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A case for verbs over nouns

After engaging with various brilliant members of the online RE community, I’ve felt encouraged to contribute my thoughts to moving beyond the ongoing RE vs. Worldviews discussion. This blog will outline my initial thoughts and how, perhaps, we should be focussing on our verbs (our ways of doing) over our subject’s noun.

Context

As a Teacher of Religious Studies, Philosophy and Ethics (GCSE and AS) in a faith-majority post-16 setting (although the college itself is non-denominational), undoubtedly I am bringing my own biases towards this discussion. In the spirit of methodological agnosticism, I will try my best to separate them but, in the end, my ideas will inevitably be shaped by this. As we all will be.

Aims of RE / Worldviews / etc.

Considering the nature of RE/RS/PRE/Worldviews, I draw back to the aims of these discussions and the aim of our course offerings writ large. Is our (‘our’ being all involved in this debate) aim to deliver academically rigorous content regarding the past and current views of other people (be they Prophets, Philosophers, or current religious adherents), or are we supposed to provide a platform for students to reflect on their own and others views, developing learners to become open-minded and ‘spiritual’ human beings? 

This may be a collateral course outcome (and, for me, is a sign that the teaching is beyond rote-learning), but I do not think that this should be an outcome in and of itself. I am not sure how committed to this opinion I am, but my gut feeling is that I do not see this aim (the students’ holistic development) as any different to the requirements of an English, Physics, or Media (e.g.) course to do the same. I think this is where some of the RE community’s problems lie – the separation of the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane’, and we as RE/RS/PRE/WVs teachers having access to the ‘sacred’ knowledge (throwing Physics to the profane), which means that it is our duty only to develop these skills. In my opinion, any teacher and course worth their salt should be doing the same. This is what separates RE in schools from the Madrassa / Sunday School, etc. 

Reassessing our aims, reassessing our approach.

If disciplines are areas of specialised studies that we invent, then we can redefine these boundaries to compensate for the fluctuating nature of methodological practice (just as definitions surrounding ‘Religion’ continue to shift). In my planning for my GCSE curriculum this year I have been inspired by the work of Gillian Georgiou, Kathryn Wright, and Richard Kueh (in their contrbutions to Mark Chater’s recent Reforming Religious Education). I have specifically highlighted Theology as a textual studies approach in scriptural analysis, although this undoubtedly needs to be fleshed-out more to become much more specific. Namely, precisely which Theological approach are we applying to this quotation: feminist? Post-colonial? Liberationist? This may be too complex for GCSE, but the point remains – in focussing on disciplines, we also need to consider which forms of these disciplines we are utilising.

There are arguments for RS as a discipline in its own right, and these are (I believe) being presented by Professor (and my former Professor) Denise Cush in an upcoming article. Because RS/SR encompasses so many other areas, I wonder whether RS as its own discipline is just too broad. But then I am left wondering, to what extent is RS any different to Sociology, History, etc. in its umbrella nature. Perhaps we are just over-analysing our subject and causing it to implode from within. Rising to the provocative challenges presented by Chater in Reforming Religious Education, are we any different?

Moving forwards:

In the increasing inclusion of different traditions / philosophies / worldviews etc. into the primary and secondary curriculums, we are necessarily encountering topics that do not quite fit (or, at least, as neatly) into the categories that have been prescribed previously. In our position in my institution, the A Level we offer challenges our learners to cover much traditional content: the problem of evil, religious language, miracles, etc. Although this might seem to be ‘old hat’ for some passionate reformists, this is some of the most challenging and fresh content for our students who likely have never been exposed to such ideas before. My worry in disenchanting the curriculum to appear more ‘modern’ is that we may lose the content that some students need the most. Some may be forgetting that we are not wholly secular!

In practice I am not sure whether the current examination system and course structure permits a complete overhaul of our approaches. Whilst arguments about the nature of RE are continuing, we are faced with the potential consequences of moving too quickly on this issue. For example, expressing our creativity by creating and presenting the ‘narrative’ of Islam, not following the suggested course specification’s order or including views external to the specification to rise to the Worldviews challenge, empowers us to explore different strands but may create an additional challenge to our students for them needing to re-piece together content in an exam context.

This is where current dialogue that I have witnessed and engaged with misses an important point – there is very little examination engagement. We can include additional information and perspectives where desired, or list detail the kinds of activities we will use to implement and assess this learning, but ultimately our Scheme of Work is the course specification. Anybody doing anything else has gone rogue! By no means do I like this fact, but it does seem to me to be an immovable fact. The bottom up approach is ideal, but the top down is the reality for many.

Are we bound to existing examination / formalised curriculum paradigms before even beginning to reimagine our future? And, perhaps more importantly, in searching for disciplines are we investigating our current practices or creating a new subject altogether? Answers on a postcard.