Why including social sciences is important when delivering good RE

Historically, RE teaching has sometimes fallen foul of the relevance trap. As many young people in our classrooms are not religious, teachers have tried to make RE relevant to students by trying to relate the subject matter to the lived experience of students; topics on the old GCSE specification didn’t help; ‘religion and sport’ and ‘religion and the media’ certainly did not lead to the academically rigorous framework that contains what Michael Young calls ‘powerful knowledge’ so that students are able to engage critically with the nature of religion and belief.  

In our book, Making every RE lesson count, to counter this approach we discuss how RE might be considered a multi-disciplinary subject and suggest that Theology, Philosophy and Social Sciences are three possible lenses through which to frame it.  We also explore the idea that students have their own lens through which they view the world and that often students often come to the RE classroom believing that their view of the world is right or the same as everyone else’s.  This is because their view of the world is limited by their life experiences and learning. Using the social science discipline in our teaching allows students to understand the relevance of religion and belief for different individuals and groups in society in an academically challenging and rigorous way and also helps them to critique their own world view as well as the world views of others.

We define the social science lens as ‘Questions about the way that religion and beliefs are lived and the impact they can have at an individual, communal and societal level’ p8.  

The 2021 Census is a great opportunity for RE teachers to put this lens into practice. The census provides us with both the substantive knowledge (the results and statistics) and the disciplinary knowledge (how we can use this data as a social scientist) to provide us with a framework for being able to examine in academically, the nature of religion and belief and how this is changing over time.  

I, like many RE teachers across the country, am waiting with baited breath to read the results.  What will it tell us about the position of religion and belief in society today?  How has it changed in the last 10 years?  Whilst in the past, I would have probably talked about it – and we would probably have discussed that the results show that religion is in decline.  However, this approach could reinforce the idea that RE is not relevant and I now see that as a wasted opportunity to expose students to the complexity behind the statistics and to engage in debate about the relevance of religion to our society today.

In the classroom, I might start by introducing students to the 2001 and the 2011 census data asking them to notice and interpret the data, just as a social scientist would do.   I might give them graphs to interpret, or the statistics themselves which would expose them to the different ways that social scientists would examine the data. I might then ask them to predict what the data would say in 2021 before exposing them to the data itself. I would get them to question the data; and provide them with evidence from other sources like the annual British Attitudes survey to compare it to. By giving the students the substantive social science knowledge, I am giving them the facts and statistics with which to engage in debate about what is going on in the world around them.

But I wouldn’t stop there, exposing them to the data is only one part of looking through the social science lens.  I would need them to think about how others would view the data and ask them to weigh up which views hold the most merit.  I might ask them to read sources surrounding the idea of secularisation, and the different interpretations of that from Marx or Durkheim.  I might introduce them to the work of Grace Davie who points out the complexity of religion and belief in her 2015 work ‘Religion in Britain, a persistent paradox’ and contrast this with the writings of the New Atheists; Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris or the work of Steve Bruce; his provocatively titled ‘God is dead’ would provide a great controversial statement for students to be able to look at the data and evaluate the evidence.  

By evaluating the social science data, introducing them to the way that sociologists would view this data and then asking them to critique these responses, we are ensuring that students are engaged in high quality thinking about the complexity, diversity and plurality of religion and belief. It also allows them to debate intelligently with each other in an informed way, the importance of religion in twenty-first century Britain and shows, very clearly, the relevance of what we are studying.

About the authors

Louise Hutton is an experienced teacher of RE who is currently an assistant head teacher at a large comprehensive school in Poole, where she also leads on staff development and teaching and learning. She is passionate about ensuring that her colleagues are research-informed and focused on high-quality teaching strategies in their subject areas.

Dawn Cox has been teaching RE for 20 years and is currently a head of department in Essex. She has held many other roles in and out of RE, including advanced skills teaching and senior leadership roles, and also runs a local RE network. Dawn regularly presents at national and international conferences, including researchED and specialist events such as Strictly RE.

Louise and Dawn’s new book Making Every RE Lesson Count: Six principles to support religious education teaching (Crown House Publishing, 2021) is out now and available here

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