My pupils are desperate to know what religion I am. I am not telling them. It’s been a quite amusing and unintended behaviour management strategy; low-level disruption dissipates instantaneously to be replaced by rapturous attentiveness the very moment an individual tries to gather clues about my identity. My reasoning, though, goes much deeper than this. My religious beliefs are not that relevant.
It frustrates me that so much credit at GCSE can be given-over to the “in my opinion” response. I am interested the views of my pupils and enjoy giving opportunities for debate and discussion. But, I am not that interested. What I have seen in the RE classroom over the past 3 years is a worrying lack of time given over to enriching children’s’ skills in empathy for others views via a genuine critical assessment of their own views. This, I argue, is much more important. As we look to implement the changes which have been made nationally, I hope that this is might be on the cards for the future of RE.
The old National Framework for RE sets out the nature of RE learning and teaching within two attainment targets, ‘learning about’ and ‘learning from’ religion (DfES, 2004). These terms were first introduced by Michael Grimmitt and Garth Read in 1975 and remain central to the nature of RE as set out by the Curriculum Framework of 2013. In studying the subject, pupils still learn ‘about the beliefs, teachings and practices of the great religious traditions of the world’ as well as learn something ‘from their studies in religion about themselves’ (Grimmitt, 1987: 225-6). At a very basic level then, RE involves the presentation of the ‘stuff’ of religion in an instructional, conceptual and empathetic way, as well as the opportunity to engage with it critically, reflectively and analytically on both a personal and impersonal level (Grimmitt, 1987: 225-6).
Although these terms have become widespread in syllabuses in England and Wales, their ‘meaning and validity’ (Teece, 2010: 93) has been much debated. The recent subject review by the Religious Education Council acknowledges the debates:
Though the continuing usefulness of the terms ‘learning about’ and ‘learning from’ religions has been challenged, they have nevertheless become embedded in the thinking of many primary and secondary teachers who, as a result, understand that RE consist of more than just ‘content’. (REC, 2012: 2.10)
It is taken that the ‘about’ and ‘from’ model is only advantageous to RE teaching and learning in that it ensures that the subject does not rest upon the presentation of mere facts. Indeed, some of the best lessons I have taught and seen taught have employed these attainment targets skilfully, facilitating a substantial depth of understanding into particular religious and philosophical concepts which goes far beyond rote learning of ‘The Five Ks’ and ‘The Five Pillars’. However, if the model has become embedded in the thinking of many teachers, then it follows that so too have its deficiencies.
Interpretations of Grimmitt’s original outline for ‘learning from’ have been subject to an over emphasis on the personal type of evaluation to the detriment of impersonal evaluation. That is, RE has fallen prey ‘to the mistake of reducing religion to the experience of the learner rather than religion enriching the experience of the learner’ (Teece, 2010: 98). In other words, pupils’ personal opinions, although an important part of the learning process, are ‘stealing the show’. In my view they should not be given centre-stage.
I am not saying that pupils should not be able to express a well thought out opinion on an issue; far from it. One of the joys of RE is being able to engage with pupil about things that they care about and give them the language, scholars and skills to articulate it in a manner which is not only conducive to empathy and respect, but also as a ‘way-in’ to the great ideas of religious, philosophical or historical traditions. For me, there is nothing better than finding that Aristotle, Hume, Bentham or Kant are hiding amongst an unassuming group of 25 fourteen-year olds during period 7 on a damp Thursday afternoon. These kinds of moments are only possible when pupils have their chance to rant about why they are right! However, what I am saying is that on some GCSE Religious Studies specifications too many marks are awarded for “in my opinion”.
A recent major research project Does RE Work? Concluded bluntly that RE has tried to do too much, re-inventing itself to include within its brief additional whole-school priorities- ‘community cohesion’, for example – and seeking to provide social, moral and values education so that the sense of a substantive core or essence of the subject has been eroded (REC, 2012: 1.3). I am sure this is not true of every RE department, but it paints a picture.
Of course, since the events of 9/11 and 7/7 in 2001 and 2005 respectively, RE has been thrown back into the spotlight. The emphasis on the thematic similarities between religions could be seen to have been an enlarged government focus on community cohesion in schools and the prevention of violent extremism. Clearly the increased activities of ISIS and other extremist groups on social media to recruit young people to their cause highlights the important work done by RE. By allowing pupils to feel comfortable enough to express personal opinions is an important part of such inclusion strategy. Indeed, sharing religious beliefs and faith positions can do much to ‘bridge the gap’ of understanding for pupils. When he was Secretary of State for Education, I am sure that Michael Gove had extremism on the mind when he wrote:
‘The modern world needs young people who are sufficiently confident in their own beliefs and values that they can respect the religious and cultural differences of others, and contribute to a cohesive and compassionate society’ (REC, 2013: 5).
I do believe that expressing opinions in the classroom is the first step to finding some level of helping pupils relate to the religious believer. But, in order for RE to be rigorous and academic, it needs to do more than give a simplistic presentation of religion which enables links to be made with pupils’ lives. It needs to help young people critically asses their own perceptions, transcend them momentarily, and step into the shoes of others’ ideological perspectives.
Then again, that is my opinion, so don’t be too interested.
DfES (2004), Non-statutory National Framework for Religious Education, London, QCA
REC (2013), NCFRE: A Curriculum Framework for Religious Education in England
REC (2012), A Curriculum Framework for Religious Education in England [The Review]
Grimmitt, M. (1987) Religious Education and Human Development: The relationship between studying religions and personal, social and moral education, Essex, McCrimmons
Teece, G. (2008) ‘Learning from religion as “skilful means”: a contribution to the debate about the identity of RE’ British Journal of Religious Education 30:3 pp.187-198
Teece, G. (2010) ‘Is it learning about and from religions, religion or religious education? And is it any wonder why teachers don’t get it?’ British Journal of Religious Education 32:2 pp.93-103