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Religion in Education: James Conroy

25 July 11

Held at the University of Warwick, 25th-26th July 2011

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James Conroy [University of Glasgow]

Religious Education: Public and Private

Click here to listen to/download the podcast.

Professor James Conroy led a team largely from Glasgow University, which addressed the question “Does Religious Education Work?” in a project funded by Religion and Society [visit the project website].

Abstract: This paper represents a methodological innovation in taking a forum theatre enactment of research findings and subjecting that interpretation, alongside the original interpretation of findings, to a further analysis. The focus of this iterative process will be the way in which ‘deep’ meaning may be seen to be absent even in those contexts and circumstances where meaning appears to be the central purpose of the activity. While much political and policy discourse advocates the centrality of meaning-making to the very nature of religious education, the nature and process of such activity are, we wish to demonstrate, more complex than is frequently admitted and the very instruments used in the service of meaning-making in the class can and do on occasion create the antithesis of their purported purpose. Absence of meaning emerges pluriform not only in the absence of teaching but in the constitutive.

“Does religious education work? If it doesn’t work with respect to meaning, it doesn’t work.”

Tomlinson and Engelke argue that such failures of meaning-making allow approaches to meaning as a contested and uncertain process, rather than an entity waiting to be uncovered. This contested conception of meaning allows for the consideration of cultural artefacts, images and events that follow, not as the bars of a rigid cultural cage within which students and teachers are caught, but as the strands from which students and teachers weave a tapestry or tapestries of meaning. An aspect of the meaningfulness of such a tapestry is that it can have holes, areas in which the negotiation of meaning falls flat; it can unravel, when core values and beliefs fail to withstand the testing of life in the world; the possibility of the failure to make meaning in itself renders meaning possible on a normative level beyond the purely descriptive. Meaning allows for the imagined and the normative to have a place within culture, for the intersubjective paradigm to retain its ethnographic closeness to the language and identity of the subjects. As Bornstein illustrates, these moments of meaninglessness for participants may themselves be both pedagogically and ethnographically meaningful. On occasion, as in the cases of two particular schools in the study, operating in areas of overwhelming secularism, indifference and hostility to religion, the tapestry can be almost blank, offering no points of reference from which to begin an exploration of processes of meaning-making within a given religious culture. Such cases stand in contrast to those that illustrate the creation and negotiation of meaning that arises from the subversion, by teacher and student, of those constraints by pedagogic and system failures imposed on the opportunities for creating meaning.

"What we actually find is that examinations trivialise religious education"

As a methodology, forum theatre enhances our attentiveness to these questions of meaning and its absence by bringing to bear a different eye from those who have conducted the research and interrogated the emergent data.

Report and podcasts compiled by Norman Winter. Abstract taken from the conference programme. Recordings of the symposium sessions are substantially complete, but may have been edited in small ways for technical and other reasons.

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