Vol. 28 No. 1  Spring 2001

Building a Comfort Zone: Teacher Training and Standards-Based Education about Religion

Susan L. Douglass

In November 2000, after half a decade of following national and state academic standards documents for K-12 schools as they emerged after 1994, the Council on Islamic Education (CIE) and the First Amendment Center (FAC) jointly published the study Teaching About Religion in National and State Social Studies Standards.1 Without taking sides on whether standards-based education is a good or bad idea, the study affords itself of the opportunity offered by this nationwide movement of the 1990s to take a snapshot of what educators and officials have decided that teachers ought to teach and students ought to learn about religion. The importance of the various national standards models is that they represent a collaboration between educators and scholars in the disciplines to decide on essential content in each field and how to structure it. State standards documents are important because unlike state guidelines of the past, most standards documents were mandated by state legislation to require minimum content of the states’ public schools and are often linked to accountability testing. Accordingly, considerable resources and deliberation have gone into the development of state standards documents; they represent current thinking in each state department of education, including input from district education officials, teachers, and the public.

In other words, if scholars and educators have agreed that teaching about religion is part of essential knowledge, and state boards have confirmed that and will hold teachers and students accountable for it, the likelihood of its being taught in classrooms is quite high. That is a definite departure from the past, when teachers’ interest and comfort level was probably the main factor in deciding whether teaching about religion would take place in the classroom. In this article, however, it is argued that teachers’ comfort level remains important to quality teaching on this sensitive topic, and that the key to comfort is knowledge of what and how to teach about the worlds’ faiths. Since those engaged in pre-service and in-service teacher education about religion bear the main responsibility for creating a comfort zone, this article explores what type of knowledge and pedagogical methods are most suitable for the body of information required by social studies standards across the country. In brief, that content involves imparting knowledge about the origins, basic beliefs, and practices of each faith, and the historical context in which they arose, spread and flourished. Importance is also placed on the ideas and traditions of religious thought that grew out of each faith, and the persons and institutions through which it was expressed over time. While some of the state standards cover only one time period early in the history of the faith group, many states do not stop there, but include either general or specific mandates to cover the role of religion and its changing impact on society. Sampling showed that individual state requirements, quoted in the full study, include numerous creative and challenging items, such as study of the way religions have affected economic, environmental and technological decisions at various times, its role in the history of science, and its theological and philosophical ideas. The complexity of this content would seem to require a framework for teacher training that targets a variety of specific areas concerning each faith tradition in world history, and answers similar questions appropriate to religion in US history. Following discussion of the study itself, this article proposes such a framework for use by teachers and teacher training specialists.

[Spring 2001 Issue Contents]