(Re)designing the Theology Curriculum to Implement the Bishops' Doctrinal Framework

The Bishops' Doctrinal Framework for people of high school age should serve as an opportunity for genuine dialogue about what is essential in theological instruction for adolescents.






Publication: Momentum
Author: Tiernan, Patrick
Date published: November 1, 2010

The September/October Momentum introduced the new doctrinal framework approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Here is a view from the field concerning implementation.

The challenge of undertaking any curriculum design and review process is daunting. Teachers can feel overwhelmed by the pressure to change current practices, jettison familiar textbooks and embrace the latest trend in educational literature. Theology teachers, in particular, occupy an interesting niche in secondary schools in that they are not limited by state standards or national high-stakes testing. The benefit and drawback of this situation is that teachers may be free to teach their passion without being accountable to any standardized curriculum. The approval of the "Doctrinal Elements of a Curriculum Framework for the Development of Catechetical Materials for Young People of High School Age" (USCCB, 2008) [henceforth Framework] provides an opportunity for schools to evaluate their theology curriculum and ask what should all students know about the Catholic faith.

The introduction of the Framework states, "Since this is a framework and not a tool for direct instruction, the doctrines and topics designated are not necessarily defined or completely developed. " (Framework, p. IJ This provides us with a couple of insights. The first is the distinction between content and pedagogy, with the former referring to course material and the latter as the practice of instruction. This is important to note because many curriculum debates in schools center on what needs to be taught, consequently ignoring how the instruction is to take place or what outcomes should be achieved as the result of teaching a particular lesson.

In regards to pedagogy, this section also mentions that, "Publishers and teachers or catechists are to strive to provide for a catechetical instruction and formation that is imbued with an apologetical approach." (Framework, p. 1) This begs the question of whether there are other approaches that could convey the central doctrines of the church.

For example, a contextual approach takes into account social norms while inviting more ownership on the part of students to create their own learning opportunities, while a standards-based approach would begin with learner outcomes and establish multidimensional skill sets. The point here is that perspective on various curr/cular approaches can enable a more holistic vision of catechesis.

This leads to the second insight, namely that there is a spirit of creativity that comes from the language of the Framework. While much of the content outlined is necessary for any type of adolescent catechesis, properly implementing the Framework into parish or religious education programs still will require an evaluation of what is essential to know; not all topics need equal treatment in the classroom. As with any curriculum, it is not so much the what (content) that requires most of our attention but the how (pedagogy) that impacts young Catholics today.

Curriculum Evaluation

Any curriculum is limited in terms of what it can accomplish in a given year. Schools often struggle with breadth over depth and whether to cover more topics with less detail or fewer lessons with a higher level of quality. We must first be willing to ask ourselves what we mean when we say our students understand Catholic doctrine. This idea of cognitive development is described in further detail by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (2005) who outline what characterizes authentic understanding: self-knowledge, empathy, perspective and interpretation, among others. By looking at the Framework with this in mind, I would recommend four steps for the (re)design of any theology program, recognizing that schools will find themselves at various stages of the development continuum.

Examine

What is your current curriculum? This is a deceptively simple question because if you pose this to your school or department undoubtedly you will receive a myriad of responses ranging from a textbook list to the obsolete binder on the shelf. Where do certain topics overlap from year to year and where is there redundancy? More often than not, space for additional topics may be made by eliminating duplicate lessons. Moreover, where are the students in your discussion and how does your current program meet their needs? Every discussion about curriculum must keep the experiences of students in the foreground.

Explain

Where could your curriculum change? While this implies the status quo is inadequate, it should open the dialogue to explore the scope and sequence of how we meet students where they are in their spiritual and academic development. For some schools and parishes this may include explaining your mission or charism as it pertains to curriculum.

Expand

What are the essential questions and outcomes for all students? Essential questions frame the learning by encouraging multiple answers, eliciting greater student engagement of the material and requiring that teachers differentiate instructional techniques. An example of this type of question could be "Is faith something innate or learned?" This requires both teachers and students to explore the nature of belief, the influence of family and community and the Genesis creation narratives about being made in the image of God as potential topics.

The other aspect of this step is to determine what is acceptable as evidence of learning on the part of students. Will they write a reflective essay? Take a multiple choice exam? Participate in a class debate? All of these assessments should vary depending upon the topic at hand.

Explicate

What are the spiritual needs of your students? Catechesis in the 21st century must acknowledge the "signs of the times" and bear witness to the cultural challenges that face adolescents. Diversifying your teaching portfolio with creative assessments and hypothetical dilemmas is not social pandering, but serves as a reminder of our role as servant leaders in the classroom. Religious instruction must go beyond the confines of the classroom and find its place within the context of the global community.

The Process of Change

Educational change is one of the more complex dimensions of any school culture. To perform the type of curriculum review outlined above requires time and an ethos of collaboration. Michael Fullan's (1993) work in change theory and educational reform is a useful resource for the implementation of any program, or in this case the Framework. Fullan notes that change itself is a journey rather than a blueprint as problems and conflicts become our friends because they indicate we are arriving at greater truths.

Change agents themselves do not simply accept or disregard mandates but utilize them to reevaluate what they are doing. Innovation and creativity are the benchmarks for how to implement new methods into our theology curricula. The focus on the Framework should give us pause as we reflect on how we pass on the faith.

Any high school educator must acknowledge that textbooks alone do not constitute a curriculum. While this may require some retraining for those who find solace in the latest edition of their discipline, it is imperative that we articulate a clear path for our students as they engage the faith tradition.

While the Framework provides doctrinal guidelines for publishing houses, the conversation need not end there. Teachers must work to incorporate their own school's goals and values while outlining the skills and outcomes that will ensure students have a proficient understanding of Catholic teachings.

Action verbs are useful in this respect: What will students do to show they understand a particular doctrine? Analyze, compare, outline, synthesize, evaluate, imagine, and create all convey this task of student performance in the classroom. What will you do to lead them to grow in this understanding? Lectures, Socratic seminars, jigsaw cooperative group activities and reflective writing all underscore the importance of lesson planning and the process of helping students master class objectives. These questions will help teachers see the Framework as just that, a prologue to proper catechetical instruction.

Reflection

The Bishops' Framework should serve as an opportunity for genuine dialogue about what is essential in theological instruction for adolescents. All theology teachers hope their students come to know their faith not simply within an academic setting but with a pastoral concern for the dignity of others that is framed by a commitment to the common good. While there may be differing opinions on what every high school student should know by the time graduation comes around, we must attene! to cultural challenges that influence the young men and women in our classrooms. What would Christ have us do? Listen. Hear how they understand and live out their faith. Ask them to articulate why they believe. Recognize that developmental doubt is the first step to genuine faith. Let us walk with them as they struggle with their self discovery. Only then can we begin the true catechesis needed to welcome them to the Church of the 21st century.

References

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. (2007). Doctrinal elements of a curriculum framework for the development of catechetical materials for young people of high school age. Washington, DC: Author.

Fullan, M. (1993). Change forces: Probing the depth of educational reform. Bristol, PA: Palmer Press.

Wiggins. G. and Melighe. J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Author affiliation:

Patrick Tiernan is department chair of religious education at Boston College High School, Boston, Massachusetts. He holds an MTS and a STM from Boston University and is a Ph.D. candidate in educational administration at Boston College. He frequently gives presentations on the relationship between religious studies and curriculum theory (tiernan@bchigh.edu).

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