Professional reflection on Recommendations 1 and 2 of the Commission on Religious Education’s final report
One of the most profound and important works in twentieth century philosophy was the magnum opus of the German hermeneutical philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer. He published Wahrheit und Methode: Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik in 1960. What was striking about the main title (‘Truth and Method’) was that the word ‘and’ playfully suggested disjunction as much as it did conjunction. For Gadamer there is a disconnect – a tension – between conceptions of ‘method’ (which seem to make claims about truth) and the notion of ‘truth’ itself.
One of the most important documents – some might argue the most important – for twenty first century RE is the publication of the independent Commission on Religious Education’s final report. It drew on extensive research and submissions from a range of voices within the world of Religious Education.* Entitled Religion and Worldviews: the way forward, I see a parallel between the doubly conjunctive and disjunctive use of the Gadamer’s ‘und’ and the commissioners’ ‘and’. The tension within the religion/worldviews distinction, perhaps, revolves around the perceived ‘given-ness’ of religion and the ‘fluidity’ of worldviews; the “institutional” (p.6) narrowness of religion and the “complex, diverse and plural nature of worldviews” (p.7).
Whereas (I have argued elsewhere), the last few decades of RE discourse has focussed mainly on the subject’s pedagogic ‘how’, the CoRE’s final report attempts to delineate, to make sense of and to take educational ownership of the subject’s ‘what’. This seems to be the remit of carving out a ‘National Entitlement’. The commissioners make the forceful point that “[k]nowledge of religious and non-religious worldviews is an essential part of all young people’s entitlement to education.” (p.3) Furthermore, “[c]ore knowledge both of the content of religious and non-religious worldviews and the conceptual structure of how worldviews operate, unlocks knowledge and understanding of important aspects of our cultural and intellectual life.” (p.27) Did someone mention the ‘k’ word?
For those concerned about the intransitive nature of the subject’s pedagogy, this final report must indeed be welcome. Strikingly, the first eight of the points that “pupils must be taught” focus on the substantive (i.e. content) nature of the subject, reframing it within the horizon of the religion/worldviews tension. The ninth concerns what I call the subject’s disciplinarity, which, in terms of curriculum theory, sits structurally external to the substantive content. According to my understanding, the disciplinary dimension of any subject orders and structures that subject. It offers a pathway towards the content. It offers the grounds on which shared discourse takes place about the subject. Without it – or at least without an equivalent, agreed sense of the ‘rules of the game’ – discourse merely dissolves into hyper- individualistic opinion (confirming onlookers’ perceptions that the subject is not academic).
What should this tell us about ‘the way forward’? It is clear that the final report is keen to make sense of the varied landscape within which RE teachers and their pupils inhabit. It is clearly an Herculean task (for surely there are many parallels: slaying the Stymphalian birds of religious essentialism; struggling with the very nature of religion/belief/worldview – that has more heads than the Lernaean Hydra). Yet, for a number of important reasons, we must recognise that this is only part of the way forward.
For the National Entitlement is not a curriculum.
Why is this important to recognise? It is crucial that educational practitioners recognise this in order to protect their own intentions for the curriculum from all manner of possible distortions. Subject specialists in RE must continue to theorise the curriculum: what is the sequence of content that is required in order for pupils most effectively to grasp more complex ideas? What sort of disciplinary approaches are appropriate in order for pupils to make sense of the subject’s content? What might be the inter- relationship of the sequencing of content and the disciplinary approaches to study that content? Appendix 2 (pp.72-77) of the final report gives some general guidance, but this is qualitatively different from essential theorising of a Religion and Worldviews curriculum.
If it is the job of the RE teacher to enable pupils to grasp over time (and this is key – i.e. over the course of a curriculum) the nature, complexity and significance of worldviews, it may well be that one might begin by using binary language of ‘religion’ and ‘non-religion’ and build up to the more complex scene of worldview over time. For, unquestionably, novices learn differently from experts (and the complexity of language is the product of expertly consensus). This illustrates the provisionality and revisability of knowledge over the span of a curriculum. Other subjects do this too. Think of the way that a music teacher might begin by introducing pupils to the key of G major and teaching them the ‘truth’ that a key signature of one sharp, F♯, equates to G major. That ‘truth’ is provisional, and is certainly revised once the concept of relative minor keys are introduced, where that same key signature could now mean that the music is in E minor. In this sense, it is important that the curriculum designer (and indeed the teacher who enacts the curriculum) is released to exercise professional judgement about how to build a progression model towards such an ambitious end.
What can practitioners in RE do? Certainly as an active civic participant, the Commission on RE offers a clear political mechanism, with guidance, for supporting the vision. Beyond this, the ‘next step’ on ‘the way forward’ would be for Heads of RE, subject leaders and leading practitioners to begin to theorise and then, subsequently, to realise what such a curriculum might look like. In that way, the vision for Religion and Worldviews can be supported both from without and also within.
*I should note here that, sadly, my electronic submission of evidence was not acknowledged in the final report, since I corresponded directly with Rudi Lockhart and Jon Reynolds and not the official ‘evidence’ email address. In any case, diamond flaws are common; few diamonds are perfect!
Dr Richard Kueh
Head of Primary Curriculum & Teacher Development, Inspiration Trust
Writing in a personal capacity