Thursday, 23 October 2014

Science Teachers & RE Teachers

Science and Religion are portrayed to be in harmony in the Tiffany window 'Education' (1890) - courtesy of Wikipedia

I absolutely love teaching and studying science and religion. I regularly do battle with students who claim it has to be either just science or just religion. The look of surprise on their face is often as dramatic as it is concerning for me personally. A faith never questioned, investigated or tested is no faith at all.

I am Catholic and I teach in a Catholic school. This obviously shapes some of my thoughts and ideas on this topic.

Some would claim that God can only be eschatologically verified; could proved true (at some future point) but could never be proved false. See John Hick's allegory of a quest to a Celestial City for more on this:

In this parable, a theist and an atheist are both walking down the same road. The theist believes there is a destination, the atheist believes there is not. If they reach the destination, the theist will have been proven right, however if there is no destination on an endless road, this can never be verified. This is an attempt to explain how a theist expects some form of life or existence after death and an atheist does not. They both have separate belief systems and live life accordingly, but logically one is right and the other is not. If the theist is right, he will be proven so when he arrives in the afterlife. However, if the atheist is right, they will simply both be dead and nothing will be verified. (From Wikipedia)

I disagree that Maths and Science are the same at school. Maths doesn't change, but Science can and does. However I obviously wouldn't go as far as one of my school teachers who claimed, "Pah! Science, all just based on assumption.". I do love (A-Level standard and not beyond!) logic and it's use in philosophy. 

It could be argued that Science teachers don't want to be troubled by the inconvenience of religion. It could cause, I'd imagine, a lot of distraction and potential confusion. However religion exists (that much is verifiable), and can be of great significance to students and their families. Is it right to say, "No place for that, go ask your RE teacher."?

The Research Review in Academies Weekly has highlighted some of the findings of a project looking at "Secondary school teachers’ perspectives on teaching about topics that bridge science and religion". It begins by stating a universally held view:

"We know some students dislike science because they perceive it as hostile to their religious views. We know that some dismiss religious studies, believing that science and religion are inherently in competition, and that science has emphatically won."

As the review states, "the study is exploratory; illustrating issues rather than describing large-scale patterns." however it gives an interesting first point of reflection for our own school experiences.

Many of the science teachers didn't want to discuss science and religion as they saw it as too controversial and didn't want parental complaint. I guess this is in some ways the opposite of RE teachers who will go out of their way to address controversial topics... I've no idea if there are stats on parental complaints, but I am pretty sure one way or another RE would come pretty high up. I love that fact.

However two of the teachers did not actively shut down such conversations, one seeing it as compatible, the other realising that "it was such an important part of his students’ lives".

The author of the review said that she believed 'respect' for religion in science lessons would manifest in a variety of different ways (with naturally everything in between):
  • “this is nonsense, but I don’t want a dozen parents complaining”
  • “this is nonsense, but my students have the right to diverse views”
  • “I’m personally not religious, but my students are and I think that’s very valuable”

The RE teachers had a different view, and like me, actively tried to develop and challenge students views, especially the polar ones. The study (unlike my own experience, perhaps due to my faith school experience, where some students verge on the creationist) found many students taking the view that "religion was no longer credible or that science trumped religious explanations". We do also have this commonly in a Catholic school too, for the record.

For good RE, it is vital that we can move beyond one or the other, there are a lot of views in between.; not least the Vatican's and my own! Like other teachers in the study, and despite my best intentions and degree level Science and Religion study, sometimes I know enough science to respond well to student questions.

The study highlighted the issues of guidance: "Science teachers have little guidance or help on how to address science and religion, and so are negotiating their own way through this difficult territory. Similarly, where can RE teachers go for help on answering the science questions relevant to religion?"

For me, one of the great sources of guidance is the Faraday Institute (see <here>) and I'd particularly recommend their really really excellent resource Test of Faith (see <here>). It gives a great introduction and is useful for KS4 and 5. However I have used a few bits with Y8 too.

Interestingly no science teachers in the study had considered inviting a scientist of faith to speak to students (I often use Francis Collins videos in lesson, see <here>). I am tempted to try and find one to bring to a General RE session with 6th form.

As the review concludes, this research "offers a description of the status quo, but also a challenge to break the “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture surrounding religion in science lessons."

I am looking forward to reading the article in full, and finding out more about this complex relationship that exists within our schools between the science and RE departments. To be continued...

Read the review in Academies Weekly: <here>
Read the full research article: <here> 

1 comment:

  1. Andy, I am learning my trade of science teaching in a Catholic school. The teachers in the science department don't look for opportunities to raise religion in the content of the lesson although the pupils know what quite a few of the science teachers believe. About half of the department are Christian.
    I think that there is plenty of benefit in me as a science teacher acknowledging that there are matters of truth in which there is wide disagreement. I have no difficulty teaching the entirety of the curriculum - I suspect there's not a great distance between your and my take on creation for example, and I am perfectly happy for Catholic pupils who know that I am a Catholic to also know that I don't think the biblical account of creation to be a scientific one (nothing earth-shattering there). I do challenge pupils to substantiate their claims if they say that "science has proved religion wrong", and of course they can rarely say anything much at all because they have often simply swallowed the bull in the media hook, line and sinker.
    To my mind, cosmology is the area into which both scientists and religion teachers should enter together, seeking the truth. A friend of mine who teaches RE and has taken a course of study in cosmology has set up a group to try to get dialogue between 16-18 yr olds on science, philosophy and religion. This is a good example of what you point out: the RE teachers very happy to step into arenas of controversy. She's kicking off with Galileo since that'll grab the headlines. The first meeting is this week. I intend to participate in some way.
    I think that getting a prominent scientist of faith into schools to talk to students is a really good way forward for any school but Catholic schools especially. Another friend of mine is a professor of genetics and became a Christian and Catholic 10 or so years ago. She's a great example to me. Genetics is one of those areas where people think the atheist scientists have it sewn up.
    I think it mostly depends on the personnel of any particular school whether you can take a particular initiative or not. My friend talked to the (atheist) head of science before she went forward with her discussion group idea. I think it was the right approach but I understand why he might not think it worth getting involved.
    There aren't many things in the science curriculum that give sufficient space for the questions that concern belief. We don't tend to think that we need to add anything in that muddies the water, especially when pressure on teaching time is tight. I'm seeking the right moments to lob in a few grenades but I'll get my PGCE first