What is Curriculum?
To run the course –Latin
Curriculum for the Church
Fashion Me a People by Maria Harris has helped us understand that the church itself is an educator, teaching through various forms to shape the people God has made and is making. Harris suggests that the different areas of church life are the curriculum—as both the way we teach as well as the subject matter itself.
Five curricula together comprise the vocation of the people of God:
✣ Koinonia, Greek for community, is the curriculum that gathers us together. “The fashioning of a people,” says Harris, “does not occur unless a people exist to be fashioned.”
✣ Leiturgia is the curriculum of prayer, both corporate worship and personal spirituality. It cannot be separated from other curricula calling us to action in the name of justice, says Harris. Leiturgia is the work of the people.
✣ Didache, the curriculum of teaching, is the doctrines and traditions received and passed on as well as the manner of transmission. Catechesis is a part of teaching, but so is preaching, discussion, reinterpretations, or any activity that critically engages the people.
✣ Kerygma is proclamation, the message of scripture and sharing it with others. Jesus understood his own proclamation, Harris reminds us, while paying attention to “the unheralded, the unsung.”
✣ Diakonia is loving service that encompasses caring and gathering, empowering and advocating. It is not by accident Harris names this vocation last, because service for others springs from gratitude.
The power of Fashion Me a People is its integrated vision. Harris knew Christian formation isn’t limited to Sunday school; it happens whenever and wherever the people of God live into their vocations. Formation happens better when we name what is going on.
The lasting gift of Maria Harris is her reminder that the most important job in forming faithful Christians is being the church together.
Curriculum Beyond the Classroom
When we think about teaching and learning our imaginations often default to “school” and yet most learning in life takes place beyond classrooms and outside courses. As leaders committed to teaching Christian faith in diverse settings, is the language of curriculum limiting? It doesn’t have to be.
The work of English educators Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith (www.infed.org) is particularly helpful. As scholar-practitioners who focus on fostering learning in informal environments such as community centers, churches, summer camps, or street work with vulnerable populations, Jeffs and Smith offer a theoretical framework to understand curriculum across the formal/informal continuum. They recognize that educators in formal and informal settings have more in common than we assumed.
At the formal end, curriculum is a predetermined body of knowledge or skills established and defined by experts. There are identified “teachers” who oversee the rules of engagement such as attendance or grading, and there are set time frames for learning. The curriculum is content-centered and while the pedagogies to implement it pay attention to the environment (physical and social), the experts control it to a greater extent than is possible in informal environments.
By contrast, curriculum in informal settings is conversation-based. Educators choose places and times that are available to learners, use deep listening and wise judgment to respond to their curiosity or need, and guide the conversation toward deepening understanding of the subject at hand. An attentive counselor at summer camp, for example, can facilitate timely conversations about faith and life to guide campers to a deeper knowledge of Christianity in ways that complement formal instruction.
At their best, Christian formation leaders are agile educators across the formal and informal continuum. We are confident enough in our knowledge of and practices in Christian living to build a comprehensive curriculum that blends structured and spontaneous opportunities for substantive learning.
Lifelong, Life-wide, and Life-deep
Thanks to the centrality of the baptismal covenant in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, four decades of complementary work by liturgical theologians, Christian educators, and researchers in human development, the Episcopal Church has embraced a model of lifelong Christian formation. Becoming a Christian is an ongoing process of experiencing, learning about, and practicing the Way of Jesus in our everyday lives.
This view that began before we were born – “For you yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps 139:12) – made explicit in baptism, and completed in the promise of the resurrection, invites an expansive, holistic understanding of the curriculum for Christian discipleship.
Building on recent European work on life-wide learning, the CMT has identified three dimensions of human experience that invite different orientations to the common work of forming faith.
✣ Lifelong – Curriculum that supports lifelong learning considers the learner’s age, life stage, and cultural context. It focuses on aligning personal stories with the Christian tradition, marrying the arc of the Christian story with the milestone events of personal experience. Thus the Christian tradition offers a structure with clear benchmarks in response to God’s invitation in our lives.
✣ Life-wide – If the lifelong curriculum sets our eyes on the horizon, the life-wide curriculum equips us to recognize God at work around us. It is teaching attentiveness and modeling practices to strengthen our peripheral vision and to live our faith at home, at work, and in the world.
✣ Life-deep – To sustain faithfulness in active, engaged lives requires us to know ourselves and to know God intimately. The life-deep curriculum teaches spiritual practices of study and prayer to deepen and sustain our faith. It is here that we develop the ability to discern a rule of life.
Three Curricula We All Teach
Education theorist Elliott Eisner* and others name the three curricula that we use to teach, even if inadvertently:
✣ Explicit Curricula is the raw content taught to learners with goals and objectives for different kinds of instruction, such as biblical stories and church history. Christian formation leaders provide an educational menu for different age groups that meet developmental needs and the beliefs of a worshipping community. While third-graders are memorizing Psalm 23, adults may be discussing the role of history in the words of the Nicene Creed.
✣ Implicit Curricula takes into account resource materials as well as the structure of the classroom. The prevalence or lack of diversity in images, for example, provide messages, according to Eisner, that “are often numerous, subtle, and consistent.” How we socialize learners to a set of expectations, he adds,
“are profoundly more powerful and longer lasting than what is intentionally taught or what the explicit curriculum provides.” (Eisner, 88) Relegating Sunday school classes to the basement sends an implicit, and strong, message about their importance to a church.
✣ Null curricula is the content, implicit and explicit, that is never taught. Eisner believes that what we do not teach may be as important as what we do teach. Ignorance, he notes, is not a neutral void. “It has important effects on the kinds of options one is able to consider, the alternatives that one can examine, and the perspectives from which one can view a situation or problems.” (Eisner, 97) Sometimes the omission of content is inadvertent, while other times it is a product of choice.
When formation leaders select a curriculum, they need to look beyond the explicit content and explore both the implicit and null curricula being offered.
This article first appeared in Episcopal Teacher:
Fall 2016, Vol. 29, No. 1, page 4-5