No way back to Kansas: The wider context of Thursday’s course

“Mr Werdelin has developed a propitious educational project whose significance is as far reaching as its necessity in today’s big education debates…”

– Mujadad Zaman, MPhil Educational Research Methods, PhD student candidate at the Faculty of Education, Cambridge University. *


For the benefit of attendees of Islam in RE: Religious Literacy & Controversy Through Enquiry this coming Thursday, I would like to put the session into a wider context, hinted at by presenter Mr Mujadad Zaman at June’s pilot the University of East Anglia.

Mr Zaman is currently a PhD student candidate at the Cambridge University Faculty of Education exploring the growing socio-philosophical importance of the University within the Knowledge Society.*

Mr Zaman started by pointing out that our most basic intuitions about reality are being called into questions by the merging of discourses in fields such as consciousness and quantum mechanics.

Therefore a number of high level academics have started to to re-think some traditional assumptions about the relationship between religion and and education.


Zaman & Diboll
Tertiary negotiations; Dr Mike Diboll & Mujadad Zaman
Islam in RE, University of East Anglia, School of Education and Lifelong Learning, June 26, 2014 


The creation of a new paradigm related to epistemology and ontology is one of extreme urgency in view of the deteriorating global situation – economic, political and environmental – which can only be identified as the last stage of post-religious western metaphysics, enframing, as discussed by Lawson at Edinburgh University.

Eager to move into a bright new secular future, scholars of the Enlightenment threw the baby out with the bath water, in the process loosing us the tools for non-nihilist higher level thinking, which were key aspects of traditional religious learning in this country.


RE-tinkering pupils’ minds – yet another “personal development” detour?

As a side note to this, I do see how this could be taken as advocating another detour from the hard presentation of subject matter of religion; and I am aware that there is a strong drive in some circles against “deepening pupils’ understanding of religious ideas” (whether or not these may contribute to personal development) as “a tangible or consistently achievable purpose for a subject.” (quoted from How RE lost its soul by David Ashton).

But as followers of this blog will be aware, I am all for hard, factual learning: Opinions without any foundation are simply whims, and I agree absolutely with this camp about the importance of religious literacy – which incidentally forms the first module of Thursday’s course. (For more on Cooperative Learning and attainment, see previous post on Stalham Academy)

However, religious literacy in a world where we can argue that not even physical objects actually exist, let alone essential religion, building one’s opinions on foundations that are made of (quantum mechanic) sand is not sound.

This goes back to Mr Martin Robinson’s “Research the question before you tell us what the answer is…” we have mentioned in a previous post, where I also in passing discuss the relationship of this issue to Mr Brine’s talk on “Realising the Potential” at the UEA.

It is precisely Mr Zaman’s point that there is a very real and valid reason why Mr Robinson and secular, humanist scholars at Oxbridge are now having a good look at the Trivium, the backbone of European religious education once more.** (Once again I want to promote his book 21c Trivium).


No way back to Kansas

Indeed, any and all attempts to retain a sense of normalcy or ‘business as usual’ or to propose solutions which rest within the failing paradigm of teaching ‘knowledge’ without understanding what knowledge is and how it is acquired must be exposed as irrelevant at best, if not irresponsibly complicit in locking coming generations into repeating our mistakes.

It is my argument that, firmly grounded in social constructivism, the structural approach to Cooperative Learning offers a unique tool to help learners cope and de-construct these paradigms while providing a simultaneous and real integration of hard learning.

On a philosophical level, Cooperative Learning exercises help learners reflect, at their individual levels, on issues of epistemology (“How do you know something?”) and ontology (“What is reality”) in the very practical zone of personal beliefs in the classroom as well as the impact of religion on the lives of people. Here is an exemplary question: “Organisations such as ISIS claim Islam advocates the “Islamic State”. Organisations such as Imaan says Islam advocates “Islamic homosexuality”. But if anyone can reconstruct Islam as they want, does Islam even exist?” How do you know? What does it mean to exist?

Bear in mind this is just glimpsing the tip of the iceberg. Once we start to look at real logic and rhetoric in classic theology and it’s grasp on ontology and epistemology, it’s a different kettle of fish – but necessary, as today’s schoolchildren could very well find themselves – indeed are already, perhaps? – living in a consensual hallucination of the internet, downloaded real-time directly into their nervous system. Is this a game … or reality? Not a moot point for the drone operator.

At the moment, I cannot see which subject apart from RE would be able to launch into this (I am open to suggestions, by all means). But standing on a firm intellectual foundation – for starters being able to distinguish between the necessary, impossible and possible nature of given statements – is necessary as given all 20th century paradigms are collapsing under their own weight.

As I mentioned, the above reflections only serve to form a context to the course Islam in RE, and not a reason to unduly worry your Head: participants will still benefit from the LO’s outlined in the course description. And while not as conspicuously challenging as the above, teaching religious literacy and controversy via Cooperative Learning might give an indication of what is possible, and where I hope to eventually take it in the context of UK education.

“Mr Werdelin has developed a propitious educational project whose significance is as far reaching as its necessity in today’s big education debates.
Melding fluency of subject matter with an interactive pedagogy, his sensitivity to faith traditions and the challenges faced by teachers ensures its continued relevancy.”

– Mujadad Zaman *


* * *

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* ) Mujadad Zaman has had extensive teaching experience, involved in teaching and supervising for the Undergraduate Educational Tripos. Since starting the PhD, he has presented at numerous international conferences including at the universities of Cambridge, Stanford, LSE and Lancaster. Apart from his interests in education he has presented on a wide range of subjects including comparative education, philosophy of the social sciences, aesthetics, religious studies and Victorian social thought.

Recently he has been Curriculum Coordinator for a new theological college (Cambridge Muslim College) as well as being an educational consultant and researcher for a number of national projects dealing with curriculum development. He has created, taught and evaluated an intensive international summer school, Heritage Summers (Girton College, University of Cambridge) entitled ‘Sliver Spices and Scholarship: An Introduction to Western Intellectual History’ and is currently in the process of setting up an educational support programme for students in Cambridge community.


**) More on the the relation of the Trivium to higher level thinking, identity formation and related community building, see my  Edinburgh University presentation Student-Centred Classroom & the Self-Centred Student.”  Audio recording of the talk now available.

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