Worldview Education, hermeneutics and teaching pupils how to know, not just what to know

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.

The Commission for RE final report definition of Worldview, emphasises the way of understanding, what I sometimes call ‘knowing’ meaning the way of making sense of things that goes on in a worldview.

“A worldview is a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world. It can be described as a philosophy of life or an approach to life. This includes how a person understands the nature of reality and their own place in the world.” (on page 4 and 26 where it is unpacked and then it is further unpacked on page 72).

On p. 29 the report relates “way of understanding” directly to disciplinarity and it mentions sacred texts scholarship:

“The explicit, academic study of worldviews provides an opportunity to develop a range of specific and general transferable skills. Skills that are intrinsic to the disciplines involved in the study of worldviews include analysing a range of primary and secondary sources, understanding symbolic language, using technical terminology effectively, interpreting meaning and significance, empathy, respectful critique of beliefs and positions, recognizing bias and stereotype, and representing views other than one’s own with accuracy.” (p.29)

And this is central to the understanding of diversity. On p.30, the link between this and making sense of how different communities of interpretation are possible is underscored

“There is now greater recognition that within each major tradition there are different communities of interpretation and different theological and philosophical approaches.” (p.30)

So there is an explicit interest in the way of knowing that goes on in a worldview, not just a list of facts about ‘what they do and what they believe’. An advisor to the Texts and Teachers’ project, Professor Towey, Director of the Aquinas Centre, at  St Mary’s University, who was one of the Commissioners, reminded us that the approach to interpreting sacred texts was often key to unlocking the self-understanding and practice of different denominations today. The report continues that in the subject there needs to be significant rebalancing of the ‘how’ of worldview with the ‘what’ of worldview.

“how worldviews work in practice, is as important as knowing the content of particular worldviews.” (p,31)

The proposition of the commission contains within it a hermeneutical turn for the subject. This is how and why hermeneutics is central to worldviews. Religion and Worldviews cannot simply transfer propositional knowledge, without also introducing pupils to the structure of those propositions and in that structuring we see the worldview that has shaped the discipline. Here an observation of Liam Gearon is important. In his book On Holy Ground, he identified how the rise of social sciences were in part a rejection of role of religion in making sense – disciplines are themselves perforated by worldviews. Disciplines are part of a historical and cultural development which is why philosophers like Alasdair MacIntrye and Julian Baggini argue for an understanding of the place (and time) from which an attempt at an objective view may be sought. Philosophy, often loved in our subject, is itself a space of contested worldviews. I recommend Julian Baggini’s book, How the World Thinks, which I know some RE teachers have been reading thanks to #REBookClub. Baggini sheds light on the importance of learning to be able to operate through multiple ways of making meaning.

Religion and worldviews must not be a mish mash of propositional facts, thrown together without rationale. A worldview education means introducing pupils to the way things are organised, the grammar, the ways of knowing practiced from a place, a community, and how meaning is made. I find the analogy of language learning helpful. Our subject is where we teach children to read their own language of meaning making.  Everyone, by virtue of actually having a first language has this as language itself, the shaper of our expressions, is soaked in worldview, indicated through the metaphors which our sentences are riddled with. In our subject we must seek for our pupils to recognise their own metaphorical landscape, the worldviews that shape their perception, as well as becoming bilingual in (I suggest) two traditions’ ways of making meaning. To bring about this transformation we have work to do. We need to translate the grammars of knowing found in worldviews into progression structures of the kinds of activities that will tease out concepts and ways of making sense in those traditions. The questions we ask and the things we value in answers given will need to be keyed into these progression structures and the ways of meaning/ grammars of knowing practiced by traditions, rather than bolted on as an afterthought. In this way we might be able to teach pupils how to know, not just what to know.


Professor Bob Bowie, Canterbury Christ Church University