Should our personal beliefs enter the classroom when teaching RE?

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Discussion by: zoe.garnett

I was first brought to consider this by a question one of my
year 10 students asked me during an RE lesson. “Miss, what do you think about
abortion?”, she said. I paused. We all have a natural curiosity, especially
children, and as teachers we are sometimes posed questions that we feel
uncomfortable answering. It can be easy to respond to some personal questions. For
example, it is easy to tell a student that “you should never ask a lady her age”
when they ask you your age. We may find that other, more controversial
questions are less easy to answer. This is an example of one.

“I have this
rule,” I told her, “where I never tell my students what I think about things,
because I want you to form your own opinions and I wouldn’t want to influence
your opinion in any way.” She didn’t look too convinced. This is my scripted
answer to questions of that nature. “What do you think?” I responded, hoping
that reflecting the question might stop her from probing any further.

Did I do the right thing in responding in
this way? Should we be instilling our own beliefs and values in our students? Is there a fine line
between education and indoctrination in RE? How much we
should choose to let students in to our own worlds, and what impact does this
have?

I
believe that RE should develop deeper thinking skills. It should open minds. We
want our students to be free thinkers. We want to highlight the dangers of
conformity. At the same time, in scripting this response to my students, am I
not underestimating their own critical abilities and philosophical skills? Am I
overestimating my own powers of my own influence as a teacher? By refusing to
give students my own opinion for these reasons, am I assuming that my students
are that easy to brainwash? The whole subject challenges my own value system
because, on the one hand, I want to encourage my students to confidently
express their opinions on issues, and at the same time, I am not modelling this
behaviour I want to see in my students by withholding my beliefs.

So what do you think: Should our personal beliefs enter the classroom when teaching RE?

30 COMMENTS

  1. I have this rule,” I told her, “where I never tell my students what I think about things, because I want you to form your own opinions and I wouldn’t want to influence your opinion in any way.”

    I think that’s about as good as you can get. Well done.

    If you need to explain further, I imagine something like this:

    “Suppose I tell you my view, then maybe you’ll decide to hold the same opinion as me, because you like me, or because I’m your teacher, or because you think I am a decent person who has thought deeply about this. Or you may decide to hold the opposite opinion, because you don’t like me, or because you feel like rebelling against your teacher, or because you think I’m stupid, or out of touch, or any other reason.

    All these reasons are wrong reasons, because they get in the way of you forming a genuine opinion of your own. They give you an excuse to be lazy, to avoid thinking the matter through to your own conclusion. Don’t take my word for how you should think about this, and don’t take the opposite view just because you disagree with me in general. And don’t be lazy. And while we’re at it, don’t just take someone else’s opinion just because they say so. You’re supposed to be learning to do your own thinking.

    So that is why I MUST not tell you what I think about this, at least not as long as I’m teaching this class. Because whatever answer I give, it will get in the way of you making up your mind for yourself. Ask me again after you graduate.”

    Best wishes for your teaching, I already think you are by far a better teacher than many I’ve experienced – not only do you seem right to me, but you also have the humility to seek wider confirmation – or otherwise – of your stance. Well done, again.

  2. Well, it is definitely very easy to prime someone to a certain mindset if that’s their first exposure to the topic, and when you’re dealing with kids, the act of priming is very likely going to be more potent. For a good book on this, please have a look at Dan Ariely’s book (Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions) when you’ve got the chance.

    If you want to bring balance to both side of the debate, perhaps you can also personify the opposite side of the argument by mentioning a respectable figure who believes in the opposing view. As a teacher in direct contact with the children, you have significantly more influence on the formation of their world view. But, I think rather than beating yourself up for possibly indoctrinating the kids, I think you should concentrate more on preparing the kids to be critical thinkers.

    Kids should grow up to be able to make their own judgment & change their mind. Despite your personal opinion, they should be taught to know better than to follow other people like sheep. It is impossible to shelter kids forever & it’s unrealistic to attempt so. Why not, then, use the opportunity as a critical thinking exercise?

    • In reply to #3 by Nitya:

      RE does stand for religious education, right? I’m confused.

      No kidding, what’s this doing here? Are atheists teaching religion? What’s next? Theists teaching science? I must be in bizzaro world today. We’ve been getting some odd topics on RDnet lately. Someone, quick, think up some heavy topic.

      • In reply to #18 by QuestioningKat:

        In reply to #3 by Nitya:

        RE does stand for religious education, right? I’m confused.

        No kidding, what’s this doing here? Are atheists teaching religion? What’s next? Theists teaching science? I must be in bizzaro world today. We’ve been getting some odd topics on RDnet lately. Someone, quick, think up some heavy topic.

        who better?

        I had a good RE teacher. I didn’t know what her beliefs were which made her good. the RE sylabus was also very good, I learned about many different belief systems and there are very important facts to be taught (i.e. christians believe…. muslims believe… etc) and being brought up with regular catholic instructions (probably while the other kids learned “dirty” things) it was a very important part of my deconversion.

        RE is a humanity subject, it’s not like divinity ot bible studies. if anything it’s an introduction to anthropology

        • In reply to #25 by SaganTheCat:

          In reply to #18 by QuestioningKat:

          In reply to #3 by Nitya:

          RE does stand for religious education, right? I’m confused.

          No kidding, what’s this doing here? Are atheists teaching religion? What’s next? Theists teaching science? I must be in bizzaro world today. We’ve been getting some odd topics on RDnet lately. Someone, quick, think up some heavy topic.

          who better?

          I had a good RE teacher. I didn’t know what her beliefs were which made her good. the RE sylabus was also very good, I learned about many different belief systems and there are very important facts to be taught (i.e. christians believe…. muslims believe… etc) and being brought up with regular catholic instructions (probably while the other kids learned “dirty” things) it was a very important part of my deconversion.

          RE is a humanity subject, it’s not like divinity or bible studies. if anything it’s an introduction to anthropology

          Thanks, I guess I was not understanding what RE actually is. I was under the impression that it is teaching Christian philosophy and beliefs.

          • In reply to #27 by QuestioningKat:

            I was under the impression that it is teaching Christian philosophy and beliefs.

            Don’t blame you, indoctrination was all I ever got in RE as well.

  3. I’m a teacher also, pretty much what I say. I’ve had several students ask me about my religious beliefs in relation to evolution. I tell them I think it would be wrong for me influence them in their beliefs as I had read a lot more than they and they should look at the evidence and make up their own minds. Or if I’m feeling more cheeky and they ask me if I believe in God I ask them to which they are refering. I notice most religious teachers don’t hold back.

  4. Well, you aren’t there to teach them your opinions and they aren’t there to learn your’s . I would think that in a discussion your role is that of facilitator. If you were doing group therapy, the clients don’t run the group and the facilitator does not participate as a client. Your instincts seem to be correct. Are you second guessing yourself?

  5. I hope RE stands for religious education, because that’s what I’m gonna write about. Just in case I’m wrong, I’ll have a drink first.

    I believe that RE should develop deeper thinking skills.

    Yes, it should result in all of them becoming atheists and rationalists.

    The idea that you could be an authority that sways their thoughts undermines your stated goal. Your opinion does not matter. You should teach them that. Instead, you are teaching them you have some power to sway them, that that is at all normal or to be expected. How? How can you possibly sway them on such matters? Authority? Are you an expert on the morality of abortion? Is anyone? Teach them that.

    Doing so should fundamentally undermine the mind-destroying authority component of religion, and of public education which also suffers from that laziness. Yeah, ask them questions. Sugata Mitra has some TED lectures you might like. This is my favorite so far.

    • Hi Zoe! That is my daughter’s name (she’s 2), and I’m an RE teacher. I have been sent on a spaceship from the planet Zog to speed up your current metamorphoses. Well, ok, not the last part, but it was sure funny to write.

      I think This Is Not A Meme is on the right track on this one, as you are an authority and no matter what you say you will influence the kids. Everyone else here appears to believe that you can be a neutral guide, but there is no such thing in a classroom (especially in a classroom, and debatably not anywhere else either). By your very words you have disarmed the topic and yourself, and that is a motivated position – not a neutral position – and it is understood by your class even if neither you nor your class understands that motivation well enough to analyse it out. ‘Teach the facts’ is a culturally and politically motivated exercise and you are not exchanging the imparting of a particular set of beliefs on the children for a neutral exploration of disinterested reason, you are exchanging it with another set of beliefs. In short, you are imparting status quo values whether you like it or not.

      I personally stopped giving the ‘cop out’ answer that you gave and now simply have a discussion including my beliefs and theirs also. In my time doing supply, for instance, children in Catholic schools have known me
      to be an atheist – they had never met one – and were worried that their parents might disaprove. I explained why they were in their school and that their parents might indeed disaprove, but also insisted that I am a legit RE teacher. There is really nothing else that is honest to do except teach falsehood. In the same vain, saying ‘it depends’/’what do you think’ is really a weak deception, as well as pretty condescending.

      And now it’s time for the BIG FACT (drumroll please)

      RE in UK schools is awful and taught awfully because noone, especially the teachers, know why they are there.

      To get a handle on how to teach RE is truly and utterly beyond almost all teaching staff (and I have met roughly 20 other RE teachers), and increasingly beyond the children as their minds grow numb with tedious head-nodding and meaningless busy-work.

      You have to get in the frame of mind where you can be telling the truth in an insightful and properly educative way. Not an easy thing to want to do in our education system, and it will probably seem like it’s getting you fired (and depending on the topic, and the character of children/parents, it might). Good luck!

  6. you gave the correct answer.

    equally if you were teaching a science class and a student asked what you thought the outcome of an experiment would be, the same answer applies; “what do you think?” or if writing up an equation in maths and someone asks what you think the answer is. equally an english teacher should not be expected to tell students what to write in their book report

    a teachers job is to present the facts required to do the work and the facts should be delivered through the teacher not from them so if a studend asks “how do you know…?” you can expain how the facts were gathered rather than say “i just know”.

    RE is especially sensitive to opinion though. a class will have all number of religious beliefs instilled on them with as many parents just itching to make a complaint that you’ve isulted their religion.

    • Hello everybody i am computer teacher in a primary class in my point of view you have to believe yourself and make confident to everyone.
      In reply to #7 by SaganTheCat:

      you gave the correct answer.

      equally if you were teaching a science class and a student asked what you thought the outcome of an experiment would be, the same answer applies; “what do you think?” or if writing up an equation in maths and someone asks what you think the answer is. equally an english teacher should not be expected to tell students what to write in their book report

      a teachers job is to present the facts required to do the work and the facts should be delivered through the teacher not from them so if a studend asks “how do you know…?” you can expain how the facts were gathered rather than say “i just know”.

      RE is especially sensitive to opinion though. a class will have all number of religious beliefs instilled on them with as many parents just itching to make a complaint that you’ve isulted their religion.

    • Unless you’re teaching comparative religions, I’m not sure to what “facts” you refer. I thought it was all opinion?In reply to #10 by Nodhimmi:

      Simple- you are there to teach facts, not give opinions. I recall a number of incidents where teachers gave me their unwanted “opinions”

      • Lol yeah. But if you say that whether Jesus died on the cross for our sins or not is /i in fact i/ a subjective matter of opinion, you’ve got employment problems. This is covered over by saying ‘for Christians’ indiscriminately and repetitively, however.

        In reply to #16 by Nitya:

        Unless you’re teaching comparative religions, I’m not sure to what “facts” you refer. I thought it was all opinion?In reply to #10 by Nodhimmi:

        Simple- you are there to teach facts, not give opinions. I recall a number of incidents where teachers gave me their unwanted “opinions”

  7. I think most people here have made good points. Allow me to throw my two cents in:

    The reason teaching critical thinking is so important is because, if competently applied, one will come to correct conclusions using it. Conclusions one can trace all the way back in a chain of reasoning to first principles. This is extremely valuable, not least of all because it makes one aware that this is even possible. A tremendous proportion of the earth’s population don’t have the slightest idea of the difference between a rational argument and emotional persuasion.

    If you look closely, you can probably start to see why that’s essentially the root of almost ALL human problems. Every student that can be wrenched away from the authoritative model of knowledge transfer is one more individual who will stand up and say “No!” when everybody else is sitting down, blindly nodding their heads at the dishonest intonations of corrupt ideologues with no interest whatsoever in what is best for their listeners.

    I don’t have to explain to anybody here why that’s a good thing.

  8. It depends on the age of the students. I am fully with the consensus up to a certain age, but there is a level of maturity at which covert biases need to be acknowledged. Everyone has cognitive biases at some level and it is as well that all should research, understand and acknowledge their own biases/dispositions by every means possible and come to understand those in others.

    I am wired for left of centre morality I think and frequently make jokes about Rethuglicans. But logically I have to accept that people are wired in varieties of ways and right wing morality values attributes of authority, loyalty and purity as important as those of harm and equality, which two are enough for me. Logically I can see that my values suit a low risk environment allowing social experiment and invention, thus favouring progress and cultural evolution. My right wing friends however are better wired for dark and dangerous times, when conservation of social capital is the safer option. Having cognitive “skews” like these extant in the population may be our salvation allowing societies to better respond to misfortune or exploit good fortune as required.

    I wish for teachers to be able to talk in these terms when appropriate. Feigning neutrality at some point is dishonest and can give a false impression of the neutrality of what you say. Talking of abortion say, I have a strong personal antipathy to it for entirely personal reasons but I have no substantial reason to deny any woman full rights to her own body and all that entails. If forced to talk about it, I think it is fair to warn people about my own risk of cognitive bias on the subject. It may undercut the power of what I have to say, but it is more honest in my view. It is more honest to say up front my morality centres on harms and equality more that any other attribute. Any group activity is greatly aided by the contributing parties being honest about the quality of the information they impart. Admissions of possible bias, I contend, is the one great unloved habit we all should seek to acquire. Schoolteachers could only gift this by example.

  9. I don’t think it matters whether the topic creator is an atheist or not. Most of the advice here are universally applicable and it’s hypocritical to apply different rules & standards to different people just because we disagree with them.

  10. I had an RE teacher who was very good at keeping his views secretive. He definitely saw RE as about cataloguing religions’ properties from a non-judgmental perspective. Not only did I never find out what religious views he had (if any), but he was so evasive of some other questions as to annoy me. For example, since ethics comes up in RE lessons, I felt the need to ask him whether he thought morals were objective or subjective. He said – this really annoyed me at the time, but I guess now I can see what he was up to – that some were objective whereas others were subjective. Then there was the time a few of us went on a field trip to learn about international debt and the case for cancelling it, and we had to write an essay about it. He crossed out one of my more vehemently anti-American clauses for not being neutral enough.

  11. It may feel like waffling but it is the right answer from an education standpoint, i think. Not to mention the possible shitstorm you might evoke if you were to answer in favor of one side or the other.

  12. You responded in the most professional manner. To do otherwise, there is just no knowing what the consequences might be. Youngsters are adept at going home and saying “My teacher said……” and a throw-away remark or comment could get you into hot water. Present them with the argument and let them make up their own minds. Unfortunately, the god-botherers have no intention of doing this themselves.

  13. It really bugs me that this sort of moral relativism has become so deeply embedded in the education system.

    Abortion is better than infanticide or having unwanted children, but contraception is even better.

  14. Additional comments motivated by some of those preceding:

    Presumably the connection between personal beliefs and opinion is that the former strongly influences the latter and that the latter might (or might not) illuminate beliefs.

    You raise the question of “should”. Another question to consider is whether it is possible to keep the teacher’s beliefs out of the classroom, or whether the teacher has the discipline, preparation or ability to do it. One’s beliefs could influence the questions that are or are not posed to students, or the teacher’s willingness or ability to frame them.

  15. I must say that that was an excellent way of handling the situation. When it comes to Religious education I think that with students under the age of 16, or those which lack maturity or individualism, personal views should be left out. However when conversing with young adults, it is more than appropriate to tell them your opinion, as long as they understand it is YOUR opinion.

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