This week, I have been fortunate enough to visit Dubai and Abu Dhabi as part of our annual PTA overseas trip. What an amazing part of the world! The trip was rich with Islamic culture. This was amazing for us as tourists, but vital for the children in terms of developing their tolerance, open-mindedness and respect. The students, as well as many of the parents, experienced a significantly different culture for the first time. The religion was explicit through fashion, architecture, and traditions. The experience was further enriched because we visited during the month of Ramadan.
The trip got me thinking about our duty as educators to deliver high-quality Religious Education (RE). It was an amazing opportunity to appreciate the Islamic faith. Often, children’s only exposure to Islam is through horrific news headlines about terror which, of course, are in no way true reflections of the peaceful, respectful major religion. However, the headlines do influence people. Many studies all show the same thing: attitudes towards Islam are generally negative, and they have continued to get worse since 9/11.
61% of Americans express unfavourable views of Islam (Shibley Telhami, 2015)
43% of Britons refer to Islam as a ‘negative force in the UK’ (BBC, 2016)
28% believe that it is a ‘violent religion’. (BBC, 2016)
Mulsims are on the list of least desirable neighbours. (Gallup, 2011)
The word ‘Islam’ is most associated with the word ‘terrorism’ (The Telegraph, 2015)
These statistics (and countless others) are absolutely shocking. An entire religious group is judged based on the actions of evil, misguided individuals. I can’t imagine how awful it must be to be a Muslim in a Western country right now, having to face this undeserved prejudice every day.
“Ignorance leads to misunderstanding, then fear, hate and discrimination or even acts of violence.”
Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), 2015
The CAIR believes, as I do, that education is the answer. This makes sense, since ignorance is at the root of the problem. It’s worth mentioning at this point that I am an atheist. I have no vested interest in religion and I don’t agree with teachers preaching or ‘pushing’ students towards any religion. I am, however, passionate about developing respectful global citizens. That’s where RE comes in.
“The underestimated importance of RE is also that it helps overcome prejudices and negative stereotypes.”
The Guardian, 2014
Not surprisingly, the same study by Telhami (2015) revealed that attitudes are more positive among educated people. Developing a good understanding of religion and diversity is a vital part of schooling, and this has proven to have a positive impact on attitudes, open-mindedness and respect. Students need to be aware of the diversity in the world and have some understanding of different beliefs and practices.
Despite its proven effectiveness, RE’s importance is too often overlooked.
“Religious education just isn’t taken seriously at school. It is undervalued and unappreciated. Merged with citizenship and social studies, it sits huddled in a corner at the edge of the humanities office.”
The Guardian, 2014
The Guardian describes it as ‘an appendix to the school curriculum’. With time constraints and standardised tests (among other pressures), subjects at the bottom of the hierarchy are often ignored. RE is typically one such subject.
“If students are going to function as global citizens, and be members of society; they will need to understand religion’s impact on history, politics, society, and culture. Students should know basic religious facts and should be able to recognize the diversity that exists in each belief system that surrounds them. Students will also be encountering different types of people throughout their lives, and they are going to need to know how to deal with it and accept it.”
Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory (HASTAC), 2015
I agree with HASTAC, but I would take it further. Our diversity should be a cause of fascination and celebration, not just acceptance. My last school in the UK was (and still is) an outstanding Christian school. This was a unique position for me because RE is highly regarded there and, despite what people might think, part of the Church School responsibility is to teach about other religions. Because it is a Christian school, it is subject to SIAMS inspections (Statutory Inspection of Anglican and Methodist Schools), meaning that it is accountable for RE. For us, RE was higher up in the subject hierarchy than it might be for other schools.
A link to the ‘outstanding’ inspection report can be found here. Notice how student progress in RE is compared to the progress in English and Mathematics. Should all schools, religious or not, value RE so highly? What impact would this have on society?
“RE contributes substantially to the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of children.”
All Saints’ Junior and Infant School SIAMS report, 2014
To appreciate RE, educators might need to update their view of what RE is. Wago Odongo (2016) argues against the inclusion of RE in schools.
“Religious education is an ineffectual, divisive, outdated and time-wasting pursuit. The time allotted to it would be better used teaching maths or English. These subjects are more useful here on earth. School is meant to prepare our children for this life, not the next one.”
Wago Odongo, 2016
In his Daily Nation article, Odongo recalls his experience of RE. He explains how pupils were separated based on their beliefs and how his school would not teach sex education due to the Christian beliefs. I agree that these approaches are outdated, but I disagree that the whole subject is outdated. Good teachers of RE teach inclusively and respectfully, through inquiry, questioning, deep thinking and discussions. I whole-heartedly believe that this is as important as ever.
In the UK, there are two branches to RE: learning about religion and learning from religion. As well as learning about other religions, students should also explore their own beliefs. Perhaps this is a separate debate.
“It’s time to understand that families are in the best position to provide specific religious education. They can guide their children either in the home or through special after school activities or in their own church, synagogue, mosque or temple.”
The Conversation, 2013
This is an argument that I can understand, to an extent. A child’s faith is personal and usually comes from their family. It makes sense that the families should educate them spiritually. Many would argue that this is a part of school RE, and I agree, but I do understand this viewpoint. However, this article focuses on other religions. If RE is so crucial, it is the responsibility of schools to ensure that every child has quality, well-informed access to it.
I believe that we need to take a closer look at Religious Education and consider how we can improve our current practice. With all other pressures, we need to remember what’s important. Our job is to develop internationally-minded, responsible world citizens. Ignorance towards religion is dangerous, and we need to address this very serious global issue.
What does RE look like in your classroom? What do the children learn? How is success measured? What steps could you take to raise its status? As always, I’m very interested in your views. Please leave a comment below.
Oh, and Eid Mubarak! Best wishes to my Muslim friends and to everyone who made our U.A.E. trip so special.