Using artefacts in religious education
What is an artefact?
An artefact may be described as an object that has special archaeological, cultural or religious interest. Each religious tradition has items of special significance. Religious artefacts are often used by teachers in the RE classroom, usually very effectively. However, as RE teachers we need to be very clear about why we are using particular artefacts.
We need to remember that these items are special, holy, and sacred to many people and we must ensure that in our treatment of them, and our students’ treatment of them, we do not reduce them to objects of mere curiosity.
Why use religious artefacts in the classroom?
One of the reasons why teachers choose to use religious artefacts in the RE classroom is because they help to bring a faith tradition, especially the practices and rituals to which these items relate, more alive and ‘real’. Providing students with an opportunity to prepare and partake in a langar meal for example might lead to a fuller appreciation of the importance of community and equality within Sikhism (www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/sikhism/ritesrituals/gurdwara_1.shtml).
Not all students in the UK live in culturally and religiously diverse communities and consequently do not have the opportunity to meet with members of particular religious traditions. Using artefacts from those traditions brings to the classroom an experience that some students might not otherwise have. In addition, use of artefacts can add a multi-sensory dimension to teaching and learning in RE. Students’ senses of sight, touch, smell, taste and hearing are brought into play thus greatly enhancing the learning experience.
Furthermore, artefacts can be used as a stimulus for discussion; use of drama, art, creative writing and story; and lead to a deeper understanding of the role of religion in the life of a member of a faith tradition. Using an image of Ganesh for instance, could prompt students to consider why he has an elephant head (Hindu story). Linking Ganesh with overcoming obstacles or difficulties in life would facilitate a deeper understanding of how and why a Hindu family might dedicate their family shrine to Ganesh. Students might then be encouraged to reflect on how they face obstacles and difficulties in their own lives.
However, if the intention is to de-mystify a religious object or make it appear more ordinary by bringing into the RE classroom, such an aim would seem inappropriate. Something that is held to be sacred by members of a faith community should retain its sense of mystery and sanctity. Homan (2000) argues that to refer to items such as the Guru Granth Sahib as an artefact or even a book is to misrepresent its religious significance for Sikhs and to ground understanding in terms of human craft rather than in terms of divine visitation (Homan, 2000, p29). Members of religious communities do not refer to these items as artefacts. Instead they see them in terms of their spiritual, religious, and devotional meaning. For an Orthodox Christian an icon is not a painting to be looked at but through as a window into the kingdom of God (www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/subdivisions/easternorthodox_1.shtml#h5).
Another reason why use of artefacts in RE is sometimes less effective than it might be is because the way in which they may be used tends to promote rather than challenge religious and cultural stereotypes. Sikhism, for instance, is often reduced to the 5 Ks. Although these articles of faith have tremendous significance for Sikhism, it is important that students realise that not all Sikhs ‘wear’ the 5 Ks. Follow the link to http://pof.reonline.org.uk/sikhism1_audio.php and listen to Inderjeet (14 years of age) talking about what being a Sikh means to him and why he does not ‘follow the 5 Ks’.
Clearly as RE teachers we need to be cautious about how and why we use religious ‘artefacts’ in the classroom. Agreed syllabuses sometimes instruct teachers to use artefacts with ‘integrity’. This is perhaps a more useful term than ‘respect’ as it goes beyond bland avoidance of offence and prompts us to think about what it might mean to use a particular object with integrity.
What artefacts could we use in the RE classroom?
The list of religious artefacts that could be used in the RE classroom is extensive, but some are more common than others and can be easily purchased. For a list of suppliers of religious artefacts, see www.theredirectory.org.uk/org.php?fa Those most commonly used by RE teachers include:
- Offering bowls
- Statues/images of the Buddha
- Prayer wheel
- Monk’s robes
- Rosary beads
- Cross / crucifix
- Chalice and Paten
- Advent candle
- Stations of the Cross
- Advent wreath
- Nativity set
- Priest’s Stole
- Diwali cards
- Murti e.g. Ganesh, Krishna, Lakshmi, Shiva
- Pooja set
- Aarti lamp
- Prayer beads
- Holi paints
- Pesach (Passover) set
- Shabbat (Sabbath) set
- Torah Scroll
- Qur’an and stand
- Prayer beads
- Prayer mat with compass
- Hajj robe
- Eid card
- The 5 K’s (Kara, Kanga, Kirpah, Kachera, Khanda)
- Statues/images of the Gurus
- Ik Onkar
- Bowl for Karah Parshad
- Items of food served at a Langar meal
For information regarding the religious context within which each of these items may be used, see www.reonline.org.uk/allre/index.php.
Artefact images by kind permission of Articles of Faith
How should we use religious artefacts in the RE classroom?
There are several important questions that we need to ask when thinking about using religious artefacts in the RE classroom:
- What is my purpose?
- How will using this artefact extend my students’ understanding of a particular religious tradition?
- What is the religious/cultural context within which this item is usually used?
- How will I portray that to my students?
- How will I ensure that my use, and my students’ of this artefact, respects the religious significance of this item for members of that faith tradition?
Clearly ‘context’ (both religious context within which an item is usually used and the classroom context) and ‘intention’ (intended learning outcomes) are key. There is little point in using a religious artefact in the RE classroom in such a way that completely removes it from its religious context, particularly if in doing so, that artefact is somehow demeaned or lessened.
For instance, passing a wafer of communion bread or ‘host’ around the classroom will not really enhance my students’ understanding of the significance of Eucharist in the Roman Catholic tradition. Indeed, those students in my classroom who may be Catholic would probably find such use disrespectful. Similarly, getting students to try on a Kippah (skullcap) would be inappropriate as within Judaism, the Kippah is worn as a sign of devotion to G-d.
If my intention as an RE teacher is to further my students’ understanding of a particular tradition, then the way in which I use items of special significance to that tradition in the RE classroom must be appropriate and respectful. Having a selection of Kippahs on display in the classroom whilst showing students a YouTube clip of a Jewish boy talking about why and when he wears a Kippah would be a much more appropriate way of using such an artefact.
Points to consider
It is clear that used appropriately, and with integrity, artefacts can enrich the teaching and learning experience in the RE classroom. However, it is important to approach the use of artefacts with caution and to consider questions such as:
- When might it be more appropriate to use a photograph/picture/video clip of an artefact rather than the artefact itself?
- What is the difference between approaching a religious object with respect and approaching it with reverence? Which is possible/appropriate/desirable within the RE classroom?
- Is there a difference between the way in which artefacts are used in RE and in other subjects such as History?
Watch the following clip from Teachers TV http://www.teachersmedia.co.uk/videos/ks2-3-re-symbols-and-symbolism.
Pay particular attention to Section 4 (Passover meal) and Section 5 (Hindu Murtis).
- How were religious artefacts used in this lesson?
- To what extent did the use of these artefacts enhance students’ learning?
- Would you have taught this lesson differently? Why/why not?
- Draycott, P. (1997), Religious Artefacts: why? what? how?, Christian Education Movement.
- Gateshill, P., and Thompson, J.(1992), Religious Artefacts in the Classroom, Hodder & Stoughton.
- Homan, R. (2000), Don’t let the Murti get dirty: The uses and abuses of religious ‘artefacts’, British Journal of Religious Education, 23(1), 27-37.
- Howard, C. (2009), Investigating Artefacts in Religious Education: a guide for primary teachers, RMEP.
- Logan, J. (1997), Artefacts for an Occasion, BFSS National RE Centre.
- Wedell, K. Making the most of your artefacts, Westhill RE Centre.