Matthew Vince – Exploring the Rich Tapestry of Islam: Three Years of Discovering Muslims in Britain26 June 2023
As the dust settles on another successful run of the Discovering Muslims in Britain online CPD course, now is a good time to reflect. The Islam-UK Centre team created the Discovering Muslims in Britain course and teaching resources to support Religious Education (RE) teachers across the UK as they introduce sociological perspectives in the classroom. This year, completing its second run, this transformative program brought together 50 learners from various backgrounds to explore the intricacies of Islam and gain a deeper understanding of the lives of Muslims in Britain. In this blog post, I reflect on the difference it has made for the learners on the course and the impact it is having in their classrooms.
Confidence is key
At the start of each run of the Discovering Muslims in Britain course, we have asked the learners to share what the biggest challenges teaching about Islam and Muslims are. Each time the results tell the same story: learners are not confident teaching about Islam and Muslims in the classroom. Importantly, this picture seems to remain the case regardless of size of cohort, experience, school context, and prior training or subject expertise. Such a story has been highlighted more widely by NATRE, bluntly stating that teachers ‘lack confidence’ teaching about Islam.
With this in mind, one of the biggest opportunities that the course provides is a chance to ask those tricky questions to a shared community of educators and academics. Through the Discussion Forum and weekly Webinars, learners can pose questions about the course topics both to the wider cohort and academic team at Cardiff University’s Islam-UK Centre. Often, these questions are reminiscent of those that students would raise in class – those which scratch beneath the surface, point out deeper inconsistencies, or raise the dreaded “things” said by “someone in a comment section”. This year, the Discussion Forum was the busiest it has been, highlighting the importance of having a place for educators to ask these questions.
What is particularly effective about this mode of engagement is that, through features like the ‘Ask a Scholar’ space, the course provides a direct, manageable, line of communication between academics and RE teachers, nurturing confidence of the learners through dialogue and collaboration. Having spaces to share and have these questions engaged with experts in the field encourages learners to handle these “tricky” questions in the classroom. Likewise, it is fascinating to see the kinds of questions that come up, and the subsequent deliberations and new, exciting lines of thinking that emerge from the academic team “behind the scenes”. This is engagement and outreach in its purest form – where practitioners and academics share knowledge and learn with one another.
Dealing with disciplinary complexity
Religious Education (RE) is in a state of flux. Inspired by the Commission on Religious Education, discussions around the (inter)disciplinary nature and heart of RE are emerging to the fore. However, how RE teachers grapple and are to grapple with this diversity at the chalkface remains a challenge.
One of the key objectives of the course is to shed light on the diverse nature of Muslim communities in Britain. Islam is a religion with a wide spectrum of practices and beliefs, and understanding this diversity is crucial to dispelling the monolithic misconceptions often associated with the faith. Through the course, learners view Muslims in Britain through a kaleidoscope filled with a range of disciplinary lenses, blurring theological and phenomenological accounts of “Islam” with the sociological, historical, and geographical realities of Muslim communities. These lenses are deployed through interactive sessions, workshops, and a virtual visit to a mosque, allowing learners to witness first-hand the vibrant tapestry of Islam here in the UK.
We have found that, by shifting the focus from “Islam” to “Muslim communities”, more scope is offered to engage with this disciplinary diversity. Moreover, this shift from Islam to Muslims subtly directs the focus away from being “right” or “wrong” about the facts of a religious tradition and encourages a sense of exploration within the learners about how such facts may be appreciated from different perspectives and contexts. Consequently, we saw the learners become more actively involved in discussions as they grew in confidence, applying disciplinary lenses through the course, leaving aside preoccupations with “right” and “wrong” and instead grappling with making sense of these kaleidoscopic vistas of Muslim communities in Britain.
This shift in perspective not only facilitates the emerging interdisciplinary character of RE – it encourages the voices of Muslims themselves to form a central part of its knowledge landscape. In each run of the course, feedback shows that the standout feature of the materials is the Video Carousels. Each Carousel features the accounts of 21 Muslims from across the UK. In each video, the participant answers a question relating to the topic at hand, mimicking the kind of qualitative research that a sociologist of religion may embark on. Their transcribed accounts then form an evidence base from which the learners – and the pupils in the classroom via the teaching resources – can evaluate the wider, more abstract concepts engaged with. By adopting a sociological approach, and turning the focus on Muslims in Britain, such accounts can occupy an authoritative position in the classroom alongside more traditional sources of knowledge about Islam as a religious tradition.
The impact of being able to connect with these voices in the learning journey cannot be understated. Simply read the account of one of our learners taking their experience into the classroom:
A quick update on the benefits of the course from classroom experience; I am currently teaching a Y8 unit on Islam and feel so much more confident in delivering the content. I have a very eager pupil who I am asking to correct my pronunciations of Arabic terms and to add any other information during whole class discussions. She has been very excited to have an opportunity to share her faith in a ‘safe classroom environment’ and says it has allowed her to speak to her Imam about her school work and who in turn she says is happy with the way we are covering the content of our unit. If it was not for my participation in the course I would have tried to avoid the Arabic terms myself but now I feel confident to have a go even if I am not 100% right in doing so.
Thank you again for running such a worthwhile course and CPD for RE teachers that really is beneficial for our subject.
Impacting the Future
The impact of the “Discovering Muslims in Britain” course extends far beyond the 50 teachers who participated. Feedback clearly shows that the learners now feel more confident in their teaching about Islam and Muslims in Britain. However, this is not just because of their subject knowledge, but also having had the space to develop their use of disciplinary lenses the teachers on our course report to us that they can incorporate different perspectives in the classroom more cohesively. The teaching materials we provide help spread the work even further. We have seen approximately 500 downloads of the materials, and each download has the potential to reach whole classrooms of students.
We are grateful to all the learners and those that have downloaded the teaching materials for their ongoing feedback and support. The Discovering Muslims in Britain course and teaching materials continue to grow and develop in terms of content and approach. There are several topics that the team have been asked to explore in the materials, alongside potentially developing more technologically interactive materials suitable for smart screens. As always, we really appreciate any feedback that we receive.
Finally, from leading another run of the course, it is also amazing for me to see such powerful collaboration between teachers and academics through this model. Our aim is to continue sharing our expertise and supporting teachers in the classroom to handle the rich tapestry of religious phenomena.
Matthew Vince is HE Academic Outcomes Facilitator for University Centre South Devon. He is a former Jameel PhD Scholar at the Centre for the Study of Islam, and he was project lead for developing the Discovering Muslims in Britain course for Religious Education teachers in Britain.