Study Materials for Religious Education

Section 12: How the professional commitments and code of ethics of the religion teacher have a bearing on classroom religious education.
How religion teachers see the potential place of their own personal beliefs and commitments in the classroom teaching of religion will have a significant effect on both the content and pedagogy of religious education.  Should the teacher's beliefs be the prime content – as if students should be religious in the same way as the teacher?  Should teachers always be neutral and never tell students what they think personally?  The code of teaching ethics proposed by Prof Brian Hill (Western Australia) will be evaluated as a pertinent segment of philosophy of education on this issue.
A study that extends educators' background in key issues for religious education that helps with the critical evaluation of contemporary theory and practice

As for all sections, view the introductory video. Then listen to the content lecture audio while attending to the main text file on this page. Arrange to have the audio file and the text page open together so you can work your way through both in an integrated fashion.

Introductory video to this section

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Brief overview of content of this section


This section looks into the need for code of teaching ethics and the place of the teacher's own beliefs and commitments in the classroom teaching/learning context. And it also considers some of the problems with the use of presumptive language in Religious Education. 

The importance of a code of teaching ethics that would have a bearing on pedagogy, particularly the way in which teachers might make reference to their own beliefs and commitments during classroom teaching / learning interactions.  How some expectations of ‘witnessing' can confuse the issues here.  The theory of Committed impartiality proposed by Brian Hill, and its application not only to Religious Education but across the school curriculum.

The older material developed by the Queensland RE Curriculum Project in the early 1980s is still one of the very best discussions of problems with the use of presumptive language. It shows how to identify and avoid presumptive language problems in Religious Education.

It is considered that this is an issue of such importance that it needs identification and clarification in diocesan religious education documents. It is difficult to find any reference in contemporary documents to the issues discussed here.

Audio mp3 file lecture of this section

2. The audio file lecture
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The audio lecture fills out the content and is complemented by the Section text below. Every now and again you will need to pause the audio and look at the pertinent parts of the text and/or sub-presentations, as suggested.

The written text for this section (Study the text in conjunction with the audio lecture)

Code of teaching ethics
Prof Brian Hills theory of committed impartiality as a key element in a code of teaching ethics
The problem of presumptive language in religious education; and how to avoid it
The language of religious education teachers
Differentiating facts from beliefs
Addressing the problem of presumption
The strategies of owning and grounding to prevent presumption
Promoting open communication

Especially the place for the teachers' own beliefs and commitments in the teaching process

An essential component for education intended to promote the spiritual and moral development of young people is a code of teaching ethics that highlights the respect needed for the freedom and integrity of pupils; it should also cover pedagogy to ensure that indoctrination and manipulation are always excluded.

While specification of a code of teaching ethics is beyond our scope here, attention will be given to one particular aspect: the place that teachers' own views, beliefs and commitments might have in the classroom. It is important for five reasons outlined in the following sections.

Accountability and safeguards in teaching about controversial issues

Clarifying the responsibilities of teachers when dealing with controversial subject matter is part of the professional commitment of educators to accountability for the trust that the public places in them. It articulates safeguards intended to prevent teachers from insinuating their own personal views in a situation where the pupils are vulnerable. It counters indoctrination and the potential for emotional manipulation.

Institutional endorsement for teaching about values-related topics

For a long time departmental handbooks required teachers to refrain from personal comments on controversial issues. This was intended primarily as protection for both pupils and teachers. However, it inclined teachers towards neutrality and could possibly indoctrinate by giving the impression that neutrality on moral issues was the appropriate stance to take. If teachers are to be involved in some aspects of values/beliefs education in a constructive way, then there is a need for public and institutional endorsement of the role; and it requires in advance a clear articulation of ethically sound ways in which teachers might refer to their own personal views in teaching transactions.

If teachers are hesitant about referring to their own views for fear of indoctrinating the students, or for fear of complaints by parents or school authorities, they may wonder whether their own beliefs and opinions are irrelevant to the treatment of social issues in the classroom. They will be inclined towards a position of neutrality which not only stops them from commenting on issues but tries to eliminate all controversial issues from the classroom.

To resolve these questions a distinction needs to be made between the personal views or commitments of teachers and their professional commitments in the classroom. Teacher privacy is both a right to be respected as well as a professional duty – their educative role is not about revealing or trying to communicate their personal value stance. Teachers' personal views cannot be unconditionally regarded as appropriate subject matter for the classroom; only under certain conditions should they be disclosed, and then as additional resources for the student inquiry. A code of teaching ethics, part of which is proposed below, should regulate what personal views are referred to, as well as when and how they might be used.

Teacher confidence in handling controversial issues

As a consequence of the above, teachers should no longer feel in an ambiguous situation where they see the need for engaging pupils in considering spiritual or moral issues, but have no institutional endorsement for the role. A proposed policy, as outlined below, does not give teachers a licence to try to align pupils with their personal views; rather, it describes the conditions needed for a responsible teacher contribution to the personal learning of students. Where these conditions are observed, teachers have a professional freedom that gives them confidence to conduct critical inquiries in the classroom and to handle controversial issues appropriately. The procedure is all about enhancing the capacity of students as critical interpreters of the culture and not about the teacher's personal views; it has nothing to do with teachers having to ‘wear their values on their sleeve'; and it is professionally liberating. It overcomes one of the principal obstacles to teacher involvement in trying to promote the personal development of pupils.

Pedagogy in teaching about beliefs and values

Working out a place for teacher personal input in lessons helps establish a valuable place for personal contributions generally, including those of students. This has significant pedagogical implications. While not be the principal content of teaching about issues, they have the potential to be a valuable component.

Debate about value neutrality in public education

As noted earlier, a relatively neutral stance for teachers had been proposed for controversial issues.  It is related to claims made in community debates that public schools have a neutral stance with regard to values in education. If this impression is to be overcome, then articulating the responsible role for teachers would be one component in a scheme that showed the place of values in public education as well as the ways in which schools would engage in values education.

A proposed policy for the place of teachers' own views and commitments in the educational process is explained below. It should be part of a code of teaching ethics espoused by educators.

Prof Brian Hill's theory of committed impartiality as a key element in a code of teaching ethics

Professor Brian V Hill

While teachers' own views should not have a prominent place in their teaching, they can be a valuable content resource if used wisely and educationally. The proposed stance of the teacher should be that of committed impartiality – as described in the ethical teaching scheme devised by Brian Hill.

This ethical position lies between two extremes ‘partiality' and ‘neutrality', both of which are inappropriate.

One of the extreme positions, partiality, is where the teacher's personal views on issues occupy a dominant or relatively exclusive place in the teaching process. It narrows the content significantly, making it coextensive with the teacher's own views; in fact it makes the term ‘content' problematic as the lesson appears more like an exhortation than an exploration of content.

Only one point of view is presented, and bias is evident. When this happens, the teacher will tend to omit anything about which he or she is uncertain, while overloading the content with material in which he or she is interested. Such an approach can be perceived by pupils as the teacher trying to make them think the same way the teacher does; it comes across as authoritarian and may evoke perceptions of moralising or ‘sermonising'.

The other extreme is neutrality. Here, teachers never makes known their personal views on issues, even if asked for their opinion by students. It is a safe position, but it can give the impression that neutrality is a suitable stance to take on moral issues. Also, it is somewhat incongruous if there is any expectation that the pupils might exchange personal views in the course of the study.

The preferred position is committed impartiality. It presumes that it is appropriate and permissible for teachers to refer to their own personal views, beliefs and values as content along with other content, if and when this is judged to be capable of making an educational contribution to the study. The teacher's views are then not accorded privileged status, but are to be examined critically alongside the other content. On the same grounds, students' personal views can also contribute as content. But this does not regard the teachers' or students' views as the principal content for investigation. A significant place for objective content is essential for making the study an open, inquiring exploration of issues. It examines content on an issue and is not just an exchange of personal views; such exchanges are not necessary for the success of the study; if they do occur, they are valued.

The ethical rules for teaching and learning in the classroom need to be clear to both teachers and students; no one should feel compelled to reveal their personal views. If a situation develops where some do talk about their own views, it can make a valuable contribution to the study; but the participants still retain the respected capacity to ‘pass' if someone else asks them for their personal view. When there is an exchange at a personal level, it originates from a position of freedom (see the earlier discussion of a zone of freedom). Critical evaluative discussion of issues can take place vigorously as long as no one has to identify precisely their own personal value stance. Such discussions will often include a range of critical opinions, some personal, some theoretical in a complex mixture; but what is important is that the exchange is a critical debate and exploration of issues and is not seen as a session in which individuals have to identify their own values stance. This is what an educative discussion or debate is all about. If participants freely wish to contribute from their own personal stance, it should be respected and valued for its personal quality. But it should not be considered as a requirement, or written in as an objective for the lesson. Ironically, setting up these safeguards around the personal domain seems to create the very conditions within which pupils and teachers feel more comfortable about revealing personal views. But the purpose of the study remains the critical examination of issues, not the opportunity for personal testimony.

Teachers need to understand that their role is more about professional commitment to a process of student inquiry than an exposition of their own personal commitment. They need to model for their students critical, impartial inquiry; while acknowledging that they have a particular value stance (this need not be disclosed unless it is judged educationally useful), they are able to undertake a respectful but critical appraisal of the issues being studied. In particular studies of issues, there may often be no need to make reference to their own views, but this is different from taking a neutral stance. They will not hide their values, neither will they advertise them. They will try not to let their own bias influence the impartiality that should be evident in a fair treatment of different points of view. But it may be helpful for them to alert students to their particular bias so that the students themselves can better interpret any personal input from the teacher.

Such an approach strives for objectivity while acknowledging that perfect objectivity may not be possible; what is desirable is an open, respectful inter-subjectivity. It is within such a healthy, inquiring environment that students can acknowledge that their teachers have their own established value positions on issues. Because these positions are not forced on them, the students can learn from the teachers' personal views, just as they can from the principal content. Teachers may well have some personal influence on their students through such inquiries, but if all the safeguards are in place, then it can be acknowledged and accepted as a natural and valuable part of school education.

When it comes to the point of teachers deciding whether or not to reveal their own personal views on a particular issue, there is a need for diplomacy and wisdom. For example, it could be expected that an ethical teacher who is an atheist should be able to help students respectfully examine aspects of religion without demonstrating prejudice. Also, a religious teacher should be able to teach the topic in the same respectful way without using the situation as an opportunity for religious witness or evangelising in favour of religious belief. It may well be diplomatic in such a situation for both of these teachers to invoke the ‘pass' ethical rule if asked by students about their religious affiliation. The publicly stated reason would be to avoid any possibility of prejudice or indoctrination.

What is important is that the inquiry is informative and challenging, where value positions are well identified. Teachers who know their classes well will be in a better position to make judgments about whether or not to make known their personal views; often, when the value stance is not too controversial, it will not be an issue; and if asked, teachers can explain their view without its coming across as the one students are being encouraged to embrace. Where the issues being studied relate to the common agreed values accepted for schooling, there will be no difficulty for teachers showing how they are both professionally and personally committed to that value stance; also, in these circumstances, the students will be in no doubt about the teacher and school alignment with these values. In a healthy student inquiry into values issues in across-the-curriculum studies, the teacher's personal value stance will not be a prominent feature. This approach makes for impartiality in the teaching and learning process; but it is not taking a neutral values position; neither is it proposing that all values stances are relative, and that ‘one opinion is as good as another'; one of the key points to values inquiries is precisely to find out what is the best and most humane view.

When it comes to the moral values of teachers, the profession should have no hesitation in saying that it wants educators with the highest personal moral standards to carry the responsibility of educating children and adolescents. The profession of teaching wants good people. However, both in the job selection of teachers and in the school's values charter and code of teaching ethics, it is more appropriate not to contemplate any evaluation of teachers' personal moral values; rather, the emphasis should be on spelling out clearly the professional values and commitments that should be evident in the ways teachers deal with students and carry out their professional responsibilities. To these professional values, all teachers should be unconditionally committed. For example, as regards the role of teachers in promoting the spiritual and moral development of pupils, it is more important to have the professional commitment of teachers to an impartial student-centred study process than it would be to engage in trying to determine how spiritual or religious the teachers were, as if this was the criterion for judging whether or not they should have such an educative role.

To summarise: the professional commitment of the teacher is about being

  • knowledgeable of the topic under investigation
  • fair and respectful in presenting content
  • able to show alternative points of view where these exist
  • able to lead student inquiry
  • able to facilitate student evaluation of issues
  • sensitive in managing students' questions and discussion
  • wise and responsible in making reference to one's own views.

NOTE:  Brian Hill's ethical guidelines for teachers on how to make educational reference to their own views and commitments appear in ‘Teacher commitment and the ethics of teaching for commitment', chapter 10, in Rossiter, G. 1981, Religious Education in Australian Schools, Curriculum Development Centre. See also, Hill, B.V. 1982, ‘The Religious Education Teacher's Commitment' in Slattery, P. (Ed.) 1982, Curriculum Development in Religious Education Vol. 2, Australian Association for Religious Education, Perth.

The Problem of Presumptive Language in Religious Education; 
and How to Avoid Using it.

One of the most practical pieces of writing which discusses the problem of presumptive language and suggests ways of avoiding it is the chapter on The Language of R.E. Teachers developed by the Queensland Religious Education Curriculum Project.  It is reproduced here with permission from the Queensland Education Department's R.E. Project Team. (See Note below)

The Language of Religious Education Teachers

Both their choice of words and the patterns of their sentences are of crucial importance if teachers want to communicate effectively in religious education  These principles apply to the writing of curriculum materials and to classroom teaching.

The first of these is reasonably obvious, even though it is often forgotten.  This has to do with using words that are meaningful to the students.  For example, it is not really helpful to use technical religious terms unless their meaning is explained, or to use terms which are beyond the present experience level of the students.

Similarly there may be problems if terms have multiple meanings, or if they have different associations.  Words like 'meek' and 'father' can be understood in very different ways depending on the experiences that students have had.  Terms which arouse positive feelings in some people may have negative meanings for others.

As well as noting this general caution, religious education teachers are urged to listen to their students, whether through discussion or through written responses.  This can give evidence of the stage of language development and can help to identify points of misunderstanding or confusion.

*Facts or Beliefs

Not so easily recognised, and perhaps more fundamental to effective communication is the way in which teachers speak about beliefs, whether their own or those of others.  Belief statements are those about which differences of outlook are found within the community.  Particularly in religious education, these include statements about God, claims about Jesus or other religious leaders, interpretations of the Bible and views on the authority of the Bible.

In speaking about Jesus a distinction may be made between saying that he was crucified at a particular time or place and saying that he was the Christ who died for the sins of the whole world in accordance with God's plan.  The first statement could be the factual reporting of any observer and is potentially open to historical research.  The latter statement presumes a belief about who Jesus was and thus is of a different kind.

Students from religious education classes often express two seemingly contradictory criticisms about their teachers:  (i) Some are seen as pushing one view and being unwilling to listen to what the students think, feel or believe; and (ii) other teachers are seen as failing to give a clear indication of what they themselves believe or what they are trying to achieve.

There is a simple but effective way out of this dilemma.  It is a method that is already used by most teachers in general social interaction and yet its use in the classroom seems to take practice.  When adults talk to other adults who may have a different point of view, there are simple social protocols or manners which avoid any appearance of 'pushing ideas down someone else's throat'.  This is a way of showing respect for others and allowing them the freedom to share their views in return. 

However, even those teachers who see students as deserving of the same respect as adults can still find it hard to change their way of talking in religious education  They may acknowledge that they do not like it when others are 'pushy' with them about religion, yet they find themselves either doing that with their students or becoming 'non-committal' when they try to be more open.

The problem seems to arise partly from the way most people have experienced religious education themselves in the past, which leads to the assumption that 'that's the way it's meant to be done'.  This seems to be happening when staff teachers who teach very creatively in other subject areas become 'preachy' when they teach religious education  The style used in printed religious education curriculum materials often helps to maintain this same problematical tradition.

*The Problem of Presumption

In essence, the problem has to do with teachers speaking presumptively, in that their way of talking presumes that their hearers are believers who necessarily agree with them.  This may be done by talking about issues of belief as if they are simple matters of fact to which no alternative view can be offered.

The use of such pronouns as 'we', 'us' and 'our' to create an appearance of shared belief between the speaker and listeners may be another form of presumption.  Of course, there are times when the use of 'we' is a valid expression of having reached agreement or having shared experiences.  At other times these language patterns represent an attempt by one person to speak for others when there is no acknowledged consensus.  Such presumption tends to create resentment in those who do not share the view expressed.

Among the more obvious forms of this language problem are such statements as "We go to church".  "Because we love Jesus we don't do things like that, do we?" and "We should care for our bodies because they are God's gift to us".  Teachers would do well to pause and ask themselves who it is that 'we' represents.  If it is meant to be those present, it is possible to check whether the views expressed are shared by all.

Some teachers seem to be hoping that beliefs will somehow 'rub off' onto students if they are said with great conviction and without any recognition that they are beliefs.  In other cases religious words seem to be 'dropped' into sentences to make it sound like an religious education lesson.  One result is that some students answer 'God' or 'Jesus' to almost any question because that seems to be what the teacher wants to hear.

Some religious education curriculum materials tend to be heavy in presumptive language and this has come to be expected by many teachers.  Their style implies that teachers and students hold the same beliefs, which is usually not the case even in church schools.  Hence, the language of religious education teachers is often inappropriate when dealing with belief issues.

Teachers' Notes can be written without resort to this presumptive language.  In them, teachers are invited to talk about their beliefs but the materials do not presume to make faith statements on their behalf.  Once they become aware of the reasons for this change, most teachers appreciate the greater freedom that it gives.

Further, Teachers' Notes are not limited by some 'agreement' to deal only with areas in which no major disagreements arise.  Points of difference need to be acknowledged as well as points of similarity within the religious traditions.

*Owning and Grounding

The problem of presumption is overcome by altering the patterns of the sentences used by teachers.  It is possible to find a way of speaking which leaves them free to state clearly what they believe, what this or that tradition believes and does, or what the Bible says, without denying to students the freedom to respond from their perspective.  As noted, adults have this skill in other areas of life, but they seem to find it hard to apply in religious education

This process is described here as the owning and grounding of belief statements.  These terms sum up the ways adults qualify their belief statements in everyday conversation:

(i)sometimes they own the belief as theirs, by the use of such terms as "I believe ...", "It seems to me that ...", "I feel ...", "I think ..." and "In my experience ...".

(ii)alternatively they ground the belief by attaching it to some group of people who hold it or to some source from which it comes, such as "Christians believe ...", "The ... church teaches ..." or "Genesis 1:1 says ..."

Owning or grounding a belief does not prove that it is true or that it is authoritative for others.  However, because it does not presume upon their agreement the students are more likely to be able to hear and to discuss what is being presented.

When beliefs are owned or grounded they sound less dogmatic, and some may fear they will sound less authoritative.  However, when the source of their authority, whether in personal experience or in the tradition, is made clear, this provides important data for those who are being asked to consider where they stand in relation to those beliefs.  This is in keeping with the custom, in both academic writing and preaching, of acknowledging the authority on which a statement is based.

A quick way to check the authority or source of a belief statement is to ask "Who says it?" or "Who believes it?"  This assists teachers to either own the statement or to ground it by indicating who believes it to be true.

*Open Communication

The careful use of language in the classroom provides a simple and practical solution to these potential problems.  Several benefits can be seen to follow when teachers either own or ground belief statements.

1.It gives teachers greater freedom to deal with their own beliefs in class.

2.It makes conversation about beliefs more open and easier to develop, in that once teachers and students learn either to own or to ground statements of belief, it is easier for others to respond with their beliefs, whether these are the same or different.

3.By this approach speakers do not presume upon the beliefs of their hearers, helping avoid the negative reactions and 'discipline problems' that such presumption can generate.

4.Most denominations acknowledge the importance of faith decisions as part of the development of religious maturity.  However, when beliefs are referred to as if everyone thinks that way, the role of decision is hidden.  In contrast, if beliefs are owned or grounded, the issue is brought into the open for consideration.  In this way students can become aware of the importance of such decisions, without any implication of an attempt to enforce or require commitment to a particular belief.

5.Some students are placed in a situation of tension, in that they receive contradictory views on belief issues from various significant adults.  The language of religious education teachers can heighten this tension or can support and encourage the students in working out their own patterns of belief.  If this is done by teachers from the earliest primary school years, students may be better prepared to work through the faith struggles which often characterise the teenage years.

6.One of the difficulties facing religious education teachers is to make the content as concrete as possible.  When beliefs are owned or grounded they are linked to individuals or groups who hold them.  This will help to make them more concrete in that the beliefs are seen as having implications for people's lives.

7.When referring to the Bible, care in owning and grounding can help clarify the way in which it is being used.  This will involve distinguishing between (i) quotes from the Bible;  (ii) interpretations or summary statements based on someone's reading of the Bible;  and (iii) implicit claims concerning the authority of the Bible in people's lives.  The statement "The Bible says ..." is a form of grounding if it can be followed by the question "Where does it say it?"

These issues relating to the language of religious education teachers may be seen to apply in any teaching context and with whichever curriculum is being used.

Owning or grounding their references to beliefs can help teachers communicate more easily.  It enables them to speak in a way that is inclusive of all students, without making assumptions about prior commitments.  It also provides an example which can assist the students in giving clearer expression to their own beliefs and attitudes.


I. Mavor, G. Kelly, J. Munro, E. Nolan, and G. Read, 1982, Religious Education:  Teachers' Notes Year 8, Brisbane: Queensland Department of Education, pp. 10-12.  Chapter 5, The Place of Commitment in Classroom Religious Education, in Teaching Religion in Catholic Schools:  Theory and Practice, by M.L. Crawford and G.M. Rossiter, 1985, is also pertinent to this discussion.  (This material from the Queensland RECP is also given in Missionaries to a Teenage Culture:  Religious Education in a Time of Rapid Change, by M. Crawford and G. Rossiter, 1988, chapter 10.