Children appear to learn more about different religions simply by talking to their classmates. Julie Henry reports on a pioneering study taking place in a Leicester primary.
ONE of the most effective ways of teaching religious education is by encouraging children to talk to classmates about their different faiths, new research suggests.
Leicester teacher Julia Ipgrave has been conducting her own research into RE teaching in primary schools.
Nine-year-olds were split into groups of about five and children were encouraged to explain their own beliefs to others. Pupils at a predominantly Muslim school also exchanged e-mails with their peers at a nearby Roman Catholic school. After initial discussions about hobbies and interests, they went on to discuss whether angels existed and what they considered was the most precious gift they had been given.
Mrs Ipgrave found that pupil-to-pupil dialogue broke down some of the prejudices that children had picked up. It also increased their ability to debate ideas in harmony.
"We found pupils developed their ability to express religious thoughts and feelings. They listen and respond more sensitively to each other than they would to ideas that are simply transferred from teacher to pupil," she said.
The pupil-to-pupil approach, which has also been explored by the religions and education research unit at Warwick University, will now be trialled in a number of primary schools in Leicester and Warwickshire.
The work builds on a 1998 study by Mrs Ipgrave which looked at the Muslim experience of RE lessons. More than 50 Muslim children in primary and secondary schools and their RE teachers were interviewed and lessons observed. Mrs Ipgrave found some teachers struggled to present RE to pupils who already had a developed idea of God.
"Teachers used the word 'arrogant' to describe more confident students who would contradict them if they disagreed with their presentation of Islam," she said.
Clashes occurred when teachers insisted on being seen as the sole source of knowledge and controlled the lesson content so tightly that there was no room for pupils' own ideas.
Her study also found that categories and assumptions used in RE books and teaching materials were alien to many Muslims.
For instance, many texts refer to the symbolic meaning of washing before prayer as a means of purifying the soul. But pupils took the much more literal meaning that their prayers would not work if they did not wash properly first.
While RE teachers often begin with a pupil's secular experience, such as a birthday, and then move into an RE-related topic, teachers found it was often better to use the Muslim pupil's faith as a starting point and explore ways to relate their religious understanding to the secular world.
The study found that Muslim pupils, with their strength of belief, could convey to others the ideas of commitment, trust, devotion, adoration and a spiritual dimension to the world.
Funding for the frst research projects was provided by the Farmington Trust.
The ongoing research and pilot is supported by the All Saints Educational Trust, which has allowed Mrs Ipgrave a term out of school, followed by 24 days' release over two terms.
HOW TO STAY AHEAD IN TEACHER RESEARCH
WITH professional development high on the Government's agenda, teacher-researchers are increasingly in vogue.
Money is available from various sources, and increased efforts are being made to ensure that work is made available to other teachers.
* Government - www.dfee.gov.uk Best-practice research scholarships - giving 1,000 teachers up to pound;3,000 to do "sharply-focused research into key areas of classroom practice".
Research projects could also meet the criteria for continuing professional development awards. They include sabbaticals of up to six weeks for experienced teachers in "challenging" schools, and overseas visits.
* Teacher Training Agency (www.canteach.gov.uk) Teacher Research Grant Scheme - high-quality, small-scale, classroom-based research with grants of pound;2,500 or pound;3,500.
School-based Research Consortia Initiative - four pilot schemes involving partnerships of schools, local education authorities and universities - given pound;35,000 a year over three years.
* Teacher unions The National Union of Teachers is offering pound;3,000 scholarships for six pairs of teachers in Wales and six pairs in England for research into thinking skills and pupil behaviour (www.nut.org.uk) The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers provides grants of up to pound;3,000 to individual teachers and pound;5,000 to groups carrying out collaborative research (www.nasuwt.org.uk) The classroom unions also support two Walter Hines Page Scholarships worth pound;1,100. Contact NUT, NASUWT or Association of Teachers and Lecturers (www.atl.org.uk) * The Farmington Trust (tel: 01865 271965) and All Saints Trust (St Katherine Cree Church, Leadenhall Street, London EC3), also fund educational research.
* Some LEAs, and even individual schools, have limited funding for teacher research. Shropshire, for instance, has funded research leading to best practice dissemination in literacy, thinking skills in science and mentoring.
* Other useful websites: British Educational Management and Administration Society, www.shu.ac.ukbemas
British Educational Research Association, www.bera.ac.uk Collaborative Action Research Network, www.uea.ac.ukcarecarn Centre for Using Research and Evidence in Education, e-mail Miranda@CUREE.org.uk
The Evidence-Based Education Network, www.cem.dur.ac.ukebeuk Current Educational Research Database in the United Kingdom - being developed by the National Foundation for Educational Research, the Department for Education and Employment and the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre (EPPI-Centre), www.nfer.ac.uk School Leadership and Management search page for Education-line is at http:www.leeds.ac.ukeducolslm.htm