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Metacognition in RE May 22, 2020

Posted by Andy in Uncategorized.
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I’ve been reading a lot of books about teaching religion the past six years or so. This one actually comes from my home county of Devon so it immediately peaked my curiosity, and I was able to imagine vividly the empirical cases it described, even though I haven’t lived there since 1996.

The reason I love this one is that it takes both its subjects very seriously. So much work on teaching religion and ethics (mine included) is largely about religion and ethics with a pedagogical tail. This book engages with education as a field of study, specifically the central and important field of metacognition. I don’t want to go too deeply into it (the authors draw on the work of Flavell) but the basic idea is that pupils learn better when they are experts in learning. So they have to learn their subject alongside practising and reflecting on learning skills and themselves as learners.

While applauding the book’s approach, I was also struck by an important insight they bring to the table: Studying religion both benefits from pupils’ metacognition and feeds into it. So just as we all know children need to know about learning in order to get better at a subject, much of their deepseated convictions are philosophical material and may well be

religiously coloured. Religion is a global phenomenon, and may influence any area of human life. Schools are special cases of this because (1) religions are also knowledge-producing phenomena; and (2) European schools are all riffing on ecclesiastic and monastic culture.

This was particularly welcome to me because the Norwegian government recently decided that in the MA in education that is now the requirement for all starting teachers, the education element has include about 25% religious studies and ethics. This is a lot, and some might say too much. My immediate assumption was that there were two motivations for this based on religion in Norway – a Christian heritage and multireligious present – and two based on educational thought – ethics and thought (theory, logic, clarity). Happily the heritage argument was forgotten, but the thought argument was too. This struck me as a shame because if students are to understand some of the central thinkers in education, such as Dewey, Bakhtin, Foucault and Wittgenstein, then they would do well to have a grounding in philosophy and religious studies.

High Bickington school in Devon, only just not connected to the church

I think this book is getting at something along these lines. Naturally, it’ll be important for any teaching interested in metacognitive reflection to engage with the religious and philosophical traditions encouched in the syllabus and incarnated in religious groups present in school. The book describes different ways to do that, and they are often psychagogical techniques: mapping one’s own worldview, placing oneself on metacognitive scales, and discussing one’s own standpoint in sensitive groups.

All this is as I say to be applauded, but the use of psychagogical technology for cognitive benefit does give me pause. How deep should a teacher’s incursions into a pupil’s psychological makeup go and to what end? In a knowledge society, when does our legitimate and noble search for truth dissolve into the practice of carving out a new information proletariate? To what extent are pupils being asked to change who they are because of parameters set by political decisions and teacher caprice? None of this is especially black and white territory.

And although I was certainly enthused by the book’s academic advances, I remain wary that this is one further way of teaching children to seek the truth as a controlled and goal-driven exercise. Even the joy of discovery and the ecstasy of enlightenment have to be planned, logical, cool, and measured. I wonder whether there is a place in our schools for uncurbed, passionate and bacchanalian learning that delights in instruction wherever it can be found, splashing in wisdom and dancing in its light.

Shirley Larkin, Rob Freathy, Jonathan Doney, Giles Freathy (2019) Metacognition, Worldviews and Religious Education: A Practical Guide for Teachers, London: Routledge.

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