After world religions: a conversation with Dr David Lewin

(cross posted with the NICER blog)

I am really pleased to be able to publish this special Advent conversation with Dr David Lewin of Strathclyde university. I had been wanting to talk to David for a while, ever since hearing a paper he gave at a symposium on reduction and the curriculum. More recently he got in touch about a project he is working on looking at religious education in schools might learn from the movement away from the world religions paradigm of teaching in higher education. That might come as a bit of a shock for RE teachers where World Religions has tended to be seen as a more progressive approach than other approaches but perhaps Lewin is revealing that the school subject has more to learn from academic developments and Lewin’s own insights are interesting. In this video we touch on this issue and also a number of other related topics.

David’s related publications:

Lewin, D. (2020) “Religion, Reductionism and Pedagogical Reduction”. In Biesta and Hannam (eds.) Religion and Education. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill | Sense. doi:…

Lewin, D. (2020) Reimagining the RE/RS Curriculum, in The BASR Bulletin, the British Association for the Study of Religions. Available at:…

Lewin, D. (2020) Between horror and boredom: fairy tales and moral education, Ethics and Education, 15:2, 213-231, DOI: 10.1080/17449642.2020.1731107

Lewin, D. (2018) Toward a Theory of Pedagogical Reduction: Selection, Simplification, and Generalization in an Age of Critical Education. Educational Theory, 68: 495-512.

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Research ethics, rule-following and schools

I recently reviewed an article reporting some research conducted in a school by teachers. One of the issues I feed back on was the school’s rules round research and how the author wrote about research ethics. The approach was to state that the researcher had followed the guidelines of the school it’s requirements in terms of research. The school policy was that they could conduct any research the school needed for its work without consulting parents. So no consent was sought from parents , or for that matter from pupils.

A number of issues arose from this. Research ethics seemed to be interpreted as following the legislation and policy of the school institution. If the organisation permitted it, it was fine. One of the dimensions of research ethics at my university is the involvement on the committee of members of the public external to the institution. Another was that the research we do is in accordance to established practices in education research, guided heavily by the BERA research ethics code. BERA is a very large research association that has a highly regarded ethics code. Now failure to follow ethics codes has significant consequences for researchers. In extreme cases they may be excluded from applying for some research grants. There is a professional consequence.

In English schools there has been an explosion of interest in research-led or evidence led teaching and a welcome encouraging of teachers to undertake research. This has always been encouraged although the shape of it has changed. When I started work in higher education in 2003, large numbers of teachers undertook Education Masters degrees with a strong research component that was usually based on their own school. The numbers doing masters programmes declined as fees went up and bursaries disappeared though many teachers still undertake research with a university providing ethics approval as part of structured postgraduate teaching programmes including many at doctoral level.

What is clear is that research ethics is not an internal matter, because ethics is not an internal matter. Codes of conduct needs to be observed in research processes and as we encourage more professionals to undertake research, we need to be sure that there are appropriate ethical frameworks in place to protect the participants, the researchers and everyone affected.

Of course, schools can undertake their own reports and look at data and must develop their practice, in ways that might include experimentation of non-medical kinds. However, in stating that something is research, it should have gone through a robust ethics process and been carried out in ethically appropriate ways. Research ethics is not the same as organisational rule-following.

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Cox questions Bowie (reposted)

Dawn Cox, Subject leader for RS in a secondary school in Essex and familiar contributor online with her highly regarded blog, has interviewed me on a Teams chat. She asks me great questions about hermeneutics, disciplinarity and texts in the classroom and I share some of my thinking and we exchange ideas. It was a great chance to explore some issues which seem to be at the forefront of our subject conversation.

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COVID 19 has reversed our values and vices: Was Aristotle right and Plato wrong? Does morality need wealth?

In my professional communities, certain words tend to be viewed as out and out goods (intrinsically good – good in and of themselves we would say in the ethics business).

The pre Covid 19 virtues. These words include autonomy, diversity, individual expression, inclusion and cohesion.

  • Autonomy tends to mean doing what we want to do and that tends to lead to diversity, doing things differently from one another.
  • Inclusion is about a virtue of hospitality or welcome, recognition, enabling all to feel they have a part. Cohesion is about people getting on.
  • Individual expression is about creativity, revealing yourself in the way you see fit.

Of course in truth, these rub up against one another. Hermits who choose to do their own thing don’t want to be included. Diversity can lead to disharmony, not cohesion. But achieving a consistent set of values is easier said than done.

Then we have the pre Covid19 vices.

  • Segregation and exclusion (separating people, keeping them apart in groups)
  • Uniformity (all doing the same thing, conservatism)
  • Communal priority of individuality (where the group tell the individual what to do)
  • Restriction of freedom and modesty (in terms of movement, expression, dress codes etc).

At least these were the designations before Covid 19. Now the vices are virtues and vice versa

Covid 19 Virtues

  • Segregation and exclusion (keeps people safe from each other especially the vulnerable)
  • Uniformity (we must prevent deviation from the safe behaviour which is for the good of all)
  • Communal priority of individuality (individual freedom is sacrificed for protecting the lives of the many)
  • Restriction of freedom and modesty (your own identity expression is less important that keeping others safe).

Covid 19 Vices

  • Autonomy is irresponsible and blatantly harmful to others.
  • Inclusion threatens the most vulnerable.
  • Individual expression undermines the survival of the community.

Context is all?

So much for universal virtues! What is striking is that the virtues or values must be placed in context to be understood. The change in context seems to be behind the changing moral status of these ideas. So does this mean that values or virtues and vices are always contextual because the good life is always subject to the conditions? Maybe Aristotle was right about the good existing in context in this world and not above the world as his tutor (Plato) thought.

And does this mean our old virtues were the produce of privilege (the peacetime, stable and friendly wealthy existence we used to have?). Now we face threats to our safety and security, are the true virtues emerging? Are our old virtues conditional to wealth, which would mean our condemnation of the vices we see in others might just be the produce of ignorance of what it means to live in uncertainty and danger?

Do we now have something to learn from traditions that previously disagreed with the virtues I listed, traditions that praised some of the vices? Conservative religious traditions would not have agreed with my list. Is there something in what we can learn from how Covid 19 changes our perspective that might challenge our preconceived sorting of virtues and vices. As I look at a country which until recently was deeply suspicious of face-covering in cultures and religions, and now see face covering as standard, I wonder: Was there a hidden value to the things commonly judged as vices which we did not see before?

One unpalatable observation from an old Bible story is that the Good Samaritan in the story had money to pay the in keeper to look after the beaten up strange by the side of the road. He was wealthy! Today our Good Samaritans need face masks and PPE or they become threats to others.

Are you feeling uncomfortably ethical yet?

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Videos on Liberation Theology for teachers

Videos on Liberation Theology for Schools teaching A Level Religious Studies

These videos introduce some of the key ideas around Liberation Theology. They have been made to help schools that teach Liberation Theology, a topic on some A Level Religious Studies programmes. They are quite short and provide a general scholarly introduction with some extracts from the primary sources of Liberation Theology Scholars.  I am indebted to my Catholic Theology Professor, Patrick Sherry who taught me Liberation Theology when I was studying my Masters Degree. Occasionally you can see the handwritten notes from those classes 25 years ago! He published a short guide called “What is Liberation Theology?” in 1985 which can be purchased for a few pounds. 

Video 1 puts Liberation Theology in the context of Vatican II and the political and social context of Latin America
Video 2 outlines the ‘method’ of Liberation Theology
Video 2b is an extract on ‘theological method’ by Gutierrez
Video 3 introduces the key ideas in Liberation Theology
Video 4 focusses on Gustavo Gutierrez
Video 5 is a short reading from Gutierrez’s conclusion in A Theology of Liberation
Video 6 is a Short reading from Boff which criticises religious authorities
Video 7 explores criticism of Liberation Theology
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From face to face to online in one weekend

“Never has so much been done, so quickly, to educate so many. Big shout out for the half a million teachers who taught 9 million UK children online today in what will go down as the most extraordinary education evolution in our history. (excuse rough figures)”

That was my last tweet today and it really is an extraordinary change. Last week teachers were teaching children in classrooms. This week they said hello online. No time to train or test the platforms. No time to perfect methods. They just had to get on with it. And they did. The UK has followed other countries in what will stand as the biggest education experiment in the history of state education.

There will be many questions. How will our poorest children far – do they have anything like the technology they need to do this? How will the digital platforms hold up? What about the online resources?

However, over the last few days, there are many many examples of resources being made open and free for all to use, teachers have been buying computer screens and finding a corner of their homes to work from, often with their own children to keep an eye on too.

This is a global effort to ensure that school and its power enable young people to get on in life, is deployed even during this terrible moment in public health.

We’ve asked the impossible of our teachers, schools and school leaders and they have done what they always do, and delivered it.

I salute you all.

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The new context

My household has a secondary Maths teacher, two children both of secondary age and me, a university researcher in Education. The schools closed on Friday and last week my research centre moved to virtual working. The children have been studying at home since Monday, when the UK government advised households that if 1 or more members had one or more symptoms of Covid 19 they should self isolate for 14 days. So we are on day 10.

The radical shift in education ‘delivery’ is quite something. The children have moved onto working with their laptops (we are lucky that both have these). My wife has the challenge of learning how to teach virtual classes through a small laptop screen. She is learning as the lessons are coming. Microsoft Teams is a program we are all using now.

For the research centre, we have to change what we do. First I need to check in with the teams and see how they are faring. In the background to all of this, our lives are being restructured as we all move to a more restricted degree of liberty, and all learn to live with the new uncertainty.

Then there are practical matters. First, is the question of whether researchers have a home environment from which they can work and whether they have the technology to be able to learn. So essentially this is a capacity checking situation. Second, we need to look at our proposed projects as now the university has prohibited all face to face external research activities. So our interviewing and focus groups must go online. Our research is mainly with schools and teachers so, of course, they are physically closed. This means, in the first instance, that we should consider postponing and also moving over to a virtual data collection method. Third, I must write to funders and also report to the university on how the new situation impacts us, asking permission for the changes we need to make. Finally, I am thinking about all the events and meetings that we will now have through computers. What do we run with? What do we postpone?

I wonder about this radical experiment in homeschooling/homeworking. That is extraordinary but I fear for those who do not have 1 computer per person. The poorest are already going to be suffering.

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Reposting Every child deserves an opportunity at school to discover the language for making sense of their world

By Dr Robert A Bowie

First posted here:

The Final Report of the Commission on Religious Education, which was established in 2016 to review the legal, educational and policy frameworks for Religious Education (RE) has now been published. This is another landmark moment in a recent history littered with major proposals for subject currently called religious education (RE). Previous recent contributions include:

Living With Difference: Report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life  and the RE for Real report by Adam Dinam and Martha Shaw in 2015 ). There were two reports informally known as the Clark Woodhead reports, first in 2015, revised in 2018;
The Big Ideas in RE report in 2017 edited by Barbara Wintersgill was produced in 2017 and also the book of collected essays, We need to talk about RE edited by Mike Castelli and Mark Chater in 2017.

The rapid change in the visibility and shape of religion and belief in life has raised questions about the content and disciplines of the subject (what should be studied, how it should be studied and to what ends). The unusual legislative framework for RE which devolves responsibility for curriculum design to local authorities or, in the case of schools of a religious character, recognised religious authorities, has not been modernised. There is no national curriculum for RE and changes in school organisations, especially acadamisation, has left the legislation out of date with many schools abandoning RE because it falls in the gap between their independent status as an Academy and the curriculum legislation which presumes local authority oversight. These are two prominent reasons for the many reports proposing changes.

This report is significantly different from the rest in that it was established by the REC, a charity which gathers together all of the stakeholders in the subject field, and was given independence from the Charity. It came after an interim report and extensive national consultation. This must stand as one of the most extensive consultation exercises for any subject and it would be fascinating to know the method of sifting through that evidence and the patterns of findings that came from it. That information is not in the report so we do not know how or to what extent the findings of that consultation impacted on the report. I say this because there is also a significant political issue and interest at stake about the question about state control over national subjects, local government control and religious community involvement (through schools of a religious character) . To these three groups can be added Multi Academy Trusts, a forth entity with interest.

So in terms of consultation, as well as the court of public opinion, there are the relative interests in groups who might wish to shape how citizens perceive ultimate questions about the world and the ways of life and traditions of faith that engage those questions offering answers. Somewhere in all of this is also those held responsible for implementing the subject – the leaders of schools and classroom teacher who have the job of teaching our next generation. It makes for a cluttered group of people who have a big stake in all this.

The report comes from a group of commissioners appointed by the Religious Education Council but independent of it. The Commissioners included representatives with primary and secondary teaching experience, school leadership experience, government education experience and legal and organisational experience. It also included a significant academic gathering from leading universities involved in religion and education.

Much of the media attention has been around the term ‘Worldviews’ with headlines leading with comments that ‘now atheism and secularism should be studied’. This is a misrepresentation of the report but it shows the degree of distance between the public understanding of the subject and reporters in the media, and the reality, fanned by the complicated legislative framework. In fact, atheism, secularism and worldviews associated with Marxism and Freudian understandings have been directly treated by RE lessons in schools for many years, appearing on exams for decades. Schools have been able to teach humanism with units of work supplied and incorporated into local curricula for very many years. Atheism and agnosticism have been key areas of debate in RE classrooms for decades, probably since the very beginning. Perhaps the reporting is an indication of why a report such as this is needed, given the surprising levels of ignorance revealed in the public understanding of the subject which is shown by the need to report it in this way. Either that or our media are particularily religiously illiterate, which might also be true. Or maybe these headlines were just pitched to feed a click bait hungry news consumer who needs to be hooked in.

The use of the term Worldviews is a marker on a journey from an early subject name, Religious Instruction which contained a presumption, or at least an inference, that the purpose of the subject was to shape the faith of the pupils. In other countries, the adoption of that term has also marked a shift in the subject alongside the social development from a time when religion and the state were closely associated to one where religious plurality was more formally incorporated into common life.  The subject formally known as RE could be seen as containing within it, some reflection of the relationship between the state and religion and an implicit ambition to make that widely understood.

However, I think there is a much more a significant reading to this development. The phrase Worldviews could be interpreted as meaning ‘there is no view from nowhere’. There is no neutrality. It points to a hermeneutical understanding that, however, we reason about the world, and whether or not there is meaning and purpose to our lives, we stand somewhere and read the world from a point, through experiences we have had, shaped by social patterns we are given and maybe hardly aware of. Every child deserves an opportunity to spend some time in their education really thinking deeply about that and exploring accounts of meaning and ways of living that have tried to make sense of it. Every child deserves the opportunity to discover the language that makes sense of how they can make sense of their world. Schools that fail to make that provision are not only failing to provide this opportunity – they fall in danger of an implicit and undeclared kind of indoctrination that seeps out throughout the rest of the school experience, that goes unscrutinised and unexamined. This is the deadly road to the unexamined life and all educators, I would say, have a duty to guard against that. It is here that I believe the divergent subject interest groups in RE converge, at the point of an entitlement for every child to step into this kind of exploration that is fundamentally human and basic.

Far too many schools are not making this provision so we need to make it more straightforward for them to do this in good ways, and make it easier to hold those responsible for ensuring this happens. The idea of a national entitlement, inscribed in law and robustly maintained, is a great one.

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Reposting “A moment in English Religious Education history”

A reposting of the blog I wrote recently on my university blog site

The final report of the Commission for Religious Education is about to be published. The independent commission was established by the Religious Education Council, the lead organisation and charity that operates as an umbrella forum for all of the RE interest groups across England, educational, religious, and scholarly. What will it say? How will the different stakeholders of religious education respond? RE in England faces a diverging set of challenges and here I want to look at 4 that interest me.

Challenge 1: Historic Christianity and contemporary non-religious affiliation

One the one hand there is the question mark placed by the context where Christianity has a lead position in the curriculum and the Church an established historic significant presence in the governance of state-funded schooling. This position as a primary provider of schools was accentuated by the central government led to move to give ‘school sponsors’ more responsibility than local government. At the same time, studies suggest the majority of the English public do not self-identify with a religious group. Pluralism and diversity is vibrantly present in British cultural life. Critics of organised religion say now is the time to strip the Church of their position, but the education environment is that it is one where communities have been given more of a leading position and more responsibility to deliver than ever before. As far as forms of organised communities go, religion remains prominent and provides an organisation structure which government can turn to for accountability measures. With public money comes built-in regulatory and accountability systems.

Challenge 2: Diversity and multiculturalism vs subject knowledge.

It is well known that RE is perceived as a political tool for community cohesion and common values and surely it has an important role to play in educating children about the world of faiths and worldviews around them. But diversity presents a problem for subject knowledge. It is hard enough to find good RE teachers who have a strong specialist knowledge in one religion to confidently and competently talk about diversity within that faith, let alone strong specialism in many religions (not to mention a confident understanding of the emerging thinking around nones atheisms, secularisms and so on). In the worst cases the chopping up of religions into common categories has created a colonial restructuring of religion into helpful but largely misrepresentative chunks of curriculum content and arguably performed a kind of colonisation of the knowledge with some ordering theory or another. There are strong calls better-educated teachers of RE and England and is quite remarkable in the development world in how quickly we train teachers and how short our higher education qualifications are. I wonder when the financial context will be good enough for that. When finances were strong there was little appetite for longer degrees though there was a much greater investment in teacher development through subsided Masters programmes. And this leads us on to ….

Challenge 3: The lack of agreement over the organising structure of knowledge.

A subject needs and organising structure of knowledge if progression and effective assessment is to be possible. To know what progress is, we need more than lists of stuff known, but actually, something about the particular nature of knowing that makes an analysis one that illuminates coherently, in an organised and orderly and consistent way. If we can’t agree on that consistency then we can’t agree on what a good argument is or indeed, a good explanation or a good evaluation.

Religions and belief systems, worldviews as some call them, do not offer identical modes of knowing, they do not all share a common organising structure of knowledge. The mode of knowing is the ordering system of knowledge, the method behind the maths solution, the hermeneutical mode, the thing that determines whether something is valued or not and so sets the rules for evaluation. This makes comparability difficulty and so what tends to happen is an adoption of some sort of functionalist mentality, which is, itself an organising system of knowledge that is external to the knowledge. My suggestion is that ‘being Buddhist’ is not the same kind of being as ‘being Christian’. Is the subject content to be ordered in the service of some unacknowledged meaning-making structure, or is the whole point to gain an understanding of the meaning-making structure that is within a religion and belief system? This is an observation I am making and I would be interested to hear challenges to it. I just observe the multiplicity of methods in religious studies.

For RE, the pressure to assert a meaning-making structure on top of the ‘religions content’ is not just political, not just coming from a desire to promote ‘moderate religion’, or shared values, or some other secular intention, but it is also to create something that can be consistently assessed. Accountability generates its own colonisation of the form. Accountability matters but it can also distort and have unintended consequences if it is not in an appropriate relationship with the knowledge more generally, think of the power of league table performance measure systems and the impact this has had in the past for directing schools to focus on the boundaries of improvement most desired by the awarding system. When assessment priveledges the wrong kind of knowledge structure it becomes distortive. I worry that happens in some of the GCSE Religious Questions that get asked. (To read more about this have a look at a co-written article with Richard Coles here).

Challenge 4 – The struggle with personal and impersonal dimensions of structures of knowledge

This is a real sensitive spot for RE. The historical debates about the fear of indoctrination and the desire for an educationally ordered subject has had a particular impact on the knowledge debate. Intellectually, and hermeneutically, it is simply not tenable to argue that (crudely put) an individual person’s particular experience and brain operation doesn’t shape what they perceive (you can choose philosophers, neuroscientists or psychologists to find compelling arguments). In research, the battle between positionality and subjectivity versus positivism and objectivity is a lively one. Religious and non-religious worldviews are interior matters (as well as exterior ones).  So the ‘innerspace’ of the spiritual life of the person is writ large in impact on RE. Yet engagement with spiritual practice, a key mode of knowing, is something we find controversial to navigate, though many would argue children naturally have spiritual lives. To explore trust and commitment, like friendship, requires the development of an understanding which is attenuated by inner acts of will – you need to ‘step into’, to some degree, to appreciate. You simply can’t ‘get’ the spiritual conception of silence if you have never ‘done’ silence. I think a significant aspect of knowing in RE comes in practical elements, like PE, art, or music, or for that matter citizenship. But this presents challenges for us. Sometimes the resistance to recognising this reality leads to an overly positivist understanding of our subject which seems to lock spirituality out of it altogether. We need to find a way back into those experiments that Experiential RE opened up.

My suggestion is that whatever model of RE we have, we should encourage all students to become proficient in at least two systems of knowledge construction around the data of religion that are related to their foci of study. In England, students will encounter other subjects that construct data from religion in their ways (history being an obvious example) and for many years ethics held a central position though even I as an author of ethics textbooks acknowledge it is not enough. I think the two methods used in school RE need to be close to the religious content matter. The two methods I gleaned from my schooling were spiritual and ethical. RE provided the ethical and the faith development programme the spiritual. Both were educational in a broad sense. I am less concerned about the number of religions taught then gaining depth in two knowledge organisations systems although the Jesuit schooling I had in the 1980s made sure I knew Christianity well (including a study of the reformation which I recall as a balanced account), had a pretty good overview of Judaism and Islam too and at sixth form we studied at least a dozen different religions. But maybe what mattered most of all were the modes of knowing that I was introduced to.  I found my preparation in Ignatian spiritual visualisation a really helpful introduction into something I then encountered when living in Japan in Zen meditation, in the silence practised in the ecumenical community of Taize in France and also in the contemporary mindfulness movement. The practical knowing I learnt in that way seems to have illuminated many spiritual movements.

After the report has been launched I will be writing about its different elements in future blogs.

[note the important inclusion of correction in line:”Intellectually, and hermeneutically, it is simply not tenable to argue that (crudely put) an individual person’s particular experience and brain operation doesn’t shape what they perceive (you can choose philosophers, neuroscientists or psychologists to find compelling arguments).]

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The quality of public debate in Religious Education – 8 questions


  1. Should Religious Education (RE) debates begin with a generosity of spirit toward the contributors who may argue for quite opposing and diverse visions and conceptions of the subject?
  2. What makes someone who feels so strongly about a particular conception of a subject make the case in public and what are the terms of engagement in the blogosphere and social media space to respond to that case?
  3. Can we inquire into the positions RE professionals and academics take to try and deeply understand their cases, their concerns, and their motivations?
  4. Do we take those expressed concerns seriously or harbor suspicion of malicious intentions?
  5. Can we show charity to the other and (irrespective of our own point of view) help them refine their argument, improve it, even if it is not our own?
  6. Should we show sensitivity when we explain how and why we stand apart from their conclusions and think they need to revise?
  7. Should exchanges by professional and academic contributors to RE show to each other, reflect the kind of tolerance or even respect and empathy we hope children might learn in RE towards each other?
  8. When was the last time we saw that kind of exchange in online RE debates?

I wonder what my own answers would be to these questions and the light they cast on my online writing approach.

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