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Towards a Methodology for Comparative Studies in Religious Education: A Study of England and Norway
Date Reviewed: February 12, 2015
The central questions of this study are how religious education (RE), as a part of public secondary school curricula, differs between England and Norway, and what accounts for these differences. To answer these questions the author analyzed documents reflecting national debates about RE in public schools, examined policy statements produced by the British and Norwegian governments, cited studies conducted by the European Union, and carried out limited ethnography at six secondary schools (three in Norway and three in England).
This study bears the marks of having been a dissertation, and is deeply self-conscious of its methodology. Bråten cites a broad range of theoretical and methodological orientations put forth for the study of RE in Europe, settling on two frameworks that offer the greatest utility for answering her questions. The first framework, which provides the structure for the book, is that of “levels of the curriculum.” After an extensive, if somewhat dry, literature review, Bråten compares differences between England and Norway in increasingly narrow fields. These are the societal, institutional, instructional (teachers), and experiential (pupils) levels. Bråten thus first gives a broad overview of the forces at work at higher levels of organization in the planning and execution of RE curricula before describing how it is taught and received in actual practice. In each chapter she applies the second of her two main methodological frameworks: an assessment of the supranational, national, and subnational forces that have impacted developments at each curricular level. For example, primary among the supranational forces she identifies are globalization and pluralism, and among the national forces are the differing historical relationships between state, religion, and schools within the two countries.
Bråten found that the teaching of RE as a multi-faith, non-confessional subject began earlier in England than in Norway, likely as a result of England’s history of relatively greater religious plurality. Apart from the formative influence of scholars within the secular field of religious studies, curricular developments in England tended to happen “from the bottom up,” and tend to be more diverse owing to the greater diversity of public schooling options. Norwegian RE, on the other hand, has tended to develop “from the top down,” and places greater emphasis on Christianity than English RE. Curricular developments in Norway were also most influenced by departments of theology, unlike in England. All of this has led to differences in how RE curriculum is executed in the two countries, but not to as many differences in how it is received by pupils.
Given that most of the readers of this journal are involved with higher, not secondary, education in North America, I would suggest this study might be useful for faculty in the following ways. First, Bråten poses interesting questions about the importance of RE (mostly having to do with preparing pupils to be tolerant citizens in pluralistic societies) that are important for faculty and administrators to consider at institutions that require the study of religion as part of general education or liberal arts requirements. Why is RE considered necessary? How do students receive not only the content of what is taught, but the messages about why such courses are important? This book would also be of use for thinking about the supranational, national, and subnational forces that have impacted how and why we teach what we teach. Bråten raises many questions along these lines, and provides one multi-disciplinary model for how to answer them.
Religion, Education, Dialogue and Conflict: Perspectives on Religious Education Research
Date Reviewed: February 6, 2015
Between 2006 and 2009 Wolfram Weisse and a team of researchers in eight European countries conducted pioneering research on the topic of religion and education. The project, known as REDCo, focused on adolescents, but also examined teacher beliefs and practices about religion and education. At the heart of this research is the question of whether learning about religion in schools can contribute to social harmony or social cohesion. Methodologically, the combined qualitative and quantitative approaches the team used sought to examine a number of aspects of this question. Religion, Education, Dialogue and Conflict reports on some of the results of the REDCo project.
Unquestioned in much of this research is the desirability of students’ learning about religion in schools in one form or another. In other words, the question of whether learning about religion in schools can contribute to social harmony is for the most part transformed into an assumption, rather than retained as a research question. This can perhaps be forgiven if one examines the data as reported in this volume: across the chapters (written by key researchers in REDCo, including Robert Jackson who is a pioneer in this area of research), students themselves affirm the importance of education about religion as facilitating respect and the ability to live in a diverse society.
The diversity of results and the variations on the studies reported raise issues associated with conducting multi-sited research. Social and cultural context is such that one can never perfectly replicate research across national boundaries. REDCo seems to have responded to these variations admirably by giving researchers the freedom to fine tune the research design in a site-specific manner. Thus teachers in the U.K., for example, wrote reflective diaries that enabled Miller and McKenna to analyse differences and similarities between teacher and student beliefs about religion and education. There was, it turned out, considerable agreement between teachers and students about their commitment to pluralism and respect for religion. The freedom to respond to local context might be seen as part of the broader theoretical framework -- Robert Jackson’s interpretive approach -- relying on ethnographic methods to employ a student and teacher centered approach to the study of religion and education. Only by taking such an approach can we begin to decipher the usefulness of education about religion, which should not be taken as a given but held in critical tension with an examination of religion, and knowledge about it, in the education of future citizens.
Since REDCo’s completion, there has been a flurry of research activity on the broad subject of religion and education. For all of us engaged in these activities, it is vital to learn what we can from the path-breaking efforts of the REDCo researchers. So, for example, a theme that recurs across the chapters is that students believe that “doing things together” is a key strategy for developing understanding about the “other.” This recognition, which mirrors a great deal of research on diversity management and social cohesion, seems to warrant further exploration, through, perhaps, an examination of students’ (and teachers’) experiences of shared activities with those who belong to religions (or no religion) other than their own.