Study Materials for Religious Education

Section 06: The need for a critical, inquiring, student-centred, research-oriented pedagogy for religious education
In addition to educating young people comprehensively within their own religious faith tradition, church school religious education needs to include content and pedagogy that may help young people learn how to discern the shaping influence of contemporary culture on people's beliefs and values and behaviour. Both for those students who are religious and those who are not, religious education can help them learn how to make more sense of life in an increasingly complex culture and this might help them develop skills and knowledge for charting a more meaningful life.

As for all sections, view the introductory video. Then listen to the content lecture audio while attending to the main text file on this page. Arrange to have the audio file and the text page open together so you can work your way through both in an integrated fashion. To have both the text and audio files working simultaneously, either (A) open a second window with the same web address to start the audio file and for pausing/playing the audio. OR (B) right click the icon and using the "save link" option, download the audio file completely and it can then be played/paused in the separate audio app, while the text file remans open in the browser.

Introductory video mp4 to this section

1. Introductory video giving an overview of what is covered in this section.

Click the icon or here to view the introductory video in streaming mp4 format. Or right click if you want to download the video using the "save link" option

Brief overview of content of this section

Some initial critical perspective on the current orientation of school religious education.

School Religious Education in Catholic schools not only requires purposes related to Catholic religious culture and identity, as well as the development of personal faith.  It also needs to consider the personal and spiritual needs of the majority of parents and pupils who are relatively secularised and who will not be regular church goers.  Hence the need for two dimensions to religious education.

1.  A commitment to the handing on of the Catholic religious tradition – knowledge of Christian theology and spirituality, scripture, church history, sacraments, morality and liturgy etc.
2.  Helping young people learn how to ‘negotiate' constructively the maze of contemporary westernised culture.  Knowledge and skills related to constructing personal meaning and purpose, and to identifying, interpreting and evaluating the meanings in contemporary culture that have a shaping influence on people's thinking, values and behaviour .  This helps enhance and resource the basic human spirituality of pupils, whether or not they will ever be engaged with a local community of faith.

Consideration of the origins and history of a pedagogy of critical interpretation and evaluation of cultural meanings.  This is about skilling young people in learning how to identify, analyse and evaluate the spiritual and moral issues they encounter in life.  Religion teachers specifically and educators generally need a first hand experience of a critical, inquiring, informative, research-oriented, pedagogy that they can then apply in the classroom in a student-centred way.

Audio mp3 file lecture of this section
2. The audio file lecture presents the content for this section.
Click the icon or here to listen to the mp3 audio lecture or to download the complete file, right click and use the "save link" option. (Note: the audio, from earlier classwork, says Section 2 rather than 6). This is the main presentation and principal source of information on the topic. The audio lecture (47 minutes) will refer every now and again to particular parts of the text that will easily be identified -- here you will need to pause the audio and look at the pertinent parts of the text.

The written text for this section (Study the text in conjunction with the audio lecture of 47 minutes duration)

Some background issues that have a bearing on expectations of Catholic school religious education
Social issues in the culture: As adults might identify them
What is the critical interpretation and evaluation of culture? And how might this be applied within the school religious education curriculum -- content and pedagogy?
Access to young people's inheritance of cultural religious meanings:  Studying the religious tradition
Critical interpretation and evaluation of culture
Critical interpretation and evaluation of culture addresses the following matters
What is involved in the identification and evaluation of social meanings
Implications for pedagogy and content in the critical interpretation and evaluation of cultural meanings
Some conclusions
Concluding video segments: Some other forms of the critical interpretation and evaluation of cultural meanings
  Children engaged in critical evaluation of culture: An example of a 7 year old
The use of humour and satire in the critical evaluation of culture
The Cartoonists role in the critical interpretation of culture

Some background issues that have a bearing on expectations of Catholic school religious education

This part of Section 6 is a religious education curriculum response to the understanding of contemporary spirituality as discussed in Sections 3, 4 &5. If religious education is to be relevant to the needs of pupils, it should accept and address constructively the new situation where only a minority will ever become engaged in Catholic parishes. Such an approach is still a genuine and realistic expression of the Catholic school's mission. Understanding how spirituality has changed over time in conjunction with social and cultural change can provide valuable insights for education in spirituality; it can inform relevance in both content and pedagogy in religious education by helping with the ‘diagnosis' and appraisal of new developments and cultural contexts, which inevitably have both healthy and unhealthy aspects.

In the document Catholic schools at a crossroads , the Catholic bishops of New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory (2007) expressed concern that despite the high level of resources invested in Catholic schools, they were not successful in inclining young Catholics to become regular church goers. Among their recommendations, they called for a ‘new' evangelisation (Pope John Paul II, 1990, Redemptoris Missio ) that would help ‘reignite' young people's spirituality and improve their engagement with the Church. Increasing mass attendance rates were included as performance indicators for Catholic schools. Similar concerns were also evident in diocesan reviews of the Catholic identity of schools. From the perspective of maintaining the continuing health of the Catholic Church, this response is understandable. But the issue runs more deeply than religiosity (measure of religious behaviour) and it has unrealistic expectations of how the Catholic school might redeem the secularisation problem. The problem has do do with fundamental changes in the landscape of spirituality. This thinking tends to underestimate the complexity of the spirituality of contemporary youth – and of adults as well. In addition, it seems to presume that the educational activity of a Catholic school can, by itself, change young people's spirituality significantly in the direction of engagement in a parish.

What the Crossroads document sought was some formula that might reverse the substantial drift away from participation in the Church. Both the problem as the document's authors understand it, and the proposed solution, make sense within a particular framework of cultural-religious meanings. For those who share this outlook, the problem is about how to stop the decline in religiosity and traditional spirituality. But many young people and adult Catholics have no identification with this framework – as if it no longer existed; or it has little influence on their thinking; or, because of their involvement in a Catholic school, they may acknowledge it respectfully, but it has low plausibility and little credibility. As one young teacher said “They're on a different mental planet from the one I live on” – suggesting a naivety about how the links between religion and spirituality have changed significantly over the past 50 years.

The Crossroads document, and some other recent writings about Catholic schooling in Australia, give an impression that there is a 'crisis of Catholic identity' in Catholic schools; and that the schools need to become more 'Catholic'. However, this view can be called into question if one looks at the evidence. If Catholic schools in Australia are scrutinised, one can not find substantial evidence that there is any significant problem with Catholic identity. The Religious Education in the schools is good. There is good liturgy. There are regular Catholic prayer practices. There is a strong commitment to social justice and schools often have good community engagement and social service activities. Teachers give good, individualised attention to their pupils. Parents and pupils are very happy with their experience of Catholic schooling. Parents are queuing up and competing to get their children into Catholic schools. All of this does not indicate identity crisis. Perhaps the problem is an unfair and unrealistic projection of the Church's own identity crisis onto the school. in reality the situation is a 'booming' school system in a 'declining' church. This comment is not dismissing the need to try to address the problems the Catholic church itself is facing. But it does not help to incorrectly think that the Catholic schools are part of the problem -- in fact they are doing their job of educating young people in Catholicism reasonably well. But that in itself is not enough to incline young people to participate in the church when they leave school. Many Catholic educators would also argue that the aims for religious education are much larger than getting young people to go to church.

If Catholic schools are to offer a religious education that is relevant to the lives of pupils, both the religious ones and the relatively non-religious ones, then there is a need to understand and acknowledge their changed spiritual situation: for many, but not all, it is relatively secular, eclectic, subjective, individualistic and self reliant; there is a strong interest in achieving a desirable lifestyle but little interest in connection with the church (Hughes, 2007; Crawford and Rossiter, 2006). Religious education needs to focus more on resourcing and enhancing the basic human spirituality of young people – helping them learn how to better negotiate the spiritual and moral complexities of modern life; this should be offered unconditionally – whether or not they will ever participate in church life; and this will be helpful both for those who are involved in a parish and those who are not. Giving attention to religious traditions will always remain an important part of the religious educational process. But to focus relatively exclusively on such teaching is both too narrow and counterproductive – even if institutional maintenance were a principal purpose. It is considered that helping young people learn how to identify, interpret and evaluate contemporary spiritual/moral issues needs to become a more prominent part of religious education, especially in the senior years; and this has implications for both content and pedagogy. To do this is not ‘secularising' the process but it is trying to be faithful to the Catholic school's religious mission to contemporary youth.

But if this proposed agenda is to be advanced, it will require some level of educational consensus that transcends the particular spiritualities of the educators themselves – whether this be ‘conservative' or ‘liberal' etc. In other words, those whose principal concern is promoting church participation as well as those who do not accord this aim the same priority, need to see that the landscape of spirituality has changed so much that a traditional religious education, linked with a religious spirituality, is no longer adequate in Catholic schools. Hence in this section special attention will be given to how Religious Education might respond constructively to this changed spiritual/religious situation. Rather than persist with a single unrealistic purpose of trying to re-establish a traditional Catholic religious spirituality for all, Catholic school religious education needs to offer a broader approach as suggested in the previous paragraph.

This proposed change in orientation is not just geared to the needs of the relatively non--religious students. It will be argued that giving more attention to interpreting the spiritual and moral issues in contemporary life is just as important and valuable for students who are regular churchgoers as it is for those who are not. Also it will be shown that by giving more emphasis to a critical interpretation of culture, this is not downplaying or watering down the attention that is usually given to Catholic theology and Scripture.

Given the situation of contemporary spirituality in the students and families associated with Catholic schools, one can argue that a successful Catholic school religious education in the traditional sense is no longer adequate, nor even possible, in Australia and this is probably also the case in some other countries. Aiming relatively exclusively at reproducing what is currently considered a traditional Catholic spirituality is not relevant to most pupils. Perhaps this is also the case for many who teach religion. The traditional framework of religious meanings within which Catholic school religion curricula are written is out of synch with the meanings that inform most contemporary spiritualities. A proposed responsive change in orientation suggests that more prominence needs to be given to the critical interpretation and evaluation of cultural meanings, while not neglecting the more traditional aim of giving young Catholics meaningful access to their religious heritage. There is a need to re-orient Catholic school religious education more in the direction of trying to enhance the basic human spirituality of young people, whether or not they engage with a parish.

However, the radical change in contemporary spirituality does not require a radical change in religion curricula, but rather a subtle one. There needs to be a greater emphasis on critical / interpretive / evaluative activity. In the classroom, religion needs to be treated more as a valuable but contentious area to investigate, than as a set of beliefs that the students should accept and adopt. This does not mean abandoning the teaching of traditions because good access to one's historical religious tradition is not only a birthright, but a spiritual resource that serves as a starting point in a lifelong search for meaning, purpose and value in life.

The critical evaluative approach will be considered in detail after some preliminary notes on how social issues are addressed within the culture.

Social issues in the culture: As adults might identify them

Some video files here show examples of social issues reported in the media. Look at the videos and identify the issues.
Use the links or just click the photos to view or download the videos.

The social issues involved in the casualisation of employment in Australia. Video clip from the 7:30 report about 1995 on growing concerns with casualisation. The situation is even more critical today when a much higher percentage of the workforce is casualised.
This particular topic was analysed by one group of postgraduate students who devised a scheme for social analysis. That is, a set of questions or categories that could be used for analysing a particular problem that might be illustrated on a television program or documentary. Click here for a brief look at the social analysis scheme and see how this compares with your identification of issues raised in this particular video segment. There is no need to dwell on this document as it is there simply to signpost how someone might devise a scheme for looking critically at social issues.


Another social issue: The advertising of electronic games for two-year-olds, appealing to parents concerned that their children will not drop behind in the technology race in education.

Video on questions that might be raised about the images of masculinity involving violence that come across in computer games and the marketing of superhero equipment etc.



The question then arises: What can the school in general and Religious Education in particular do to help young people learn skills in the identification and evaluation of the various social issues that they are going to encounter.

What is the critical interpretation and evaluation of culture? And how might this be applied within the school religious education curriculum -- content and pedagogy?

Critical interpretation and evaluation of culture as a key approach for content and pedagogy in religious education

Two complementary strategies are important for Catholic school religious education

1.         Access to young people's inheritance of cultural religious meanings:  Studying the religious tradition
2.         Critical interpretation and evaluation of culture

1.         Access to young people's inheritance of cultural religious meanings:  Studying the religious tradition

In terms of their lifelong search for meaning and purpose in life, children need to learn some basic familiarity with their own religious tradition, whether or not they will embrace this actively as adults.  Children have a birthright to access their religious tradition;  it is their cultural religious inheritance.  It can give them some sense of the core spiritual meanings in the tradition – even if their parents or guardians have only a nominal religious identification.  This gives children a starting cultural reference point for meaning in life that they can develop and change as they grow older and more capable of thinking for themselves.  For children whose parents are atheist or agnostic, this principle still applies.  While it could be expected that such parents would communicate to their children their particular views about the existence of god and about religion, nevertheless, they would be remiss if they did not help their children see that religion was intended to help people find meaning and value in life, even if they as parents consciously wanted no association with religion.  Some knowledge of the place of religions in culture and of their function in individuals' lives is a valuable part of the education of any citizen, religious or not.  Without any initial religious meanings, children could grow up with a cultural deficit, like being raised in a partial vacuum of meaning (with a tabula rasa of spiritual resources).  In effect, this would leave them to construct their own system of beliefs at an age when they are naturally more dependent on ready-made meanings (Crawford & Rossiter, 2006, p. 230).  No doubt they would already have familiarity with the values in the parental lifestyle, as well as exposure to the plurality of values implicit in the media and the social groups in which they participate.

Catholic school religious education contributes to pupils' cultural exposure to Catholicismit can extend their cultural horizons beyond what they might absorb from their immediate home and community environment.  This should also include knowledge of other religious traditions in the culture.  Young people need some familiarity with their own tradition and knowledge of religions generally, even if at the time they may think this has little relevance for them.

Similarly, young people's identity development needs to be resourced by their religious tradition.  Religious education can contribute to the communication of a basic sense of religious identity to children;  this informs their initial self-understanding and interpretation of society.  Later, when more mature, they would have their own say in determining their sense of identity and the extent to which any religious identification might apply.

While affirming the important place for the study of religious traditions, this strategy is not saying that the Catholic school religion curriculum is therefore adequate and should be left unchanged.  The approach to teaching religious traditions needs to be modified – it needs more problem-posing content and a critical, student-centred, research-oriented pedagogy.  More will be said about this in a later section.

2.         Critical interpretation and evaluation of culture

Crawford & Rossiter (2006) showed how the phrase ‘search for meaning' has become more prominent in psychology and education since Viktor Frankl's book Man's search for meaning was published in English in 1964 (De Lors, 1996; Wong & Fry, 1998).  There was said to be a contemporary ‘crisis' in meaning, and education was considered to have some role in helping young people in their quest for meaning and purpose in life.  But whatever this crisis might entail, it should not be interpreted as a lack of cultural meanings.  As never before, there is a multiplicity of cultural meanings – all looking for adherents.  And this in itself creates a problem for the individual's search for meaning.  How to judge the appropriateness of cultural meanings and what criteria might be used therefore become important in education generally and in religious education in particular.

It is not enough for religious education to be concerned relatively exclusively with the handing on of Catholic cultural meanings.  Because for many young people religion is no longer a major source of meaning, there is a need for their Catholic school religious education to look more critically at wide ranging cultural meanings.  For example: conflicting meanings from different groups can be a root cause of prejudice and racism; frameworks of meaning can be sources of liberation or of domination; and the dissemination of meanings can insinuate the causes of particular economic and political interests.  Learning how meanings are assigned and how they may need to be ‘uncovered' and appraised is a part of becoming wise.  What young people need is not so much new cultural meanings but the capacity to evaluate them carefully, and this skill, practiced in religious education, can become a part of their lifelong learning.  It can not only help them in any dialogue with traditional religious meanings, but also with seeing where they stand with respect to various ideologies, political views and messages coming from different quarters, especially the commercial and entertainment worlds.  Understanding cultural dynamics is a prerequisite for making judgments and considering possible social action.

Critical evaluation of culture has long been a concern of Catholic religious education.  It was stressed in the encyclical Evangelii nuntiandi (Evangelisation in the modern world) by Pope Paul VI in 1976, and was regarded as important for youth ministry, adult education, missiology and theological education.  But it has not been as prominent as it should be in the content of Catholic school religion curricula. More recently, Pope Francis in his publication Evangelii gaudium ( the Joy of evangelisation) has also stressed the need for looking critically at the way culture affects people's thinking, values and behaviour.

We are living in an information-driven society which bombards us indiscriminately with data – all treated as being of equal importance – and which leads to remarkable superficiality in the area of moral discernment. In response, we need to provide an education which teaches critical thinking and encourages the development of mature moral values. (#64)
Today's economic mechanisms promote inordinate consumption, yet it is evident that unbridled consumerism combined with inequality proves doubly damaging to the social fabric. (#60) We should recognize how in a culture where each person wants to be bearer of his or her own subjective truth, it becomes difficult for citizens to devise a common plan which transcends individual gain and personal ambitions. (#61). In the prevailing culture, priority is given to the outward, the immediate, the visible, the quick, the superficial and the provisional . What is real gives way to appearances. In many countries globalization has meant a hastened deterioration of their own cultural roots and the invasion of ways of thinking and acting proper to other cultures which are economically advanced but ethically debilitated. New patterns of behaviour are emerging as a result of over-exposure to the mass media. As a result, the negative aspects of the media and entertainment industries are threatening traditional values (#62) Pope Francis (2013)


Pope Francis and the critical evaluative dimension to evangelisation

Click the photograph or here to have a quick look at a selection of comments taken from the Pope's discussion in the Joy of the Gospel. An exercise was undertaken to see what paragraphs in the document were concerned with some aspect or other of the critical interpretation and evaluation of culture. Have a quick look and see what you think. These are paragraphs believed to be written from this critical evaluative perspective -- which has been the perspective that colours all of the work in this section.

Much has been written about education itself as a process of critical interpretation of culture.  Critical theory and hermeneutics, including philosophical and sociological perspectives, have stressed the need for interpreting what is going on in culture;  and in turn, this is proposed as a task to which public education can contribute (Crawford & Rossiter, 2006, p. 264).  Hill (1990) described this role as the “interrogation of one's cultural conditioning”.  Young people are naturally very critical, but are often naive as regards the political, manipulative and exploitative aspects of culture;  or if they are aware of exploitation, many may not worry too much as long as it does not affect their lifestyle.

Critical interpretation and evaluation of culture addresses the following:-

·         exploration of the shaping influence of culture on people's thinking and behaviour;  appraisal of healthy and unhealthy effects;
·         investigation of a range of contemporary social issues;
·         identification of the influences on decisions and events;  uncovering the historical, ideological and political forces at work, identifying who stands to gain or lose;
·         deconstructing the components of writings so that they can be understood within their original contexts;  this will inform potential meanings in different contexts;
·         searching for the underlying economic and commercial interests that affect a situation;
·         highlighting justice and environmental issues;
·         calling ideologies to account.

This critical approach has also been referred to as an ‘issues-oriented' religious education (Crawford & Rossiter, 2006; Nipkow, 1991).  Crawford & Rossiter (2006, p.394) advocated this approach with examples of topics for the secondary religion curriculum.  They considered that it needed to enter into classroom practice across all year levels, while content and method need to be adapted to suit the maturity of pupils;  a balance with other content was essential.  They judged that this approach would enhance the perceived personal relevance of religious education.  Generally, many Catholic youth and adults felt that the Catholic Church – and consequently its theology and religious education – had little relevance to life.  They will quietly ignore Catholicism – and its religious education – unless they sense that something serious is being said about issues in personal, social, and political life.  If there is not sufficient engagement with the real spiritual and moral issues of the day, they will get used to the expectation that their religion remains only marginally relevant to their lives.  While religious education cannot be expected to resolve the problem – it cannot make the Catholic Church itself more relevant – it can endeavour to make the study of religion a more life-enhancing experience for pupils.  And this requires an approach – in content, language and pedagogy – that realistically addresses young people's spirituality.  This means identifying the ways they construct meaning, and helping them to critically appraise the principal cultural sources of that meaning;  it sets out to alert them to the spiritual and moral aspects of life which can often be obscured beneath the all-engrossing contemporary concerns for personal wellbeing and happiness in a consumer oriented society.  And it is within this context that the religious wisdom of Christianity can be effectively drawn into the educational process.

Making judgments about situations in the light of values, and the consideration of potential action to address social problems, are part of the process.  In Catholic terminology, this is what is meant by the phrase ‘evaluation from a gospel perspective'.  Religion teachers should help pupils learn these evaluative skills, while at the same time modelling the process.

This approach has also been described in Catholic religious education as ‘raising critical consciousness' or ‘conscientisation' (Rossiter, 1981) – a concept that was prominent in the discussions of catechesis by South American Catholic bishops in the 1960s and 1970s.  Their documents had a wide influence within ministry and religious education (Warren, 1983).  It paralleled the impact on education by Paulo Freire's ideas on ‘praxis' (shared reflection and action) and the ‘pedagogy of the oppressed' (Freire, 1971, 1980).  These themes were reflected in Thomas Groome's approach to religious education called Shared Christian Praxis (Groome, 1980, 1991, 1998).  Catholic religious education today retains prominent motifs of liberation and social justice.  But this is not prominent enough in current Australian Catholic diocesan religion curricula.

Interpretation of culture in the classroom involves social analysis. It can help young people become more discerning of what is happening in politics and culture. They are naturally very critical, but may be somewhat naive as regards the political, manipulative and exploitative aspects of culture.

Critical interpretation is a starting point for what the Warren (1992; c/f Williams, 1980) has called ‘cultural agency'.  He proposed that one of the aims for religious education is to encourage and skill young people to go beyond being ‘passive consumers of culture' to become ‘active constructors of culture'.  This acknowledges that cultural meanings are socially constructed and open to evaluation, not something that is a given, and hard to identify and change.

A part of critical interpretation and evaluation of culture needs a religious viewpoint;  this can show how Catholicism, and religions generally, provide important values reference points for questioning the authenticity of media-conditioned imaginations of the world and of human development that have such a strong influence on young people.  This challenge for religious educators was evident in the exhortation of Pope John Paul II:

to develop your culture with wisdom and prudence, retaining the freedom to criticise what may be called the ‘cultural industry' remaining all the while deeply concerned with truth … faith will ask culture what values it promotes, what destiny it offers to life, what place it makes for the poor and the disinherited with whom the Son of Man is identified, how it conceives of sharing, forgiveness and love (Pope John Paul II, 1984, p. 324).

What is written here about critical interpretation and evaluation of culture in Catholic religious education is not new.  It has a long history.  It was prominent in the period of rapid change in religious education after the Second Vatican Council, especially in the quest for ‘personalism' and ‘relevance' in class discussions of personal and social issues (Rossiter, 1999; Crawford & Rossiter, 2006, p. 391).  The discussion of issues was also evident in British state school religious education in the mid-1960s as influenced by the writings of Loukes (1961, 1965, 1973; see also Rossiter, 1996).  But what proved problematic in both contexts at the time was the pedagogy.  Uninformed discussion often amounted to little more than sharing ignorant opinions.  And usually this could not sustain student interest for too long.  Also, this approach was perceived by students as a ‘low grade' pedagogy in a subject that had little academic status;  and, as explained by Crawford & Rossiter (2006, pp. 307-309) its potential educational value was subverted by the ‘psychology of the learning environment'(discussed in the next section).  The crucial missing ingredient was a ‘high grade' pedagogy – a serious study of the issues, in the light of up-to-date expert information.  Here discussion was one useful part of the whole study exercise – like an informed debate – and not like a time-filling, non-directed, relatively purposeless activity.

What is involved in the identification and evaluation of social meanings

Religion as a provider of meaning has always done this at three levels: personal, social and transcendent. It gives believers personal psychological meaning and social meaning – how they understand themselves and how they interpret what is going on in their community and society. The third level has to do with the ultimate mysteries of life: God, death and the afterlife.

Formerly, religious meanings were mediated through the comprehensive worldview of the religion. People were prepared to accept the interpretations given to them on the basis of religious authority. They accepted ‘the faith' in a relatively unquestioning way. Also, they may not have fully understood the teachings; they may have had misgivings about how appropriate some of them were, but they still tended to accept them obediently. Thus they subscribed to a lot of religious teachings, whether or not they seemed useful or relevant. Today, in secularised Western countries, many people, but not all, do not accord that same level of respect for, and faith in, religious authority and teachings. They are more questioning and more ready to judge for themselves whether they will believe something and be committed to it or not. For these people, there has been a significant change in the role of religion as a source of life meaning. This applies especially to young people.

In the secularised situation, individuals are often not prepared to accept religious teachings unless they themselves sense that the meanings are appropriate and useful at personal and social levels. As far as the transcendent dimension is concerned, they feel that they do not have the capacity to judge the appropriateness of religious beliefs about God or life after death (unless they are too extravagant and implausible), but they remain hopeful; life would be harder without these beliefs. They hold onto beliefs about transcendence, while being more choosey about religious teachings related to their personal and social life – here they are more likely to be critical and selective. While previously they may have accepted the whole religious belief package on authority, now they tend to select according to subjective views and felt needs. In their sort of world, with its fast pace to life and its expensive lifestyle, they do not have much time for beliefs for which they see no significant or useful function. If religious teachings do not seem relevant, if they have little perceived connection with life, or if they cut across people's own personal views and lifestyle, they may be ignored; people feel that they can get by well enough without them – when you are already busy and stressed with life, why burden yourself with beliefs that do not help? Or, it may be that the beliefs do have relevance, but they are expressed in language and concepts that have no substantial meanings for particular people. If they have no meaningful access to those beliefs, they will be less likely to look to them for life guidance. Or, if they have little respect for their religion, or if they are disaffected or alienated, they will hardly look to religious teachings for life interpretations and inspiration.

If religious traditions are going to be beneficial to these people, they will need to give special attention to communication at these personal and social levels.

These principles have much significance for religious education in the church-related school. It should pay attention to personal and social meanings at two levels:

First, access to church theology and teachings will be more helpful to youth if they use a relevant language of psychological and social meanings; study of explicitly religious material needs to make use of ideas that mesh with their understandings and experience. Second, a study of meanings is important for young people in its own right, and not just as a vehicle for trying to make theology more interesting.

Religious education should investigate social meanings, their generation, history and psychological functions. As well as making the subject more relevant, this approach has wider significance in helping make young people's whole education more meaningful. Students can take their exploration to another level – not necessarily then and there in the classroom – enhancing their own interpretation of life. However, their aspiration to become critical interpreters of culture is not likely to be fostered by teachers who are unsure about the importance of this dimension to education. Educators do not need to have perfect answers for all the students' questions, but they too should evidently be engaged in that same searching and questioning activity as the students.  In practice, many teachers model these characteristics, helping students learn how to enquire for themselves and how to think critically. What we are suggesting is that this role be more clearly articulated as a fundamental dimension to education with specific content and pedagogy, and not just left as a desirable but vague part of the process.

For their part, teachers need to hone their hermeneutic and evaluative skills, and to acquire a better understanding of the topography of culture that affects young people's meaning and identity. Greater familiarity with the pertinent issues, language and concepts will filter through into their interactions with students both inside and outside the classroom.

Specific attention will now be given to pedagogy.

Implications for pedagogy and content in the critical interpretation and evaluation of cultural meanings

If religious education is to be a credible subject in the curriculum, then it needs to engage students with nothing less than the same sort of intellectual challenges that they accept as normal in other key learning areas.  In other words, it needs to be academically challenging from Year 1 to Year 12, acknowledging that what ‘academic' means at different levels needs to be determined.  In primary and junior secondary classes, academic can well include experiential, ‘hands on' learning methods (like scripted dramas, role plays, cartoon summaries, student audio-visual productions, group work, etc.).

For students who may readily tend to perceive religion lessons as extended sermons, in a pejorative sense, there is an even greater need than in other subjects to demonstrate that the study of religion is open and inquiring – concerned with exploring the content and issues – and not with the ‘getting of Catholicism':  hence the need for a content-rich, student-centred, research-oriented pedagogy.  Such a pedagogy can be applied to both the content areas:- Catholic traditions and critical interpretation/evaluation of culture.

A critical pedagogy is understandably appropriate for the interpretation and evaluation of cultural meanings.  Personal and social issues can become topics for investigation.  It is easier for the students to explore social issues which are more ‘out there';  hopefully, this can prompt them to reflect on personal implications.

Both individual and group research methods can be used.  Here the students have the power as investigators.  This approach is clearly different from a didactic one where the teacher usually provided the information.  This sort of critical, inquiring pedagogy is consistent with what students are experiencing elsewhere in the curriculum;  and this is a good thing for religious education.

Careful attention needs to be given to the selection of issues to be investigated, and how these might be spread across the school religion curriculum.  Firstly, it is appropriate to give more attention to the study of social issues at secondary level, especially in senior classes;  however, a simpler critical approach is also needed at primary level.  Students need to learn the skill of scrutinising cultural meanings through example investigations.  If too many issues were studied, this would result in an unbalanced curriculum;  it might also depress the students by giving too much attention to problems.

In the next section, after looking into questions about the links between education and personal change, attention will be given to the way that critical interpretation of cultural meanings can be applied in both religious education and across the whole school curriculum.

Problem posing content topics can also be used in the study of religious traditions, especially at secondary level.  A practical example is given in Crawford & Rossiter (1985, pp. 80-81).  Different approaches to teaching the topic ‘the Rosary' were described – some considered appropriate and others inappropriate.  The recommended approach engaged junior secondary students in a research oriented class project entitled “Investigating the place of the Rosary in Catholic spirituality”.  The sub-questions were:– What is the Catholic rosary?  When was it invented?  How did it develop over the centuries?  How was it used in prayer, both historically and in modern times?  Why is the rosary apparently dying out?  If it dies out, will something valuable be lost – a place for meditative, repetitive prayers?  After examining material on the origins, history and development of the rosary, the students conducted a limited survey of Catholics they knew, particularly from the older generation, to see how the rosary was prayed and to find out how it contributed to spirituality.  Further comparative information about Buddhist and Muslim rosaries was accessed before the class discussed its conclusions.  In addition, there was an experiential component to the study where the students prayed the rosary together;  and there was an optional rosary prayer session in the chapel in free time.  This example showed that an open, inquiring approach often ended up with more content than could be handled in the time available;  and while being informative, it did not come across as an exhortation to improve the rosary saying performance of pupils.

Potential diplomatic problems that teachers face when promoting a critical, inquiring, student-centred pedagogy: The topic on the rosary was not controversial;  but if this approach was extended to include topics like women priests, new Christian interpretation of sexuality and contemporary interpretations of doctrines like original sin, atonement, salvation, the virgin birth, the immaculate conception etc., then it would be likely to prove unacceptable to a number of clergy and bishops.  Here the approach would run into difficulty.  Hence it is important to determine an appropriate level and extent of critical topics that could be a valuable part of the Catholic school religion curriculum.  A systematic and critical study of theology is an adult task.  And Catholic schools are not seminaries or theological colleges;  their role is to introduce young people to theology and not to train them as theologians Hence, the extent of controversial theological topics needs to be limited;  but a healthy, inquiring, critical approach can still be used appropriately throughout the religion curriculum.

Another related difficulty for religion teachers to negotiate is where the students themselves raise theological questions – their readiness to do this can be disconcerting for teachers who are unprepared.  Here, teachers need to show an awareness of contentious theological issues, so that they are able to articulate briefly the various viewpoints, and direct students to some pertinent resources, even if it is beyond their scope to conduct an informative study of such topics.  No matter what view religious authorities might take on trying to limit the scope of a critical approach in religious education, nothing will stop the students from questioning;  not to acknowledge their questions or trying to fob them off, would be counterproductive.  Often they ask genuinely challenging questions about the logic and the meaning of religious teachings that need to be addressed.  The issues raised in this paragraph require considerable further attention by Catholic religious educators.

While religion teachers have made good use of a critical inquiring pedagogy in religious education, particularly at secondary level, whether Catholic school and ecclesiastical authorities are ready to endorse its wider use in normative documents remains a crucial question.  At times, religious authorities are afraid to do this because they feel it will encourage too much questioning by students, which might turn them away from the faith.  On the contrary, it is considered that trying to eliminate questioning would be more off putting for young people who find their cultural experience and education naturally saturated with questioning.

A critical pedagogy that explores the evolution and change in theological doctrines can help students understand religious meanings in their original cultural context and how they have been reinterpreted in later times.  This can engage them in some initial ‘theologising'.  Not to do this can leave them with simplistic and usually literal interpretations of Catholic doctrines that they acquired when they were very young;  and these teachings become eminently disposable in the students' eyes – or they become reasons for dismissing religion because they feel they have been deceived.  Trying to develop some understanding of the meaning and function of doctrines within the Catholic theological system is an important aim for religious education.

The approach described above is not new to Catholic school religious education and can be observed in the practice of particular religion teachers.  The point being made here is that this critical interpreting role should be much more prominent in Catholic religious education than it is;  and it should be focused on trying to enhance the human spirituality of pupils.  A critical approach can be implied in social justice topics.  But the main curriculum emphasis still remains on conserving the religious tradition – as if all will be well as long as ‘good' theology and scripture are taught.  An approach exclusively along these lines tends to leave the majority of students with a sense that most of the religion curriculum is irrelevant for them.

Catholic diocesan religion curricula are basically conservative in the good sense of ‘conserving' the tradition;  hence the content topics cover all traditional theological content.  But given contemporary youth spirituality, such curricula are just too ‘tame' to attract much interest from young people.  State based religion studies courses in Australia are also too tame, but for different reasons (Rossiter, 1999).  It may well be that diocesan authorities will not make any moves to encourage a critical approach in content and pedagogy.  If this is the case, then the only way that the recommended re-orientation might occur would be when teachers at the school level make adjustments in the way they implement religious education.

Some conclusions

While a prominent place for the handing on of the religious tradition is not in question, the component that needs strengthening both in normative Catholic religious education documents and in classroom practice is the critical interpretation and evaluation of cultural meaningshelping young people become more discerning of the shaping influence that cultural meanings have on thinking and behaviour.  This can help them probe the spiritual and moral dimension to life in times when it can easily be obscured in a society preoccupied with lifestyle and individual well-being, where the dominant, and relatively unquestioned mood is that this can be achieved happily through excessive consumerism.

In this way, Catholic schools can offer their students unconditionally a religious education that enhances their spirituality.  It can help them develop skills that will assist in charting their way meaningfully through the maze of cultural meanings in society.  In addition, this approach may be the best way of presenting the option of a more formal and ongoing engagement with the Church.

This critical approach is consistent with developments in the general curriculum where increasingly there are opportunities for pupils to study values related issues.

A gospel - Jesus pedagogy: A critical evaluative approach is not new to Catholic religious education;  it has had a long history in evangelisation and Catholic social teaching – but this was applied mainly in adult education.  It now needs more prominence in school religious education.  A more human focus is not necessarily replacing or neglecting the religious dimension.  It actually has a strong New Testament basis.  The Gospel accounts show that the historical Jesus was especially concerned with the lives and social situation of the ‘little people' – the marginalised and the poor.  Central to Jesus' praxis was addressing the social and religious problems that people faced.  If anything, he is pictured as more concerned about people's basic welfare and human spirituality than with formal religiosity.  It would seem incongruous to think of Jesus concentrating a lot of attention on how to improve on the poor synagogue attendance of the Jewish youth of his time!  His overriding concern for people's human spirituality was reflected in John's gospel as follows “I have come that they may have life, and life to the full” (John, 10:10).

It is helpful to see that this view of religious education with appropriate attention to a critical pedagogy is consistent with the constitution of Australian catholic schools.  In this country, Catholic schools are not like seminaries that are totally owned and controlled by the Catholic Church (even though some have expectations of the schools as if they were exclusively ecclesiastical institutions).  Because they are supported mainly by Government funding, they are semi-state schools, constituted as a state-private joint venture in education – comparable with state involvement in the funding of church-sponsored hospitals, social service and aged care facilities.  Australian Catholic schools reflect a partnership between the Catholic Church, Government and parents.  They therefore have a civic responsibility and accountability to the wider community to educate young citizens.  This constitution makes it appropriate that Catholic schools be ‘open-to-all' and not just for Catholics.  The proposed approach to religious education is congruent with an open-to-all mission.  It is basically an open, inquiring study of the spiritual and moral dimension to life, with an understandable emphasis on Catholicism appropriate for a school sponsored by the Catholic Church.  This view challenges those who consider that Catholic schools should only enrol students from regular mass-going families.  While evidently the schools were designed to cater for Catholics, this now includes children who are nominally Catholic as well as some who are not Catholic.  It is envisaged that some modification could readily be made in content to take into account the presence of children who are not Catholic.

Concluding video segments: Some other forms of the critical interpretation and evaluation of cultural meanings

Children engaged in critical evaluation of culture
An example of the way a seven-year-old child was involved in the critical interpretation and evaluation of cultural meanings. video taken from the 730 report on the critical evaluation program for children sponsored by Dick Smith.

Video clip on the Truth and Ad competition conducted by Dick Smith that showed an example of a seven-year-old boy who created anti-smoking advertisements from the then current smoking advertisements – an example of what young children can do in the way of looking critically at issues. This program appeared on television in the early 1990s.


Example of the work of a Year 10 student on the topic "Photoshopping images and its effect on personal identity"
Click here to download or view the student work -- done in technology class.

The use of humour and satire in the critical evaluation of culture

The following are some examples of the way in which humour and satire have been used to call into question particular thinking and values within the culture. The first example is concerned with the gun lobby in the United States. The second example highlights what might be considered one of the excesses of contemporary consumerism in the United States. The third is simply a news report of the response of some teachers in the United States to the Newtown massacre of children. the fourth is a satirical look at the personhood debate in one of the states in the USA.

Note the link of cartoons with critical political and religious commentary that goes back to the time of the Reformation and the first printing presses. At the time there were 'cartoon battles' between Protestants and Catholics. This also relates more recently to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. The question arises about freedom of the press and problems with blasphemy that would be regarded as hurting some people because of their religious belief -- a delicate issue to decide upon. Western democratic countries tend to stress the importance of overall freedom of press in a democracy rather than problems with blasphemy, even if some of the press can be very critical and satirical. It is interesting to note that Pope Frances issued a statement in sympathy with those who were killed because of their satirical comments, even though the church and the Pope have often been targets of satire in journals like Charlie Hebdo and its Italian equivalent Il Vernacoliere, published in Livorno.

The Cartoonists role in the critical interpretation of culture
This also raises the question of the role of cartoonists and political commentators within democracies. Often the cartoonist can with an image make a significant statement about contemporary social situation.

The question can be raised how do we educate our young people to understand the different ways in which values and practices and even thinking in the culture might be interpreted and evaluated critically. Taking into account the role of humour, satire and cartoonists could make some contribution.

Calling into question the pro- gun lobby in the United States
The particular style of humour that Stephen Colbert often uses to call issues into question is to appear to espouse the target issue to such an extreme that he presents it as ridiculous - thus calling it into question.

Colbert report on gun control in the USA

Calling into question the extremes of consumerism: The high-tech 21st-century Coffin, called the Catacombo

Colbert Report on Catacombo -- an in-coffin entertainment system for the after life.

To one person an objective news report -- while to another a self-critical satire of the issue It depends on your perspective and your values.

The gun lobby in the US. Teachers in Texas are training with guns so they can be licenced to carry firearms in their classrooms -- to protect themselves and their students.

Another example and combines objective reporting with satirical perspective for critique of peoples beliefs and values

A report on the personhood Bill that was put forward in the state of Oklahoma. It has to do with the definition of when life is going to begin – with implications for the morality and legality of the abortion.

An example of how the cartoonist can draw critical attention to issues in contemporary culture

Leunig looks into young people's concerns about the future in contemporary culture from the perspective of some young people.

A Leunig cartoon that can be interpreted as an icon for the role of education in helping young people learn how to interpret and evaluate culture.

This cartoon of the Understandascope was published by Leunig many years back – in 1987. It shows an interesting take on the growing complexity of contemporary life. It can also be used as an icon for the valuable role of the skilling young people in the critical interpretation and evaluation of cultural meanings. The role of the educator is to help develop young people's understandacopes. This also relates to the view of Postman and Weingartner who in 1969 in their book Teaching as a subversive activity, said that all children are born with an inbuilt 'crap detector'; and one of the key roles of educators was to refine this instrument for their pupils.

Here are two studies in media related areas that illustrate a critical evaluative approach. Educators could modify how they might engage students in research on these topics.

A critical study of how consumerist lifestyle, orchestrated by media imagery, functions like a religion. The comparisons between traditional medieval religion and contemporary 'consumerist religion' provide an interesting way for evaluating contemporary consumerism. The study is in two parts.


This is the first of a two part study of how film/TV/Advertising/Social Media can have a shaping influence on people's thinking, values and behaviour. This section focuses on the difference between the structures, purposes, techniques and influences of propaganda and documentary films. Both set out to influence people but there are subtle differences. Also linked in to the study are examples of documentaries on contemporary and historical social issues.


Click here for the List of References related to work in this section

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