RE curriculum – How to decolonise your lessons
Making sure your RE curriculum is aware of colonial influences on religion is tricky. Here are some common mistakes and how to avoid them…
I have spoken to so many primary colleagues who teach their school’s RE curriculum. It feels that a high proportion feel really insecure about their lack of subject knowledge and making mistakes.
I am trained for secondary RE, but I made some catastrophic mistakes early in my career. I learned lessons that I think are relevant across phases.
One thing I think we do really well as RE teachers is to ensure our curriculum is as inclusive and representative as possible. We try our best to make classrooms, lessons, displays and resources representative, diverse and multicultural, starting to break down the stereotypes and misconceptions.
Being inclusive in our teaching is not just about RE though, it is a whole-school responsibility. If children learn about diverse authors and positive historical, scientific, literary figures who look like them, and see the celebration of their achievements, it will inspire them to push beyond institutional racism. A diverse cohort of staff to act as role models can have a similar effect.
But I wonder how many of us feel equipped to offer an authentic RE curriculum in this way, whether this is using the right language and pronunciation or reflecting the spectrum of perspectives within a religious or non-religious worldview?
If we’re lacking the right knowledge or tools, how can we decolonise the RE curriculum?
More to the point, what does that even mean?
Decolonising the RE curriculum
Please don’t think we need to throw out all our resources and start again – we’re all short on time! But we can start making small, manageable changes that can have a huge impact.
And it doesn’t matter if we don’t get it right straight away. Awareness is powerful.
We are interested in how the colonial lens influences our RE curriculum.
Please also note that there must be no judgement at all. The impact of colonialism is so entrenched that it affects most of us in some way, albeit often unconsciously.
It is in no way a reflection of who we are as people.
In short, Britain colonised other countries and represented the people, cultures and religions in these colonies incorrectly, either through ignorance or design.
Our job as RE teachers could be to update our language to replace these inaccuracies. Here’s how!
One simple way of decolonising our curriculum is to use the term Hindu Dharma instead of Hinduism.
India, at the time of its colonisation by Britain, contained a diverse set of beliefs.
The British colonials attempted to put these beliefs into a Christian framework rather than understanding the authenticity of what was already in place.
This means that British colonials used the word Hinduism to categorise and homogenise the diverse beliefs and practices of Indians (Hindu from the Indus River; ism meaning belief).
But there are other small changes we can make, too.
For example; use Mandir not temple when referring to the holy building in Hindu Dharma, and use Varna rather than Caste.
Varna is based on your virtues; Caste is based on your birth right.
Use the word Murti rather then idol, and refer to Brahman as an ultimate reality, not God.
Every Hindu has a different reality in relation to the divine, so Hindus are sometimes atheists, sometimes monotheists, sometimes polytheists, and not all Hindus are vegetarians!
Could we use Sikhi (pro. sickee) and Sikh (pro. sick), as opposed to Sikhism (pro. seek-ism)? Sikhna is a punjabi word which means ‘to learn’.
Sikhism is a noun which suggests a fixed set of beliefs.
Sikhi is a verb which loosely translates as ‘learning to be human through lived experiences’.
You can see how a western Christian lens has been used to define something differently to what it actually is.
Guru Nanak is pronounced Nar-nak.
Siri Guru Granth Sahib (pronounced. sub) has ang (limbs) not pages, as it is a living Guru not a holy book.
The Gurdwara is not so much a religious building as it is a place to engage with the Sri Guru Granth Sahib.
We could use ways of thinking rather than beliefs when referring to the teachings of the Gurus, too.
Finally, people often translate Il Onkar as ‘there is one God’, but a more authentic translation is ‘everything is one’.
Christianity has an uncomfortable connection to colonisation. It is the religion of the British empire and has been since the emperor Constantine appropriated it for his own means.
Also, the Church has historically benefited from the slave trade. Before that, Christianity was, under the rule of Rome, an illegal band of rebels following the teachings of a leader, who, again under the anti-Christian rule of Pontius Pilate, was effectively a convicted criminal – Jesus – a Middle Eastern man.
Saying ‘Jesus is Lord’ in the time of the Roman Empire was literally a revolutionary statement. How could this impact your teaching of Christianity?
I teach lessons on Jesus in terms of how he challenged the culture of the day – how he treated women, how he broke rules.
The Chosen on Netflix is a really authentic look at the person of Jesus in his historical, political and religious context. Very different from the blue-eyed serene Jesus we often see in western art.
It may feel obvious, but not all Jewish people have the same history. So, do we truly reflect the diverse history of Jewish people from around the world?
Do we know that Christians created the word Judaism, and the word religion was created in the 13th Century?
Do you know that the Book of James in the Bible is called the Book of Jacob (Jesus’ brother) in the Hebrew Bible, but the mistranslation stuck when King James wanted to name a book after himself; that Jesus’ original name was Jeshua – he was Jewish so had a Jewish name; or that Mary was Miriam?
These names have been colonised to make them sound more ‘white’. Could we use the authentic names?
The Shahadah states ‘There is no God but Allah’. So, when teaching Islam, we could simply use the word Allah as opposed to God.
And Allah is loving and compassionate, so Islam is a religion of love and compassion.
The new generation may not be impacted by Islamophobia in the same way as the older generation. Yet, many feel the Prevent strategy is biased against Muslims and silences young Muslims in classrooms out of fear of being reported.
Please also be aware that Islam resources are often Sunni bias. Can we include facts about Shia Muslims who pray three times a day, or Sufi Islam which is the mystical branch of the religion?
The word enlightenment is a western term. It’s more authentic to use the word awakening.
Buddha wasn’t necessarily a single historical character, either. Rather the word Buddha means ‘one who is awakened’. Like the concept of messiah in Christianity, there were many Buddha throughout history.
I am guilty of teaching more palatable parts of Buddhism like meditation and ignoring the messier parts like the Buddhist persecution of the Muslim Rohninya people in northern Myanmar.
I also wrongly use Buddhism to challenge the criticism that religion is all about believing in things that are commonly thought of as ‘irrational’ (like God and an afterlife). Using the word enlightenment makes Buddhism sound more ‘rational’.
I hope this breaks down some simple, easy-to-apply ways of being more inclusive and representative, and decolonising the RE curriculum so that our teaching can be even more authentic.
Louisa Jane Smith is an RE teacher with more than 21 years of experience. She started the RE podcast in October 2020 as a free weekly resource for teachers and students of RE. Follow Louisa on Twitter @TheREPodcast1 and see more of her work at therepodcast.co.uk