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Pastor Steven

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Developing an empowering and inclusive curriculum

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TeachingWhen I first began to reflect on the methods of teaching that were used in Church it quickly became apparent that there were two distinct groups, those who teach and those who are taught. While you do not have to make a deliberate choice to join the latter group, you will undoubtedly know if you are part of the former. A further observation was that while in many situations some attempt was made to create a sense of unity with the use of terms such as “every member ministry”, regardless of any sense of unity this created, the teaching divide continued to exist and a tacit, unspoken contract developed between the two groups. Those being taught agree to sit quietly, leaving the teachers to select the material to be studied, topics to be discussed and conclusions to be drawn. This tacit divide may extend into the worship of the church where the in style and content are dictated by a minority group.

Of the various reasons behind the development of this situation, one may be the Christian community’s view of leadership. Specifically, what has traditionally become known as "The Classical, Great Man or Trait Theory" (1). Expressions of which can be found throughout the Church’s vocabulary, with terms such as “Under-Shepherd” or “Youth Leader” often used. Job adverts declare the church’s desire to employ visionary, dynamic leaders who will lead congregations, and while this approach to leadership might be seen as traditional and even biblical, it can lead to assumptions being made by the teachers that they know best what the “taught” need to hear for their spiritual well-being.

The outworking of this view can be found across the church, in that it may lead to a spiritual disempowerment for some within our church communities. Unfortunately, it would appear to be particularly prevalent in the Church’s work with young people, where the youth leader creates a programme which is then delivered to the young people.

This approach, however well meaning, may be further compounded when a church or youth group regularly adopts “ready to use” material potentially creating a situation whereby the young people to be taught using resources that are further removed in relevance from them. In the story below we will see how one group of young people challenged this approach and created a whole new inclusive approach to curriculum development in their church.

Quests Journey

The West Church has traditionally run a Sunday School for the young people in the congregation, it has taken place during the morning service. It starts around 1140 a.m. and finishes at midday. Over the last number of years, the numbers within the Sunday School had dropped away quite significantly.  Out of 282 young people baptised, who are now between the ages of 11 to 18, there are now only 5 (2) who have meaningful contact with the West Church

At present the church’s Sunday School has an attendance of, on average, 25 young people and children.  The older Sunday school (Quest) has 10 -12 attendees.

Two years ago this group was split into two, 11-14 (Quest 2) and 14-18 (Quest). This was a decision made in conversation with the younger group members who felt intimidated by the older teenagers in Quest, and who felt that their views were not taken seriously.

The group that we will focus on is Quest 2, since this was the group of young people who challenged the status quo. Their journey which had a number of different stages is described below. 

  1. Understanding the needs             Conversations under Canvas
  2. Planning the programme              Conversations as a Community
  3. Implementing the programme      Conversations around a Coffee
  4. Reviewing the programme            Conversations over Christmas  

Conversations under Canvas

During the autumn term of 2002 the workers, volunteers who were part of the churches youth work team and who worked specifically with the Quest group became aware that the young people were becoming dissatisfied with the group. A group of these workers determined to explore the reasons the young people felt discontented. As there might be a number of contributing factors such as, the material used or the location in which Quest 2 met.  In conversation with the young people it was decided that the best way to look into this with the Quest 2 group was through informal discussion on the summer camping trip.

Over the course of a camping weekend, the leaders and young people discussed the material that was being used and any ideas to make Quest’s programme better. The following issues were highlighted by the young people.

  • The material was not always relevant.
  • They wished for more flexibility within the range of subjects dealt with.
  • They desired a greater say in the choice of subjects.

A further, unexpected outcome of this trip was that the young people spent time discussing their concern for social justice. The group decided that it would also be good to introduce an aspect of this into any new curriculum. These decisions meant that Quest 2 and the leaders would look at developing a new programme over the following weeks. These observations and requests required two further conversations to occur before any change in policy could take place. Firstly between the churches ministry team (3) and the Quest 2 young people and secondly, between the Quest 2 group members themselves.

Conversations as a Community (4)

The conversation with the ministry team was intended to encourage them to reassess how the church’s curriculum was decided. Traditionally the children’s and young people’s work used material which was part of a wider programme. It was designed in such away that all groups and the main service in the church would look at the same topic on the same day. This material was generally decided upon by the ministry team, and was then given to those who work with children and young people to implement. That the material used was published in a “ready-to-use” format meant that in practice the curriculum was delivered in what Eggleston (5) would describes as the received perspective, where "[the curriculum] is received by the teacher and by his pupils as part of the give order.” (6) An example of which can be found in Tyler's book, Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction (7) where a curriculum can be designed in answering four questions:-

  1. What educational purposes should the school seek to attain?
  2. What educational experiences can be provided that are likely to attain these purposes?
  3. How can these educational experiences be effectively organised?
  4. How can we determine whether these purposes are being attained?"

A decision needed to be made by the ministry team to move away from the prevailing view of curriculum within the structures of the church, a methodology that Grundy calls "Curriculum as product", (8) where Curriculum is understood to reproduce plans and programmes, developed by educators given to teachers and imposed on learners, to a much more vibrant understanding of curriculum as a dynamic process rather than a defined structure. Grundy describes this as "Curriculum as praxis", (9) where the curriculum is more than just teacher learner relationship, it is concerned with the emancipation of the learner. It is developed through dialogue with all those involved, leaders and young people.

While the ministry team supported the Quest 2 in their desire to develop a new programme, they had some reservations and were concerned that this type of curriculum may lead to a loss of focus by the Quest 2 and create a free-for-all where nothing was achieved.  They were also concerned to maintain the balance between the aims of the church and the wishes of the young people.

The workers acknowledged the ministry team's concerns and assured them that this method of curriculum development did not mean "an anything goes" (10) programme. The curriculum would still be constructed from a solid base, with relevant content, aims, methods and procedures. (11) 

However, the method of creating the curriculum would change, so that now the curriculum would be created, through dialogue, as a group, (12) "Leaders and young people have a right and responsibility to negotiate the curriculum together." (13) Another difference would be that delivering a set curriculum would cease to be the aim of the leaders rather it "... develops through the dynamic interaction of action and reflection.  That is, the curriculum is not simply a set of plans to be implemented, but rather is constituted through an active process in which planning, action and evaluating are all reciprocally related and integrated into the process." (14) Developing curriculum became part of the learning process.

Around the same time, the church also gave over an old store room for the young people to decorate and furnish as a Youth Room. This was a significant action for three reasons.  Firstly, it was a physical sign of the congregation-at-large’s commitment to its youth work.  It also showed the congregation that the young people could be trusted to behave responsibly. A third, and possibly more significant reason was that it put the young people in a position where they had to negotiate with other committees within the church, such as the Property Committee, to choose the paint colours and lighting.  This was significant for two reasons. Namely, it was the first time that the young people had a voice about anything within the congregation and secondly, it made the other committees aware that the days of deciding on behalf of the young people had come to an end.

The second conversation was between the Quest 2 group themselves. This conversation was about the design and style and framework for the new curriculum.

This conversation took place at the Quest 2 Sunday morning meetings and over a pizza lunch one Sunday afternoon during which the group discussed the following ideas:-

  1. What subject would like to discuss.
  2. What format that would take.

The group then put forward a number of options. Over the next few weeks this was drawn up into a programme.

The group also decided that they would also like the opportunity to lead and prepare some of the group activities. It was also to include a charity fundraising event and an annual camping trip.

Both these conversations were important. For the ministry team, it kept the youth work within the “ecclesiastical framework of the church.” (15) For the young people it importance was found in that it gave them a voice in the wider church and enabled them to develop their emotional literacy (16) through the socialising skills that are developed in the process of conversation, negotiation and mutual understanding which are all part of this method of curriculum development.

Conversations around a Coffee

The group decided to start the new term with the charity fundraising event. The topics chosen for the first term were on spirituality, inner beauty, addiction and forgiveness.

The Quest 2 group met in the newly decorated Youth Room. They also decided that it would be nice to have something to eat and drink while they met.

Although not discussed in terms of curriculum development, or "content, aims, methods and procedures," (17) this was undoubtedly what the Quest 2 group were doing. They were moving away from what Duffy Robbins calls the “traditional (schooling) approach,” (18) towards a curriculum that would develop into something much deeper. The content became much more relevant, primarily because the programme ceased to be imposed on the young people and was now drawn up corporately between themselves and the workers and dealt with subjects that were important to them.

Consequently, as the processes used to achieve the aims of the group were adapted, the “hidden Curriculum” (19) such as problem solving, critical thinking and reflection were brought openly into the learning process, skills that were previously un-harnessed and only used by the young people to form attitudes about the group, their peers and leaders, were now used by them in a positive and empowering way to drive, influence and direct the programme, bringing a sense of ownership and belonging.

Conversations over Christmas

This new programme ran for the winter term. At meetings before and after the Christmas holidays the group reviewed the new programme. The group reflected on the past three months. This was an important stage in the development of the new programme. (20) It confirmed the ownership of the programme by the group, who decided that they liked this new programme and wanted to carry it on into the new session although they raised a number of points concerning its development:-

  1. How do we maintain a constant flow of material?
  2. How do we ensure a wide range of topics?

It was interesting to see how Young’s Learning Cycle (21) was being used unconsciously in their reflection and the development of the programme. That is, they reflected on their own thoughts and feelings, gathered information and thoughts as a group and “integrate these reflections and information into a logical framework for… future action”. (22) They answered the above points by deciding to gather material themselves from which to draw topics for the programme. (23) This was to be introduced in the spring term.

Concluding Reflections

Reflecting on this group from the distance of years there are a number of points which are worth noting.

There is the problem that this method of working is not always initially supported by the young people. Grundy points out that this is one of the problems of developing a curriculum using this methodology. (24) This could be for a variety of reason such as, they lack the will to be involved at such a level, they feel their topic choices would be laughed at, or they may not be interested in taking on the work required to develop a curriculum.

Secondly, this method of working is time consuming; the length of time it takes to develop a programme in this way eats into the term with the possibility of two or three weeks taken up with programme development. This is only a problem if we fail to grasp that this preparation is an intrinsic part of the programme and not isolated from it. Developing the programme should be seen as an opportunity to expand the relational nature of the group and opportunities are naturally found to discuss faith around the reasons and negotiation of subject choices.

Thirdly, it is also worth considering Boud, Keogh and Walker’s (25) diagram. “The Reflection Process In Context” where they point out that praxis can often be less progressive than is hoped, with practitioners work through old behaviour and ideas several times in the cycle before assimilating any new experiences and learning into their world view. This is an important concept to be born in mind as we enable the faith development of young people. The journey must be at a speed the young people are comfortable with.

The impact of Curriculum as Praxis on the organisation and development of the Quest 2 group was apparent in that the level of involvement and the sense of ownership developed among young people. Quest 2 changed from a Sunday School class were people sat in silence being taught, into a group where, often discussion ran on after time and flowed naturally onto related topics. The programme also remained fresh mainly due to the development of the young people. The maturation and self actualisation of a young person generally includes the development of how they explore issues, So for example how a twelve year old perceives their world may be significantly different from the way they view it at sixteen. (26) For young people brought up within the faith community this may include a journey from “faith given” to “faith owned and lived”. (27) Therefore it may be the success of this approach may also have been due to the age of the young people when it was adopted, since they were reaching a stage in their development, where discussion and debate has become important to them. (28) This, along with the expansion of their ability to think ahead and develop their understanding of the concept of a personal God (29) all lent itself to the success of this programme.

Over the years, the discussions developed from what might be termed surface level discussion into theological debate, such as the origin of sin, God before time and the nature of salvation. This deepening spiral of questions and discussions required the leaders to become theologically rigorous and open to challenging questions about their own faith. Curriculum as praxis enables a youth worker to continually respond to this kind of situation, while at the same time enabling the young person to have the responsibility for their own learning. 

Overall, while reflecting on the issues above in this approach, it is still ralistic to hold the concept of “curriculum as praxis” (30) as an effective for curriculum development.  Not to do so is to continue to attach a youth work curriculum to a model which although successful in a different cultural setting and time, is in part leading to the failure of effective youth work. (31)

The commitment which Quest 2 demonstrated to their learning and development and the changes which occurred using the Curriculum as Praxis approach is ideally suited to the faith development process as it is much more integrated into the lives and questioning exploration of the young person. This inclusive and empowering approach to learning recognises the right and responsibility young people have for their own spiritual formation. The role of the young person in the process means that the curriculum is a more natural part of their learning experience and more closely integrated into the reality of their lives and world view.

Duffy Robbins (32) poses the rhetorical question, "how in charge are we really in our spiritual-formation roles?  He answers “most Christian teachers realise they are frankly not in control of the most important transformational outcomes that God may want to accomplish the young person's life." 

When this is realised the curriculum must become more than a tool to imparting of information, important though Biblical knowledge is, and becomes a place of discovery, where there is liberty for young people to have their questions answered, in an environment where they can integrate that learning into their world view and lifestyle. Ultimately, it must become a place where there is space for God to act in the reality of the individuals own learning experience, a place where as a group, both young people and adults can grow and develop in their relationship with God.



1. Huczynski.A, & Buchanan. D, (2001) Organisational Behaviour Harlow Pearson Education

Avery CG, (2004) Understanding Leadership London Sage Publications;

Grint. K, (2000) The Arts Of Leadership Oxford Oxford University Press

Gill. R, (2006) Theory And Practice Of Leadership London Sage

2. The Cradle Role  3 Jun 2003

3. The term ministry team is used here to define the group who direct the worship of the church.

4. Although show as two conversations it should be understood that both these conversations happened almost simultaneously.

5. Eggleston. J, (1997) The Sociology of the School Curriculum London Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd   pg 72

6. Ibid pg 53

7. Tyler. RW, (1971) Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction Chicago The University Of Chicago Press pg 1

8. Grundy. S, (1991)  Curriculum: Product or Practice Abingdon Falmer Press  pg 68

9. ibid   pg 99

10. ibid  pg 125

11. Hirst. PH, and Peters. RS, (1972) The Logic of Learning London. Routledge and Kegan Paul pg 40

12. Grundy 1991

13. ibid  pg 122

14. ibid  pg 115

15. Clark. C, (2001) The Changing Face Of Adolescence: A Theological View of Human Development.  In Eds Dean. KC, Clark. C, and Rahn D,.  Starting Right  Grand Rapids Zondervan Publishing pg 61

16. Erricker. J, (2000) Collaborative Approach to Researching Teacher Work in Developing Spiritual and Moral Education. in Ed Best. R, Education for Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Development  London Continuum pg 188

17. Hurst and Peters 1972  pg 40

18. Robbins D (2001) Thinking Creatively: Beyond Schooling Perspectives In Curriculum in Eds Dean. KC, Clark. C, and Rahn D,.  Starting Right  Grand Rapids Zondervan Publishing pg 339

19. Eggleston 1997  pg 15

20. Grundy 1991  pg 115

21. Young. K, (1999) The Art of Youth Work Lyme Regis Russell House Publishing pg 82

22. ibid pg 81

23. The material decided on was a back collection of Youthwork magazine’s ready to use material.

24. Grundy 1991

25. Boud. D, Keogh. R, and Walker. D, (1985) Reflection: Turning Experience Into Learning London Kogan Page

26. When considering an adolescence maturation it is important to recognise that their may be occasions, when for a variety of reasons there development is hampered. There is even the possibility of young people regressing.

Conger. JJ. Petersen AC,. (1984) Adolescence And Youth, 3rd Ed New York Harper & Row

Kroger, J. (1997) Identity In Adolescence Hove Rutledge

27. Westerhoff III, J H. (1976) Will Our Children Have Faith Minneapolis Seabury Press pg 39. this is a process that may be unique to young people from within the faith community. For other young people it may be more akin to a journey of discovery.

28. Elkind. D, (1998)  All Grown Up And No Place To Go New York Perseus Books pg 37

29. ibid  pg  PG  33& 51

30. Grundy 1991  pg 68

31. Senter III. MH, (1998). The Three – Legged Stool Of Youth Ministry in Eds Borgman. D, and Cook.  C,  Agenda For Youth Ministry London SPCK pg 27               

32. Robbins D (2001) pg 339

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