Giving opinions in RE: Why it’s problematic (in my opinion)

Legacy specification GCSE Religious Studies paper

This was a religious studies GCSE question from a previous specification. This is when students had to give their opinion (or at least write something that appeared as their opinion) on a wide range of topics. Some RE teachers still mourn its loss and want student opinion to be part of the GCSE assessment. I disagree and I feel that student opinions should never be part of assessment in RE and should be allowed in limited circumstances at other times. Here’s why….

It gives the impression that all opinions are equally valid….

If we say to our students that in RE we welcome all opinions and they are all equally valid then we are misinforming our students and potentially allowing students to share uninformed, prejudiced opinions. Whilst I know that teachers don’t really do or mean this, we need to be careful that we don’t give the impression to students that all opinions are valid in RE; they’re not. Racist, sexist, homophobic opinions are not acceptable to be shared in the classroom. I always tell my students that I cannot tell them what to think but I can tell them what is/isn’t acceptable for them to vocalise in my classroom. I have taught many racist, sexist, homophobic students however they are clearly told to keep these comments to themselves.

Of course, our added challenge as RE teachers is when we teach topics that have controversial elements to them. We need to be clear that are different opinions however we also need to say why some are unacceptable and why the laws have been made to support equality and to try to prevent discrimination. Using disciplinary knowledge with these topics is really useful (see below).

The Ofsted research review & personal knowledge

This review introduces ‘personal knowledge’ which is a new term for most in the RE community. This emphasises that we all come to studying RE with our own perspective or view and this will influence how we think and process what we learn.

The way we’ve started to introduce this to students is through lenses. We are explaining that we all have things that have contributed to what we think. Some which may be similar but also different to each other. We have used the metaphor of a lens to help illustrate this.

I’ve blogged more about this here.

I have taken personal knowledge to mean that they know and understand how their views have formed, not what their views are. I wouldn’t say to a student ‘do you believe in God?’ instead ‘How have your beliefs about the existence of God developed?’.

I’m concerned that personal knowledge will become synonymous with ‘your own opinion’ and that’s not how I’ve interpreted what is meant here. If we start thinking it is about getting student opinions on things we can get ourselves into difficult situations when it comes to having controversial opinions e.g. on racism, sexism, homosexuality. Why should I ask students if they believe in God or not? What value does this bring to the others in the room? I never get all students to give their opinion on something. Students regularly offer an opinion when discussing but it is not the aim of a lesson; it’s their choice and we need to be aware of what impact this may have on others.

But asking their opinion is more engaging for them…

If the aim of your lesson is engagement and you feel is achieved by them saying what they think then I fear that the subject has been reduced to ‘opinions’. RE goes ways beyond what we ‘think’ about religion and belief. I think there are many more ways to ‘engage’ students and it’s usually making things more ‘academic’ and making students feel empowered in their study (both substantive and disciplinary knowledge are important in this).

We want students to think hard in our lessons. Thinking hard comes from processing substantive knowledge. If a student spends more time thinking about what they think (and possibly not being able to ‘move on’ from this) we’ve missed a learning opportunity. In my opinion it is much better for developing understanding for students to be able consider where beliefs come from and their positionality (where their opinion has come from) than worrying about what they’re going to say their opinion is.

I don’t think we have any idea what impact our lessons in RE have on students and their thoughts. Whilst teaching, some students will have an inner dialogue trying to process their own position with what we are teaching them. I don’t think we need to do anything about this. It’s internalised. However sometimes students will share this thinking with us. They will share their thoughts or ask a question or respond to a stimulus. This is great if they feel that they want to but I don’t think that we should ‘make’ them.

I use a strategy stolen from Mary Myatt (many years ago she was the Suffolk RE adviser). Whenever we watch a video in class I say to students ‘Any thoughts, comments, or questions about what we’ve just watched’. Often there will be none, but giving students an opportunity to ask is important. Sometimes this is an opinion. This is fine but it’s not required.

We don’t know how our minds work

Imagine if I asked the class if they believe in God and they all said ‘yes’ except for one student. How would they feel? What would they think? I feel this is a real unknown. Equally if I tell them that I do believe in God and they don’t? I think we would be naïve to think that what others say and what we say (as role models and people in power) will influence them.

I don’t think that teachers should share religious opinions (that’s another issue) so why would I expect students to share theirs? It’s not our job to influence their views, instead to present them with content that they may or may not use in forming their own opinions. Alongside the idea of personal knowledge they will be more aware of what has shaped their thoughts and therefore have more understanding of themselves and of others.

They don’t know much to form the opinion with

If we ask students what they think about an issue we may well have forgotten that if they don’t know much about it may well be making a superficial, generalised view just as if you asked me my opinion on the English Civil war. We need to teach students where beliefs come from, how arguments work and the realities of belief way before they can form (more) informed opinions. Even then we can never present a full picture to them so I’d prefer to leave personal processing to them, for some, this will be done with their peers or at home with family.

The role of disciplinary knowledge

Disciplinary knowledge provides us with the framework to study religion and belief. Maybe this is the way to shift from student opinion to looking at opinions and belief.

The social sciences includes looking at ‘real life’ lived belief. It provides us with a rich set of data that can lead to much more structured discussion and analysis.

In this example we can have a really rich discussion and analysis of the survey and the responses in a non-personal way. If we ask the students their responses, it should be very clearly optional and with a clear understanding that they, as with academically processed surveys, they can opt-out. The times when I do use surveys in class its purpose is to model the survey process not to find out what they believe. They can always abstain. It is about comparing context and analysis of results rather than individual responses.

Theology (as I’m using it) can look at where beliefs come from especially from sources of wisdom and authority. We can teach students on what they say and use tools to analyse them, looking at potential meaning/s. This gives a structured way of looking at where beliefs come from with a clear emphasis of diversity of interpretation.

Using philosophy can allow students to think critically about opinions and the logic and evidence used to justify them. If they’re busy trying to process what they think (we’re not always sure what we think) they can miss this important analysis of arguments. It also can become too personal.

What we use in class we try to measure

Finally, in education we’re obsessed with measuring things that happen in the classroom. Is a student making progress? What grade is this essay? What marks does this answer get? If we make ‘giving opinions’ something that we use as part of our curriculum, some will be tempted to try to measure it with assessment. The Ofsted review is clear that this isn’t ideal for personal knowledge and I think that it is totally inappropriate for student opinions. Students are able to show understanding and synthesis of ideas without giving their own opinion. Whilst the GCSEs made a small shift away from giving opinions, they are still accepted in evaluation questions as a ‘judgement’ or conclusion. I strongly steer my students away from this and strongly promote argumentation strategies of evaluating reasoning to lead to a judgment on the quality of the argument themselves rather than their opinion on the topic.

All opinions welcome.