Introducing pedagogy of RE
How does our understanding of the religious, philosophical and educational world influence our way of teaching RE? Are we aware of our assumptions and can we justify them?
People use the word ‘pedagogy’ in many ways. Literally from the Greek, it means ‘the process by which a child is led to learning’. Nowadays this takes in the teacher’s assumptions about the rationale and purpose of the subject, together with the national and local conditions in which they teach. It also includes the teacher’s assumptions about the discipline of RE, its way of interpreting texts and experience, its definition of excellence and much else. We think that these are some of the factors that teachers should think about when developing their pedagogy of RE:
- The surrounding culture in which we live and work
- The life-world of the children we teach
- The filters used by the teacher and school for understanding cultures and life-worlds
- The teacher’s own beliefs and values
- How success and progress are defined in the subject [see Assessing]
All these contextual factors are what Professor Robin Alexander calls the ‘attendant discourse’ (Alexander, R. 2010 Children, their World, their Education: Final report of the Cambridge primary review. London: Routledge, p 46.) of pedagogy. They are a hidden influence on every teacher. Their influence is so powerful that being clear about them is, for him and for us, ‘the heart of the enterprise.’ (op. cit., p307)
If we acknowledge our own assumptions and expectations in pedagogy, we become stronger teachers. For example, if we are looking at a particular text with sceptical eyes because of our own background history of belief or doubt, or if we are looking at it with the eyes of faith and expecting pupils to do the same, we should be honest and admit to ourselves that this influences our pedagogy.
There are several possible methodologies for teaching RE, each having its starting point in some prior pedagogical assumptions about the nature of religion and belief in the world, and each its strengths and weaknesses. They are briefly outlined here:
Faith nurture: ‘sharing faith’
Explanation: RE is a way to hand on the truths and rituals of a tradition to the new generation – a safe space for the young to explore and develop their religious identity in the light of the community’s tradition.
Practical example: Pupils prepare for a ritual such as a sacrament. They learn words and gestures. They are taught to interpret texts in specific approved ways. They explore moral issues with clear guidance on the official teaching of the faith.
Assumptions: There is one true or pre-eminent tradition and it is necessary that the young people know it, understand it, grow up in it and, preferably, accept it as true. Faith nurture helps them to do this by presenting the truth to the young.
Strengths: It places RE at the heart of a school’s mission as a faith community.
Weaknesses: There is widespread questioning of the ethics and effectiveness of this model, and concern that it does not always recognise the realities of religious diversity in the world.
Groome, T. (1991) Sharing Faith: A Comprehensive Approach to Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry. San Francisco: Harper Collins.
Phenomenology: ‘religious studies’
Explanation: The realities of religions and beliefs – their myths, doctrines, rituals, values – are phenomena which can and should be studied with an attempt at objectivity and empathy in order to understand the religion as it really is in itself.
Practical example: Pupils visit a place of worship, learn the names for its features in the correct language, learn its historical development and hear from an adherent about its importance for them today. Pupils attempt to describe and explain what they have seen and heard as accurately as they can, including the perspectives of adherents.
Assumptions: To some extent, it is possible to stand outside a religion or belief and ‘bracket out’ the assumptions which might colour one’s own interpretation of what one sees. Phenomenology also assumes that it is possible for us to understand and fully empathise with beliefs and practices we do not share.
Strengths: It is good to aim for objectivity, and to attempt to consider religions and beliefs in their own words. Scholars such as Ninian Smart provided helpful categories for analysing religious and non-religious worldviews (ritual, narrative, doctrinal, ethical, social, experiential, material and political/economic). These allow pupils to identify similarities and differences between and within religions and beliefs.
Weaknesses: The model is criticised for assuming that ‘western’ categories can be successfully applied to non-western traditions, that people can ever be really ‘objective’ and for discouraging judgements that may be critical of the tradition. Others say phenomenology attempts to find ‘essences’ of traditions that do not really exist and that it lacks a clear pedagogical framework in which to apply its principles.
Smart, N. (1968) Secular Education and the Logic of Religion. London: Faber and Faber.
Jackson, R. (2004) Rethinking Religious Education and Plurality: Issues in Diversity and Pedagogy. London: Routledge.
Explanation: Encouraging pupils to relate to a way of life that is different from their own, by interacting with what real people from religious traditions actually say and do (reflexivity); helping them to connect insights from those traditions with their own personal knowledge and experience (edification).
Practical example: Pupils think about what they do at Easter and hear about how an Eastern Orthodox Christian family celebrates it. Pupils relate what they hear about this family to their own experience, including their feelings and attitudes.
Assumptions: It is possible to make sense of, and personally benefit from, the way religions are lived today by listening to believers, insiders or adherents, and by being aware of the wide internal diversity of traditions.
Strengths: Provides opportunities for pupils to actively interpret religious meaning making, not just passively receive information about a tradition; raises awareness of the difficulty of generalising about religion and belief and about those who follow particular traditions.
Weaknesses: It is not easy to employ the anthropological methods of this approach where access to first hand materials and contacts is unavailable. There is still a danger of generalising from the particular examples chosen for study and of by-passing the truth claims made by adherents. There can be a particular challenge to make the ‘bridge’ between the pupils in the classroom and the children and families being studied.
Jackson, R. (1997) Religious Education: an interpretive approach. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Human development: ‘learning about and learning from’
Explanation: Religions and beliefs should be studied not only in their own right but also with a view to what they can contribute to the personal development of the learner. The life-world of religious experience should be brought into focus alongside the life-world of the pupil.
Practical example: Taking the theme of worship, pupils discover the worship practices of a community and are then encouraged to consider what it is they personally revere and respect most deeply, and how that makes them feel.
Assumptions: Religions and beliefs usually respond to human longings in some way, and human longings are ultimately understandable in spiritual and religious ways.
Strengths: This model resolved some of the perceived tensions in phenomenology by introducing a personal element.
Weaknesses: Learning about and learning from do not always fit neatly together.
Grimmitt, M. (1987) Religious Education and Human Development. Great Wakering: McCrimmon.
Grimmit, M. et al (1996) A Gift to the Child. London: Prentice Hall.
Concept cracking: ‘Christian theology from within’
Explanation: Worried that too much RE focuses on describing phenomena from outside, thus failing to enter into the personal or communal experience of believers, the exponents of this model developed a focus for looking closely at a belief and matching it to an aspect of children’s experience. This model is used for teaching Christianity, although it could perhaps be used for other religions and beliefs as well.
Practical example: A Christian in prayer can be the focus through stories, interviews, reference to beliefs about answers to prayer.
Assumptions: It is possible to use texts, stories and learner-centred examples to enter into the inner realities of Christianity even if one is not a Christian.
Strengths: It draws the pupil closer to the reality of being a believer.
Weaknesses: It may draw the pupil too close and stray into forms of faith nurture, and it tends to underplay insights from outside the tradition studied.
Cooling, T. and Marsden, A. (1995) Concept Cracking: Exploring Christian Beliefs in School. Nottingham: Stapleford Centre.
Critical realism: ‘theology for all’
Explanation: This model accepts the reality of the existence of religions and beliefs, their truth claims and absolute commitments. It challenges teachers and learners to realism about religions and belief together with a critical, enquiring stance about them.
Practical example: Pupils will use theological and philosophical ideas such as grace, free will, the holy spirit and discipleship to understand the idea of prayer and debate it.
Assumptions: The great existential questions – is there a God, why do we suffer – must have answers. Even though it is contested, the truth is ‘out there’, not all possible answers can be true, and seeking the truth matters as a part of our relationship to ultimate reality. Relativistic ‘anything goes’ answers and apathy are inadequate responses.
Strengths: RE is driven by challenging questions and engages pupils with substantial theological and philosophical terms, which can raise standards and promote religious literacy.
Weaknesses: The prior assumptions about truth are questionable, and the focus of RE is not always on truth claims.
Wright, A. (2007) Critical Religious Education, Multiculturalism and the Pursuit of Truth. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.
Conceptual enquiry: ‘philosophy’
Explanation: RE is conducted through a systematic enquiry into its concepts, whether they be concepts universal to human experience, general to many religions and beliefs, or specific to one belief system. Conceptual enquiry uses a cycle of enquiry skills with the aim of helping young people to interpret religion in relation to human experience.
Practical example: Pupils enquire into the concept of symbolism, placing it into a particular religious or philosophical context and evaluating its meanings.
Assumptions: Religions and beliefs are too culturally and politically loaded to be studied in their own terms with integrity, so the content must be broken down into concepts which the learner can own and understand, using a five-step methodology of enquiry into concepts.
Strengths: The five-step methodology introduces a regular discipline into RE planning, and puts learners in the driving seat.
Weaknesses: Systematic study of religions and beliefs is not built into this model.
Erricker, C. (2010) Religious Education: A conceptual and interdisciplinary approach for secondary level. Abingdon: Routledge.
Erricker, C., Lowndes, J. and Bellchambers, E. (2011) Primary Religious Education: A New Approach: Conceptual Enquiry in Primary RE. Abingdon: Routledge.
What the pedagogies have in common
The claim that religion and belief is a real dimension of human existence.
Agreement on a body of content which pupils should know and understand as important in their own right – broadly, the six principal religions of the world, smaller living religious traditions in Britain, and living secular world views and philosophies.
The recognition that RE must be driven by questions that offer the challenge of enquiring into rich and complex ideas.
An articulation of how RE supports and fulfils the aims of the wider curriculum.
So which model is best?
RE:ONLINE takes no position on the different pedagogies discussed above. We think that every teacher should work out their own position in the light of:
- The intellectual influences on you as a professional and individual, including your take on religion, belief and culture
- The design of the curriculum at national and local levels, including what it expects by way of knowledge, understanding, skills and values
- The context of your school and community, particularly its ethos and values
- The needs of your pupils and the variety of ways they prefer to learn.
We urge every teacher of RE to reflect and be clear about the purpose and pedagogy of RE, to keep developing and be versatile.
Further discussion of pedagogies can be seen in:
Grimmitt, M. (2000) Pedagogies of Religious Education: Case studies in the research and development of good pedagogic practice in RE. Great Wakering: McCrimmon Publishing.
Jackson, R. (2004) Rethinking Religious Education and Plurality: Issues in Diversity and Pedagogy. London: Routledge.
Watson, B. and Thompson, P. (2006) The Effective Teaching of Religious Education. London: Longman.
In the Learning section [link] we offer Banquets – sustained pieces of teaching and learning. Each Banquet is flagged with at least one pedagogical model.
Links and Think Pieces