Stanford course helps educators develop strategies to teach students about world religions

Religious literacy is essential to understanding major world conflicts, international and domestic policy decisions, and multicultural societies both historically and in the present day. According to a 2019 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, most Americans can answer basic questions about the Bible and Christianity, but far fewer can correctly answer questions about Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism, and “most do not know what the U.S. Constitution says about religion as it relates to elected officials.”

How can teachers develop innovative strategies to close this religious knowledge gap? This was the focus of a recent professional development course led by Stanford Global Studies (SGS) and the Center to Support Excellence in Teaching (CSET) in the Graduate School of Education.

The three-day workshop, which took place February 7-9, 2020, brought instructors from middle schools, high schools, and community colleges as far as Oregon and Texas to campus to learn about the changing global religious landscape and explore instructional techniques to promote critical thinking in the classroom.

“The best way we can combat a lot of hate in the world and promote tolerance is through education because there’s a lot of ignorance. There are so many similarities between a lot of religions, in terms of practices,” said Chris Kanelopoulos, an eighth grade religious studies teacher at a school in the Bay Area. “People need to step back and understand that everybody has different ways of looking at it, and there is no one right way.”

SGS Executive Director Katherine Kuhns designed the course together with Jovana Knežević, associate director of the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies, and Dr. Magdalena Gross, a senior research and professional development associate, working in partnership with CSET. The workshop was partially funded through the U.S. Department of Education’s Title VI grant program, which supports area/international studies teaching and professional development for educators, among other things.

Teachers from a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds attended lectures led by faculty and lecturers from universities across the Bay Area.  Harry Odamtten, an associate professor of African and Atlantic history at Santa Clara University, kicked off the course with a talk about African religious traditions, Islam, and the Indigenous West African Church.

Participants also had the opportunity to hear from Professor Abbas Milani, director of the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Program in Iranian Studies, who discussed Iran’s role in the development of major world religions, as well as Nicholas Constantino, a lecturer in the history department at UC Berkeley, who focused on foundations of Confucianism.

Milani highlighted how several religions that first emerged in Persia, such as Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism, have had a major impact on the formation of many Western religions. Following his talk, he fielded questions about how to approach teaching such a complex and deeply personal subject matter. “You have to tell students that, when it comes to religion, there is a revelation-based, sacred history of religion that is believed by the faithful, and then there is a reason-based, historical view of religion,” he said. Milani believes it is the job of academics to facilitate a respectful dialogue to help students understand both views.

Anna Bigelow, an associate professor of religious studies at Stanford, concluded day two of the course with a lecture on India’s diverse religious landscape.

“You can teach about almost any religion on the planet through South Asia,” Bigelow told the instructors, as she pointed to a colorful map showing the geographic distribution of Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, and Buddhist populations in India.

“Above all, whenever I’m teaching about a religious tradition in a particular place and time, or something as broad as South Asian religions, a big concern of mine is to remind students that anything I’m saying is provisional because all of these traditions are incredibly diverse—there is no one Islam, there is no one Hinduism; there is no one Jainism; there is no one anything,” she emphasized.

After each talk, the teachers participated in pedagogy sessions, where they discussed how to incorporate the content from the lectures into their lesson plans. They also focused on ways to create meaningful group discussion to deepen student learning.

“This course interested me because of the pedagogy component,” said Katie Seltzer, a religion teacher at a high school in Portland, Oregon. “All of the religions I teach have historical documents that we examine, so finding ways to help our students become better scholars, readers, and writers has been really exciting. I’m enjoying that part so far.”

The course was equally enjoyable for those leading the lectures. “I am absolutely humbled by teachers. If there were saints in the world, they would be the closest thing to the saints because teachers do the remarkable job of training the next generation with little thanks,” said Milani. “Having a chance to meet some of these people and share experiences and knowledge is a privilege.”

This workshop is one of several professional development opportunities for instructors offered by SGS and CSET. Two upcoming courses on Slavery in Historical and Contemporary Contexts and History of the Americas: Central America and the Cold War will be offered on April 17 and July 16. For more information, visit the SGS community outreach page.