Teaching the language not the phrasebook

Religious Education in the UK has been experiencing a dramatic identity crisis since its formal inception in the 1870s. Government after government have used it as a way of placating traditional and non-conformist Christian institutions[1] and making a show of caring about community cohesion[2]. They have used it as a moralistic national-scale behaviour management technique.[3]

At the same time, theorists have used Religious Education as a petri-dish for theories about child development. Ronald Goldman, in his 1965 book Ready for Religion, argued that “religion is a personal search for faith, not a body of information to be learned”.[4]A decade later, John Marvell, in his influential essay Phenomenology and the future of Religious Education (1976)stated that religion should be taught with an emphasis on a) the fact that all religions are about experiencing the divine in some way b) helping students to “affectively” understand the meaning of “holiness” in different religions. Marvell wrote “when this has been achieved the young person will be in a position not only to understand the religion of others but to make an authentic and personal decision as to his own position.”  The approach, based on the work of Rudolph Otto, was distilled into a mantra which began popping up in Agreed Syllabus’ across the country: RE should a) help children learn about what makes each religion interesting and special, and b) help children develop their own spiritual world by taking ideas from religions. This approach has remained relatively unchanged since the early 80s.[5]

More recently, RE has been used as a proxy for Prevent strategies, for SMSC, and as a space for getting kids to do pseudo-ethical community projects.

The point is, RE has never had room to be itself. It has been shaped, controlled and steered by partisan groups since its birth. In the process, it’s become a Frankenstein subject: composed of leftover parts of other peoples’ agendas. What could RE look like if it were allowed to be a subject in its own right? Following its own aims as an academic discipline? Don’t get me wrong, I believe the curriculum has a natural duty to help combat prejudice and ignorance, but I also believe that to do that effectively a subject has to tackle those issues on its own terms. RE should foster empathy by allowing students to authentically engage with the internal coherence of the religious systems they study. They should be given space to critique them. RE should tackle prejudice by enabling students to see their own epistemological and ethical biases by teaching them the origins of such biases.

Despite my obvious frustration, I am optimistic. I don’t think it’s as hard as we might suppose to unite as a subject community and plough through to a new dawn. 

There are disagreements, but that’s because many of us are worried that changing RE takes away its heart, and reduces it to a tin-man subject. Minimising the focus on the personal, removes what makes RE unique and powerful. I would argue that moving to disciplinary RE strengthens and renews it. I agree with those who believe RE is a genuine tool for empathy creation and community cohesion, but there is a better way.

So again: we need to move to something new. We need to shed the old expectations and create space to re-examine what exciting, organic, powerful RE looks like. 

Thankfully, this reinvigoration process is already happening. Thanks to the work of writers like Michael Young[6], and ED Hirsch[7], many teachers and thinkers in the History community, and more recently Ofsted itself, disciplines and powerful knowledge are flowing into curricular thinking. It is starting to happen in RE! (shout out to Richard Kueh, King of Plenipotentiaries, and my personal hero)

Here is my two-penny’s worth on what it means to call RE a “discipline”.[8]

Firstly, it makes absolute sense to me that the disciplines most central to RE is Theology. Look at any university course content guide. I don’t think this is particularly controversial, as undergraduate level Theology often includes a Religious Studies component, but I think it is helpful given school level “Religious Studies” without any further qualification is in need of a bit of “identity cementing”. [9]

Having said this, there is no real need to change the subject name, or make our subject Theological Studies or Divinity if there is feeling that Religious Studies should stick. But in order to understand how to plan a curriculum packed with disciplinary potential and powerful theological and philosophical knowledge we need to understand what these subjects are, and what disciplines really are in the first place. Without them, we’ve got nothing but a Buzzfeed-esque list of “31 things I bet you never knew about Shabbat!”

The first analogy I found helpful when I began to delve into this stuff a couple of years ago was that of “interior architecture”. I always imagine a shallow and weak version of a subject as being very “external”, merely glancing over the surface. 

Theology is the study of the interior architecture of a religious system: it gets to its heart; understand what it’s made of; its foundations, assumptions, cornerstones. It grasps the meaning behind expressions and physical manifestations. It begins to navigate the patterns, and the very language of the structure. In knowing the complexities of the structure in the micro and macro one can begin to navigate the structure. When an expert sees part of the structure in isolation, they can contextualise and analyse it.

To use a sci-fi reference: they can see the through the Matrix into the very code itself. 

On disciplines in general a good question to ask is: why is the study of Architecture not just called “Buildings”? Or the study of History “Events”? The answer is because disciplines peer through the curtain of externals and superficialities into mysterious ground that transcends the more straightforward “learning of some facts”. A discipline gives shape to facts, it connects and orders facts, creating over-arching facts, and foundational facts. It turns these otherwise disconnected bits of bitesize trivia into something more majestic: knowledge.  

In doing so, a discipline invites you in and presents you with the glorious task of decoding, grasping, and eventually mastering its complex structures. 

I like to imagine each discipline as a totally different structure, made of totally different sub-structures, rules and stuff, requiring a totally different understanding to navigate. 

The wonder of the discipline is its miraculous fusion of knowledge and skill. To know a discipline rather than a series of facts, is to be able to navigate as a discipline. To navigate a discipline completely and with ease is to master it, which is what the top academic Theologians, Historians, Biologists and Mathematicians can do. This is what I believe our job as teachers is: to gently induct our students into the gradual mastery of these disciplines. 

So how do we “navigate” Theology? 

As already said, we can imagine that religious systems are complex structures that need to be decoded and navigated from the inside, on their own terms. The internal coherency of a religion, or the structure composed of its constantly evolving and diverging metaphysical, noetic and ethical claims is a vast object of study that involves the subject going in and beginning the navigation process. 

The navigation is theological study. Theologians critically explore the world of a religion to understand what it is really about. This involves working out the “cornerstone” concepts that are most foundational, it is about grasping how concepts are connected, interpreted, and expressed. It avoids any over simplification and flattening of “famous facts”.

There are many potentially equally useful methods of categorising the types of building blocks and sub-structures you get in Theology, which means any number of “types” of concepts could be identified, and any number of excellent inductions developed. In philosophy they are laid out for us: epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, ethics – but there’s no reason these have to stick, and there are alternative ways of organising them. 

A student who is well on their way to mastering a religious structure can navigate it, because they truly know it: they know the foundational beliefs, they know the central metaphysical claims, they know the resulting ethical beliefs and the material manifestations of these beliefs in ritual and tradition. They have a sense of order, connection, importance, relation. They are able to do theology because when you ask them a theological question like “Explore the nature and role of Dukkha in Buddhist philosophy” they can do just that. 

Another analogy I have found helpful is that of language learning (thus the title of this blog!). To truly know a language, you have to learn the grammar. RS students need to know the grammar of the religions they are studying: they need to know the building blocks, the theological rules and assumptions. We should not be training our students to identify religious “phrases”, but to translate religious language. 

A student who has mastered Sikhism can observe Sikh practice and teaching and understand the invisible language that has led to these kinds of expressions beyond “The Guru Granth Sahib is treated like a person because it’s super important”. 

In short, teach the language of religion, not the phrasebook. 

I am aware that there are still many unanswered questions: how do we plan a curriculum that inducts students into the discipline of Theology successfully? What techniques can we use to help students navigate religious structures? What can we learn from other subjects, and what unique ideas can we develop for our own? What do we do about our terrible GCSE? I am also aware that I have not addressed Philosophy, Social Studies or History (there is a footnote, but who reads those?), but there will be time for this later.

Exploring answers to these questions is my hope for this blog. I am absolutely committed to playing my part in the restoration of our blessed subject, whatever that may be. 


[1] By the 1870s Religious Instruction was moralistic Sunday School lessons for the poor in order to teach them good Christian values so that they became good citizens. Theological study was reserved for the rich. The 1870 Religious Education Act contained the “Cowper-Temple Clause” often known as the “Conscience Clause” which allowed non-conformist (non-Anglican) parents to remove their children from Anglican worship. The clause also stated that schools had to try and teach “non-denominational” Christianity, so as not to upset anyone. By the 1920s we have the Agreed Syllabus’ coming into play, which were a chance for representatives of all local denominations to have a say on how Christianity was taught. Obviously, it’s hard to teach confessional Christianity without any reference to a particular creed, so the focus shifted to Christian history, Bible stories and “Christian values”. 

[2] Certain GM schools were accused of teaching religious fundamentalism in the early 00s (the Emmanuel Schools Foundation was accused of teaching creationism in science lessons, and there was angst about Islamic Schools teaching extremism). Labour wanted to open more faith schools, but their bill was defeated when 45 Labour MPs voted against it in 2001. There were also concerns about cultural, racial and religious divides in communities around Britain, due to several clashes in the north of England between Far Right groups and Asian communities in the wake of 9/11. The government set up the Community Cohesion Review Team which argued against the faith school bill and suggested that current faith schools offer 25% of their places to pupils not of their religious tradition.  In 2007, the Ofsted Report Making Sense of Religion stated that “RE cannot ignore its role in fostering community cohesion and in educating for diversity. This goal has never been far from good RE teaching but the current changes in society give this renewed urgency. Pupils have opinions, attitudes, feelings, prejudices and stereotypes. Developing respect for the commitments of others while retaining the right to question, criticise and evaluate different viewpoints is not just an academic exercise: it involves creating opportunities for children and young people to meet those with different viewpoints. They need to grasp how powerful religion is in people’s lives. RE should engage pupils’ feelings and emotions, as well as their intellect (Ofsted 2007a:41).”

[3] In 1992 Education Secretary John Patten produced The White Paper which detailed his philosophy of education, including his view that school must be a place for rules and respect if Britain doesn’t want a generation of delinquents. In the same year, he wrote a paper for the Spectator titled There is a choice: Good of Evil, in which he said that the “dwindling belief in redemption and damnation has led to loss of fear of the eternal consequences of goodness and bad- ness. It has had a profound effect on personal morality — especially on criminality” and argued that this fear could be brought back through religious teaching in education. 

[4] This book was largely influenced by liberal theologians like Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Barth who placed an emphasis on the importance of religious “encounter”, over learning religious doctrine. Bultmann and Tillich in particular looked to “demythologise” Christian history, and focus instead on its ethical and existential dimensions. Around the same time the Plowden Report was released (1967) which was essentially a love letter to uber-progressive, experiential child-centred learning. 

[5] The National Curriculum Council produced a guide to curriculum frameworks in 1991 which stated that “HMI has in the past been concerned at an over-emphasis on factual knowledge and a neglect of pupils’ own spiritual development.” Then we get the 2007 Ofsted Report which affirms the same (above), and finally the 2013 Ofsted Report RE: Realising the Potential which again, confirmed the idea that RE is about playing “a key role in promoting social cohesion and the virtues of respect and empathy, which are important in our diverse society”.

[6] Knowledge and the Future School (2014)

[7] Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories (2016)

[8] This specific blog doesn’t deal with the relationship between substantive and disciplinary knowledge, but it can be dealt with later! 

[9] I’m aware that History and Social Sciences are floating around too, but I would argue their inclusion can overcomplicate the issue. Having said that, I am looking forward to dedicating some future blog time to investigating RE’s complicated relationship with both subjects. I am also aware that Philosophy is very central, but Philosophy is much easier discipline to unpack and so won’t be dealt with here. 

1 thought on “Teaching the language not the phrasebook”

  1. What a great article! You’ve captured precisely my own thinking on the nature and role of RE/RS (I don’t think it needs “worldviews” added in as it dilutes the subject a little). Speaking the language of a religion or understanding the narrative that runs through the beliefs, celebrations, practice, history, key figures, etc is crucial.

    Genuinely looking forward to your next one. 😀

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