“The Religious Safari” – an example of active, co-operative, interdisciplinary and outdoor enquiry-based learning.

Learners listening to and participating in presentation

What?! All of those things at once?  Surely there must be some mistake?   And what is a “religious safari” anyway?  Are you off hunting for religious people, and bringing them back to mount as trophies on some ghastly wall? 

Of course not.

The “religious safari” has been developed over several years, alongside Initial Teacher Education students on the Masters in Religious and Philosophical Education, and RE specialists in the PGDE programme, to explore and reflect on the diverse religious make-up of Glasgow and surrounding areas – indeed, wherever students wish to explore, be that their home territory or a place that they are intrigued by. 

The idea is to look for evidence of “religious activity, past or present”, and the brief is to find as many kinds of evidence of this as they can, working together in small groups on an exploratory mission that might take place in a single day, or over several days.  

Students are encouraged to look for diverse forms of evidence – not just the more obvious places of worship, but for shop signs (selling halal foods, for example), specialist clothing stores, artworks and monuments, burial sites and memorials. 

The initial instruction to look for evidence of “religious activity, past or present” can sometimes perplex students who are used to more prescriptive tasks, but it is in the nature of enquiry-based learning (the main characteristics of which are outlined by Khan and O’Rourke, (2005)) that the initial question should be open and unbounded. Different approaches are encouraged, both in the conduct of the safari itself, and in the presentation of findings.  There is a requirement that the groups share what they have discovered in any suitable format – in the past these have included the more conventional PowerPoint presentations (although usually illustrated with personal photographs taken during the safari, rather than using stock images found online), to annotated maps, scrapbooks, artworks and short documentary videos .  Despite my persistent pleas, no group has yet been persuaded to share their findings in the form of a puppet show, but I live in hope!

In a properly-conceived enquiry, learners must engage with a complex problem or scenario, that is sufficiently open-ended to allow a variety of responses or solutions (Pedaste et al. 2015). Students should direct the lines of enquiry and the methods employed – in this case, deciding not only where, when and how they undertake the safari, but also how they are to present their findings. 

The enquiry requires students to draw on existing knowledge of religious traditions, and in confronting aspects of the unknown in their exploration, they should  identify their required learning needs. Some striking examples from safaris completed have included students realising the richness and beauty of religious buildings, sometimes for the first time, and being astonished at the genuinely inclusive and welcoming nature of some religious communities as evidenced by notice boards inviting all sorts of marginalised groups to events and opportunities, sometimes tied to worship, sometimes not. The wealth and breadth of activities undertaken  in the name of religion is a revelation, particularly to students whose interest in religion has been strictly academic.   

The safari when it works well, and students engage positively, stimulates curiosity and encourages students to actively explore and seek out new evidence about the lived experiences of religious followers. They are encouraged to knock on doors, and make contact with members of faith communities that they find. A sign on a door, advertising meditation classes might lead to an otherwise unimagined encounter with a Zen teacher. Posters giving information about regular worship or food banks can be followed up, and lead to encounters with socially engaged people of faith.  

Responsibility for analysing & presenting evidence in appropriate ways in support of their own response to the problem lies entirely with the students. Drawing on some principles of co-ooperative learning outlined by the Johnson brothers (Johnson and Johnson, 1994) students undertake to rely on each other in a spirit of mutual inter-dependence. 

Enquiry based learning consists of the “5E’s”: engagement, exploration, explaining, elaborating and evaluating (Bybee et al, 2006). In “engaging”, Students need to make connections between past and present learning experiences.  In the context of the safari, they will encounter both the familiar and the unfamiliar – sometimes they will be puzzled as to whether or not an object they encounter is religious or not – for example, a statue of a mysterious cowled figure in a side road, or the remnants of an arched window – could these have religious significance or not? They should anticipate activities and focus their thinking on what they intend to learn from their experience, while balancing this with an openness to the unknown that genuine exploration requires. 

The exploration provides a common base of experiences, where students can identify and develop concepts, processes, and skills. In actively exploring their environment students make connections between what they have learned in the abstract, to what is happening not just “out there in the world” (somewhere… usually somewhere else) but in their own world, amongst the people they see each day. 

Being required to explain their findings gives students the opportunity to articulate and express their perceptions and understanding, as well as acknowledging where they have not understood some of the things they have found. This phase also provides opportunities for the students (or indeed the teacher) to introduce formal terms, definitions, and explanations for artefacts, concepts or behaviours.

During the presentations, Students are expected to extend their conceptual understanding, and practice skills and behaviours that will be required of them in the RE classroom. Through the new experiences on the safari, learners develop deeper and broader understanding of religious concepts and ways of living, obtain more information about areas of interest, and refine their skills.

The final phase, evaluation, encourages learners to assess their understanding and abilities and lets teachers evaluate students’ understanding of key concepts and skill development in representing religious ideas and artefacts, rooted in the immediate surroundings, and thus more relevant to the learners than much of what they might obtain either from books or through online research. This is not to devalue such research, but rather to enhance it. Initial searches online, for example for places of worship in the target area, can inform the proposed route of exploration, and conventionally published works on all religious traditions are invaluable in providing a substantial and reliable guide as to how “mainstream” or otherwise the representatives of faith traditions they have met might have been. 

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