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RE-Framing Education about Religious Beliefs and Practices: A New Toolkit for Teachers

Laurie Boone Hogen
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Last Updated: Jul 23, 2019, 16:33 PM
Date Posted: Apr 1, 2016, 10:15 AM

After retiring from a long career in Episcopal schools, for the last three years I have had the privilege of working with a team of educators and scholars from the Faculty of Education at Cambridge University and the Woolf Institute of Abrahamic Faiths, both in Cambridge, England. Our goal was to produce a new toolkit for teaching about the beliefs and practices of different religions—be it in a history class or in an ethics or a religious studies course.

The result is RE-Framing Education about Beliefs and Practices in Schools: A Lens and Tools Concept Based Approach. The RE-framing in the title means just that: to reframe the rationale for the teaching of beliefs and practices so that they have meaning for every student in every kind of school in all phases of their education. The contents of this new RE-Framing Toolkit came from teachers from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and secular private and state schools in both the United Kingdom and in the United States who took part in an in-depth research project before participating in a culminating conference in Cambridge in March of 2014.

Why Re-frame Our Teaching?

My own involvement in this project started several years prior to my retirement. We had just concluded the first day of school parent coffee morning and parents were leaving the school building in New York City. It was a beautiful day in September of 2001. As I passed my assistant’s desk on my way back to my office, the soft classical music on the office radio suddenly stopped and a voice was shouting that there had been an explosion at the Twin Towers, a place of work for many of our departing parents. These parents were late for work that day and were spared. Others were not so fortunate.

The next year at the Back to School Pot Luck Dinner, I heard a Christian dad say to a Muslim mom, whose children often played together, “I did not know you were Muslim. Why don’t you moderate Muslims do something about the violence in your religion?” She answered, “We are, you just can’t hear us.”

As the anger and division over building a Muslim educational center near Ground Zero became front page news, some parental friendships were becoming frayed, calling into question families’ cultural backgrounds, personal and collective identities, and the school’s emphasis on ethnic and religious diversity and perspectives. As Head of an Episcopal school, I knew I had to do something. Ignorance, fear and anger had to give way to knowledge, recognition and understanding of the ‘other,’ of those who are not like us.The idea for what became the RE-framing Education about Beliefs and Practices in Schools Toolkit was born.

Research and Methodology

The project originated with the idea of a model for best practices in religious education across two different cultural settings, the United Kingdom and the United States. By bringing teachers from different countries and schooling types face-to-face with each other and with professionals in the field, along with data collected from those schools, we believed that we could create an evidence-based resource to strengthen how we engage students about religious beliefs and practices.

Questionnaires, classroom observations, and case studies from 20 Christian, Jewish, Muslim state and independent schools in the United States and the United Kingdom produced a list of key areas and challenges which all the teachers faced. This in turn fed face-to-face discussions during the 2014 conference and, ultimately, the Toolkit.

A Lenses and Tools Approach

The Toolkit aims not to reinvent the way we teach about beliefs and practices in schools but to reframe that teaching so that it is easier for non-specialist teachers and those new to the field to build up their own “best practice.” The aim is to promote wider knowledge and understanding and respect for others’ beliefs and practices.

The Toolkit describes how to use three key lenses (cultural understanding; identity formation; and issues of evidence, truth and proof) in combination with three essential tools (key questions, text and context, and difference and diversity). It includes ten best methodologies along with 24 narratives or stories from all beliefs and practices. There are key questions for each of the 24 stories, accompanied by a teacher’s planning page. There are teacher-tested lesson plans and real life examples of how an individual teacher dealt with contested narratives, those subjects that are hard to discuss.

None of this would have been possible without an incredible team of educators and scholars in Cambridge, specifically Mary Earl, the author of the Toolkit and chair of religious studies at the Faculty of Education at Cambridge University; Mohammed Aziz, the wise advisor from the Woolf Institute; Sue Ward’s guidance as the Cambridge RE advisor and consultant; Sahra Ukar and Alice Thompson for hours of proof reading and production; and all the teachers who submitted their materials and took part in the research.

Given that expanding religious diversity presents great challenges throughout the world, including in the United Kingdom and United States, we hope that this Toolkit can inspire those who teach and those who learn to bring greater understanding and recognition of and respect for the ‘Other’ to their teaching and their learning.

How to Obtain a Copy of the Toolkit

RE-Framing Education about Beliefs and Practices in Schools: A Lens and Tools Concept Based Approach may be viewed and downloaded at no cost from the Woolf Institute website. Please note that it is formatted for UK paper sizes.

To obtain printed copies the Toolkit, email Laurie Boone Hogen.

Laurie Boone Hogen served as head of school at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School in Carmel, California and Resurrection Episcopal Day School in New York City. She is a former member of the NAES Governing Board and a recipient of the NAES Ruth Jenkins Award. Now retired, she splits her time between California and England.