Victoria Neumark looks at a study which suggests how teachers might approach this and other big questions
Tell us, invited a recent questionnaire from the Professional Council for Religious Education (PCfRE), what you like about religious education.
The pupils' answers, to be published early next year as Faith in the Future, are illuminating. "I like it that you get to understand others' thoughts and it helps you with your thoughts and you learn about other religions"; "I like it because it makes you think"; "I like it because you have long discussions and we get to express our feelings."
All of these, says Fiona Moss, PCfRE executive member, speak of the importance of teaching "learning from religion" alongside learning about religion. Fiona Moss is on a term's secondment from Coleman primary school in Leicestershire where she is RE co-ordinator and holder of a Farmington Millennium Award. along with 24 other primary RE teachers this year, she is finding out how good classroom practice can nourish learning from religion.
In the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority model syllabuses published in 1994, learning from religion is attainment target 2; learning about religion is AT1. Learning from, though, is the strand which touches on many teachers' unease with RE:here lurk the Big Questions with their Big Debates. This is the slot where questions like "Have you any personal experience of God?" (from Faith in the Future) surface and where teachers - who may naturally prefer the didactic method of pedagogy - have to leave issues open.
After tracking down schools with excellent RE reports from the Office for Standards in Education, Ms Moss visited and interviewed children and staff from 10 schools in different parts of the country. With the help of Professor Bob Jackson from Warwick University, she has been analysing her results.
They make inspiring reading. As she says, AT2 is not about "changing people's minds, it's about making people think". In a busy world, RE lessons can provide a vital space for reflection, time to ask the "I wonder" questions, time to let children develop their own visions.
A Year 1 class
The teacher of a class of six-year-olds reads them Dogger by Shirley Hughes. It is a story about the loss of a loved cuddly toy. Then the teacher shared with the pupils something precious, a pebble which reminded her of a sunny picnic when her children were young.
She told them that when she held it, it evoked precious feelings. Then she sent home a letter with the children, asking their parents to let them bring in something of their own which was precious, but not in the financial sense.
Next session, the children sat in a circle to share their precious memories. One little girl's key ring was a memento of her dead grandmother, and she even took it to bed with her. From there, it was a natural progression to looking at and handling religious objects with respect and care.
Fiona Moss says: "The teacher had opened herself up, so the children could open their minds. They're not going to share if you're not going to share."
An inner-city junior school, mainly Muslim
This lesson was part of a series on death, using a variety of material. The class read a poem in which a boy grieves for the death of his mother, looked at an artwork showing children at a grave and watched the video of The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic Victorian tale with its themes of childhood bereavement and regeneration.
In groups, they then looked at commercially available sym-pathy cards and talked about the feelings aroused by death. They discussed how they could help someone who had suffered loss, and wrote sympathy letters to the children in the picture.
From there, it was natural to move on to death rites and different cultures' views about death. Although teachers can be scared of touching on such sensitive subjects, the children were unafraid and eager to explore their thoughts.
A secondary special school
T hroughout the year, the RE teacher kept a Wall of Wisdom, an area for putting up poignant or pungent remarks made by the children in their RE work.
"Why do religious stories sound the same? It seems like they are listening to each other." As well as reminding pupils that there many questions are open for debate, the teacher writing pupils' words affirms the value of the student's contribution.
A development is the Question Wall, where big questions such as, "Is there an afterlife?" are surrounded by many answers as they occur in class - for example, "I think Christians believe in Heaven and Jews do not think about it. What do Sikhs think?" The answers are always framed by qualifiers - "I think," "it seems," "they believe" - to emphasise the partial nature of the answers.
Successful lessons in learning from religion, Fiona Moss believes, must always link to learning about religion, "or else it is PSE". Equally, without the "from" element, mugging up on religious practice can seem sterile. It is, she says "a double helix" - the molecular pattern of life itself, and a kind of unending question mark.
Fiona Moss's findings will be available on the Internet by Christmas. Details of Farmington Awards: 01865 271965.'Faith in the Future' from PcfRE in January. Royal Buildings, Victoria Street, Derby DE1 1GW. Tel: 01332 896655; fax: 01332 343253
DON'T BE AFRAID TO ASK SEARCHING QUESTIONS.
* Key stage 3 RE books reviewed on page 22 * Share feelings, without disclosing anything too personal * Use a wide variety of stimuli * Use genuine artefacts; visit genuine sites wherever possible * Use music, including pop music * Don't be scared of searching questions, welcome them * Use "I wonder" questions to open up discussions * Use other media - role play, poetry, art , "guided journey" day dreams - to help see the world through others' eyes * Base work on children's own experiences * Link all work to religion * Take an active approach, involving physical senses, tasting, smelling, hearing, moving * Use a variety of discussion methods - don't get locked into having a written product. Whole-class, group or paired discussion can be just as valuable.