Religion, Social Studies, and the Draft Curriculum

Dr. Margie Patrick
Faculty of Education
The King’s University

The inclusion of various religious traditions in the draft social studies K-6 curriculum has garnered significant commentary for several reasons, including: 1) the absence of Indigenous spiritualities and world views; 2) lack of age-appropriate considerations; and 3) centrality of Christianity. These concerns will be addressed as we examine the larger questions of how the draft conceptualizes religion and belief systems, its proposal for studying religion, and its regard for religious diversity. 

What are Religion and Belief Systems?

The term “religion” is complex. Some elevate belief and value religious institutions whereas others view it as a way of living focused on daily life. Some insist it is private while others claim it is comprehensive, pertaining to all of life, including politics and economics. Some live religion communally, perhaps focusing on rituals and practices, whereas others emphasize the individual interior life. Some reject religion in favour of spirituality while others suggest the shift is not so much a rejection as a redefinition of religion. Some view religion as divisive and harmful while others see its potential for peace. 

To further complicate matters, the term is laden with colonial history. As the Europeans colonized lands, they brought with them Christianity and labelled the systems of thought or practices they encountered as religion. Although the label was not always an easy fit, what was deemed religious received certain benefits while the non-religious could be perceived as deviant or dangerous, subject to scrutiny if not violence. A Canadian example is the residential school system administered by Christian churches. 

Such history teaches us that definitions matter as they ascribe power and privilege to some while withholding it from others. Thus, definitions and representations in public documents bear careful examination. The social studies Fact Sheet highlights the study of “belief systems” as a means to build tolerance and respect. Educating for respect is laudable but the term “belief systems” is problematic. First, not all religions privilege beliefs, as noted above. Second, the draft appears to equate “belief systems” primarily with religions.   

Such a limitation is inconsistent with research, as demonstrated by educator Zaretta Hammond (2015). Using the image of a tree, Hammond describes three levels of culture that she names surface, shallow, and deep. Leaves and fruit represent the observable surface culture of food, holidays, dances, etc. Norms about social interactions comprise the trunk. This shallow culture contains the unspoken rules around communication, eye contact, attitudes towards elders, and appropriate personal space, among other often unspoken norms. At the deep level of culture, the roots, we encounter such central aspects of identity as beliefs, worldviews, concepts of self, notions of fairness (and justice), and more. Hammond contends that the deep cultural values are enacted in shallow culture. Just as roots nourish the trunk, leaves, and fruit as they change over seasons and years, so concepts of kinship, fairness, worldview, etc. shape social interactions and ways of living as individuals and groups interact with their society/ies and environment(s) over time and space. 

If everyone participates in deep culture, or has belief systems to use different terminology, then limiting belief systems to religion in K-6 gives young learners incorrect and harmful messages. If they do not belong to one of the religions studied, are they to conclude that they have no belief systems? And will students come away thinking that religion is primarily about beliefs and the life of the mind to the exclusion of the heart, practices, rituals, and ways of living? 

So How Does the Draft Propose Students Study Religion & Belief Systems?

The key point in this section is that religious and non-religious belief systems exist within historical, political, and cultural contexts. If we turn to the draft curriculum, students in grade 2 are to know that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are monotheistic and originated in the Middle East. They are further to understand that the three share some beliefs and traditions while also having important differences and that “World views are a set of beliefs and experiences that influence the way a people or civilization sees the world. …” Despite the glaring issue of developmental appropriateness (many grade 8 students have difficulty understanding the concept of worldviews), let’s examine what this might look like if the curriculum were to study religion in context. The religion items just quoted are located under the Learning Outcome “Students analyze some major contributions of ancient Western and Eastern civilizations to life and society today” which is rather vague and abstract. The knowledge items read like a list of isolated facts. Instead, students could learn about them within the context of studying Charlemagne, another topic in grade 2. While studying Charlemagne in grade 2 is not age-appropriate, in another grade it would provide an example of how students could learn about the three religions in a manner that provides historical and political contexts, meaning, and relevance. It would also be an opportunity to teach about the internal diversity among and between religious traditions and should include non-religious beliefs systems of the time. 

One further point. Most of the specific knowledge for religion is itemized under the Organizing Idea of history, of which the first section reads, “Understanding the history of our province, nation, and developing cultural literacy allow us to appreciate the varied richness of our shared human inheritance…”. The term “cultural literacy” is significant, suggesting that citizens need to acquire some shared background knowledge to fully participate in society, to understand their society’s architecture, literature, values, legal system, etc. 

Myriad questions arise, such as who determines the necessary or “core” knowledge and whether the resulting facts truly represent the individuals and communities involved. In other words, do members of the communities being represented see themselves in the facts or do the facts present a constricted and static view of the belief system/religion? These questions require dialogue with communities. A further problem is that such information can be presented as a list of facts to be learned with little attention paid to how those facts are operative within a belief system, how belief systems are dynamic and incorporate change, or how current students are to make sense of them. This problem is manifested in the draft curriculum, which lists information with little attention to age-appropriate ways in which students are to make sense of them or find them relevant. This is partially due to the lack of context as discussed above and partially to its limited cultural literacy approach. 

Does the Draft Recognize the Breadth of Religious Diversity?

Ensuring that all students see themselves in the curriculum is vitally important in diverse societies. Although the Fact Sheet and various curriculum items highlight the development of respect in a pluralist society, many Albertans have critiqued the draft’s Euro-Christian approach, an approach out-of-step with current demographics. Every 10 years the Canadian census includes questions on religion, and the last such census information is from 2011. According to Statistics Canada, roughly two-thirds of the population claimed affiliation with Christianity, although StatsCan notes that the census data measures religious affiliation, not the degree to which respondents engage in such religious practices as attending religious activities. Other data indicates adherents are “speaking with their feet” as attendance levels in many denominations have been declining over several decades. Those spared such decline have done so largely through immigration, meaning that Christianity in Canada is becoming more ethnically diverse.  

In 2011, the Muslim community comprised 3.2% of the population, Hindu 1.5%, Sikh 1.4%, Buddhist 1.1 %, and Jewish 1%. Nearly 24% of Canadians identified as having no religious affiliation and 4.5% of Indigenous Peoples reported affiliation with what was then termed “traditional Aboriginal spirituality.” Such diversity is not new. Jews have been in Canada since 1760, Muslims since the mid-nineteenth century, and both Hindus and Sikhs for the past 100 years. 

This diversity over time led institutions to de-centre Christianity. Christianity cannot be ignored in Canadian history and contemporary society, but it can no longer be assumed that most people living in Canada are Christian or ascribe to Christian norms. Yet the draft appears to do just this. The grade 6 knowledge item that “The religious affiliation of most Albertans is Christian…” requires unpacking, even when coupled with “There is growing ethnic diversity in the population.” Such are the dangers of including so many factual details in a curriculum – it presents complex ideas in simplistic terms. Initially the knowledge item was accompanied by an egregious understanding statement suggesting that the unfamiliar religions and practices of newcomers led to less acceptance despite the encouragement of freedom of religious practices. The item has since been modified, but not before many pointed out how unjust the statement was and that these communities can hardly be called newcomers. The modification does not change the Christian-centric focus.

The list of religious traditions to be studied in grade 6 omits the fastest growing belief system in Canada and Alberta – the religious nones, as well as Indigenous spiritualities and perspectives. Their absence reflects the draft’s equation of belief systems with religion. Consequently, some students will not see themselves in the curriculum. This is ironic in a learning outcome asking students to “investigate Alberta’s and Canada’s ethnic and religious diversity.” 

Conclusion

Everyone has belief systems, of which some are religious. Learning about belief systems is one way to develop respect for neighbours, diversity, and difference, but it must be done in an age-appropriate way that locates the belief systems within their larger contexts and in the lives of students. Studying diversity is incredibly important, but its complexity requires more than lists of knowledge items. Instead, respect and understanding are developed over time through careful planning, engagement with students and their communities, and varied pedagogies so that all students see themselves in the curriculum.  

Reference

Hammond, Zaretta. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching & the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin.