What’s ‘what’ in RE: Relating the what, the how and the why of curriculum content

Blog post by Dr David Lewin, University of Strathclyde, and Dr Janet Orchard, School of Education, University of Bristol

We welcome the research report on Religious Education recently published by Ofsted, the inspectorate for schools in England led by Dr Richard Kueh, whose academic engagement with the subject is widely respected.

Kueh’s report has already inspired some interesting responses across the RE community, so we thought we should join the conversations. To be upfront about our own interests here, we are academics currently planning a research project called ‘After Religious Education’ in which we hope to explore many similar issues informed by the expertise of teachers, academics in Religious Studies, and academics in Education Studies.

There is certainly much to engage with in this wide-ranging review, with Kueh demonstrating a welcome facility with key academic debates in RE of recent decades. A range of important questions are considered, including the representation of religion in schools: the scope and limits of generalisation; problems of the framing of world religions; emphasis not just on content but also how religious and non-religious traditions can be understood and represented; all the while acknowledging the central role of the academic study of religion in informing the subject.  Ongoing practical issues for the subject are identified too, including time allocated and the pressing need to invest in RE-specific pre- and in-service teacher education. This recognition has been welcomed by the National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE), the subject’s representative practitioner body.

Acknowledging these many points of resonance, some other moments made us pause for thought, the most significant being the central discussion of 3 different forms of knowledge in RE and how they are related. These are: substantive knowledge (what we refer to as the ‘what’); ways of knowing (the ‘how’); personal knowledge (let’s call that the ‘why’). The report stresses that these – “are not artificially separated from each other”. Agreeing with this statement, it’s therefore puzzling that the report introduces a problematic division between them. This threatens to undermine the critical capacity of RE and its status as a rigorous subject.

Let’s start with the what. The report states that RE curriculums should “contain collectively enough substantive knowledge to enable pupils to recognise the diverse and changing religious and non-religious traditions of the world”. They should focus on “connected knowledge” not seek to cover “excessive amounts of content superficially”, a salutary warning against trying to include too many discrete pieces of information. Whatever is precisely meant by “collectively enough” is unclear; we infer it means something like ‘sufficiently inclusive’. The idea of collectively enough substantive knowledge and content seems to refer to the established ‘facts’ of religious and non-religious traditions that are generally agreed upon: “different ways people express religion and non-religion in their lives,” as well as knowledge of related artefacts and concepts. That all sounds reasonable, but how do we decide what’s what? This idea of substantive knowledge underestimates the extent to which what we see depends on how we look at it.

The report acknowledges the challenges of substantive knowledge selection, suggesting that an RE for a “multi-religious” and “multi-secular” age requires teachers to “think about the overall conception of religion and non-religion that pupils build through the RE curriculum”. It is quite right to explore with children how the concepts underpinning ‘religion and worldviews’ are framed, prioritising depth not breadth. The criticism that RE has too often focused on the “quantity and weighting of traditions” makes sense, as does the way the report queries the idea that, to be more inclusive, we simply need to expand our curriculums. We couldn’t agree more: more is not necessarily better. A quality curriculum recognises complexity, diversity and selectivity as part of cohesive and engaging curriculum design, with clear progression from primary to secondary.

So the report moves from the what of substantive knowledge, to the how: the methods and processes of curriculum formation as well as discussing the place of scholarly discourses about religion and non-religion. Highlighting the need for attention to the methodological could scarcely be more important for RE today so we appreciate this move, although occasionally the report seems to suggest that substantive knowledge exists without having been in-formed by particular (that is to say, historical and social) ways of knowing. As the report puts it, methodological understanding “acts on substantive knowledge”, as though methods are tools to be applied to otherwise inert substantive knowledge and that therefore children should “learn to choose the right tool for the job”.  However, this approach risks naturalising the ‘what’: as though the knowledge – the facts and histories of religious and non-religious traditions – fell from heaven, or are just sitting around in the world, waiting to be taught and learned.

Separating the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ in this way obscures the crucial idea that every curriculum object is a production, itself the result of a process. For instance, RE curriculums constructed through the lens of the world religions paradigm that frame religion by reference to a ‘big six’ are, of course, not neutral, but tend to treat religions as though they are a feature of the natural world, ‘the major religions’ (aka world religions) being like the noteworthy peaks of the Himalayas. This production offers a way of looking, or aperture; but we emphasise that it is a productive enterprise to present religions in this way. In so doing, it excludes other ways of looking at religion(s) and so has been rightly challenged in recent decades.  The larger point is that any and every kind of curriculum involves decisions: the why, what, how, and whereto of curriculum development being inextricably linked. We worry that the report may reinforce an uncritical idea of what’s what in RE by the assumption that content is basically substantive knowledge ‘out there’.

Turning to the why, the final category of ‘personal knowledge’ which the report identified, we are curious to know why this is best described in knowledge terms, rather than the (simpler to grasp yet richer) notion of ‘understanding’. Described variously as ‘knower-knowledge’, ‘personal worldview’, ‘reflexivity’ and ‘positionality’, this concept is intended to affirm the way in which academic study raises awareness, sometimes at a profound level, of those particular assumptions which underpin academic learning in higher education. The report is right to distinguish this kind of thinking either from more generic PSHE or faith nurture. Linking the ‘lifeworld’ of religious and non-religious traditions to the developing ‘lifeworld’ of pupils, the kind of learning envisaged illuminates and informs self-knowledge in relation to existential questions of meaning and purpose, human nature, justice in society, values, community and self-fulfilment. That’s understanding, isn’t it? Reflexive learning about concepts such as ‘forgiveness’ in Christian traditions or ‘sewa’ (‘selfless service’) in Sikh traditions, connected to extended academic appreciation of Christian and Sikh ways of life also sounds a lot like understanding to us, rendering a new concept of ‘personal knowledge’ redundant. Moreover, employing the category of ‘knowledge’, personal, substantive, or otherwise, has a tendency to frame the lifeworld of all of us in rather limited terms: it is often taken to refer to the cognitive dimension of human experience at the expense of other dimensions of religious and non-religious life (e.g. the ethical or aesthetic), which the more expansive notion of understanding emphasises.

In our ‘After Religious Education’ project we will explore a number of issues the Ofsted report highlights, hence our respectful reading and interest. How is it that something becomes identified as worth drawing attention to as a ‘pedagogical object’ in the RWE (Religion and Worldviews Education) classroom context? What judgements and prejudices inform how we produce RE curricula and how do these productions resonate with, and influence, the existential and personal understandings of students?  To us, the what, the how and the why are inseparable.  Every view of our subject is a perspective, as a recent film beautifully illustrates: ‘Nobody Stands Nowhere’.

Being somewhere means that the what, how, and why we see are never neutral. To understand the formed and formative nature of RE is part of the what/how/why. It is our task to make that accessible and engaging.

This blog was originally published on the website After Religious Education What’s ‘what’ in RE: Relating the what, the how and the why of curriculum content. — After Religious Education (squarespace.com)

School of Education programmes

The School of Education offers OFSTED-awarded ‘Outstanding’  Initial Teacher Education (PGCE) programmes for secondary Religious Education. Find out more at  http://www.bristol.ac.uk/education/study/initial-teacher-education/subjects/religious-education-pgce/