My first acquaintance with Dorothy Spoerl was probably in the mid-1980's when she spoke at the "Tiny Church Conference (sponsored by the New England InterDistrict Religious Education Committee, or NEIDRECOM) on the history of Unitarian Universalist religious education. I was intrigued with the opportunity to listen to someone who had been involved in creating that history--although at the time I did not comprehend the extent of that involvement or contribution. I was new to Unitarian Universalism and to religious education. Dorothy's article in REACH (Religious Education Action Clearing House ), "How Does a Child Identify with the Church?" was probably one of the first pieces that I read. This piece still remains one of my favorites.

I became more aware of Dorothy's work as I became more involved with religious education, primarily as a Director of Religious Education in Augusta, Maine, and as I began study under the Modified Residency Program at Meadville/Lombard Theological School and Bangor Theological Seminary, to be a Minister of Religious Education. Realizing that Dorothy lived within 100 miles of my home, I had a desire to talk with her, not about history, but about developing a curriculum on nature, actually rewriting How Miracles Abound and Experiences With Living Things. I also had a distinct feeling that her work had been somewhat overshadowed by her close connection with Sophia Fahs. I wanted Dorothy's wisdom be available for religious educators today.

The first section of this presentation, "Defining Curriculum," is a discussion of curriculum theory, with a focus on the theories of curriculum of George Posner and Marie Harris and Angus MacLean. The various levels of curriculum are defined as a basis for presentation material by Dorothy Spoerl. The levels described are essentially ways of defining the scope and depth of curriculum, from a specific lesson plan to life's experiences. These definitions, then are used for organizational purposes, and certainly are not the only manner in which curriculum can be described.

The second section, "Curriculum Today," is a series of presentations from the works of Dorothy Spoerl, as if she were conducting a conference or lecture series today. Dorothy is a religious educator whose work has spanned over 65 years! Her earliest writings were weekly articles on the Young People's Christian Union (Universalist) in the Christian Leader in 1928-1931. She has been a prolific writer, speaker, and conference lecturer in the the intervening years. This section, drawn from the writings of Dorothy Spoerl and from discussions with her over the last two years, places her writings within the context of contemporary religious education theory.

It is impossible to remain neutral on some issues in working with Dorothy. Therefore, the third section, "To Agree or Disagree," reflects my thoughts in working with her, including areas of agreement and differences, and her influence on the development of my ministry.

The appendices contain biographical information about Dorothy Spoerl, and an annotated listing of the written materials that have been located in preparation of this paper.


How frustrating and disconcerting it is to engage in conversation, only to find, after a time, that the conversants are starting from different definitions of critical concepts or words. Such can happen rather easily when the discussion focuses on curriculum. The Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language (Simon and Schuster, 1984) describes curriculum as derived from Latin currere and includes concepts of "a running, course, race, career." The term applies to a studies required for graduation or to all of the courses offered in a school. And even the plural can be "ula" to "ulums."

The concepts of George Posner, Marie Harris and Angus MacLean will help to define curriculum as context for this presentation of the work of Dorothy Spoerl.

George Posner is Professor of Education at Cornell University where he coordinates the graduate programs in Curriculum and Instruction in Science and Mathematics Education and is the undergraduate coordinator in his department. His book, Analyzing the Curriculum (McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1992), is a major reference used here.

Posner describes the common concepts around curriculum to include:

Scope and sequence, or a series of intended learning outcomes., with the role of guiding both the instructional and evaluation decisions.

Syllabus, or plan for an entire course, with elements of both the ends and means of the course.

Content outline, which is sufficient only if the sole purpose of education is to transmit specific content.

Textbook, or a guide to both the ends and means of education.

Course of study, with the concept of a journey through the educational program.

Planned experience, actually comprising all experiences planned by the school. (Posner, p. 5, 9)

Posner defines various levels of curriculum (Posner, p.10-12):

The official curriculum, or written curriculum, gives the basic lesson plan to be followed, including objectives, sequence, and materials. This provides the basis for accountability.

The operational curriculum is what is taught by the teacher, and how it is communicated. This includes what the teacher teaches in class and the learning outcomes for the student.

The hidden curriculum includes the norms and values of the surrounding society. These are stronger and more durable than the first two, and may be in conflict with the them.

The null curriculum consists of what is not taught. Consideration must be given to the reasons behind why things are not included in the official or operational curriculum.

The extra curriculum is the planned experiences outside of the specific educational session.

Maria Harris is Visiting Professor of Religious Education at Fordham University and New York University, and is the Core Faculty of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York. Her publication that is used here is Fashion Me A People: Curriculum in the Church (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989).

Harris refers to Acts 2:42, 44-47 as "first portrait of church curriculum we have, although the word "curriculum" is not used. In the description, Luke gives us the central elements, or the set of forms, that embody the course of the church's life. In this book [Fashion Me a People] I propose to show that fashioning and refashioning of this set of forms is the core of the educational ministry of the church. I also propose to show that the forms themselves are the primary curriculum of the church, the course of the church's life, and that in fashioning these forms we fashion the church. And because we are the church, the fashioning of the forms becomes the fashioning of us." (Harris, p.17) The footnote in the New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrapha (Oxford University Press, 1992, p.614 NT)or the scripture cited above notes that Christians in Jerusalem held everything in common, which reinforces the intensity of the religious community.

These concepts gives the definitional premise: a religious education curriculum is the learning which occurs in connection with the church community. This is consistent with Harris's description of curriculum as being fluid, as being "in the midst and celebrating a meaning of curriculum that consciously incorporates other facets of ministry" which means "that a fuller and more extensive curriculum is already present in the church's life: in teaching, worship, community, proclamation, and outreach." (Harris, p.63)

Harris focuses on three curriculum levels (Harris, p.68-70):

The explicit curriculum refers to what is consciously and intentionally presented. I liken this to Posner's official and operational curriculum levels.

The implicit curriculum includes the patterns, organization and procedures which surround the explicit curriculum. I liken this to Posner's hidden curriculum, adding the learning environment.

The null curriculum considers what is not included, and is comparable to Posner's null curriculum.

Against these contemporary writers, compare the discussions of Angus MacLean, a Unitarian Universalist minister who was born in Nova Scotia in 1892. He graduated from McGill University and Theological School, taught at Columbia University Teachers' College. He was Professor of Religious Education and later Dean at the Theological School of St. Lawrence University from 1928-1964, when he became Minister of Education at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, Shaker Heights, Ohio.

Planning the Religious Education Curriculum: Some Basic Considerations (Universalist Church of America and American Unitarian Association, undated, p.1-2) is an additional resource in this definition of curriculum.

MacLean describes curriculum from the perspective of experience:

From the standpoint of the curriculum planner the curriculum is thought as the sum total of planned studies and activities calculated to enrich the experiences of youth. Everything that affects experience and that can be planned and consciously directed becomes part of the curriculum. This will include equipment, organization, and all planned procedures. From this point of vantage curriculum looks very like what we call program.

The curriculum has also to be thought of as the experience resulting from the program. Looking at curriculum from the child's standpoint, it turns out to be experience--what happens to him, what he sees, understands, appreciates and loves and also what he dislikes, fears, repudiates.

We must think of child experience in still wider terms. No matter what the [religious education program] does it can only partially touch and control experience, and yet the total pattern of experience determines to a great degree the effectiveness of school experience. The curriculum can be thought of, then, as the total complex of a child's experience.

I would place the descriptions of Posner and Harris within the "program" described by MacLean. Harris's overall perspective relates to the curriculum of the church. Posner's perspective is beyond the classroom, but still focuses on planned activities. Neither include the learning experience beyond the planned. The definitions of Posner and Harris focus more on describing the learning situation, while MacLean focuses on the impact of the learning experience on the person--child-focused rather than program-focused. In addition, MacLean also shows the interrelatedness of the church learning experience and the child's life. This is critical, because this is also my finding in working with Dorothy Spoerl, a contemporary of Angus MacLean.

The experiential perspective, under the influence of John Dewey, is discussed by Posner as:


Simply stated, an experiential view is based on the assumption that everything that happens to students influences their lives, and that, therefore, the curriculum must be considered extremely broadly, not only in terms of what can be planned for students in schools and even outside them, but also in terms of all the unanticipated consequences of each new situation that individuals encounter. The consequences of any situation include not only how it is learned in a formal sense, but also all the thoughts, feelings, and tendencies to action that the situation engenders in those individuals experiencing it. But since each individual differs in at least some small ways from all others, no two individuals can experience the same situation in precisely the same way. Thus the experiential view of education makes enormous demands on anyone who attempts to make practical curriculum decisions, for it assumes that the curriculum is more or less the same as the very process of living and that no two individuals can or should live precisely the same lives. (Posner, p.51)

John Dewey added the focus of "development or healthy growth of individual experience" to his original theory. In 1938, Dewey expressed concern about balancing the development of intelligence and the development of socially useful skills and the healthy growth of individual experience. (Posner, p.55).

The influence of Dewey is evident in Dorothy Spoerl's writings on experiences and creativity. "Experience" is included as a "level" of curriculum precisely to capture some of her underlying focus on development itself and on various types of experience, and these emphases are evident throughout these presentations, beyond just the section on "experience".

For the purposes of this presentation, I am defining curriculum in following levels:

1. Explicit curriculum refers to what is consciously and intentionally presented. It is the official curriculum, or written curriculum, which gives the basic lesson plan to be followed, including objectives, sequence, and materials, what is taught by the teacher, and the learning outcomes for the student. This is the overt curriculum, the "official" and "operational" curriculum of Posner, or, as described by MacLean, the "program" and would include the methods, subject matter and materials.

2. Implicit curriculum includes the norms and values of the surrounding society, the setting in which the learning occurs (including the decoration and set-up of the area), and the broader environment in which education occurs. This is the covert, or Posner's "hidden" curriculum.

3. Null curriculum consists of what is not taught. Consideration must be given to the reasons behind why things are not included in the explicit curriculum or recognized in examination of the implicit curriculum.

4. Extracurricular curriculum includes experience (planned and unplanned) outside of the immediate educational session, and includes total church community and home religious activities. This has been broadened beyond Posner's concern about planned learning to include all learning outside the immediate educational setting.

5. Experience as curriculum is "what happens to the [learner], what the [learner] sees, understands, appreciates and loves and also what the [learner]dislikes, fears, repudiates." (MacLean, p.2)


In this delineation, explicit, implicit and null are concerned with content, or "what.". Extracurricular is concerned with the setting, or "where." Experience is concerned with the "how." All of these appear in the extensive writings of Dorothy Spoerl.


© Helen Zidowecki 1995 (RR1 Box 279, Litchfield, Maine 04350, 207-582-5308,