What does the shift to worldview mean for teachers?

April 2021 research of the month features Emeritus Professor Trevor Cooling

We originally reported this research of Trevor Cooling’s on the Research for RE website in June 2020. It has featured prominently in discussions since then and remains timely and topical. It raises questions for you to consider and discuss in relation to your own practice, and would form a good agenda for a meeting (e.g., school department, local group, research community of practice): some discussion questions which have been suggested by Trevor are included at the end.

The research is about current discussions of RE, specifically, the shift to a focus on worldview, following the publication of the CORE report. It outlines the meaning of the concept of worldview, and how a worldviews paradigm moves the subject away from a ‘box-by-box’ presentation of religions, in which they appear as relatively single sets of beliefs and practices, sealed from one another.

Trevor Cooling considered the impact of the concept of worldview on his own work, in an autobiographical manner; including the realisation that one can combine religious commitments with scientific and professional activity. He then analysed the treatment of worldview in the CORE report and identified the pedagogical implications of CORE, arguing that Religion and Worldviews teaching will need to take a hermeneutical approach if the proposals are to succeed.

So, Religion and Worldviews is not a matter of adding extra content to RE. When religions (or non-religious worldviews) are viewed as fluid, complex, and diverse, worldviews, the subject changes. It needs to focus on the lived experience of people and communities identifying with a particular institutional worldview.  It also needs to address personal worldview, and how teachers and pupils should understand the varied influences on them as they form their own worldviews.

The disciplinary knowledge Cooling drew on comes from the theologian Anthony Thiselton’s ‘responsible hermeneutics’ (a version of philosophical hermeneutics based on a critical realist epistemology). This gives teachers three responsibilities:

  • Promote rigorous knowledge of what is being taught.
  • Ensure rigorous reflection on the contemporary context and how it may influence both teacher’s and pupils’ perspectives.
  • Ensure rigorous reflection on the potential interaction between 1 and 2, so that teacher and pupils benefit in their own self-understanding.

The original, open access, article is Trevor Cooling (2020) “Worldview in religious education: autobiographical reflections on The Commission on Religious Education in England final report,” British Journal of Religious Education, DOI: 10.1080/01416200.2020.1764497.

Trevor also wrote about this research and its implications for a general audience in a Theos Report Worldviews in Religious Education. This is available on open access at https://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/research/2020/10/21/worldviews-in-religious-education.

For those interested in following up the REC work in its RE and Worldview Project, the following two publications are recommended:

  1. Select Literature Review of the international academic literature that gives access to the worldwide debate on worldview as exemplified in a number of subject disciplines. Go to https://www.religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/REC-Worldview-Report-A4-v2.pdf.
  2. Discussion papers written by REC consultant Amira Tharani, who led a series of five consultation events in June 2020 where 13 leading academics discussed the implication of the literature review for teaching RE in schools. The discussion papers are Amira’s “take” on the key themes that emerged from these events. Go to: https://www.religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/The-Worldview-Project.pdf.

Discussion Questions

  1. Can you identify a topic that you currently teach that could be adjusted to draw pupils’ attention to the way in which a person’s worldview influences their interpretation of information?  What modifications to the teaching approach you currently use would be necessary?
  2. Given the backgrounds of your pupils, can you identify the ways in which their experiences of, and assumptions about, life would influence how they interpret the information you introduce them to in RE?
  3. Probably the hardest insight from responsible hermeneutics to adopt is learning to ask questions about and allow challenges to our own interpretations. Can you identify strategies in your own teaching which help pupils in becoming comfortable with that?