Difference does NOT equal deficit
Teaching Faith Development
As a "transformative educator," I work to figure out how best to teach material so that learners make a shift in thought and/or behavior. This space is dedicated to some of the innovations I'm working on now in my classroom. Perhaps you're working on similar pedagogical problems. I'd LOVE to hear about your work, so comment below or contact me and let's share!
What happens if. . .
JANUARY 2013. I've been struggling with how to teach my graduate students about human/faith development models for a couple of years now. On the one hand, learning the theory explicitly seems helpful but, since the theory is complex, its quite easy to get caught up in the weeds and lose sight of its usefulness. And, of course, I don't want to oversimplify the theory as that could do a LOT of harm if it is misused. What I encounter most are critiques such as "this age-stage theory seems too rigid and does not allow for human difference." Or, I have also observed that students do MUCH better when they are applying the constructs to fictional characters, and become quite daunted when thinking of how it applies to their OWN lives and worldviews. Still, at the end fo the day, there is something to be gained from thinking about how, in general, people learn to take on more compleity in their lives. How can they learn to love/care more deeply? To hold suspicion at bay so they can engage the humanity of another person? Oh, I forgot to say, I usually only have about 4-6 hours of classroom instruction time to get all of this across! Yeah, it's a challenge!
So, last summer I heard a colleagues talk about the use of board games as a way to help people understand the "type of mind" that is required to solve problems. A couple weeks ago, I gave it a try and with great success. I set up the classroom with board games that ranged from Candy Land to Checkers, to Scrabble to chess to 3-D puzzle blocks. Students played three or four of the games, and then processed "the kind of mind they brought each of those tasks." While I got some of the expected cognitive dissonance one gets when teaching these ideas, I ALSO found that students were better able to grasp how a personal "mental model" can be useful to understand. So, it was a good day for feeling like a "teacher."
FEBRUARY 2013. Back in 2006 when I was writing, “Building the World We Dream About” for the UUA’s Tapestry of Faith curriculum, I conducted a series of qualitative focus groups, asking Unitarian Universalists of Color the question, “what keeps you engaged in your mixed-race congregation?” Almost to a person, the response was “UU theology,” meaning, the ability to make sense the experiences that shape their lives nested in a paradigm of “possibility” and hope. As one elder of color quipped, “Honey, if we can’t do it here, it can’t be done anywhere.”
As a religious educator, I find that response compelling and have been grappling to make sense of that supposition in pedagogical terms. What is an appropriate developmental response to this question? In my Fahs Lecture, "Toward a Religious Education for People of Color" in 2011, I began to unpack a bit of that reality, but I’d like to do more.
Specifically, what I have noticed in the literature as well as in educational settings is the recognition that different objectives must be operationalized in order to promote growth/development. For the person in a dominant group, the journey toward transformation begins when the assumption of privilege/ power/authority is interrupted. The white person or the heterosexual or the Christian or the person with a college degree or the black-straight-male in an African American community….any person who assumes his point of view is “the norm” must recognize what my colleague Peggy McIntosh called the “invisible knapsack of privilege.” While that factoid may seem to be old news, what is often unrecognized – especially in multi-racial contexts – is that those who are targets of oppression should also be encouraged to transform their relationship to powerlessness. The spark that begins that process, however, is not the act of recognition that they are targets of oppression (they get that newsflash on a regular basis). The opposite experience is essential to spark growth/healing: an affirming experience wherein the anticipated act of discrimination, stereotyping or marginalization fails to occur. It is as if to say, “wow, I didn’t expect to be treated fairly!” When that happens with integrity, the target of oppression can begin a process of transforming her association with that particular type of event.
It seems to me that we need to take a serious look at this dynamic, especially as educators working to heal broken and dysfunctional relationships. I consider this notion in the Fahs Lecture [see the podcast], making the point that our educational practices tend to address interrupting “whiteness” with little attention to healing the wounds that targets of oppression internalize over the course of their lives. What do those practices look like? How can we create learning conditions that ALSO encourage developmental growth for the targets of oppression?