Inspired by…Powerful RE

It is in the readings of Bernstein and Michael Young that I found a deep interest in the concept of ‘powerful knowledge’. I believe, powerful knowledge is found in RE which offers ‘esoteric knowledge’ which can contribute to developing well rounded human beings. RE can enable young people to think independently, to question and change society for the better so that they can play a full part in a democratic society, alongside learning STEM subjects. RE can also prevent the marginalisation of those from lower socio-economic groups by providing access to knowledge of the ‘powerful’. It is in RE, I believe, that students will not only develop a better understanding of the social world but will be provided with intellectual challenges that are empowering. Why do I say this? It is because that is what the subject did for me.

I grew up in in poverty, with Bengali speaking parents who observed their daily prayers and tried their best to encourage their children to take part in traditional learning that involved memorising the Qur’an and reading Bengali. My mother tried to teach me classical Arabic, but I was too interested in MTV. My parents received no formal education in Bangladesh, they struggled to make ends meet here in the UK, but they were grateful for the free schooling we received and placed huge importance on education, particularly English, Maths and Science. It is why Young’s Future 3 model which aims to focus on ensuring social justice and more equality in education speaks to me.

Simply memorising information (as I had memorised parts of the Quran) and applying that information to questions in exams is not enough. It is in the understanding of people and the world around us in its rich pluralist and diverse nature, that helps us make sense of what we read. My own experiences of not having access to (western) cultural capital had profound effects on my confidence as a young person and I believe my studies in RE, particularly when I was introduced to Western philosophy, opened doors for me. If my Muslim friends had access to Greek Philosophy and had to reflect on the English translations of the Quran and the works of the great philosophers as part of their religious education, their understanding of their own faith would be dramatically different from today. It can be argued that the purpose of education is not just to fight social injustice but to improve creativity, enjoyment, freedom to explore individual subjects of interest, which lead to real love for learning. My love for learning came from studying Greek and Medieval philosophy. I had no idea how much influence the Greeks had on the early Muslim philosophers who shaped Islam. Much of what I have learned is unknown to my friends indeed and yet, studying Religious Studies at University did not go down well with them as this was deemed unnecessary for religious practice and an inferior subject, which was a common view within my community.

Understanding of philosophical and religious knowledge freed me from accepting simplistic solutions to difficult questions about faith in my own life and in understanding world politics. RE can develop young people’s ability to participate in a conversation about themselves and their future. RE can play a pivotal role in contributing to a ‘powerful knowledge’ curriculum, adding to the intellectual development of children and providing those experiences that cultivate moral reasoning. To support rich experiences in RE would depend on whether RE serves any purpose to young people but if a student is growing up in a multicultural town with friends of different faiths, surely, they will learn more from their peers?  Who decides what knowledge is the most valuable? What about those parents who see no value in RE and see religion itself as a cause for all the problems in the world? The problem with accepting this, is that allowing students to disengage restricts students from accessing the powerful knowledge that promotes free thinking and fosters greater divisions in society.

We must not neglect the role that religious literacy plays in providing a powerful and knowledgeable workforce as well as a fully functioning democratic society with individuals all treated as equals. An RE curriculum that empowers students with powerful knowledge, that is rich in content and places an importance of allowing children to be free to think must be included in every curriculum. By doing this, we can support students to avoid making generalisations and simplistic conclusions in a world that is moving more and more towards a homogeneous way of thinking, particularly with the influences of social media on the younger generation.

RE therefore plays a vital role in providing space in the curriculum to encourage spiritual development and critical thinking. There is no absolute ‘right’ body of knowledge and whatever curriculum schools decide to teach, one risks indoctrinating pupils but learning about different worldviews can give students access to knowledge and understanding of the world beyond their immediate experience. The RE curriculum prepares students for public discourse and meaningful discussions. The need to improve religious literacy is the most significant aspect of this discussion. Whatever we teach, it must include powerful knowledge that promotes free thinking and fosters greater understanding in society between different peoples.

If we want to ‘liberate’ thinkers from their own environment and think beyond life experience then we must support the development of the whole person, not just the intellect. RE gives students the confidence in making informed decisions about the world and people around them. I believe that RE provides the type of knowledge that is associated with everyday experience. If we want our humanities curriculum to represent the cultural ‘knowledge of the powerful’ then let us give access to powerful knowledge through RE to all children to improve social mobility, tackle inequality, enhance student experiences and intellectual development.


Shammi is Head of Humanities Faculty at Denbigh School in Milton Keynes

See all posts by Shammi Rahman

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Read the other blogs in the series. See them all here