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Teaching Religious Education: Researchers in the Classroom

reviewed by Jing Lin & Amanda Fiore

coverTitle: Teaching Religious Education: Researchers in the Classroom
Author(s): Julian Stern
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic, London
ISBN: 1350037095, Pages: 208, Year: 2018
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Teaching Religious Education offers a welcome view of Religious Education (RE) that is founded in research, and deepened through a dialogic approach that envisions pupils and teachers as “co-researchers,” committed not simply to learning, but to improving “lives and schooling... with sincerity” (p. 7). This distinction draws out the important potential RE has in primary schools to focus on engaging students as human beings, rather than as learners; RE, when taught according to Stern’s principles, could be employed as a means to help cultures evolve through the learned skills of conflict negotiation, discussion aimed at creating more compassion, and acceptance of those who are different from us. This is in keeping with a flurry of research which imagines culture as “a process,” created through interaction with families, teachers, spiritual practice, and peers (p. 13). Seen in this way, RE is not simply a discipline that helps students deepen their knowledge and understanding of the world they are in, but a potential avenue for shaping a culture of the future that will be based on tolerance and compassion, and enriched by interconnection and diversity.


An important distinction is made throughout the first part of the book between that which is taught, and that which students come to understand through a pedagogy committed to putting their thoughts, experiences, and beliefs at the center of the classroom. This is evident in the research explored, as well as in the suggested classroom activities peppered throughout each chapter. In one very thoughtful activity, it is suggested that students reach out to someone they may not normally come in contact with, due to the fact that they might belong to another religion or social class, then make lists of ways they are actually connected to this person. Such an activity should help students to better understand themselves by seeing themselves in relation to others, while simultaneously helping to break down psychological misconceptions of “the other” perpetuated by a lack of exposure to those who are different. Additionally, there are a slew of activities which ask students to look critically at themselves, such as Activity 6.3, the Salmon Line (p. 82), which asks students to map out their abilities and posit what they will need to do in order to improve each one. From this we see a methodology forming through practice which helps teachers to focus on learning from rather than about religion, thereby avoiding a common pitfall in all classrooms, perhaps most famously espoused by Freire, where the teacher is an imparter-of-knowledge and the student is an empty vessel.


A notably refreshing concept is Stern’s reimaging of diversity and inclusion that goes beyond the traditional concept of a diversity of learning needs. Stern argues that diversity and inclusion should also refer to students from different socio-economic and familial backgrounds, such as students with stressful home environments, students who might be pregnant or who are feeling excluded from peer groups, students without their biological parents, etc. This larger definition of inclusion as urged by Stern seems to be part of a larger overall argument for educators to see their students as the unique human souls they are, with the aim of fashioning content and pedagogy accordingly.


The book goes on to explore RE in various global contexts, including China, Hong Kong, Russia, South Africa, Finland, France, and the US. The author gives many theoretical tools and frameworks within which one can focus on a certain aspect in RE. Examples are offered on how to teach difficult topics, as well as how to draw out the knowledge children already have about sophisticated issues.


The second part of the book, from Chapter Seven on “Working with Sacred Texts” to the last chapter, Chapter Thirteen, on “the Future of RE:search,” brings out many critical issues in RE. These are issues of values, ethics, morality, truth, virtues, and creativity. The author shares deep insights on a wide spectrum of topics. Especially noticeable is the emphasis on working with students at their level, having children find out things for themselves, and acknowledging their first-hand experiences, which is evident throughout the book. The author brings up the challenges of teaching sacred texts such as the Bible, the Qur’an, and the Bhagavad Gita, noting essential points as well as suggesting good practices. The book also outlines ethnographic research as a method to understand the diversity of religious communities, suggesting that such research adds authenticity to RE. Arts and music among other measures are suggested as ways to incorporate creativity into RE.

In all, the book is very comprehensive in covering all pertinent topics relating to RE, and it is very resourceful and thoughtful for teachers. It sheds wonderful light on how RE teachers can help students understand and explore various ways in which people answer life’s biggest questions.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, 2018, p. -
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22537, Date Accessed: 11/20/2018 11:52:47 PM

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