Faith Formation or Religious Education/Studies

2 Nov

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“How beautiful are the footsteps of those who bring good news” (Rom 10:15-17).

We teach in a time where Religious Studies is rigorously assessed by Achievement Standards recognised by NZQA. Religious Studies is an approved subject for University Entrance. Teachers of the subject are working on textbooks, resources and developing pedagogical ideas as in any other curriculum area.  Still we may ask ourselves what is the purpose of Religious Studies/Education in schools exactly? Is it religious education or is it faith formation?

At a secondary level in New Zealand the perception of this subject is highly topical. With its non-optional nature in Catholic schools, teachers there still face the continual justification of why we spent so much teaching time on Religious Studies/Education in the classroom.

I genuinely believe that teachers of Religious Studies/Education teachers in a Catholic school should be leading teaching practice, delivering the most engaging and relevant lessons to raise perception. My observations indicate Religious Education/Studies practitioners are as good as any in any curriculum area. This is despite the nationwide shortage of subject specific specialists and the fact professional development budgets will not allow for the support of preservice and ongoing training. Being a teacher of Religious Education/Studies does not make you immune from criticism from parents who want a good Catholic education, but are perhaps not so keen on the time spent on the subject, be it Religious Education/Studies or the more senior Religious Education/Studies.

Since robust assessment has become part of Religious Education/Studies in Catholic schools there has been a great deal of discussion on the question whether Religious Education/Studies is the academic study of religion or the formation of personal faith? Perhaps it can be both.

Our curriculum, ‘Understanding Faith’, provides a convergence of the study of religion and the development of faith which will hopefully produce young men and women who are able to think more critically, are religiously literate and able to be more mindful contributors to our Church and society going forward. We must be educating the whole child and it is vital they leave our schools with the qualifications that will set them up for fulfilled life.

At the centre of our schools is faith formation. There is no doubt that faith formation takes place in the Catholic school but where it should primarily take place in the classroom or beyond is up for discussion. Whether that this is the primary role of Religious Studies/Education is the issue I will explore here.

It is a concern to hear some students disengaged in Religious Education/Studies and as a result have become disconnected from their faith. If we cannot teach faith beyond what’s perceived to be relevant and engaging, we do have a real problem. If we cannot make our faith interesting and relevant, at a time where are Church has never been so relevant, what hope is there for the future of our Church?

Religious Education/Studies is an endeavour in sharing faith and it is an intentional activity to develop students who are religiously literate and conversant. There seems to be a close connection between classroom Religious Education/Studies and catechesis. As a classroom teacher who observes that the Religious Education/Studies program has the potential to develop faith in students and it is most effective when it is grounded in a sharing of faith between teacher and student.

There are limits to the ways in which Religious Education/Studies can develop the faith of students. The curriculums capacity to communicate and develop faith of students is much less if it does not relate to the other parts of a student’s life experience. “Understanding Faith” sets out to witness and to teach the Catholic message and to develop in all students’ religious values, attitudes, knowledge and skills. The program does not depend on the faith of the student but it may contribute to faith formation.

It is important to acknowledge that in the Religious Education/Studies classroom aims to understand and appreciate the tradition of the Catholic Church. Complementary to and equally important to this is the experience of liturgy, prayer, retreat and participation in other forms evangelisation.

The “Understand Faith” Curriculum document has an instructive prominence and it recognises that one cannot become personally attuned a religion without first learning something about it. Learning and journey must be part of the student’s experience. Our curriculum links the classroom with the faith community which respects each individual’s faith journey, and the realities of the classroom. As an educator I believe the Catholic school should provide a comprehensive education in faith which will help young people become well informed about the Catholic traditions and its position on current issues. The role of Religious Studies is somewhat different. It does complement this but it is fundamentally an academic study of Religion. The Catholic faith is just one of these. Religious Studies is the study of a Religion from the outside, that is, not always with an emphasis on faith development.

In the Catholic tradition the term Catechesis has been commonly used to mean “Catholic Religious Education/Studies.” Catechesis seems to involve both theological knowledge as well as communication of faith vision. Religious Education/Studies or Catechesis links religious knowledge with faith. Faith is a personal relationship with God. We are called by God. It is a covenant relationship. God dwells among his people and his people live in his presence.

Catechesis cannot instil faith but only awaken, nourish and develop what is already there. Faith is concerned with developing a relationship with God. As teachers we walk beside students in their faith journey both challenging and nurturing them. Religious Educators do not transmit “faith” but would transmit particular interpretations or understandings of faith. Faith is a gift of grace and a personal response to Gods call it cannot be taught. As teachers we cannot force faith on our students through, coercion, indoctrination or manipulation. All we can do is to invite students to build their faith through instruction through example and experience. We cannot choose faith for students but can only give them the freedom to examine, question and reflect, and claim their personal belief.

Faith needs to be linked to everyday life and should not be seen as something isolated to going to Mass nor activities in class. Faith formation in the Catholic school is not just in the classroom, it would be naive to claim so. There needs to be evangelisation taking place throughout the school, at the parish level. The school can only reinforce what is taking place in the home. The Catholic school is concerned with integration of faith and life. It should be evident then that you cannot teach faith any more than you can teach love for a spouse. It has to be a lived experience creating an atmosphere in which students can develop their own faith each in his or her individual way.

During adolescence a young person’s main struggle is to achieve a personal identity or a positive sense of self and this is connected to the development of faith. Complications with faith tend to be part of a broader search for meaning in their lives and that search for positive self-worth. Faith is a dynamic fluid process. The development of faith at a personal level requires a mature sense of self and this occurs at different stages for each person. Watershed moments in this journey may take place outside of the four walls of a classroom.

Religious Education/Studies could be thought of as sharing ones faith with another person. Faith dictates lifestyle. It is a life style that is filled with both emotional and intellectual content.  Some school special character events such as social justice events, retreats and liturgies seek to develop and give a student an opportunity to express personal faith while the classroom curriculum is more concerned with delivering information although this still fosters faith development. The aim of the Religious Education/Studies curriculum is to create in student’s religious literacy, personal autonomy and the ability to be critical. These are all required in order for an individual to develop a mature adult faith.

As educators we have a role to make students faith a living conscious and active thing. Faith is a gift, a personal encounter or a response to Gods call. For this reason Religious Education/Studies should be carried out in an atmosphere that complements this. For this to happen only in the classroom is not an ideal. The whole faith process is much larger than what we do or what we teach, it wrapped in the ministry of God’s love and in the free and personal response that people make to that love. We need to create an atmosphere of warmth and relational trust, an environment suitable for listening to Gods call. We need to allow our students the freedom to search, to question and to express one’s own point of view. Faith needs to be intrinsic to our everyday life. Faith formation takes place not only but primarily outside the classroom. Students grow by being part of a faith community and the activities that complement this.

Our curriculum aims to religiously educate students so that they may grow and understand faith. Its effectiveness can only be judged by whether the students can demonstrate religious literacy and a sense of what religion contributes to the human condition. By applying critical thinking to religious issues in the school environment students will develop a mature faith and greater potential to effect change. I believe that our children will have faith if we have faith and are faithful. If we strive to keep our sense of community and keep our identity as a Catholic community then our children will stay with us and grow with us in faith and love. It is the job of us all of to encourage the spread of the Good News not just those teachers in the classroom.

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