(Re)designing the Theology Curriculum to Implement the Bishops' Doctrinal Framework

By Tiernan, Patrick | Momentum, November/December 2010 | Go to article overview
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(Re)designing the Theology Curriculum to Implement the Bishops' Doctrinal Framework


Tiernan, Patrick, Momentum


The Bishops' Doctrinal Framework for people of high school age should serve as an opportunity for genuine dialogue about what is essential in theological instruction for adolescents

The September/October Momentum introduced the new doctrinal framework approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Here is a view from the field concerning implementation.

The challenge of undertaking any curriculum design and review process is daunting. Teachers can feel overwhelmed by the pressure to change current practices, jettison familiar textbooks and embrace the latest trend in educational literature. Theology teachers, in particular, occupy an interesting niche in secondary schools in that they are not limited by state standards or national high-stakes testing. The benefit and drawback of this situation is that teachers may be free to teach their passion without being accountable to any standardized curriculum. The approval of the "Doctrinal Elements of a Curriculum Framework for the Development of Catechetical Materials for Young People of High School Age" (USCCB, 2008) [henceforth Framework] provides an opportunity for schools to evaluate their theology curriculum and ask what should all students know about the Catholic faith.

The introduction of the Framework states, "Since this is a framework and not a tool for direct instruction, the doctrines and topics designated are not necessarily defined or completely developed. " (Framework, p. IJ This provides us with a couple of insights. The first is the distinction between content and pedagogy, with the former referring to course material and the latter as the practice of instruction. This is important to note because many curriculum debates in schools center on what needs to be taught, consequently ignoring how the instruction is to take place or what outcomes should be achieved as the result of teaching a particular lesson.

In regards to pedagogy, this section also mentions that, "Publishers and teachers or catechists are to strive to provide for a catechetical instruction and formation that is imbued with an apologetical approach." (Framework, p. 1) This begs the question of whether there are other approaches that could convey the central doctrines of the church.

For example, a contextual approach takes into account social norms while inviting more ownership on the part of students to create their own learning opportunities, while a standards-based approach would begin with learner outcomes and establish multidimensional skill sets. The point here is that perspective on various curr/cular approaches can enable a more holistic vision of catechesis.

This leads to the second insight, namely that there is a spirit of creativity that comes from the language of the Framework. While much of the content outlined is necessary for any type of adolescent catechesis, properly implementing the Framework into parish or religious education programs still will require an evaluation of what is essential to know; not all topics need equal treatment in the classroom. As with any curriculum, it is not so much the what (content) that requires most of our attention but the how (pedagogy) that impacts young Catholics today.

Curriculum Evaluation

Any curriculum is limited in terms of what it can accomplish in a given year. Schools often struggle with breadth over depth and whether to cover more topics with less detail or fewer lessons with a higher level of quality. We must first be willing to ask ourselves what we mean when we say our students understand Catholic doctrine. This idea of cognitive development is described in further detail by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (2005) who outline what characterizes authentic understanding: self-knowledge, empathy, perspective and interpretation, among others. By looking at the Framework with this in mind, I would recommend four steps for the (re)design of any theology program, recognizing that schools will find themselves at various stages of the development continuum.

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