Debates and controversy in religious education classrooms – an eyewitness account

In this study, we were keen to understand the lived professional experiences of RE teachers in classroom discourse and how they engaged with religious pluralism, and navigated through controversial issues, including how, if at all, religious misclusion manifested. It is with regard to this particular issue that we followed Ghana teacher 8 to her classroom and spent time observing her teaching and classroom interaction in the practice of RE.

We entered the junior high school form 2 class with Ghana teacher 8. It was the first period of the day and students had just returned from the morning assembly. As soon as we entered, students stood up to greet and welcome us. Responding to Ghana teacher 8 s greeting, they responded in unison: ‘Good morning madam, Good morning sir.’The teacher introduced our team to the students and explained the purpose of the visit. We spent a few minutes explaining what we will be doing and how our presence should not affect their participation in class. By the time the briefing was done, the teacher had written on the chalkboard, the lesson for the day: ‘Religious Festivals’. She reminded the students of the previous lessons on Christmas and Easter as festivals for Christians, and introduced the Aboakyir festival as the topic for the day. The students opened their notebooks and wrote down the topic, in an expectant mood to write some more notes. An observation of their notebooks revealed that they copied notes for the topics that they had treated earlier.

The teacher gave a catchy introduction to the topic when she asked students to explain literal meaning of ‘aboakyir’. Students gave responses generally around “catching an animal”. Others explained it as ‘helping to catch’, but in summarising she introduced the pupils to a festival celebrated by the people of Efutu in honour of their god Penkye Otu. She narrated the history behind the festival, and described the activities involved. In the course of the lesson, the following deliberation was observed:

student i: Madam, why do they have to kill the animal? Can’t they keep them somewhere and create a zoo made up of all the deer that they had caught?

teacher: Yes, that will have been a good idea but they follow what their god says. student 2: But in Islam too we learnt about the killing of ram for Ramadan, is

that not also killing?

student 3: Noooo, don’t bring that.You see, for our own, it was Allah who told Ibrahim to kill the ram.

student 2: But this one too, it was Penkye Otu who told them to do it.

student 3: Yes, but that is some small god. Ibrahims case was Allah himself. |The exchanges generate some murmuring, other students expressing approval and disapproval of some of the submissions. Ghana teacher 6 intervenes and calls the class to keep quiet. She then tries to address the concerns.

teacher : That’s ok, it’s ok! I think you two are making some sense. But you know, this kind of sacrifice is very archaic. Look back at when Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac, it’s been a long time. After Jesus’ death, animal sacrifice is gone. That is why Christians don’t do it anymore. For the Muslims, it’s not bad because when they kill the animal, they share the meat among their people so there is some benefit to that [loud cheers from students]. Sacrificing animals to God is no longer popular, that is why people don’t like traditional religion.

These excerpts from our data are not just interesting, but typical of exchanges in RE classrooms across sub-Saharan Africa. With the exception of a few contexts where teachers opt for confessionalism, classrooms bring up debatable issues that are very informative and also educative. In this scenario, we see students and their teacher represent or attempt to represent Christianity, Islam and AIR. Although the topic was about an AIR festival, the deliberation drew on both Christian and Islamic connections. First, students 2 and 3 engaged in exchanges attempting to compare Allah and Penkye Otu, who is described as a small god (a misclusion). Perhaps, given the scope of their influences, God is bigger than Penkye Otu. However, when put into perspective, AIR hinges on the belief that lesser gods act on behalf of the Supreme Being. Therefore, Penkye Otu making a demand for animal sacrifice is no different from the Supreme Being demanding by himself as in the Islamic perspective.Yet student 3 described Penkye Otu as ‘some small god’. We see here how the presence of a topic from AIR created an opportunity for AIR to be mischided.

Second, Ghana teacher 8’s handing of the exchanges exposes her inadequacies in acting neutrally as an impartial RE educator. We notice her attempting to calm nerves by deflecting the point of the controversy from the act of animal sacrifice to situating it in a historical context. In doing this, she exposes her bias by using the Christian perspective of the story (i.e. Abraham and Isaac) when, in fact, the issue was about Ibrahim and Ishmael. From incidents such as these, we come to the conclusion that that classroom deliberations in Malawi and Ghana occasion situations for students, teachers and schools to misrepresent religions that are included in the curriculum and, as we have argued, accounts for misclusion of religions.

 
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