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Part 1: Why teach spirituality?

by Amber Harvey

The United Nations General Assembly’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child, Principle 2, states:

"The child shall enjoy special protection, and shall be given opportunities and facilities, by law and by other means, to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually, and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity. In the enactment of laws for this purpose, the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration."

With this statement in mind, and recalling that we aim to teach the whole child, I began to explore the subject of children and spirituality within the context of public education.

What is meant by spirituality? Do children develop spiritually as they do physically, emotionally, socially, intellectually, and aesthetically? If so, how can we map that development? And finally, what is our role as teachers in addressing children’s spirituality?

I first sought definitions of the word spiritual. I found that religious and mystical are two synonyms for spiritual. Living, as we do, in a pluralistic society, we have chosen to remove religion from our curriculum, except when we teach students to understand the tenets of world religions. The terms mystical and mysticism evoke religious practices such as meditation, contemplation, and asceticism. Are we afraid to address the spiritual development of children, lest we enter the realms of religion or mysticism? Can we define spirituality in a way that reduces this fear? Looking further, I found spirituality defined as, "interested in things of the spirit." Spirit is defined as "essential character, or soul." Yes, spirituality is difficult to define. But if we are to teach it, we first need to understand what we are teaching.

My research then led me to a paper by David G. Kibble, who teaches in Britain. Education in the U.K. is under the direction of the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED). This body has deemed that spiritual development is closely connected to children’s moral, social, and cultural development. OFSTED states that spiritual development is characterized, "by considering, by reflecting, and by responding." (OFSTED, 1995, pp. 89-90.)

Kibble then suggests other ways that children’s spiritual growth might be developed.

"...through the development of pupils’ imagination, through the challenge that is provided by new ideas and experiences, and by the change that all pupils go through as they progress through the school." "... through working with others and through examining one’s own beliefs and the beliefs of others." And "...pupils expressing delight in what is good and wonderful."

This approach sounded very positive to me, and something I thought teachers would support as a body. Why then, is this aspect of a child’s education not given the same focus as, say, aesthetic or academic development?

Let’s look at some of the curriculum areas we teach. Most elementary school teachers are responsible for teaching the arts: music, drama, and visual arts. Some teachers would say they aren’t particularly gifted artistically. So they turn to resources that help them teach their students to appreciate the arts and to grow artistically. Some elementary teachers don’t feel they are gifted mathematically. Yet with the help of resource materials and workshops, they are able to teach their students the necessary mathematical knowledge and skills.

Back to my questions of whether we are afraid to teach spirituality, and whether we can find a less troubling definition. If we accept spirituality as one of several facets of the whole child, and have confidence that we can learn to teach to this aspect of the child as we do to all the others, we will have begun to fulfill our obligations as indicated by the United Nations General Assembly. I believe we are all doing this already, in a variety of ways.

In my next instalment, I will present the thought-provoking ideas of more authors and researchers in this subject. One of these is David Tacey of the School of Arts and Critical Enquiry, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia. He writes:

"If spirit is present in students, our institutions are not fulfilling the promise that is inherent in the word education itself. There is more human reality to be ‘led out’ than the institutions are comfortable with.

"Education is not able to deliver what it promises, much less is it able to claim that it is satisfying the needs of its clientele."

Amber Harvey teaches at Quadra Elementary School, Victoria.

Part 2 of this "Teacher as Researcher" article will appear in the October 2004 issue of Teacher.

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