Challenge in RE

We probably all recognise a caricature of RE lessons which revolves around tasks that keep children’s attention but don’t seem to stretch. We have all, perhaps, taught some of those lessons- and one important caveat is that each of learning experiences that we use that might in one lesson be incredibly valuable, but we need to ensure that they’re linked to high expectations and the need to challenge pupils in their learning.

One of the worst kept secrets about teaching RE is that as we challenge pupils to do something new and to participate in learning in different ways pupils are enthused, and even sometimes compelled, to learn. RE is by its very nature a challenging subject. It is challenging in three different ways: Knowledge, Epistemology and Empathy.

Knowledge

The amount of knowledge that is available to know and understand is vast. The use of knowledge for the basis of RE is only the beginning of the challenge that can be offered to the children.

The categorisation of religions is difficult and differs from place to place. Stephen Prothero in his book, God is Not One outlines ten major religions but does not include Sikhism as one of those. Within the UK the ‘big six’ are seen to be Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism. These six are usually included because of the numbers in the UK and around the world. But within these six there are different expressions, in the case of Christianity there are many thousands of different groups. Then beyond the big six there are many religions and worldviews that could be explored. These include, but are not limited to, Humanism, Baha’i, Jainism, Rastafari, Paganism, Ravidassia and Yazidi. This is a challenge for the teacher let alone the children. It is impossible to include the nuances of the all of the different religions and worldviews. The way that we can provide challenge for our pupils is to ensure that they are aware that they are learning a mediated curriculum that, at best, only provides a snapshot of religion. We must be careful to recognise that we are going beyond a ‘chocolate box’ view of religions and religious practice in showing that religions are messy and not as straightforward as we portray them to be.

This humility of knowledge, in recognising that we can only teach so much helps pupils understand that all of the answers can never be provided. There are opportunities outside of the curriculum that should be grasped to begin the lifelong challenge of learning.

Recognising the fact of the mediated curriculum does not enable us to abdicate the responsibility of choosing knowledge to be studied in the context of the Agreed Syllabus or examination specification we follow. We choose topics that will fairly represent the worldview of and experience of many of the adherents of religions. If we adopt Ninian Smart’s (1989) approaches to religion these might be under the headings of:

  • the doctrinal
  • the mythological (narrative)
  • the ethical
  • the ritual
  • the experiential
  • the social
  • the material (aesthetic).

We may not categorise the knowledge that we teach into these dimensions but they are a useful shorthand to recognise some of the shared categories of religion (though we recognise again that religions are messy and can’t necessarily be categorised). What is always important is the accurate representation of religions. This might be through the use of qualifiers such as ‘most’, ‘many’, and ‘some’; for example, most Christians celebrate some form of eucharist, or most Muslims will offer prayers at five times during the day. Or it might be through challenging accepted received knowledge in society; for example, how many wise men were there? (not three, or maybe there were); how many of each type of animal went into the ark?

With the amount of knowledge that there is there is a danger that knowledge becomes the sole purpose of our teaching. While being able to name the features of a mosque is an important skill in Key Stage 1, it should be the beginning of learning rather than the end in our teaching in every other phase of teaching. As has been shown, knowledge is important but we are not preparing children for a pub quiz. Sometimes we think, or at least our teaching might show, that it is the accumulation of knowledge that shows progress or provides challenge in RE. For sure, the juggling of all the knowledge required at different Key Stages or for different religions is a challenge for pupils. I remember my very first year 10 exam that I set for pupils. We had learned about the basics of Christianity and Islam. Some of the answers are below:

Q. Where was Muhammad born?

A. Bethlehem

Q. What language was the Bible originally written in?

A. Arabic

Although challenging in and of itself, the challenge in RE comes from what children are asked to do with that knowledge.

Epistemology

What are the ways of knowing within RE? How do we investigate RE? RE is a subject that overlaps with so many different ways of knowing and investigating phenomena and people. RE can be seen to incorporate: anthropology, sociology, psychology, history, and the list can go on. Within RE all of these disciplines coalesce into a subject which is grounded in academic disciplines. Each of these disciplines has a different lens through which it approaches knowledge. While this might be a challenge for the teacher, it opens up a world of possibilities and opportunities for challenging pupils in their study of RE. This kind of debate and approach is reflected in the RE:searchers approach suggested by Freathy and Freathy (2015) where in the Primary school different characters have different lenses through which they investigate religions. A further approach that reflects multi-disciplinary lenses is suggested by Chipperton, Georgiou, Kueh, Seymour (2016) who suggest a Theological, a Philosophical and a Human/Social Science lens.

This might appear to be rather high-brow, but this kind of knowledge or an acknowledgement of ways of knowing helps the teacher and the child understand that there are different ways to approach religious education. This might mean when we explore the story of the Resurrection of Jesus we recognise that there are different methods that might take place in the same classroom or in different year groups.

  • From a historical perspective we might explore the different narratives and evidence that is available to try and discover the truth of what happened? This might be for Christians or as an objective investigation.
  • Utilising a narrative lens we might explore the four accounts and try to understand the motivations of the authors in including certain events.
  • If we incorporate an ethnographic approach within the subject we might explore how Martha, as a Christian, celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus in her everyday life or through the festival of Easter. This will then lead to an exploration of what aspects of the stories are most important to Christians today.

Each of these three approaches is thoroughly rooted in the exploration of Christianity and its impact on Christians lives today, and can be legitimately challenging RE.

Empathy

The ability to understand the impact of a religion or worldview on a person’s life, and empathise with the choices that are made are skills that adults struggle to show in their daily lives. RE is not just about the accumulation of knowledge. There will always be something new to learn, but the real challenge of RE comes by striving to recognise the influence that religion can, and does, have on the individual, the community and the environment. For children of any age it isn’t enough to just learn how to label a synagogue but to begin to understand why it’s needed for the individual Jewish person, and for the wider community both Jewish and non-Jewish.

Although there may be different understandings of religious literacy, one reductive explanation could surround the knowledge of aspects of religion and religious practice. While religious literacy is important, religious empathy is more desirable. People may not hold the same views as others but it is important for them to understand the why of religious belief and practice. Returning to the example of Evie at the beginning and the design of a prayer mat, how could we make this about more than knowing that a Muslim uses a prayer mat?

  • The lesson is framed around ‘Why does a Muslim need a clean place to pray?’ The design of the prayer mat becomes an ancillary part of the discussion. This raises questions about the symbolism of cleanliness, what types of things might make a Muslim physically or spiritually unclean. It could lead to a further question of “Does a Muslim need a clean place to pray?” discussing all of the issues surrounding intent and purpose rather than outward observance. Further challenge might be added if pupils are able to discuss the use of a tablet of clay by many Shi’a Muslims to place their forehead on.

In the above example, there are many different layers of challenge that can be utilised for different children and different classes. This challenge of utilising questions to explore the beliefs and practices of Muslims builds empathy, and moves beyond the illustrative or basic nature of some of the tasks that we might ask.

The example of the storyboard of the life of Moses can be kept, but extended to include questions surrounding the importance of Moses to Jews today; or reasons why he is an inspirational figure. It could also be linked to the festival of Pesach and the reasons that is still remembered today; the importance of remembering for Jews today and many more things. It is going beyond the purely factual to an RE that questions and explores the impact on the life of a believer today.

These are just my initial thoughts- and I’m sure there is lots more to say, but RE is supposed to be challenging in so many different ways.


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