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Author affiliation: Representing the Australian Childrens’ Education Task Force


The Family in Baha'i Society:
A Unique Approach to Curriculum Development

by Stephen Hall

published in The Family: Our Hopes and Challenges
Rosebery: Association for Baha'i Studies Australia, 1995
This paper might advisably be sub-titled ‘Bahá'í Education: A Paradigm Waiting to be Created'. Whilst this discussion will specifically focus on an approach taken to developing family life within the Bahá'í community it needs to be preempted by a broader look at the context within which this development is occurring. The conceptualisation of the current status of education within the Bahá'í Faith as a paradigm in the process of being created, rather than one that is clearly defined or at any sort of end point, is essential to an understanding of the needs and challenges that have to be addressed by Bahá'í educators, that is, parents, teachers and others responsible for the education of children - all of us! It is a context at the very heart of which lies the development of the family in Bahá'í society and therefore fits as a hand to a glove, or perhaps even more poignantly, as a pearl to an oyster, into the theme of this conference. Could it even be that what current Bahá'í educators are embarking on is a quest in alchemy - transforming the base elements of our present understandings into fields of gold of the future?

What then is implied by the use of the term ‘paradigm' which is being increasingly applied in educational contexts? The Universal House of Justice has referred to this term which Dr. David Ruhe, a member of that body, used as his focus in the keynote address to the ‘International Bahá'í Schools Networking Conference' sponsored by the Office of Social and Economic Development in December, 1992. One description of a paradigm is a pattern which determines the parameters to our understandings, beliefs, thoughts and subsequent actions. This pattern is conditioned by our own life experiences and is an extremely powerful, even if covert, influence upon how we react or function in any given area or field of life. Particular paradigms may be determined on very broad levels, for example, within and across whole cultures (take the general ‘Australian' interest in sport for instance) and yet also at very individual levels as evidenced by the way in which various members of the one family unit may perceive things entirely differently.

In a negative sense a paradigm can act to restrict or confine our thinking and actions as exampled in the late 1960's in the watch making industry in Switzerland until then renowned as a world leader in this field. The rejection of all leading watch companies in that country of the quartz powered watch due to a paradigm built upon and restricted to cog and wheel mechanisms resulted in a very short space of time in the Swiss being usurped by Japanese and the United States manufacturers whose ‘watch making' paradigms were less established and consequently more open to the potential of new and revolutionary ideas. This is just one observable example of countless instances of the restricting and potentially negative influence of the paradigm effect which is no more graphically illustrated than in the way in which each of the Manifestations of God have been initially rejected, despised and persecuted by the generality of the society They lived in. Just as the inventors of the quartz watch, who ironically were Swiss themselves, were forced to pioneer their new ideas, the Manifestations of God, on an inestimable scale had to contend with rejection attributable to the debilitating and clouding affects of the paradigms that They directly challenged and were responsible for ultimately changing.

Suggesting then that Bahá'ís have the task of creating new paradigms, which break the moulds of current society, based on foundations contained within the Bahá'í Writings, is to also suggest that we must challenge the paradigm of thinking or orientation that each of us brings to any given situation. It would appear that although those of us, who have accepted Bahá'u'lláh as the Manifestation of God for this age, have broken through the parameters which prevent some others from making this acceptance, we still bring with us orientations which restrict and distort our visions and understandings. No more is this true than in the field of education where for most of us a paradigm has been created and founded on experiences of education systems which had their roots in the industrial revolution and were subsequently focused on technology and materialism.

In the process of adding what we see as an essential, spiritual basis to education many of our efforts have still been conditioned by already established views of learning. We have attempted to squeeze spirituality into a system which we accepted as being fundamentally correct, other than for the fact that it lacked... a spiritual dimension. This has resulted in approaches to Bahá'í education which were technical, content based, often prescriptive and whilst not necessarily challenging, made the process of learning an onerous task. Although we might have an understanding of the types of content that need to be included in Bahá'í curriculum, as provided in the teachings and principles contained in the Writings, we are only at the beginning stages of determining the processes by which this content should be employed.

These comments should not be taken as a criticism of prior efforts that have occurred in the field of Bahá'í education but rather they should be perceived as necessary trial and error, and although what the Australian Children's' Education Task Force is presenting in the current Bahá'í Education Curriculum Guide for Parents and Teachers is a highly significant contribution, it will most certainly, with the benefit of future experience, be viewed for what it is, but a small step forward in a process that spirals ever upward and outward towards the ultimate goal of establishing a global Bahá'í Education system within which as ‘Abdu'l-Bahá has stipulated, Bahá'í students will learn in a month what other children learn in a year. (Cited in Summary of International Bahá'í Schools Networking Conference, 1992)

We can begin to glean a vision of this golden future in the words of the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, Shoghi Effendi, who talked of how the ‘enormous energy (currently) dissipated and wasted on war' will be reversed and ‘consecrated to such ends as will extend the range of human inventions and technical development, to the increase of the productivity of mankind, to the extermination of disease, to the extension of scientific research, to the raising of the standard of physical health, to the sharpening and refinement of the human brain, to the exploitation of the unused and unsuspected resources of the planet, to the prolongation of human life, and to the furtherance of any other agency that can stimulate the intellectual, the moral, and spiritual life of the entire human race." (The Compilation of Compilations, Volume II, Bahá'í Publications Australia, p.185)

We should take some comfort in the fact that, as described by Dr. Dwight Allen in his address to the International Bahá'í Schools Networking Conference (1994), the "basic plan of God is that we are trial and error beings" and that we are at the beginning of a trial and error process that will be "continued for the length of the Bahá'í Dispensation". We are likely to make the most productive next steps forward if we learn from our mistakes and we can do this best by approaching curriculum development as a cyclical process of planning, action and reflection. At this point it is relevant to present a brief picture of the insights and challenges that Bahá'í educationalists have ascertained through both a study of the Bahá'í Writings and an assessment of recent developments in Bahá'í education. This summary is largely gleaned from reports made at the Bahá'í Networking Conference but are also representative of the fundamental principles underpinning the development of the Bahá'í Education Curriculum Guide for Parents and Teachers in Australia to which this discussion will then turn.

Dwight Allen in his address emphasised that "we are on the wrong track if we think learning has to be difficult. We need to find the key to making learning a joy; if it's not joyful we won't be successful." Dr. Farzan Arbab made the observation, from his experiences in designing a Bahá'í-inspired curriculum, that educational methodology in a Bahá'í context should not be "based upon any of the current theories, but must rather be based upon a process of implementing Bahá'í principles derived from the Writings, which at this time do not present a grand and unifying theory or method." As already alluded to, this blueprint for education will only be revealed over time through a process of action and reflection.

What we have come to grasp at this point however, is that for real learning to take place it must be meaningful and relevant to the learner and this implies a responsibility to equip children with the intellectual, social, emotional, physical and spiritual skills to live purposeful lives. Following this line Dr. Arbab indicates that, given the fundamental Bahá'í principle of service to God through service to mankind, service within the community ‘becomes an axis around which an integrated curriculum can be built.' This implies the need for an holistic approach which places the education of children as an integral and complimentary aspect of the whole community's development. This notion of the attainment of learning through a process of service to others is a very exciting one and certainly challenges the current pervasive paradigm which in many respects places primary importance on service to oneself. The fundamental principle is that the individual grows and develops most effectively through sacrifice of itself, in a sense, to the group (whole) and it is service to the group, with everybody contributing their part, that provides the ideal learning environment.

What then are the qualities and attributes that a curriculum must set out to develop in children which will sustain them not only in this life but also in their spiritual journey into the next world? Dr. Allen presents the view that the only distinction between slavery and service is choice. Our task he challenges is to help students to become willing slaves of God. In turning to the Bahá'í Writings we find guidelines for the development of curriculum which support this view of education. A rudimentary study of the Four Valleys, for instance, reveals steps which can be applied to the learning process. The first Valley is essentially about the need to develop an acceptance and love of oneself. In the second Valley we are charged with the task of gaining true knowledge which can only come from the Manifestations of God. If we move then into the third Valley we must apply this knowledge with love. This process of learning then culminates in the fourth Valley where we are required to be detached from ourselves and then are open to a true understanding of what we have learned. This can be achieved on increasing levels of sacrifice and service.

Dr. Arbab demonstrates that the goal of being able to be of service ‘requires that the curriculum focus on the development of a wide range of capabilities... This provides a simple device for grouping together related skills, abilities, attitudes, qualities, information and concepts which in the units of the curriculum present a pattern of thinking, attitudes and behaviour which follow in a sequence of research - action - learning activities in a path of service to the community.' These principles are potentially applied through the Bahá'í Education Curriculum to which this discussion will now specifically turn, however the key ingredient, as you will see, is the understanding, the commitment and volition of teachers, parents and children.

It would not be possible to do justice to an explanation of the structure and content of this curriculum in the 30 minutes or so of this talk let alone in the time remaining. Perhaps the best way is to convey an overview diagrammatically.


[this document ends here, see original; I don't know if the published version had more content. -J.W. 2011]
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