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What is religious literacy and how can it be improved in RE classrooms?

 Charlotte Vardy writes…

Teaching about religion is not easy: there are many religions, each is incredibly complex and diverse and encompasses elements of history, literature, philosophy, art, politics and law which are difficult to do any sort of justice to in the paltry time allocated on even the most generous school timetable. Today, following the widespread and sometimes deliberate misunderstanding, systematic abuse and consequent demise of AO2 and following more than a decade of trying to convince the world that we are a credible academic subject alongside History and Geography (while simultaneously claiming to deliver higher grades in half the time a year early), RE teachers often understand Religious Literacy just in terms of young people knowing about the major religions, either those which are the biggest players on the world stage – Christianity and Islam – or those which are represented locally which, depending on the area of the UK, might be Hinduism and Sikhism or Humanism and Judaism.

Beyond making the difficult decision about which religions to study, in which forms, according to which description and in which aspects – and getting dragged into the debate about Agreed Syllabii, Frameworks, National Curricula and the place of SACREs – the obvious problem with trying to deliver Religious Literacy by this definition in RE Classrooms in general is that however focused the curriculum, however effective the teaching, the sheer volume of knowledge about any single religion is huge and each tiny “fact” is open for debate.  This is compounded by the demonstrable shortage of teachers with sufficient knowledge of more than one religion to deliver this sort of Religious Literacy, let alone to have the confidence to admit what they don’t know rather than use what they do as a crutch, and the reality that the shortage cannot be plugged by opening the profession to unqualified teachers, those with irrelevant degrees, by providing any number of bursaries, online courses or INSET days. According to the Sutton Trust (What Makes Great Teaching 2014) the single biggest factor that makes a difference to student outcomes is teacher subject-knowledge, so it is little surprise that, according to OfSTED (RE: Realizing the Potential) , RE lessons often fall well short of being inspiring, even effective, particularly lower down the age range where the teaching about a list of religions approach has been more common.  Further, the brute fact is that these days RE is in effect an optional subject; in a packed high-pressure results-oriented curriculum young people vote with their feet if they have any doubt about the relative rigour, relevance and value-to-them of RE courses and risk ending up with no religious literacy by any definition.  I believe that delivering religious literacy in terms of detailed knowledge about all the major, or even selected, religions through most RE classrooms is verging on a practical impossibility, even it was desirable.

Even if none of this were true, even if we had a surplus of fantastically trained teachers, enormous budgets, masses of time, well-stocked cupboards and a ringing endorsement from OfSTED, I would argue that even if young people do know a lot about the practice of Buddhism and Bah’ai, can recognize a Kippah, list the Gurus and get an A* (or 9) in a GCSE paper, it doesn’t guarantee that they are religiously literate in the sense that many people would wish them to be. The embarrassing fact is that many A-grade students leave Year 11 pleased with their RS certificate but having no real interest in religion, a false sense that they know about it, license and encouragement to share their essentially baseless opinions.

Speaking to hundreds of teachers, faith-leaders, politicians… and young people themselves, has taught me that people outside the RE bubble conceive of religious literacy quite differently from a number of vocal people within it. They would rather that young people learned how to conceive of, discuss and engage with faith appropriately, that they respected religious practice and the wisdom that religious thinkers can offer to the world outside their communities, that they found religions fascinating, realized their complexity and diversity and the need to find out far more before making any judgement… and by talking to people, travelling and experiencing, not just reading a textbook, or relying on a teacher who has done so.

At the risk of being labelled a dinosaur, upsetting people who are wedded to the idea that rigour consists in memorising lists of facts and being trolled for saying what I really think… I see that religious literacy primarily as a set of skills and not as a body of knowledge – although quite obviously no skill can be developed in a vacuum.

Just as we teach children literacy – the skills of reading, writing, communication – through the medium of the English Language and English Literature, we should teach Religious Literacy through the medium of a particular Religious Language and Faith Tradition, whether that is Christianity, Islam, Judaism or Hinduism.  In doing so we are not telling them what to think or do (any more than the Literacy teacher tells students how to communicate with their parents at home), we are just providing them with the skills they need to start to understand one religion, which is the gateway to understanding any number of others and, when taught well, an inspiration to do so as well.

By all means, just as childrens’ grammar, vocabulary, ability to communicate and cultural understanding will be greater by learning other languages and exploring other literary traditions, exploring other religions will extend and enrich young peoples’ religious literacy.  Yet no credible literacy teacher would try to teach young people all their basic literacy skills in two, thee or four languages at once, before one has been mastered!  If common sense is not enough, the research suggests that bilingual or trilingual children make slower progress in literacy in the early years.  Although it is certainly possible for EAL students to excel later on, it is certainly not the case that all do.  Further, literacy is typically given at least an hour a day on the timetable… but RE is typically crammed into less than an hour a week.  We simply have to make tough choices and prioritize what matters, skills in religious literacy and an attitude of respect and curiosity over reams of factual knowledge.

We can harm young peoples’ religious literacy by ignoring skills in the interests of ramming multiple lists of facts into the curriculum in the interests of political or professional ideology… and Religious Literacy really matters (for all the reasons listed in the ODIHR Toledo Guiding Principles 2007 and several more I can think of). For me, increasing religious literacy which is primarily (though not only) a set of skills supporting an attitude of humility, respect and curiosity, should be the primary aim of Religious Education.  RE should teach students to communicate effectively in the language of one tradition that is appropriate to them, their school and the expertise of the available teacher(s), give them as many opportunities to explore aspects of other traditions as resources allow, and never ever fail to recognise that the chance to reflect on why it all matters to them personally, to their society, to the world and the future of humanity is why kids come back through the classroom door.  Teacher-training should focus on helping teachers to understand the bigger purpose of what they are doing, supporting them in developing the unique and sophisticated pedagogical skills and attitudes demanded of RE specialists and above all, making them aware of the need for constant professional development – whether in terms of wide reading, further study, travel or inter-faith work – and modelling the skills and attitude they try to cultivate in their students.

Sure, my sort of RE is difficult to assess, measure or deliver via MOOC or webinar… but defining the curriculum in those terms is a great example of letting the tail wag the dog.

As I see it Religious Literacy involves learning FROM religion as well as ABOUT it but is not limited to either; with limited resources, RE teachers must have a clear conception of what they want to do, tempered by what they are able to do, and must focus their efforts and prioritize in order to be effective.  It follows that the first, biggest, most difficult and important step in improving Religious Literacy in RE classrooms is for RE teachers to understand and agree what it Religious Literacy consists in and what they are trying to achieve.  Sadly, nationally we are still a long way from making this step, although Andy’s work in creating this forum has the potential to move things fractionally in the right direction. The more colleagues we can get involved the better, so get publicizing….

That we have a passionate and able body of RE teachers is not in doubt.  That excellent work is going on and that some students in some schools are growing in Religious Literacy is a certainty. That there is a crisis in Religious Literacy and in RE is undeniable however; we must do what we can to address it and I’m afraid that that starts by calling a spade a spade!

  • Avatar
    Andy Lewis
    Posted at 20:38h, 31 May

    Really interesting stuff Charlotte. I had an interesting chat recently that suggested that faith schools, and the person in question suggested Catholic schools, and the only ones that get students anywhere close to religiously literate as they actually spend 13 years teaching primarily about one form of Christianity. This sets up with the skills to fully understand one faith (?), which enables them to go on a study others. I agree that dipping in and out of religions doesn’t really achieve our goal.

  • Avatar
    Alan Brine
    Posted at 11:02h, 01 June

    I am afraid it is difficult to see how any notion that we can learn much about ‘religious literacy’ on the basis of RC schools practice can be taken very seriously. Their Directory states:

    “The primary purpose of Catholic Religious Education is to come to know and understand God’s revelation which is fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. The Catholic school is ‘a clear educational project of which Christ is the foundation.’ In the person of Christ, the deepest meaning of what it is to be human — that we are created by God and through the Holy Spirit united with Christ in his Incarnation — is discovered.”

    This bears no relation to any kind of open investigative RE which is the only basis for religious literacy which is legitimate.

    • Avatar
      Candle Conferences
      Posted at 12:27h, 01 June

      Alan, I share your concern about what goes on in many Catholic and other faith schools, about some of the wording and most of the interpretation of and practice supposedly inspired by the Catholic RE Curriculum Directory. As I see it, the existing approach in many (though certainly not all) Catholic schools – as well as in many other faith schools of other characters – is just a narrower version of the fact-packed, superficial learning about approach that I criticised above, and no more effective in terms of promoting religious literacy. I got into huge trouble for pointing out how the aims for RE listed in the Directory could support a much more open, investigative approach last autumn https://candleconferences.com/inconsistent-approach-from-catholic-education-service/ but I still think that this and other Catholic documents could inspire a much more effective form of RE, grounded in one religion but genuinely open to exploring others. I just wish that those responsible for policy could/would start to think openly and critically about what they do and why rather than remaining hidebound and wedded to an approach that serves nobody well.

      • Avatar
        Alan Brine
        Posted at 12:50h, 01 June

        I don’t think we can go back to an RE programme grounded in one religion or belief even if open to others. That model of RE is unrealistic now. I think we need to take our starting point from the more core concepts of ‘religion and belief’. But if we were to explore the idea of taking one belief tradition as a common starting point would it have to be secular humanism?

        • Avatar
          Candle Conferences
          Posted at 13:33h, 01 June

          Interesting point. I totally agree about approaching RE conceptually, although as a Kantian I tend to think that concepts without at least some perceptions are empty – just as too many perceptions without due reference to concepts are blind.

          I think we can assume too much in terms of how many people really do embrace the core beliefs and values of secular humanism; for many people it is the default when they lack religious literacy and feel excluded by all formal religions as a result.

          The Church of England is still the established faith; although the state recognizes religious freedom and supports parents’ right to educate their children within their faith-tradition. Would you advocate disestablishing the Church of England, remove the formal requirement for collective worship and the emphasis on Christianity in RE, and move against faith-schools..?

          I am interested because doing this would not seem to be democratic at this time. In 2011 33.2 million people reported being Christian and only 14.1 million having no religion in the census. Further, in 2015 relatively small proportion of people voted for parties that supported anything close to this action (Greens, Lib Dems).

          I wonder whether starting from secular humanism, which can seem more of a critique of religion than a religion in itself and which can assume a world-view that is alien to that common to people of all sorts of faith, might end up undermining all religions – leaving young people with little opportunity to understand religion as anything other than a critical outsider and with very limited religious literacy as a result?

          • Avatar
            Andy Lewis
            Posted at 07:17h, 03 June

            I’m not suggesting RC education is the perfect model. However it has just as much variation as any other RE. I think it largely depends on the ability and perspective of the teacher. I am just suggesting that maybe the depth permitted give the time, allows a sense of religious literacy that doesn’t always happen when you scratch at the surface of lots of different, sometimes disjointed bits and pieces.

            I don’t think RE starting from a secular humanism position would be helpful as there is a large, local group of SH who are anti-religion, anti-theist. However I do obviously agree that NRWV have a place in RE, as does religious humanism.

  • Avatar
    Alan Brine
    Posted at 20:47h, 03 June

    The problem is that we still haven’t agreed what we think religious literacy is.

    My somewhat provocative suggestion that maybe secular humanism should be our main focus of study if we are going to major on one belief tradition is because it is arguable that secular humanism is the dominant mode of thinking of our society. It permeates the way we see the world in a much more significant way that any of the old religious traditions. Indeed it is difficult to understand contemporary religions without understanding the secular humanist culture in which they exist.

    But we need to return to the core issue. What is religious literacy? I think we need more views.