Re-imagining Religious Education


It goes without saying that all teachers want their classrooms to be safe places where everyone is respected and learning is fun, challenging and celebrated. So, I was surprised to learn from a student in my Year 8 religious education class that she was dreading going into Year 9 because she had been told that they Year 9 RE teachers were grumpy. 

Obviously, she did not regard me as being a grumpy teacher. I must admit there were occasions when some of the students asked me if I was okay because I was grumpy with them. Most of the time, we had fun together and explored ideas together. We even celebrated from time to time with chocolate. No one missed out, even when a few dominated competitions. This savvy young lady - let's call her Joan - taught me, too, that RE should be fun because we could only have fun if people felt safe. 

Students will enjoy learning, no matter what the learning area might be, when they feel safe and are convinced that they belong in the class and are valued. Daniel Coyle (2018) identifies the importance of belonging cues for establishing belonging and identity; when students feel safe, they will communicate what is important to them - and this is critical to successful religious education. This leads to the second characteristic identified by Coyle, namely, shared vulnerability, which must be modelled by the teacher. When students become used to taking risks in communicating in the class, then trust and cooperation will become important values and actions. The third characteristic highlighted by Coyle is the sense of purpose established by the teacher. The stories told in the class can be used to created shared goals and values. 

What is religious education?

What does this look like in the religious education learning area? Bishop Gerard Holohan (1999) places religious education among activities belonging to ministry of the word, which he defines as "any use of human words gy any baptised believer to speak of God's works (GDC, 50).

The song "Jesus, Lover of My Soul" is a good example of human words about God's activity. 

Jesus, lover of my soul
Jesus, I will never let You go
You've taken me from the miry clay
You've set my feet upon the rock
And now I know
I love you
I need you
Though my world may fall
I'll never let You go
My Saviour
My closest Friend
I will worship You until the very end.

Some years ago, when students were surveyed about the meaning and significance of the song, most admitted that they did not think of the song as a prayer. Many enjoyed singing the song because it brought people together. 

When we accept Jesus' invitation to follow him, to be his disciples, we are assisted by the Holy Spirit in developing in ourselves "the divine education" received by means of catechesis and by means of knowledge and experience (GDC, 142). 

The purpose of knowledge is to enlighten students' experiences so that they are enriched by them. Our task as RE teachers is to help students spell out the meaning of their experiences and their truths (CS, 27).

Bishop Gerard Holohan places religious education in the category of "knowledge and experience". In response to the question, "What is religious education?" he responds by highlighting the following as essential elements of religious education: 

  • to learn the teachings of the Gospel 
  • to develop 'a sense of the nature of Christianity' and of 'how Christians are trying to live their lives' (1999, p.27). 

Religious education ... is a means of handing on the Christian Faith .... It makes the Gospel present in a personal process of cultural, systematic and critical assimilation. 


General Directory for Catechesis. 

Coyle, D. (2018). The culture code. London: Random House Business Books. 

Holohan, G.J. (1999). Australian religious education: facing the challenges. Canberra: National Catholic Education Commission. 

The Buffered Self

When people abandon belief in the transcendent, then education in the religious dimension of life becomes meaningless. This report draws on Charles Taylor's analysis of "secularism" to identify characteristics of "the buffered self" in disclosures made by students about faith and religious education.