These days we’re gathering data on which Research for RE reports are read most and rated highest. At the time of writing, the top report is by David Lundie, entitled Does RE Work? It was read 86 times between July and November 2018, with an average rating of 5 stars.[i] After all, the question cuts to the quick. Many claims are made about what RE does for young people and society, but are they justified, and how do we know?
The research reported was a major study of RE in the UK that took place between 2007 and 2011. An hourglass model was used, where the ‘blizzard’ of policies, interests and pedagogical models at the ‘top’ was followed down to what happens in classrooms at the ‘middle’ and the wider impacts on pupils and society at the ‘bottom’. 24 schools were studied in detail.
The researchers found that there was confusion about the purpose of RE and that the subject tried to cover too many bases, ranging over knowledge and understanding of religion, citizenship, SMSCD, sex and relationships education, leading on charity activities and others. Exam demands were found to have huge power to drive but distort RE. Commenting in the How RE Teachers might make use of it section of the Research for RE report, David Lundie nevertheless draws out some positive advice for us. He writes about the need for a shared sense of meaning in the RE classroom, where there is an understanding not just of religious beliefs and practices but what they mean for members. The most successful teachers “demonstrated a ‘committed openness’, steering a course between dogmatic commitment and undifferentiated relativism”.
I thought further about the practice of this, referring to original sources for the Does RE Work? research.[ii] It seems that the best RE teachers seen neither insisted on answers to questions of truth nor acted as if any statement was true. They helped pupils to understand the roots of different views, in different religious or worldview commitments.[iii] The researchers recommended that teachers should help pupils to see how religious language relates to other signs, or aspects.[iv] This relates closely to the National Entitlement outlined in the CORE report, for example, criterion 1 (matters of central importance to the worldviews studied, how these can form coherent accounts for adherents . . . ) or criterion 6 (how worldviews may offer responses to fundamental questions of meaning and purpose raised by human experience, and the different roles that worldviews play in providing people with ways of making sense of their lives). Thus, though the research isn’t current, both its ratings and relevance are, which make it Research of the Month.[v] There is much more that is of interest in the Does RE Work? research and I would strongly encourage you too to track down the original sources. Why do RE teachers often find religion embarrassing? Why do text-books and exam boards have so much influence over us? How is RE perceived as different to other subjects? These are some of the important questions identified and addressed.
Finally, why does the question Does RE Work? make us sit up? Data from the Research for RE website can’t answer that question, but my hunch is that teachers and others are interested in evidence about not just whether RE works but how it could be made to work; one reader comments that he or she will use the research to plan and deliver lessons. We want to know much more about how the research reports are being used and would be particularly interested to receive your comments or emails on reports that you have found useful and how these have helped to shape your teaching.
i. David Lundie’s report of the Does RE Work? project can be found at https://researchforre.reonline.org.uk/research_report/does-religious-education-work-an-analysis-of-the-aims-practices-and-models-of-effectiveness-in-re-in-the-uk/
ii. See e.g. J.C. Conroy, D. Lundie, R.A. Davis, V. Baumfield, L.P. Barnes, T. Gallagher, K. Lowden, N. Bourque and K. J. Wenell, Does Religious Education Work? A Multi-disciplinary Investigation (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).
iii. Ibid. 126-9.
iv. Ibid. 225-6. I discuss the significance of Does RE Work? for RE teaching more fully in chapter 8 of Religious Education as a Dialogue with Difference: Fostering Democratic Citizenship Through the Study of Religions in Schools (New York and London: Routledge, forthcoming).
v. You can find an update to the research in David Lundie’s article, “Is RE still not working? Reflections on the Does RE Work? Project 5 years
on,” British Journal of Religious Education 40 (3) (2018), 348-356.
Kevin O’Grady is Lead Consultant for Research at Culham St Gabriel’s Trust