What has the idea of ‘worldview’ contributed to my curriculum thinking?

We are delighted to be launching a new summer blog series called ‘Opening up conversations about religion and worldviews’. This blog series is being run in collaboration with the RE Policy Unit, a partnership between NATRE, the RE Council and RE Today. It will include contributions from a wide range of teachers, those working in initial teacher education and researchers in this field.

I’ve long been an advocate of what might be labelled as academic, rigorous, systematic, knowledge-rich RE, one that teaches pupils the key beliefs, practices, concepts and values found within some of the major world religions. And I have long argued that this content should be taught in a progressive manner, by which pupils’ comprehension gradually moves from simple to complex as they grow in their awareness of the diversity of expression and understanding found within and without religions.

However, the ideas contained in the Commission on RE (2018) report, and the subsequent thinking developing these ideas has provided me with both the opportunity and the stimulation to question the basis of these ideas about the curriculum. Here I set out some brief comments on just one part of my thinking that I have been questioning.

Is the ‘essentialist’ curriculum model the best one?

The term ‘essentialism’ is perceived in different ways in the RE community. Some argue that ‘essentialism’ narrows and limits understanding and fails to provide a realistic picture of the world and religion and belief. Others, myself included, accept this to a point, arguing that ‘essentialism’ may be limited, but it is a necessary part of the process of learning about religions in a progressive manner, in that what is learnt in this phase is essential for progress to more sophisticated learning.

I would still argue for the latter position, but the ideas found within the proposed National Entitlement statement, and the ongoing work to develop these ideas (e.g. Cooling 2020 [1]) have made me question what might be considered ‘essential’. Let’s consider an example, the Christian practice of going to church. The current approach would seem to suggest that we teach about the church, and what might be found in the church, and what Christians do in the church, and then later on, we might start to consider types of church building, and different forms of worship. But what seems to be missed here is that for the vast majority of people in the UK who identity as Christian, going to church is something they never or very rarely do. [2] So why is a study of the church building considered essential? My concern is that rather than this being a progressive programme by which pupils move from simple to complex, it isn’t progressive at all because it may actually hinder progress in understanding Christians. This approach would seem to make going to church normative for Christians when for many it isn’t.

This is where a range of different disciplinary questions may help. If we place a social scientific approach alongside a theological approach, maybe we will avoid the problem of making normative something that isn’t normal.

And this thought is leading me to consider how else we present that which we study. When we study Christianity (if there even is such a thing as Christianity) then which Christianity are we studying? Do we make normative a male, European, educated, white Christianity, and so ‘other’ different forms of Christianity?

What the idea of worldview has contributed to my thinking is that I need to pay much more attention to teaching students that what we teach is not all that there is, and that the most essential of all facts to teach about religious and non-religious worldviews is that they are diverse.

 

1 https://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/RKMZYYPQMVINAXJPC2R4/full?target=10.1080%2F01416200.2020.1764497&

2 Figures for Christian affiliation vary depending on which survey you look at, but range upwards from 38% of the UK population, while figures for church attendance also vary, but are perhaps around 5% of the population

 

Ben Wood, Subject Leader for Religious Studies, Haslingden High School and Chair, National Association of Teachers of RE