Thursday, 26 November 2015

Are RS teachers qualified enough?

RS, for those not in the UK, is Religious Studies.

It's a mandatory part of the curriculum, and for a fairly good reason; it teaches about various different religions to foster tolerance in young people. I've heard it was brought about in reaction to the problems caused by intolerances leading up to World War 2, and the tragedies that brought about.

Essentially it's hard to demonise a particular religious group if your target knows more about them. Propaganda dissolves in the face of hard facts and reason.

The idea is to teach children about all the different religions out there, as well as tackle the fun questions of faith, belief, reasons for ceremony, and all the other ornamentation we add on to going to our place of worship a few times a week (in my case, the local hobby shop).

That wasn't my experience at school, and largely coloured my views on religion.

I went to a Catholic school, and right away a number of you have already made up your minds what the problem was. It was only somewhat like you're imagining, but I wasn't the lone brave atheist in the school outspoken against the oppressive religious regime, like so many other internet personalities claim.

My story is a little more mundane. I think the breadth of what we should have been taught was cut a little bit for more depth on Bible studies. I never learnt about other religious customs, but that's not to say I was indoctrinated, or to say that I didn't learn the value of respecting other cultures... it was only done through a certain lens, and usually attached to a parable or Old Testament story.

Not bad teaching by any means. Context is important, and the Bible is excellent for setting context.

The problem for me was not being able to perform the necessary step from reading to believing. There was always a disconnect there. I could cite stories from the Bible, and talk about what they meant, and why what they were teaching was a god idea. But I could never link it to reality. To me it was simply discussing Lord of the Rings or Narnia. Fun, but not really, well real.

Eventually I taught myself to stop thinking about it, and just regurgitate for tests. It got me through primary school, and enough of the way through Secondary school to eventually leave it behind. But I'm sure that most RS teachers are feeling ashamed that a student went through their school life just knowing rather than understanding, just as I do when I get an adult coming to me saying they know nothing about Science.

The issue was that my original RS teachers only knew about theology. It was what they knew to talk about. And because they couldn't talk about morality and diversity of cultures through any other lens other than Christianity, they couldn't get me to engage with the topics.

This was brought into focus again for me just a few days ago. I was leaving a meeting from one classroom, and as I sped past an open door on my way to the next lesson (teachers very rarely have time to just walk), I was called into an RS lesson.

The teacher asked my bluntly; "What is love?"

"Baby don't hurt me," I replied, to the grins of some of the more internet savvy students. Physics banter is becoming notorious in the school.

She asked again for love in terms of Science, so I asked for clarity; were we talking about bio-chemistry or evolutionary reasons?

I think she chose evolutionary reasons as it was the jargon she was more familiar with.

I've taught Biology. Questions like this are fun to toss around a class, building up understanding!

So I start off by going through how love could be used to keep familial groups together, to preserve genetic material, branching off into speculation about committed relationships and their value to a species survival, hinting at studies showing how humans are not naturally monogamous and so on, until she stopped the conversation to bring up consciousness.

Basically, does the physical brain impact on the mind.

It's a very weak question, and one that Science has answered in great detail, if not fully answered yet.

And so I go off again, talking about brain chemistry, and how moods are affected by hormones and other chemical signals, discussing how parts of the brain affect your personality and some of the case studies of accidental lobotomies changing how people act, and touching upon some of the nifty ways you alter your own brain chemistry to change your own state of minds (but only when you hit 18, I remind the students), when she interrupted the conversation again to talk about sentient machines.

Basically, are humans just sentient machines...

At this point it dawned on me that she was expecting an admission of ignorance. She was looking for me, as a representative of Science to put my hands up and declare, "I don't know."

It went on like this for the rest of the lesson before the bell reminded me I hadn't got my copying done for my own classes, but at this point the RS teacher was already literally banging on the desk looking for a gap in my knowledge.

I wasn't forthcoming. And I'm not even a real scientist.

There is an awful lot I don't know, how people think that a degree in Gender Studies prepares them for a paid job being chief among them. But at no point did her questions and probes come even close to finding these gaps.

I still don't even know what discovering this gap was meant to prove. Science doesn't know everything, therefore there's room for something supernatural? It seems like great lengths to go for a God of the gaps fallacy. Simple open challenge to the new teacher by an established teacher who feels threatened? As an Newly Qualified Teacher in a different department, I have no idea why such a challenge should be needed.

Motive aside, why would these questions which have a plethora of research about to choose from be considered bait? As I said, this is not even my field, and yet I have still read about them, watched summative videos, and sifted through some raw data to understand the issues. Why, if you re teaching them, do you consider them to be tough for another adult to, if not answer, at least point a student to where the answers lie.

Either way, on my way out I gave my usual, "If you want to know more, the Science block is over there."

Purely anecdotal, and something I'm going to look into a bit more: are RS teachers really qualified to teach these issues in class. It seems to me that you should at least be aware of the Scientific research going on about this particular topic.

It also means that perhaps RS as a course, particularly for A level, is potentially ineffective for what students really want to learn. They would be better served by Biology classes, where some real evidence can be used for context.

This is more a ramble that any serious questions. But I just wonder if RS teachers are really prepared for the sheer weight of research in their field... and if they are really equipped to understand and teach it. How many students are lost by the teacher not being able to link what they study to the real world?

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