What’s in a name?/ Subject Matter

I recently had occasion to re-visit the posts I wrote for Hodder Education, and thought I would post them here. The first one I did is already posted somewhere on this blog.

The originals can be found here and here.

What’s in a name?

The following link is to Professor Robert Jackson covering some similar ground to that touched on in my last post.

I promised to say more here about RE pedagogy, by which I meant our attempts to give an integrated and coherent account of what we consider to be the subject mater of RE, its aims and justification on the curriculum, and its proper methodology. I see these three areas as intricately linked, so that you can’t really divorce your account of what the subject matter of RE is from your understanding of how learning works in the subject, and so on. Also, your starting point here matters, so that if you think there is a pretty clear or given understanding of what RE is for, that will limit your options for considering what it is about and how it should be taught, and so on.

I will start with a consideration of what we call the subject in our schools. I know that this is something that is quite often discussed in departments, and in my work I come across all sorts of interesting nomenclature in addition to Religious Education: departments of Religious Studies, Religion and Philosophy, Theology and Philosophy, Religion and Ethics, in one school REPSHE, which is a bit of a mouthful, and so on. There are of course all sorts of “local” issues which influence how a department might want to “brand” itself within a particular school, but I think there are a range of common factors influencing decisions like these which are a good ‘way in’ to exploring the national identity crisis which RE is undergoing. One commentator, Mark Chater, in a challenging address he gave as part of this year’s “Celebrating RE” week (full text available here) argues that a name change at a national level is a vital part of ensuring our subject’s continued survival on the curriculum, but that this would be the final stage of an exhaustive re-examination of what we are seeking to achieve in our subject in the 21st century and how this might best be achieved.

Perhaps you have discussed renaming the subject in your school, or carried out a successful “rebranding”? I would certainly be interested to hear (@davealdridgere) how these discussions went. I imagine some of the following considerations might have been at issue:

There is something unsatisfactory about “Religious Education” as a name for a curriculum area
This is familiar territory, of course. We don’t say “Historical Education” or “Geographical Education”, for example. Firstly, the adjective “Religious” here suggests that our subject is religious in character rather than labelling religion or religions as its subject matter, in the way that other curriculum subjects do (so that “History” is, unambigously, concerned with history). What is Religious Education about? Not “education”, in any case. We seem to be labelling some sort of process or activity rather than an area of interest or even a discipline, and since this process is labelled “religious”, it is liable to make a lot of people uneasy, particularly if they actively avoid “religious” activities of other kinds in their daily life. (The fact that we have retained in law the withdrawal clause that accompanied a more confessional understanding of the subject does not help the situation, and the right of parents to remove their children from RE lessons needs to be abolished as soon as possible if we are ever to make a clear distinction from lingering, indoctrinatory understandings of RE). Secondly, we don’t feel the need to incorporate the educational content or value of other curriculum areas into what we call them, we simply accept this as given, so the “Education” part seems redundant.

Of course, we are all familiar with the history of the name RE – the move after the 1988 Education Reform Act away from “Religious Instruction” within a particular worldview to an approach that acknowledged the diversity of worldviews in England as a whole and in the classroom. Ironically, whereas the name change from RI to RE in its historical context expresses a recognition that the subject can no longer be approached as indoctrination into a particular faith, the survival of the adjective “Religious” means that it often continues to be perceived that way by parents, students and colleagues alike. Why not re-name the curriculum area to refer to a particular subject mater, such as “Religion” or “Religions”? This leads us nicely to the second consideration:

Religious Education is not just about religions
You can read this sentence in two different but equally significant ways: “Religious Education is not just about religions,” and “Religious Education is not just about religions.” I will deal with each in turn.

Firstly, there is the growing recognition of the need to acknowledge and teach non-religious perspectives as part of a broad and balanced religious education, as indicated in the recent (admittedly failed) attempts to introduce secular humanism as an optional world faith on GCSE specifications, and the incorporation of humanism as one of the suggested ‘other’ faiths on the non-statutory national framework for RE (see under “religions and beliefs” on p. 12 – you can get a copy of the framework here). Such developments acknowledge the valid claims of humanists to be taken seriously as a credible and infuential worldview on the global stage, as well as the reality that many of our students in the RE classroom will self-identify as atheist or humanist and deserve to have their own non-religious perspectives taken seriously. Ninian Smart, I believe, suggested that “Worldviews Analysis” might be a better name for the academic study of religions at university level, acknowledging the importance of non-theistic belief systems.

Perhaps, therefore, the subject might be better named after those aspects of life, the world, or reality that religions and alternative worldviews attempt to describe, account for or interpret (and differ over) such as “ultimate meaning”, or “ultimate questions” (one colleague of mine suggested “truth studies”!) I have argued in my academic work that the choice of “the ultimate” as the particular stratum of reality which our subject is concerned with might still be allowing religions too much scope to define the object of study (see my paper “What is Religious Education all about?” in Journal of Beliefs and Values 32:1 , 2011), but there is a further issue here, which is that acknowledging that religion or religions are not our exclusive – or even our primary – concern makes it more difficult for us to argue what is distinctive about our subject area, since other subject areas will have as at least part of their concern questions about how the world really is and how we should act in accordance with its nature. I feel that clarifying the subject matter of what we currently call Religious Education is the greatest challenge facing RE teachers at the present time, and may devote another post to this later in the month.

To the second interpretation: our two much-debated attainment targets draw attention to the fact that “learning about” does not exhaust what is intended in RE. We also aim to edify or develop our students as human beings, such that they also “learn from” the religions studied. So the “education” part of the name RE might be defended on the grounds that it expresses something of this edificatory or transformative aim, rather than the subject being understood simply as the injection of knowledge about religion or religions. Of course, the choice of the name RE predates the existence of the two-fold attainment targets, but – aside from this – is this really such a unique aspect of our subject? Surely other humanities subjects also retain their place on the curriculum because of their potential to edify students? There are good grounds for arguing that when Michael Grimmitt offered us the origins of the two attainment targets in his Religious Education and Human Development, he intended “learning about”and “learning from” to be a distinction that runs through education as a whole, rather than specifically religious education. I have touched on this in the article mentioned above. Certainly it is my view that there cannot be any kind of “learning about” in the humanities or even in any other learning endeavour without some individual application or “learning from”, so that this is a distinction that cannot be held to apply uniquely to RE.

Academic rigour
Renaming the department to emphasise that the focus of the subject is on questions that are valuable and relevant to all students regardless of their religious persuasion or worldview has, from my own experience, elicited tremendously positive responses from students of all faith persuasions, even where the content of the subject has remained unchanged – i.e. a predominantly “world religions” approach.

Another issue that has affected student perception of the subject has been its reputation, perhaps reinforced by the memories of many parents of their own religious education, as a bit of a “doss subject”, taught by a stressed old vicar who didn’t really want to be in the classroom, patronised his students, and couldn’t keep control. Some departments I know of have changed the name of the subject to emphasise that it is an academic discipline with a long and distinguished history, a challenging and transferable skill-set, and a route into very respectable courses in Higher Education such as Religious Studies, Theology, and the ever- more-popular Philosophy. For the most part, I applaud this move, and in my own experience I have found that it can be a great motivation to some students (especially boys) to tell them that only a certain kind of gifted thinker will excel in RE. However, I do have two important concerns about the desire to emphasise RE as an academically rigorous subject, which has become a more prevalent concern in recent debates about whether it should be included in the eBacc.

The first is that by arguing that RE is as rigorous as, say, History and Geography, we actually play into and reinforce current political rhetoric about a division between more or less academic types of subject. I don’t think that this is a game we should agree to play. Firstly, we should consider what is meant by rigour (and this is the term that is used, for example, in the eBacc consultation document). If the claim that some subjects are more rigorous than others is intended to mean that some subjects are more challenging or difficult for students than others, this exposes a terrible ignorance about the whole educational endeavour, in which it has long been recognised that the students in our classroom have widely differing levels of ability in particular subjects and require personalised provision. Every student, if they are to learn at all in any subject, needs to be introduced to its content in a way appropriate to their current level of understanding, and has the right to be stretched beyond that level. The claim that some subjects are per se more “rigorous” than others seems to be absolving teachers of the responsibility (in those less rigorous subjects) of challenging their more able students (and thus enabling them to learn or develop) or, equally terribly, of tailoring content in the “more” challenging subjects to the level of understanding of less able students. This would have the result of rendering certain kinds of subject more accessible to certain kinds of student, which would be a divisive and inequitable, and certainly anti-educational, outcome. Level of challenge is not an inherent property of any particular subject area – this is why I can enable my two-year old son to learn through whatever he is currently most interested in (at the moment it is Superheroes) by asking him questions that are intended to challenge his current level of understanding.

Challenge, then, is something complex that is negotiated by a skilled teacher in their dealings with each of their individual students. If “academic rigour” in Geography as opposed to, say, Music or Art, cannot mean “challenge”, what on earth could it mean? It is ultimately seen for what it is – an inherited historical prejudice that has often been reinforced by the individual school experience of those that hold it.

If we are going to make claims about academic rigour in RE, we should expect them to be tested. One head teacher consulted as part of the parliamentary eBacc study (I must admit I did not watch the video through again to remind myself which one it was, but you can watch it here) defends the academic value of GCSE “Religious Studies” on the grounds that it is nothing like RE at KS3. Needless to say, this Head is radically “off-message” in terms of looking after the continued status of the subject at KS3! Aside from this, though, it is clear that he or she is commending the level of challenge achieved by her teachers in their delivery of the subject at KS4, and I would agree that many RE teachers are able to challenge their students at KS4 in all sorts of creative and inspiring ways, and there are a whole ranges of interesting resources to support them in their endeavour. But in terms of what is required on exam board specifications, I would argue that the quality of answers required to achieve an A* in GCSE RS (at least until the changes that were made to all specs for first examination this summer), if we examine published assessment criteria, is in most cases not as sophisticated as the skills described in the level 8 or EP KS3 descriptors on the non-statutory national framework for RE. I am happy to be challenged on this, of course, but the point stands: if we are going to defend our GCSE on the grounds that it is as challenging in its top-level requirements as other subjects, we had best be very sure that it is…

The second caveat I have about the desire to align school-based RE with academic subjects in HE is that it might in fact be mendacious to do so. Despite the claims of many advocates of RE on the eBacc that it is a feeder subject for Religious Studies, Theology and Philosophy at university level, it is well known that many HE philosophy departments actively discourage applicants from taking courses called “Philosophy” at A level on the grounds that they bear little resemblance to the academic study of philosophy and are a poor indicator of potential at undergraduate level. This has often been true in my experience, although it may be changing as the undergraduate specialism of new RE teachers continues to shift away from RS towards Philosophy (although this in itself is not a particularly positive development), and newer A level courses continue to evolve away from the only nominally philosophical modules that were originally introduced by pioneering exam boards.

However, should we be trying to sell a compulsory curriculum area on the grounds that it is a feeder to university courses? It seems to me that this is fundamentally problematic, if for no other reason than that while students at KS4 and 5 begin to “drop” subjects that they do not require to continue on to their chosen HE courses, we still argue that it is vital for them to continue their studies in RE. It must be, then, that we are hoping to achieve something in compulsory school-based RE that is not aimed at or achieved in university-based RS. In fact, I would argue (although I don’t have the time today to pursue this) that one of the most serious impediments to a clear understanding of the developmental aims of school-based RE has been a confusion between this compulsory subject and the academic discipline of Religious Studies. It is my view that we should be defending compulsory RE at all levels in school not on the grounds of how “rigorous” or challenging it is (although it must always be so!), but on the grounds of the contribution it can make to students’ development as human beings. In fact, the “academic rigour” agenda may have moved some departments away from apparently “softer” whole school concerns about spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, and the holistic nurture of children, and we may have to move back in this direction in future.

Subject matter

In my last post, I will consider the topic I alluded to in the previous two, what might be considered the appropriate “subject matter” of RE, and some of the problems surrounding this — or, why we can’t really just get away with saying that Religious Education is about religions. We’ve come to the end of Ramadan, so let’s perhaps use that as a concrete classroom example to explore some of these issues. I make no apologies for the similarity of this post to a glossary; these are terms (some technical, some apparently not) which bear on the question, and merit careful examination.

Intentionality refers to that toward which an event, a consciousness or a thought is directed, or what it is about. This is a term with a well-established history in philosophy, but it doesn’t often make much of an impact on educational debates, although the phenomenographical work of Ference Marton makes a distinction between “direct” and “indirect objects of learning”, or that to which a student’s attention is immediately drawn (a particular historical event or person, say) and the particular skill or capacity we aim to develop by introducing it.

An interesting experiment could be conducted here. Try teaching your lesson without telling the students what it was about, and afterwards asking them to tell you what it was about. Imagine our lesson on Ramadan: there will be an interesting range of answers —a religious festival, the practice of fasting, an event in the life of the Prophet, a particular section of the textbook (yes, some students will say the lesson was “about” page 53 or chapter 4; recall those students who — pressed always to put a title to their homework – will write “Questions, page 53” at the top…) If you used ethnographical material or accounts of the actual practice of members of a faith community, some students might identify those experiences as the subject matter of the lesson. Others might go for something broader — “devotion to God”, maybe, or “identifying with the poor”. This is an interesting experiment to conduct, because I think it will show that questions about the subject matter of RE are not abstract philosophical discussions – the intentionality of each individual classroom event can be seen to be very complicated indeed.

Teachers are of course familiar with the idea of progression within a unit of work, that the concepts and content introduced in a lesson must develop appropriately from that explored in previous lessons, with the whole unit moving in a structured way toward some sort of eventual goal or assessment objective. Additionally, context will also influence what emerges as the subject matter of a particular lesson. Unless students have become accustomed to seeing your lessons as discrete units with no particular connection from one to the next, their attention will be drawn to particular aspects of what you put in front of them, and not others, in relation to whatever it was you put in front of them last lesson.

In terms of our lesson on Ramadan, that means that if this is explored in the context of a sequence of lessons on the five pillars of Islam, say, a very different picture of what the lesson is about will emerge compared with Ramadan addressed as part of a sequence on fasting in the major world religions. The former might draw students’ attention to the Islamic sense of obligation, say, or the way in which Ramadan as one of the five pillars draws Muslims’ attention to the equality of all human beings, whereas the latter might focus on the common spiritual significance of ascetic practices.

The important point here is in contrast to the claims made by some of the proponents of influential “pedagogies of religious education”, where it is argued that, regardless of context, each individual lesson might be created from the ground up in line with the principles of a particular pedagogy. Rather, it should be noted that as teachers inheriting or adopting a particular scheme of work, local syllabus, programme of study, framework or whatever, from the smallest three lesson unit to the picture created through a student’s whole experience of Key Stage 3, we inherit a number of decisions that have already been made, implicitly or explicitly, deliberately or unintentionally, about the subject matter of the individual lessons within that context.

Lesson content

We tend to speak quite interchangeably about the content of a particular lesson, or its subject matter, so that the content, subject matter, or object of study of this lesson is “Ramadan”, or “fasting”, or “devotion” or whatever. I am going to suggest that we don’t, that we actually introduce a distinction here that might prove useful: let’s use “object of study” or “lesson content” to refer to the religious event or concept to which we direct our students’ immediate attention , and let’s reserve subject matter in the sense intended by Hans-Georg Gadamer’s use of “die Sache”: what is at stake or at issue in the discussion evoked by this lesson. This leads us on to …

Dialogic conceptions of learning
In the literature of RE pedagogy, both Andrew Wright (associated with “Critical Religious Education”) and — to a lesser extent — Robert Jackson (of the “Interpretive” approach) draw on the language of the philosophical tradition of hermeneutics to develop dialogic models of RE learning, where (to oversimplify somewhat) learning is conceived as a conversation between a student and some (usually religious) object, person or text about some aspect of the world (so that, to use the distinction offered above, the object of study or lesson content is the object, person or text with which the student is in dialogue, and the subject matter is what the conversation is actually about).

Much of the academic disagreement between Wright and Jackson refers to what might qualify here as a dialogue partner, whether religions themselves could be thought of as the texts of RE (broadly favoured by Wright) or whether it should be the individual persons or texts from which our individual understandings of “religions” are constructed (Jackson’s view). This debate is there for you to follow up, and turns on all sorts of interesting distinctions that are well-rehearsed in the academic literature of Religious Studies, but it is largely a distraction from a question which gets less explicit coverage, which is the intentionality of that dialogue — what it is actually about.

To simplify again, there are broadly two candidates here:

The social reality of religions
On this view, we engage with individual, atomistic religious texts or accounts in our attempts to build a better picture of the religions themselves, understood as a social reality. Such a view would aim for a better understanding (through dialogue) of the beliefs and practices of religious believers both individually and in community, acknowledging that these beliefs and practices have a tangible impact on society (regardless of whether or not religions actually exist as discrete entities). Such a view accords closely with the practice of Religious Studies in universities, where the traditional consensus is that one remains agnostic about the intentionality (that word again!) of these religious beliefs. In other words, the question here is not whether the claims made by a particular religion about the way the world is are true, but whether we have the best account we can get of what motivates believers. This could be appealing to RE teachers as it negates controversy in the subject. Theists and atheists alike can be judged by the same success criteria — whether they have given the most accurate account of what religious people do, and what motivates them to do it — regardless of whether they believe those claims are true; this question would not be part of the classroom debate.

The reality to which religions refer
This account does not, incidentally, deny the social reality of religions, but also acknowledges that this social reality exists within a broader reality, about which religious worldviews make some pretty wide-reaching claims, and identifies those aspects of reality about which religions seek to speak (God is a fairly good example!) as the subject matter of the dialogue. Andrew Wright’s view, for example, is that the RE dialogue (in which both religious and non-religious worldviews participate) concerns the ultimate or transcendent aspect of reality. Such accounts are easily yoked to human development justifications of RE — all students have their own (implicit or explicit) accounts of reality at the level of ultimacy, and it is easy to see how engagement in critical dialogue with alternative views on this is edifying and important. However, the controversial question about whether religious and other descriptions of reality in its ultimacy or totality are true moves to the centre of this conception of the subject matter of RE. My own view, for what it is worth, is that the first of these options (what I called the “social reality” view) limits the range and scope of what might be usefully be discussed in RE, with the result that it is both less immediately engaging to students and harder to justify as a compulsory element of the school curriculum.

The fusion of horizons

This last term is included with some reservations about what I have said so far. The dialogic model of learning which Wright — in particular — develops, draws on the account of understanding offered by Hans-Georg Gadamer in his book Truth and Method. Gadamer describes the understanding that occurs through such dialogue as a “fusion”. The term is incredibly rich and its relation to what is going on in RE merits an entire PhD thesis, but one important implication that bears on what I have said so far is that this is a fusion of the preoccupations or prejudices of both student and religious text, which necessarily cannot be prescribed in advance by a teacher — the “subject matter” of RE, then, is something that “emerges” in the classroom dialogue and cannot thus be prescribed or identified once and for all. This is why I am slightly nervous about identifying — for example — transcendent or ultimate reality as the subject matter of RE. This is certainly an account of the classroom dialogue which the history of the subject so far renders quite appealing, and is perhaps a good working starting point to get the debate going. I have already mentioned “context” above, and it is well worth noting that no dialogue exists without a pre-established context, a provisional understanding of the subject matter which helps us to get the discussion underway. But, unless we enter a dialogue with the expectation that our understanding of the subject matter might change, we do not come ready to learn from our partner. Thus, the context of a particular conversation enables the conversation to occur, but the possibility of real understanding means that the context in which the dialogue takes place can itself be transformed. That is why I would argue that if we want to maintain a convincing human development model of RE, we should resist attempts to specify definitively what the subject is about, however appealing it might be to separate the subject off from other claimants on limited curriculum time…

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