Why should RE teachers read research? That’s what my blog’s going to be about. As well as answering the question, I’ll be illustrating the answer. In fact, most of the blog will be spent illustrating the answer, because we’re fortunate in having a great many examples to use.
I visited a secondary school last week, a successful academy, and spent the afternoon talking with the RE staff. I had some questions for them, including: what’s been the impact of the British Values agenda on your work, in comparison to, say, the pressures from data and exams? What was interesting was less their answer (data and exams continue to press hardest) than the fact that they had to think and talk it through as they gave it, explaining that they don’t really get time to consider such questions. One colleague then reflected that on a part-time MA course a few years previously, she had had to get above the daily routines and think outside their boxes. She said that it had made her approach her teaching differently.
That’s how I relate to research. Teachers are so busy that time to pose questions about and reflect on what we’re doing is scarce, but we’re energised when we find some. And if we need some stimulus material to help us to pose the questions and prompt our reflections, there’s no shortage of research to use. Some research literature is based on field data, presenting the results of e.g. interviews or questionnaires with pupils, teachers or others; some is based on scholarly discussion of different ideas and perspectives, and some mixes the two broad approaches. To me, what counts is whether it helps us to understand what we’re doing and how to do it. You can find numerous examples on our Research for RE website, reported for you in a concise and practical way (http://researchforre.reonline.org.uk/ ).
Let’s consider one of them, a research essay in which Karen Walshe and Geoff Teece identify a difficult and necessary question about RE teaching. What is understanding religion, or religions? We often talk about it, but what does it really mean? Does it mean understanding as a believer, based on faith? Or does it mean understanding as an outsider, perhaps through appreciating parts of the history of a religion, or its influence on society? Or, might a religion be understood ‘religiously’, that is, in its own terms, whether by a believer or by an outsider?
Karen Walshe and Geoff Teece go further than posing this question. They consider what RE teachers might do in response to it. They suggest that soteriology (beliefs and practices concerned with salvation, or with the ultimate meaning and purpose of human life) is essential to religions. Religions are essentially concerned with how people can fulfil the ultimate purposes of human life. In order to help pupils to understand religions in their own terms, therefore, RE teachers should focus teaching on the soteriologies of the religions.
And then the writers go still further, concluding with some concrete teaching and learning suggestions. They give the example of Sikhism, where there are key soteriological beliefs and practices to understand. Haumai (self-centredness) is the root of earthly life’s frustrations, but a life of sewa (selfless service) leads to gurmukh (God-centredness) and a state of mukhti (spiritual liberation). Serving in the gurdwara expresses these beliefs. During a visit to the gurdwara, pupils could ask Sikhs about how it does so.
Does this piece of research help us to understand what we’re doing, and how to do it? Different people will have their own views, but it seems clear that it raises a vital question: when we teach about a religion, how can we get to what’s essential? Karen Walshe and Geoff Teece suggest an answer and offer some practical strategies. I think that what’s needed next is for teachers to try these out with their classes, evaluate the results and share the findings with as many others as possible, so that we get more and more evidence and a richer and richer discussion. This applies not just to the present piece of research, but research in general. Teachers are well placed to offer what we might call research on research.
We would love you to add your voices. Here’s what you can do. If you haven’t already done so, register on the Research for RE website. You can find more about Karen Walshe and Geoff Teece’s research there (see our research report Religious understanding. What is it? How do you help pupils to get it?). You’ll be able to leave feedback and, at a later stage, if you’ve decided to develop some teaching around the research, you could come back again and post an account of what you did. Perhaps the research report could provide a good focus for your department meeting, or for INSET. You could try adapting its ideas to plan teaching about a different religion to Sikhism. The report is one of many on Research for RE, all there with the aim of using research to help us to further the conversation about what we’re doing and how to do it.
Kevin O’Grady is Lead Consultant for Research at Culham St Gabriel’s Trust