The Case for Discussing Spirituality in Schools

Research suggests that spirituality may be a natural developmental process—so what does this mean for secular schools?
By Vicki Zakrzewski
Vicki Zakrzewski
Vicki Zakrzewski
June 24, 2019 Updated: June 24, 2019
“I believe in reincarnation because it just makes sense!” exclaimed 10-year-old Jesse in the middle of a lesson that was on anything but reincarnation.

This wasn’t the first time one of my students had brought up a topic related to spirituality or religion. In fact, I’ve found during my years of teaching that most of my students were both curious about and eager to discuss these subjects—a bit of a conundrum when schools generally consider these to be taboo subjects.

Interestingly, however, scientists are beginning to find that just like cognitive, physical, and emotional development, spirituality may also be a universal developmental process—which, given that teaching is informed by child development, raises the question: Can spirituality play a role in secular education?

What Is Spirituality?

Before I go any further, though, I want to fully acknowledge how divisive and tricky the topic of spirituality in education can be for very legitimate reasons. That is why I am approaching the subject through a scientific lens.

To start, there is no definitive agreement among researchers on the separation between spirituality and religiosity. In general, however, spirituality is viewed as beliefs, practices, and experiences that shape and create a way of knowing and living that may or may not be informed by religious ritual, tradition, and doctrine. A person often inherits religion, but makes the conscious choice to practice spirituality by seeking answers about the self, universe, and meaning of life.

While numerous scientists propose that spirituality is a developmental process, they disagree on how the process occurs. Some suggest we are born with spiritual capacity that is cultivated (or not) through interaction with parents, teachers, and/or our culture. Others think spiritual development occurs in stages as we integrate our beliefs with our feelings and actions.

To determine if there is a universal developmental process of spirituality, the Search Institute—led at the time by Peter Benson, an expert in positive youth development—collaborated with scientists from around the world to study the spiritual and religious beliefs and practices of young people. The Search Institute took their definition of spirituality from a paper published in 2003 by the journal Applied Developmental Science:

Spiritual development is the process of growing the intrinsic human capacity for self-transcendence, in which the self is embedded in something greater than itself, including the sacred. It is the developmental “engine” that propels the search for connectedness, meaning, purpose, and contribution. It is shaped both within and outside of religious traditions, beliefs, and practices.

Almost 7,000 persons aged 12–25 from Australia, Cameroon, Canada, India, Thailand, Ukraine, the UK, and the U.S. took part in the study that included surveys, focus groups, and in-depth interviews. The sample represented a broad range of educational and socioeconomic backgrounds, and every major religion as well as Paganism, Sikhism, Native or Traditional Spirituality, atheism, agnosticism, other religions, and those who did not identify as religious.

What they found strongly suggests that a spiritual development process exists that transcends the boundaries of culture and religion and that does not necessarily require engagement in religious practices.

For example, approximately 64 percent of the sample indicated that they were actively pursuing spiritual development without strong adherence to a religious path—with more than half stating that they had grown in their spiritual identity in the last two years. Their main means for spiritual growth included creating positive relationships through prosocial (kind, helpful) beliefs and actions, discovering meaning in life, practicing mindfulness, and aligning values with actions.

Findings also suggested that the majority of young people would welcome the opportunity to explore the topic of spirituality in a safe, caring, and non-judgmental setting.

What Does This Mean for Teaching?

Many consider the sole purpose of schools to be cognitive development. Yet, any effective teacher will tell you that every student is a “whole package” of thoughts, emotions, beliefs, family, culture, economics, etc., (and now, potentially, spirituality)—all of which directly influence a student’s learning. For example, science has clearly determined that a child’s social and emotional skills impact academic success.

So here comes the tricky question: If spirituality is indeed a universal developmental process, how do teachers account for this process in their classroom where separation of church and state is paramount? Interestingly, many teachers are probably already doing it—without even realizing it.

If we use the definition of spiritual development given above, then teachers who:

  • provide experiences of awe for their students through art, music, nature, or studying great people are helping their students connect to something larger than themselves.
  • teach prosocial skills such as gratitudecompassionempathymindfulness, and altruism are helping their students develop positive relationships.
  • relate the content of their classes to students’ lives and who take the time to get to know and cultivate their students’ interests and passions are helping their students develop meaning and purpose.
  • incorporate service learning into their curriculum are providing opportunities for students to make a worthwhile contribution to society and grow their empathy and compassion for others.

How to Talk About Spirituality With Students

But what about the finding that says young people are deeply interested in discussing spirituality? When students do bring these topics up, understanding that spirituality may be developmental can help teachers respond in ways that are both respectful and affirming to students’ growth process.

For example, a simple response to Jesse’s newfound belief could include first asking him how he came to that conclusion and then validating his thinking about the larger questions of life as a positive and natural thing many people do.

A more formal example is the Passageworks program developed by the late Rachael Kessler. After years of listening to students’ stories and questions, Kessler wrote in her book The Soul of Education that “certain experiences—quite apart from religious belief or affiliation—had a powerful effect in nourishing the spiritual development of young people.”

These experiences came through students’ needs for connection, silence, meaning, joy, transcendence (sometimes mystical, but also through extraordinary arts, athletics, academics, or relationships), and initiation into the next stage of life. Passageworks helps teachers establish a classroom environment in which students feel safe to explore these needs.

Spirituality in education is a potentially contentious area, and yet recent scientific findings on spiritual development encourage us, at the very minimum, to ask the question: Do we need to pay attention to this? Perhaps it is apropos of the topic that there are no definitive answers—only big questions.

Vicki Zakrzewski, Ph.D., is the education director of the Greater Good Science Center. This article was first published in the Greater Good Magazine online.

Vicki Zakrzewski
Vicki Zakrzewski