Bob: Quite a lot of my work over the past few years has been in the Council of Europe, which covers 47 European states, including the UK. Among those dealing with educational projects covering values, human rights, intercultural education, citizenship education etc the topic of religion and belief is absolutely central and of huge importance. There are various issues in teaching about religions and beliefs, but embarrassment at the topic certainly should not be one of them! Maybe some people are still confusing initiation into religion or belief with learning about religion and belief??
2) Some students we teach are not religious. This means they aren’t interested in studying religions and beliefs. Is this true?
Bob: The European Commission REDCo project (Religion, Education, Dialogue, Conflict) conducted research with 14 to 16-year-olds in eight different European nations, including England (the others were France, the Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Germany, Estonia and the Russian Federation). The great majority of students (whether or not from religious backgrounds) in the schools sampled in all countries expressed a wish to learn about religion and belief diversity, including the opportunity for discussion and exchange with peers in the ‘safe space’ of the classroom. There are issues here about ensuring that discussions and exchanges are conducted in a well-informed, positive and civil manner. Many students also expressed concern about media representations of religions and wanted help in unpacking and criticising these. These findings are reported and discussed in the various REDCo publications. A short cross section of reports can be found in a 2011 issue of the British Journal of Religious Education, now published as a Routledge paperback book (R. Jackson [ed] Religion, Education, Dialogue and Conflict: Perspectives on Religious Education Research). Discussion of these (the classroom as safe space; media representations of religions) and other issues, specifically focused on the needs of teachers, schools and teacher trainers, are discussed in a new Council of Europe publication on teaching about religions and beliefs. The book is called Signposts - Policy and practice for teaching about religions and non-religious world views in intercultural education. Further information is available at: https://book.coe.int/eur/en/human-rights-education-intercultural-education/6101-signposts-policy-and-practice-for-teaching-about-religions-and-non-religious-world-views-in-intercultural-education.html
Research on students who identify themselves as ‘non-religious’ (e.g. by Simeon Wallis at Warwick) shows that students who tick the ‘non-religious’ box on a questionnaire have a wide variety of personal worldviews. This raises the question about the scope of the subject, which arguably should include both religious and non-religious systems of belief, and should cover personal worldviews as well as ‘organised’ religions and philosophies. Again, this issue is discussed in Signposts.
3) That a focused study of religion involves lower level skills that belong in KS3 and not at GCSE or A-level. Is that right?
Bob: No. Understanding religions and beliefs demands a high level of competence, which involves the acquisition of knowledge, the cultivation of appropriate attitudes, andespecially the acquisition of relevant skills. All of these should be developed at all stages of learning at an appropriate level. Again, the issue of competence – appropriate knowledge, skills and attitudes – is discussed in Signposts.
4) That the popularity of courses will fall if we approach religion using a wider range of approaches. Do you agree?
Bob: Not necessarily. The study of religions and beliefs is a wide-ranging field and the reduction of the subject to a single activity (studying only one religion, only doing philosophy, only studying texts) should be avoided. At the same time, attention needs to be given to what teachers are able to offer (there are implications here for degree courses and specialist professional training), and to student preferences. The general principle of including more than one approach and more than one religion is a good one. If the popularity goes down a bit and the quality goes up, the changes will be worth making.
5) That a focused study of religion and belief cannot be made interesting and engaging by skilled RE teachers. Do you agree?
Bob: No. The REDCo research suggests that teachers need to link what is covered to the interests and concerns of students as far as possible. My observation is that skilled religious education teachers are very capable of doing this.
Professor Robert Jackson PhD, DLitt, FAcSS
Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit (WRERU)
University of Warwick, UK, and
European Wergeland Centre, Oslo, Norway.