Knowledge versus skills? It’s different in RE.

As a prospective PGCE student in Secondary Religious Education it was the one thing that really made me terrified. With a degree in History of Art was anyone ever going to believe that my subject knowledge is more than ‘good enough’ to train to teach? Luckily, the course leader thought that skills were more important, otherwise I think I would never have been able to train to become a teacher. However, throughout my training (and in my first job) it was a big question mark that I felt was placed over my head. I have had a few conversations with other teachers, lecturers and colleagues who are of the view that my degree might always count against me.

Subject knowledge is something that every teacher could and should always be working on. I love my subject. Despite appearances from my CV, my degree was full of Philosophy, Aesthetics and Critical Theory. Basically, Descartes, Plato, Marx and Adorno with the odd painting thrown in occasionally for good measure. To me, it was a Philosophy degree in disguise. But even so, as a teacher of RE, with a wealth of religion, culture and systems of thought available to become expert in, I have to get used to the idea that I will never know it all, even if I do have the opportunity to study for an MA.

So, perhaps I am biased in my view that skills in RE are more important than knowledge. I do think RE is different, I think it has a USP of the opportunity for pupils to engage with material analytically and critically. Unfortunately, RE is still trying to shirk off out-dated perceptions of its days as ‘Religious Instruction’ when it was first made an entitlement for all pupils in state-funded schools in 1944. Like the Women’s Institute, RE is not all jam and Jerusalem.

RE enables pupils to learn about and from religion. 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, like G. Teece[i], I am very wary of these two attainment targets, what we can learn from (haha!) Grimmitt’s framework[ii] is that the knowledge verses skills debate is different in RE. In fact, I would argue that the way in which we should be structuring RE teaching and learning is with an emphasis on this ‘from’. BUT if, and only if, we are very clear about what the ‘from’ actually entails.

For Michael Gove the purpose of RE is to help all children

‘acquire core knowledge and understanding of the beliefs and practices of the religions and worldviews which not only shape their history and culture but which guide their own development’ and to produce ‘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’[iii].

This is clearly a reflection of the two attainment targets from Grimmitt and sounds, upon first reading, like pretty good RE.

But I do not think this is good enough. For me, good RE is not going to be achieved  through filling up pupil-shaped buckets with deluges of watery (and watered down) facts and hope that somehow this will magically lead to an empathetic understanding of others’ worldviews. I am not saying that this is not a worthwhile task, because clearly  broadening horizons is integral to the social, moral and cultural development of young people, and is well within the remit of RE.

What I am saying is that the crux to good RE is all about how teachers present ‘the facts’ and what pupils do with those ‘facts’.

How teachers present ‘the facts’:

I am not a fan of Ninian Smart’s phenomenological approach to teaching RE. Categorising religions into broad Abrahamic categories of ‘Worship’, ‘Scripture’, or ‘Religious Dress’ does a disservice to the diversity of religions by creating and maintaining ideological barriers of pupils.

Although this pedagogical approach has been widely disregarded[iv] it still lurks around the RE classroom in different guises, most often within the assumptions I and other teachers make about the prior knowledge and level of understanding of students. Often, the assumption is that pupils approach our subject from a common cultural standpoint as British citizens, with a set of reference points absorbed from being part of that culture. What is interesting is that this often forms a foundation for the new learning and is a useful frame of reference to help pupils grasp the concept at hand. For example, when learning about the Hindu sacred thread ceremony, a lesson would begin by recalling knowledge about Christenings or Baptism in order to provide initial access to the rite of passage.

What I find unsatisfactory about this approach to the learning is that although the comparison can be seen to provide some educational benefit by de-mystifying a Hindu ceremony and making it accessible for the pupils, it can only lead to the maintenance of ideological barriers, the continuation of pre-packaged concepts which, as Teece remarks, merely present ‘diversity at a cultural level at the cost of ignoring difference on an ideological level’.[v]

What pupils should do with ‘the facts’:

The type of RE described above provides a disservice to pupils. Young people do need to be able to relate to other, yes, but they also need to be able to critically traverse their own modes of thinking, their own forms of life and, in a sense, recognise that the meaning of ‘facts’ may stem from their use rather than relate to some objective and ultimate truth. For the anti-realist in me, good RE might help pupils come to the realisation that there are no facts, only the games[vi].

It is a bit like that famous scene from Blackadder where the ill-tempered protagonist becomes frustrated at Baldrick’s inability to grasp the basic mathematical concept of adding two beans to another two beans.

Blackadder becomes exasperated and gives up on his pupil. What he doesn’t manage to do is critically assess his own ‘form of life’ sufficiently to recognise that Baldrick is not wrong. When helping pupils to learn about how others interpret the world around them we must not forget to help them gain the skills to be able to analyse their own preconceptions and opinions sufficiently. If pupils are to have any genuine understanding of different religious perspectives, they must be able to recognise that the information they receive about a religion will always be impacted by their previous perspectives and (mis)conceptions.

In other words, we should teach pupils to recognise this: When you take two beans and add another two beans, for some, this is not four beans, this is just a very small casserole. And those people are not wrong. In fact, your insistence on it being four beans is and belief formulated through your own culture and upbringing. Why not open your mind, and imagine how you, in another life, might be convinced, like Baldrick, that the thing before you is something entirely different.

The knowledge verses skills debate is different in RE because it provides the opportunity for pupils to do away with mere knowledge of the ‘facts’ and instead become critical theorists: actively assessing their own cultural background in a manner which Adorno would applaud.

Looks like my degree is relevant after all.

[i] 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

[ii] Grimmitt, M. (1987) Religious Education and Human Development: The relationship between studying religions and personal, social and moral education, Essex, McCrimmons

[iii] REC (2013), NCFRE: A Curriculum Framework for Religious Education in England, p. 5

[iv] ‘a bland study of separate reified accounts of religious traditions’: Maybury, J. & Teece, G. (2006) ‘Learning from what? A question of subject focus in Religious Education in England and Wales’ Journal of Beliefs and Values 26:2 pp.179-190

[v] 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

[vi] For more, read up on Wittgenstein’s Philosophische Untersuchungen (1953).

This post is part of #BlogSyncRE, read other contributions at: for this month’s theme: Religious Literacy & Knowledge vs Skills.


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