Four Portraits of Belief and Unbelief: The Experiences of Teacher Candidates with Religious Diversity in a Teacher Education Program

By Kauper, Kate | Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue, January-December 2012 | Go to article overview
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Four Portraits of Belief and Unbelief: The Experiences of Teacher Candidates with Religious Diversity in a Teacher Education Program

Kauper, Kate, Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue

"The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding."

--Albert Camus


The National Council for the Social Studies' (NCSS) takes an unequivocal position on the study of religions: "Since the purpose of the social studies is to provide students with a knowledge of the world that has been, the world that is, and the world of the future, studying about religions should be an essential part of the social studies curriculum" (NCSS, 1998). However, a common phenomenon in U.S. schools is the reluctance on the part of teachers to discuss religion in the classroom (Anderson, 2007; Barton & James, 2010; Goodlad, 1996; Hess & Ganzler, 2007). In an attempt to reconcile the necessity to include religion in the social studies curriculum with the reluctance of teachers to do so, this study investigates how four preservice social studies teachers' beliefs about religion and religious diversity frame their understandings of difference in schools and in their future classrooms.

Shortly after the September 11 attacks, proposals intended to bring prayer into classrooms and mandate the Pledge of Allegiance ritual abounded. Correspondingly, teachers' confusion about what is and is not acceptable in regard to teaching about religion as part of their official curriculum became more pronounced (DelFattore, 2004; Hess, Stoddard, & Murto, 2008; Westheimer, 2007). The educational research community has published little on preservice teachers' encounters with religion or curricula on world religions. In particular, there is a dearth in the research on teacher candidate encounters with religious diversity that challenge or support their world views (Burant & Kirby, 2002). For example, one survey of 1054 social studies teachers in Florida found that only 66% were able to identify key distinguishing features between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism (Hussein, 2009).

Further, the act of teaching religion or teaching about religion may not be a distinction that teacher candidates feel prepared to make (Anderson, 2007; Barton & James, 2010). As Douglass (2000) describes,

Regardless of how universal basic instruction on religions has become across the states, teachers still lack the pre-service and in-service training they need to fulfill state mandates and expand instruction beyond the thumbnail sketch, and too many teachers are still very uncomfortable with the topic of religions. (p. 25)

Another compelling matter is whether or not knowledge about religion indicates a proclivity to address religious diversity or to promote intercultural understanding. A significant consideration is whether or not teacher candidates' prior experiences with religious diversity, as well as their own religious beliefs or unbeliefs, present themselves as a latent component of the curriculum. Understanding teacher candidates' support, resistance, or acquiescence to curriculum that explicitly or obliquely addresses diversity might inform teacher educators' approaches to curricula.

Teachers' religious beliefs and beliefs about religion have the potential to emerge in the curriculum whether or not teachers intend for them to do so. In Moroye's (2009) study of ecologically minded teachers, she describes a particular type of curriculum that emerges from teachers' personally held beliefs: the complementary curriculum. She writes: "The complementary curriculum is situated in the kinds of experiences teachers provide for students, as well as in the pedagogical premises and practices that result from the teachers' beliefs" (p. 791). To investigate this type of curriculum further, I explore how teacher candidates' religious belief, and their beliefs about religion emerge in their discussion of how they will approach religion in their own classrooms. The interactions of a selection of teacher candidates in their university courses, as well as their written reflections, allowed me the opportunity to see how their beliefs were manifest in their language and communication with others.

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Four Portraits of Belief and Unbelief: The Experiences of Teacher Candidates with Religious Diversity in a Teacher Education Program


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