Secondary school teachers’ perspectives on teaching about topics that bridge science and religion

Research: Secondary school teachers’ perspectives on teaching about topics that bridge science and religion

Authors: Berry Billingsley, Fran Riga, Keith S. Taber and Helen Newdic Curriculum Journal, 2014, vol 25, issue 3, p.372-395

Publisher: Taylor and Francis

What happens to the future of science and religion when many students see them as fundamentally opposed? This is the question at stake for the Learning About Science and Religion (LASAR) project team.

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. What we don’t know is how teachers respond to these students, and how they understand their role in this issue.

Enter the LASAR team, who have explored this question with a small number of science and RE teachers. Due to the small sample, the study is exploratory; illustrating issues rather than describing large-scale patterns.

The science teachers studied did not want to discuss science and religion during science lessons. They knew the discussions were controversial, and worried about parent complaints. They therefore developed many ways of disengaging from such discussions: closing down conversations, avoiding a personal stance, giving students the responsibility for presenting different viewpoints, and using exams to justify learning science content, even if the students didn’t accept it.

One teacher said that science and religion were incompatible, which made it difficult to discuss the subject positively. However, two science teachers said they deliberately discussed science and religion: one seeing it as entirely compatible, the other including religion because it was such an important part of his students’ lives.

The science teachers suggested that religion should be treated with respect, which meant accepting different viewpoints, not dismissing religion but also not trying to convert students, though one resented “tip-toeing” around science as a result.

From teachers I have worked with, I would expect this respect for religion to vary from “this is nonsense, but I don’t want a dozen parents complaining”, through “this is nonsense, but my students have the right to diverse views”, to “I’m personally not religious, but my students are and I think that’s very valuable”.

In contrast, RE teachers in the study said they actively tried to develop students’ views about religion and science. They described students who thought religion was no longer credible or that science trumped religious explanations; moving students beyond this oppositional view was necessary for them to take RE seriously. However, the teachers said that they often didn’t know enough science to respond well to student questions.

Both RE and science teachers were aware that a “science vs religion” viewpoint turned some students off their subjects. Science teachers responded by emphasising “respect” for religion but avoiding controversial discussion, whereas RE teachers tackled the tension. While there is some curriculum guidance about science for RE teachers, 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?

Given the investment in widening diversity in science, the question of science and religion deserves further attention from practitioners and researchers.

The International Baccalaureate’s compulsory course on “theory of knowledge” asks students to compare the nature and knowledge of natural sciences and religious knowledge, among other disciplines. Is this effective?

And what can we learn from faith schools with thriving post-compulsory science programmes? As the LASAR researchers note, while science teachers were concerned about the influence of religious beliefs on science learning, none had considered inviting a scientist of faith to talk to their class.

This research therefore 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.