Christian-centred, atheism-centred… or just Student-Centred? Making RE relevant #2

Matthew Vince (University of Exeter): Expressing Islam within a Christian centric education system : Lessons from a young British Muslim RE teacher (PART 2)*

This is an independent article continuing from Part 1 on RE in a multicultural ethos while picking up the previous thread on the UEA Religious Education conference regarding inquiry-based learning as best practice in RE as outlined by the Ofsted report Realising the Potential.

In summary, according to Vince, a non-Muslim RE teacher, current RE presents Christianity as the default religion of this country. As a consequence, the representation of Islam and other religions is vulnerable to perpetuating negative stereotypes and Muslim RE teachers must navigate between “negative conflicting spheres at times”. His study also concludes that the current curriculum is set primarily on knowledge of and not the attainment of understanding of Islam, which goes into the issue touched upon by @Sophieclapp of phenomenology vs. ontology.

Teacher as a model example of inquiry

Vince pointed out that according to the 1994 SCAA framework, the content of RE is the 6 major world religions, but also that it should ‘reflect the fact that the principal religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian’  which makes the curriculum in the UK Christian-centric and revives traditional Orientalist critique as highlighted by the 2010 Warwick report.

christian centred

Among challenges outlined by Mr Vince for a Muslim teaching Islam under the auspices of this framework is presenting material which s/he may not agree with  – about Islam or other religions. His survey investigates how two Muslim RE teachers constructed their own British Muslim Identity, how they conceived the role of the teacher, and then how these two aspects were successfully negotiated through their performance in the classroom expressions of Islam.

My point being that if the Muslim RE teacher manages to balance his individual identity and core values with his role as a teacher of the curriculum we have outlined above, he is forming an ideal model for the inquiring student, who must also be able to step out of his own narrow perception; to be truly inquiring mind demands a sense of self so solid it can afford to be flexible. 

So why does that matter to the 95%plus RE teachers who are not Muslims?

The teacher as a facilitator

It matters because this issue of negotiating personal views is especially hot in religious education, it relates to every other soft subject, i.e. history or politics. Don’t we all remember the teacher with an opinion he got squeezed into every lesson – most of us have witnessed or experienced a Dead Poets’ Society moment where the well-intentioned teacher cries Excrement!- rip that page out of the book!”

Due to the nature of RE, this becomes an issue for even a orthodox atheist – how does s/he avoid mentioning that his supreme and independent intellect has realised religion is opium for the masses and that religious people are stupid or have separation issue – “that’s the truth, you see!”

But by using the structural approach to Cooperative Learning to knowledge and all the other examples given in the workshop debrief), the teacher (of any denomintion) is allowed to step out of the way. And not only does he step out of the, but taking the inquiry ethos to it’s extreme, students would be tasked with finding their own materials, which would be more suitable to the multicultural society we find ourselves in and solve the problem of Christian-centredness discussed in the Warwick report. (There are a host of other benefits related to 21st century skill sets, transferability, etc., which are outside the scope of this post).

Giving an extreme example, imagine that the teacher would do nothing but start and stop student interaction with classmates and the material they had dug up -“good morning, lesson on Hinduism, stand up and circle the room, catch a partner not from your team and present your findings, then compare and switch partners.” – 10 minutes later – “Ok, everyone sit back in teams, each person gets 3 minutes to present anything of interest, one minute to prepare, go!” etc.  (See workshop debrief for more examples).

And the beauty is that the unobtrusive monitoring of the learning process made possible through perpetual verbalization means instant insight into factually incorrect or anti-social views, struggling students, weakly focused points or arguments, interesting points to pick up on, and so forth.

Next up we’ll get into Vince’s point of the opposite perspective of using the specialist knowledge of the teacher in relation to neutrality of true inquiry: The Teacher as ‘Human Material’

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* Disclaimer: This material represents my own focus and understanding and may not accurately reflect the intentions of the speaker.

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