What we sometimes miss when teaching...
Continuing with our discussion on lessons from the previous article, we should focus on learning about and learning from as it such a key distinction. It's a big thing in Religious Education but it should be in every subject.
Learning about is the old way, the way I was taught, the way bad teaching teaches; it's the way the poor kids in the picture above are being taught. It's facts, information, dates, labels, names, simple recounting and so on. So learning about cows, for example, is all about different types of cows, what they eat, what they look like and so on. It's actually a lower order type of knowledge and a lower order type of thinking. Why? Because just telling me about something is not necessarily meaning I know or understand it; it can be memorised, learned, reapeated, but not really understood. It's therefore, also, using memory instead of intelligence and other higher order skills. Also, does the person who knows everything about cows, but not what milk or beef tastes like or not having seen a cow in the flesh, really know about cows? Not really.
Learning from is where the magic happens! Learning from is learning what the cow means to me, how it applies to my life, thinking about it, empathy, how I can use it in my life, what milk and beef tastes like and whether I should be consuming them. And on and on. It is infinite, where as learning about is finite. It is focussed on the AI computer in front of you (your student! AI because they are more than just computers, they are autonomous, just with not a lot of software yet..). It gives the information and encourages the student to engage with it, to rephrase it to their own world, to understand it and to run with it. Then you just have to create a space where they can run (see our article on creative lessons) and they will astound you!
Check out this essay I wrote at The Institute of Education, when I was training for my Masters level PGCE, for more information! There's links to some lessons plans at the bottom of the page too...
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By Andrew Yiallouros
The pedagogy our group was allocated was the gift approach to religious education. This approach seeks to mix the experiential and phenomenological approaches to teaching RE, and to make some headway in the conflict of learning from religion versus learning about religion. It also helps the teaching of RE in a secular society. The approach was mainly aimed at primary school teaching since it was this arena that lacked expert RE knowledge and the approach intended to help some way towards that deficiency. It is based on the use of artefacts, pictures, sacred texts or other phenomena (called numen by the project members) to engage, explore, contextualise and reflect towards learning about, and from, religion culminating in a new and 'improved' RE pedagogy. Using the example of a crucifix/cross, the children are slowly shown the item (engaged), given the item to look at and experience by thinking about what it means to them (explore), told something factual about the item linking it to its actual usage (contextualisation) and then asked to reflect on the item with their own similar experiences (reflect).
This approach has positives and benefits as well as negatives and disadvantages. Positives include being exciting for children, where RE comes alive, and involving many senses and so catering to visual, audio and kinaesthetic learners and, since the lesson conducts itself, can help the teacher with little knowledge about RE (Grimmitt 2000 and Wright and Brandon 2000). It also works well in a multi-faith society, since it involves empathy and open discussion, for these reasons the pedagogy can combat the effects of secularisation and religious ignorance (Wright and Brandon 2000). Also, “promoting a reflective approach helps pupils to become more critically aware of the culture that has shaped them and helps them to see the possibilities of learning...from other people” (Wright and Brandon 2000). It also works with the premise that there are no right or wrong answers which combats “religionism” (Wright and Brandon 2000). It therefore helps society by stopping students being “blind and deaf to other voices” (Wright and Brandon 2000) as one has to think about other views. It is also much more interesting than just drawing and labelling prayer positions (Wright and Brandon 2000) or a class-wide lecture, or other similar pedagogies, and is more directed than home study or creative approaches.
Negatives include too much focus: by choosing an artefact (such as a crucifix) one may miss the other equally important aspects and lessons from that religion. There is also the problem with this pedagogy of taking objects out of context and so stripping religiousness away and more importantly altering the correct understanding of that object. For example a golf tee means more when shown how it is used on a golf course rather than in a classroom where you may not be able to show exactly how it is used. Also, taking things out of context could degrade them in a “removing of holiness” way or removal of integrity (Wright and Brandon 2000) that is different to the stripping of religiousness. Moreover, offence could be caused in doing this. It is also dangerous to present RE in this way since students may lose the seriousness with which religion deserves to be associated (leaving aside the team's attempts to mitigate this with 'distancing'). How materials are chosen is another possible negative in that choices might be haphazard and lack structure so impacting on accepted educational norms as well as putting undue pressure on the educator as we shall see below.
This pedagogy is tightly bound with what one believes RE is for. If it is for a contribution to the human and educational development of the child, as well as learning about religion (as the project team concluded), rather than the more simplified only learning about religion, then this pedagogy has much to commend itself. Where RE is used to improve the human and educational development of a child by teaching about, and from, religion, it becomes again very relevant, connected to the world and the education of the child. If the world breathes secular air and is antagonistic and angry at religion (Wright and Brandon 2000) then to limit some of the religiousness in RE could be a very good thing by keeping it relevant, keeping it above and away from this anger, whilst at the same time teaching about issues and themes that might not normally be encountered in other subjects, but which are very important to the proper development and education of a person.
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On learning about and from religion one can say as Grimmitt (2000) does, that RE must try to do both, since learning about religion only in a secular society has little use and can seem dry, sanitized and boring (Stern 2006) whereas learning only from religion strips away the religiousness and can appear to be little more than a “flight from religion” (Grimmitt 2000). To do both is to prevent these negatives and to give RE a better place and use in society and education in general. Thus, this pedagogy has much to offer. Furthermore, the gift approach fits with Piaget's 'Schematic Learning' (Grimmitt 1973) since it identifies key concepts, is structured, offers guidance and is developmental; just like a child's thinking. It therefore is directly linked with the reality of learning and fits well with this. It allows children to connect the item with their own experiences and closes the gap between this, and the learning taking place, which is a good way to learn (Grimmitt 1973). “There is considerable literature in religious education which advocates the use of children's own experiences as a basis for developing their understanding of religious concepts” (Grimmitt 1987).
If however one believes that RE is more, or only, learning about religion then this pedagogy has some negatives. Firstly the secular nature of society and the subsequent “I am nothing” claim by people when asked what religion are you, has repercussions for the engagement step of the pedagogy (Wright and Brandon 2000), as you can only learn from religion if there is open discussion, and it is arguable that this is no longer possible in such a secular setting (Wright and Brandon 2000). Also if it can be argued that despite this secular basis of society we do all have deep religious or spiritual experiences, getting students to own up to such experiences using this pedagogy can be difficult as it may make them appear abnormal. Therefore the pedagogy has some inherent limitation within it. If pedagogies attempt to address and resolve issues and problems when RE is taught in a secular or religiously diverse society (Grimmitt 2000), then this pedagogy leaves much to be desired.
Also, the gift approach could become only lightly related to religion (Watson 1993), and in their choice of artefacts, teachers influence proceedings more than the gift approach acknowledges since teachers' own assumptions will construct their fantasy (Watson 1993). This pedagogy also has some logistical problems in a class of thirty children. It may also mean that more RE expertise is needed in artefact choice and delivery (Grimmitt 1973). Also, this pedagogy is in danger of not being relevant to the student's needs if the reflection element is not carried out correctly. Again we see a case for more RE expertise and thought needed in this pedagogy, which negates the previous stated benefit of not needing RE knowledge or expertise (Grimmitt 1987).
“Every method has its strengths and weakness” (Grimmitt 2000). What we can say is that the gift approach to RE has some significant positives, and if used correctly is a powerful tool in the teacher's arsenal. Most of the negatives and problems identified can be dealt with in the careful and accurate application of the pedagogy, and since RE should be teaching about as well as from religion, and that this pedagogy seeks to do both, I believe the positives of this approach outweigh the negatives.
Grimmit, M. (2000) Pedagogies of Religious Education, McCrimmons Publishing Co. Ltd.
Grimmit, M. (1987) Religious Education and Human Development, McCrimmons Publishing Co. Ltd.
Watson, B. (1993) The Effective Teaching of Religious Education, Longman Press.
Wright, A. and Brandon, A. M. (2000) Learning to Teach Religious Education in the Secondary School Routledge Falmer.
Stern, J. (2006) Teaching Religious Education, Continuum.
Grimmit, M. (1982) What Can I Do in R.E.? Mayhew-McCrimmon Ltd.
Jackson, R. (2004) Rethinking Religious Education and Plurality Routledge Falmer.