Spirituality and the personal search

13th August 2004 at 01:00
All teachers have a responsibility to help pupils glimpse the unexplainable, say Nicola Clements and Ken Coulter

In her comment on the report in May of the religious observance review group, which she chaired, Anne Wilson, director of education in Dundee, stated: "Schools have an important role to play in the spiritual development of young people."

This task is not new and was contained in the 1944 Education Act and subsequently. According to the review group's report, the current emphasis is to ensure that "education is directed to the development of the personality, talents and mental and physical abilities of the child or young person to their fullest potential".

This is the educational paradigm within which spirituality has to be understood. But what is understood by the words "spiritual" and "development"? The Scottish Executive has made a distinction, now enshrined in policy as Healthcare Chaplaincy in Scotland, between "religious" care and "spiritual" care.

Religious care is linked with specific religious actions - such as communion for patients. Spiritual care is to do with helping patients interpret, understand and take meaning out of their circumstances. The task is patient-centred and is the responsibility of all NHS staff. This has implications for nurse education, and parallels with school education.

"Spiritual" currently defies definition. In Glasgow, recent health guidelines state that basic spiritual needs include the need to give and receive love; be understood and be valued as a human being; experience forgiveness, hope and trust; explore beliefs and values; express feelings honestly; find meaning and purpose in life.

We asked three classes in first, third and sixth years and their parents what they thought was "spiritual", using a questionnaire. The response rate was 48 per cent.

A list of 72 words was given and respondents asked to circle those they could identify as "spiritual". The 72 words were divided into seven categories, but not equally. This was compensated for by the methodology.

The seven categories were: transcendence - such as God, holiness, paranormal; decisions and values - such as right and wrong; awe and wonder - such as beauty, nature; holy buildings, people and practices - such as Koran, Bible, church, prayer; personal development - such as self, wholeness, makes you a better person; qualities of life - such as hope, love and forgiveness; the offbeat - such as sex, drugs, rock and roll and football.

The results were: transcendence - pupils 24 per cent, parents 25 per cent; decisions and values - pupils 18 per cent, parents 15 per cent; awe and wonder - pupils 6 per cent, parents 9 per cent; holy buildings, people and practices - pupils 24 per cent, parents 17 per cent; personal development - pupils 12 per cent, parents 11 per cent; qualities of life - pupils 33 per cent, parents 35 per cent; the offbeat - pupils 1 per cent, parents 0 per cent.

Easily noticeable from these findings are four things: the remarkable correlation between the age groups; the major emphasis on hope, love, caring and forgiveness; decisions and values did not come in the top three (perhaps a warning against a current strong theme); and our lay respondents were not far away from the health board.

Among the pupils, religious affiliation was 17 per cent. When asked if the school had a responsibility to teach spiritual subjects, more said yes than no - and this number was greater than for religious affiliation.

Even if there is no clear definition of what the spiritual is, this small study shows there is consensus about the themes. But can the vision be implemented? For some, a traditional education model is appropriate. This is certainly possible in informing students of, for example, the difference between a church and a mosque. A knowledge base can be assessed and learning measured.

However, others would argue that this subject does not lend itself to such a method. Spiritual growth can be best assessed through a journal approach where personal reflections are recorded in life situations and students wrestle with a variety of topics under a teacher's supervision.

This resonates well with the key cornerstone of Scottish RE teaching, which is about personal search, giving the pupils the tools and knowledge to evaluate their own assumptions about life in a way that is pupil-centred and involves dialogue with the teacher. While more difficult to measure, maturation can be evidenced.

The obvious place for such a process is in the RE class, but it is not only there. All teachers have the responsibility to challenge pupils spiritually: by expanding their horizons to see the dynamic processes of the world; by helping them see qualities of life; to glimpse the unexplainable and view the world differently.

There will be no "right" answers, only the answers that are right for the pupil concerned.

Nicola Clements and Ken Coulter are RE teachers at Eastbank Academy in Glasgow.

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