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Curriculum Context

Curriculum needs to be seen in context of the entire religious education program, and, indeed, in the context of the entire church program. Over the years, several ways of looking at curriculum have developed. A few are highlighted here. The Curriculum Renaissance Module, a fifteen hour continuing education program, presents more complete understanding of curriculum development and usage. In addition, various workshops are frequently given at General Assembly and at District conferences.


George Posner, in his book, Analyzing the Curriculum (McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1992, p.5,9), describes the common concepts around curriculum to include:

• Scope and sequence, or a series of intended learning outcomes, with the role of guiding both the instructional and evaluation decisions.

• Syllabus, or plan for an entire course, with elements of both the ends and the means of the course.

• Content outline, which is sufficient only if the sole purpose of education is to transmit specific content.

• Textbook, or a guide to both the ends and the means of education.

• Course of study, with the concept of a journey through the educational program.

• Planned experience, actually comprising all experiences planned by the school.

Maria Harris, in Fashion Me A People: Curriculum in the Church (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), considers curriculum as the learning that occurs in connection with the church community. She describes curriculum as being fluid "in the midst and celebrating a meaning of curriculum that consciously incorporates other facets of ministry" which means "that a fuller and more extensive curriculum is already present in the church's life: in teaching, worship, community, proclamation, and outreach." (Harris, p.63)

From Posner and Harris, curriculum can be defined in various ways. All are important in religious education, and all are factors in selection of resources. While explicit curriculum is the most evident in the Catalog itself, the selection of curricula and Religious Education Program material itself expresses the other definitions of curriculum as follows.

Explicit curriculum refers to what is consciously and intentionally presented. It is the official curriculum, or written curriculum, which gives the basic lesson plan to be followed, including objectives, sequence, and materials, what is taught by the teacher, methods used and the learning outcomes for the student.

Implicit (hidden) curriculum includes the norms and values of the surrounding society, the setting in which the learning occurs (including the decoration and set-up of the area), and the broader environment in which education occurs.

Null curriculum consists of what is not taught. Consideration must be given to the reasons behind why things are not included in the explicit curriculum or recognized in examination of the implicit curriculum.

Extracurricular curriculum includes experience (planned and unplanned) outside of the immediate educational session, and includes total church community and home religious activities. This has been broadened beyond Posner's concern about planned learning to include all learning outside the immediate educational setting.

Experience itself is a critical component of curriculum. Experience has been a major part of our religious education for a century. Angus MacLean, in Planning the Religious Education Curriculum: Some Basic Considerations (Universalist Church of America and American Unitarian Association, undated), describes curriculum from the perspective of experience:

• "From the standpoint of the curriculum planner the curriculum is thought as the sum total of planned studies and activities calculated to enrich the experiences of youth. Everything that affects experience and that can be planned and consciously directed becomes part of the curriculum. This will include equipment, organization, and all planned procedures. From this point of vantage curriculum looks very like what we call program.

• The curriculum has also to be thought of as the experience resulting from the program. Looking at curriculum from the child's standpoint, it turns out to be experience--what happens to him, what he sees, understands, appreciates and loves and also what he dislikes, fears, repudiates.

• We must think of child experience in still wider terms. No matter what the [religious education program] does it can only partially touch and control experience, and yet the total pattern of experience determines to a great degree the effectiveness of school experience. The curriculum can be thought of, then, as the total complex of a child's experience."

The experiential perspective, under the influence of John Dewey, is discussed by Posner:

Simply stated, an experiential view is based on the assumption that everything that happens to students influences their lives, and that, therefore, the curriculum must be considered extremely broadly, not only in terms of what can be planned for students in schools and even outside them, but also in terms of all the unanticipated consequences of each new situation that individuals encounter. The consequences of any situation include not only how it is learned in a formal sense, but also all the thoughts, feelings, and tendencies to action that the situation engenders in those individuals experiencing it. But since each individual differs in at least some small ways from all others, no two individuals can experience the same situation in precisely the same way. Thus the experiential view of education makes enormous demands on anyone who attempts to make practical curriculum decisions, for it assumes that the curriculum is more or less the same as the very process of living and that no two individuals can or should live precisely the same lives. (Posner, p.51)

John Dewey added the focus of "development or healthy growth of individual experience" to his original theory. In 1938, Dewey expressed concern about balancing the development of intelligence and the development of socially useful skills and the healthy growth of individual experience. (Posner, p.55).


The Unitarian Universalist Association Religious Education Department has developed the concept of a spiral to integrate the complexities of providing liberal religious education that incorporates the Affirmations and the Traditions (themes) of the Principles and Purposes and the way we learn over a lifetime. The complete discussion is in the pamphlet, Spiral Journey: Unitarian Universalist Religious Education for the Twenty-First Century, by Patricia Hoertdoerfer and Judith Frediani, UUA, 1995.

The Spiral Journey focuses on religious education as relational. "The aim of liberal religious education is to lead us out into new understandings, abilities, and ways of being within the contest of a caring community." This has been our tradition, as noted in Angus MacLean's description of religious education as "a creative conversation carried on between our children, ourselves, and the life that surrounds us." The concept of the spiral builds on the central most relationship with the self, personal identity. This broadens to the immediate and extended family, peer groups, community, all humanity, the earth and the universe.

"The diagram [of a spiral] offers an image of many spiral relationships that touch us and the values that we seek to nurture on life's journey. These values are reflected in the religious education curricula we offer. Unitarian Universalist religious education is for life -- for all ages of the lifespan, from infants to elders. Religious education is for the holistic engagement of the mind, body, and soul in making a meaningful life journey."


Since the adoption of the "Principles" as part of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association (Article II, Section C-2.1) in 1986, we have included these as a framework for development of religious education materials. We have even developed various children's versions. There are actually in two parts: the Affirmations ("we affirm and promote…") and the Sources ("The Living Traditions we share draws from many sources."). When we refer to "Principles," we frequently actually mean only the Affirmations. The Affirmations are like the flame on the chalice, the visible part, what we are trying to convey through religious education.

But flames need fuel. Visualize the Sources as the fuel that is being held in the chalice. It is from the fuel, from the Sources, that the flame of the Affirmations arise. The chalice itself can be the church community, and, as we use the chalice as part of our religious education worship or class sessions, it specifically represents the religious education program.

When I walked through the door of All Souls Unitarian church in Augusta, Maine, (now Unitarian Universalist Church in September 1980, I was struck by the use of readings and songs from a variety of sources--without interpretation. It was more than "we can believe whatever we want." It was "here are many resources and tools to help you develop your own beliefs." Youth and young adults mention that the ability and expectation to draw from many sources is critical in their being Unitarian Universalists.

The Report of the Religious Education Futures Committee, published in 1981, outlined "The Curriculum Model" that included the Affirmations and the Sources is language that was later incorporated into the UUA Bylaws noted above. This model provides a way for a congregation to look at their focus and use of curricula, and so is described here, briefly. [This chart will be more complete in the future, but is used here as an example of being aware of selections related to our faith structure, drawing on both the Affirmations and the Sources. This is not to be taken as an exclusive description, nor does every cell need to be filled. This could be an added dimension to the "pillars" approach to curriculum planning.]

  Mystery and Wonder Prophetic men and women: justice World religions: ethical and spiritual life Judeo-Christian teachings Humanist teachings Earth-based traditions
Inherent worth Women We Become   Cakes for the Queen of Heaven   Rainbow Children  
Justice, equity, compassion in relations   Joseph Truth and Meaning Kingdom of Equals Welcoming Congregation  
Spiritual growth

    On the Path      
Search for truth and meaning Power of Myth From Long Ago and Many Lands How Can I Know What to Believe? Timeless Themes Dare to Know  
Democratic process

World community of peace            
Interdependent web

  Connecting with the Earth       Honoring Our Mother Earth

With the descriptions of curriculum, with the focus on experience, the spiral concept, and the use of the Affirmations and Sources as part of the structure of our religious education programs, the outcome of our programs is summarized in "The Great End in Religious Instruction" by William Ellery Channing (#652 in Singing The Living Tradition)

The great end in religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own;

Not to make them see with our eyes, but to look inquiringly and steadily with their own;

Not to give them a definite amount of knowledge, but to inspire a fervent love of truth;

Not to form an outward regularity, but to touch inward springs;

Not to bind them by ineradicable prejudices to our particular sect of particular notions, but to prepare them for impartial, conscientious judging of whatever subjects may be offered to their decision;

Not to burden the memory, but to quicken and strengthen the power of thought;

Not to impose religion upon them in the form of arbitrary rules, but to awaken the conscience, the moral discernment.

In a word, the great end is to awaken the soul, to excite and cherish spiritual life.

All materials copyright © 2008-2018 by Helen Zidowecki unless otherwise noted. - -

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