Religion - Every Teacher Needs More

April 04, 2016

Religion is given a prominent role in the new Norwegian Teacher Education, as a core competence for teaching in a multicultural society. But this proposed change is contested.

All teachers in Norway shall be given a basic competence in religion, world views and ethics. This is vital to be a teacher in a multicultural society. At least this is what the proposed curriculum for the new Norwegian teacher education says. Critics say this is just a result of political horse trading, and not based in the needs of the educational system at all. 

What role should religion play in public schools? A large one, if we are to go by the proposed regulations for a new teacher education in Norway, at the time of writing circulated for consultation. In Norwegian primary schools Religious Education is mandatory for all pupils, regardless of religious background. Learning about religious and non-religious convictions is seen as key to tolerance and respect across cultural and religious boundaries. In the proposed new Norwegian teacher education program, due for implementation in 2017, this role is taken further. Every teacher, no matter what subject they teach, should have a basic knowledge about religion, world views and ethics (RLE). In §3 “Structure and content” we can find this proposal: 

This makes knowledge about religion, world views and ethics a core competence for teachers, being portrayed as an essential part of being a teacher in a multicultural society. This new module is given 15 ECT, one fourth of the new mandatory “vocational subject”. And this is where the current debate on the issue is coming from. Giving RLE a more prominent place, means something else got to go. And in this case it is pedagogy, up until now the core mandatory subject, that has to give way, sparking a massive protest from teachers and pedagogues that fear for the future role of pedagogy in teacher education.

“Everything is politics”

Steffen Handal, the leader of the largest teacher union in Norway is not merciful. And he is not the only one. They argue that the only reasons for strengthening the role of RLE are political; the result of a small Cristian party’s skillful maneuvering to give religion a larger part in public schools. And that it should never have made its way into the curriculum in the first place. It’s hard to contend the point that this is the result of political compromise. After the 2013 election, this was one of the concessions the current government coalition had to give to secure the support from the Christian Democrats, who got 5, 6 % of the votes in the election.

So even though the objections to the new module in many ways represent an internal professional struggle in teacher education, the criticism voiced here is serious and attacks the legitimacy of the new module altogether.

But is it really a bad idea?

In my opinion there are good reasons for including religion, world views and ethics in the mandatory part of teacher education. I will go into one of them here. If we look to policy and research on education in Europe the last decade, we can see an increased focus on the ways knowledge about religion and world views should play a larger part in European education. In 2008 the Committee of Ministers in the European Council recommended to its member states that they should include religious and non-religious convictions in intercultural education. The following years this has been a prioritized area for the European Council. In 2014 an international panel convened by the Council and the European Wergeland Center  published the book Signposts – Policy and practice for teaching about religions and non-religious world views in intercultural education, penned by professor Robert Jackson, one of Europe’s leading scholars on religious education. The recommendation is clear. Religion and non-religious world views should be included in intercultural education.

Education on religious and non-religious world views is therefore given an important role in schools, especially through the notion of creating a “safe space” for exploration of diversity. To achieve this it is strongly recommended that teachers are educated and trained in this field.

European policy might not be an all-persuasive argument for strengthening RLE in school, but the joint European research on intercultural education, tolerance learning and democracy might be. But in that case the new RLE-module will have to be designed with this as a main focus, aiming to give teachers tools and competence to deal with the challenges and opportunities of an increasingly culturally diverse population. It will also be essential that religion is not given a privileged place compared to non-religious convictions.

Unfortunate start

I think it is unfortunate that the new module has been caught up in a professional struggle with pedagogy. Even less fortunate is the fact that this change came about after the internal political dealings over governmental power. The allegations that this is just about the religious agenda of a small Christian party to give religion a more prominent place in public schools, in many ways pulverize the legitimacy of this module from the outset. If the new module had been better founded in both open debate and in the available research on intercultural education, the situation would have been different. Intercultural education will become more and more important in the years to come, and a lot of research and experience is brought to the table from the field of religious education. There are few that argue against the importance of strengthening teachers’ competence in this area. Hopefully the further political process will find a way to strengthen this competence in a way that does not undermine such a module from the start.