Learning Through Reflection and Research

Learning is a never ending process, much like that song entitled The Song that Never Ends…  There’s always more to do, review, try…  As a student in school, I struggled to see this process.  To me, back then, learning was a one and done experience.  I tried it once and whatever the outcome, that was my learning.  I did no more work than what was expected.  I didn’t try to see the value or benefit in learning.  I just wanted to get through school with as few scars as possible.  It wasn’t until I became a teacher that I was able to see the importance in the learning process.  If I tried something and failed, I didn’t give up; I found a new way to solve my problem.  In the process of learning, genuine growth and development are generated.

In my last blog post, I detailed the challenges I faced in trying to teach my students about the major religions of the Middle East Region.  My students were plagued by their prior knowledge and perspectives, some of which were inaccurate.  It was kind of a mess.  Prior to today’s follow-up lesson on religion, I wanted to be and feel better prepared to help my students see why we are talking about religion in the classroom.  So, I did a little reading.

I found an issue of Education Week magazine from a few months ago that contained an article all about how to appropriately and effectively teach religion in context.  The article explained the importance of understanding religion as it pertains to the world and its people.  When teaching about the world, current events, or a historical time period, it’s important to explore the religion or religions practiced.  How did they impact the event, place, or culture?  Rather than teaching religion in a vacuum, students need to explore it in context.  Understanding the whys and hows of history includes knowing about the role of religion.  This makes so much sense.  So rather than having the students research individual religions, we should discuss the role the religions play in the Middle East Region.

Instead of devoting much more class time to having the students research their assigned religion, I wanted to provide the boys with ample opportunity to explore and examine religion as a concept and lense through which we study history and its people and places.  Today in Humanities class, the students had only ten minutes to continue researching their religion.  While this seemed short, I prefaced this activity period with an explanation.  “I know you probably won’t finish researching your religion and that’s okay.  For us today, the focus will be on discussing how religion impacts a culture and place.”  After they completed the research phase, each pair of students presented their religion to the class.  These presentations then lead into a conversation on how world religions are connected.  What shared commonalities did the religions you learned about today have?  How were they connected?  While I didn’t tell the students that we would be discussing this aspect of the religions before they listened to their classmates share about various religions, I was impressed by the list they generated.  They extracted much information from the presentations.  Rather than focus on how the religions of the Middle East Region were different, I wanted the boys to see how they are similar.  Making connections and thinking positively allows students to stay focused on the power of religion and not the sometimes false perspectives they take away from current events or news stories online.

The discussion then shifted away from various religions to the idea of religion as a topic or idea.  I asked the students, “What is the purpose of religion?  Why do people practice religion?  Why did civilizations create religions?”  The students started to understand how religion impacts a place and its people.  They shared thoughts like, “It ties communities together, religion gives people a way to live their lives, and provides people with a belief system.”  I was impressed.  They were understanding the big idea of religion.  As they were so focused on the unifying characteristics of religion, I also wanted them to see how religion can divide people and communities.  Religion can causes wars and death.  It is a powerful idea.  I then explained the value in understanding the religion of a place in order to fully understand its history and culture.  The students seemed to grasp this.

Wow, I thought, how or why did today’s lesson go so much more smoothly than Wednesday’s introduction to religion?  Did they just need time to process everything and two days was enough for that?  Or was it because I changed my approach due to the reflection I wrote on Wednesday and the reading I did to change my perspective?  The students seemed so much more receptive and open to taking in new ideas regarding religion as a concept instead of focusing on individual religions.  Also, I didn’t allow for the students to ask many questions following the group presentations.  I didn’t want them trying to poke holes in other religions or being confused by false information.  I think this probably helped make things go more smoothly as well.

Learning from one’s mistakes and then applying new knowledge to solve similar problems differently is what being a great teacher is all about.  Had I continued teaching the lesson in the same, misinformed manner I used on Wednesday, the students would not have been able to effectively comprehend the ideas discussed.  I realized, after class on Wednesday, that things did not go well in Humanities class.  It was a bit of a train wreck and so I worked at altering my perspective and teaching approach.  Clearly it paid off today in the classroom as we had an amazing discussion regarding the value in understanding the religion of a place being studied to fully appreciate and comprehend its history and culture.


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