31 May #BlogSyncRE
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!