Religion in the Classroom: How to respond when a lesson takes an unexpected turn

By Jen Johnson

As teachers, many of us have been there – delivering a wonderful lesson in which the learning objectives are beautifully fulfilled, the differentiation has worked like a dream…but then completely out of nowhere a student throws in a question about religion and morals. A question you have not prepared for and do not feel equipped to answer.

The instinct in these sorts of situations can sometimes be one of self-preservation. One in which you fall back on, “There isn’t enough time to discuss it now, but we will later” before promising to yourself to never raise the issue again.

However, this approach is not showcasing the best of what we do. These unexpected questions, far from being unwelcome, are one of those beautiful classroom moments. Those moments when you have inspired a young person to make connections between your lesson and some big philosophical ideas. When a young person raises their hand and says, “But doesn’t the Bible say being gay is wrong?’ or “Does the Qur’an promote terrorism?” you know you are doing a brilliant job.

But the fear of engaging is entirely understandable. As Matthew Yellin points out, when it comes to religion, all too often ‘good teachers in good classrooms shut down real inquiry for fear of addressing the whys and hows…and the opportunity to learn from each other is lost.’ Religious education in England is based on the view that students should not just be learning about religion, but from it. Through discussion around religion we can come to a greater understanding about ourselves, our purpose, the world we live in and the moral code we choose to live by. By shutting down these types of questions we miss out on an incredible opportunity to make a real difference to a young person’s life.

But where do you start? When faced with one of these complex and often daunting questions, where do you even begin?

Start with where the young people are at

The question has been raised for a reason. The young person has heard or experienced something that has triggered this train of thought. There is always great power in asking why somebody has asked a particular question and, of course, what they believe the answer is. This should give you all the information you need to assess what the real learning opportunity is and what you may need to cover in your answer. For example, when a young person raises a question about religion promoting sexism, is it about something they have read in a religious text or a personal experience they have had? The answer to this will have great implications for the way in which you approach the topic and may require taking a moment to learn more about a particular holy book or cultural tradition.

Take a moment

Teachers are not omnipotent, nor should we want to be. Lat Blaylock of RE Today suggests that when we are unsure how to answer a question a great response would be, “I don’t know the answer to this, I embrace the mystery, I treasure this question even though I haven’t got a clue about it.” This models to young people that it is OK to not know something but that questions are wonderful things and that, through inquiry, we may find our own answers. This may mean putting off a question for a few hours to think about how you could best respond or even taking a week to research and develop a lesson to address it. It is important that you do not let a question go unanswered.

Encourage critical thinking

Remember that when planning to answer a question your main aim is to encourage inquiry and mutual understanding, not for all your students to become experts in every religion. To do this we must be willing to explore and judge religious concepts. As Lynn Davies notes we can often be put off approaching such topics because we have a ‘fear of offending hard-line religious or cultural groups, because this is seen as intolerant.’ Davies, however, believes that in order to create a just society it is our duty to evaluate all philosophies, including religious ones. She promotes approaching religious ideas (be they our own or others) with ‘critical respect’. As with any world view, religion should not be kept in a sacred, untouchable space but should be open to inquiry, dialogue and respectful criticism.

Create a safe space

Whether the answer to a pertinent but difficult question is tackled immediately after being asked or after much planning, it is always important to create a safe space for discussion. Religious views can sometimes be at the very heart of an individual’s identity and a perceived attack on a person’s faith can be seen as an attack on them personally. Create an environment in which young people have the language to engage in respectful discussion and have clear ground rules about what is/is not acceptable to say.

Don’t feel that you must be neutral

It is also important to remember that you don’t need to be neutral yourself when discussing difficult topics. Take time to think about your standpoint and whether you would like to share this with your students. Think about how you can do this in a way that celebrates the diversity of our opinions and models how we can still be respectful and inquisitive concerning other’s. Richmond, Thomas and McCroskey have evidenced that this sort of pedagogical approach, in which we have a degree of openness with young people, is likely to enhance student’s learning. It is however worth noting the expectations that are placed upon us as practitioners in the UK. Ultimately any discussion that takes place needs to be based on our duty to eliminate discrimination and foster good relations between people.

For more information on discussing controversial issues with young people take a look at our complimentary teaching resources here.

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