Research of the Month

Are you looking for summaries of high-quality academic research that are relevant to classroom practice? For accounts of collaborations between teachers and researchers, or research projects undertaken by teachers? For ways to connect with Religion and Worldviews research? Our research of the month feature aims to refresh and develop your professional knowledge and to help you get up to date with what others are doing. Each month we will feature a new piece of research or choose one from our library to highlight.

We hope you will be able to use this monthly focus for personal professional development, as well as a source of reading group material for local or regional groups and hubs.

Our library stores concise reports of Religion and Worldview-relevant research from 2017 as well as links to historical policy documents.

January 2022

An approach to decolonising teaching about Jesus in primary schools, Justine Ball

As you look at this research here are some things to consider:

  1. Are Jesus, angels and Christians often depicted as white-skinned and European in your RE resources?
  2. Are you confident to teach children about Jesus’ Jewish context?
  3. Do your teaching resources explore the diversity of Christian groups around the world?

Watch this video of Justine taking about her research. Justine has been investigating the way Jesus and Christians are often presented as white and European in RE resources. Additionally Jesus’ Jewish context is often missing. Is this something you have also noticed? Justine sets out to ‘decolonise’ RE resources about Jesus, watch the video to find out what this involves.

My research centres on areas I observed with the teaching about Jesus in primary RE and considers ways to address these. The first issue is the dominant depiction of Jesus as lighter skinned and European in paintings and imagery that children see. This is well known in other related disciplines such as biblical and religious studies; for example, Pittman and Boyles state that:

The historical-cultural dominance of fair skinned, often blue-eyed Jesus is old news for theologians and biblical scholars. (2019, 315).

Although this is “old news” in other related disciplines, I still observe this in many of the paintings and imagery that children see.

A further issue that I observe is the lack of emphasis about Jesus as Jewish, which again has been noted in biblical studies for years (Pittman and Boyles, 2019, 324). This lack of focus results in younger children not understanding the connection between Jesus as Jewish and the impact of his actions in the stories they hear. When children are older, in Key Stage 2, they will also not understand the later development of the Christian church without first understanding the Jewish context of Jesus and his first disciples (for example, why Jesus is often referred to as a messiah and the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy). This lack of emphasis does not help children appreciate the historical or religious impact of his actions, which could also result in confusion in the subsequent teaching about Judaism. For example, how to explain to children the fact that Jesus was Jewish, but his followers were Christian.

A further issue is that white, European imagery is not only used when depicting Jesus, but often used when showing pictures of Christians or characters from the gospel stories. Persona dolls, which are popular in Early Years and Key Stage 1 teaching, often present one image of a Christian child with blond hair and blue eyes, without using other dolls that might suggest there is far more diversity among Christians. Using imagery such as this without further diversity gives the impression to children that Christianity is a European religion.

The issue of such dominance in imagery is a major concern because it is not only misleading, but it also does not allow an opportunity for all children regardless of their background to see themselves in the teaching resources used and is something which suggests that a colonised curriculum is present in RE. A colonised curriculum is defined as one where the “thinking, framing and curriculum has a Europe centred, colonial lens” (EachOther, 2021). It is an area that children at a very young age notice.

This led me to research how schools use imagery in their teaching and how important it is for children to see diversity in imagery.

A further issue that I observed was the need for further knowledge about the diversity of Christian churches and the need for knowledge about how other religious groups value Jesus too. Children will often visit their local church, but it might be the case that they visit only one church and hear only one set of views. This results in children failing to see the real diversity within Christianity in the UK. Teaching often also fails to highlight that people from other different religions revere Jesus too. This led me to question how the teaching about Jesus might invite other religious people to say why he is important for them.

The imagery and diversity of views that children are exposed to matters because it is this that they will remember above any content taught in the classroom. Dale’s study in 1969 revealed how powerful images are compared to words in people’s memory. Using a diagram referred to as the Cone of Experience, Dale’s work has gone on to influence educators ever since and it clearly shows that visual imagery helps people to remember information long after the words are forgotten.

What is shown to children therefore need careful selection because getting this wrong can lead to the stereotyping of others (such as seeing Christians as mainly European) and misconceptions about Jesus (for example, not knowing that he was Jewish, or assuming that he was white). It may lead to intolerance of others if the misconceptions lead children to believe that Christianity is only for Europeans, and other cultures or traditions are not valued. Therefore, inaccurate representations of Jesus and a lack of diversity in the imagery and content about Jesus may result in RE indirectly contributing to ignorance and misrepresentations of religion to children.

In my dissertation I argue that the teaching about Jesus in English primary schools urgently needs to address these issues by using biblical studies research and religion and worldviews research, suggested by the Commission on Religious Education in 2018 (Foreword) as the approach that would present a new direction for the teaching of RE. This research calls for the study of religious and non-religious worldviews in different ways, using different disciplinary techniques such as historical and sociological approaches to help children:

understand both a wider range of religious and non-religious worldviews and the idea of diversity within worldviews. (Commission on Religious Education, 2018, 5)

Using such research will help teachers recognise that the historical and geographical context of Jesus being located in Judaea two thousand years ago must be taught so that children understand this context as well as the continuing relevance of Jesus for diverse groups today. A worldviews approach will help the teacher introduce a variety of perspectives about Jesus from different communities and present a diversity of images from the UK and around the world rather than using artwork that continues to reflect the dominant presentation of Jesus as a White Western European[1].

The approach I argue for references anti-racist approaches to education and aspects of historical and theological studies about Jesus, such as marginalised voices and Black theological views of Jesus which are currently not reflected in much primary teaching.

I show that Christianity is a global religion with growth in newer churches in the UK and worldwide in African and Latin American countries and argue that this should be reflected in teaching. I further argue that the artwork that teachers use should not only reflect the worldwide global nature of Christianity, but also reflect the multicultural nature of Christianity in the UK and I call for further resources to help teachers with this. I argue that the demand for progress in this area has become much more urgent with the recent focus on decolonising the curriculum with an emphasis on:

the process in which we rethink, reframe and reconstruct the curricula and research that preserve the Europe-centred, colonial lens. (EachOther, 2021)

This is important as decolonisation research presents opportunities to consider different approaches to the teaching about Jesus and to address the issues that I raise here.

I used qualitative research methods with a small sample of teachers and their children  across 3 very different primary settings to seek further information.

My findings reveal the teachers’ comment that much of the artwork they use for the teaching about Jesus is European in style and imagery. They also comment on the lack of diversity in teaching about Christian views about Jesus or other religious views. Teachers themselves ask for further resources to help them teach about Jesus using artwork and resources from a greater diversity of sources to address this.

My findings show the importance of visual imagery for children in how they answered my questions. They show how the majority describe Jesus with dark hair, blue eyes and peach or light-coloured skin and they clearly reference that they know this from the books or films that they have seen. Children do not always know how other religious people view Jesus, but some children, particularly older children, do know that he was Jewish.

I make recommendations for RE advisors and curriculum writers to make teaching historically accurate by referencing the historical Jewish context of Jesus, to embed the principles of worldviews and decolonisation research and to approach the teaching about Jesus using much greater diversity in the imagery, artwork and examples taught to children in future.

Questions to consider:

  • What have you seen in your own context?
  • What actions can you take?
  • What resources would further help teachers address these issues going forward?

[1] The head of Christ by Warner Sallman has become the best known American artwork of the twentieth century of Jesus in recent years and has influenced the presentation of Jesus since it was painted. (Washington Post, 25 June, 2020).

You may be interested in...

Previous research of the month

Catch up on them all here

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