Why and how should a Key stage 3 module on contemporary religious expression in art be created?

Sukaina Manji, [lead writer] & other contributors: Laura Miller, Sahra Uçar, Samuel Yates


‘All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.’ (1)

This article brings together individual research pieces and defines a shared resource valuable to RE practitioners. The following subsidiary questions help illustrate the fundamental approach:

1) How does the identity of a teacher, for example, faith-based or non-faith-based affect their approach with creative expressions of religion in the classroom?

2) How can the module be assessed?

As researchers, our interests come together in responding to the title question. We discussed how the definition of religious literacy has shaped over time and how the current religious landscape further helps to create meaning.  Evidence shows religious and non-religious identification shape curricula (2). In turn, we can question and reflect upon the impact of varied religious and non-religious epistemologies in shaping our ideas about what it means ‘to know’. Knowing about worldviews is imperative in understanding how faith and non-faith members can effectively produce a cohesive society built upon respect. Furthermore, the study of religion offers an insight into human nature, questions of knowing and being in the world, and the impact of varied worldviews and traditions in mediating a person’s life experience, both as individuals and members of society.

As qualitative researchers focused on the classroom, we hope to reveal findings by having ‘safe spaces’ within which dialogue can occur. It is the adult’s responsibility within the classroom to ensure that any resources used within the school bear respect and will not contribute towards stereotyping religious communities or causing offence in any way. We propose using contemporary art within the classroom as a means of developing critical religious literacy. As the facilitator, the teacher is responsible for guiding discussions without consciously/unconsciously imposing. We look at the RE classroom’s idea of becoming a stage, taking inspiration from Shakespeare’s words and defining the actors within and the various structures at play (3).  The following section examines definitions of religious literacy and connects the RE classroom as a stage with actors in a journey of constructing meaning through expressive arts.

Context and literature

Religious literacy has been defined by a range of theorists, recognising its role within contemporary society. For instance, Wright (4) argues that a religiously educated child would critically engage with religious truth claims. This position strengthens the need for critical RE lessons, addressing the ‘decline of religious literacy’ (5). On the other hand, Moore (6) specifies how a religiously educated person can understand how religion plays a fundamental and integral role within human life. Dinham et al. (7) consider that we need to be aware of engaging respectfully with others within the public sphere. Manji’s research proposes that empowering our younger generation right from an early age with religious literacy will enhance the understanding of their peers and others within the wider community.

According to Taylor (8), RE is a type of practice like all other scientific disciplines. Hence as a practice, RE can be defined as a type of social activity, with actors, structures, action repertoires, rules and ideals (3). Doing so supports the idea of the RE classroom as a stage that helps create meaning. The teacher and students play an ‘actor’ role in creating sense through religious literacy development. As actors, both can maintain personal identity whilst learning happens within the community. At the same time, Afdal (3) suggests the class is also a community of differences as students are involved in other communities and relationships that may be invisible in the classroom. However, the invisible characteristics may determine their feelings about, experience, and understanding of religion (3). Such a position does not mean nurturing prejudices within the classroom but, in essence, fulfils the vital responsibility that RE plays in tackling stereotypes, prejudices and informing personal biases that need reframing.

Therefore, this leads to questioning how a teacher’s personal view, or lens, supports or creates biases whilst exploring religion’s creative expressions. Some valuable reflections for RE practitioners within the classroom could include questioning from an individual level to the broader whole-school level:

  • How do teachers apply the scheme of work or lesson using PowerPoint other than just reading from the board? How is creativity produced within the RE classroom?
  • How does the experience of a teacher differ, from subject knowledge to numbers of years in teaching? Does this change the nature of the lesson? Would students experience a class differently with subject knowledge expertise, or would the number of years in teaching shape the lesson?
  • What about the broader context of the school? What are the underpinning ethos and values of the school? How is RE as a subject valued widely within the school? Does this impact the classroom?

Through his ongoing research, Yates suggests that as art is interpretive, the student can explore secular, non-religion, and religious themes through the medium of art. The religious/non-religious identification of the teacher does not impact the student in a way they may be susceptible to with other religious-based topics. Art is a neutral ground that enables effective discussion of students’ interpretations without imposed teacher’s belief systems. Perhaps as the interpretation of art is in various ways, the student can take responsibility in their learning to ensure a positive engagement. On the other hand, Miller’s experience in her department suggests that many chaplains face personal religious identity issues affecting expressions of their religion in a classroom. Such practices require a supportive approach, for example involving with ’a Bible through arts’ group that may offer examples and ideas through discussions.

As responsible RE professionals, we ensure that safe discussion places don’t involve resources that could disrespect or create tension for any religious communities. For example, using offensive cartoon drawings for discussion purposes could perpetuate disrespect, whilst using offensive cartoon images of the Prophet further prejudices against Muslims and helps to create stereotypes when people from the faith demonstrate their religious views.  As practitioners, we need to know what religious art means.

  • Does using religious art necessarily mean using provocative pieces?
  • Do we need expertise in recognising what we mean by religious art?
  • How can we be sure that we are using religious art genuinely to enhance teaching and learning?

Therefore, our crucial responsibility is to apply religious literacy within our teaching practice. On a practical level, religious literacy supports the practitioner in teaching and learning by having the ‘sufficient knowledge of religion to act and interact’ (5) accordingly. Dinham et al. (7). call for the ‘urgent need to re-skill public professionals and citizens for the daily encounter’ with the full range of religious plurality (7).  Hannam (5) draws from Dinham and Shaw (9) to explain the framework of religious literacy, which seeks to inform thoughtful and rooted approaches towards religions to countervail reactions based on fear and stereotype. Hence, religious art can be defined as created by adherents to express devotion and can be used for engagement in critical discussions. By doing so, we create opportunities for discussions instead of fuelling prejudices. In the next section, we link to metaphors suggesting them as a way forward in relation to contemporary religious expression in art, particularly for key stage 3 who can embed their primary sector learning and enhance learning progression.


Uçar’s research suggests that art provides enormous scope for engaging understanding in this area and offering an alternative paradigm of ‘knowing’. Further, if we view art pieces as epistemological narratives that teach us about a given religious tradition, then we can work through art to become theologically literate. Each piece of religious art represents a story and contains insight about a religious tradition – we just need to equip students with the skills to ‘read’ art in this way and therefore learn to ‘theologize’ as Copley (10) puts it.

Using metaphors to describe the various ongoing research helps to recognise how critically engaging with RE can lead to a real appreciation of what religions and their traditions can offer to create knowledge systems that act as developmental tools for the future. By decoding the metaphors, one can link to the deeply covered iceberg messages within religions and traditions. Overall it can also help differentiate between what can be religious and other cultural issues. The safe places within the RE classroom can enable such positions. For example, an experienced teacher would link FGM through deep thinking layers when teaching about human rights. Would religions advocate for such brutality towards women, both young and old? Has the practice been built further using culture as a vehicle and disguised under religious rites? There is a  lot to think about, but we can tailor discussions appropriately to suit age and levels as professionals. Examples that we cite in the following section will help create an excellent scheme of work for trialling within the lower secondary sector.


Using visuals within the classroom creates a powerful expression of what religious artefacts mean to the believer. Ingold writes on ‘materials and materiality’, showing the power of artefacts and includes art. He defines archaeology and anthropology as ‘craft’, rather than an academic discipline. Religious education can draw much from such a definition as religions have never been purely academic, written, or epistemic. This burgeoning field allows epistemic decolonisation of RE, which enable a fuller and more authentic exploration of religious tradition.

Uçar uses tapestry to recognise the ‘weaving’ within religions, where each thread helps understand the variety of views within religion and its traditions. Manji proposes to look at an ‘ocean blanket’ which aids various kinds of learners:  audio, visual or kinaesthetic, to recognise that the outer layer has formed a ‘dark rim’ that surrounds the fuller and deep values within the ocean. Similarly, suppose students lack religious literacy from the primary sector going forth. In that case, we are then demonstrating irresponsible behaviours by letting stereotypes and prejudices filter our younger generation’s lenses. How far can the responsibility lie with the personal self, and how far can this be shared with the school? Could a primary educator confidently say that RE teaching was not entirely for academic purposes but rather to open up filters within the young mind in recognising worldviews both religious and non-faith?

When moving onto the secondary sector, students’ learning progression can draw knowledge and understanding from their prior years, which act as building blocks in the RE classroom. Hence, we propose using key stage 3 to enhance further and help ‘measure’ learning through creative expressions. Could such ‘measuring’ be about the informed self? If so, this could provide further opportunities to enhance learning. Or does it need to be about giving a level to students? If so, there is a risk of disengagement from students who do not attain it.

Brooks and Fancourt (11) approach whether self-assessment is unique in RE, whilst Blaylock (12) discusses issues in achievement and assessment in RE provision in England. Perhaps what we propose through our creative expression can help bridge the gap as it supports various interpretations that create meaning for the learners.

Personal worldviews help shape the lenses of individuals by drawing on aspects of both religious and non-religious worldviews. The CoRE (13) report proposes that RE as a subject can become more inclusive by reflecting the broader social changes within England and globally and offers a rebranding as Religion and Worldviews. Perhaps through metaphors and creative religious and non-religious expressions, we can provide further dialogue and breath within the RE classroom without creating biases and prejudices. Such a stance suggested as using religious art as a medium may enable open engagement, accessible by various types of learners, and discussions within the ‘safe places’ handled professionally. We have discussed how and why contemporary religious expression can further learning, and to sum up, we propose a scheme of work based on three key ideas.

Conclusion and issues for further research

Religious artefacts convey religious meaning in powerful ways in understanding religions and what they mean to believers. In the same manner, contemporary expressions of religion through the art can support and embed learning.  These can be through unique opportunities that work within metaphorical arts, for example, unweaving tapestry to create meaning, looking underneath the iceberg by examining the ‘darker distorted’ areas because of prejudices and stereotypes. Finally, enabling learning through the discussions that occur eventually leads to formative assessments that help better position and equip our younger generation. The next step that we recognise is to create such resources and pilot them within supporting schools. Hopefully, it will provide us with qualitative data to reshape and enhance the resources even further. Overall it is through the teaching and learning process that, as educators, we can continue to add further to the RE world when we reflect on our teaching.


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