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The challenge of teaching the World Faiths of Hinduism and Christianity in Britain today

This title is deceptively simple: the factors of issues of legislation, pedagogical research, the role of the teacher and relevance of the subject (and particularly of striking a balance between varying concepts and weightings of these) are common to all subjects in one degree or another. And yet, to discuss religious education - and teaching two such different faiths - without taking into account the challenges unshared by other subjects (e.g. the otherwise similar history) would be inadequate. Further, the qualification 'in Britain today' highlights the importance of considering both cultural context and that ubiquitous issue in contemporary education: how to ensure that current ideas also equip young people to engage positively with the (as yet unknown) challenges they will face in a rapidly changing world.

Given this last, recent educational research and practice increasingly focus on teaching learning (rather than transmitting established sets of information or simple defined skills). Indeed, in terms of both faiths, such information and skills are freely available outside the education system. Young people may go to the church or temple to be instructed in Christianity or Hinduism: to replicate this in the classroom is redundant. What religious education in schools can do, in contrast, is to offer to teach about both, and the general importance of religion itself. In doing so, there are clear advantages - particularly in enhancing relevance - to an even-handed approach, as with all subjects touching on belief, tradition and personal adherence (e.g. politics, music). However, the structure of this question, in asking for comparison, suggests that in Britain today it is necessary to go beyond balance in teaching World Faiths.

All of the above areas of discussion also address relevance in their own way, because the relevance of a subject ultimately depends on the principles, resources, and aims of how it is taught, but it is worth also noting that in this, religious education also enjoys a rather unique position - it simply is relevant, for all people, in all places, times and cultures, encounter religious expression and personally consider the big questions associated with this aspect of human consciousness (while answers vary, such questions appear to be innate. The question, then, is not how to gain the interest of young people, but how not to lose it. Engagement with pupils' actual experiences of religion outside the school may be a difficult and controversial task, and one which is perhaps complicated by the legislation discussed above (indeed, even by research, which provides a bewildering range of concepts and perspectives to take into account) but it is critical to the future actual relevance of this subject to pupils. Young people are well able to assess relevance to their own situations and experiences (if not always to appreciate how this may develop later in life) and therefore, reaching out to them is as - or more - important than being sensitive to the requirements of their communities and community representatives. Each aspect of the above discussion has addressed this issue, but the underlying answer for both Hinduism and Christianity, is to strive (and be seen by young people to succeed) to teach in ways that are socially useful and personally valuable to pupils, and to take account of pupils' valid curiosity and questions as well as legislation and research.

In conclusion, the challenges of teaching Hinduism and Christianity in Britain today are many and varied. This essay has focused on the general picture, but it must be acknowledged that the situation on the ground, in the classroom, for teachers dealing with the complexities of excused pupils, interaction with locally defined syllabi and the committees that create them, and, of course, the inherent challenges of teaching such a varied area of human culture, experience and conflict, is even more complex. Teaching religious education requires the weighing, balancing and negotiating of a wide array of factors, and often seems destined to be a thankless task, pleasing no-one, yet preparing young people to deal with this immensely important and potentially explosive subject is essential. Therefore, the engagement and creativity of teachers are required to strive towards a situation in which their efforts are trusted and recognised by the public, and one in which young people can go on to reap the benefits of the various and detailed legislation, research and resources which have been targeted at this part of the curriculum. As ever in teaching, the fact that the ideal situation may well be out of reach through no fault of the profession does not make this aim any less important

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