More Challenges of Teaching Religious Education

The post I wrote in 2015 on the challenges of teaching RE consistently is top of the list of my posts, and I’ve been contemplating writing a follow-up post for years! And now I have… To the three challenges I outlined there (whilst I was still fresh to Australia, having moved from the UK only a month earlier) – 1. challenge misconceptions; 2. breadth or depth?; and 3. clarifying the purpose of RE – I would add three more in this musing: 4. relevance to the lives of young people; and 5. the holistic growth of the students; and 6. professional development of teachers. This is not intended to be a comprehensive list of challenges, as indeed many they are, nor have I outlined each in as much depth as I could. There is probably another post to be had in four years time.

4. Relevance to the Lives of Young People

We’ve seen the census data. Even taking into account that the Australian census changed the order of options to put ‘no religion’ at the top of the list, there has been a marked decline in affiliation with religion in Australia, as there has in the UK and many other countries. However, young people have many big questions that they want to explore: we might call these unanswerable questions, profound questions, ultimate questions, or something else. Having space and time to air these and explore possible responses is an essential part of developing critical thinking skills. We need to teach students to think critically about their interactions and encounters in the world, how they live and who they want to become, and the challenges that they are likely to encounter. What is evident is that many young people want to make a positive difference in the world. However, some are unsure how to do that, and need much guidance from their teachers. Others have clear ideas and can be supported to develop them further.

For many young people, the teachings of religious traditions are simply not relevant to their lives: they do not even register, so out of touch with reality are the traditions perceived to be. Yet they are the source of thinking material for students to consider their profound questions. However, we must teach students to be prophetic when they encounter religious traditions critically: they must name positive qualities and failings according to the evidence. The crisis of abuse in the Catholic Church is a major stumbling block for many people to even engage on any level with the religious institution (not to mention broader issues of hypocrisy, discrimination, etc.). Some might be inclined to name this as a challenge all on its own, yet I don’t think that is so, because when teachers engage authentically with students around this issue, this becomes relevant to their lives, and allows them an important role in the truth-telling that is required for the process of healing to even begin.

5. The Holistic Growth of the Students

OK, so this one ties in with number 2 – the purpose of RE – but my thinking has developed on this since 2015. One of the reasons for this has been my involvement in the creation of a new program of Religious Education for senior students (Year 11 and 12) in Cairns Diocese, Catholic Faith in Action. One anecdotal account which demonstrates this: Year 11 visit a nursing home to spend time with the residents, building cross-generational relationships, listening and telling stories together. They get to experience the joy of the residents in having new faces in their midst, people who are there just to be present with them, and they feel affirmed in their innate value just as human beings. When we discuss ethical issues around the value and quality of life, importance of relationships, human dignity, and social justice (to name some of the important ones) the students have a new perspective. 

Another reason is my role as Director of Mission, in which I focus much energy helping students engage in community service and liturgy. What I have seen is that the more students are invited into these other parts of the mission life of a school, the more likely they are to engage in the sort of academic work required to progress in the study of religion. Moreover, if, as was St Marcellin Champagnat’s great aim, the aspiration of the Catholic school is to teach students to be ‘good Christians and good citizens,’ understanding themselves as spiritual beings and the importance of contributing to society is essential. The Marist theme this year, ‘Holy Today,’ encourages us to recognise the extraordinary in the ordinary: to do the small things well knowing the impact of doing so extends far beyond our imaginations.

6. The Professional Development of Teachers

The RE department in which I work seems to have a revolving door. Due to frequent staffing changes, for many reasons, the make-up of the department is regularly changing. This being my only experience of school life in Australia, I don’t know how representative that is of secondary schools. It existed to a much lesser extent in one of the schools I taught in back in England. What it means is that we often have teachers in front of a Religion class who have limited subject knowledge and experience in teaching Religion. So how do we support them to teach religion well? As much as it pains me when my Year 11 class report to me literal interpretations of scripture (especially Creation accounts) as if such beliefs they are representative for all Christians, I realise that somewhere (or perhaps everywhere) in their history of learning in religion, we have failed them.

There are a few things I’ve done to try to improve the quality of teaching in religion over the last five years. The first is to create a bank of resources to be used and developed by teachers in their teaching. This gives a consistency of approach with a baseline of knowledge to (hopefully) allow students to develop their understanding. Obviously, there are many textbooks which do the same thing, but with the technological resources we have, this includes primarily powerpoint and video resources. Flipped learning is a pedagogical tool we have used in the department. The second is to offer a broad range of professional development and formation experiences. Obviously it makes sense to target this learning on the staff who consistently teach in the department, but it is also worthwhile for staff across the school, regardless of teaching subject, such that all teachers develop their understanding of the Catholic faith, which is helpful when they are called on to teach religion. An understanding of the tradition and charism gives teachers the confidence to teach religion. Understanding fundamental principles of Catholic anthropology, social justice, etc. also allows teachers to be authentic witnesses, living out the Gospel values. Evidently, this encourages the holistic growth of teachers as well as students! Most importantly, teachers need to hear “You are enough!” often and genuinely in order to trust in their own ability to teach religious education effectively.

So there they are, three more challenges of teaching religious education (particularly in a Catholic school).

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Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

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