This research was undertaken by Dr Anne Margaret Moseley at the Warwick Religious Education Research Unit and was sponsored by Culham St Gabriel and the Hockerill Foundation.
This article grew out of my experiences as a teacher of religious education in primary schools and my personal interest in interfaith dialogue. It is also informed by my PhD research. As a primary teacher I knew the potential for using stories to engage pupils and identified the possibility of using stories to develop intercultural learning. Stories can help us to locate ourselves in the world and become more aware of who we are in relation to others. When we share our stories, we identify with the characters and plot, imagining what it would be like to be that other; to see the world from a different perspective. Could story provide a context to help pupils explore religious differences?
In a recent piece of research Julia Ipgrave (2012) has suggested that primary pupils can engage with scriptural stories in meaningful ways.
“In interviews with children at different primary schools, the success of the teachers’ efforts to generate an enthusiasm for books was evident… This pattern of engagement was observed in RE lessons with Biblical and other scriptural stories. It could be said that the text gathered an interpretive community around it as the children asked and answered questions about its content and meaning.” (Ipgrave 2012, 266)
Ipgrave’s observations suggest that primary pupils enjoy reading stories from scripture and can interpret their meanings together. This interpretive community of learners, as described by Ipgrave, not only resembled my own classroom experience but also reflected my experience of adult interfaith Scriptural Reasoning (SR) encounters. Noticing this link, I was keen to explore whether it might be possible to develop an age-appropriate outworking of SR for primary pupils in the classroom that would enable them to explore this interpretive space where difference rather than consensus was at the heart of the dialogue. The aim was not just to provide a multifaith approach to sharing stories but to explore the possibility of an interfaith approach, and to do this through developing intercultural competencies. At the heart of the Story Tent project is the belief that dialogue around faith stories can help children develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to communicate across religious and cultural barriers – an ability based on Intercultural Communicative Competence (ICC). There is a significant amount of theoretical work already available in the field of religious education and intercultural competence. The Story Tent builds specifically on the model developed by Michael Byram (1997) and subsequent work developed through the Council of Europe’s “Autobiography of Intercultural Encounters” (Council of Europe 2009)
“The Autobiography of Intercultural Encounters has been expressly designed to encourage and foster the development of the relevant cognitive competences which are required to engage effectively with people from other cultural groups and to appreciate the value and benefits of living within culturally diverse societies.” (AIE - Context, concepts and theories, Council of Europe, 2009, p13)
In applying the principles of SR to the primary school curriculum I was building on the work of Peter Ochs (2006), David Ford (2006) and the work being carried out at the Cambridge Interfaith Programme (2017). I drew on the well-established work of the Warwick Religious Education Research Unit (WRERU), the Council of Europe, including its white paper report (2008) and Michael Byram’s (1997) model of intercultural competencies. I then applied the principles of SR to the well-tested religious education pedagogical practices of Robert Jackson (2004), Julia Ipgrave (2015), and Rob Freathy et al (2015).
Jackson (2014) has specifically highlighted the possibility of using religious education to develop intercultural communication and suggested that the classroom could provide a “safe space” for developing dialogue which respected different religious traditions and worldviews.
Scriptural Reasoning is an approach to studying scriptures which provides an interreligious encounter where texts are compared alongside each other. Its aim is to develop an understanding of religion, as experienced by faith participants, through shared dialogue. It is a practice where people of different faith traditions and worldviews come together to share and discuss their sacred texts in an environment of mutual trust and respect. Scripture is read, and a short explanation is given to provide context to the passage for those who might be hearing it for the first time. Participants do not need to be formally trained or academic: they act as a representative of a faith tradition. There is a shared understanding that representatives are speaking from their own experiences and represent just one dimension of the plurality of views and experiences within each faith tradition. After the scripture readings, the participants can ask questions and share insights in small groups guided by a group facilitator.
For the founders of SR in the 1990s, Peter Ochs and David Ford, the original intent was to investigate issues through an academic study of scriptures. However, as it developed it also placed honest religious dialogue within the public sphere. It provided a space that encouraged mutual understanding without compromise of beliefs and transcended the dualistic positions of either religious assimilation or confrontation to find a third approach which facilitated a mutual critical engagement. David Ford has highlighted its potential:
“Secularised societies have generally failed to mobilise religious resources for public wisdom and for peace. Religions have often reacted against them, faced with a choice between assimilation or confrontation. But there is another possibility: mutually critical engagement among all the participants aimed at transforming the public sphere for the better.” (Ford 2006, 20)
This approach extends respectful critical engagement to the reading of sacred texts, offering an opportunity for interpretations of scriptures to be explored together. I was keen to investigate the potential for developing an age-appropriate adaptation of SR that would help pupils develop respectful critical engagement through a dialogical enquiry.
The “Story Tent” Intervention was developed as an age appropriate application of SR based on three underlying principles. Firstly, through learning and understanding about the “other” it aimed to develop a deeper understanding of the “self”. Secondly, the emphasis was on exploring difference and finding ways to disagree well. Thirdly, at the heart of SR encounters is the concept of the meeting place and shared hospitality where friendships can be built. The space is not owned or inhabited by one group over another; rather it is a space where participants are both host and guest at the same time, a “tent of meeting”. This “in-between” space becomes an interpretative space where all are welcome, and all voices can be heard. This concept of the tent as a place of meeting was instrumental in the development of the Story Tent Intervention.
The Story Tent intervention helped pupils to develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to be able to take part in intercultural dialogue. It drew on the Intercultural Communicative Competencies (ICC) outlined by Byram (1997), a member of the Council of Europe’s working group and the Autobiography of intercultural Encounters (AIE,2001), a tool developed by the Council of Europe. It specifically aimed to support pupils in developing attitudes that were respectful, open, and curious about others. It also aimed to develop skills that enabled pupils to discover and interact with others who held different perspectives, and then interpret and relate their findings to their own experiences.
The Story Tent took the form of a four-part themed day. During the first session the pupils were introduced to a specific aspect of ICC that became the focus during the day. The first intervention focused on developing attitudes of respect, openness and curiosity, the second explored what made a good question to make new discoveries. A gazebo was put up as the “tent of meeting” and an age-adapted version of the Feast’s Rules for Dialogue (2014) were shared. Three sacred texts were introduced by three local members of different faith communities and the class was divided into three groups. Each group was asked to create a dramatic presentation of the story, working together collaboratively alongside the faith representative. At the end of session, the pupils shared their dramas under the gazebo, symbolic of the shared space of hospitality, a place where judgement was suspended. During the third session new groups were assigned drawing on representatives from the different morning sessions. They were tasked with sorting pieces of scripture into sets from the different sacred books. Pupils were asked to share their experiences from the morning to help the group identify key features from their stories using words concepts and phrases to differentiate the texts. The final session consisted of a reflection time and a chance to ask any remaining questions of the faith representatives.
The Significance of Story
Story provided a context for honest dialogue. The practice of listening to stories created a unique space which allowed pupils to suspend judgement and imagine the views of another. In the world of stories there is hidden meaning to be explored and discovered. It does not require a recognition or analysis of whether the content is true. It allows pupils to develop an understanding of another perspective by relating and interpreting their experiences through empathetic engagement. In addition to providing a vehicle for exploring meaning, stories helped pupils to embed their learning in a way that was easy to recall.
The Significance of Dialogue
Dialogue with three perspectives allowed multiple interpretations. Ochs (2006) suggests that western philosophy and modern culture have been rooted in a system that defines the world through binaries, a dualistic worldview that focuses on opposites. With its use of more than two perspectives, SR provides a different way of thinking that allows opinions to be held in tension, putting the binary pairs in relation and within a context. Similarly, the Story Tent Intervention brought together three different stories which enabled an encounter that did not push pupils to reflect on which was right and which was wrong: rather it allowed multiple voices to be heard and different positions of interpretation respected.
The Significance of Drama
Drama provided a context where ICC could be worked out in practice. Pupils needed to be able to communicative effectively, to be open and respectful of each other’s ideas, to explain and relate what they were hearing, and to collaborate. Pupils commented on how much they had enjoyed the drama in their self-assessments, and this was reflected repeatedly in comments from the AIE interviews and written reflections. The potential of drama to engage pupils and explore other viewpoints was also commented on in the work of Kevin O’Grady who found that pupils:
“… valued the autonomy and responsibility drama tasks gave, together with the potential for appreciating others’ perspectives by imaginatively occupying their roles.” (O’Grady 2019, p42)
The potential to develop Intercultural Communicative Competence with primary aged pupils
The results from the pupil’s AIE interviews were particularly helpful and indicated that some of the them had demonstrated many examples of ICC while others only offered few. The model presented by Byram did not indicate any differentiation in conceptual difficulty among the competences outlined. However, from my data analysis there appeared to be some competences which were more conceptually demanding than others, suggesting that there might be a hierarchy both cognitively and relationally. All of the pupils who took part were able to describe their experiences and were able to engage in respectful ways. Most were able to relate the encounter to their personal experiences of life and demonstrated empathy during the day. However, there were fewer examples of pupils who could tolerate ambiguity in order to interpreting other perspectives.
It appeared that some ICC were more significant in overall levels of competence. A sense of personal identity was particularly important, specifically when displayed with the ability to tolerate ambiguity. Whilst all the pupils who took part in the interviews had some insights into the concept of religious identity, those who talked more about their own beliefs and could suspend judgement were better able to demonstrate a critical awareness, as described by Ford. For example, Lucy was aware that the Sikh storyteller had values which were strongly held and presented in a way that was both honest to her faith tradition but also personally enriching. When Lucy evaluated this behavior, in the light of her own experiences, it encouraged her to realise that she too could hold strong beliefs.
So, I was thinking about what their thinking and how strong it is to them; and it helps me to understand how strong I can be of my faith. (Lucy)
This research has highlighted the potential of using comparative faith stories with a faith guide as a vehicle to enable primary pupils to explore dialogue across difference. As a community of RE teachers, we have a unique opportunity to address difficult issues. Living well with difference is at the heart of good RE. The Story Tent offers a context in which pupils can learn about people and learn from them; to develop the skills and attitudes needed to listen to others, and express opinions in a way that can be heard in our increasingly interfaith and intercultural societies.
Byram, M. (1997) Teaching and assessing intercultural communicative competence. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Council of Europe (2008) White paper on intercultural dialogue: Living together as equals with dignity. Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing.
Council of Europe (2009) Autobiography of Intercultural Encounters. Available at: https://www.coe.int/t/dg4/autobiography/Source/AIE_en/AIE_context_concepts_and_theories_en.pdf [Accessed: June 2019]
CIP (2017) What is Scriptural Reasoning? Available at: http://www.scripturalreasoning.org/what-isscriptural-reasoning.html [Accessed: June 2019].
Ford, D. (2006) 'An Interfaith Wisdom: Scriptural Reasoning between Jews, Christians and Muslims', in Ford, D. & Pecknold, C.C. (eds.) The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Freathy, R.J.K. Freathy, G. Doney, J. Walsh,K. Teece, G. (2015) The RE-searchers: A New Approach to Religious Education in primary schools. Available at: https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/18932
[Accessed June 2019]
Ipgrave, J. (2012) 'From storybooks to bullet points: books and the Bible in primary and secondary religious education', British Journal of Religious Education, 35(3), pp. 264-281.
Ipgrave, J. (2015) 'Interfaith dialogue in the classroom', in Elton-Chalcraft, S. (ed.) Teaching Religious Education Creatively. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 123-138.
Jackson, R. (2004) Rethinking religious education and plurality: issues in diversity and pedagogy. London: Routledge Falmer.
Jackson, R. (2014) Signposts- Policy and practice for teaching about religions and non-religious world views in intercultural education. Strasbourg: Council of Europe.
Ochs, P. (2006) 'Philosophical Warrants for Scriptural Reasoning', in Ford, D. & Pecknold, C.C. (eds.) The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning. Oxford: Blackwells.
O, Grady. K. (2019) Religious Education as a dialogue with difference – fostering democratic citizenship through the study of religions in schools. New York: Routledge