There is a tendency for discussions about religion in university classrooms to go horribly awry, particularly in relation to current and historical events, science and aspects of social living. Our acutely secular society is critical and nervous about religion in the classroom. Teachers and students, who might otherwise exercise respect and empathy towards others’ personal beliefs and values, feel able to justify expressing extremely critical statements or being quite dismissive about an individual’s comments of a religious nature. Similarly, teachers and students may feel so threatened by discussions about religion that they prevent students from using the frameworks offered by their religious and spiritual beliefs to explore curriculum ideas and related issues.
Thinking about the link between teaching and religion
Why are we so afraid of bringing religion into the classroom? One possible reason is that we are cautious of the passionate over-zealousness that can cloud and distort rational academic discussion. This emanates from a secular education system that until recent times (1970s) has neither encouraged nor included religious discussion. This fear of the over-zealous fundamentalist is compounded by a tendency to conceptualise the ‘other’ as stable and unchanging.
The problem in barring discussion about religious beliefs in the classroom is that such knowledge and belief frameworks constitute the core of many students’ prior learning. As such, cognition scientists tell us, students are likely to filter all subsequent learning through these beliefs.
What learning responses then are possible for students whose strongly held religious beliefs are challenged by what they are learning in the classroom? In a closed classroom where the use of one’s own experiences is discouraged, possible student responses include:
- rejecting or discounting the new learning because it cannot be integrated with the existing knowledge schemata
- ‘surface’ rote learning in order to reproduce theoretical concepts in assessment
- rejecting old learning and personal beliefs which can cause students stress and confusion in their
- personal lives
By contrast, in an open classroom the learning environment actively utilises students’ prior knowledge, life experiences and belief frameworks. Here, possible learning responses include:
- critical reflection on personal taken-for-granted assumptions leading to an understanding of the contradictions and challenges inherent in comparing new concepts with prior knowledge and beliefs
- an openness to the ideas of others and extensive student-teacher classroom interaction
- intentional development of student evidence-based reasoning and ethical and moral reasoning
Respecting religious and cultural diversity at USC
The University’s Equity Policy is inclusive of the diverse elements associated with culture — age, race, religious belief, political belief, marital status, sexuality, gender, pregnancy, disability or impairment. It states that the University will promote social and cultural cohesion by respecting and valuing the diversity of staff and student backgrounds and cultures through teaching and management practices and in the provision of administrative and other services on campus.’
The University has established a quiet reflection room for the benefit of staff and students, in support of the pursuit of their diverse religious and spiritual views, beliefs and practices. This is intended to provide a space on campus for quiet reflection, meditation and multi-faith prayer. Contact Student Life and Learning for the location and opening hours.
Where it is reasonable and practicable to do so, flexible work and study arrangements can be made to accommodate the religious obligations of staff and students at USC. Examples include:
- negotiated flexible work/study arrangements between heads of departments/supervisors and staff and students whose religion requires them to pray at certain times of the day or to attend other religious ceremonies at particular times of the year
- consideration of the main religious festivals when determining examination dates, assessment dates, field trips and arranging placements
- consideration given to student requests for extensions to accommodate religious observance
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