Five Strands

Becoming Fully Human – The Five Strands Approach to Religious & Values Education

The Five Strands Approach to Religious and Values Education (RAVE) has been adopted by a number of significant Independent and Catholic schools in all Australian States and in New Zealand.

The Five Strands were first outlined at a national conference of Heads of Independent schools held at Geelong Grammar School in September 1997, and were further explored in conferences for Heads, Heads of Curriculum and Heads of RE held throughout Australia in 1998.

Dialogue Australasia Journal was first published in 1999.  Articles are commissioned that address The Five Strands and the journal has become an important bi-annual resource for teachers of RE, Philosophy and Values.

In April 2002, over 250 educators gathered at Canberra Girls Grammar School at an international conference on the theme of Ethics and Spirituality. This conference launched the Dialogue Australasia Network (DAN).


* Read 1997-2012, 15 Years On: Another Look at the Five Strand Approach to Religious and Values Education by Dr Peter Vardy

* Read the paper presented by Peter Vardy at the 2005 DAN Conference
Living Life Sub Specie Aeternitatis – A Rationale for Values Education in Australasian Schools

* Read the paper presented by Peter Vardy at the 2002 DAN Conference
Becoming Fully Human – A Five Strand Approach to Religious & Values Education


The Five Strands Approach promotes a broad-based academic approach to form the curriculum base for each school’s RAVE Programme from Prep – Yr 12.  The five essential areas should inform planning and be integrated into every year level rather than addressed sequentially as discrete units.  Each school is encouraged to develop the strands according to its curriculum, traditions, ethos and strengths.  This approach to RAVE is intended to be part of a whole of school intention to take the less easily measurable aspects of education seriously, and to prepare young people to flourish as social, moral, spiritual and cultural beings rather than as mere economic units.

The strands are as follows:


Australia and New Zealand’s roots lie in the Christian tradition and an insight into this tradition together with its doctrines, creeds and places of worship is encouraged. Contrasts between Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Uniting Church views need both exploring and understanding. Within denominational schools, stress may be placed on particular features of the tradition. For instance, Catholic schools focus on the teachings of the Church, the Catechism and Sacraments. Some young Australians may never have even entered a Church and may not appreciate the significance of its many features and layout. It may also be considered desirable to have knowledge of key figures in Christianity from St. Francis, Aquinas, John of the Cross, Thomas More, Teresa of Lisieux, Mary MacKillop, Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela.

Biblical Studies has been neglected in schools, yet the Hebrew and Christian scriptures underlie much great literature. Without an understanding of these scriptures, it may be difficult to fully appreciate Shakespeare, Dante and much European literature and history, as well as a great deal of art and classical music.

Biblical education would include detailed examination of selected stories from the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. Children need to understand how God has been seen to be at work within human history within the monotheistic traditions. The Scriptures are central to the faith of all Christians, Muslims and Jews and underpin many of the values in Australian society. The main stories in the Hebrew scriptures (The Old Testament) need to be understood, as they represent defining moments in Israel’s understanding of God. In some cases, different interpretations found within varying religious groups are significant today (for instance, the story of Abraham, who is looked to by Christians, Jews and Muslims – albeit in different ways).

The Christian Gospel narratives need to be introduced and examined with progressive understanding as pupils move through the school, with particular stress on these stories from Prep. to year 8. A spiral approach is needed so that students return to the stories at progressively higher year levels. The level of understanding at age 6, 10 and 17 is not the same in Science, English or Mathematics – nor should it be the same in the religious arena. Stories such as Jonah and the whale, Joseph and his multi-coloured coat, David and Goliath or Samson are delightful for Years 1 and 2 but frequently, even if these stories are taught, the level of understanding rarely progresses beyond these levels.

If Biblical stories are to have any relevance to young people, their complexity must be explained and evaluated. These stories are complex and sophisticated, so it is essential that students appreciate the ‘depth grammar’ involved and that ‘truth’ may be communicated through story, without all stories necessarily being literally true. Metaphor, analogy, symbol and art are important in appreciating recent Biblical scholarship, hence the need for a spiral approach in the curriculum, returning to the stories at different stages in the educational process.
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Australia and New Zealand are now multi-cultural societies with a wide variety of religious traditions. Our countries are set in the Pacific basin and have trading links with countries with widely different belief systems. A real appreciation and understanding of alternative faith perspectives is vital, as this may be a necessary pre-cursor to tolerance and acceptance of the position of others. RE should provide children with an understanding of the beliefs of the main world religions and an empathy for what it means to belong to these religions – in particular Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism as well as the sophistication of aboriginal beliefs. The cultural heritage that accompanies these religious movements also needs study. Too often, young Australians have scant understanding of the religious perspectives of others and therefore do not take them seriously. It is all too easy to teach world religions badly – as will be made clear below.

Part of the task of teaching world religions should be to minimise the degree of prejudice held by pupils. A survey undertaken through NSW schools by the Australian Catholic University revealed considerable evidence of prejudice. Pupils aged 18 were interviewed in 1995 and the following percentages said that they would be unwilling to live next to the groups named below:

  • Criminal background — 52.1%
  • Asians — 20.8%
  • Buddhists — 6.3%
  • Homosexuals/Lesbians — 20.8%
  • Elderly people — 12.5%
  • Unemployed — 10.4%

The level of prejudice increased after two years study for the NSW ‘Study of Religions’ papers – this may reflect on the way the material is presented and any school will have to be sensitive to this. Prejudice is often based on poor information and a lack of understanding and a sound curriculum, sensitively applied, should seek to minimise these reactions. To teach, for instance, World Religions by looking at ‘festivals’ is a very poor way to approach the subject. Studying the festivals which mark Saints’ Days in Latin America or Spain, is unlikely to provide a great deal of insight into the complexities and intellectual depth of Catholicism!

On some occasions in the past, Australians have often neglected Aboriginal religious and cultural heritage and a more nuanced approach needs to be attempted at different stages in the school, emphasising the Aboriginal understanding of the transcendent and aspects of their religion (such as care for the environment and spirituality) from which all Australians can learn. It must be accepted that it is not easy to give a real understanding and appreciation of aboriginal culture. Sensitivity and skill will be needed to help children to understand the complexity of aboriginal culture, as well as the difficult social problems they face today and the challenge to chart a constructive way forward. There are no simple answers and the challenge may well be to help children obtain a developing
understanding of the complexity of some of the issues that racism raises, including issues of social justice, economic welfare, employment, etc..
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Young people are introduced to the central areas in Philosophy of Religion. This includes arguments for and against the existence of God; an understanding of God’s omnipotence and omniscience; what it means to talk of ‘Eternal Life’; the philosophic problems raised by the idea of survival of death and the problem of evil and innocent suffering. The holocaust can be dealt with in an intellectual framework, which provides a broad understanding of the challenge presented by the innocent suffering for many religious believers. The challenge of Ivan Karamazov (in Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’) against God could be contrasted with the position of Job. Ivan Karamzov rejects God because he maintains that a world where innocent children have to suffer is not a world that can be justified – no matter what the final aim of creation may be. After tragedies such as the holocaust, Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia or even the Port Arthur massacre, young people cannot fail to be aware of the tension between belief in a wholly good and all powerful God and the undoubted reality of evil. They need to be given the opportunity to think through the consequences of this tension in an intellectual framework that takes the issues seriously, whilst also encouraging freedom of thought.

The issue of truth should be examined with young children moving from a very concrete, black and white understanding, to an increasing appreciation of the sophistication of the issues raised. Issues of truth underlie discussions in science, history, English and many other subjects and the curriculum should help to make these links and to begin to question whose truth is being proclaimed. In the teenage years, the curriculum can help pupils think through the challenges posed by feminism and postmodernism, as well as the broad assumption of meaninglessness, which underlies some of contemporary society.
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The term ‘values education’ in many schools is broadly interpreted to include issues such as bullying, discrimination, tolerance and social justice – yet this needs extending. Pupils need intellectual space to explore different approaches as a means of evaluating ethical issues. Values education should both be theoretically based (including the difference between Divine Command Theory, Natural Law, Proportionalism, Situation Ethics, Utilitarianism, Emotive Ethics and Virtue Ethics) and also issue related. Children may be aware that different religious denominations have different attitudes to some key moral issues, but without understanding the underlying theoretical positions, they will not be able to compare, contrast and evaluate the differences effectively.

Specific issues to be covered, at pre-determined age groups, might include racism, crime and punishment, abortion, euthanasia, medical ethics, genetic engineering, just war thinking, social justice issues, relationships, sexuality (including homosexuality), business ethics and the issue of animal rights and environmental ethics. Young Australians will have to grapple with the complexities of these issues when they enter the adult world and they need to be given the intellectual tools to engage with today’s or tomorrow’s problems at a level that goes beyond the superficial or emotive.
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The Affective approach seeks to redress the imbalance when education solely stresses the cognitive. In the 1970s, some Philosophers of Education stressed the idea of ‘Rational Autonomy’ as an educational aim, but emphasis on this alone can develop the rational side of human nature at the expense of the emotional and affective, closing people off to religious possibilities. Religious education touches on issues of life and death, God and evil, sexuality and relationships, marriage and divorce in a way unmatched by other disciplines. However, religious education does not simply transmit knowledge, but also explores the implications of the central claims for each individual. This can give an alternative perspective to materialism and help students to gain inner confidence and to recognise the value of silence, gentleness, compassion, concern for others and personal responsibility, as well as achievement, success, recognition and reputation. Many young Australians’ lives are filled with noise (CD player, video, television, computer game and so forth) making the ability to be still more important than ever. Through this, they may come to know themselves and to find peace an increasingly valuable part of their lives.

Australia and New Zealand are increasingly secular and materialist societies, where a laissez-faire attitude is accepted and where almost anything is permitted, provided it does not hurt others. Life for both adults and children is increasingly frenetic. There is a tendency to want to ‘keep children busy’ as this avoids them getting into mischief. ‘The devil makes work for idle hands to do’ may be implicit in many teachers’ thinking. However, a central dimension of religion is that it affects an individual’s subjectivity and that time is needed for silence and reflection. The word ‘meditation’ has acquired an unfortunate aura and there is no suggestion that this should be introduced into the curriculum, but it is essential that the spiritual side of pupils is taken seriously. In Britain, stillness is a compulsory part of the National Curriculum from Years 1 to 11.

If this approach is adopted, teachers will, over a period of time, need to be trained in the use of stillness and silence in the classroom, although in some schools, it is likely that a few teachers will already be using these techniques. Initially this training may be by ‘in-service’ days. Those teachers who have a real interest in this subject area can be sought, whilst being careful to ensure that this interest does not mark a desire to indoctrinate children with a particular viewpoint at the expense of others.

There are many ways in which stillness can be fostered but they will include the use of music, art, ikons and the Australian Bush. However, young people should be enabled to develop the capacity to be ‘still’ even when in the middle of noise and busyness. At St. Ignatius College, Riverview, there is a clearly developed and sophisticated programme for taking this dimension seriously and for developing the spiritual side of young people. Other significant schools have also recognised the crucial importance of this aspect of education. In Geelong Grammar’s Timbertop campus, each day starts with a period in chapel, a significant part of which is devoted to stillness, with the children sitting quietly in the ‘A’ frame chapel looking out over the bush. This is a prelude to days of hectic activity, yet during the whole of the Year 9 which they spend at Timbertop, they are taught to value stillness not only in chapel, but also in their various expeditions. To stand on top of a high peak and look out over the mountains after a night spent on a solo expedition is a profound and moving experience, which can stay with young people throughout their lives and challenge their existing views of the world. Such ‘bush experiences’ are a valuable part of Australia’s heritage which are too often neglected and ignored in a society which seems to prize activity above reflection.

In Values, Philosophy & Religious Studies, young people can be helped to express their own ideas without fear of censure or ridicule. A key assumption underlying the Five Strands approach is that under no circumstances should ideas or beliefs be imposed on children. Rather, they should be taught to value the search for truth and meaning and should be tolerant of alternative viewpoints and willing to listen to opinions markedly different from their own. Religious faith should be seen as a result of a personal quest where the journey itself is central, and there should be room for ambiguity and doubt.

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To model the pedagogy DAN exists to promote, a sample 5 Stands Beginners Curriculum for Yrs 7-9 is offered. The curriculum was written by Dr Felicity McCutcheon (Head of Philosophy & Religion at Melbourne Grammar School) as one possible way into teaching RAVE for new and non-specialist teachers.

There are many other possible models for teaching RAVE in an academically rigorous and relevant way. Check out alternative approaches offered on the DAN website including the Yrs 7-9 Religious Education & Ethics Curriculum and Yr 9 Matrix Unit from Dr Nicholas Coleman, Wesley College, Victoria and Years 7-13 Religious Studies Unit Outlines from St Peter’s College, Auckland.

It is hoped that additional models will be added in time to the DAN website and we welcome your contribution.

DAN highly recommends the Charles Sturt University Graduate Certificate in Religious and Values Education for new RAVE teachers and teachers looking to develop their existing RAVE curriculum. This distance education course provides an invaluable grounding in biblical, philosophical, ethical and multi-faith disciplines within religious studies.