Ian Jones and Jeremy Kidwell
RE:Connect is a new teacher fellowship programme (TFP) enabling teachers of RE to increase their confidence and subject knowledge in the field of religion, worldviews and environment/climate crisis, and to develop new approaches and curriculum resources from their learning. Five teachers (four secondary, one primary) participated in the programme of monthly seminars during 2021/22. The programme also offered an opportunity to test out whether the ‘fellowship programme’ model had wider potential for the RE community, besides immediate benefits to participants and their schools. This article shares our experience and that of the teacher Fellows in creating and piloting the programme.
Background and need
Since the climate crisis concerns human choices and lifestyle decisions as well as technological solutions, the educational challenges it presents address the humanities as well as sciences. RE is well positioned to
contribute here but, with notable exceptions,1 work in this area is underdeveloped, and RE/religion and worldviews education (RWE)/philosophy and ethics remain largely anthropocentric in focus. In 2021, we ran a survey of 85 primary and secondary teachers to help scope the project: two-thirds felt the climate crisis should be a more prominent theme within RE; a third felt it was currently a priority within the syllabus they taught. To change that, ‘great curriculum resources’ and ‘example units of work’ were the most identified needs among survey respondents. How might that be delivered in practice, alongside developing teachers’ wider confidence and subject knowledge in this area? Here, we alighted on the idea of a ‘teacher fellowship programme’.
Teacher fellowship programmes
‘Teacher fellowships’ take various forms in both school and higher education. Some are retrospective awards for innovative practice. Though potentially providing affirmation to recipients and a degree of kudos to their institution, such schemes rarely directly lead teachers to develop their practice further
(Warnes 2021). This was not the model we followed. Nor did RE:Connect seek to establish an expert professional standard such as a ‘chartered teacher’ programme2 – although we hoped that participants would be equipped to offer subject leadership on RE and the environment as a result of their learning. Rather, the aim of RE:Connect was explicitly developmental. As with Farmington Scholarships,3 RE:Connect aimed to enable teachers to engage more deeply with research and thereby to mitigate a
historic disconnection between RE research in academia and classroom realities (Baumfield 2022, p. 133). This is vital for professional development: ‘Internationally, enquiry-based (or “research-rich”) school and college environments are the hallmark of high performing education systems’ (BERA/RSA 2014, p. 6). However, unlike the Farmington Scholarships, RE:Connect was not a personal bursary scheme but a learning community of teachers, working alongside academics, to explore an area of common concern.
In this respect, RE:Connect took inspiration from the TFPs of the Historical Association (HA), which have engaged history teachers with academic research since 2016 (for a brief account of their origins and development, see Burn 2021, p. 131). In the first HA TFP, 14 teachers participated in an initial residential
workshop, an eight-week online subject knowledge course and a final day-long conference to reflect on how new learning had been incorporated into classroom practice. This also provided a first opportunity
for participants to share draft resources developed during the programme (Teaching History 2016, pp. 6–7). With RE:Connect, we sought to discover whether something similar could be developed within RE/RWE.
Having developed their own pilot leadership programme for teachers of RWE, Wright et al. (2021, pp. 268–69) emphasise four key areas of professional development, namely being: (1) research engaged, (2) curriculum engaged, (3) classroom engaged and (4) politically engaged. Without being aware of this pilot
project, our vision for the RE:Connect TFP was similar: it sought to develop disciplinary knowledge in partnership with academic researchers, help participants to develop new approaches and resources as part of the programme, explore alternative pedagogies relevant to the programme’s environmental
focus and be attentive to the real-world implications of the topics being studied.
We also strived to create a model that involved a two-way exchange between academics and practitioners, departing from more conventional, ‘content delivery’ knowledge transfer projects (BERA/RSA 2014, Guldberg et al. 2017, Orchard et al. 2021, Wright et al. 2021), in recognition of the
co-constructed nature of both ecological and pedagogical knowledge. Curriculum projects generated by participants in communities of practice emerge from the triangulation of research insights, personal perspectives and classroom experience (Orchard et al. 2021, p. 271). The RE:Connect TFP was also a collaborative undertaking in that its realworld success rested on teacher insights into the location of climate crisis in the classroom and curriculum.
Reflecting on our experience
Practically, a key initial challenge was recruiting teachers during the pandemic and its aftermath. We were also limited (by a combination of practicality and funding conditions) to targeting recruitment primarily at the West Midlands region and neighbouring counties. We were particularly disappointed to recruit only one primary practitioner, who played an important role in mitigating any drift towards an exclusively
secondary focus. In any future iteration of the TFP, a longer-term recruitment window is needed to enable potential participants to agree involvement with their schools in good time. We would also hope to recruit nationally next time.
Programming and forming a learning community
Scheduling CPD into teachers’ already crowded weeks presented a further early challenge. Fellows were not able to take advantage of funding offered for cover to attend daytime sessions, and when they were
surveyed at induction, weekday evenings worked best for all. With a cohort drawn from across the Midlands region this was only possible through video conferencing, which was critical to enabling the programme to run at all during the pandemic. Covid permitted just one in-person Saturday session, which only half of Fellows could attend, but for one it was a real high point: ‘I loved the idea of going for a walk and talking about our projects – being in the fresh air and enjoying the surroundings felt like a really encouraging and inspiring “classroom.”’
Informal conversation around the fringes of formal learning are an important dimension of transformative CPD (Wright et al. 2021, pp. 375–76; conversation with Maheema Chanrai). The difficulty of forming a learning community online, and the value placed on opportunities for in-person meeting, were key areas identified for improvement in participant feedback. Consequently, we are considering building a fully funded residential workshop into any future programmes (in the HA’s equivalent fellowship programme,
this is an effective compulsory element). For the remainder of the programme, the Zoom experience was adequate although not without limitations: one Fellow noted the negative impact on sessions with a more
experiential focus and on the creation of a strong learning community. Nevertheless, to achieve at least some of the hospitable environment we had originally envisaged, we posted participant packs to Fellows
before the first session, including fair trade chocolate, a notebook and other small treats. Fellows were also invited to order pre-meeting takeaways of their choice and reclaim the cost (in lieu of catering for an
in-person meeting). Although most only took advantage of this offer in the first session, it was universally appreciated.
Programme content and formative support
Content-wise, Session 1 provided a brief introduction to climate science (from an environmental geographer) and recent approaches to the study of religion. Sessions then explored environmental justice and environmental ethics (with contributions from invited guests including academic researchers, environmental activists and some who identified as both). Although not originally planned, a session on religion, environment and ‘affect’ was included, recognising that responding to climate change is as much a matter of heart as of head. This generated interesting discussions on the emotional dimensions of exploring climate change with young people and the possible school-level implications of pupil activism and/or climate anxiety. Sessions addressing more pedagogical questions covered experiential learning, outdoor pedagogies and scriptural reasoning – the latter as a (relatively) new approach to religious texts.4 Several participants subsequently tried this with their own classes. We also allowed participants to
choose topics particularly relevant to their teaching. Texts and experiential learning were both specifically selected by Fellows; a further example of the TFP as a collaborative learning community.
Our own thinking about course content also evolved during the programme. Having begun with a strong emphasis on academic input, we increased the curriculum focus as the programme progressed, inviting
experienced RE teacher-educators to share relevant curriculum resources and/ or comment on Fellows’ ideas for their curriculum projects. Two guest contributors presented reflections on their own projects
connecting RE and environment.5 Refining the programme as we went along was not always easy, but constituted learning on the ‘academic’ as well as ‘practitioner’ sides. This mutual stepping outside of comfort zones is characteristic of any genuine community of practice (Guldberg et al. 2017, p. 408).
Further refinements maintained a curriculum focus throughout the TFP. We offered optional drop-in sessions to discuss curriculum projects. Additionally, the sessions benefited from the involvement of Amy Houghton – Barnes, an experienced secondary RE teacher and PhD student originally engaged as a
research assistant, who became an important intermediary between academic research and classroom realities. In similar fashion, Katharine Burn’s recent evaluation of the HA teacher fellowship schemes emphasises the critical role of the resident teacher-educator in those programmes in modelling good-quality curriculum design (Burn 2021, p. 134) and also helping Fellows navigate between what Peter Seixas has called ‘the Scylla of dead knowledge’ (mere content delivery) and ‘the Charybdis of relativistic ignorance’ (the overwhelming complexity of vast quantities of un-sifted research that could leave teachers and pupils confused rather than enlightened) (quoted in Burn 2021, p. 130). In view of Burn’s analysis and our own experience, we plan to strengthen teacher-educator input into any subsequent RE:Connect TFP. We would also add a session evaluating current curriculum approaches to the topic (‘What already exists? Where are the gaps?’) earlier on in the programme.
That said, Fellows’ feedback suggested they found programme content appropriate and relevant. Several highlighted the attention paid to the variety of lived experience explored. ‘It’s been really good to get insight from the people who are at the forefront of this issue, whether they are activists or academics,’ said one Fellow. Another commented, ‘it has opened my eyes to the variety of action that is taking place
among action groups. This is forming part of my project/classroom activities, because I feel that sometimes I miss the real person element in teaching about religious responses to ethical issues.’ Fellows also appreciated a focus on the affective/experiential dimensions of religion and climate crisis (a less prominent theme in RE historically). There was widespread recognition that the educational task around
climate crisis was at least as much about cultivating hopefulness, wonder, gratitude and resourcefulness as about ‘head’ knowledge. However, this also poses a pedagogical challenge: how far can RE equip and
resource for the climate challenge while also maintaining an appropriately open, critical stance to its subject matter?
Regarding perceived gaps in content, Fellows identified further topics for exploration, mostly related to their personal interests or teaching context, rather than any single overarching theme. On reflection,
we recognise there is scope for exploring both non-religious worldviews and more environmentally sceptical perspectives. Having focused upon the climate crisis, we were also conscious of the equally serious but often overlooked implications of the biodiversity crisis and the breaching of other critical planetary boundaries. While touching regularly upon different religious perspectives on environment in general, we did not explore religious engagement with animal and plant life to any sustained extent. Deciding what to omit was challenging for us as programme leaders – leading us to consider offering
optional occasional webinars over the coming year to cover further topics.
The initial phase of the programme ended with a presentation and celebration day in June 2022, at which Fellows previewed their curriculum projects to an invited audience of experienced practitioners from the RE community, and we reflected together on the programme as a whole. Primary teacher Zoe Higgins developed a whole-school scheme of work on caring for the world, based around a series of striking images of climate action by people of different religions and worldviews. Tom Breakwell (secondary) developed a new unit of work on animal ethics through an exploration of recent voices, including Donna Haraway, Soumaya Pernilla Ouis and David Clough, plus a research task for pupils themselves to undertake. Steph Chadwick (secondary) developed a unit of work called ‘Climate Stories’, exploring syllabus topics through four lenses: the earth’s story, stories of origin, climate action stories and pupils’
own climate stories. Tony Kemp (secondary) created a topic focusing on climate change in Christian, Muslim and Buddhist perspectives. Secondary teacher Rebecca Wright’s unit of work enabled pupils to re-examine existing syllabus topics (origins, evil and suffering, animal ethics) through a climate lens, focusing particularly on our respective responsibilities to humanity and to nature more widely.
At the time of writing, these curriculum projects are at the second draft stage, having only been piloted in participants’ own schools. Reflections upon this phase of the project must therefore remain preliminary.
Quality assurance is an important stage of any CPD with curriculum development objectives (Burn 2021, p. 134). The strategy of trialling resources with a wider range of schools was built into the project from
the beginning, and is possibly unique to RE:Connect. Experienced guest contributors gave formative feedback on curriculum projects at various points in the programme. However, to provide an additional layer of quality assurance, we can learn from the HA’s TFPs, which include an element of paid editorial support from an experienced curriculum designer. Helping to sharpen Fellows’ curriculum creation skills may be another way in which we can invest in their professional practice (Burn 2021, p. 145; conversation with Maheema Chanrai). Final versions of the curriculum projects will become available via a forthcoming project website.
The value of teacher engagement with research
Overall, how did Fellows reflect upon RE:Connect as CPD? All valued time out of class to renew subject understanding through engagement with research. One Fellow observed, ‘it has challenged me academically in a really good way – made me step outside of what I already “know” and made me want
to go further in my reading and research’. Another noted, ‘other [CPD] programmes have mostly been either completely abstract or completely focused on classroom practice’. For this person, RE:Connect was successful in bridging the two. Fellows also saw the TFP model as potentially beneficial to the RE
community more generally. ‘I think the idea is a good one,’ said one Fellow, ‘having space and time to explore an area of the curriculum [and] practice that can then be fed back into the department through trialling ideas “on the ground.”’ Although it is early days, the programme appears to be generating
some practical applications: ‘I wouldn’t have created this scheme of work otherwise,’ said another Fellow.
Fellows also agreed on the value of strengthening research–practice links. Participants appreciated an introduction to new ideas only otherwise accessible through journal or library paywalls. However, human
interaction was also critical. One Fellow observed: ‘having the opportunity to listen and question experts has been much more useful than purely reading articles and research’. Another commented, ‘by putting
academics and experts in the same (virtual) room as teachers, we are able to listen to access research without getting lost in a sea of information online’. Consequently, although we can see various ways in which RE:Connect can be refined and developed, we are cautiously encouraged about the fellowship programme model’s potential for engaging teachers with recent research in RE/RWE.
The RE:Connect Teacher Fellowship Programme was co-funded by Culham St Gabriel’s Trust and St Peter’s Saltley Trust. Thank you to participants in the AULRE and RExChange conferences 2022 for their feedback on earlier versions of this paper; to RE:Connect Fellows for their reflections; and to Maheema Chanrai, Education and Events Officer at the Historical Association, for insights on the Association’s TFPs and relevant research.
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education’, British Journal of Religious Education, 44 (2),
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1 For example, see: Hampshire Inspection and Advisory
Service’s cross-disciplinary Climate Crisis Project
publications by RE Today Services.
2 For example, the Historical Association’s Chartered
Teacher status (www.history.org.uk/secondary/
categories/CTHist), or that provided by the Chartered
College of Teaching
5 We featured Hampshire’s Climate Crisis
Project (see note 1) and Charlie Syson’s Green
Worldviews project, www1.chester.ac.uk/news/