Articles > Religions and the public sphere > 2010 > In the schools of the world face to face with faith
The journal > Year 6 N.11 June 2010 > In the schools of the world face to face with faith

In the schools of the world face to face with faith

The former British premier presents the readers of Oasis with the programme produced by his foundation. ‘In the global life of the twenty-first century we must promote understanding between believers and project a positive image of religious identity.’ A project at work in eleven countries.

Tony Blair | 01 June 2010

Face to Faith is an international programme for secondary school students run by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. It aims to build up the religious literacy  of those who are taking part, as well as fostering respect and mutual understanding between students of different cultures and religions. It enables students to learn from and about each other, by giving them the opportunity to have discussions across national and religious boundaries using videoconferencing technology. Currently active in 11 countries (Australia, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Singapore, Lebanon, Palestinian Territories, Jordan, the UK, the USA, and Canada), the programme provides students with the ability to talk to their peers around the world about issues of global importance, and learn about the diversity of ways that different cultures and religions around the world empower people to find solutions.

Education is the key to developing the future – not just of individuals, but of societies, nations, and increasingly, of the globe. Education systems around the world are struggling to adapt to the realization that they are preparing the students of today for the global realities of tomorrow (and with the exponentially accelerating pace of change it is almost impossible to predict what these realities might be). The historically solid foundations that have been understood to underpin such realities in the past, the things that people have used to anchor their understanding of themselves when buffeted by the flow of history – culture, nationhood, religious faith – are themselves subject to the forces of change the Face to Faith programme is designed to address a key issue that has traditionally been an area from which education systems have shied away; the whole question of faith and identity. In preparing students for life in the 21st century, it is important to recognise the importance of faith for so many people in the world, and the ways in which Faith plays an important part in informing and shaping their lives. Old assumptions that ‘other people’s beliefs are not something I have to know about, because they are so far away,[1] or that ‘religion is just a fairy story for those who don’t understand science’[2] are powerfully critiqued by the discourses of globalisation and post-modernism – irresistible trajectories that are pushing us all forward into a shared future as global citizens, who must learn to listen to and understand our new neighbours if we are to stand and grow together.

The Tony Blair Faith Foundation has two main aims – to enable people of faith to better understand one another, and to project a positive image of Faith on the world stage, and the Face to Faith Programme plays a vital part in both these processes. Face to Faith seeks to work with young people; the secondary students of today who will be the world leaders, the politicians, the voters, the citizens of tomorrow. The Programme seeks to enable them to hear one another’s stories, to learn about one another’s beliefs, and thus to develop a community of mutual understanding and respect. Significantly, the corollary of this learning is that the students are also the teachers – they are thus empowered as proud owners of their own stories, ambassadors of their own cultures and faiths – which are no longer represented through the (all too frequently distorting) lens of the Media, but experienced directly from the very source.

The key encounter between students occurs through the medium of the videoconference, where students directly encounter ‘the other’ and learn from them, as well as teaching about their own beliefs and cultural positions. On the most fundamental level this enables students to see past the stereotypes presented by the media and to directly encounter other young people, from other cultures and beliefs, as individuals, and to establish relationships based in mutual understanding and respect. Although each videoconference is only an hour, students are able to continue their discussions through the medium of an online community, which is only accessible to registered students and teachers. Each videoconference is moderated by an individual with a background either in inter-faith dialogue or in multi-faith religious education – they move the discussion along, and free teachers to concentrate upon helping their students get the most out of the opportunity.

Face to Faith is working in partnership with the Global Nomads Group and Polycom (world leaders in Videoconference technology) to allow all schools that want to take part in the Programme to do so, through the provision of free Videoconferencing software. Our experience has demonstrated that this is an effective way of building relationships across the globe; one teacher emailed a colleague after a video conference: ‘Your students were eloquent, honest and curious...I loved the way they referred to one another as friends and I was really pleased with their reactions towards one another even when showing -disagreement. They had obviously really taken in the messages about communicating honestly in a respectful way.’ 

Discussions in the Classroom

There is often a considerable tension inherent in the relationship between religious faith and education – one that is usually solved in many countries by a rigorous adherence to secular principles in education; an assumption that religion is an entirely private, and frequently divisive, matter that should be entirely left outside the classroom. When one considers the historical abuse of privileged positions in education by some religious communities in the past, this attitude is hardly surprising – nobody wants to see young people being brainwashed or forced into any particular faith or ideology, and this rejection of religious faith as a legitimate topic of learning or discussion is one way to approach this. This particular approach is not without problems however – notably that it tends to produce individuals who are not only ignorant about religious faith (whether that of their own culture, or others), but who lack the specialised language or -understandings which would enable them to engage with people of faith in the future. Their opinions will be formed by the vagaries of the media – whose currents blow this way then that – or, more worryingly, by extremist groups. Beyond this is an underpinning of the attitude that religious faith does not matter, and is not a part of the ‘grown up world.’ In short, to use Prothero’s terminology, they become ‘religiously illiterate.’[3]

Face to Faith seeks to improve student’s ‘religious literacy,’ by giving them the opportunities to explore these ideas in a safe and supportive environment. On the most fundamental level the programme seeks to enable students to learn about religions through a variety of resources; most significantly through their discussions with their peers. The fact that this takes place in a classroom is in itself significant. Classrooms are frequently places where good quality, challenging discussion happen; yet in a well-managed and supportive environment. Students are encouraged to think widely about a variety of issues, and to draw their own conclusions from them – so why should religious faith be excluded from this intellectual process? The argument that ‘students are likely to be converted through ideas they encounter in their lessons’ is a weak one. Students around the world learn about terrible things in history – the Holocaust for example; but it is never suggested that exposure to these ideas, for example understanding the background of European anti-semitism, is going to make students either anti-semitic or genocidal. In fact experience suggests that students are most likely to emerge from the process strengthened in the positions that they hold at the start. The process of explaining to others what you believe is a very challenging one – you have to get past the commonplaces and shibboleths that are a regular part of religious discourse. You can’t use the convenient terminology of the insider – you actually have to explain ideas clearly and simply. Very often, this helps people to explore exactly what it is they believe – whether it is ‘why I believe in God,’ or ‘why I don’t believe in God.’ For it is important to remember that this is about religious literacy – it is about learning ‘about’ religion, not teaching ‘into’ religion. It is valid and valuable for all students, whether or not they personally have a faith, and there is room for everyone’s belief and viewpoints to be discussed.

We encourage the use of techniques derived from inter-faith dialogue – with an emphasis upon what ‘I’ think or believe (rather than assuming that any one person represents an entire tradition), which not only empowers students by respecting their individual viewpoint, but also gives students the opportunity to discover, at first hand, the diversity of experiences and approaches within any particular religious tradition. Muslim students from Indonesia, Pakistan, Palestine and the UK may all share some elements of a common religious culture, but their experience of how that is lived out within different communities may be very different. It is also significant that students learn about religious faith as a form of ‘inoculation against extremism.’ One of the reasons why young people become religious extremists is that their first encounter with religion, usually in its most fundamentalist and extreme form, is one that brooks no questioning, no dissension – that teaches by beating words into their heads until they begin to come out of their mouths. That such an approach seems right to them is, ironically, underpinned by an education privileging the secular perspective on religion: which suggests that religion per se is monolithic, fundamentalist and irrational.

Students whose first encounter with religion has been in the classroom are in a different position; they are used to questioning, they are familiar with some of the concepts, and most importantly, they know that there is great diversity within any particular faith – therefore any individual or group claiming to have an exclusive truth or interpretation, may not be correct. 

Encouraging Social Action

The Face to Faith programme provides a range of teaching materials to enable teachers to prepare their students for the videoconferences. It is important that these precious encounters represent meaningful dialogue – and we believe that this is an approach that can be both learned and taught. The resources are modular and flexible so that they can be used in a variety of different curriculum models, as well as with students of differing ages and experiences; it can be integrated into existing curricular structures, or taught as a free standing course (it can even be used as can be used to support the project component of the -Global Perspectives IGCSE offered in 140 countries by Cambridge Assessment). After an introductory module, which focuses specifically upon the skills needed for building effective and meaningful dialogue, other modules focus upon global issues – such as wealth or the environment, which are approached ‘through the lens of faith.’ Students are given the opportunity to discover the ways that different faith communities engage with these issues, as well as space to consider their own feelings. It is also extremely important never to lose sight of the fact that the very best classroom activities are also enjoyable – fun is an important part of learning, and being able to do this in different classrooms around the world is a great privilege for us. One of our Indian colleagues commented: “I thank you for this wonderful programme Face to Faith. Students are enjoying doing the modules’ activities a lot.” An important part of these modules, which links very closely to other work done by the foundation is the encouragement to ‘social action’ in the later modules. Students are encouraged to explore strategies for their own direct engagement with these issues, and to put those into practice. Of course this is something that most schools do anyway – but the emphasis here is subtly different, and may give extra impetus to broader engagement between students and their wider society.

We recognise as well that very few teachers around the world are experts in world religions, therefore the materials are presented with an emphasis upon the teacher as ‘facilitator’ rather than ‘expert.’ Face to Faith is aware that many teachers are being asked to take on a lot in delivering this project – particularly in countries where the education system is rigorously secular, or where didactic pedagogies have discouraged the development of dialogue, and consequently supports teachers in a variety of ways. Firstly there are detailed materials which teachers can use to help prepare students for the videoconferences (and teachers are free to adapt these to optimise their effectiveness in particular cultural contexts), and secondly there is a rolling programme of teacher training – covering not merely the ideas that will come up in the modules, but a good deal of effective pedagogy – concentrating upon techniques of cooperative learning and building dialogue.

It might be tempting to critique this work as being a continuation of a colonial project of imposing western perspectives into education systems around the world, but this is not, in fact, the case. The programme’s underlying philosophy is underpinned by the international nature of the ‘Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religions and Beliefs in Public Schools,’[4] and its development was overseen by a panel of international experts on religion and education, with contributions from a wide-ranging advisory panel of religious leaders and thinkers. The inherent flexibility that has been built into the materials allows teachers to fit it into their own situation, and our rolling programme of review and evaluation ensures that we are updating materials in the light of feedback from teachers. In addition, Professor Robert Jackson and a team of researchers from the World Religions Education Unit at Warwick University are carrying out an independent evaluation of Face to Faith. The team will use both qualitative and quantitative data collected from online discussions and activities to videoconference dialogue. Face to Faith was launched on the 9th June 2009, and  has grown rapidly since then. We have provided teacher training workshops in India, Pakistan, Thailand, Singapore, Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine, working with 267 teachers to introduce the project.[5] The programme is supported by lead schools in all those countries, and by local coordinators, who are able to bring their own expertise and experience from working in those countries to support and empower  other teachers and schools.

Our experience of working with the first tranche of teachers around the world has been enormously stimulating – there has been enormous enthusiasm evident in all the workshops for the project; as one teacher wrote to us – ‘There is a real buzz in school about Face to Faith.’

There is a great thirst in schools all over the world for this kind of dialogue; for the pedagogical methods to build the skills to create it, and for the opportunities to embed and continue it, so that students are able to overcome the barriers of ignorance, prejudice and suspicion that have blighted the relationships of previous generations. The teachers with whom we have worked so far are, like so many of their colleagues around the world, willing to embrace new ideas and approaches that will make the learning in their classrooms more effective, and have taken up Face to Faith in that spirit – as one of our Australian colleagues said: “We are most impressed, and can really see the benefits for our children.”

Building these international relationships, and framing these questions in terms of faith and identity seems to be very much of the zeitgeist, not merely in Europe, but around the world; in every country where we have launched the programme there is an acknowledgement that this is what students need to support them in the future. It is common knowledge that religious faith can be used to cause problems in the world, but there is also a desire to see examples of the ways that faith can be used to bring the world together, and to move towards addressing those problems. Face to Faith is one step towards that goal.





 

[1] To paraphrase Richard Dawkins  - ‘It has become almost a cliché to remark that nobody boasts of ignorance of literature, but it is socially acceptable to boast of ignorance of religion.’ 

[2] To quote  Richard Dawkins  – ‘Religions  do make claims  about the universe,  the same kinds  of claims  that scientists make, except  they're usually false.’
[3] Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know And Doesn't (HarperCollins,  New York, 2007).
[4] http://www.osce. org/publications/ odihr/2007/ 11/28314_993_en.pdf. 

[5] So far!
 

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