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.

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Learning Lessons from ‘Breaking Bad’

I know that I am part of a world-wide club of people who have fallen in love with the television show ‘Breaking Bad’ over the past few years and who are currently mourning its loss with the final episode broadcast both in the UK and US this week. For those who have not been following it, firstly, what are you waiting for? Join the club and get stuck in, but in the meantime let me at least introduce you to its story. Walter White, a high school Chemistry teacher discovers that he has cancer and his worries, over funding the high medical bills and what will happen to his family after he has gone, lead him into the murky world of producing high quality Crystal Meth. When I first realised just how good this series was, I rushed to a Chemistry teacher and told him to start watching, but are there some lessons for teachers and education in general.

Firstly, do not underestimate teachers. In these heady political days of examining and analysing just what teachers are achieving, it is refreshing to see that it is the exquisite subject knowledge of Walter White that makes the entire ‘Breaking Bad’ epic possible. Sure, he had started in industry, but walked away from that and ended up in the classroom. Perhaps it could also be argued that his expertise was totally underestimated; no one realised just how good Walter was. We work in schools where many teachers have extraordinary specialist knowledge, pet areas that they are passionate about. Sometimes if they are lucky that knowledge coincides with an examination specification or a curriculum model which allows them to indulge their joy with their class for a lesson or two. I have been lucky enough to work with teachers who were passionate on specialist topics as diverse as the origins of Quakerism, Ball Lightening, writing their own novel, Elizabethan history, Acoustics and Byzantine texts. Walter was good, really good at subject. So good he was able to produce Meth of 96% quality, beating everything else on the market. Of course, I am not suggesting that we should use our amazing knowledge for evil, but in a time when the phrase “those who can do, those who can’t, teach” is still floating around and professionalism is being challenged in headlines, it is worth celebrating how hard many teachers have worked in their subject areas. This is a real challenge for those in school leadership. Are there ways to celebrate your staff’s knowledge and allow them to shine. There is joy in celebrating knowledge and Walter came alive with his chance to be clever. Perhaps a Mastermind for staff would allow those specialist subjects to come to the fore and wow everyone. It is also about remembering our original motivations that make our subject our passion. Clearly if one of those subjects is new recipes for manufacturing blue meth then it might be worth asking a few questions.

The second point I think worth learning from ‘Breaking Bad’ is never underestimate your students. The other focal point of this amazing series is Jesse Pinkman, an ex-pupil of Walter’s who ends up being taught once again, this time how to cook Meth. Jesse’s path goes through every twist and turn imaginable, heartbreaking at times and exhausting at others. An addict himself, but he listens and learns. Throughout most characters, particularly Walter, appear to underestimate his intellectual abilities, often calling him stupid. However, his expertise ends up being a threat, putting himself in jeopardy. He may not match the skills of Mr White, but his 92% cooking ability is a rarity. Jesse is the classic underachiever and nobody, including his parents, expected anything of him and yet he learns. Jesse becomes our tragic hero, through his suffering we are willing him on to find happiness. Nobody should be written off as a lost cause. I truly believe that one of the wonderful aspects of teaching is the opportunity for a fresh start with every new academic year. Those teachers that hold grudges or hang on to ‘year-group’ reputations stifle the opportunities for everyone to make good. It also reminds me of countless times when the regular naughty student was sent for a telling off and you are left wanting the best for them.

This takes us to the final thing to learn from ‘Breaking Bad’ for the moment. It is that there is always room for redemption. It is the most joyous thing to encounter in good writing. As you work your way through a book or in this case through a television series you get to a point where you find yourself willing the characters to find redemption. It is the most wonderful concept. Naturally I am now speaking with my theological bias and I would happily dive back into some Systematic Theology at this point. Redemption is when someone is granted forgiveness or are absolved of past transgressions. The transgressions come one after another, with increasing frequency in ‘Breaking Bad’ and yet it is so beautifully written that our sympathies are bounced around like an RV driving across a desert track. ‘Breaking Bad’ caused its viewers to visit, revisit and review their ethical values. Critics fluctuated between judgements of Walter as pure evil to Walter the hero, or anti-hero. Forgiveness comes after an acknowledgement and awareness of wrong doing. After the confession comes absolution. Teachers know what it is to be pushed and patience tried by repeat offenders. We know what it is to be tested to our limits, but even after the multiple horrors of ‘Breaking Bad’ there is still the hope of redemption. It is also one of the many wonderful aspects of working in education. We deal in redemption, not least because it is a time when mistakes are made and hopefully lessons are learnt. Teachers are fortunate witnesses to redemption in dealings with students.

Perhaps it’s too hopeful a view and there are many who will write wanting all kinds of endings for ‘Breaking Bad’ and the reality is, for those that loved it and had invested time and energy into it it was always going to be hard to say farewell. This is strangely true for teachers leaving a school. There is never a good time to leave, you always leave some people – teachers, pupils, parents – unhappy, wanting an alternative ending. So long ‘Breaking Bad’, we don’t want you to go, but we learnt so much from you, so thank you and goodbye.

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