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Setting pupils on the path to enlightenment

Educational innovation has always been an important objective of the United World College (UWC) movement, which was founded during the Cold War with the aim of promoting understanding between nations through education. The first UWC, Atlantic College, where I teach, was described as an educational experiment from its earliest days and went on to be instrumental in the development of the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma. It is in this spirit of continuing innovative experimentation that we recently hosted our annual Inter-Faith Conference, which aimed to celebrate the similarities and differences of major world religions alongside certain contemporary faith and spiritual positions.

The conference essentially has two objectives one obviously academic, but the other securely tied to promoting the UWC's ideal of striving to attain justice and peace in the world. Religion has, rightly or wrongly, been blamed for much of the world's conflict, so it seemed natural to invite guest speakers and students of several religions and faiths to explore and celebrate their different positions in an open atmosphere of absolute respect. Representatives were invited from religious and faith positions both old and new the Baha'i faith, Buddhism, Christianity, Jainism, Judaism, Hinduism, Humanism, Islam, Mormonism, Sahaja Yoga, Scientology, Sikhism, Sufism, Taoism and Zoroastrianism.

It seemed quite natural to use this conference to supplement our compulsory theory of knowledge curriculum, a course concerned fundamentally with assessing the validity of the claims that we class as knowledge. Students were free to engage in seminars and workshops that explored and reflected upon the way in which religious and faith beliefs affect and influence how the believer views the world and shapes their "map of reality".

All speakers were invited to structure their seminars and talks around three fundamental questions from the IB's world religions syllabus: why are we born; where do we go when we die; and what must we do to get there? This led to sharply focused inter-faith debates in which speakers often openly admitted that they had been asked questions that they could not readily answer. Most said they would reflect on them and share their finding with the students at a later date. As head of world religions at the college, I learnt a lot about how people's attitudes to, and interpretations of, core beliefs derive from their reactions to life's challenges while attempting to live in accordance with their faith.

Academic seminars were supplemented with various practical activities such as Buddhist, Jain and Sahaja Yoga meditation classes, Hebrew and Chinese calligraphy workshops, as well as a Shabbat supper the aim being to appeal to students of varying abilities and interests, as well as providing an experiential aspect to their learning.

Students and guest speakers alike may still be left wondering why others do not see the world as they do indeed, even why others hold the views that they do. But what is of primary importance is that they should see that others do not think like them, but that they should respect these people and see the beauty in their faith stances. This came clear through the use of a mirror in the final session just as people looking in a mirror from different angles see different things, so perhaps the religions and faith stances are all seeing the same thing but from differing points of view.

As was said many times throughout the conference by various speakers, there are "many paths to God" and so there are to teaching religious and critical education. The conference was just one of many paths towards the goal of educating youth one that I am glad Atlantic College is willing to take.

Alex Bird is head of world religions at Atlantic College in the Vale of Glamorgan

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