There has been a raging debate locally about the religious instruction classes in New Zealand public schools. I commented before that the Churches Education Commission, who run this programme, are hiding behind the provision of values teaching in the school curriculum (see Human values are secular).
This is somewhat opportunist because it promotes the idea that religion is required to teach morality (“you can’t be good without God”) and that their activity accords with the secular curriculum. It also ignores the fact that values is already taught in the normal classes.
The video below gives some idea of how values can be taught as part of a secular curriculum – its worth comparing this with the bible story mythology used by the Churches Education Commission (I provided some examples of their curriculum in Human values are secular).
Primary Ethics – What Happens in an Ethics Class
The classes shown in the video were developed by the St James Ethics Centre in Australia. They were trialed as an alternative to the Scripture Instruction classes in a number of public schools in New South Wales. The trial was so successful a larger programme now operates and is provided by Primary Ethics Limited, a public company founded by the St James Ethics Centre. It is effectively operating in a similar manner to the Churches Education Commission here (school “closed” during lessons, voluntary teachers, etc) – except it does not yet have charitable tax exemption in the way that the church’s programme does. (It won’t be able to get it on grounds of advancing religion).
I am not suggesting this set-up as an alternative for New Zealand – partly because I can imagine that when a school is closed to provide separate Christian and secular classes (and logically Hindu, Muslim, etc., classes) the divisions created could cause playground trouble. In fact all children should participate together in a programme exploring human ethics, whatever their religion. Dividing children up according to sectarian interests would only impose moral instruction, which treats children as puppets to be indoctrinated, rather than training them to become morally autonomous.
If the current values component of New Zealand’s curriculum is done well I imagine classes would be similar to that shown in the video.
Below I have extracted some topics from the curriculum offered to children in NSW. Have a look and compare that with the mythology imposed on children by the Churches Education Commission in New Zealand’s religious instruction classes.
Kindergarten (Stage E1)
- Asking good questions
- Time for thinking
- Taking turns – speaking and listening
Thinking together about questions that matter
Finding answers to different kinds of questions. Children will begin to distinguish ethical from other kinds of questions and learn how to disagree respectfully.
Putting it all together: ethical inquiry
Discussion topic: Being left out
Giving and asking for reasons
When should/do we give reasons? Giving reasons to our teachers, parents, friends, brothers or sisters
Needs of animals
What do animals need in order to live good lives?
Distinguishing social conventions from morals
Examples: Pushing in, staring, table manners, please and thank you.
Why do people have friends? How do we know if someone is our friend? What makes a good friend?
Discussing what is fair in a variety of situations familiar to Kindergarten students.
Telling a secret
A discussion around what secrets are and when it’s OK to share them and why.
Why do we have rules?
Do rules apply to everyone? What if there were no rules? Classroom/school-based examples.
Should we tell on people who do the wrong thing?
A discussion of what ‘doing the wrong thing’ means and asking the questions:
- Should we always tell?
- Should we never tell?
- Should we sometimes tell?
- How can we work it out?
Caring for the environment
Is it always OK to swing on the branches of a tree? Or to collect shells from the beach? Or catch tadpoles in the creek/small crabs/ insects…?
How do we decide what’s OK to do?
Year 6 (Stage 3.2)
A fair society?
Students will use The Outsiders story to consider issues of fairness in society.
Should Human Rights be extended to other animals?
Human rights: where do rights come from and how are they justified? What obligations do they impose on governments and individuals? To what extent, if any, should human rights be extended to other living creatures?
Are our futures and fates fixed? Does what we do today have any effect on what happens in the future?
Beliefs, Opinions, Tolerance and Respect
What does it mean to respect another person’s beliefs or opinions? Should we always respect the beliefs of others? To what extent should we be tolerant of moral difference?
To what extent can we be held morally responsible for our actions? What might it mean for society if it turned out that even our conscious decisions were determined in advance?
Drugs in Sport
Performance enhancing drugs are banned in all sports. Students will discuss the concept of unfair advantage and whether the taking of performance enhancing drugs is morally wrong.
Appeal to Authority – Revisited
To what extent do we still appeal unquestioningly to authorities in our everyday lives? What are the consequences of thinking and acting for one’s self? Students will look at examples of groups that have refused to follow blindly.
The value of nature and the environment.
Does nature have intrinsic value? Is the environment worthy of moral consideration just because it exists? Or does it have value only because it meets human needs?
Can war ever be just?
What is wrong with war? Is it ever right to go to war? Students will examine the issue of pacifism and non-violence (e.g., Ghandi) and discuss if there is a moral way to conduct war.
An ethical life
Consideration of our moral responsibility to others. To what extent do we have a responsibility to continue examining and discussing ethical issues once we leave Primary Ethics classes? Should we always stand up for our beliefs?
I think such discussion topics would be a very useful part of values classes – and I am sure the kids would enjoy the discussion.
See also: Primary Ethics Curriculum.