“How do I learn to teach that which I do not believe?”
This is a question that needs to be asked by any teacher of religion seeking to comply with requirements to present impartially a variety of religious traditions in the classroom. These traditions can be broadly classified into ‘World Religions’, but they will each have their own unique perspective which needs to be understood for teaching to be effective and meaningful. Too often these perspectives are overlooked in making use of the variety of pedagogical approaches which are now available to those involved in religious education. Thematic approaches, which are common to many Local Agreed Syllabuses, can result in confusion and the failure to appreciate context. Phenomenological approaches can lack the experiential dimension and experiential approaches can fail to appreciate the historical beliefs that underlie behaviour. Ethnographical approaches cannot always succeed in representing the diversity of many traditions. Philosophical approaches can often flounder on the use of the rational to explain the non-rational. The danger is that without perspective, the adolescent pupil begins to see religious behaviour as no more than an interesting series of phenomena. At the same time they begin to view religious beliefs with, at best, sceptical curiosity and at worst, total indifference. Pupils may find themselves learning a great deal about a religious tradition without gaining a true understanding of that tradition. Without that understanding, they will neither learn from other traditions nor realise why religious people behave and react in the way that they do.
If perspective is so important, then how do we define ‘religious perspective’? The Oxford Dictionary gives a concise definition of perspective as “the mental view of the relative importance of things”. In terms of religion and education “the mental view” could refer to the teaching and learning process and “relative importance” could refer to pedagogical order, emphasis and progression. Perspective also suggests the need for a well defined viewing point, from which all other objects or religious phenomena can be viewed, relative to each other. Perspective can therefore focus the mind of the teacher on ‘where they are coming from’ in their presentation of any tradition. In the case of teaching Islam in a predominantly Christian country, from where do teachers start? Are they comparing Islam to Christianity Are they explaining Islam to a Christian or to anybody of any tradition or none? Are they trying to teach pupils about Islam, or are they trying to help pupils understand Islam? To what extent should non-Muslim pupils be learning from Islam in a Christian country? In the classroom, these questions will coalesce into the search for a particular perspective.
Teachers cannot approach the teaching of any religious tradition without some prejudicial baggage that will have been picked up from the variety of their experience and the strength of their convictions. This baggage should not always be seen in a negative way, as it often provides the spark which maintains pupil interest. The spiritually inert agnostic may be free from prejudice, but may lack the ability to inspire pupils. However the danger is that the prejudicial baggage may influence perspective. The committed believer may have difficulty in avoiding a confessional perspective. The agnostic may have difficulty in avoiding a relativist perspective and the non-believer may have difficulty in avoiding a sceptical perspective.
Experienced teachers will almost certainly have ironed out these difficulties and will have established perspectives, teaching styles and techniques which work for them. But how do new teachers or student teachers approach the problem? One particular source of guidance can be found as a product of our increasingly multi-faith and multicultural society. That is, the RE teacher from another faith tradition. Such teachers will usually have grown up and lived within communities of their own particular tradition, but they will have made a conscious commitment to learn about and teach other religious traditions. Working with them and observing them can therefore result in a reflexive opportunity to gain an understanding of perspective, from two reciprocal standpoints. Firstly, how do they teach what they believe and how do they teach what I believe? Secondly, how do I teach what I believe and how do I teach what they believe? The limitations of such an exercise are that only two particular perspectives can be compared. Nevertheless the observations and the approach could be extrapolated, given the proviso that religious traditions are not always directly comparable and certainly not inter-changeable.
A particular opportunity arose to work with and observe a young Muslim RE teacher in an urban comprehensive school in the West Midlands during a PGCE placement. The reflexive exercise was from the personal viewpoint of Christian Lay Ministry. The Muslim teacher wore the hijab at all times in school and therefore both parties had made a personal commitment to a particular tradition as well as a commitment to learn about and teach other faith traditions within secondary state education guidelines. From this opportunity emerged four general observations which could contribute towards finding that right perspective. These were respectively, emphasis, order, detail and certainty. Emphasis in teaching any faith tradition is often a matter of selecting particular phenomena or practice that can best be fitted into schemes of work and individual lesson plans. The result can be a balance between expediency, resource availability and pupil’s participation, which may not always result in the achievement of meaningful perspective. Observing a Muslim teaching Islam illustrates the relative ‘straightforwardness’ of Muslim belief and practice, with particular reference to the status of the prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The finality of the Qur’an and the reverence of Hadith mean that all behaviour, problems, obligations and the need for guidance have to be referred back to those authorities. Muslims accept these authorities without question. Divisions in Islam are much more to do with succession, leadership and historical events and much less to do with authenticity and authority. By contrast, Christianity has to be taught to a much greater extent through an understanding of different emphases in belief, interpretation and authority. The concept of a human messenger bearing an ultimate divine message is relatively simpler to comprehend and present in class than the concept of a divine message from a messenger who claims to be one aspect of that divinity and who can act outside the known laws of nature. Emphasis in teaching Islam needs to reflect this relative ‘simplicity’.
The order in which Islam should be taught, was the second reflexive observation. The centrality of the prophet to Islam means that it is difficult to achieve any understanding of the reason for Muslim practice without an understanding of the life and times of the prophet. Historical knowledge is essential to understanding Islam, and particularly the context in which the faith developed. The concept that Muhammad (pbuh) received the final revelation and not the only revelation requires going back even further in history to look at the former prophets and the connection between the Kabah, Adam, Abraham, Ishmael and Hagar. It is difficult to explain the importance of Hajj without this background information. The realisation therefore comes that Islam cannot be taught solely from a phenomenological perspective. It has to be taught from a historical perspective in order to understand phenomena. Thematic approaches which seek to compare leaders or Holy Books run into confusion when Jesus is seen as another prophet of Islam and the gospels are regarded as a former revelation. The order in which Islam is presented must therefore come from an appreciation of perspective. Attempts at direct comparisons with other traditions such as Christianity will inevitably lose this perspective and detract from pupil understanding.
The relative importance of detail was a third reflexive observation. Detail in teaching any religious tradition can perhaps be conveniently divided into the ‘big’ detail and the ‘small’ detail. The ‘big’ detail is about order and schemes of work, but often it is the ‘small’ detail which interests the pupils. This detail can hold their interest and help them to relate to religious practice. Often such detail can only come from ‘insiders’ and practitioners of a particular tradition. Examples often came in the answers to unexpected questions. “Why do you wear the hijab, Miss?” “Please will you recite the Shahadah, Miss.” “Why do you teach RE, Miss?” The response to these questions and requests all prompted an unexpected insight into Muslim life both in the content and manner of the response. The reflexive value of these observations in teaching Christianity is to think about the ‘small’ detail that a Muslim may not know about Christianity. “Why did Judas betray Jesus?” “Where did Jesus live?”
“How far is the Sea of Galilee from Jerusalem?” These are questions with answers that are not fundamental to Christianity, but nevertheless could contribute to interest and understanding of the gospel stories.
The final reflexive observation concerned the issue of certainty. Observing a Muslim teacher teaching Islam was a reminder that Islam is a religion of certainty. The Qur’an is the word of God recited by the angel Jibrail to a selected member of the human race. That word is open to scholarly interpretation but it is not open to critical analysis. The Muslim view of creation, for example, is exactly as stated in the Qur’an and Hadith. Discussion or dispute about this in terms of modern scientific knowledge is not an issue. For Muslims, Allah exists and always has existed. Philosophical debates about the existence of God and concepts of the Trinity and incarnation have no direct comparison in Islam. The interesting observation was to note that the Muslim teacher did seem to struggle with divergence and diversity within Christianity. The challenge for the Christian is to teach that underlying and unifying certainty of Islam.
There will be many more aspects which affect perspective and that search for ‘relative importance’ in teaching any tradition. This example of reflexive observation in the reciprocal teaching of Islam and Christianity perhaps illustrates that teachers from different traditions can be a source of guidance. Observation and dialogue between teachers will not always be easy within busy school timetables. However, opportunities can arise, particularly during placement training. These opportunities should be seen as a valuable resource in the search for meaningful presentation of particular religious traditions.
“I learn to teach that which I do not believe by observing others teach that which they do believe.”