Time to REboot RE? #REConsult – Musings in response to Daniel’s Friday questions

IMG_0772.JPGTwitter has been buzzing ever since the consultation documents came out on the proposals for GCSE and A Level RE. Daniel Hugill (@DanielHugill) posted some excellent questions which reflected some of the Twitter debate. I decided to write My thoughts on these questions – I have been thinking some similar thoughts myself!

1. Seems to be some reluctance to teach about religion and belief. Are we embarrassed by it?

Embarrassment of belief? I think there is some truth in this. It’s not new of course, but I think with the increased focus on P&E there have been ways that RE has been able to be justified as being relevant. I find this odd because religion is everywhere! I was often asked about changing the name of the subject over the years but I always said that the majority of the world’s population are religious, how can it be irrelevant? With world events being as they are there are numerous ways to make connections, same goes for popular culture. There is even something of a backlash going on against comedians who get cheap laughs ridiculing religion. But this does lead to the next question…

2. Some students we teach are not religious. This means they aren’t interested in studying religions and beliefs. Is this true?

The religious beliefs of the students is not of immediate relevance. Think of parallels, do you have to be a Nazi to study the Second World War in History, or an animal to study Biology, or to travel to study Geography? Ridiculous obviously. However, even when we look to Art there has been a big push to include students who don’t see themselves as artistic. I would suggest you just need to be interested in two things – ideas and people. Some of the best RE students are the most passionate atheists.

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?

Agreed this seems to be a thought. It seems to be quite disrespectful of Theology. Perhaps it depends upon the kind of degree the teacher has and their own experiences of the subject? I’ve taught about 6 or 7 different A Level papers including a textual study of John and Patristic Theology! They are demanding, but it’s not impossible to make them attractive to students. Do English teachers have to justify studying texts at A Level?

4. That the popularity of courses will fall if we approach religion using a wider range of approaches. Do you agree?

The popularity of subjects is all down to how you market them and how you teach them – make both interesting and exciting then it works. If you build it they will come.

5. That a focused study of religion and belief cannot be made interesting and engaging by skilled RE teachers. Do you agree?

Doesn’t say much for teachers if they feel they can’t do this, unless they don’t believe it themselves? Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching Philosophy, I specialised in it at university, but I loved so much about my Theology degree and am thrilled when students have gone on to study Theology themselves. If some of these changes happen I can tell you I will be right there happily leading training days on the richness of RE that covers not one university degree but at least two entirely distinct disciplines. It might involve some hard work, but I think this subject is worth that. Why should RE be easy?

My view on REconsult – Celebrate the opportunity to give RE a REboot

 

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Education Book recommendation for the Summer: Ecclesiastes

20140702-114319-42199272.jpgAs we approach the summer holidays it is a time when many teachers thoughts turn to their summer holidays and the reading material for those long, lazy days. On Twitter I have already seen a number of book lists, which seem to consist of weighty educational tomes (make sure you check your baggage allowance!) that all seem to be worthy contenders. I have a recommendation for your reading list and it is only 51p on Kindle and about sixty pages, it’s an easy, accessible treat. My recommendation for a summer reading is the book Ecclesiastes. Shockingly it is a book of the Bible. I am recommending it, not only because there are lots of gems in there to make you think about life, the universe and everything, but also because I think it can give an insight to a lot of what is happening in education at the moment.

The author is a shadowy figure, less accessible than say your Hatties and Dwecks. The author has no name as such, although is referred to as Qoheleth, which means the ‘wise one’ or the ‘preacher’, in fact in some versions this is actually translated as ‘Teacher’ so think of the connections there. They seem to be a philosophical kind of person, with their opening words, having more than a dash of Buddhism about them,

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (1:1)

Already I imagine there are some that might say, ‘Ah here is someone who truly understands the craziness that forms the basis of educational matters these days’. This quote certainly does set the tone for the one of the themes of the book. The author considers the meaningless nature of what we know. A wonderful epistemological question right from the outset. What can really be known? A question that, if we could answer it, might just guide our journeys through Teaching and Learning land. Qoheleth says that so many of the things that we consider to be important are really worth nothing; he says that it is just like chasing the wind. A lesson to be learnt there regarding levels perhaps, is there really such a thing as an objective benchmark and do we need one anyway?

Perhaps one of the most telling parts of the opening section of Ecclesiastes is when Qoheleth says,

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”? (1:9f)

I recently came across the phrase ‘graphic organisers’ when researching new assessment and differentiation practices and wondered what it was referring to. When I looked further it was essentially the distilling of information into boxes or different shapes on a handout. Look back across the decades of teaching experience and you will see this practice existing in one form or another. We might give ideas new labels, but perhaps Qoheleth has a point, is there anything of which one can say, Look! this is something new! Perhaps instead of looking for easy new answers, or debunking myths, we should be considering permutations, in the words of one of Ian Gilbert’s Thunks (@ThatIanGilbert), can you really stand on the same beach twice. It is all too clear that education is forever in a state of flux, perhaps there is nothing new, but what we can do is learn to adapt to our ever changing environment,

If you feel like the emphasis on the meaninglessness is a little too much for the summer holidays, keep going, in the way you would with Its a Wonderful Life, because chapter three takes you to familiar territory. One of the most well known passages of Ecclesiastes has made it into popular culture, particularly if you know the 1965 hit for The Byrds, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’. The passage famously examines the concept of time and the inevitability of certain events and rituals.

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace. (3:1-8)

There is a time when certain things are right and a time when they are not. Inevitability requires an acceptance that there are things that are beyond your control. This is not the same as refusing to challenge injustice, but it is to recognise that ideas will come and go regardless. There is a time to search out, but there is also a time to give up. What is particularly noteworthy for teachers is the time to be silent. The space for peace and quiet can be a rare thing in schools and especially for those who work in schools. What better way to restore balance but to seek out a moment or two of silence over the summer. Even the tweets can cease some times. What is encouraged is to live your life to the full and to enjoy the pleasures of today, because they could be gone tomorrow.

This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. (5:18)

If Qoheleth is to be believed then our lives should reflect the balance of all those things. One of the worst mistakes you could make, particularly as a teacher, is to imagine you know what is going to happen. The academic year might be sketched out, dates might be in place, calendars taking shape, but it has yet to be painted in. Students will return as new individuals and their learning pathways are yet to be written.

Qoheleth writes on the nature of wisdom and encourages us to persevere. A number of interesting ideas are included, which you might agree with or think are ridiculous, but they at least might give you something to think about. Some might give you comfort when faced with the latest educational headline.

Frustration is better than laughter,
because a sad face is good for the heart. (7:3)

Other points might be helpful for those who get embroiled in ‘educational’ twitter debates.

Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit,
for anger resides in the lap of fools. (7:9)

Another point might be helpful when you find yourself about to embark on yet another debate about teaching standards.

Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?”
For it is not wise to ask such questions. (7:10)

If after all of this you feel at a loss as to what your goal should be, Qoheleth has something to say about this too, which may appeal in its simple nobility.

So I turned my mind to understand,
to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things
and to understand the stupidity of wickedness
and the madness of folly. (7:25)

Now I’m not saying it is always an easy read. Ecclesiastes is a strange, challenging, difficult, depressing, uplifting, bizarre, annoying, confusing and illuminating read. I do recommend that you read it, whatever your beliefs and if you do not believe in religion. I haven’t given the end away. Read it, you never know you might love it.

 

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Thank goodness RE is complicated

complicatedWhy did I choose to teach RE? The answer was really simple, because I loved my subject. I was passionate about Theology & Philosophy of Religion, and by the time I reached the dizzy heights of 22, had been so for at least a decade. Why did I love it so? Because of complexity. It was the way in which humans encountered the divine in a number of ways, but each was beautifully complex. I had loved my university lectures on Systematic Theology, because I liked the nitty gritty of Incarnational or Trinitarian theology, for example. I even enjoyed coping with the complexities of early church history, because those Patristic leaders seemed to spend decades arguing over single words, because they wanted to agree to create creeds and canons. With Patristic Theology there never seemed to be a sense of, ‘Well, that’ll do for now’. Then there were the textual studies. Having been prepared for Theology by learning New Testament Greek, at my local comprehensive, by the most brilliant of teachers (see ‘I want to continue to develop professionally’ ) I was ready to dissect text with the rest of them. I was happy to translate Mark’s Gospel with all its hurried mistakes and clumsiness. Was challenged by the detail of Romans, but loved in particular John’s Gospel, with all its hidden symbolism, underpinning structural meanings, its theological clues that sent you on an exciting detective hunt. I loved the complexity. Even now, if I’m feeling in the mood for a little Greek jousting, I will happily answer the door to bewildered JWs to discuss the role of the definite article in Trinitarian theology. For me, there were frustrating, yet beautiful paradoxes to battle with and yet this was only half of the picture. Theology’s intricacies also sprung from the fact that people are complicated too. Not surprising if you believe in Imago Dei.

 

Why did I want to teach RE? Well that love and appreciation of complexity of belief, of people and of divinity had been nurtured in me by outstanding teachers. They loved their subjects too and had passed that on to me. The RE department that I attended did have its beautiful wall displays (albeit in a portacabin, too hot for summer, too cold for winter), but it had even more beautiful discussions. Nobody dumbed anything down, that I can remember. We were not a selective school, a nice rural comprehensive, so quite a mixed bag. There were a lot of ultra brights, Oxbridge classes for some, but some struggled too. I remember my A level class had about 20 in it. Students were drawn to the variety within the subject. I wanted to be able to pass that excitement on, just as my teachers had done.

 

Once teaching, I like to think that I managed to sustain that level of complexity, even being asked to teach an A Level paper on Patristic Theology and still using the Greek for analysing Mark’s Gospel at GCSE. Over the years the demands and expectations of the subject have changed, but the best RE is still a subject that embraces the complexity, rather than distils it into something unrecognisable. Watered down, the study of religious views loses its vibrancy. Maybe this is echoed in the ‘post-Christianity’ that Rowan Williams recently spoke about. Rather than a dismissal of Christian values instead an ‘in-the-background’ complacency. It would be easy for that to be a feature of RE too, if it wasn’t for the vigilance of great RE teachers. The classic ‘breadth at the expense of depth’ conflict, making sure we know something of what everyone says on the subject of abortion, at the expense of really knowing what anyone believes. How could you possibly

‘adopt an enquiring, critical and reflective approach to the study of religion’ (‘Religious Education: realising the potential, Ofsted, p5)

if religion has become a beige catalogue of pretty days and greeting card sentiments. No wonder RE organisations and teachers see the need to challenge the level of achievement in RE. It lifts the heart to see that the Religious Education Council’s first step in mapping out a way forward with RE is to acknowledge its complexity, not only in terms of its undefinable quality, but also in its encompassing of the complexity of people (‘A Review of Religious Education in England, p48). It’s a tough job out there.

 

So, the on-going challenge to teachers of RE is to embrace and communicate the challenge. One way in which faith was presented to us in a more sophisticated way was through the medium of television with the third series of Rev on the BBC. Here we met with Rev Adam Smallbone, his wide, his colleagues, and his parishioners. What we were shown was an exploration of what faith means, of the value and meaning of prayer, of forgiveness, of liturgy, of sin, of death, of tradition, of ecclesiastical structures, of Easter and perhaps most importantly of doubt. Nothing was explained away to the nth degree, questions were not always answered and it wasn’t always funny, but it was complicated, because belief in a divine being is complex, as are people. Encounters like this also serve to highlight where good RE teaching has always led the way in tried and tested educational theory (see Delivering the Perfect RE Lesson ). A discussion about Rev. could illicit some interesting and profound responses.

 

Why do I still love RE? Because now more than ever is a time to enjoy complexity. We even have a phrase, ‘dumbing down’ and we have books for dummies (of which I am happy to admit I am one). That’s fine, because we all need support and scaffolding to help us understand difficult things, but as with Wittgenstein’s early view of language as a ladder, it serves a purpose to help us climb to a different level, but we can kick it away once we’ve got there. It’s worth the effort, RE for dummies would be like ‘Wizard of Oz’ without the Technicolor. We need to embrace the complexity.

 

I can remember in the midst of my days as a theological student, going along with a friend to their place of worship to see what it was like. The people were lovely, the music was amazing, but as a rather too earnest theologian I can remember hearing a preacher say that ‘Kingdom’ was a tricky word, so for his talk he was going to use the word ‘family’ instead. I couldn’t tell you what he said after that because in my head I think I had begun to list all the ways, theological and otherwise, as to why ‘Kingdom’ was not like a ‘family’.

 

This is not an argument ignoring accessibility, instead it is a celebration of complexity. When I was a Head of RE I often had parents ask why it was still called RE, one even suggested it could be called, ‘Respect’. Hmm. My standard answer was always it is Religious Education because the majority of the world’s population are religious, it was about religion, even when it was about atheism and agnosticism, it was about religion. No need to hide from that. So, my hope, along with so many RE supporters out there is to embrace the details, light the fires of fascination and challenge each new mind you encounter, because complexity doesn’t get much better than this.

The Theology of Feedback

The Ancient of Days by William BlakeAn area of great interest to me at the moment is the value of effective feedback in raising standards. This is partly due to the prominence it has been given in recent research reviews of the relative impacts of different interventions in the classroom. When looking at the most successful interventions (see also the new course from @Dragonflytraining on ‘Research for Learning’) you see that findings from Hattie and The Sutton Trust rank feedback as one of the most influential ways that teachers can make a tangible difference to their students’ progress. Hattie is quick to point out that the teacher’s view of what is considered useful feedback often differs hugely from that of the student. The underpinning importance of the relationship of the teacher to the student prompted some interesting connections with key theological concepts that perhaps gives an insight into the true nature of effective feedback.

Firstly, what is crucial to a truly differentiated approach is an understanding that not all learners are the same. This is not news to teachers who have spent many a break and lunch time discussing their students as individuals. Good marking, reporting and feedback to parents has always been individualised and personal. This recognises the personhood of students rather than any attempt to define them as a collective which diminishes their individuality. Of course this can be hard work to achieve, especially when faced with large classes, and unfortunately sometimes the opposite does occur. I remember the schoolgirls who told me that they had no idea how to make progress in Maths because the whole class was always awarded a C3 when it came to termly reporting. I assumed this to be typical student exaggeration until I looked up the set’s results for the past few reports, only to see it was true. These occurrences are thankfully rare, as the majority of teachers spend hours attempting to personalise learning. The example however does highlight something that Hattie makes clear, that it is important to think about how feedback is received rather than merely how it will be given. In Christian Theology there are some amazing writings, particularly from the patristic era, concerning the idea of humans as a reflection of the Divine Personhood (Gregory of Nyssa et al). Even without a belief in the Divine Personhood it could be worth thinking about the individuals in the class as a reflection of the characteristics modelled by the teacher. Either way, feedback is feedback to an individual responding to their learning experience.

This is just one aspect in which I see a correlation between feedback and theology, but the main way I want to consider here is to look at the nature of the relationship between the teacher and the individual student. One of the hardest topics I would normally teach as part of A level Philosophy of Religion was the response of Process Theodicy (‘theodicy’ comes from the Greek, literally meaning the righteousness of God) to the Problem of Evil. The Problem of Evil states that there appears to be an incompatibility between the concept of a loving deity and the existence of evil. The two main Judeo-Christian traditional positions that are usually studied first are those of Augustine and Irenaeus. A third position that is often looked at is that of the Process Theologians, such as Alfred Whitehead and David Griffin, amongst others. Whitehead believed that God pushed the world forward in creative ways. These theologians argue for a neo-classical view of God that instead of being omniscient, omnipotent and infinite, God is located in time, not knowing what the future will hold. The reason for this is because by sacrificing these qualities God is able to be affected by human actions and to be able to respond to them. 20140220-173152.jpgThis quality was a particular focus for Jurgen Moltmann’s seminal work, ‘The Crucified God‘ which argued against the traditional view of God as impassible, meaning that humans were unable to affect God. Instead he argues for the passibility of God, that God suffers with humanity in their suffering. By sharing in the process, the future is a product of that reciprocal relationship. Humanity is comforted and encouraged knowing that God is alongside them. The Process Theologians argue that this is a truly loving relationship where God has initiated the creative process and urges it forwards.

Not surprisingly I have not done justice to the full arguments of these great thinkers, but it is the co-sharing relationship that I felt linked with the concept of effective feedback. Of course I am not suggesting that all teachers see themselves as gods (only a few and these are definitely in the minority – see Twitter), but there can be a sense, even a worry, that the teacher should play the omnipotent role in the classroom. Everything is known and it is for the students to aspire to their knowledge. We are the constant in every lesson, the unchanging absolute, whilst students come and go. What the recent work on feedback really highlights is the importance of the shared journey. Adaptive planning is a consequence of reacting to individual learning experiences with individual students.

Process Theodicy does not uses the language of coercion, instead God lures humanity through love into producing creative responses. The process is dynamic, changing, and one of interaction. This can also be said for the creative relationship between pupil and teacher. This example also links to the notion of praise, often mistaken as equating to effective feedback. In the divine relationship humans affect and are affected by God, but the individual can act with free will and as a consequence sometimes bad things happen as part of that dynamic process. So it is too that with an honest, reciprocal relationship there will be times when failure occurs, but lessons are learnt from those experiences. This idea would promote the importance of ventures such as Wimbledon High School’s ‘Failure Week’ that first happened in 2012. With feedback, meaningless praise has no effect on moving the process forward, but it is the exchange of ideas that can make the long-term difference. In the divine relationship the Process Theologians argue that God is genuinely loving, because He responds to the changing relationship with members of creation. The love is both absolute and present in the changing interactions. Writers such as Hattie and Dweck suggest that praise can dilute what should be learnt from feedback. This is not suggesting a ‘no praise’ approach, because it is part of the dynamic of the class, but it is not the coercion that determines the student’s next step. Creativity is not an optional extra that is sought and only sometimes achieved, instead the on-going interactive process itself is an act of creativity.

Hattie says that,

‘The more the teacher receives feedback from student engagement, then the more likely he or she is to adapt their actions and expectations and thus students are the beneficiaries’ (2014, p69).

This reciprocal relationship benefits both teacher and student and both can move forward together. It might be worth considering renaming feedback as ‘process feedback’ because it is part of the bigger picture. Just as with Process Theodicy, to enter into a relationship where you are affected by the interaction, involves taking risks. The ‘omnipotent’ position can be far more attractive because certainty means the outcome is known. However, by taking on board the personhood of pupils it is clear that the outcome cannot be established by pre-determined factors, education has to be reactive and adaptive if it is going to succeed in enabling pupils to make the best choices.

There are of course criticisms of Process Theology, including that it is not a solution to the problem of evil, because advocates have changed the definition of God, rather than answer the dilemma. One criticism that might be relevant to education is that the outcome of this creative process is not known. One can hope that everything will work out well, but there is no guarantee and unfortunately we are living in a time when guarantees are expected. So can you have both – a guarantee and the uncertainty of process? I would suggest not. Some think that finding the right piece of research will solve the problems of education, but with the personhood of pupils we have individuals to work with not objects and therefore research is on-going and dynamic. If we take risks, engage with the creative interaction, the outcome may be worth the gamble. Certainly feedback, or ‘process feedback’ appears to have one of the biggest positive impacts on learning and so I think it just might be worth taking that chance.

photo(1)Hattie, J & Yates, G (2014) Visible Learning & the Science of How We Learn, Routledge, Abingdon

Last of the Letter Writers

letterwriting

Earlier this week I caught Melvin Bragg on Radio 4’s ‘In our Time’ discussing Pliny’s letters with his guests. I, like many other theological students before and after me, had encountered Pliny during my degree. Pliny is particularly famous for the letters he wrote in the setting of first century Rome. He is one of the earliest non-Christian sources on what was happening with Christianity at that time. For example, Pliny was having to deal with the problem of what to do with lapsed Christians. Initially it reminded me of studying early church history and then teaching a paper on the Early Church, in my first year teaching A level RS, as a newly qualified teacher. I had a little advantage in that I did actually enjoy learning all about these characters, Origen, Pelagius and Tertullian. However, trying to persuade seventeen year olds that Tertullian was a funny guy and there was a great deal of wit in his writings was a tough gig. This made me think about the importance of letters and I tried to think about the last proper letter I had received. I suddenly realised that we have the difficult job of teaching new generations that really do not understand what it means to receive letters.

When I reflected on this further I thought that failing to really understand letters separates you from so much, obviously in literature, but particularly in RE. When I started to think about the meaning of letters I thought about the role they had played in my subject. You only have to think of biblical studies and the epistles in particular to see how hard it could be to have any sense of empathy with the letter writers. Biblical studies is a hard enough discipline, often limited to a quick romp through Mark for GCSE in schools, but it can be a an exciting discovery. Those letters are not short though and trying to equate them to an email exchange doesn’t quite capture the theological exploration. When I was at university my family and friends would write long, chatty letters and and cards, because communication was not immediate and easy. You had to wait and in writing back you thought about what needed to be said, which stories were to be shared. You didn’t summarise in an email, or even shorter in a text, or shorter still, a tweet. Can you even imagine the difference if Paul had had a mobile? He would have definitely needed a pay monthly contract with unlimited minutes in order to cope with the frequent calls to Corinth, Philippi and Ephesus.

I then realised that there were at least two other set of letters that meant a lot to me. These letters were connected to one man who I first encountered whilst studying A Level RE myself. I was lucky enough to study a paper on modern church hisdietrich-bonhoeffertory and one of the key figures was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. After the discovery of his involvement in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler he was imprisoned, eventually at Flossenburg. During the two years of his imprisonment he wrote extensively, the writings were then collected and published as ‘Letters and Papers from Prison‘. When you encounter these writings for the first time as an enthusiastic A Level student they have a profound effect on you. Bonhoeffer wrote about his quest for authentic living, costly grace and understanding ‘religionless Christianity’, radical thinking for his time. What was so tragic was that he was executed in Flossenburg only three weeks before the Nazis surrendered. When I was at university another set of letters were published in connection with Bonhoeffer, this was called ‘Love letters from Cell 92‘ and mostly consisted of the letters between Bonhoeffer and his fiancée Maria Von Wedermeyer. They had been engaged for just four months before he was arrested. Not only do these letters tell of their relationship but they also reveal most of their thinking and how they were able to justify their beliefs to each other.

One can now buy volumes of the love letters of famous historical figures because these were crafted works. I didn’t study the letters between Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, but encountered these later.  These only re-emphasise the point of what can be conveyed when someone takes their time over creating something meaningful. Time and effort went into their formation, thought went into the words that were chosen. Believe it or not this point is even photo-23highlighted in the first ‘Sex and the City‘ film when Big had to turn to the love letters of others because these days no one writes letters anymore.

My final choice of letter is something that I think becomes a philosophical rite of passage, something that Colin McGinn captures really well in his ‘The Making of a Philosopher‘, and that is the moment as a sixth former you first encounter Anselm’s Ontological Argument. I never like to spoil that moment so will not explain the magic trick of that first encounter, but one of the fun aspects of studying that for the first time is discovering that this is part of a prayer, a letter from Anselm to God and that changes everything.

The sad thing is that we are, if we are not careful, teaching the generation of lost letter writers, and not only to we lose the ability to write a good letter, but we lose that link with the letter writers of the past. It becomes harder to for us to make their words accessible to others. Why wouldn’t you just pick up the phone and ring? We, as the last of the letter writers, are now the custodians of the letters of our past and we need to make sure that they continue to be read.

Dear Readers,

Please keep reading and writing letters,

Yours faithfully,

Bethany.

Links

Radio 4 ‘In our Time

Why everyone in schools should care about RE

nunswater1Aside from time spent as a Senior leader, I have been an RE teacher for over twenty years. To be honest it was the only subject I ever really enjoyed at school and was pretty certain from Year Nine that I would be studying Theology at university. By university I had also developed a strong interest in philosophy which ended up being my specialism. So why did I like the subject so much? Not surprisingly one answer is that I had great teachers. Their lessons were imaginative, dynamic, fun, intelligent and challenging. The topics were so varied that we could be studying the rituals of Jewish marriage, ethical theory, nineteenth century theological heroes, atheist arguments on applied ethical dilemmas, learning Koine (Greek) and trying to understand the existence of evil. By the time I left school I had grappled with all of those things, via active learning, developing my own research projects, debating, creating mind maps, playing games, trips to discover new and fascinating cultures, and leading seminars; it was a great experience. I loved that my thinking was challenged and that there was often no right answer. Not once was I preached at, asked whether I had considered ‘trying’ a particular religion, prayed with or for. From Year 7 onwards it was always an academic subject with exactly the same standing as any other subject on the curriculum. Even when I was sitting in a particularly gruelling interview for my Durham University place and was asked, ‘do you feel disadvantaged coming here from a comprehensive school?’, I took a deep breath and told him about how good my lessons were. I think that before I had even considered being a teacher I already had a biased view in favour of good RE.

When I started teacher training, I realised that RE was not the same in every school. For example, on observation weeks, I watched a low ability Year Nine group spend a whole lesson colouring in a picture of Jesus and the fishermen. My passion remained undiminished. For me it was still the most varied and interesting subject. So I find it really sad that headlines say that RE today is marginalised, confused and even irrelevant to a modern curriculum. I still think that everyone in schools should care about what is going on in RE and in fact think that Senior Leaders should be proactive in their support of the subject. Why does RE matter? Here are some of my reasons why I still believe in RE:

RE is far from irrelevant. It’s a myth to say that religion is irrelevant in the modern world. Throughout my teaching career I have frequently had to answer that one. My first response hasn’t changed – the majority of the world’s population has some affiliation with a world religion. A very rough estimate is that out of six billion, maybe 1.1 billion would describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or secular. In a very bad analogy it would be like saying that studying animals are irrelevant because I am a human. Religion is still such a massive part of our world. Think about that as you approach the Christmas holidays later this term! Understanding religion is seeing that it is an influential part of our world, you only have to watch the latest episode of Homeland to know that. The relevance of what was covered was frequently made evident from the questions that came from students, or the discussions with parents, when ethical matters overlapped with family experiences. Perhaps the most shockingly relevant lesson was when a Head of Department managed to let me, a trainee teacher, know after a class debate on abortion, that one of my students had just returned to school having just had a termination. None of her classmates were aware. The girl in question said that she would have stayed, even if she had had advanced warning, because it had given her a chance to explain her view, despite no one knowing her experience.

RE is not only about religion. It is another myth that RE does not cover Humanism, secularism and atheism. I can honestly vouch for the past thirty years and know that they have always played their part. I’ve attended meetings of the RE Council with wonderful representatives of the British Humanism Association to know that collaboration has been a part of RE for some time. I know that I was expected to know Dawkins’ views when I sat my A Level RE and that was a million years ago. RE covers so much, not just knowing your way around a church, but it’s about understanding people and their motivations, why do people believe the things they do. This leads me to my next point.

RE is as much about development of skills as it is about developing knowledge. Before AfL was even on the scene, higher order questioning was the way that good RE was taught. Good RE has been about developing good arguments, to speak confidently on a number of difficult and controversial issues. It has been about learning the difference between fact and fiction, to empathise with views different to your own and promoting tolerance. Never has there been a greater need for this. I’ve taught Thinking Skills, Critical Thinking, Theory of Knowledge and these are all good subjects, but RE has been developing these skills for some time now. If you also study Philosophy then you learn the structure of logic that underpins good argument as well.

RE fits beautifully on the curriculum. I have been lucky to work alongside many enlightened heads of departments who have been happy to talk to their students about the compatibility of RE with their subject. These have included Maths, Science, English, Languages, Art, Music, and other Humanities. The skills developed in RE can enhance performance in other subjects and vice versa. It is such a contemporary subject that text books can barely keep up with the changes in ethical topics. At certain points I was telling students to read the paper the morning of the GCSE because the law could have changed.

RE needs support. Anyone who has ever been a one person department knows how hard and lonely it can be. You have meetings by talking to yourself, making notes to yourself, deciding on resources by yourself. It can be very isolating. For a while I was chair of the ISRSA (Independent Schools’ RS Association) and organised some national conferences at Chelsea Football Stadium. Every year I would talk with colleagues who were so grateful for the opportunity to talk with other departments as they often felt so alone. I know this is true of other gatherings such as St. Gabriel’s as well. What can make it worse is the lack of support from SLTs, which can make a massive difference. With the greatest respect staff can be dumped in RE if they are timetable is light. Not surprising when often students are encouraged to do RE when everything else is too hard. Despite all this RE is a multi-disciplined subject. I think I have taught about six entirely different GCSE subjects as part of RE and at least the same again for different A level subjects; biblical studies, ancient history, church history, philosophy, ethics and rabbinical history. Entirely different disciplines with different thinking and learning skills needed. I’ve worked with colleagues who have respected my subject and those who have not. It can be tough having to defend yourself to parents and colleagues in a way that other subjects don’t have to.

RE has substance. Good RE has always been overflowing with important things to learn. It is not about singing ‘Kum ba yah‘ and sitting in a circle talking about the beauty of flowers. It is the place where I learnt about Plato, Kierkegaard, Gandhi, Schweitzer, Rambam, Kant, Hume, Wittgenstein, Bultmann and Dawkins. It’s a tough subject where ideas are challenged, rather than pandered to. Not knowing what is going on in your RE department is not a good enough excuse. Shame on the department for not sharing it enough and shame on other subjects for not finding out.

Senior Leadership Teams are missing a trick by not supporting their RE departments. So much of what should be found in your average RE department handbook should support a school’s mission statement and aims. Looking for evidence of spirituality? Look at the RE department. Wanting to show evidence of pupils understanding morality? Look at a GCSE lesson debating euthanasia. Need to have evidence of global awareness? Look at the RE department’s work on pretty much anything.

So let’s say a loud Hallelujah that RE is in the spotlight and let’s light the candles, get some incense going, because it’s time to celebrate and remember the value of GOOD RE.