Lat Blaylock extols thevalue of RE's preoccupation with difficult questions
The Professional Council for Religious Education holds the view that RE is the natural home for thinking skills across the whole curriculum, and is launching a project to promote better thinking in RE across the primary and secondary phases. Anthony de Mello, Jesuit and genius of the spiritual life, tells this story: The richest man in the village dreams one night. He sees himself walking out on the road to the south of his village the very next day at sundown, and meeting a traveller, a nun. He stops the traveller, and asks her: "Do you have something for me?" She smiles. "Yes! I knew someone would ask me that this afternoon. God told me to give you this rock."
From her backpack, she draws a huge diamond, hands it to the man, and walks lightly by. He stares at the "rock". It is a huge, flawless, perfect diamond. Stunned, he carries it home, unable to believe his fortune, knowing that it is worth a million. When he wakes up he cannot forget his dream. At sundown, he takes the road south, feeling a bit foolish. But unbelievably he sees the nun, stops her, and she gives him a rock: the dream comes true. It is a huge, flawless, perfect diamond. The nun walks on.
The rich man goes home bursting with delight at his acquisition. But that night he cannot sleep at all. He turns and tosses, but spends all night awake. Next morning, he takes the road north, and hurries several miles until he sees the wandering nun. He catches up, and falls on his knees. "Please," he asks, "give me whatever it is that made you able to hand over that diamond so easily."
This (and a hundred stories from faith similar to it) is provocation to reflection for classroom RE. No simple moral can be drawn from the story, but its profound critique of many lives is accessible to both younger and older learners, insiders to faith and outsiders. What thinking skills are involved in its impact?
Some key featurs of RE, such as the subject's near obsession with unanswerable questions and unsolvable problems, make it a natural thinking centre of the curriculum, and encourage children of all ages to question, speculate, analyse, compare, discern or evaluate.
Where practice is best, such thinking skills have always been at the heart of RE, encouraging children to think laterally, radially, or with emotional literacy, aiming for an explosion of classroom ideas. So the teacher asks: What would the nun answer? Or, in another context, what would have happened if Jesus had lived to 70? In what ways is Satan like Father Christmas (apart from the obvious one that Satan is an anagram of Santa)? If Martin Luther King took assembly here, this week, what would he say to our school community about the way we live together? If the Buddha lived in our town, where would he go and what would he say? What will the next new religion to sweep the world teach?
Liz Bassett, primary RE teacher from Cambridge and a member of the PCFRE working group on thinking skills, says: "Some people say you can't do ultimate questions with young primary pupils, but that's rubbish. The only way to deepen their understanding and get pupils personally involved in the truth quest is by developing their ability to think." She leads in-service training for primary teachers on RE thinking skills.
For these reasons, and many more, PCFRE is launching a thinking skills project for better RE at the Education Show at the NEC (the show's last day is Saturday March 24). Where RE consists only of a sad fact-fest of terminology from world faiths that pupils do not belong to, we want to open a new set of classroom possibilities, so that pupils walk out of their RE lessons complaining: "Sir, my head hurts."
To register your interest in the project, write to Martin Lee at PCFRE.
Lat Blaylock is PCFRE executive officer, PCFRE, Royal Buildings, Victoria St, Derby DE1 1GW. PCFREWeb: www.pcfre.org.uk