Experiential RE

John Hammond

Experiential RE addresses through the study of religion students’ hearts (and emotions, feelings and sense of identity) as well as their minds. The exercises are designed to engage emotions and concerns and provide a space where they can feel safe to reflect on who they are, their hopes and fears. The activities are always first person, about what ‘I’ really think and feel and so in this respect closer to the world of the adherent of spiritual practice or faith than that of the scientific scholar of religion.

a_Pencils-11.jpgThis approach is a response to a perceived problem at the heart of the subject: How, in an increasingly secular and non-religious society, can pupils be brought to a valid understanding of the religious dimension of human experience? Already, in 1970 Schools’ Council Working Paper 36 spoke of the need for bridge building across a cultural gap between the religions and the world of pupils’ experience. David Hay, director of the Religious Experience and Education Project (1) saw this distancing of religion from pupils’ experience as a product of a prevailing secular mindset. His survey work in the 1980s (2) had established that around half the UK population claimed ‘transcendent’ or ‘religious’ experiences. Though these experiences were of supreme and lasting importance, many had never spoken of them, fearing they would be thought odd. The need to recognise these latent experiences among young people and help them understand the ways people with religious or spiritual belief see the world led him to publish in 1990 what would become a key text in experiential RE: New Methods in RE – An Experiential Approach. (3) The handbook – it saw itself as ‘a book to do’ – was developed by a team of advisors and school and H.E. teachers who tested and refined the material in a number of pilot schools. Its aim was not to create religious experiences in classrooms but, by encouraging pupils to be sensitive to their own ‘inner experience’, help them understand the ways religious people experience the world. Because the exercises of Experiential RE could encourage an engaged, ‘first person’ involvement with human questions of identity, meaning and purpose, pupils learning in this way would be better able to appreciate the belief and practice of the world faiths.

New Methods had a huge impact nationally on the way teachers thought about and taught RE. The novel approach with its extensive range of classroom exercises refocused and renewed the practice of many RE teachers across the UK. In addition, the Nottingham summer schools run by David Hay and Alison Leech injected an experiential enthusiasm into the professional lives of future advisors and teacher trainers, further extending the project’s influence.

a_Pencils-11.jpgTwo reviews in the BJRE were less enthusiastic. Trevor Cooling (4) saw the book’s theoretically grounded aims and exercises for teaching pupils to empathise to be a significant development in RE but was critical of a ‘subjectivist view of religious truth’ and the ‘sparse attention’ given to the process of making links with religious beliefs. Adrian Thatcher’s critique (5) judged the writing team, oblivious as he saw them to the criticisms of Ryle, Wittgenstein, Heidegger et al., to be entrenched in a philosophical dualism that had damaged Christian theology and de-valued the created order. Their talk of ‘inner experience’ and ‘inner self’, led he thought to ‘liberal individualism’ and ‘privatised religion’, and made it difficult for him to see how the strategies provided could be justified in the name of religious education. (6)

Neither the reviews nor the citing of New Methods as an example of New Age education (see Paul Heelas, The New Age Movement (7)) appeared to diminish the enthusiasm of practitioners. The project’s influence was curtailed, however, by a commercial decision of the new publisher. Nelson axed it from its new lists. A reminder that popularity in the niche market of RE carries little financial clout in the wider world. Subsequent writing on experiential RE sought to add further to the teaching and learning processes and to link them more explicitly with religion. (8). It was argued that whereas religions are extensively involved in bodily enactment – gestures, singing, washing, eating and drinking - RE largely kept to cognitive skills. The exercises of experiential RE however, involving work with symbols and narrative, the use of silence and participation in celebration, were closer to the embodied practices of religion, encouraging personal involvement rather than the stance of the impartial observer associated with the scientific study of religion. Analogous to the processes of religious ritual or theatre, that draw participants into a ‘liminal’(9) or dramatic space of transformation or fresh insights, the exercises of Experiential RE provided a method for students to explore reflectively their own beliefs and engage in an informed and serious way with the commitments of others.

a_Pencils-11.jpgExperiential RE is therefore using ‘religious’ forms to help students explore their own spirituality and relate in a meaningful way to the beliefs and practices of the world’s religions. But because these forms – narrative, silence, symbol, celebration – exist outside as well as inside religion, and are closely related to dynamic of theatre, their dramatic power can be used in the classroom for educational rather than religiously committed ends. Like ritual the learning processes of Experiential RE have religious or spiritual content, but like theatre the focus is not on commitment but learning. (10)

The ability of theatre to promote involvement and serious learning is evident in the work of the Drama curriculum, Theatre in Education teams and Augusto Boal’s Forum Theatre (11). Similarly, ritual as theatre and ‘experiential, active, multi-sensory techniques’ have been extensively developed in RE by Sue Phillips as part of her Theatre of Learning (12). Faced with a lack of student enthusiasm (that cultural gap between students’ experience and the religions) she uses experiential processes to successfully boost enthusiasm, recruitment and examination performance. Agreed Syllabuses now list experiential methods in their recommended teaching and learning strategies. For example, Living Difference, the Agreed Syllabus of Hampshire, Portsmouth and Southampton(13), lists seventeen strategies, among them, storytelling, developing rituals, creating artefacts and music, stilling or creative silence, guided imagery: all activities shared with religions and conducive to a reflective, engaged attitude among learners.

The ability of experiential processes to motivate students and facilitate access to spiritual and religious realities means they are essential to successful RE. and the achievement of AT2. However, the ability to think through the processes, integrate them into a syllabus and manage them successfully in the classroom requires specific knowledge and skills on the part of the teacher. The following five topic areas and resources should contribute to any further professional development needed to implement and integrate effectively the use of experiential learning in RE.



Knowledge of the aims and rationale of experiential RE and of particular strategies and exercises

Grimmitt M. ed. (2000) Pedagogies of Religious Education McCrimmon
Hammond J and Hay D et al (1990) New Methods in RE Longman
Hammond J (2002) 'Embodying the Spirit' in eds Broadbent and Brown Issues in Religious Education Routledge Falmer
Hammond J. (2003/4) 'Wealth, Poverty and Experiential Learning' in Shap: World Religions in Education
Hammond J. (2005) 'Children use their Imagination for Spirituality' in RE Today Summer
Hammond J. (2006/7) 'Slaves as Scapegoats' in Shap: World Religions in Education
Hay D and Nye R (1998) The Spirit of the Child Fount
Lamont G and Burns S (1993) Values and Visions Manchester DEP
Phillips S. (1999/2000) 'Experiential Learning' in Shap: World Religions in Education
Theatre of learning.org
Phillips S. (2007) 'The Theatre of Learning' in RE Today Spring
QCA (1999) Guidance on Learning from Religion QCA

A working knowledge of ritual process and its relation to theatre

Deflem M (1991) 'Ritual, Anti-Structure and Religion' Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 30:1
Hammond J (2002) 'Embodying the Spirit' in eds Broadbent and Brown Issues in Religious Education Routledge Falmer
Hammond J. (2005) 'Children use their Imagination for Spirituality' in RE Today Summer
Grimes R L (2000) Deeply into the Bone Univ. of California Press
Grimes R. L. (2006) Rite out of Place: Ritual, Media and the Arts University of California Press
Schechner R (1998) Performance Theory Routledge
Schechner R (1993) The Future of Ritual Routledge
Schechner R and Appel W (1990) eds. By Means of Performance CUP
Seed J et al (1988) Thinking Like a Mountain Heretic Books
Turner V (1969) The Ritual Process Chicago
Turner V (1974) Dramas, Fields and Metaphors Cornell
Winston Joe (2000) Drama, Literacy and Moral Education David Fulton

Some experience of meditative and stilling exercises and the use of guided fantasy

Beesley M. (1990) Stilling Salisbury Diocesan Board of Ed.
Erricker C and J. (2001) Meditation in Schools Continuum
Fontana D. and Slack I. (1997) Teaching Meditation to Children Element
Hammond J and Hay D et al (1990) New Methods in RE Longman
Stone M. (1994) Don’t Just Sit There UCSM

Experience of group work or circle time and some awareness of basic counselling skills

Practical Counselling Skills in Schools – TDA
Lines, D (2006) Brief Counselling in Schools Sage Publications

Participation as learner in a range of experiential exercises, particularly those that are to be used with students.

It is vital that teachers using these processes with pupils have already experienced the activity as learner. They will then have a far better appreciation of the structure and potential of the processes and so be better able to manage the exercises effectively for their pupils.

See: Materials listed under Knowledge of the aims and rationale of experiential RE and of particular strategies and exercises and Some experience of meditative and stilling exercises and the use of guided fantasy above.



(1) Formerly the Religious Experience Research Unit.
(2) See David Hay Exploring Inner Space Penguin 1982
(3) New Methods in RE Teaching – An Experiential Approach J.Hammond, D.Hay, J.Moxon, B.Netto, K.Raban, G.Straugheir, C.Williams. Oliver and Boyd, 1990
(4) BJRE Spring 1991, Vol 13 No 2
(5) BJRE Autumn 1991 Vol 14 No 1
(6) For the response of the authors to Adrian Thatcher see Hay and Hammond BJRE Summer 1992 ps 145 – 150, and for further comment on the debate see Kevin Mott-Thornton, BJRE Summer 1996, ps 155 – 165.
(7) The New Age Movement Paul Heelas Blackwell 1996
(8) Hammond J Embodying the Spirit in Eds Broadbent and Brown Issues in Religious Education Routledge Falmer 2002
Hammond J. Children use their Imagination for Spirituality in RE Today Summer 2005
(9) From limen or boundary, demarcating the space through which ritual participants pass to be transformed. See Turner V. TheRitual Process 1969
(10) See: Schechner R Performance Theory Routledge 1988 p.120
(11) See: Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed Pluto Press, 1979, The Rainbow of Desire Routledge, 1994
(12) See: theatreoflearning.org and above refs.
(13) Living Difference Agreed Syllabus of Hampshire, Portsmouth and Southampton LEAs 2004