Teaching Spiritual Discourse

One of parents’ greatest fears is that others will indoctrinate their children with ideas that don’t match their family’s values. This is particularly true in settings where spirituality and/or religion are the focus of learning. Parents may remember being told what to believe and desire a different approach for their children’s spiritual development.

One way to honor parental concerns is to use teaching methods designed to get kids thinking and talking rather than simply absorbing information. These methods promote discourse learning by inviting children to identify and claim their own ideas about a subject while interacting with others’ thoughts. They positively affect children’s self-esteem and, with practice, can become their ‘go to’ approach for lifelong learning.

Discourse learning is effective with upper elementary and older children. However, both kids and adult leaders need to prepare themselves for the shift from traditional teacher-led lessons to a focus on thoughtful conversations among peers. Children’s early attempts to discuss ideas will likely include awkward periods of silence. And adults may rush in to fill the gaps or feel anxious about no longer being in charge of what is said.

Education experts suggest that teachers take three steps to help kids successfully engage in discourse:

  • Modeling. Stage a conversation with another adult about a spiritual topic. Observing adult talk provides children with a sense of how discourse happens. They learn appropriate body language to convey that they are listening. They notice speaking tools, such as paraphrasing others’ ideas before adding your own and using ‘I’ rather than ‘you’ language. Include some things, like raising your voice, ignoring another’s contributions, or looking past instead of at your partner, that you explicitly label as unhelpful in respectful discourse.
  • Waiting. Good discourse includes silent pauses as children process what they are hearing and think about how they want to respond. In the beginning, you or some children may be tempted to jump in and fill these quiet spaces. Instead, tell children that periodic silences are necessary opportunities for looking back over a conversation and thinking about what they have learned from others. Offer a few standard sentence starters (e.g., “Thinking about what [name] said, I wonder…” or “Hearing everyone’s comments, I have a question about…”) that they might use to restart verbal interaction when they are ready.
  • Reflecting. Learning how to talk about important topics with others is a skill. As such, children (and adults) can reflect on how well they are able to engage in conversation with others and identify ways they can improve. Provide time for kids to self-assess in a non-judgmental way. You might invite them to arrange themselves on a continuum in terms of how comfortable they are with conversational silence and then encourage those who are more at ease to offer advice to those who are not. Or encourage them to use a decibel meter app to measure how loud (or soft) they are speaking and set a volume goal.




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