Bridges to New Knowledge: Culture, Religion and Identity in Teachers’ Professional Development

Jun. 27, 2015

Source: International Journal of Jewish Education Research (IJJER), 2015 (8), 7 - 36


This article investigates how one Summer Teachers’ Seminar sought to support teachers’ capacity to understand and teach about religion and culture. Using a qualitative, feminist, action-research methodology, the article questions whether the study of one religion and culture creates a bridge toward understanding larger questions of diversity. Findings suggest that such bridge building is possible, when supported by the exploration of the diversity of one culture itself, participating in relational pedagogical practices that focus on cultural artifacts, and a learning environment with diverse participants. Additionally, building bridges between one culture and others (including the participants’ own) led some participants to examine their own cultural identities. Such self- examination supported learning that helped teachers transform their teaching practices concerning cultural understanding.


The implications of this study have both local significance and implications for the field of professional development. As an educational action research study, an important dimension of trustworthiness is the extent to which this work can trigger change. “Outcome validity/ trustworthiness,” (Anderson et al., 2007), considers how the inquiry impacts a change in practice. For the CSJEC, the research described in this article has taught us that the study of Jewish culture, or Judaism as culture, can help break down stereotypes, dismantle bias, and encourage and facilitate shared study across cultural boundaries. While the faculty of the seminar believed that Jewish culture content would be useful content knowledge for teachers in secular schools, we did not expect it to offer such rich opportunities for cultural dialogue and exchange. At a time when we have witnessed a sharp increase of global antisemitism, supporting teachers’ capacity to teach about Jewish religion and culture is of utmost importance. In addition, as a research center in a public university, these findings can help us to construct a meaningful discourse about religion in society and ways of teaching about religion that can open up multiple entry points for diverse student populations Additionally, “catalytic validity/trustworthiness” (Anderson et al., 2007) – the extent to which a study can shape existing theory – is another important dimension of educational action research. In this respect, the present study helps build the relational theory and practice of professional development concerning religion and culture. Findings herein suggest that culturally oriented content, relational-cultural pedagogical practices, and a relationally healthy learning community support teachers’ construction of new knowledge. Such knowledge building is not easy, can be risky and often triggers an investigation of one’s cultural identity. Relationships with self, colleagues, and professional development facilitators can be challenging. Because relational disconnections can occur, thereby interrupting learning, teacher educators must develop relational awareness and become alert to signs of connection and disconnection. Even within this somewhat rocky terrain, teachers in this study tell us that by “taking down walls,” and “spreading out tablecloths” – connecting past and present – they are more self-aware, confident, connected, and feel liberated. It is from this stance that they can take action and help their students build complex and nuanced understandings of the diverse religions and cultures that are the fabric of our society.

Updated: Jul. 22, 2015