KEVIN’S BLOG Textbook Violence

How should RE teachers deal with the relationship between religion and violence? It’s not an easy question. April’s Research of the Month addresses it excellently, if without making it any easier.


The research at hand is about textbooks. It’s a book, Textbook Violence, edited by James R. Lewis, Bengt-Ove Andreassen and Suzanne Anett Thobro.[i] Eight of its chapters deal with school textbooks, three with university or teacher education level textbooks. It shows how school textbooks tend to avoid the subject of religion and violence. They present religion as good and a source for reflection. University textbooks usually also avoid the subject through approaching a religious tradition by describing the founder, texts, rituals, etc.


So, for example, Satoko Fujiwara writes about her experiences of preparing a school social studies textbook in Japan, where textbooks must be authorised by the state.  Insisting that religion is, by definition, free of violence, the examiners suggested that two pages on 9/11 and contemporary Islam be removed, and the publisher agreed.  Torjer A. Olsen analyses textbook versions of the colonisation and Christianisation of the Sámi people of Norway, showing that the resulting conflicts are not treated thoroughly.


As indicated above, the chapters are varied. I found most direct value for RE teaching in that of Michael H. Romanowski, though it is a critique of history textbooks. He analyses the language they use, what they leave out, the stories they tell and from whose point of view, and the ethical issues they sidestep, for example, the plight of Palestinian refugees. I placed a report on Research for RE that focuses on the professional practice strategies he recommends to teachers. [ii] I’ll also list those here:


  • Don’t assume that pupils have prior knowledge of terminology. Take time to discuss the important words used, their possible meanings and the perspectives behind their use.
  • Teach pupils how a textbook’s version of an event is limited and one of many. Get them to ask questions about why an event is covered, whose viewpoint is given, whose left out, whose interests are served, whether the account is believable and backed up by other sources.
  • Draw on the ‘six facets of understanding’ of Wiggins and McTigue, asking students to explain (why is that so?), interpret (what does it mean?), apply (where else can I use this knowledge?); develop perspective (whose point of view is this?), empathy (do I understand it?) and self-knowledge (how does who I am shape my views?). [iii]


At the top of this piece I said that the research covered addressed the issue of religion and violence excellently, without making it easier for teachers to deal with. Michael H. Romanowski’s professional practice strategies show just what I meant. They represent rigorous critical teaching. They could be adapted to teach about various features of religion, not just its relation to violence. Nevertheless, controversies will build when the approach is applied in the RE classroom, and teachers will need to be skilled managers – Romanowski’s work should be combined with research on safe space. [iv] But he and the other writers in the collection are specifically concerned with textbooks, and even though none use the term, they convey an image of religious literacy: a chain, in which teacher educators teach teachers to use materials on religion critically, so the teachers can enable pupils to do so, as part of their educational entitlement. [v]


[i] James R. Lewis, Bengt-Ove Andreassen and Suzanne Anett Thobro (eds.), Textbook Violence, Sheffield (Equinox): 2017.


[ii] See


[iii] E.g. Robert Jackson, Signposts: Policy and Practice for Teaching about Religions and Non-Religious Worldviews in Intercultural Education, Strasbourg (Council of Europe Publishing): 2014. Chapter 5 of Signposts presents research on how to ensure civil, well-ordered classroom interaction when dealing with controversy.


[iv] Grant Wiggins and Jay McTigue, Understanding by Design, Alexandria, Virginia (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development): 2005.


[v] Commission on Religious Education Final Report: Religion and Worldviews, The Way Forward. A National Plan for RE, London (Religious Education Council of England and Wales): 2018,13 (b).

Kevin O’Grady is Lead Consultant for Research at Culham St Gabriel’s Trust