Details of Thesis

Title What Constitutes Success in Classroom Religious Education? A study of secondary religion teachers’ understandings of the nature and purposes of religious education in Catholic schools
Author Kenyon, David Gerard
Institution Australian Catholic University
Date 2010
Abstract The Australian Catholic Religious Educational landscape has seen much change in theory and practice since the 1960s as theorists, researchers, church and education authorities, and religion teachers all sought to make Religious Education more appropriate and meaningful for students. While this change has led to a greater consensus about the nature and purposes of Religious Education, there still remains a diversity of expectations and a degree of ambiguity specifically about what classroom Religious Education should achieve. In the ongoing discussion of this question, what was often lacking was the voice of teachers. Hence, this study sought to explore and report the views of a sample of secondary school religion teachers. It made innovative use of the notion of ‘what constitutes successful religion teaching’ as a way of investigating teachers’ understandings of Religious Education. The earlier part of the study, a systematic literature review, examined a range of research, theories, normative documents and religious/educational constructs that together constituted the background thinking that could have influenced teachers’ views of what counted as ‘successful’ Religious Education. It included the following areas:- key religious/ecclesiastical constructs that informed Religious Education, particularly through Catholic Church documents at international, national and diocesan levels; historical typologies describing how approaches to Catholic Religious Education changed since the 1950s; constructs related to the spiritual and moral development of young people; a range of ideas such as: teacher satisfaction, efficacy, and the influence of professional development programs. Special attention was given to reviewing research on contemporary youth spirituality. As well as the concern to hand on the Catholic faith tradition to the next generation, if the purposes of religion teachers were also to help make Religious Education relevant to the lives of their students and to help them find meaning and purpose in life, then an estimate of the spirituality of young people would be likely to be prominent in determining what constituted ‘relevance’ for the students. The latter part of the study surveyed the views of the total population of secondary religion teachers in one regional Catholic diocese. A questionnaire that collected both quantitative and qualitative data was distributed; 123 out of a total of 210 teachers completed and returned the questionnaire. Participant feedback groups were also used as a complementary method of collecting data on teachers’ views of what constituted success in Religious Education and of what they considered militated against success; this helped confirm and extend the findings from the questionnaire. Some of the key findings were: Religious constructs: All the key religious/ecclesiastical constructs used in the Catholic sector for articulating the purposes of school Religious Education were well supported; but there remained some ambiguity about how appropriate they were for charting a Religious Education that was considered ‘relevant’ to the needs of contemporary youth. Relevance to young people’s needs and to their spirituality: Prominent in the thinking of the teachers about successful Religious Education were a cluster of ideas that were ‘student centred’. These included the notion of meeting the personal and spiritual needs of young people; and this was applied both to those who were religious and church going as well as to those who had more tenuous links with Catholicism. In addition, the student body included increasing numbers who were not Catholic. A key descriptive term for this cluster of ideas was a ‘relevant’ Religious Education; this meant having a Religious Education that had evident links with young people’s life experience; also, it needed to be meaningful in helping them make sense of life and negotiate personal and social problems. Enhancing youth spirituality: There was some polarisation in views about the relative importance of aims concerned with promoting mass attendance and a traditional religious spirituality; prominent in teacher thinking was the need to resource and enhance young people’s spirituality no matter what their level of religiosity or engagement with the Church. Addressing the needs of contemporary youth spirituality was a key element in thinking about a relevant Religious Education. Academic subject approach: There was a strong endorsement of the principle that Religious Education should be considered as a serious academic pursuit. There was however, a minority who did not share this view; and it seemed that this group favoured an approach which was more ‘personal’, even if what this entailed in practice (apart from group discussion) was not clear. Critical inquiry: The teachers considered that sponsoring a spirit of critical inquiry was particularly important for the students of today. Critical thinking by students – identifiable in group work, discussions and in written work – was regarded as a good indicator of successful teaching. Personal dimension: Some participants considered that both ‘relevant content’ and ‘relevant pedagogy’ could be combined in an academic subject approach to Religious Education; others felt that an academic approach could compromise the personal learning that was possible in Religious Education. The findings indicated that issues related to a personal dimension in Religious Education (Rossiter, 1999) still remained influential in the thinking of current religion teachers. Teachers’ personal views: While the sharing of teachers’ personal views in classroom Religious Education was considered important (and was related to ideas about ‘witnessing’ and ‘ministry’), there was a polarisation of opinion about the extent to which this should or should not be prominent in religion lessons. Structural and staffing issues: The status of Religious Education in the school and how it was staffed and timetabled were regarded as important questions that had a significant influence on how successful Religious Education could be. Also of significance were the professional background and professional development of the teachers in theology and Religious Education. Conclusions: In the light of the research findings and taking into account the interpretation of issues in the literature review, the researcher proposed his own view of Religious Education as one that should inform Catholic secondary school Religious Education theory and practice. This view does not go beyond existing theory and practice; but it proposes a combination of key contemporary ideas within a conceptual formula that tries to eliminate the polarity about whether or not secondary school Religious Education should be approached as an academic subject. The researcher proposed that the following key ideas need to be related to highlight their linkage and complementarity in thinking about the nature and purposes of Religious Education: 1. Religion needs to be taught as an academic subject with the same sort of intellectual demands and academic credibility that are accepted for other subjects in the curriculum. 2. At the same time, and without compromising academic processes, the personal dimension to Religious Education can be accommodated and enhanced through a combination of both ‘content relevance ‘and „pedagogical relevance’ – in other words, a challenging, information rich, open, critical inquiry into content selected because it has some likely connection with young people’s personal and spiritual needs; similarly, formal religious content (e.g. theology, scripture, liturgy, church history, morality etc.) can be taught in ways that seek to highlight links with the contemporary search for meaning and purpose in life. 3. Taking into account trends in contemporary youth spirituality is a key element in planning a ‘relevant’ Religious Education in both content and method. This helps identify the ‘spiritual starting points’ of many students; it takes into account that there are a significant proportion of youth who do not have a traditional, religious spirituality – but one that is relatively secular, individualistic, eclectic and self-reliant. Estimating what content and pedagogy in Religious Education are ‘relevant’ to young people involves theorising and it is not ever likely to provide a solution that is self-evident or that will achieve full teacher consensus; neither is it a simplistic matter of asking students what they would like to learn; content related to the communication of the religious tradition will always have a secure, central place in Catholic school Religious Education. Nevertheless, the researcher concludes that a specific effort to estimate potential relevance is one key element that should be prominent in thinking about the nature and purposes of Religious Education at both diocesan and school levels. While there still remains in the minds of some religion teachers a low level of doubt about whether an academic subject oriented Religious Education can be personally relevant to students, and whether it is too biased towards the cognitive to give adequate attention to the affective dimension, it is considered that this thesis is a step in the direction of addressing this hesitation. It proposes that a study of religion can be both relevant in content and relevant in pedagogy; and that within such a framework, the personal dimension to Religious Education can be naturally accommodated without compromising students’ freedom by focusing too much on personal disclosure as a principal means of judging relevance and success. It also proposes that better criteria for appraising relevance in Religious Education can be derived from attention to contemporary youth spirituality. Recommendations: In the light of the study, a number of recommendations for the enhancement of Catholic secondary Religious Education were proposed. Firstly, these have to do with the continued clarification of the purposes of Religious Education that will help address the lingering ambiguity in teachers’ understandings and work towards a greater consensus about the value of a subject-oriented approach. A stronger place was recommended for the critical study of spiritual and moral issues, alongside the content related to the religious tradition. Other recommendations were related to the structural place of Religious Education in the school curriculum, to the content and resourcing of the diocesan religion curriculum, and to teacher professional development.
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