A reconceptualist approach requires powerful pedagogies that engage students with the richest resources of the tradition. As Brennan and Ryan (2011) remind us, the Catholic tradition is accessible through good teaching.
The pedagogical practices embedded in the Brisbane Catholic Education Model of Pedagogy (2012) are consistent with a reconceptualist approach to the teaching of religion. Five practices provide a common language for planning and reflecting on learning and teaching in the religion classroom: focusing on learners and their learning; establishing clear learning intentions and success criteria; activating multiple ways of knowing, interacting and opportunities to construct knowledge; responding with feedback to move learning forward; and evaluating learning with students as activators of their own learning and resources for others.
focusing on learners and their learning
While some students come from families strongly connected to their local parish community and are literate in the Catholic Christian tradition, a growing number of students enter the religion classroom with low levels of religious affiliation and at best a tentative familiarity with public expressions of Catholic life.
“Today the religion teacher in a Catholic school faces the task of introducing a religious culture, tradition and world view to students who are largely unfamiliar with the territory. This territory includes religious language, symbols, icons, images, beliefs, practices and traditions. This unfamiliar territory for students needs to be approached in a similar way to teaching a second language”
(Brennan & Ryan, 1996, p.9).
There has frequently been a patterned approach to the teaching of religion based on what Harpaz and Lefstein (2009) refer to as an “answering pedagogy”:
In an answering pedagogy, answers largely eclipse the questions. In this context, teachers often use questions that are predictable and rarely relate to deliberation or deep thinking, except in the narrow sense of recall. Questions of this nature are distortions of authentic questioning that occurs outside of school (p.37).
In a reconceptualist approach, the religion teacher acknowledges the reality of students’ lives, identifies learners’ levels of thinking and builds on the attributes each student brings to the religion classroom. It incorporates a powerful questioning pedagogy, within the context of a community of thinking, that stimulates and supports Genuine, active and authentic student engagement.
establishing clear learning intentions and success criteria
The starting place for the classroom religion program is the Religion Curriculum P-12. Religion teachers use the curriculum to create and make clear and visible the learning intentions and success criteria for all students.
Brennan and Ryan (2011) forward the claim that often students are not challenged or extended in religion classes to the same extent as other learning areas:
We may be orientating our efforts to the lowest common denominator. We may lack specificity about what we are trying to achieve in our teaching outcomes, or do not examine seriously enough the range of abilities in the religion class (p.22).
A reconceptualist approach to learning and teaching in the religion classroom takes account of the capabilities and readiness of students, while at the same time ensuring a classroom that engages and challenges students.
activating multiple ways of knowing, interacting and opportunities to construct knowledge
In 1996, and again in 2011, Brennan and Ryan advanced an important paradox in the classroom learning and teaching of religion; that students in religion classes are capable of a lot more and a lot less:
Students are capable of a lot less because the territory of religion, and religious education itself, are unfamiliar to most of them. Students are capable of much more in terms of content and learning processes....Often, students are not extended or challenged in religion to the extent that they are in other learning areas (2011, p.3).
A reconceptualist religion classroom places particular emphasis on evaluating and activating student involvement in ongoing responsive cycles of learning and teaching.
Learning is more than listening. Teaching is more than telling. Historically, a feature of many religion classrooms has been a “one size fits all approach” to planning and pedagogy. Such an approach fails to acknowledge the integrity of religion as a discipline and a learning area that requires all the rigour and challenge of other learning areas. Australian religious educators, Crawford and Rossiter (1988), have consistently emphasised the importance of creating ‘zones of freedom’ in the religion classroom that allow for an authentic educational process and Genuine student engagement.
responding with feedback to move learning forward
Effective learning in the religion classroom is advanced by informative feedback. Learning is facilitated when learners are given timely and rich information regarding their performances and achievements and how to improve.
Feedback connects information about a student’s prior or current achievement and the criteria for success associated with a learning intention. The sequence of achievement standards in the Religion Curriculum P-12 provides a map of learning progress to inform teacher understanding of how all students are progressing.
evaluating learning with students as activators of their own learning and resources for others
In evaluating the effect of teaching on student achievement and success in the religion classroom, effect size becomes an important consideration. Hattie (2009) says effect sizes are the best way of answering the question, ‘What has the greatest influence on student learning?’ When using effect size the religious educator is invited to consider:
“How well is what I am doing working for different groups of students each year and why?”
“What possible reasons could there be for some student or groups of students progressing more or less?”
“How does student progress compare with their achievement levels”?
These questions lead to more focused investigation about the effectiveness of what teachers do in the religion classroom. This provides a basis for teaching and learning interventions teachers should stop, start or continue as part of effective educational practice.