Reflection on Sacred Heart Pedagogy

Suzanne Cooke, RSCJ
As we continue on with our reflections on education as a work of grace. I thought we could consider the assumptions behind curriculum planning and development within Sacred Heart education.
As we continue on with our reflections on education as a work of grace. I thought we could consider the assumptions behind curriculum planning and development within Sacred Heart education.

From the very beginning, Sacred Heart Educators chose curriculum that … “allows true instruction, in the etymological sense of the word: in-struere, that which aims not at accumulating knowledge, but at constructing solid foundation in the mind, that is to say serious intellectual habits, steady and coherent personal thought” (Spirit and Plan of Studies in the Society of the Sacred Heart). The primary reason for this understanding of curriculum is that our objective is to prepare young people for their future. We intend to provide them with the skills and attitudes essential to know to navigate life with meaning and integrity.

Mother Stuart wrote of the “indirect method” of education:

There are two ways of preparing children for the government of themselves in after-life, one direct and the other indirect. The first has its merits, it is quick in results, often very successful. It fosters piety, inculcates some clear principles, dictates the main lines of action, and by rule and maxim, fits the being into its place in the world, and gives it means to do its duty creditably. The indirect method is longer and less clearly defined. It aims at giving a guiding light within, and power to climb a difficult path, and pick a way through unknown country by that light. This must be waited for, and slowly developed, but in the end it is of greater worth. The training of the Sacred Heart aims at this.

-Janet Erskine Stuart, RSCJ

The work of Sacred Heart education focuses on forming conscience and instilling those skills and attitudes which enhance critical thinking and compassionate action. We hope to inspire your students to become people of discernment guided by their experience of God and understanding of truth.

Sacred Heart methodology favors depth of thought and critical thinking. Within the total school curriculum, the content becomes increasingly complex, provocative and personally or emotionally challenging to honor the needs of the maturing learner. The objective is to develop life-long learners.

Developing the capacity to think critically and hopefully necessitates intellectual training that fosters penetration of thought and inquiry. Essential questions structured around how and why serve to deepen the student’s capacity to think as well as her/his ability to handle complexity and uncertainty. Choice of content favors primary documents and engaging materials so that penetration, direct outlook and depth of thought are enhanced. Quality of content is favored rather than quantity. Teaching challenging content inculcates unique qualities of mind in students and lays the foundation for their deep and meaningful thinking. The academic disciplines within Sacred Heart curriculum represent ways to think and learn. Students become better thinkers by practicing these disciplines and by learning to see the advantages of each way of thinking (Thinking What Matters Most). Attention is given developing aesthetic values and the creative use of the imagination.

We speak of Sacred Heart education as child-centered. Attentiveness to the individual student is conducted within the context of the community of learners. Choice of methods or process is rooted in the comprehension of how the students develop understanding and mastery at the different age levels. Choosing methods is determined by what will contribute to the students’ formation of serious habits of the mind according to the curricular content, the students’ ages and influences that affect their character and mind. These principles affect curriculum planning. The hope is to engage the students consistently in their own development as learners. Sustaining their engagement in learning necessitates balancing the types of work so that students to take an active part in the quest for knowledge.

Within curriculum planning, thoughtful attention is given to assessment. Assessments take a variety of forms including oral and written. Because assessments contribute to the development of the students as effective learners, care is given to their design so that the educators see what individual students have come to understand. The design of assessments supports the principle that students have the opportunity to demonstrate to themselves what they have come to know and what it is they still need to understand.

Acquiring or assimilating knowledge is ultimately the student’s responsibility but the wise educator knows when to step in and guide. Varying the types of intellectual activity from thoughtful memory work to written application of knowledge to work requiring mental effort and thought helps students become effective learners.

-Spirit and Plan of Studies in the Society of the Sacred Heart

One cannot talk about curriculum within Sacred Heart without speaking of the Educators of the Sacred Heart. Madeleine Sophie Barat considered the educator… “to be the most powerful factor in our mode of education” (Circular Letter December 13, 1851). The role of the Sacred Heart Educator is an essential element to pedagogy. Classroom instruction and formation under the guidance of educators who appreciate the personal dignity and worth of each student is a humanizing experience and one that leads naturally to a Christian conception of life. Everything in the Society’s curriculum and methods presupposes that fact (Conference, Mary Quinlan, RSCJ). Today we see that all the adults working within the Schools of the Sacred Heart are Educators; all affect the formation of the young people who have been entrusted to them because all have influence on students and colleagues.

Education is the process of inviting truth and possibility. From the beginning, the objective of curriculum within Sacred Heart culture is to ensure the formation of thinking, compassionate persons. Today Sacred Heart Schools base curriculum on the Goals and Criteria, educational research and on-going evaluation. The intention of the curriculum remains true to Sophie’s vision -- students develop informed active faith, critical thinking, and compassion. The ideal is that each student builds the foundation to be a person of integrity whose heart, mind and will are aligned. With this foundation Sacred Heart graduates ideally enter the future prepared to contribute hope.

Suzanne Cooke, RSCJ is Head of the Conference of Sacred Heart Education.
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Schools of the Sacred Heart share in the educational mission of the Society of the Sacred Heart as articulated in the Goals and Criteria. The structure supporting Sacred Heart education in Canada and the United States includes the Conference of Sacred Heart Education and the Network of Sacred Heart Schools.  Together they provide services and programs to ensure vitality of mission for the member schools sponsored by the Society of the Sacred Heart.