Using contact hypothesis in RE

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Many RE activities aim to have a positive impact on social relations, but teachers may not be going far enough...

As the UK social landscape diversifies, it is inevitable that all children growing up in Britain will encounter diversity in their lifetime. Although population diversity can be beneficial, this can also cause tensions.

For example, ethnically motivated school-related hate crimes are on the rise according to police data from 2016/17. Therefore, preparing children and young people to be able to negotiate diversity is vital.

The University of Bristol’s recent policy briefing – Encounter, conversation and interaction: Improving community relations through religious education – argues that schools and teachers are in a unique position to support this and that social psychology offers important insights into how this might be achieved in the classroom.

Promoting community relations

Within the field of social psychology there is a rich history of research examining what happens when individuals from different groups interact with each other. Overwhelmingly, research indicates that in diverse interactions, all parties bring subtle and overt anxiety, stereotypes, and prejudicial views that influence the success of the interaction.

The good news is that social psychology also has a lot to offer schools and teachers in terms of how to promote positive community relations. One strategy particularly relevant to the classroom is the contact hypothesis (Gordon Allport, 1954).

According to this theory, bringing individuals from conflicted groups together under favourable conditions can reduce prejudice and improve peer relations.

In more than 500 experiments these effects have been consistently replicated, providing conclusive evidence that the contact hypothesis is a valid method for improving peer relations across a variety of contexts. Contact works best under the following four facilitating conditions:

  1. Members of different groups should have equal status.
  2. Groups should work towards common goals.
  3. Shared tasks should involve cooperation.
  4. There should be wider social, institutional and/or support for the venture.

Good contact has been found to promote the meaningful discussion of difference. It also serves to reduce anxiety and perceived threat, and increase empathy when interacting with diverse others.

At its core, the contact hypothesis offers insight into the types of interaction that enable a reduction in tension, prejudice and/or anxiety between members of different groups. But, in order for contact to have these beneficial outcomes, there is a need to move beyond simply bringing groups together and instead practitioners need to ensure that meaningful contact occurs.

Having diverse individuals co-exist in the same space will not result in meaningful interactions with diverse others. Because of the ease with which classroom group work can be structured to meet the four conditions of the contact hypothesis, we believe this theory shows great promise in being able to improve peer relations in the classroom.

The Shared Space Project

In collaboration with the National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE) we wanted to explore how insights from social psychological theory and research might inform the potential link between RE and community relations; with a view to providing practical ways forward for interested teachers, based on their findings. This collaboration formed the Shared Space Project.

In this project, we examined the utility of the contact hypothesis for the RE classroom. We explored RE practitioners’ perceptions of the role of community relations in RE and ways in which the contact hypothesis may be already embedded in their practice. The ultimate goal of this project was to create a teacher toolkit that would assist teachers in applying the contact hypothesis to their practice.

To meet this goal, we adopted a “mixed methods” approach, combining both quantitative and qualitative forms of data collection. We attended a series of RE teacher meetings and conferences during 2016/17 to introduce and discuss contact theory and to recruit participants to an online survey of RE teachers in England.

What we found

Based on the survey responses we identified various examples of RE teacher practice that fell into three broad categories related to the contact hypothesis: Encounter, Conversation and Interaction.

We found a clear distinction between activities which specifically meet the conditions of the contact hypothesis (which we call “interaction”) and other types of practice that might support but does not meet the contact hypothesis’ criteria. We have described these as “encounter”, where pupils are exposed to different outlooks or people, and “conversation” which allow exploration of difference or demand empathy but in absence of diverse others.

RE teachers embedded conversation into their practice but structured interactions that meet the four conditions of the contact hypothesis were less common. More worryingly, some teachers seemed only to bring encounter to the classroom without going further into an exploration of multiple views or areas of disagreement.

Based on our own previous research, we strongly believe that encounter on its own will not promote better community relations, although encounter and conversation can be seen as springboards to allow positive contact to take place in the classroom.

Through the survey responses, we learned that many activities RE teachers plan to have a positive impact on social relations in their lessons may not go far enough. For example, many described activities enabling discussion or providing different outlooks, but in the absence of interaction with diverse others.

We also found evidence of activities in RE that offered pupils a chance to talk to each other but which were not planned with contact conditions in mind. Such activities might precede deliberate contact, but do not exemplify the contact hypothesis.

Interestingly, we found that the majority of respondents (89 per cent) felt they applied contact principles in the classroom. However, when asked to give examples, 69 per cent did so, and of these only 23 per cent were found to meet the criteria of the contact hypothesis.

Changing seating plans and setting group work were the most cited examples of the contact hypothesis in practice but there are many other activities that could be used, such as developing cooperative learning activities that involve students from different ethnic groups, interviews with diverse others, imagining what it would be like to meet someone who is different, etc.

Our conclusions

Teachers are well-placed to promote positive contact in the classroom. Developing the capacity to talk about religious, ideological and cultural differences in ways that go beyond the superficial, and possibly into painful and difficult territory, will be an important aspect of this work, requiring time and institutional support and skilled teaching. It is important to recognise that cross-curricular initiatives like Generation Global (https://generation.global/) also promote “difficult dialogues” of this kind.

It’s over to you

Framed by the three terms (encounter, conversation and interaction), we have created a toolkit for teachers of RE, available on the NATRE website, outlining practical and age-appropriate teaching ideas to offer teachers a sense of how far their current work promotes contact and how they can strengthen it.

A further question for us and others is what distinctive contribution does encounter, conversation and interaction focussed explicitly on religious, philosophical and ethical concerns make to furthering community relations. We hope future joint research will help us to develop our testing of these important matters further.

Positive contact in the classroom is unlikely to happen by accident and teachers need both training and whole-school support to promote it in classrooms.

Although particular subjects, like RE, might be well placed to promote positive community relations – this should not be seen as the sole purpose of single subjects in isolation. Instead, headteachers and governors should recognise that whole-school effort is needed to promote positive community relations.

Working towards a whole-school approach and developing resources across the curriculum is vital.

  • This article is a collaboration between Dr Shelley McKeown Jones, Dr Janet Orchard and Dr Amanda Williams from the School of Education at the University of Bristol, and Kate Christopher from RE Today.

Further information

  • Encounter, Conversation and Interaction: Improving community relations through religious education, Policy Briefing 56, University of Bristol, February 2018: http://bit.ly/2Kt7sju
  • Access the free toolkit – RE and Good Community Relations – via NATRE: http://bit.ly/2I91V3k


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