by Dr Rachel Jepson, Member of General Synod, Teacher and PhD in Education ― “Death and Life After Death: Children’s Concepts and Their Place in Religious Education”
“I have come in order that you might have life ― life in all its fullness.”
John’s Gospel, Chapter 10 Verse 10
Engaging with what is happening in the world around us is both a personal and collective privilege and responsibility. COVID-19 has vividly reminded me of the importance of fully living in the moment ― that this is the only moment I can influence.
This pandemic is a chance for our education system to be far more holistic than it has ever been. All those who are responsible for, and are a part of our formal education system ― the students, teaching and non-teaching staff, parents/guardians, governors, inspectors, the Department for Education, and the teaching unions have a golden opportunity to reflect on and assess the purpose of education and how that should be manifested.
More joined-up thinking, action, and discernment is desperately needed. As a consequence, there should be less compartmentalisation and separation of the formal place of learning in school, college or university from the home and the community in which people live. The pandemic is starkly reminding us that how we live is interwoven with our neighbours whether they are family and friends, or acquaintances and strangers. We do not live mutually exclusive lives. Thus, a greater and more consistent willingness to be alert to and informed by each other’s narratives and realities is imperative. In turn, this should lead to greater understanding and acceptance of one another.
The pandemic keeps presenting us with the harsh realities of life. Consequently, it is important for schools to embrace this chance to facilitate their students being able to explore the concepts of death and life after death. Research affirms that children, including young children, are capable of considering these concepts and they should be given the opportunity to explore them further. School is an advantageous and universally available place where meaningful consideration of the search of these concepts should occur as school is a familiar environment for discovery, learning and understanding for children. Religious Education is the most relevant area of the school curriculum where children’s discovery and learning can be focused on the exploration of these concepts through investigating ultimate questions with the rites of passage and doctrines of the major world religions. Accordingly, the meaningful and worthwhile updating of Religious Education syllabi for implementation by teachers and those responsible for Religious Education should be a priority.
Furthermore, it would be healthy and wise for every school, college and university to make sure that they have a bereavement policy in place, and for the plan to be discussed and disseminated to every member of staff. Familiarisation with it is key.
Those in education are being forced to embrace digital technology. In many places there is increased staff confidence with it as a result, for example, of daily staff communication which has, in turn, helped colleagues to work together. Hopefully, this should mean that in future it can be used more to communicate with the aim of reducing workload. Similarly, for many students there is increased confidence in digital technology. Yet for others, such as, in some rural communities, it has led to confusion and anxiety. Significant numbers of students do not have any idea how to open, access or write an email, yet this is what is being expected of them by their teachers. It is not part of their every-day experience. Parents in rural communities are not necessarily equipped to support their children in this digital age either. As a result, for too many students a gap is emerging between the progress made by some of them and those sadly left behind. There are cases where students have been provided with laptops with internet connection paid for and set up. The issue is that without the knowledge, the students are unable to use them. It would appear that the information technology curriculum has not been sufficient in embedding these skills which many adults take for granted.
At the same time, the pandemic is providing more opportunities for families to learn together. Sometimes this is through the range of tasks the schools have facilitated for the students’ learning; sometimes this is through how families are choosing to navigate the situation and seize opportunities, especially for their children to develop life skills.
Excitingly, there are numerous, fantastic examples of students of all ages engaging in learning in and from their local environment and community ― from exploring the seaweed found on the beaches of Orkney and uploading their findings to the British Seaweed Survey; to observing the barge loads of granite being delivered to the shores of Withernsea in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Secondary school students, including GCSE Geographers, had been learning about coastal management before lockdown. During their walks, students became curious and knowledgeable about what they were witnessing. They then sent photographs to their teacher, enthusiastically informing her. These experiences make for far better awareness of our environment and an appreciation of where we live.
From my teaching experience in the UK and South Africa, I am keen to see those in education continue to go outside and explore, as well as members of the public continue their personal journey with nature which has been evolving throughout lockdown. This will create and build relationships with the environment which will, in turn, promote pro-environmental behaviours and, hopefully, mark the furtherance of saving our planet for which we have been given the charge of custodians.
During COVID-19 fresh, creative ways of teaching are having to be used, particularly through experimenting, observing, playing and researching rather than classroom-based lecture work. The lockdown has also seen a vast expansion of life skills being taught ― from cooking to sewing to maintenance skills. These skills are generally not taught by parents anymore, due for instance, to the pressures of home life, work, after-school activities. However, lockdown has forced us to stay together and pass on these important skills. These relationship building activities have shown that education can happen in different ways, as well as, teaching our children and young people on how to become resilient and to deal with issues that face us in life head on. They are tangibly realizing that they can survive, and in some ways, thrive in challenging times and come out the other end. Without them necessarily knowing it, these too, are vital life skills which will help them to have the courage to take risks as they journey on through life.
This pandemic is a golden opportunity to embrace the change and feel empowered to choose to live life in all its fullness. Every educator, regardless of location, has the privilege and responsibility to encourage and inspire the grappling of ideas for the sake of the children and young people in their care. Face-to-face interaction is a necessary component for meaningful learning. All in all, enabling them to become engaging, joyful, global citizens.
My hope and prayer is that everyone has the willingness, ability and confidence to hold onto what they know to be worthwhile, to those whom they cherish, and come alongside the rest of humanity. While remembering the power and impact of loving kindness on us all.