Classroom Practice - Joint enterprise puts faith in facts
"Pupils perceive science to be about provable truth and religion to be about made-up stories. Most pupils see them as completely unrelated or conflicting."
This quote from a science teacher perfectly illustrates the clash that has prompted a new project in which science and religious education teachers are trained to help students understand "the complementary roles of science and religion".
The year-long Searching for Meaning project involved 55 teachers and centred on three sessions of continuing professional development, each involving between 15 and 30 of the participants. They evaluated "moral and social issues related to science and its applications" by looking at topics such as evolution and stem cell research.
The project was primarily set up to help science teachers introduce discussions around topics such as the origins of life, reproductive technologies and the use of human embryos.
An evaluation of the scheme showed that a minority opposed the idea on philosophical grounds. One teacher objected that it could give "religious belief a credibility that has no basis", while another said: "Pupils keep telling me that the scientific facts I teach are just 'my opinions'. They need to know the difference. I suspect that this idea may emanate from other sources, including RME (religious and moral education)."
But the vast majority of teachers' responses were positive. One biology teacher said that she was "really quite amazed ... there was so much linkage between RME and biology in particular". She added that RME could help in exploring ethical issues, so that "pupils get a sense of what they think themselves instead of just being told facts".
Another science teacher said collaboration would "help pupils better understand the social, spiritual and physical worlds".
Project leader Marjorie Smith explained in her proposal: "Research evidence indicates that many science teachers lack the skills and confidence to initiate and manage classroom discussions, yet view this kind of exploration as vital in building self-confidence and developing lines of critical thinking.
"There is a view that they could benefit from support in this area from teachers of religious and moral education, who habitually use discussion techniques."
Ms Smith added that RME teachers could also profit from collaborating with their science colleagues. Their lack of knowledge about science might constrain the topics they felt confident about discussing with their students, she said.
Yet the evaluation of the project suggested that it could prove tricky to persuade school students of the benefits.
"Scientific belief is based on demonstrable and verifiable facts; religious belief is based on unquestioning faith, often in spite of demonstrable, verifiable fact. The conflict is obvious to most pupils," one science teacher said.
On the other side of the debate, an RME teacher said: "Pupils frequently have a misplaced faith that science is more reliable as a way of understanding life and the world."
The University of Glasgow researchers who evaluated the project concluded: "Science and RME teachers have, during the life of this project, demonstrably worked together on themes in a way which enhanced the pupils' understanding of issues concerning science and religion."
Searching for Meaning was run by the Scottish Council for Research in Education Centre, the University of Glasgow's School of Education and the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre.