Discussing Religion – Discourses in Plans for Thoughtful Dialogues

Paper presented at ECER, the European Conference on Educational Research, 8-11 September 2015, Budapest, Hungary.

By: PhD Ann S. Pihlgren, Ignite Research Institute, Master of Theology Malin Pihlgren Nylander, Church of Sweden.

Read the paper: Pihlgren & Pihlgren Discussing religion – discourses in thoughtful dialogues with students

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This paper analyzes discourses in method materials for thoughtful dialogues in the classroom. It focuses on materials presenting religious and moral subjects. ‘Thoughtful dialogues’ refers to a family of interrelated methods for philosophizing with students, e.g. philosophy for/with children, and Socratic seminars, using open-ended questions, and an investigating and collaborative interlocution. The questions guiding the study were:

  • What discourses can be found in methodological materials for thoughtful dialogue addressing the subject religion?
  • Are questions in the materials used to address faith, morality, and teaching? If so, how?
  • How are the discourses found in the methodological materials related to the discourses in religious education in a highly secularized country (Sweden)?

In this study a social constructionist/poststructuralist approach is taken, where knowledge is considered contextual and social, and where an action or stance therefore can be considered as impossible or natural depending on how the world is perceived within the dominating discourse. Our analysis was carried out by using a revised version of Fairclough’s (2013) three-dimensional conception of discourse, presenting an analytical frame for empirical discourse research: Analysis of texts, of discursive practice, and of discursive events as instances of social practice.

The results show three discourses in the material. The discourse of critical thinking in school is the most frequent, and aims at transforming teaching. Faith is normally not a part of the agenda. The teaching philosophy in school discourse does not address faith, and moral questions and the egalitarian dialogue are elements used to justify the teaching of philosophy in school. The third discourse addresses faith and suggests a critical thinking in religion discourse, challenging the present hegemonic discourse in western societies. Religious education in secular countries tends to focus on teaching about the world religions from an outsider’s perspective whereas the methodological materials for thoughtful dialogues tend to focus on moral questions when exploring religious texts.

Religious education in school could be considered from two factors: 1.) The attitude toward questions of faith and 2.) The approach to knowledge. Questions of religious faith might be addressed in education, or not. Knowledge might be seen from a fundamentalist point of view, where a set of true facts are presented to the students, or, as in the opposite position, attaining knowledge includes critically examination of facts and values. This will give four different approaches to religious education in school: Dogmatic religion, dogmatic atheism, examining theology, or examining philosophy excluding theology.

Questions of faith and religion need to be discussed with others: Thoughtful dialogues could be used in classrooms and other contexts for dialogues about faith, and religious and theological questions, and thus helping the individual to form a relationship or grounded base on which he or she can reflect on matters of faith and belief or disbelief, both on her or his own and with others. This approach is in accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.