Christian-centred, atheism-centred… or just Student-Centred? Making RE relevant at all

Matthew Vince (University of Exeter): Expressing Islam within a Christian centric education system : Lessons from a young British Muslim RE teacher (PART 1)

(Notes from BRAIS conference, University of Edinburgh 10-11 April 2014, Panel 3: Islam in UK Institutions/Organisations and Everyday Muslim Religious Lives)

Executive summary*

According to Matthew Vince, who is doing his PGCE at Exeter University, current RE is aimed more at political aims of community cohesion than subject knowledge. On top of that he cited the 2010 Warwick report that suggests that Christianity is presented as the default religion of this country. As a consequence, the representation of Islam in the current state administered RE is vulnerable to perpetuating negative stereotypes of Islam and other religions and that Muslim RE teachers find they must “navigate between negative conflicting spheres at times.”

His study concludes that the current curriculum is set primarily on knowledge and not the attainment of understanding Islam, which, according to Vince, is found only in living Islam and the assimilation of Islamic teaching (which I would note is true of all religions taught) – as many of us remember, living is something very difficult to achieve if the teacher is the centre of the classroom explaining away.

The above leads to questions such as: Is the role of RE teaching the subject or rather pushing the political agenda of community cohesion? And given that the stated goal in the National Curriculum is knowledge not understanding, is the status quo of the National Curriculum correct? Or should teachers give pupils the knowledge, then allow them (who are of all religious denominations) to make their own decisions on personal beliefs? And is it the remit of a RE teacher to push understanding or purely the attainment of knowledge?


Enquiry: what’s in the middle?

In the following, I’ll discuss how some of these issues may find a common solution in guided discovery exercises akin to what was recently presented to a disparate group of educators at the Healing Fractures workshop in Norwich.

RE: perception management & policies

Pertinent to our overall theme, Matthew Vince opened his presentation by bluntly stating that the RE curriculum represents the current British political agenda of  community cohesion.  The true import of this statement can only be understood by reflecting on Mohammed Elshimi’s talk the day before on the negative consequences of state-induced identity formation, to which I have alluded in a previous post.

While the need for any ruling body to keep peace within the realm is as old as governance itself, be it kingdoms or democracies, be it by carrot or by stick, the statement itself somehow has a solemn ring to it. This admission that our government is using schooling to organize people’s thinking and perception, not only of the world, history an politics, but the very perception pupils have of themselves, including their own unique cultural, religious and ethnic identities seemed especially eerie, given that in the morning session, Dr. Godazger had outlined the way the Iranian curriculum had been changed since the revolution for the very same purposes.

So referring to our red thread of identity formation, a real question is whether the state’s decision to work on the minds of the future to meet  immediate political  goals of today, using the education system of yesterday, is the way to go for multicultural, trans global democracy in the 21st century? According to Elshimi’s research, it is not – as we shall see in the following post (Get notified).

Subject or community cohesion agenda?

Going back to Matthew’s presentation, our first question is should the RE curriculum adhere to the political agendas of the day or rather should the goal be the attainment of knowledge of the subject in depth?

Again, when it comes to cooperative learning, it’s the same as free thinking vs. facts or subjects vs. social skill: we must ask if it’s either/or? Because if the goal of Her Majesty’s government is peaceful coexistence within the realm and an experience of national unity and cohesion, then the only viable option is knowledge of the subject in depth, not just related Islam, but all religions taught. And subject “in depth” would not only mean the facts pertaining to the when, where and what of each, but much rather “How does this relate to me?”

The answer is that making religion and Religious Education relevant to children in a full-on atheist society – and in a school where the preceding science lesson makes a mockery of the spirit and the following history books are crammed full of religious massacres and greedy popes – can only be done via discovery exercises which gives children space to investigate from the perspective of their own relation to spirituality, and work outward from there. Quoting Ibrahhim Lawson’s in the previous post: “ …all great truths must first be constantly renewed by bringing them into the place where they emerge into being for the first time, that is, in response to a deeply felt sense of questioning. ”

By providing and furnishing this space, the individual historical and content-related issues of religion would find an relevant context specific to each learner. This would not only assist retention for those tests we all love, but create the transferrable higher level thinking which are the backbone of much vaunted 21st century skills.

Note that the 2013 “Realising Potential” Ofsted report on RE, scathing as it is, notes that:

“…teaching often fails to challenge and extend pupils’ ability to explore fundamental questions about human life, religion and belief.”
and talking about the structured approach to cooperative learning employed in the workshop

“Where RE worked well, teachers gave pupils carefully structured opportunities to find out for themselves, make their own connections and draw their own conclusions.”

For RE teachers presenting Cooperative Learning to their reluctant Headteachers, this should really form an addendum to the posts Convincing your Head to think about Cooperative Learning & Convincing your Head to think about Cooperative Learning #2.

To be continued… (Get notified).

21c skills referred to in talk now up

* Disclaimer: These posts reflect my own (narrow) understanding and focus and makes no claim to objectivity or accuracy.


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