Dilwyn Hunt, adviser for RE and G&T, explores the idea of having a more philosophical approach to religious education when enriching the subject for gifted and talented students

Recently a fellow RE adviser told me that when marking a GCSE religious education exam paper she came across one attempt to answer a question which stuck in her memory. The exam question was, ‘Why do people argue about abortion?’ All sorts of things can happen given the stress and tension of exam conditions, but the answer given by one particular candidate was something like the following…

‘Well, the girl might tell her Mum that she was pregnant, and when her Dad found out he started shouting and told the girl she had to get rid of it. Then the girl shouted back. And then her Mum joined in…’

Now don’t get me wrong, thousands of young people wrote an excellent answer to this question. Nevertheless, the story raises a genuine issue which teachers of RE need to take seriously. The issue is this: some young people, including some immensely able and gifted students, do not really understand what an argument is.

RE as a ‘body of knowledge’
When it comes to RE as a ‘body of knowledge’ there are young people who have a wide-ranging, assured and impressive knowledge of some of the world’s principal religious traditions. Students who are gifted in RE are often able to:

  • provide extended, detailed and descriptive accounts of religious ceremonies, rituals, festivals, forms of worship or acts of pilgrimage
  • make use of technical religious vocabulary
  • make comparisons, identify sources and produce accurate, highly organised accounts explaining religious doctrines, views and beliefs
  • produce comprehensive, well-researched descriptions of the lives of religious pioneers and contemporary leaders outlining the views of these people often touching on what motivated and inspired them.

However, RE is much more than just a ‘body of knowledge’. When it comes to expressing their own views, or presenting an argument, many young people suddenly feel uncomfortable. When they are asked to present an argument they have only a relatively shallow understanding of what they
have to do.

Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us. After all, young people rarely hear a thoughtful discursive argument. Their experience of what an ‘argument’ is, may come to them via TV ‘soaps’ where arguments are nearly always, for purposes of dramatic effect, highly charged, loud, threatening, emotional and often bitter affairs. Even the trusty media of steam radio seems only occasionally interested in true discussion. As one Radio 4 presenter in a rare moment of honesty admitted, ‘we are in the business of producing conflict on tape’. Highly intelligent interviewers inhabit the media and they are well versed in the art of aggressive questioning, interruption and affected incredulity. They paraphrase earlier statements but with significant distortion; preamble questions with loaded assumptions and deploy sensational anecdotes. All such techniques are designed to unsettle and ‘catch out’ the person being interviewed rather than give clarity to the argument or to the issue under discussion.

A dearth of good practice
A close study of some of the top-selling RE text books written specifically with a GCSE religious studies ‘philosophy and ethics’ course in mind, reveals a dearth of good practice when it comes to helping young people understand how to persuasively present a reasoned argument. A typical RE exam textbook might, for example, provide 1,500 to 2,000 words on a topic such as ‘Christianity, wealth and poverty’. Take a highlighter pen and highlight in yellow those clauses and sentences which are of a strictly knowledge-based, descriptive nature. Now take a green highlighter and highlight those clauses and sentences which demonstrate reasoning, argument or the application of principles which might form the basis of an argument. Invariably, 80% to 90% of the text will be of a knowledge-based, descriptive nature. RE textbooks rarely model what a thoughtful, balanced argument looks like.

The recent Ofsted report on RE, Making Sense of Religion (June 2007), acknowledges this problem. The report claims that, ‘textbooks tend to concentrate on ceremonies rather than what it is like to live as a Catholic, a Muslim or a Hindu in the community; and to discuss where values and codes for living come from for pupils who do not have religious belief’ (para 13, page 12). Further on in the report we are told that a typical short-course religious education GCSE requires pupils to study issues such as abortion, fertility treatment, euthanasia and suicide, but that assessment ‘tends to encourage mechanistic responses rather than thoughtful engagement with the issues’ (para 21, p14).

What can we do about this problem? What can we do with young people who have a real gift for RE so that they understand that doing well in RE isn’t just about soaking up large quantities of information about religion? How do we encourage students to form their own views and help them to develop the ability to construct sound and well-based arguments which defend the ground upon which they take a stand and will form the basis of the values they will live by?

Changing the diet
The answer is that in RE, particularly in KS3 RE, we need to think again about the traditional diet of topics which has been presented to students for the last 20 years or so: topics such as holy books, places of pilgrimage, and fasts and festivals. The idea was that these topics provided a structure around which young people could ‘learn about religion’. However, it was also believed that they provided a springboard for young people to learn ‘from’ religion by exploring demanding questions, such as: ‘What is revelation?’ ‘Does prayer work?’ ‘Why are we alive?’ ‘Is there life after death?’ In reality, these important questions have often been lost, or pursued in only a shallow way.

Young people who were gifted in RE have done well when the syllabus was presented in this way as they have had the ability to ‘swallow and digest’ this diet of knowledge and information. Nevertheless, RE has rarely provided them with an opportunity to seriously step up a gear as the more demanding philosophical questions, and particularly those questions which required them to articulate and defend their own beliefs and values, were half-heartedly squeezed in at the end of a topic, or in many cases were lost altogether.

A more philosophical approach
The answer increasingly being proposed is that these crucial philosophical questions should not be approached via the circuitous route of topics such as ‘rites of passage’ and ‘places of worship’. Instead, RE can be made more interesting and more challenging if it confronts these questions directly. This can be achieved by making the KS3 curriculum a ‘beliefs and issues’ curriculum which embraces a more philosophical approach to RE (see box below).

Establishing a beliefs and issues curriculum

Out go topics such as: In come topics which explicitly explore commitment and truth such as:
  • fasts and festivals
  • places of worship
  • places of pilgrimage
  • holy books
  • leaders of religion
  • rites of passage
  • religious symbols
  • people of faith
  • forms of worship
  • home and family life
  • what does it mean to be a good Muslim?
  • the existence of God
  • the problem of evil
  • science and religion
  • life after death
  • knowing right from wrong
  • animal rights
  • medical ethics
  • global issues
  • the environment

The outward phenomena approach to RE still has a place up to the end of KS2, but a better quality of RE can be achieved for older students by adopting a more philosophical approach to the subject. Although it is not unequivocally stated, this philosophical approach is nevertheless clearly featured in the non-statutory national framework for RE (nsNFRE) which QCA and the DfES launched in Oct 2004. The message is also reinforced in Ofsted’s Making Sense of Religion: the report criticises schools which start off bravely in Year 7 with a philosophical topic such as ‘the existence of God’, but revert to ‘less demanding work, such as examining the features of religious practice or the life of a religious figure’ (para 75, p25).

However, if a more philosophical approach to RE is to be adopted at KS3 it will not make lessons more interesting or more challenging per se. If RE teachers treat philosophy in the classroom as an alternative ‘body of knowledge’ which young people simply have to learn, there will be no raising of the bar for gifted young people, or for anyone else. It will simply mean students being given different, but still undemanding, recall and descriptive tasks. If the content changes but the nature of the tasks remain essentially the same, the level of challenge, in reality, remains the same.

Community of enquiry
The main principle behind introducing philosophy into the classroom is that philosophy is something that you do. It is a mistake to see it as something that you learn. This is the thrust behind the work of Matthew Lipman in the 1960s and it lies at the heart of the whole Philosophy for Children (P4C) approach promoted in this country by SAPERE. The idea is to help young people improve how they think. It is not about merely increasing their stock of knowledge. The strategy of community of enquiry, which Lipman advocated, focuses deliberately on thinking. In the context of RE, community of enquiry usually involves encouraging young people to come up with a religious, philosophical or ethical question of their own choosing and allowing them to engage in reciprocal discussion of that question with relatively little formal input from the teacher.

This approach will horrify many teachers of RE: ‘How can young people have a sensible discussion about the existence of God, the effectiveness of prayer or the ethics of medical research, unless they know the facts beforehand?’ It is because many teachers see RE as having a certain linear order that they insist that ‘the facts’ must be taught first and only after that job has been done, can discussion take place. Lipman turns this approach on its head. For him, it is talking that sparks learning not learning that sparks talking. That there is a real truth in this claim is part of everyone’s everyday experience. How many times have you had a disagreement, say with your boss and then perhaps sometime later said to a friend, ‘And then I said to the boss…’ The truth is, that is not what you said to your boss. It is what you wish you had said but didn’t actually say at the time. You have come up with words some time later because you carried on thinking about the conversation and it was that extra thinking that enabled you to find a better way of expressing yourself. This is why community of enquiry is such an important strategy in the P4C approach. After a community of enquiry reciprocal discussion, young people walk out of the classroom still thinking about the issue and rehearsing in their heads what they could have said, and what they will say next time. How frequently can one say that after explaining in an RE lesson the facts and ideas behind ‘euthanasia’ or ‘a just war’ young people walk out of the classroom feverishly running over and rehearsing in their heads their response to those facts and ideas? The answer is virtually never. But with community of enquiry young people often leave the classroom still talking and thinking about the issue.

However, when it comes to a more philosophical approach to RE, community of enquiry isn’t the only strategy available to the teacher. Lipman was keen that young people should have opportunities to see what a discursive argument looks like. He often illustrated it through fictional children’s conversations. Instead of simply asking young people, ‘What do you think?’ or ‘Give your reasons’ and assuming that they know how to respond to such instructions, we can give them a lot more help. By examining examples of thoughtful argument, students can be helped to understand what an effective argument and ‘reasoning’ look like. In a direct and formal way, the structure of how arguments are formed can be explored and young people can be helped to understand how to put an argument together.

Specific reasoning skills
Some schools are beginning to make use of personalised learning programmes to introduce their more able students to ways of expressing their own views and presenting their ideas in the form of an argument. Just as young people learn from what good fiction writers do in order to create mood, or tension or develop character in a piece of writing, they can also learn from what a non-fiction writer is doing when presenting a moral, philosophical or religious argument. In this way, young people can become familiar with a host of what Lipman called ‘specific reasoning skills’ and learn how to use them. For example, when addressing many questions asked in RE classrooms it is of immense help to young people to be aware of the difference between inference and deduction, what a rhetorical question is and how they should properly use quantifiers such as ‘all’, ‘many’, ‘some’ and a ‘few’. Young people can also improve the quality of their responses by understanding:

  • how to use logical connectives
  • the difference between giving reasons and giving explanations
  • how an analogy can clarify an argument
  • how to use a principle or a generally agreed truth as the basis of an argument
  • how to establish a line of reasoning
  • the appropriate and inappropriate use of anecdote
  • the use of empirical evidence to support an argument.

Many religious and ethical arguments are littered with what both Plato and Aristotle railed against, which was sophistry or flawed argument. The teacher of RE can help young people to seriously develop the quality of their thinking by exploring some of the main characteristics of flawed argument so that they become alert to flaws in arguments and can spot them quite quickly, both in their own thinking and in the thinking of others.

Typical characteristics of flawed argument

  • Excessive use of emotive language.
  • Generalising from particular cases.
  • Using the same word but in two different senses.
  • Circular arguments.
  • Begging the question.
  • Straw-man arguments.
  • Denigrating the opposition.
  • The red herring argument.
  • Claiming that many believing it is so, makes it so.

Young people should be helped to understand that simply claiming, ‘It’s my opinion, it’s what I happen to think’, really doesn’t wash. Instead, they should understand that their skill in discussion, and in presenting and justifying their views is something they can develop and get better at. 

Realising the ‘lot more’ in RE
A more philosophical beliefs and issues approach to RE in KS3 raises expectations not just for very able students, but for all learners. Understandably, it may seem daunting to many teachers currently involved in teaching RE and a lot of thought has to be put into what CPD might look like in the future to support these developments. Also, a great deal more work has to be undertaken to develop appropriate resources. Nevertheless, this is clearly a very important way in which RE can continue to evolve. Religious education always was a lot more than learning some Bible stories, eating samosas and handling some artefacts. Realising what that ‘lot more’ is, continues to make RE a deeply rewarding and exciting subject for the able student, indeed for all children and young people, and also for those of us who teach it.

Further reading
Philosophy goes to School by Matthew Lipman, Temple University Press

Thinking Through Religious Education, David Leat

Dilwyn Hunt is adviser for RE and G&T in Dudley. He is author of Meeting the Needs of your Most Able Pupils: RE, soon to be published by Routledge, and of Introducing Philosophy of Religion and Introducing Religious Ethics, published by Nelson Thornes.