The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, based at the University of Birmingham conducted two surveys of Religious Education teachers about their faith and the impact of Religious Education on the character formation of students, as well as the faith (or non-faith) of the Religious Education teachers. What follows is reflections and excerpts from this report.
The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues
The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, based at the University of Birmingham, is a world leading research centre for the examination of how character and virtues impact individuals and society. The Centre partners with schools, practitioners and academics globally.
Character education is an umbrella term, it can be thought of as synonymous with moral or values education. It includes all educational activities that help develop a set of positive traits (virtues) which equip and enable young people to deal with the difficult tasks they will encounter throughout their lives.
About the Research
This briefing paper provides a summary of the findings from the Religious Education Teachers and Character: Personal Beliefs and Professional Approaches Research Report.
This briefing is intended to provide an concise summary of the Religious Education (RE) report, for those with an interest in the RE report, or a broader interest in how character can be developed through RE.
The report details a study of RE teachers, which encompassed 30 life-story interviews and a survey of 314 participants. The aim of the research was to explore RE teachers’ worldviews and their approaches in promoting pupils’ character growth through RE. ‘Worldviews’ is a term used to replace simple designations of religious and non-religious identity, referring to an individual’s broader understanding of the world.
As RE teachers – of all faiths and of none, in faith schools and non-faith schools – routinely teach more than one religion to religiously diverse cohorts of pupils, the questionnaire included three measures of inter-religious style. Teachers’ religious styles were explored using Streib et al.’s (2010) constructs of truth of texts and teachings (a more conservative religious style, emphasising the exclusivity of one’s own religion); fairness, tolerance and rational choice (a tolerant and fair-minded way of resolving differences in religion/worldview); and, xenosophia, inter-religious dialogue (a love for learning from other religions). Each of these constructs, measured with five items, represents a different way of approaching religions and religious diversity – a key theme of participants’ concerns in the interview data.
RE Teachers’ approaches to Religious Diversity
How RE teachers negotiate religious diversity, including non-religious worldviews, was an important feature of the study. All of the participants surveyed reported teaching more than one religion in RE. Participants in interviews explained they taught diverse cohorts of pupils. Furthermore, as interview participants were often concerned with the pursuit of truth and meaning, the personal encounter of different religions or opposing secular worldviews, was a key theme in their life stories.
RE Teachers Beliefs about Character Development
Despite the overall shared belief in the contribution that RE can make to character development, interviews revealed differences in the reasons teachers that have a religious faith, and teachers without a religious faith, gave for these views. These differences could be explained by participants’ beliefs about the role of religion in promoting character as opposed to Religious Education. The former is a belief in the efficacy of religious traditions promoting good character through their teachings and practices. The latter is the belief that it is the opportunity for critical inquiry offered by RE that promotes character development, not the content of ‘religion’ itself. Charlotte and Emily’s stories give good illustrations of how personal worldviews relate to divergent beliefs about the role of religion in promoting character development and to the nature and purpose of RE.
Participants’ responses to these three survey items about character development confirm the qualitative findings and suggest there is a marked difference between the way teachers that have a religious faith, and teachers that do not, conceptualise RE’s contribution to pupils’ character development. The former see something of intrinsic worth in religions, particularly their ethical and spiritual teachings that make a unique contribution to pupils’ character development. The latter, on the other hand, see RE’s value primarily in the educational benefits of the study of more than one religion and/or worldview in terms of developing critical thinking and positive attitudes to diversity.
While all kinds of RE teachers believe RE aids pupils’ character development, and this happens in part by their action as role models, RE teachers that have a religious faith, including those in non-faith schools, see an intrinsic value in religions for the cultivation of pupils’ characters. This may be promoted in their capacity as role models whereby pupils may emulate their religious beliefs. Nonreligious RE teachers, while believing they should act as role models, do not believe that they act as role models for pupils’ beliefs.
In exploring RE teachers’ personal beliefs, the suitability of the term ‘worldview’ rather than ‘religion’ when describing teachers’ views was an important finding. The inclusion of non-religious worldviews is one of the principal recommendations of the CoRE report and has gained considerable traction in the RE community (Jackson, 2014; Freathy and John, 2018). While more than half of survey participants identified themselves as belonging to a religion (which was for the majority, Christianity), it was clear in interviews that there were many different ways of understanding such belonging, which also often shifted or developed over time. Moreover, the significant proportion of teachers who do not identify with a religion would also seem to have multifarious ways of defining their metaphysical, ethical and practical orientations. As a broader concept, ‘worldview’ encapsulates a more diverse and individualised spectrum of religious and nonreligious positions than other categories such as ‘religion’, ‘belief’ or ‘spirituality’.
Religious teachers were inclined to believe that there was a universal morality shared by religions. This theological stance is arguably located in a particular kind of religious style. According to this view, the study of ‘religion’ as a broad category by virtue of its unique, ethical and transcendent nature, provides opportunities for pupils’ character formation. This view – held by teachers in faith and non-faith schools – represents a multi-faith development of the original undenominational principle of the Victorian settlement and reflects the assumptions of some prominent religious educationists. According to this approach, despite doctrinal and cultural differences in wider society, RE can deliver important and shared moral lessons to diverse stakeholders.
Arguably, however, this kind of inclusive theology is not representative of religious communities, which usually comprise adherents professing a wider spectrum of approaches to religious diversity, including theological exclusivism (Moulin-Stożek and Metcalfe, 2018).
The full report is available to view here.
A condensed report, articles, dicussion papers and relevant blog posts are found here.
Interview participants’ religiosity was calculated as a mean score of belief and practice across 8 dimensions:
(1) belief that life is being guided by God;
(2) belief in or experience of God;
(3) narrated religious experience;
(4) regular prayer or spiritual practice;
(5) regular attendance at a place of worship;
(6) religious salience (states religion is important);
(7) regularly reading scriptures; and
(8) narrated identification with a religious tradition as a choice.