3. The World of the Learner

3.1 A Meaningful World

People of all ages seek to explore and construct personal meaning in and through the various experiences of being human and being alive in the world. This has always been a challenging task and is even more so in a culture where social life-forms and traditions are changing rapidly, ever-new modes of experience are opening up, and people exhibit diverse ways of making meaning of life.

A fundamental understanding of the Catholic worldview is that the human quest to understand the world and to live meaningfully and purposefully is not futile. Since it is the loving gift of a gracious Creator, the universe and all that emerges within it is ‘good’, as described in the first chapter of Genesis. It is good because it shares in the coherence, integrity, and purposefulness of the Creator. Human existence, too, is fundamentally ‘very good’ and meaningful in its relationship with God and all created things (Gen 1: 31). Through history – in the community of biblical Israel, through the event of Jesus Christ and the gift of his Spirit, and by the witness of the Christian Church through the generations – we learn that God is constantly calling human persons into a saving encounter, drawing us into a communion of life and love with the mystery of the Triune Persons – Father, Son and Spirit.

The Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration (2019), building on the Melbourne Declaration of Educational Goals for Young Australians (2008), outlines a set of attributes for students that should inform all educational programs in today’s Australia. The Mparntwe Declaration sets out two broad goals for schooling in Australia:

Goal 1: The Australian education system promotes excellence and equity.

Goal 2: All young Australians become:

  • confident and creative individuals
  • successful lifelong learners
  • active and informed members of the community.

The Declaration affirms that, as a result of their learning experiences, all students will be:

  • Confident and creative individuals
    • have self-awareness and a sense of personal identity and self-worth
    • manage their emotional, mental, spiritual and physical wellbeing
    • develop values and attributes that enable personal integrity and interpersonal relationships
    • are well prepared and skilled for responsibilities in family, community, workplace
  • Successful lifelong learners
    • develop their capacity to learn and play an active role in their own learning
    • have the essential skills in literacy, numeracy, technology as a foundation for success in learning
    • are able to think deeply in a disciplined way and to use knowledge creatively and collaboratively
    • able to make sense of their world and progress towards achieving their full potential
  • Active and informed citizens
    • act with moral and ethical integrity and respect the principles and procedures of democracy
    • appreciate Australia’s social, cultural, linguistic and religious diversity, its history, culture and system of government
    • value the Indigenous peoples and cultures of the land and develop the social skills required for ongoing reconciliation
    • promote environmental sustainability and participate as responsible global and local citizens

A Catholic educational vision strives for these attributes in the development of all students. It will embed these goals in a more fully articulated and theologically informed understanding of the human person in all its dimensions. With its particular understanding of who the learner is and how the learner relates meaningfully to the world around us, the Catholic school embraces the diversity of worldviews in Australian society and seeks to enter into transformative encounters of meaning-making with all members of the school community.

The Mparntwe Declaration shows the impact of the turn to the learner that has occurred in educational practice in recent decades. This shift focusses on the learner as an active subject of awareness, experience and reflection, and places the active learner at the heart of structured learning activities. While discipline content, teacher instruction, and transmission of information are all vital components of effective learning, these dimensions contribute most to learning when they promote and deepen the intentional engagement of the active participant of learning. Constructivist educational paradigms express this student-centred approach to learning, although an overly individualistic and functionalist model of constructing knowledge from experience can lead to an impoverishment of the learning experience.

A key aspect of placing the learner at the centre of the educational experience is allowing students’ ‘voice’ to be heard in all aspects of the school’s curriculum and culture (DET, 2018). In ways appropriate to their stage of maturity, students become co-creators and co-designers of the learning journey by expressing, interpreting and integrating their self-understandings and learning intentions. This calls for an educational style based on rich encounters with others through appropriate and respectful dialogue, including interaction in the domain of personal meaning-making and religious identity. Children and young people are active subjects of their maturing self-understanding, including religious experience and belonging to a faith community, and this development occurs through meaningful engagement with others (Dillen, 2007).

Learners’ voices can be expressed and heard in a variety of school routines and practices:

  • student participation in whole school decision making
  • teacher-student collaboration in setting learning goals and pathways
  • celebration of student’s cultural and religious backgrounds
  • student leadership in school activities, including prayer and liturgy, retreats and service programs
  • fostering the skills of self-reflection and creative expression
  • understanding students as agents of spiritual awareness and theological thinking

Each learner’s self-awareness and worldview is expressed through a personal narrative of identity that is reflected upon and communicated to others. We discover and negotiate our personal story within a broader, more inclusive story that situates us in relation to others and to the world around us. It is the narrative horizon within which we live that invests our experiences with value and purpose, that enables us to understand and interpret ourselves and our world, and that provides coherence and ‘sense’ to our lives. Personal identity and meaning is as much received as constructed, and it is within a narrative horizon that learners both receive and intentionally create a sense of self and meaning. When learners reflect on themselves and encounter others at the level of this narrative horizon, their personal identity is strengthened and enriched, and their worldview is enhanced by the meaningful relationships that are created (Victorian Curriculum, Learning about Worldviews and Religions, 2015).

3.2 The World of the Learner

If this meaning-generating engagement with self and others is to help learners integrate their experiences, culture, and religious learning, they must be invited into learning activities that investigate and interpret the overlapping ‘worlds’ which constitute their life context.

  • Families and households

The structure and experience of family life is changing in many ways around the world. It is impossible to presume a homogenous set of family arrangements and circumstances for all members of the school community (Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 2016).

  • It is within the family that each person’s subjectivity, including religious awareness, is first called out and formed. Love, trust, wonder, reassurance, belonging, gratitude, and a developing sense of responsibility and commitment lay the foundations for emotional, cognitive and spiritual lifelong learning
  • families strive to provide rich, nurturing environments for children; at times families struggle with pressing social, economic, technological and interpersonal problems. Relationships may be fragile; stability and effectiveness of family life may be limited; an interest in the religious development of children may be lacking or undervalued
  • while the majority of students live with their birth parents and siblings, an increasing number are growing up in step families, blended families, or single-parent families
  • there is a gradual decrease in the marriage rate in Australia, and many people are entering into first marriage at a later age. Four out of five couples live together prior to their marriage. About three out of four marriages are celebrated in civil ceremonies
  • there is increasing diversity in the cultural and religious backgrounds of Australian families and among family members.

❖ Australia within a global society

Australian society is being transformed in response to increasing globalization and accelerating technological change.

  • Societal change is experienced in all aspects of life – relationships, communications, education, trade, employment, political and cultural activity
  • the gap between highest and lowest incomes, both within and among countries, continues to widen (Society of St Vincent de Paul, 2016)
  • Australian society is increasingly multicultural and multireligious, however, this pluralisation is not reflected in all regions of the country; immigrants come from increasingly diverse countries of origin
  • Rural Australia is undergoing significant changes as a result of national and international factors, including population drift to urban areas for employment, education and housing; declining income and access to services; needs relating to health, ageing and mental wellbeing; challenges of soil and water management and regeneration; some regional areas, particularly in coastal and high-tourism regions, are experiencing growth
  • the challenge of reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians is widely recognized, although legal, symbolic and practical steps toward reconciliation remain difficult to achieve, employment rates, social conditions, and health and wellbeing standards in Aboriginal communities present urgent and major challenges to all Australians
  • there is increasing awareness of the fragility and degradation of the natural environment and the responsibility for sustainable management of the resources of land, water and air; religious groups including the Catholic Church are contributing to greater awareness and practical actions; many have drawn inspiration from Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’: Care for our Common Home (2015)
  • Australia has been affected by increased global flows of people, highlighting challenges of immigration and national security policies, national and international responsibilities for protection of asylum-seekers and safeguarding against people-smuggling and human trafficking, and public attitudes towards the presence of refugees and migrants in local communities.

❖ Technologies and Media

Much of the experience and learning of all members of the school community is mediated through electronic technologies and media.

  • Digital and electronic technologies are employed in all dimensions of school activity and accountability; they are an indispensable means of maintaining relationships between all members of the community; new technologies enable greater access to educational experiences at all stages of life; developing skills and awareness for responsible use of ICT is necessary for students and adults in learning environments (eSafety Toolkit for Schools, 2020)
  • young people recognize the need to be critical consumers of digital technologies (Synod of Bishops, 2018), aware of both the benefits and the potential risks of social media, digital entertainment products, virtual reality, and online purchasing
  • public attitudes towards digital life are ambivalent, recognizing the many life-enhancing innovations of these technologies, but also alert to problems of induced anxiety, deteriorating trust, challenges to personal identity, and loss of deep attention in a multitude of shallow engagements (Pew Research Center, 2018)
  • the Australian economy and workplace is undergoing disruptive change as a result of innovations using automation, robotics, artificial intelligence and new ICT capabilities; some existing jobs are being displaced and new types of employment are emerging in response to technological drivers in the digital economy (Healy, Nicholson & Gahan, 2017); school leavers face an unpredictable and volatile employment environment
  • the emergence of the E-society and the iSelf challenges social and religious understandings of personal identity and community life; some researchers identify potential impacts on personal cognitive processes and mental health (Twenge, Joiner & Rogers, 2018)
  • the growing ‘digital divide’ between those with and those without access to the networks, devices and opportunities of the digital revolution raises challenges to equity, participation and solidarity; Catholic Social Teaching recognises the need for digital ethics in personal, social and economic life.

❖ Peer Groups and Recreation

Peer relationships are an essential element of self-awareness and development, within the school community, and in leisure and entertainment activities.

  • Friendship and affectivity, the body and sexuality are central to the developing maturity and personal identity of young people (Synod of Bishops, 2018); support and discernment is needed for healthy and respectful relationships
  • young people experience increasing overlap between home, school and work environments, and between study and leisure activities
  • globalisation and the digital revolution have created new and more serious avenues of risk-taking, peer-generated influencing and bullying
  • young people highly value authenticity in personal relationships, social networks and employment choices (Taylor, 2007); authenticity is the condition on which trust is given to individuals and organisations
  • sport at all levels of competition, with greater participation of women at the highest level in more sports, is an opportunity for personal and social development; rates of participation in organized sport by young people have declined in recent decades
  • many young people consider having ‘deep friendships’ and caring for one’s friends to be central to living a happy life (Hughes, 2007)
  • young people are major consumers of commercial entertainment, including the music, video and film industries; digital streaming services have made entertainment content available in more personalized and on-demand delivery modes.

❖ Employment and Training

The structure and composition of Australia’s workplace and patterns of employment and training are changing rapidly.

  • The world of work remains an area in which the young express their creativity and their innovative capacity. At the same time, they experience forms of exclusion and marginalization (Synod of Bishops, 2018, n. 40)
  • education at all levels is increasingly aiming for work-ready graduates, including industry-based training components in their learning program
  • a focus on transferable enterprise skills is driving curriculum and assessment design in response to change in the nature and conditions of work; these include communication, project management, financial literacy, digital literacy, the ability to critically assess and analyse information, be creative and innovative (Foundation for Young Australians, 2017)
  • education and training make a major contribution to a learner’s self-confidence, happiness in life, financial security, and contribution to society
  • almost one in three young Australians are unemployed or underemployed (Brotherhood of St Lawrence, 2017); inequalities between skilled and unskilled work, and insecurity in working hours and conditions are increasing for workers
  • both education and work are key themes in the Catholic tradition and practice; Catholic social teaching provides principles and practices to foster approaches to education and to work that enhance the integral development of persons and of society (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 2006).

3.3 Young People, Religious Experience and Church

According to the Victorian Enhancing Catholic School Identity (ECSI) survey data in 2012, 85% of primary (years 5-6) students and 69% of secondary students indicated full or moderate support for the Catholic identity of their school. Many students in both primary and secondary schools indicated full or moderate support for the Catholic faith. Among students, support for a distinctively Catholic school and for the Catholic faith wanes in the senior years of schooling, with a significant minority expressing a neutral, or negative attitude, to the religious dimension of schooling (Pollefeyt & Bouwens, 2014).

Among teachers in primary schools, over 93% indicated strong or average faith in Christ, over 86% support the Catholic faith, with many also critical of some elements of it, and over 90% support the Catholic identity of the school. Secondary staff overall indicated somewhat lower levels of support for Catholic faith and school identity, although still largely positive toward it.

At the same time, the ESCI survey results also show that factors of secularisation and pluralisation are clearly at work within Catholic school communities, especially as students progress through the levels of schooling. Senior students and adults in school communities demonstrate weaker support for the distinctively Catholic ethos of schooling, are less resistant to secularising influences in school curriculum and activities and are less likely to engage in explicitly religious practices such as prayer, attending liturgies, or seeking to grow closer to God.

These trends are consistent with other studies of the religious affiliation and practice of young Australians. In the 2016 Australian Census, 38% of 15-24-year-olds and 39% of 25-34-year-olds indicated that they have no religion. National Church participation data in 2011 showed that about 6% of Catholic 15-19-year-olds and 5% of 20-29-year-olds attended Church services (Dixon, Reid & Chee, 2013). Social analysts report a wide range of transcendent beliefs among young people, including beliefs about God, a higher power, reincarnation or life beyond death; others hold no transcendent beliefs. Hughes, Reid & Fraser (2015) describe a midi-narrative of life-meaning (i.e. somewhere between a meta-narrative and no narrative) that represents about 85% of young Australians’ views. In this narrative, the goal of the good life is to successfully negotiate the challenges of doing well at school, using the resources of family, friends, music, and perhaps some transcendent or religious beliefs, in order to secure a satisfying and well-paying job to provide a lifestyle of fun with family and friends. Young people hope to achieve this goal within a society that is peaceful and cooperative, sustainable and secure, and provides ‘a fair go’ for all. This narrative of practical secularity strongly influences the worldview and personal meaning of senior students and adults in Catholic school communities.

The strongest factor leading to young people having a personal faith relationship with God or Jesus Christ and a positive association with the Church is belonging to a believing and participating family (Smith, Longest & Hill, 2014). Similarly, those brought up in a nonreligious household are highly likely to remain disaffiliated from religion as adults (Zuckerman, Galen & Pasquale, 2016). However, the features of the parenting style and relational dynamic are also a significant influence of whether young people embrace their parents’ faith stance.

When children perceive their relationship with parents as close, affirming, and
accepting, they are most likely to identify with their parents’ religious practices and belief, while relationships marked by coldness, ambivalence, or preoccupation are likely to result in religious differences

(Bengston, 2013, p. 98).

This is also the case with other adult models of religious identity: grandparents, other family members, teachers and mentors, priests, religious and other pastoral ministers (Dantis & Reid, 2017). Of particular importance, as children transition into the teenage and emerging adult years, is that believing adult models present an open and enquiring attitude to religious beliefs and practices, offering warm support while young people explore questions and tensions in their religious worldview. In research over several generations, Bengston (2013) found that ‘children responded best to parents who were unconditionally supportive, who provided consistent role modelling of religious practices, and who did not force their beliefs or practices on their children’ (p. 186).

Other factors also contribute to a maturing faith stance in young people, especially as they negotiate the teenage years. Christian Smith (2014) identifies three major domains of influence on religious identity as teenagers transition to emerging adulthood:

  • close relationship with religious parents and other adult religious models
  • internalised religious beliefs and personal religious experiences
  • consistent and positive engagement in religious practices.

Catholic schools strive to contribute to these factors that enhance the faith formation of young people. Catholic adult models witness to a religious worldview that is personally experienced, intellectually rich and authentically meaningful. They relate to students and young teachers in a genuinely warm and open manner, engaging in non-judgmental dialogue about Catholic beliefs and practices. They are instrumental in offering opportunities for students and staff to participate in prayerful and reflective faith experiences, such as liturgies, meditation, retreats and spiritual conversation. The witness of believing adults in the school community, lived out in a mature, consistent and intellectually enquiring manner, gives concrete evidence of the beauty, credibility and vitality of the Catholic faith Tradition.

This witness must be offered and received in a differentiated and personalized way. It will

  • reinforce and deepen the faith commitment of those who are actively involved with their families in a Catholic or other religious community
  • question and challenge the practical secularity of many young people in relation to transcendent meaning and religious faith
  • discuss and reflect on worldviews with the committedly nonreligious people.

In all cases, this witness of Catholic faith will be offered with gentleness, clarity, trustful confidence, and careful judgement (Paul VI, 1964, n. 81). The intention is to invite and engage every student, and all members of the school community, into rich and transformative learning through dialogical encounter with the Catholic Tradition, since Catholics understand all persons to be subjects of self-awareness and personal meaning, with a spiritual capacity reflecting their origin and destiny in the loving presence of God.

3.4 The human person at the centre of learning experiences

Recent official teaching of the Catholic Church on the role and purpose of Catholic education has focused on the integral development of the human person within a Christ-centred educational community as the primary rationale of the Catholic school.

The person of each individual human being is at the heart of Christ’s teaching: this is why the promotion of the human person is the goal of the Catholic school.

(The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, n. 9)

In the Catholic worldview, human persons are both biologically evolved and spiritually created. In the biblical description of Genesis, the Creator God breathes on the face of the creature formed from the earth, who becomes a living being (Gen 2:7). This face-to-face encounter and the giving and receiving of the breath between Creator and creature speaks of the intimate and interpersonal relation between humans and God. In the space opened up by the gift of the Creator’s breath, humans come to consciousness and communication; we become persons through this encounter and dialogue of breath. Through language, this ‘breathing-space’ between God and humans is articulated and enlarged; we come to self-expression and purposeful meaning by being drawn more deeply into this space. It is within this space that we sense the attraction of the transcendental qualities of communion, truth, beauty and goodness, and that our capacities of cognition and understanding, desire and memory, imagination and creativity, relationality and interiority, are awakened. D. Pollefeyt (2013) has written of this relational openness of the human person in the Catholic worldview in terms of a hermeneutical space:

This anthropology assumes that every human being, without exception, religious or nonreligious, Christian or otherwise, is characterized by this openness and that, by way of this openness, this indeterminacy, the given of existence, everyone has to sort out his or her own thinking, and that everyone can create, discover and exchange sense, nonsense, meaning and orientation with this openness. It is through this shared openness that all

people are structurally linked as relational beings’ (p. 2).

Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes (nn. 12-22) reminds us that the human person, created by the breath of God and living as God’s image within creation (Gen 1: 27), is called into the fullness of his or her personal existence in all its dimensions. This theology of the human person in Gaudium et Spes has been described through a set of related and complementary relationships, which together constitute the human person ‘integrally and adequately considered’ (Selling, 2016):

  • human persons stand in relation to everything, to the whole of reality, and to God
  • human persons stand in relation to the material world
  • human persons are cultural
  • human persons are historical
  • human persons stand in particular relationships with other persons
  • human persons become a conscious interiority, a subject
  • human persons are corporeal subjects
  • every human person is unique, yet fundamentally equal in dignity.

These distinctive characteristics are central to the Catholic understanding of the human person and society, and are foundation to Catholic Social Teaching, as described in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004). These interrelated dimensions ofhuman persons constitute the integral bodily and spiritual character of their existence and are recognized and integrated in the journey of personal and religious growth and identity formation.

The Catholic Tradition recognises that human existence in all its integral dimensions has been assumed by the divine Word of God in the person of Jesus Christ, and that human existence is lived ‘to the full’ (John 10:10) most explicitly in Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection. For believers, the humanity of Christ is the gateway that opens up the hermeneutical space of their own existence. For, ‘it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of humanity truly becomes clear’ (Gaudium et Spes n. 22).

3.5 Sites of encounter for dialogue

Researchers of the millennial generation have identified a range of new sites of meaning-making around which young adults are gathering, each of which manifest a search for ‘something more’ than the material and material dimension of life (Thurston & ter Kuile, 2015; 2016). Can these sites represent quests of meaningful living and purposeful commitment in young people’s lives, and offer avenues of engagement with others in the hermeneutical space of meaning-making and religious identity? Can this quest be seen as a sign of the times expressing a new generation’s search for authentic living and spiritual openness? These themes are potential sites for engaging students, with their parents and teachers, in personal reflection and deeper awareness about the worldviews they and others hold, including religious belonging and faith commitments. Each of these themes has deep resonances in the Catholic worldview (Groome, 2003), and opens up dimensions of the hermeneutical space of human existence that promote self-transcendence, spiritual awareness, and interpersonal responsibility.


A recent report on engaging ‘millennials’ in participation and leadership in local faith communities highlighted some key features of the type of engagement that these young people found appealing and meaningful (Siebert Foundation, 2015):

  • Rich symbolic practices; reflection on the meaning
  • Genuine welcome; non-judgemental and respectful
  • Meaningful community service with real impact
  • Relevant contribution valued by community/Church
  • Authentic relationships; real rather than ideal.

The challenges to adults in Catholic schools is to build the respectful and trusting relationships with students that give them confidence, encouragement and modelling to explore opportunities for dialogue, reflection and participation in the tasks of living with meaning and purpose in light of the diverse and challenging expressions of the Catholic faith Tradition.

The consultation with young people in Australia in preparation for the 2018 Synod of Bishops indicated a range of situations in which young people sought engagement with Church communities and ministries, and some reported positive experiences of being listened to and supported by Church representatives:

The main issues facing young people in Australia today, according to respondents, were mental health, school or study, drugs or alcohol, body image and friendships and relationships. According to the respondents, the groups of people who had influenced key decisions and directions in their life were family, friends and their school or teachers. Forty-four per cent of young people said that the parish or Church community and Church or religious leaders had had at least some influence on them.


Respondents were also asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, their experience of being listened to by people from the Church. Overall, a moderate score of 5.9 was recorded. School-aged young people rated their experience lower than older youth. The main factors that contributed to the positive experiences of being listened to for young people were found to be talking to people who valued their story, the positive attitude of the clergy, and the welcoming and supportive attitude of parishioners. Finding someone to share personal problems with or discuss faith matters with and being able to share thoughts and opinions without being judged or laughed at was particularly important for those aged 16–18 years. For those aged 19–29, the positive attitude of the clergy—priests who were supportive and welcoming, collaborative and good listeners—contributed largely to their positive experiences of being listened to. Other positive experiences among participants included good experiences at Mass, the empowering leadership of the priest, enjoyable experiences of participating in youth groups and greater opportunities being given to young people to participate in parishes

(Dantis & Reid, 2017, p. 48).


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