It’s often the first thing a teacher or group facilitator looks for in a lesson plan: a line near the top that identifies the ‘main point’ or central idea that children should take away from the lesson. Yet new brain research suggests that children’s comprehension of complex ideas is tied more to background knowledge than to their ability to identify a key idea or summarize a lesson. If we want children to gain a deeper understanding of spiritual stories or practices, we need to emphasize contextualization over key points.
Education writer Natalie Wexler says that programs that focus on contextual learning help children connect new ideas to knowledge they already have. They then retain and retrieve material from long-term memory more effectively and can absorb new material better because it isn’t isolated in their mind. Old and new knowledge come together like Velcro.
This means that lesson plans focused on spiritual literacy (e.g. remembering stories. significant historical events, and ethical teachings) need to consider children’s background knowledge and explicitly make connections between new ideas and previous teaching. It also means that teachers should think about the cultural and family knowledge that children bring to the lesson and find ways to connect with those frameworks.
Often, a primary tool for group spiritual learning is a text: a faith story, biography of a spiritual exemplar, or history of a tradition. Daniel Wellingham, a cognitive psychologist, says that the human brain deals with such complex texts in three ways:
- It looks for ideas within individual sentences.
- It creates sequential meaning by stringing together ideas from multiple sentences.
- It forms conclusions about the overarching meaning of the text.
In order to put individual ideas together in a meaningful way (steps 2 and 3), children’s brains look for previous knowledge to which new ideas can be attached. That can lead to connections that seem bizarre to adults but make perfect sense to the child. I once heard a preschooler insist to a playmate that God is a tomato based on her multiple viewings of Veggie Tales videos (featuring the character Bob, a tomato, and numerous references to God in each episode).
Teachers can avoid such misunderstandings by creating knowledge-rich lessons full of relevant information about a spiritual topic.
- Think about objects referenced in a text and provide images of them, as well as parallel items more common to the child’s world that are related to those objects. Dorling Kindersley has illustrated Christian and Jewish bibles (see Related Resources) that contain numerous helpful images for stories from those traditions.
- Link spiritual lessons to curricular themes that children are studying in other places. Most school districts or states have graded Common Core or Standards of Learning (see Virginia example in Related Resources) that you can access online, or talk with local teachers.
- Ask children to share intuitive connections that they see between stories they know and the spiritual story you are reading (or between their experiences and the character’s experiences, historical events and current events, or values expressed in the text and in their families). Inviting multiple perspectives broadens each child’s knowledge base and provides a way to think about which interpretations might be more or less accurate given all the information they have.