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Robots and religion – how can schools help silent students find their voice? – University of Reading

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Robots and religion – how can schools help silent students find their voice?

Release Date 17 October 2012

Watch BBC Breakfast reporting from the event

What does it mean to be human? Can a robot ever be essentially human with its own mind and free will? How schools manage topics and questions that bridge science, religion and philosophy was put under the microscope at the University of Reading recently.

With robots set to become more ‘human-like' in the future, the relationships between science and religion are becoming increasingly important and controversial. However the sensitive nature of such topics often means teachers are unsure of how best to approach them, while pupils sense that there are boundaries around what can and can't be discussed and think twice before raising questions.

Over 300 students and teachers from 16 schools from across England visited the University to hear from some of the UK's leading academics who are addressing these important issues. As well as meeting scientists, philosophers and theologians, they also met scholars with different faith perspectives, in particular atheists, Christians and Hindus.

The pupils took part in various workshops and had a go at building their own robot. Dora, a human-like robot, also made a guest appearance! The event closed with a lively Q&A session which saw the experts called up one by one and quizzed about whether a robot can ever be like a human.

The event formed part of the Learning about Science and Religion (LASAR) project which has looked at how questions which bridge science and religion are handled in secondary schools. Dr Berry Billingsley, Senior Lecturer in Science Education at the University of Reading's Institute of Education, is leading the project.

Dr Billingsley said: "The current approach by teachers in many schools is to be thankful that students tend not to ask too many questions. This is because teachers are not confident in giving good answers and because the questions explore the frontiers of science, so perhaps are seen as potentially too challenging.

"A culture of 'silence' has become the norm in many classrooms - we call it 'the silent treatment'. As a result students are missing out on grappling with the range of ideas that are available, with many forming and staying with narrow stereotypical views of what science and religion say."

Berry and her team have discovered that students are thinking about the questions they want to ask but they keep them back, seeing them either as 'off topic' or because they can sense that these are topics that their teachers would rather avoid.

Dr Billingsley continued: "Students need to see that these issues are taken seriously and that scholars are coming up with new ideas which they debate and test. This will give the pupils the confidence to ask those important questions.

"Science and RE teachers also need support as they have different skills and areas of knowledge, and both are needed to teach these topics effectively in schools. Science teachers usually deal with established science where the answers are known and teachers do not always know how to make the best use of discussions that do not have clear answers. We have produced a free website for students, which is home to video clips of experts such as the University of Reading's very own Professor Kevin Warwick, inventor of the rat brain robot and Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as notes for teachers to help them incorporate these topics into their lessons."

The event proved very popular with both students and teachers.

Jessica, a Year 10 student from Reading Girls School, said: "The day was really thought provoking. I came here thinking we were going to learn about religion and science but we learnt so much more such as how similar yet different to us robots are."

Elizabeth Edwards, Teacher of RE at Reading Girls School, added: "It was a great experience for the students and gave them the opportunity to consider the relationship between science and religion, which is not only a fascinating and controversial subject, but also one that frequently comes up in GCSE questions.  The day reinforced our teaching that science and religion are not opposed to one another but approach issues from different directions."

The LASAR project is led by the University of Reading and organised under the auspices of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Cambridge. It is funded by The John Templeton Foundation.


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The University of Reading's Institute of Education is a major provider of teachers nationally and regionally, offering PGCE Secondary and Primary, BA (Ed) and the Graduate Teacher Programmes (GTP). The secondary programme and the primary programme have both received the top Ofsted grades in 2006/7 and the Institute is now a category 'A' provider for all our courses. The employment rates of our graduates are the highest in the University and the best in the country of any initial teacher training provider.



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