Faith sliced or served whole
RELIGION FOR TODAY SERIES. Buddhism for Today. By Chris Wright. Judaism for Today. By Angela Wood. Christianity for Today. By Carrie Mercer. Jesus for Today. By Chris Wright. Oxford University Press Pounds 5 each.
Terence Copley looks at two contrasting RE series.
Problem areas in religious education, like other subjects, change with the times. At one time it was key stage 1 where RE could be subsumed under Caring and Sharing and People Who Help Us. Later it was integrated humanities courses, within which RE tended to disintegrate and disappear.
Then, after the 1988 Act, it was key stage 4, when RE was squeezed out of existence in many schools or given grace and favour accommodation within PSE, except for the "remnant of Israel" opting for GCSE.
The current problem field is key stage 3, which has sometimes failed to take account of recent primary school advances in the subject and where lack of planned progression can mean that a child might be identifying and labelling items of furniture on a mosque worksheet in Year 5 and doing the identical task in Year 8 or 9.
There is also the continuing debate about theme teaching: when we divide religions into themes for study purposes, is it like trying to examine a pig by means of a slice of ham? Do the themes distort and dilute the uniqueness of the religions? Would believers recognise themselves in this process? But on the other hand, do the religions, if treated discretely, appear remote or esoteric, lacking contact points with the lives of children who are not themselves members of the religion being studied?
Two recent series, both lavishly illustrated in colour, provide opportunities for teachers to weigh up the advantages of both approaches. Dimensions in Religion is a thematic series which is careful to identify the religious source of each piece of material within each theme. It is good to find Rastafari added to the six religions of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority National Model Syllabuses. Movement and Change, one pupil book, examines awe and wonder, prayer, worship, outer and inner being, continuity and change, sexuality (actually gender issues), food, feasting and famine, death and afterlife, using exemplars from the seven religious traditions. Comments from members of the traditions of key stage 3 age are included.
Pupil questions and activities follow each chapter. The Teacher's Book includes photocopy masters and further activities. Some of the worksheets are very verbal, but the sheer amount of content in the Teacher's book shows that the series has avoided the danger of superficial treatment via themes.
Religion for Today deals with one religion per book, with two books devoted to Christianity. It approaches religion by saying that "many people in the west who are caught up in the world of work and money have started to look for a different way of looking at life".
Each religion is treated as a world faith rather than merely a European one. The pictures support this well. For example, a Nicaraguan Jesus calling his disciples and an African Jesus conducting an exorcism, are striking. Each chapter has useful introductory questions and pupil activities within the text.
The Christianity book's glossary disappoints and is key stage 2 in level.More disappointing is the book on Jesus, which after a good opening on what non-Christians think of Jesus, imagining Jesus and the sources available to reconstruct his life, then goes on to follow a traditional biographical approach via birth, baptism, ministry, to "trials", death and resurrection. It is as if theological scholars working in the field have laboured in vain.
But overall the series does not disappoint and the highlighted anecdotes provided at some points help to anchor the materials. The Jewish book is particularly strong and will please those who admired and remember Rabbi Hugo Gryn with affection.
These two series are quite unalike in their approach to religions, although they have one author in common, but they unite in attempting to produce a visually stimulating and suitably meaty RE diet for their users.
Whether the slice of ham or the full pig approach is better will continue to be debated by teachers and syllabus planners.
Terence Copley is professor of religious education at the University of Exeter