New Melbourne and Sydney Religious Education texts

New Melbourne and Sydney Religious Education texts

Msgr Peter Elliott

Monsignor Peter J. Elliott EV has been responsible for overseeing the production of a new series of religious education texts, commissioned by Dr George Pell for the Melbourne Archdiocese following his appointment there in 1996. The texts are based on the 'Catechism of the Catholic Church'.

Since Dr Pell was transferred to Sydney in 2001, he has introduced these texts there, with appropriate adaptations. In Melbourne, the texts are getting the full support of Archbishop Hart.

Recently, 'AD2000' editor Michael Gilchrist interviewed Msgr Elliott on the progress so far of the texts.

AD2000: Would you give us a brief overview of how the RE texts were first conceived and a time-line of the stages and processes of producing and introducing them up to the present.

Msgr Elliott: The project began in 1997 when Archbishop, now Cardinal, George Pell decided that the way forward in religious education was to equip all Catholic school students with solid modern text books. He set up a wide consultation just before I returned from Vatican service to direct the project.

Draft curricula, informed by the consultation, followed in 1998. A media beat-up in the Melbourne Age, headed "Back to the Dark Ages?", was followed by the hard work of planning curricula while calming down nervous teachers. We brought experts into the project, then writers from the Catholic Education Office and Australian Catholic University, while consulting teachers and trialing draft material, then we soon found good artists and an excellent printer.

The first texts came into Melbourne schools in 2000, accompanied by teacher in-servicing. By early 2002 we had eleven texts and corresponding teaching manuals, mandated for use in all schools to cover Prep/K to Year 10.

After Cardinal Pell went to Sydney in 2001, Archbishop Denis Hart endorsed and supported the project with a characteristic "hands on" approach. With his strong vision of evangelisation he is very keen to see our work develop further. At present this involves writing a Year 11 and 12 book on Ethics, to be followed by another book dealing with a wider range of issues and themes for the same levels.

What are the distinctive features of these texts as compared to earlier approaches to teaching RE?

First of all they are not locked into any one method or based on the theories of a specific RE guru. The 1997 consultation report provided the title of our whole project, To Know, Worship and Love. Those words summarise the three major methods of catechesis of the mid-20th century: To know - doctrinal cognitive basis; To worship - kerygmatic scripture-liturgy approach; and To love - the experiential or life-situation method. We tried to synthesise what is best in these methods. That synthesis has taken us beyond and above divisive debates on how to teach the Faith, and in Melbourne that was essential.

Secondly, the texts contain much doctrinal content drawn from the Catechism of the Catholic Church and guided by the 1997 General Directory for Catechesis. The primary doctrinal overview is cross-referenced to the Catechism and proposes memory work and "outcomes" as essential at all levels.

Parents are involved in the primary levels through a section in each chapter "at home and at school", because the texts are meant to go home. We have aimed at family ownership of the texts.

We have also honoured the multi-ethnic nature of the Church in Australia, through stories, art, symbolism, etc, ranging across Indigenous and other cultures. Scripture, spirituality, liturgy, the lives of saints, Church history, education in Catholic social teaching and the riches of Catholic art and culture run through these books. Our website is www.kwl.com.au

Among other distinctive features, I would indicate the adapted version of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a Montessorian approach to early learning, centred on Jesus Christ. We use this for the first three levels, P/K, 1 and 2, to give the younger child a scriptural and sacramental foundation for later learning.

How did you go about gaining the willing cooperation of teachers accustomed to a different approach?

Teacher in-servicing has been an essential part of the project, through the Principals and Religious Education Coordinators. For example, the innovative Catechesis of the Good Shepherd required careful in-serving, but then it just "took off" with much enthusiasm.

We have sought to respect experienced teachers, drawing on their "best practice". We also ensured that there was some continuity between the 1995 Melbourne Guidelines and the new To Know, Worship and Love curriculum. But we have led teachers beyond guidelines to concrete resources and now most seem to be happy. The manuals, or Teaching Companions, have helped much in enriching teacher formation and practice.

What is happening in Sydney regarding the texts?

A revised edition of the texts for years 3 to 10 has been published for the Archdiocese of Sydney and the Dioceses of Armidale, Lismore and Wollongong, to be gradually introduced, beginning in 2004. The revised primary books also provide a common text for Melbourne and New South Wales, and any other dioceses that want to come on board.

For NSW the teachers' manuals have been re-written to integrate existing curriculum and methods with student texts. At the secondary levels 7 to 10, student books have been revised in line with the Sydney curriculum, Faithful to God, Faithful to People. This complex task of revision and rewriting has been carried out in close collaboration with experts in the Sydney Catholic Education Office.

Have the texts influenced the catechetical method courses at the Australian Catholic University?

Yes. At the Melbourne campus, student teachers are being prepared to make the most of the resources and curriculum they will use in classrooms. I hope that this sets a precedent for other campuses located in regions where To Know, Worship and Love is being introduced. One advantage has been that the authors of the texts for years 7 to 10, Dr Kathleen Engebretson and Dr Richard Rymarz, both teach and carry out research at the Melbourne campus of ACU.

What have the responses been like in other dioceses? Why have some accepted the texts and others not?

First of all we did not set out to prepare national texts, so no one beyond Melbourne is obliged to accept them. We had a specific mandate from both Archbishops, to prepare resources and reshape curriculum for Melbourne. However, because he is the chief catechist in his diocese any bishop is free to decide whether he wants to introduce To Know, Worship and Love.

But, it would be premature to say that "some have accepted the texts and others have not". We are still in the early stage of the largest religious education project in Australia since the Australian Catechism and My Way to God forty years ago. The project is being observed carefully by diocesan RE leaders. Some ask questions about a "text based" curriculum, but others welcome the synthesis of methods and the content and quality of the books.

The joint Sydney-Melbourne project has taught us that these texts can be adopted by any diocese that already has its own curriculum. What others have achieved can be honoured and enriched because texts provide a "core curriculum". They can serve as key resources to strengthen existing approaches or enliven some new approach. Already I discern consensus across dioceses on what should be included in primary and secondary curricula, probably an effect of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the 1997 General Directory on Catechesis.

What kinds of feedback have you been receiving as to the texts' impact?

Local feedback has been very positive. Children tell me that they enjoy them. Parents and teachers say that they also learn from student texts. Teachers describe the student books as "teacher friendly", much easier to use than guidelines or lists of themes, and they welcome the spiritual, scriptural and theological formation offered in the Teaching Companions. The Year 7 book has even turned out to be a useful resource for adults in an RCIA program. But the Holy Spirit is at work when I hear of a family returning to the sacraments because of the Grade 3 book! So I hope we are also contributing to the New Evangelisation.

Is there any interest overseas?

Yes. The texts are now on sale in the United Kingdom. They are being used in a major Catholic college in Scotland and there is some interest in Ireland. Naturally our books would need to be adapted, and "inculturated", but I am told that "everyone" in the UK and Ireland is familiar with Neighbours so, thanks to the Soapies, Aussie themes are no major barrier in religious education. However, I hope that it will be possible to prepare special editions for use in other countries. To Know, Worship and Love is very much an open-ended project.

(Illustrations below are from the RE texts)

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