In recent years, educational usage of the term ‘worldview’ has been steadily increasing, and this growth is noticeable in scholarly books, articles, and commentaries in a range of curriculum areas including those involving religious and nonreligious values, beliefs, and practices.
The benefit of the term ‘worldview’ lies in its neutrality, as it can be applied to any religion, spirituality, philosophy, or life stance without implying any specific character. The utility of the term appears to be most recognized in countries that have a diversity of cultures within their populations. Since cultural pluralism is a growing phenomenon, it is likely that use of the term will grow as general acceptance of and respect for cultural difference increases worldwide. Australia is known as having one of the most culturally diverse populations on Earth. For this reason, the impartial term ‘worldview’ has increasing relevance and value in many educational areas.
What is a worldview?
The word ‘worldview’ has come into general usage from the German term ‘Weltanschauung’, meaning a comprehensive view or personal philosophy of human life and the universe. This generally means an overall perspective involving a collection of beliefs about life and the universe. In essence, it is how a person, group or community views and interprets the world.
A working definition is that a worldview involves a web of interrelated beliefs, practices, symbols, and principles that connects members of a specific group or community. Within this web personal, social, and cultural values intersect to form a complex network of relationships and understandings which those committed to the worldview have in common. The beliefs people hold constitute an important aspect of their sense of self, or identity, and their place in the world. A person’s identity, therefore, is tightly bound up with their ideas, attitudes and what they consider to be the most important things in life.
The study of a wide range of different worldviews facilitates insight into the many and divergent factors that can motivate and drive human behaviour and contributes to a better understanding of another’s point of view.
All worldviews begin with the recognition that human beings have a physical presence in the world and are subject to natural laws. Religious worldviews, however, introduce an additional supernatural factor which may greatly influence how believers interpret the conditions under which they live.
The central feature of a religious worldview is that it involves faith in a supernatural (or transcendental, spiritual, divine, sacred, etc.) dimension of some kind. Belief in a supernatural dimension is the defining characteristic of a religion, so religions usually require at least these two elements:
- belief in a supernatural Being, Thing, Power or Principle, and
- the acceptance of canons of conduct to give effect to that belief.
The existence of a supernatural dimension is rejected or profoundly doubted by many people who consider that there is a lack of valid and reliable evidence for it. Secular Humanism is a prominent example of a worldview with no supernatural dimension. Humanists hold that both knowledge and beliefs must be based on substantiated facts, so the process of evaluating evidence scientifically has a central place in their approach to knowledge and their attitude to life.
The Teacher’s Role
The teacher’s role in the study of worldviews can be challenging due to the constant need to maintain impartiality and objectivity whilst avoiding the temptation to proselytize or evangelize. When teaching about worldviews in a professional manner it is necessary to:
- present each accurately, fairly, and authentically,
- retain the integrity or wholeness of each,
- highlight areas of ultimate significance, and
- trace its historical background and development over time.
An appropriate teaching method along these lines is Ninian Smart’s methodological relativism which entails a suspension of judgment about the truth of various belief systems but not as a declaration that there is no global truth or superiority to be sought. Students will come to their own answers regarding questions concerning truth, existence, and reality as their abilities to think critically and reflect on issues mature and expand. A successful programme could enable students to develop clearer insight into their own beliefs and values and achieve a greater understanding of how they came to acquire them. Hopefully this deeper reflection and improved self-knowledge would heighten sensitivity to the situation of others and lead to positive feelings and an appreciation of our common humanity. Should this be the case, there may be a significant lessening of prejudice, intolerance, and harmful discrimination.
Rationale for a New Subject in the Humanities and Social Sciences Area of the Australian National Curriculum
Given the diversity of current cultural and social conditions, a strong educational case can be made for a new school subject (F-10) specifically designed to present a wide range of prominent past and present worldviews which would sit comfortably within the Humanities and Social Sciences strand of the Australian National Curriculum.
Presently in Australia teachers are labouring under a bewildering array of different approaches to worldview education across the States and Territories, especially regarding the place of Religious Instruction/Religious Education and the role of Chaplains in schools. This confusing situation does little to equip our students with the knowledge and understanding they require in a multicultural and multifaith population such as we have in this country. It also does little to inform and prepare students for the diverse worldviews that exist across the world, many of which play dominant roles in contentious global issues.
The harshest criticism regarding what is happening in schools relates to classes in Religious Instruction/Education during school hours and public-school assemblies where prayers and Bible readings take place. Despite constant complaints from students, parents and teachers over these issues, systematic problems remain, and schools are left to deliver patchy and inadequate responses overall. The haphazard handling of worldviews in general is not commensurate with their importance across the world with newscasts showing that people with fundamentally different perspectives often find it difficult to understand, empathize and cooperate with one another.
Although it is easier to emphasize the differences between worldviews, systems of belief and philosophies, the most important features to focus on initially are those they have in common. This is because all human beings are required to respond to the same fundamental conditions of life, so a worldview curriculum should begin with basic similarities and commonalities, not with differences and conflicting points of view.
Since the common feature that connects people is the human condition itself, it is necessary to ensure that a worldview study programme emphasizes the fundamental importance of the natural environment of which we are part, and on which the physical existence of humanity ultimately depends. Until this basic premise has been understood, students are unlikely to appreciate the special character of the supernatural, spiritual, and transcendental elements involved in religious faith.
Twenty Characteristics Common to All Organized Communities
To emphasize the connections and underlying features that are present in all worldviews I have assembled twenty characteristics commonly seen in all organized societies or communities. A new worldview study programme could use these characteristics as a backbone and teaching scaffold for each year’s work, setting it securely in place from Foundation through to Year 10.
For educational purposes, the twenty characteristics have been divided into four sections with five points in each. Each section groups the most closely related elements and simplifies programme planning across four terms in the academic year, and the repetition of the same course structure across all year levels means that lessons from the foundation level upward would build on previous learning with no single year level content being treated as a complete course on its own.
It would not be expected that all twenty characteristics are covered at each year level programme. It would, however, be expected that over the entire course of study that a reasonable degree of attention would be given to each of the four sections in an appropriate, fair and balanced manner.
Features Common to all Organized Communities include:
Responding to the Natural World and Life
- developing a way to understand the universe and explain the place of human beings in it,
- protecting the community from danger such as attack by enemies or wild animals; famine; flood or drought; earthquakes; volcanoes; tsunamis; pandemics; etc.,
- devising collaborative ways of dealing with pain, suffering, loss, and death,
- promoting ways of interpreting experience and sharing knowledge and skills,
- expressing their culture creatively through story, poetry, drama, literature, music, song, dance, body art, painting, clothing, etc.,
Entrenching Certain Beliefs, Values and Practices
- employing history and memories of the past to explain the present,
- holding beliefs about the future and hopes concerning future possibilities,
- attaching special meaning to specific places and events,
- marking special occasions with community celebrations, festivals, and holidays,
- supporting the development of meaning, purpose, and direction in people’s lives,
Expanding Conceptions of Society
- promoting feelings of cooperation, group membership, and cultural identity,
- revering certain individuals who embody the beliefs, values, and practices of the people,
- conducting rituals and ceremonies to strengthen the relationships and cultural bonds that connect people,
- displaying signs and symbols that represent community ideals and relationships,
- developing socially approved methods of determining what is real/unreal; true/untrue; right/wrong; good/bad; auspicious/unfavourable; etc:
Developing Systems of Leadership, Authority and Government
- devising ways of dealing with disputes, grievances, and conflicts,
- establishing the relevant principles, standards, and values (ethics and morality) of each community,
- allocating social roles and positions of status within the community,
- formalizing practices relating to the official confirmation of those in positions of leadership and authority,
- organising systems of government, law, and justice.
The common characteristics in this list provide a framework for the examination of all the worldviews selected for a programme of study. The list may then be used to identify the specific character of each worldview in turn, irrespective of its religious or nonreligious type, by asking the question, “In what ways does (insert the name of a worldview) express itself in relation to these characteristics?”
The answers to this question would constitute the teaching content at each year level in turn by presenting each in a developmentally appropriate and systematic manner across the whole subject.
As the programme unfolds, knowledge and understanding is built so that the course exhibits a spiral continuity and integrity throughout with each worldview contributing to the whole, not only when first introduced but also later as students develop greater capacity to deal with more advanced material. This continuity of structure and organization provides students with a scaffold on which to compare and contrast worldviews and presents opportunities to draw on prior learning. This is particularly important when highlighting specific content and allows teachers the opportunity to focus on emerging themes and concepts such as religious and secular authority and law; supernaturalism and naturalism; immortality and natural death; tradition and progress; continuity and change; and the personal experience of the human condition itself.
A subject of this kind should encompass content that includes as wide a range of diverse worldviews as possible. This implies the inclusion of significant historical, geographical, religious (supernatural/spiritual/transcendental), nonreligious (natural/scientific), political and legal dimensions of belief and commitment, many of which have informed Australian thinking, values, and practices over the extended period of human habitation on this continent.
It is to be hoped that the introduction of a stand-alone worldview programme would receive support from (a) parents who are aware of the need to encourage a civil and respectful manner in children towards people whose viewpoints differ from their own; (b) students who appreciate the personal and social value of learning about a varied range of worldviews past and present; and (c) teachers who understand the important contribution of the course material to the whole Humanities and Social Sciences curriculum area.
General Aims and Objectives
The intention of the proposed Worldview Education curriculum is to set aside the partisan, discriminatory, and exclusionary religious instruction programmes currently in schools by replacing them with an inclusive, objective, and professionally designed educational alternative that is critical, outward looking and encourages students to reflect on and debate ideas, beliefs, and practices many of which could be unfamiliar and challenging.
A programme such as this has the potential to open the minds of students to a broader understanding of human nature than any narrowly focused programme of study is likely to generate. Not only could a comprehensive educational curriculum be more personally enriching, but it could also serve to develop student’s ability to reflect on their own values and beliefs, and thus expand their capacity to listen attentively to, and engage in respectful discussion with others whose ideas may even conflict with their own. These are essential skills for a multi-belief society located in a diverse but increasingly interconnected and interdependent world.
The curriculum proposed in this paper contains content that would be unfamiliar to many teachers. For this reason, specialist courses within the Humanities and Social Sciences learning area would need to be made available to teachers wishing to teach the Worldview Education programme. In addition, the provision of developmentally appropriate, well-designed subject specific teaching resources together with professional in-service support could also be required.
The following curriculum framework is a possible option for a comprehensive programme of Worldview Education, Foundation to Year 10.