All about language….

The Commission on RE (http://www.commissiononre.org.uk) report begins by inviting individuals and organisations to engage with their developing thoughts on RE. I welcome the opportunity for further conversation.

One of the most confident messages of this interim report concerns the importance of RE in an ever changing and complex world. I noted the numerous times the words ‘citizen’ and ‘citizenship’ were used when I first read the report. The case for high quality, effective religious education to equip children and young people to live in our diverse world has never been stronger. This point is reiterated throughout the report and I welcome it!

It is no surprise then that the Commission are recommending that schools are held more robustly to account (p.6) for the provision and quality of RE. This is a bold and important statement, particularly in light of the recent NATRE report concerning lack of provision in Key Stage 4 in 1/4 schools/academies.

The other recommendation that resonates with me is the notion of a National Plan for RE. I am encouraged by the fact that the Commission has looked at good practice in other subjects, in this case music, to seek a way forward for RE. I’d like to see more about recruitment and retention in this National Plan too.

There are however two particular aspects of the report which raise further questions for me.

Firstly, there is an assertion in the report that RE must take account of non-religious worldviews. I fully subscribe to this. However, there is (at least I read it this way, please put me right if I am wrong!) an assumption in the report that saying one is non-religious, means that this particular group of people do not follow a religion. I am not convinced that one can come to this conclusion. This might sound contradictory so let me explain….

I know many people who others might say are religious, but who would personally say they are not. They might use the phrase I have a faith, or I am a follower of xxx, but they do not say they are religious. Many people see their religion as a way of life, as a path they follow. They may actually self confess as non-religious if they are asked because they do not see their faith or belief as a religion even if other people do. To the ‘outsider’, they might appear to be religious (whatever that might mean), but as ‘insiders’ they do not see themselves as such. To assert therefore that an increase in those  who are non-religious means there has been a decrease in adherence to religion may be inaccurate. It might simply mean that people are no longer using the category of religion, or do not identity with this category. This puts into question the category of ‘religion’ itself, which as an advocate of religious literacy as the main purpose of RE puts me in a bit of a quandary…

Secondly, I think a National Statement of Entitlement is a good idea if, as the Commission suggest, it is about a clear purpose and aims (and I would add outcomes). However, the draft statement included in the report does not in my opinion clarify the purpose or aims, and does not have outcomes. It is primarily couched in terms of content. Content is always difficult to agree on, so I am not convinced this is the best place to start.

The Commission suggests, that there is general agreement on the purpose of the subject. I agree. I think there has been a move towards some consensus in understanding the purpose as religious literacy. However, in light of what I have said above, I realise even this term may need an overhaul if we are to consider what we mean by religion!!! Nevertheless, this possible consensus over purpose is not clearly articulated in the draft Statement. So I would welcome further conversation on what a Statement of Entitlement might look like, one that all could subscribe to and which focuses on purpose, aims and outcomes.

Please note: As an independent consultant the views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of any organisations I work for.

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Why conversation matters

Whilst on holiday earlier this month I read The Naked Diplomat by Tom Fletcher (2017).  In this book, Fletcher considers how we (all of us) can survive and thrive in the 21st century and advocates what he calls ‘citizen diplomacy’. This resonated with me, because of his emphasis on conversation (2017, p.266). He argues that everyone will

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need to be a diplomat and that our education system should enable young people to think about how humanity has managed to find ways to coexist.

Although Fletcher does not mention RE in his book, the role that the subject can play in promoting this citizen diplomacy seems undeniable. Being able to live together and co-exist means understanding one another amidst diverse and sometimes competing beliefs, traditions and ideologies.  Having conversations Fletcher argues, is as, if not more, important than action (2017, p. 266).

I am currently working with the following definition of religious literacy which maintains that:

Being religiously literate is about being able to hold balanced and informed conversations about religion and belief  (See for example, http://www.reonline.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/REThinking-RE-A-Midrash-June-2016.pdf)

Some in the RE community have criticised the use of the term ‘conversation’, but in light of my reading of Fletcher’s work, I believe even more strongly that this is the correct term to use when we are defining what it means to be religiously literate. Conversations it seems to me are key to being able to co-exist. They are essential in diplomacy, they allow us to learn from one another, to share one another’s stories, to listen and also be heard. Conversations are about exchange of ideas; conversations can be deep; conversations are made, we have to work at them. This is all part of what it means to be in an RE classroom.

The etymology of the word conversation shows its roots in terms of living among others. It comes from the Latin conversari, or ‘keeping company with’. There is a sense of longevity, of developing a relationship. Becoming religiously literate takes time and can’t be rushed, it is about developing deep understanding of others.

So, let’s have more conversation.

I highly recommend reading Fletcher’s book. He brings together personal insight and professional wisdom, in an often humorous way.

You can also follow Tom Fletcher on Twitter: @TFletcher

Tom’s website is available here: http://tomfletcher.global

Fletcher, T. (2017) The Naked Diplomat. London: William Collins

 

 

Encountering Others: An alternative perspective

My blog site is called Continually Learning, and this summer I have been doing a lot of learning! I’ve been reflecting on what it means to encounter others. Encountering others is a theme in my soon to be submitted PhD so I’ve been doing a lot of thinking around this for some time (well seven years!). However, this perspective is a little different.

We were lucky enough to go to Borneo for a three-week holiday. As part of this holiday we spent two nights in Iban Longhouses in Sarawak. When we booked the holiday, we had the option of visiting a longhouse for a morning, but decided we wanted to really experience life amongst the Iban people so opted to stay in a very traditional longhouse overnight, camp in the jungle and then stay in modern longhouse for a third night. It surprised us that very few people opt to do this. It used to be fairly popular, in the past backpackers would just turn up at longhouses and be welcomed and provided with a bed for the night. This is rare today, in fact our guides had not led the experience we opted for, for three years.

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The Traditional Iban Longhouse we stayed in.

So why was this encounter so special?

Firstly, we were welcomed into the heart of the Iban home.

We cooked in their kitchen, we ate at their table, we slept in their lounge. In the second longhouse in particular we had got to know the tribesman as he had been one of our boatman as we travelled into the jungle. He opened his home to us, we drank rice wine with his family, we prepared food and shared stories. However, this sense of welcome is for all. We saw people from different families continually going in and out of each other’s homes. There was a sense of shared community space, and less a sense of individual ownership.

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Our youngest son prepares very long beans at the second longhouse

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Our son, Samuel, helps cook dinner

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Sleeping quarters in the second longhouse

Secondly, there was a sense of mutual learning i.e. learning from one another.

From our perspective, we were there to experience Iban life, to learn about their culture. We learnt a lot about growing and drying pepper, about traditional crafts, about education and so on. However, we also felt that the Iban people wanted to learn from us. They wanted to know why we had chosen to stay with them, they were interested in our two boys and their education in particular. We became more than just observers, we began to have conversation (if through a translator!) We tried hard to understand one another, and our lives are the richer for it.

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The second modern longhouse

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A family group eating together and sharing their day in the communal space.

So, if you ever travel to Borneo, stay in a Longhouse. Experience the real, true hospitality of these wonderful Iban communities. And yes, I think we can learn much from this for RE in our schools too.

Do we really encounter others’ beliefs and traditions so that we feel we are sitting in the heart of their home?

When we study religion and belief do we anticipate a sense of mutual learning, or are we just ‘observers’?

These, and many other questions, are ones I hope my PhD thesis begins to address.

 

 

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