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This article by Thomas J. Cook on selecting curriculum for children will appear in a forthcoming edition of Religious Product News magazine, www.religiousproductnews.com
Curriculum Selection Guidelines
Choosing appropriate curriculum materials for childrenís Sunday School is a significant responsibility which will have long-term impact on the effectiveness of your faculty, the ease of future teacher enlistment, the immediate quality of education the children will receive, and the long-term attitude toward spiritual pursuits on the part of the children. This article will provide some considerations to guide the pastor, Sunday School director, RE committee, or other responsible person in making the best selection for your churchís unique situation.
Visit the publisherís internet site and look for stated editorial policies, doctrinal statements, and other indications of philosophy and approach. Visit local bookstores and look over sample materials, or attend curriculum fairs or training sessions. Once you have narrowed the field down to three or four likely candidates, obtain sample sets of materials and ask your faculty to evaluate and make recommendations. Involving your workers in the selection process is a must, both to make good use of their experience and to secure their ownership of the decision.
Good curriculum should be:
Educationally Sound. What is the educational philosophy underlying the curriculum plan? It should provide a comprehensive, balanced approach to learning, supporting all age groups in life-long learning. New concepts should build on previously-learned material while challenging the pupil to learn new concepts. Materials should be attractive and inviting, and compare favorably with the learning aids the pupil is accustomed to using in the school setting.
Pupils should be active in the learning process with a variety of involvement techniques which will often lead them to discover Bible truth for themselves. The best Bible teaching is about 40% content-oriented and 60% life-application-oriented, so that the lessons are practical and aimed at change not only in knowledge and understanding, but also in attitude and action.
A good test for sound curriculum is the approach to art activities. Coloring pages tend to be more of a time-filler than an educationally sound activity. A much more valuable learning experience for the child is to use her own imagination to produce a drawing of a lessonís main concept, using a blank sheet of paper. Look for the distinction between art (expressive of the personality of the individual child; a unique creation, different from that of other children in significant ways) and craft (activity which results in a product substantially identical among all the children; more attention to following the directions than to creative expression).
Above all, any recommended learning activities should be directly related to the Bible lesson being studied, and certainly not just "make-work" tasks to keep the pupils busy. The best learning takes place in a setting which consistently reinforces the main concept of the lesson from a variety of perspectives and approaches.
Doctrinally Sound. Recent research indicates that a personís spiritual world view is set by the time he or she is thirteen years old. Curriculum that supports good Biblical doctrine is of critical importance in helping to form this world view. Also, most individuals will make a decision to follow Christ between the ages of nine and thirteen, so the presentation of the plan of salvation in an age-appropriate manner is especially important. Make sure the treatment of such doctrinal concepts as baptism, communion, the crucifixion and resurrection are consistent with your churchís doctrinal views. It is not advisable to take a "generic" view of these subjects in the curriculum, unless your teachers are adequately prepared to supplement the lessons with more specific information.
Another consideration is the curriculumís support of your churchís liturgical calendar or denominational emphases. Look particularly at support for the celebration of Lent, Easter, Christmas, and special days such as Sanctity of Life Sunday or Race Relations Sunday.
Developmentally Appropriate. Curriculum for a specific age group should consider the reading skills and other developmental attributes of the learners. Lessons for younger children should avoid symbolism and abstract concepts because they are still concrete thinkers; their minds are not yet capable of abstract thought. For instance, we should not be teaching preschool or first grade children about the fruit of the Spirit; there are subjects much more appropriate for their developmental stage.
Spiritual development should also be considered in lesson topics. It can be dangerous to pressure younger children (up to about second grade) to make spiritual decisions, because they can easily be led to a superficial decision to please the significant adults in their lives. Good curriculum will guide teachers to be sensitive and discerning to the spiritual state of the individual child, while providing support for making a decision in Godís timing.
Considerate of Learner Diversity. Curriculum should support a variety of approaches to learning through activities that actively involve the pupil, such as drama, story-telling, art, music, maps and pictures, games, etc. The pupils in any class bring a diverse set of backgrounds, abilities, learning styles, personalities, and personal preferences, all of which affect how that individual pupil will learn best. In addition, studies have shown that exposure to a variety of learning approaches results in significantly better appropriation and retention of concepts and attitudes.
Consider also curriculum support for children with special needs. Typically material for younger children can be adapted for those with learning disabilities. Availability of supplemental materials for hearing- or visually-impaired children is another consideration. Look for curriculum guidance and suggestions in this area.
Teacher-Friendly. This is an important consideration, but remember that meeting the needs of the pupils should always be a higher priority than meeting the expectations of the teachers. Bible teachers should be challenged to a reasonable amount of preparation, not just be handed a "cook book" lesson plan. Knowing their pupils, they should be able to select from a variety of suggestions those approaches that will best meet the needs of their individual learners. Magnify the role of the teacher in supporting transformation in the lives of the learners, and view the curriculum as support for this role.
Look for availability of resource packs with a variety of quality resources to support the Sunday session, such as posters, games, maps, audio clips and music, handouts, skits, etc. Graphics and text should be attractive and colorful, with design appealing to the appropriate age group. Materials which can be stored for later use (such as teaching pictures) should be of durable construction.
Consider ease of use of the teacherís material. Get your facultyís input on its usability. Be careful, here, though, as a new approach to lesson planning may require some training and familiarity before it is fully appreciated. If possible, have a few of your best, most experienced, and most dedicated teachers try to prepare a lesson using the material in order to give a thorough evaluation.
Starting use of a new curriculum is a good opportunity to establish a regular meeting of your faculty. Support positive acceptance of the new material by enlisting respected teachers to share their successes in its use. Elicit anecdotes about positive events in the Sunday morning sessions, from both teachers and pupils. Support one another in learning to use the materials to the best advantage. Provide short training "spots" on how to use specific parts of the teacherís material.
Determine the availability of training for your teachers in best use of the curriculum This may be obtained free of charge from denominational agencies or directly from the publisher. It may require attendance at a regional workshop or could be delivered directly to your church. There may be self-paced training available for your workers. Take the viewpoint that it is your personal responsibility to "equip your members for service" by training them how to use this material to its full potential.
Affordable Cost. Although this is obviously a real concern, it is intentionally left to the bottom of the list. Beware of cutting costs in the area of childrenís curriculum materials. Quality materials could cost a bit more than others, but you are investing in the lives of children who indeed are our most precious resource. Obtain the best you can afford, and consider cutting other areas of the budget before this one is reduced.
Watch out for hidden costs in some curriculum that offers reproduction rights of pupil materials. Although the cost of reproduction may come out of a different budget, nevertheless the costs are real. Costs of paper, toner, and copy machine maintenance should be considered to evaluate the real cost of this approach. Typically, you can obtain quality color pupil materials for less than you can reproduce monotone sheets yourself.
Thomas J. Cook has been involved in Sunday School lay leadership for some 42 years in a variety of churches and positions. He served as Bible Teaching Director of The Jersey Baptist Church in Columbus, Ohio from 1983-1992. He is currently teaching a fourth grade Sunday School department with his wife, Sydney, and serves as a Sunday School consultant for the State Convention of Baptists in Ohio. He has recently retired from employment with Bell Labs as a computer software engineer.
His personal web site, The Sunday School Page, can be accessed athttp://sschool.com. It provides an array of resources to support Sunday School directors, teachers, and other leadership, along with a discussion forum on which various issues of Sunday School administration continue to be discussed. Part of the site is a support web for the fourth grade class, with interactive Bible games, quizzes, stories, and activities of interest to all ages; Kidz Web Home can be accessed at http://sschool.com/kids.