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The blog

Just because you have an opinion, it doesn’t make you right

posted by Gill Robins   Friday 24th January 2014

Professor Alice Roberts, newly appointed president of the  Association for Science Education,  has started her presidential tenure by suggesting in a TES interview that the teaching of creationism in schools should be  banned.  According to her argument, it amounts to ‘indoctrination’ (dictionary definition: teaching someone to accept something uncritically) and she calls for a new law banning its teaching in all schools, including faith schools. She states: ‘it is indoctrination; it is planting ideas into children's heads. We should be teaching children to be much more open-minded.’

Her views raise some serious questions. Firstly, equating the teaching of religion to indoctrination shows a lack of understanding of, and respect for, our professionalism. It also seems that she may have allowed personal prejudice to colour professional statements - a poor academic practice which we shouldn’t leave unchallenged.

Secondly, it is suggested that we should be teaching children to be much more open-minded. Well, in my experience, dialectic outweighs prohibition every time, and allowing the free and open discussion of any belief (even a dangerous political one) is much the best way to achieve balance. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out in his book The Great Partnership, the task of science is to take things apart to see how they work and the task of religion is to put things together to see what they mean.  Her proposed ban would deny students any opportunity for open-minded and balanced discussion: a neatly self-defeating viewpoint.

Professor Roberts goes on to say that science is about teaching people to say: 'I don't believe it until we have very strong evidence'.  I find the use of the word ‘believe’ curious (dictionary definition: accept that something is true, especially without proof) because it is the language of religion. I know that 2+2=4 because I can prove it. I know when I get up in the morning that gravity will hold me onto the earth, because science has proved it, irrefutably.  I don’t believe these things, I know them. I do, however, believe in God. I can’t prove His existence. There is no irrefutable evidence. I simply believe, as an act of faith. Science deals in evidence and knowledge. Religion deals in faith and belief. In the minds of some, science and religion are mutually exclusive. In the minds of others (including some eminent scientists) they are mutually inclusive. So, allow students to consider this dichotomy for themselves.

In the midst of the many responses that the article provoked, there was this:

‘there will always be one kid who raises the idea that God did it all! So I have about a dozen creation myth websites ready. Once we have had a look at the various creation ideas from a range of religions I ask him which one does he/she think is the real one.’

A clear example of a teacher imposing a personal worldview on a pupil.  Where is the open-mindedness?  Where is the balance?  Just because this person holds an opinion, it doesn’t make him right. 

Perhaps the last, and most effective, word should rest with an unnamed spokeswoman for the DfE: ‘Only countries like North Korea ban the teaching of religion in schools.’   


Seasonal lessons from Luke

posted by Robert Hall Friday 20th December 2013

This all started at half past three the other morning, and, in the wonderful way that God sometimes does, he laid this out in front of me. Not wishing to lose any of it, I hastily got to my computer and wrote down the salient points. I hope you’ll think it was worth it.

In a day or two those of us who give presents will be acutely aware of human reactions to the gifts they have been given. We Christians in education learn to read pupils’ faces to get important feedback. I was thinking of the human reactions to the angelic announcements about the events around the nativity. Luke’s gospel in chapters one and two gives us a great deal of information.

Firstly, when Zechariah heard the news that his wife was to produce a child – John the Baptist – “he was startled and was gripped with fear”.

Isn’t it interesting to note that disbelief makes us unable to communicate [Zechariah], whilst belief [the shepherds after they had visited the stable] makes us articulate?

Secondly, in Luke1.29 we read, “Mary was greatly troubled at his [the angel Gabriel] words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.” I would imagine that “greatly troubled” could be an understatement. The Message has “thoroughly shaken”, and JB Phillips: “deeply perturbed”.

And the shepherds, rough, hardened men accustomed to fighting off wild animals and not afraid of the dark; Luke 2.9 “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”

Even days later, Simeon, moved by the Spirit to go to the temple, “took him [Jesus] in his arms and praised God.

Elderly Anna “gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” Luke 2.38

One can imagine that the wise men in the east must have been deeply moved when they observed his star, moved enough to embark on a long and hazardous journey.

For Mary, the implications were of great significance which must have led to a lot of negative comments. But she bore it all, nurturing the Christ-child in her body, regardless of her reputation.

I’m not pregnant like Mary. But then again, I am. We know that God indwells his people. God within us. Christian people are an expectant people. We have great expectations. God plants inside us his Holy Spirit whom we need to nourish, to nurture.

What is the outcome? We are called to give birth to the fruit of the spirit. “…”the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance [or patience], kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Galatians 5:22-23

So we can thank God for the incarnation: the embodiment of God the Son in human flesh, and thank him for indwelling each of us too.

“Lord, the giver of every perfect gift, may we know your indwelling this Christmas, interpreting, understanding, knowing, believing, healing, prophesying, discerning, articulating. And may these things be increasingly evident in our work with our students in the coming year. Amen.”


Social media danger

posted by Robert Hall Saturday 13th April 2013

 A police officer has resigned after posting ill-advised comments on a social media site.  This is just one of many instances where public employees have found themselves in hot water for expressing personal views, which in other contexts within a free society, would be acceptable.  So what is different about today’s social media which is so very hazardous for people in the public eye, especially those who work in education?. 

Are we becoming a more closed, intolerant society, or a police state?  Some think so, and a general fear is rising that we have to be very careful to avoid being who we really are.  Do we create for ourselves a false front, in line with current political correctness, maintaining a set of quasi values which do not sit easily with those who seek to live out the Christian life in their working lives?

I do not think so, and I believe that we can, in an educational setting, live our lives true to the gospel, provided we observe some simple rules.  Below are some points which, I hope, will help us to be true to ourselves and our faith, and keep us out of hot water.

1.      We are called to live a life of faith.  ‘Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.  This is what the ancients were commended for.’  Hebrews 11.1-2

2.      We live by a set of values and absolutes which are sometimes fundamentally different from those of the people we work with and those in authority over us.  We cannot unthinkingly accept the values of the institution and people with whom we work.

3.      We need Holy Spirit discernment in our public lives, in the same way that John talks about in 1 John 4, regarding testing the spirits to see if they are from God.

4.      During the course of a single day we will find ourselves in a variety of different arenas.  These may include tête-à-tête with a spouse,  exchanges at family meal times, banter on the bus to work, dialogue in the staffroom, addressing the whole school in assembly and so on.  We instinctively know how to speak in each of those situations.

5.      When using any form of ICT, we need to be very clear about what kind of medium it is.  If we use a keyboard, including all the latest types, to express ourselves, we must understand that it’s just the same as shouting from the rooftops or pasting up our words on a poster in the public square.

6.      Whoever our intended audience, we actually have no control of where our words will end up.  Once they escape to the public domain, our words can wing their way across the world in seconds.  A useful watchword is, ‘Never commit to the written word anything you wouldn’t want made public.’

7.      An historical anecdote is instructive here.  A certain society lady had a large inglenook fireplace over which was an ornate wooden carving of roses. Comfortable chairs were arranged around the open fire.  When she wanted to say anything confidential to her friends she would invite them to meet her “beneath the roses”.  The phrase came to mean that absolute confidentiality was required.  And, of course, a clear understanding of that phrase was vital by all the hearers.

8.      The Chatham House Rule, devised in 1927, is also interesting in this context: ‘When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.’

9.      Any kind of social media is OK to use, as long as the user bears in mind the watchword in point six above.  Any other kind of communication would be best conveyed by telephone or, better still, face to face conversation.  Context is everything.

10.     ‘The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.  The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.  It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.’  James 3.5-6  The whole chapter is worthy of studying by Christians in education.


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