A knowledge exchange?

I spent last week ‘in residence’ at the University of Bristol as part of a knowledge exchange project. You can read more about the nature of the ‘Shared Space’ project (see link below) but this short blog is not about the knowledge that was exchanged per se. This blog seeks to show the impact of dialogic exchange or as Janet Orchard (Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol), terms it ‘hanging out’ or participating in a ‘theology of loitering’….

I spoke to theologians, social and political scientists, psychologists, educationalists and teachers. Janet and I ‘hung out’ (had lots of coffee) with all these different people, it was fab; we listened, we observed, we shared. We then thought and reflected a lot, discussed, tested ideas with one another and considered ways forward for our RE community.

Yes, I learnt (in terms of knowledge) a huge amount about contact theory (thanks to Shelley), intergroup climate ( thanks to Jason), theology in the public square (thanks to Gavin), the nature of integration and multi-culturalism (thanks to Jon), the importance of content and process in terms of rethinking religious education for social change (thanks to Claire), the implications of contact theory for RE (thanks to Katy) and the distinctive contribution of theology to development politics (thanks to Martin). I hope I also shared my knowledge of RE classrooms as well as my own PhD thesis on creating space from a theological perspective.

In particular the following questions were raised for me in terms of religious education:
– what is the relationship between content and process in RE? Do we need a new language to shape this?
– what evidence do we actually have that RE promotes good community relations? Is this an appropriate purpose and/or outcome for RE?
– how important is experiencing diversity?
– what does it mean to say that education is transformative?
– are we (theologians, social scientists etc) saying the same things but using different language or is what we are saying actually different?
– do seating plans in school RE classrooms make a difference? What criteria do we use to devise plans? What impact does this have?

However, it was seeing the connections between the  disciplines of theology and the social and human sciences that was particularly powerful. How, as educators and academics, we bring different perspectives to the same issues and can potentially deepen and broaden our understanding if we spend time with one another grappling with complex issues in dialogue and conversation with one another.

Last year around the same time I went to Rome with a group of headteachers on a ‘retreat’ (see previous blogs) and this emphasised to me the importance of taking time out from our busy schedules to think creatively, to reflect and consider in different ways what we are doing in our day to day practice as educators. This year, the knowledge exchange provided a different way of undertaking a ‘retreat’. I highly recommend it to everyone who is at a similar point to me in their career…

A knowledge exchange… yes it was… but it was also a dialogic exchange…
https://www.natre.org.uk/about-natre/projects/the-shared-space-project/ Information on the shared space project

Listening for wisdom?

This is a transcript of my contribution to a keynote at #REwords16 Conference 8-9 October 2016. The notion put forward here is one small part of my PhD Thesis which I am still working on.

Later in a workshop ( at #REwords16) I will be exploring with some of you the notion of religious literacy in terms of creating a balance between the theological, the philosophical and social/human sciences in our RE classrooms. Some of you will have read the paper which I wrote with some colleagues about this, and hopefully are coming along to our session to critique it, challenge it and perhaps agree with some of it! However, for the next few minutes I am going to indulge myself and take a different approach which I want to suggest lies beneath the paper which myself and colleagues wrote. I want to put forward the idea that religious literacy is about listening for wisdom.

Why wisdom?

Learning requires a response. Education is not something passive where young people are vessels to be filled, but something where change can take place in the one being educated. The word ‘educate’ means to draw out or lead out. There is a sense of journey, of discovery in learning.

Religion and belief, and even the term religious literacy, have I believe become an object which different stakeholders seek to control. Some see it in terms of promoting community cohesion, some see it in terms of the prevent strategy, some see it in terms of spirituality, some see it in political terms… has the term religious literacy now become a word we can’t use anymore because people are using it for their own ends?

However, wisdom is more than an object. It is more than objective knowledge. Although it has its roots in the word ‘to know’ wisdom is about both knowledge and understanding, but also about gaining insight and responding to what one has learned. To be able to hold balanced and informed conversations about religions and beliefs, once needs to be wise. Thus being religiously literate is about being. It is therefore not just about an object- something that I learn, it is about being changed. It is about responding with wisdom.

Why listening?

Listening is key to understanding others. Listening creates space for wisdom to be found. If we are to find wisdom, then we need to be intellectually open and not have filled our minds already with stuff. Listening allows the subject ( a text, belief, practice, artefact…) to speak to us. Listening enables us to do this, as we take in what others say or do. Listening is more than hearing, listening requires our attention, actively processing what we have heard, even acting upon it. A dictionary definition says ‘to attend closely for the purpose of hearing’, the root of the word implies a sense of obedience. So to be religiously literate means to attend closely to others, to allow people ( after all we all have beliefs of one kind or another) to have a voice and for us to listen.

How to listen for wisdom?

So what does it mean to listen for wisdom? I believe there there possibly three elements to this…

Listening for wisdom through narratives – of religions and beliefs, members of faith and belief communities as well as the pupils own narratives. We need to allow these narratives to speak to us… so allowing space, slowing down the learning, interpreting, testing, and critically engaging with sources including people!

Listening for wisdom through enquiry into theological concepts – genuine enquiry into the theological which allows for communal discovery and a focus on dialogue, developing a collective wisdom, not filling our curriculum too much so that the links with philosophy and social/human sciences can also be made..

Listening for wisdom through relationships – communal interaction so that everyone is ‘part of the play’ rather than an audience on the side, experiencing religion and belief in our diverse world by actually meeting and engaging with people, not being ‘tourists’ where religion and belief are seen as something ‘exotic’ to look at, but where we come alongside others… I don’t like the ‘window’ mirror analogy of learning about and learning from…I think it is really unhelpful, I don’t like Learning about religion  and Learning from religion full stop… but if we are going to use analogies what I would propose is going through the window… like Playschool used to for those of you who can remember that!

For me, the theological, philosophical and social/human science aspects of being religiously literate are all part of listening for wisdom, and are one way of expressing it which may helpful to teachers. BUT at the heart of this for me lies something deeper; at the heart lies wisdom. A knowledge that involves response… and enables them to continue on their journey of discovery.

I have become more convinced of this as I have reflected on the process of actually writing our paper on religious literacy! In this process as a group of advisers I believe we put into practice the process of listening for wisdom… we explored the different narratives about the purpose and nature of RE, we delved deeper to try and understand what we meant by theology and we talked to people about their views. But above all we listened. This was hard. Many people disagreed with us… but as a result I believe that the second version of the paper, the midrash, is a much wiser piece of work than the first… and I hope after listening to more of you later in our workshop we can collectively seek further wisdom together.
For me religious literacy at its heart has wisdom. So for me in our classrooms we need to allow wisdom to be found.

As TS Elliott asks:

Where is the life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
(TS Elliott 1888-1965)
Is wisdom a helpful term in understanding what it means to be religiously literate?

To what extent is active listening an important element of developing religious literacy in children and young people?

REfocusing RE?

Two days ago I struggled to read the powerpoint slides at the Words Beyond Words conference #REwords16…. I confess that I had wondered if my eyesight was deteriorating for a while… but when I asked colleagues if they could read the screen and found they could, I knew that I had to do something about it. By chance I had already booked an appointment at the opticians today, so I will soon be in possession of new glasses…

My colleague Jane Chipperton (@JChipperton) remarked to me this afternoon that perhaps this was ‘symbolic’ of the weekend… that perhaps we ‘all need new glasses’ for refocusing….

If Bob Bowie (@BobBowie) can use gloves as an analogy over the #REwords16 weekend, then I will use glasses…

The need for dialogue

I only realised that I needed new glasses when I had dialogue with my colleagues (thanks Gillian @RECofELincoln and Olivia @Ollyseymour for pointing this out!). I realised that I was not seeing as clearly as I should be; things were blurred. During the weekend it was great to engage in dialogue with colleagues to try and clarify what we mean by religious literacy. Many different perspectives were put forward, I won’t go into them all here. Many views presented a partial view, some I felt were even ‘blurred’. The dialogue showed me that engaging with others clarifies our own ideas and helps us to be clearer about our own positions. Dialogue, and most importantly the listening that takes place as part of this, sharpens our view. For me, what became clear was that the term religious literacy itself is complex and has many weaknesses.

We need to act

During the conference Dawn Cox (@MissDCox) tweeted:

I’m convinced that discussing it (religious literacy) is getting tiresome without doing something about it…

I agree.

Now I could have decided that I’d like to continue being unable to read powerpoint slides at conferences; this would not have been a wise decision. The wise decision was to go to the opticians and get my eyes tested!

Last year, I spent time with colleagues working through what we understood by the purpose of RE and a balanced RE curriculum. You can read our latest version of the paper here ( http://www.reonline.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/REThinking-RE-A-Midrash-June-2016.pdf), but in light of the weekend we will revise this! However, even with a revision, we are clear (I think, but don’t want to speak for my colleagues) that what we have come up with works with teachers, and it is teachers and the children/young people in our schools that really matter. We have already ‘tested’ out our ideas, and it is the refocusing of RE in terms of ‘balance’ that is now impacting on the effectiveness of RE in schools. So our revised paper will most likely be about clarifying language, not the principles themselves. Dawn is right, we need to do something. Myself and my colleagues are doing something!

So with our new glasses… we can then move forward… clearly….and with focus.
For those of you who are interested, I will post my part of the joint keynote from #REwords16 here as a blog later in the week.

Year 6 Open Evening- a parent’s perspective

Yesterday evening I attended the Year 6 Open Evening at our local secondary school, Cottenham Village College (@CottenhamVC). My youngest son, Ben, is in Year 6 and Cottenham is our local secondary school. As an advisor, who was a teacher in a secondary school for many years, it can be hard to attend these evenings as you have your own agenda. It is hard not to bring a ‘critical eye’ to the proceedings. However, I tried hard to be ‘just a parent’!

My eldest son already goes to Cottenham, so we had a fair idea of what to expect. However, the following aspects of the evening struck a chord with me, as both a parent and an educator.

A coherent vision for a well rounded education
As a parent I want to know that my son is going to do well at the school. I want to know that he will be able to achieve his potential. It is not just about academic results, but I do actually want him to get a good set of GCSEs! This philosophy of balancing high academic standards, with a well rounded and balanced education was clearly articulated by the headteacher (@StuartLock). What a brilliant idea to have staff and pupils involved with the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme outside- the fairy lights were genius! What a testament to the school’s aim for each pupil to ‘be the best you can be’ by many subjects displaying work from a range of abilities. This to me showed that this school has high expectations for all at its heart.

Genuine and honest view of the school
Like all schools, Cottenham Village College is on a journey. Last year it moved from requires improvement to a good Ofsted rating. This school is one with aspirations for its pupils, but also for itself too. I like this! The staff, including the headteacher, were honest about where they were at, how they were changing things and seeking the very best education for all its pupils. However, they accepted that not everything was perfect. Thank goodness!! If a school says they are perfect they might be apathetic to change and development.

The pupil’s voice
During the main presentation we heard from current Year 7 pupils who had just started at the school. I’d expect this sort of contribution as a parent, but it didn’t stop there. When visiting different subjects, pupils talked openly and confidently about their experiences. They engaged in conversation with myself, as a parent, but also with my son. Teachers talked to my son (many asked how he had broken his arm to be fair, but it was a conversation starter…) about his likes and dislikes. They genuinely spoke to him, not just asking questions about which primary school he was currently attending, but asking about and engaging him with learning. So when I asked Ben today what he thought of the evening he said ‘It was an epic time. It was such a great experience. It also told me not to be scared when you start. I’m going to love it’.

Opening Eyes
The Opening Evening allowed my son to see the possibilities ahead of him. He was particularly taken with Design and Technology and science. The school managed to excite and enthuse, showing that everything and anything was possible. Ben’s eyes were opened to the depths and wonders of learning! It is a shame that we do this sort of thing only once a year… It was also fascinating to see my older son, enthusing about all the subjects as he took us on our own private tour! He said things like ‘you can’t miss music’… ‘you can’t miss languages’…. there is enthusiasm for learning in this school.

And finally….
Food…from jaffa cakes to make theological points in RE to crisp circles in maths…from ‘buying’ croissants in French to a crisp brand survey in computing… the college really should advise parents beforehand not to have dinner before they attend their opening evening! A bit gimmicky… maybe… but who cares (ok, some might…)! My boys loved it, although neither of them wanted to attempt to separate the different parts of the jaffa cake…I did have a go and failed. The Trinity remained intact for another day…

For more information about Cottenham Village College see http://cvcweb.net

 

 

Chance Encounters

This blog first appeared on #maternityteacher (@maternityCPD).
http://maternityteacher.blogspot.co.uk/2016/09/case-study-chance-encounters.html

It is a bit different than my usual blogs to be honest as it is not really about RE!!

I wrote this blog because I passionately believe that maternity/paternity leave can be an opportunity for career development and I want to support the #maternityteacher campaign. Let me explain why….

Very few people can probably claim that their career took off during maternity leave….but this is what happened to me…about ten years ago! So how did this happen? In short it was partly due to being in the right place at the right time…but also due to the incredible support of colleagues who saw the opportunities that maternity leave provided for flexible working from home.

Ten years ago I had a toddler running around, and had a nine month old baby. I had been an RE adviser to the London Borough of Newham for a number of years, but had decided to explore other avenues of work to fit better around my family and avoid a long commute to London each day as we’d moved to Cambridgeshire.

A chance encounter
During my maternity leave I started to run a toddler group; slightly out of my comfort zone as I am secondary trained! However, I required some resources to help me, and whilst in search of these bumped into an RE adviser! She suggested that whilst I was on maternity leave I trained to become a Section 48 (Statutory Inspection of Anglican Schools) inspector. She said I could choose when to undertake inspections and it could work around my children. I took her up on this suggestion and whilst on the training met another adviser who told me they needed a secondary RE specialist to work with schools in Norfolk! My new ‘freelance’ career began!

A networking opportunity
The RE community is strong and vibrant! There is probably some kind of network meeting taking place every week for teachers. There are similar networking opportunities for advisers too, and I decided to pop along to my local group. I was fortunate that my husband was working shifts, so had the children for the morning! It was here that I met Mary Myatt (@MaryMyatt) who at that time was an adviser in Suffolk. Mary saw the possibilities and opportunities! She supported me in my early days as a freelancer by opening doors for project work, and invited me to events to help me network with others. She also always understood the constraints.. there was never any pressure.

A chance to work flexibly
Lastly, a number of organisations contacted me during my maternity leave because they knew I would be based at home! I would have more time to write – apparently! So I wrote articles, I helped prepare a bid for funding, I wrote material for a website, I acted as a consultant for a media organisation… many of these opportunities came about because of the creative thinking of other advisers in my field. Other advisers who did not have time to ‘write’ because they were in schools, had the foresight to provide opportunities for me.

Opportunities for all
In my work as an adviser now there are a number of ways in which I try to support those on maternity/paternity leave, I think partly due to the way my own career has developed. One of my roles now is as Lead Consultant for the TeachRE Course (wwww.teachre.co.uk). This course is distance learning and has many routes and pathways through it. It is completely flexible. We have had teachers complete the course whilst on maternity leave. Want to know more?

 

A balancing act…

Recently I compared the purpose of RE to a three legged stool! This was at the #REamIbother’d? conference near Bedford. My short five minute input was one of many contributions on the purpose of RE. My own contribution was based on the paper ‘Rethinking RE’ that I have worked on with other colleagues. You can view the full paper here:

http://www.reonline.org.uk/news/revision-rethinking-re-a-conversation-about-religious-and-theological-literacy/

When we have a meaningful conversation with someone it is usually (although not always) when we are sitting down. We need a stool or a chair. If the purpose of RE is to enable children to hold an informed conversation about religion and belief, then they need to have a chair to sit on to hold this conversation that does not tip over or wobble…. they need a chair which has legs which are balanced and stable. The easiest way to create balance is to have a three legged chair or stool. Three legs provides a stable equilibrium because mathematically three points determine a plane.

In our ‘Rethinking RE’ paper we suggest that the three legs of the stool are:

three legged stool

The theological

The philosophical

The social

 

Our paper focuses primarily on the ‘theological’ leg, because at the moment we do not think this leg is long enough. In fact we think it is pretty non existent in lots of RE that we see. So the chair falls over. The ‘theological’ ( I take a broad understanding of this term – see previous blogs) means children engage with the big concepts of religion and belief such as God. Issues of authority and diversity in terms of interpretation of truth or doctrine are grappled and wrestled with. The reason why people do the things they do is at the heart of this. It is about meaning and understanding. I think we rarely see this in schools. So my stool is not very balanced.

The philosophical (and perhaps the ethical sits well here too) is about questions of meaning, purpose and truth; issues such as why am I here? Is morality important? Does happiness exist?…. I think we see this in some schools, but it is not rigorous or challenging, it often descends into what pupils think. This leg definitely exists in schools, but I think it might have wood worm as it is not very strong and robust at all.

The sociological ( and the anthropological) is about the lived reality of beliefs in the 21st Century; issues of plurality and diversity are explored. This aspect is seen more in schools, but is often not actually about the lived reality of religion, but the ‘construct’ of religion or a ‘textbook’ or ‘chocolate box’ approach. There is no engagement with plurality within or between expressions of belief. This leg is exists but is perhaps from the wrong chair! It is too short and the wrong shape.

I like analogies and pictures, and I know this one has flaws. However, in order that our religious education is effective we need to ensure that it is balanced. Our ‘Rethinking RE’ paper is one contribution to helping rebalance the stool again by ‘firming up the theological leg’. However, my concern remains that the stool is still currently unbalanced…

Are we speaking the same language?

After the Making a Difference? (2014) report was published I spent some time trying to grapple with the what was meant by ‘thinking theologically’ or ‘theological enquiry’. Having been one of the survey team, it seemed important to me that I actually tried to work out what was meant by terms used in a report that I had in effect contributed to!!

As a Diocesan Adviser, I knew that teachers would want to know what this meant, and what they needed to do to support this approach effectively in the classroom. So where did I begin?

I began by looking at various definitions of theology. Yes, I know this is not the same a thinking theologically or theological enquiry ( I’ll come to that in another blog)… but it seemed to me a good place to start, as the roots were likely to be the same. I didn’t spend hours on this, but I found these quite useful

‘reason and discussion concerning the deity ‘( Augustine)
‘discourse on god’ ( Plato)
‘Systematic and rational study of concepts of God and of the nature of religious truths’ ( wikipedia)

There are many others, but I liked these because they reminded me of what I had done in theology myself. I had reasoned, and discussed. I had undertaken a rational study, I had explored the nature of religious truth itself. This was a subject that was robust, academic and challenging. That was the kind of religious education that I felt the Making the Difference? report was calling for.

I then reflected on what I had actually done in my own theology degree, which was in a secular university over 20 years ago. I realised that my own theology degree had included a number of different disciplines. I undertook textual criticism, systematic theology, philosophy of religion, sociology of religion, church history, pastoral theology and ethics… there may have been more but this is what I can remember! I then talked to teachers about using different kinds of questions ( e.g. sociological, philosophical, theological, historical, anthropological…)to deepen the learning in RE. I called it theological thinking because it was based on my own experience of theology.

To me, therefore, theology is much more than studying the doctrine of the church, and it is certainly not about passing on revealed truth. This may (or may not) be what takes place in some theological seminaries or in bible college, but this is not the discipline I studied at University. This is why the theology described in a recent blog (http://www.reonline.org.uk/supporting/re-matters/) seems to be using a language that is unfamiliar to me. To me, theology is not something that only happens inside a religious community. I think this may be a particular characteristic of theology in the UK, which is distinct from perhaps theology in places such as the USA. In fact, when I studied theology, there were members of all faiths and none on my degree course. The University of Oxford makes this point on their website too:

While Theology is an ancient intellectual discipline, no-one can doubt the momentous social significance of religion around the world today. Study of the subject provides an understanding of the intellectual underpinning of religious traditions, and of the social and cultural contexts for religious belief and practice. Engaging fully with the questions that scrutiny of religions elicit will require you to become something of a historian and a philosopher, a textual and literary critic, and a linguist. To be able to employ these disciplines effectively will not only make you a scholar of religion but equip you to embark on a wide range of careers.
https://www.theology.ox.ac.uk/undergraduate-admissions.html

Hence, my question ‘Are we speaking the same language?’, because I actually think although coming from different perspectives, the recent blog and my own views are trying the say the same thing, but are just using different language. We all come from different perspectives, none of us are impartial or neutral and this will have an impact on how we use language. Our own experiences will also shape how we perceive the world, and in this case religious education. I know I make choices in what I read and who I listen to, how I interpret what I read and how I internalise what I hear…. I am sure we all do… that is why I don’t think we can ever be truly impartial or objective in our study of religion and belief. It is because of this that I disagree with the final sentence in the aforementioned blog.

However, I welcome the critique of my ideas of theological literacy because I feel it helps to clarify my own thinking, and to challenge it. The analysis of the recent joint paper (see link below) which I contributed to is helpful because there are aspects of it which the blogs refer to that were perhaps ambiguous or not clear, or that needed to be challenged.

Most importantly, I do think we all agree that our children and young people need a balanced diet in religious education. We want to see better and improved pupil outcomes in terms of children and young people being able to have an informed conversation about religion and belief. If this, is the core purpose of our subject, then we may after all be speaking the same language, and I believe that theological enquiry will be an important part of this….but more of that in the next blog….

Making a Difference? (2014) A Review of Religious Education in Church of England Schools
https://www.churchofengland.org/media/2076944/making%20a%20difference%20a%20review%20of%20religious%20education%20in%20church%20of%20england%20schools.pdf

The blogs referred to can be found at:
http://www.reonline.org.uk/news/alans-blog-thinking-theologically-in-re-part-1-alan-brine/
http://www.reonline.org.uk/news/alans-blog-thinking-theologically-in-re-part-2-alan-brine/

The joint paper mentioned can be found at:
http://www.reonline.org.uk/news/rethinking-re-religious-literacy-theological-literacy-and-theological-enquiry/

I have found the following text helpful in clarifying the relationship between theology and religious studies:

Dinham. A and Francis. M (ed) (2015) Religious Literacy in Policy and Practice Policy Press Bristol